Artist Spotlight: Scott Walker
by Justin Farrar | January 8, 2013
Of all the innovative singers, musicians and groups to have emerged from that boiling cauldron of creativity known as the '60s, there is but one who sounds more radical now, in 2012, than he did back in the day. And that's Scott Walker.
It's no contest, really. Check it: Neil and Crazy Horse are rocking awfully hard these days. But even with its handful of epic jams, their recently released Psychedelic Pill is still an album rooted in '70s rock. The same goes for Dr. John and Leonard Cohen: Both dropped excellent records last year (Locked Down and Old Ideas, respectively), yet both are resolutely tame endeavors when placed alongside the 70 unremitting minutes of neo-industrial caterwaul and dystopian opera that comprise Walker's newest effort, Bish Bosch. Hell, even far more renowned icons of the outré (like Brian Eno, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop) no longer push the envelope like this guy.
But Walker has always forged his own path (and one not without its fair share of potholes, mind you). Born Noel Scott Engel in 1943, the singer served a brief stint as an aspiring teen idol before cofounding The Walker Brothers with fellow Californians John Maus (known as John Walker) and Gary Leeds (known as Gary Walker) -- neither of whom was an actual sibling of Scott. The trio soon relocated to wildly hip London, where their brand of symphonic pop (more bombastic than both The Righteous Brothers and Bee Gees combined) yielded several memorable hits in the mid-'60s. These included "Make It Easy on Yourself," "(Baby) You Don't Have to Tell Me" and the act's calling card, "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore."
Striking out on his own in 1967, young and ambitious baritone Scott reinvented traditional pop and cabaret music in the age of acid rock and psychedelic light shows. Over the course of his first four major works (Scott, Scott 2, Scott 3 and Scott 4), he brought an innovative approach, moody atmospherics and a melancholy tone – not to mention an interest in French chanson and art songs -- to the context of modern pop. (The only comparable record was Nico's The Marble Index, released in 1969.) Not only did the dramatic sound created on these albums exert a powerful influence on '70s art rock (from Bowie and Roxy Music to Brian Eno and Peter Hammill), but it also predicted such later movements as synth pop, New Wave, goth, post-punk and New Romantic.
The '70s were a turbulent time for Walker, ironically. Seemingly burned out from all that went down artistically, personally and socially the previous decade, he banged out a short string of countrypolitan and soft rock affairs that in all honesty weren't on par with earlier works (see the Classics & Collectibles anthology for standouts from these now out-of-print titles). He also reunited with his fellow Walker Brothers, resulting in the hit ballad "No Regrets." Far more important, however, the reunion allowed him to construct the framework for future explorations. On the four self-penned cuts kicking off their 1978 effort, Nite Flights -- "Shutout," "Fat Mama Kick," "Nite Flights" and "The Electrician" -- the singer single-handedly invented a form of post-everything experimental pop that was deliriously ahead of its time. Scott Walker the stone-cold pioneer was back.
An artist whose "process" is measured, methodical and patient to say the absolute least, Scott Walker has created just four albums since Nite Flights. Widely spaced though they are, each one – 1984's Climate of Hunter, 1995's Tilt, 2006's The Drift and the aforementioned Bish Bosch -- represents a clear aesthetic advance from the last. Walker now works without peer. And even though he belongs to the same generation as Neil, Dylan, Bowie, et al., his current vision has far more in common what goes on in the realms of noise, drone and experimental electronics (artists such as Tom Smith of To Live and Shave in L.A. and New York outfit Sightings being notable acolytes).
Walker's career is certainly an intimidating beast to tackle, but with the collection of albums (and their accompanying reviews) below, you'll hopefully be able to navigate its many chapters and eras. Also, if you like what you hear, do track down director Stephen Kijak's documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man from 2006 -- totally indispensable.