Key Albums: Scott 3 (1969), Scott 4 (1969), Tilt (1995), The Drift (2006)
Scott Walker is one of the most mythologized, mysterious figures in modern music. After finding fame as a mid-'60s pop pin-up in the Walker Brothers, Walker recorded four astonishing solo albums in the space of three years (including the classic Scott 3 and Scott 4 in 1969). After a depressing descent into sell-out mediocrity in the '70s, Walker disappears into oblivion. Surfacing roughly once a decade thereafter, he delivers musical explorations of his "nightmarish imagination," each more terrifying and experimental than the last. With these, his legend only grows.
Walker was born Noel Scott Engel in Ohio in 1943. His parents divorced when he was five, following which he and his mother moved to California. Engel begins recording pop-songs, whilst still a teenager, as Scotty Engel. Though these went nowhere, Engel keeps playing; by the early '60s, he's earned a reputation as an electric bassplayer. In 1963, he first teams with singer John Maus, and the two play seven nights a week in the discos on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.
After Maus decides to adopt the stage name John Walker, Engel is persuaded by management to 'become' Scott Walker, so they can be sold as a brother act (in the style of the Righteous Brothers or the Everly Brothers). Gary Leeds, the drummer of The Standells, sees Maus and Engel playing in 1964, and convinces them to move to London with him.
In early '65, the Walker Brothers arrive in London, and by the end of the year they've scored a #1 UK single, with the Bacharach/David-penned "Make it Easy on Yourself," and a Top 10 debut album, the richly orchestral Take it Easy. In 1966, they hit the top of the charts with "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore," which finds Engel prophetically singing, his rich baritone doused in echo, "Loneliness is a cloak you wear, a deep shade of blue is always there."
"Oh, it was amazing at first," he would recall, 40 years later, to The Guardian. "But a little goes a long way. I was not cut out for that world. I love pop music, but I didn't have the temperament for fame."
With his high cheekbones, fetching head of hair, and velvety croon, Engel had become a pop pin-up, and Walker Brothers shows often found hysterical teenage girls rushing the stage. In Dublin, rowdy fans tipped over the band's car with the members inside, leaving them trapped upside-down for hours. Engel tried to escape the spotlight at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight, hoping to study Gregorian chant and revel in the calm, only for fans to track him down and hammer on the monastery door.
At the time, Engel said: "I will starve to get something across, I mean that. I've never settled for second-best in my life. If it doesn't work, I'll give it all up." His words gained added poignancy when he attempted suicide in August, 1966, by turning on a gas stove; only to be foiled when fans outside his apartment alerted authorities. “Pressure wasn’t the only reason,” Walker told Melody Maker, of the incident. “Nobody has the right reasons. [The truth is] I don’t remember a thing.”
The English press followed Walker's breakdown eagerly, headlines blaring Why I Flipped by Pop-Star Scott, Scott: Terrified of Live Audiences, and "Scott: The Problems of Being Handsome!" With the Walker Brothers "disintegrating" and Engel drowning his sorrows in increasing amounts of alcohol, he decided to go solo in 1967.
In 1967, Engel was introduced to fearsome Flemish chansonnier Jacques Brel by a Playboy bunny. "Hearing him sing was like a hurricane blowing through the room," Engel later enthused. After the Rolling Stones manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, introduced Engel to English translations of Brel's songs, he ends up covering three of them on his debut solo album, Scott.
Walker's four swiftly-released solo albums —Scott, 1968's Scott 2, and 1969's Scott 3 and Scott 4— are unlikely marriages of light pop standards, Brel's verbose songs, and Engel's own increasingly-adventurous writing. Yet, even whilst Engel was singing kitchen-sink dramas, tales of transvestitism and gonorrhea, and referencing bleak Scandinavian filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and bleaker French writer Albert Camus, he did so still in the public eye. Bizarrely, the BBC had him host a light entertainment series that was, inevitably, canceled after only six episodes.
Yet, by the time of Scott 4 —since regarded as his masterpiece— the public had seemingly tired of Scott Walker. The first album that Engel wrote entirely himself, it flopped disastrously; failing to chart after his first three records landed in the UK Top 10. Because of this, Engel has said that it's "always in the back of [his] head that people are not going to like" anything he's done since.
The Bleak Years
Following the commercial failure of Scott 4, his management pressured Engel into a more 'broad' direction, trying to bring back the fans who'd fallen away as Scott Walker had grown more 'difficult' to listen to. “The record company started clamping down on me,” Engel would recount, to Magnet. “They only wanted me to record this middle-of-the-road dross, and my manager said, ‘Just do it, and after a while we’ll be able to record originals again.’ Of course, that never happened.”
Engel stopped writing his own work, recording a string of forgettable albums —'Til The Band Comes In (1970), The Moviegoer (1972), Any Day Now (1973), Stretch (1973), and We Had It All (1974). The Walker Brothers were persuaded to reunite by their management strictly for financial reasons, and, fortunately, 1975's tired album of country songs, No Regrets, delivered them a Top 10 single. Engel used this as leverage to allow the band to write their own songs for their final album, 1978's Night Flights.
The album opens with four eerie Engel compositions, including the ominous, experimental "The Electrician," which hints at an artistic future beyond balladry. In 1978, Engel quits performing live, for good, apparently enraged at an out-of-tune trumpet at a Birmingham cabaret. After that, he disappears into "an abyss."
Next: The Radical Reinvention of the Increasingly Reclusive Scott Walker...