I was first aware of Scott Walker as an influence on Pulp, who were my favourite band when I was younger. But if I had ever heard any of his music on the radio, I wasn’t aware of it.
He produced Pulp’s final album, We Love Life, in 2001. That album had a tricky gestation, and Scott Walker was drafted in to produce it after the original recordings were scrapped. I thought Scott Walker added a new dimension to Pulp’s sound — airy, earthy and natural-sounding, yet still a little more experimental than before.
But I didn’t pay attention to Scott Walker as a solo artist until I heard a track from his 2006 album the Drift on BBC Radio 3’s lamented experimental music showcase, Mixing It. It was an eclectic radio programme, and you weren’t ever supposed to like all of the music they played. But every so often I would hear a piece of music that turned my understanding of music upside down.
Jolson and Jones was one of those tracks. I knew I had to investigate further.
I had never heard anything like it. Walker’s trademark baritone voice boomed dark lyrics across a disturbing, dissonant industrial soundscape. The album included such unconventional percussion as a giant slab of meat.
The uncompromising nature of the music is what really struck me. My voyage of discovery had begun.
His lyrics are known for being difficult to decipher. They seem to be hinting at deep meaning, lush with oblique historical references. But it’s not always clear what his message is. At times, both musically and lyrically, Scott Walker’s work is absurd. Was it always supposed to be taken seriously?
When he was interviewed by Simon Hattenstone for the Guardian in 2012, on the release of Bish Bosch, he was asked about this directly:
Bish Bosch is wilfully obscure. I test him on one of the song titles. “OK, what’s the full title of the song beginning SDSS?”
He stops to think. “SDSS 1513,” he says eventually. But it’s more of a question than an answer. “No,” I say, “it’s SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole sitter). It’s not exactly a catchy title, is it?”
“It’s a hit single that,” he says. “Hehehe! It’s a 21-minute song, it’s a hit.”
Despite the artistic successes of his final three albums, Scott Walker perhaps peaked with the ill-fated 1978 comeback album Nite Flights. It was effectively three solo albums, in which Scott Walker’s songs stood head and shoulders above the rest.
From that album, the Electrician — about an executioner who gets a kick out of his job — is possibly one of the greatest songs of all time. It was the moment Scott Walker switched from popstar to avant-garde genius.
Exploring Scott Walker’s back catalogue is always a treat.
Going back, you are met with lush baroque pop classics.
Going forward, his 2014 collaboration with Sunn O))), Soused, sees him almost at his most uncompromising. The album opens in extreme fashion, with Brando. For me, it’s one of the highlights of his career.
Many who like his earlier solo records, or his work with the Walker Brothers, find his later work confusing or impenetrable.
I always admire musicians who eschew sure-fire success in favour of a purer artistic vision. That’s one of the reasons I like Radiohead, for instance.
But Scott Walker was perhaps the ultimate. It is said that in 1966 the Walker Brothers had more fan club members than the Beatles. That journey from crowd-pleasing teen idol to the Drift is huge.
For this, Scott Walker is perhaps the definition of ‘pop artist’. He was truly artistic, bringing his high ideas into the realm of pop — pushing its boundaries, and redefining it in the process.
He apparently believed you had to actually feel an emotion to convey it musically. Perhaps this is why gaps between albums were typically more than a decade. It’s also perhaps why his recordings — and his performances — are so intense.
Scott Walker was a musicians’ musician. Among his greatest admirers were Brian Eno and David Bowie. Today we’ve lost a giant who defined modern music.