In 1976, Scott Walker gave a chilling interview to a London radio station. Unthinkingly, the station urged fans to call in with their questions. They had plenty. A girl’s voice – she sounds about 14 – asks nervously; ‘I wanted to talk about a record you made called Plastic Palace People, do you remember that?’. Scott sounds a little surprised, ‘Plastic Palace People? What did you want to know about it?’ ‘I wanted to know what the words meant because I didn’t like them, they unnerved me.’ You can hear Scott shuffling nervously in his seat. The girl is determined to get an answer. ‘Does it mean what I think it means?’ Scott deliberates. ‘Ah, yeah. Yeah it does.’
It’s an incredible bit of radio. A precious meeting of high and low culture. The avant-garde on the tween airwaves. You can’t blame the girl for being confused. A scarily sympathetic song about a self-hating paedophile, hidden on the back half of an album from a guy who eighteen months ago was shaking his narrow-ass to Land Of 1000 Dances on Top Of The Pops. A career gear-change akin to John Lennon going straight from Love Me Do to How Do You Sleep? in one album instead of twelve.
Scott Engel’s early career seems too unlikely to be real. Gifted with prodigal intelligence and musical ability, Scott was playing Carol Kaye-style session bass at 14 and had a “stars in their eyes” style single out a year later (avoid it, believe me). Record industry hucksters sent him and two other musical overachievers across to London and they had phenomenal success in the UK as the Walker Brothers (not brothers, not called Walker, not from the UK). Throughout the second half of the '60s, the Walker Brothers' fan club outnumbered The Beatles’, Scott had a feud with Mick Jagger, and contemporary footage of the Walker Brothers performances look like the recent Paris riots, if the Yellow Vest movement was made up entirely of teenage girls.
Famously, Scott walked away from pop fame. His interest in Camus and Mahler hardly fitted with the vacuity of miming through pop covers on the BBC and meaningless NME reader polls. He quit the Walker Brothers and, between ’67 and ’69, released four near-perfect self-titled records. Predictably, though Scott 4 is now considered a high-water mark for '60s art-pop, his output seemed to swell in quality and shrink in popularity in perfect symmetry.
From there things just got weirder. From the '70s until today Scott made just six records of original music, including an unrecognizable reunion with the Walker Brothers. Song subjects include the inner monologue of a CIA torture expert (The Electrician), to a reflection on 9/11 from the perspective of Elvis’ dead twin brother (Jessie). Originally famed for his wonderful baritone, the centrepiece of Walker’s art was now his lyrics. Thought poems finessed over a period of years and musically “dressed” with doomy strings and racks of lamb struck with sledgehammers.
As is the lot of cult figures, Scott’s imprint on the musical landscape is hard to spot. You can hear David Bowie gushing about receiving a birthday message form Scott on YouTube, and Radiohead’s Creep once had the working title ‘Scott Walker Song’, but he cut an elusive, figure throughout the last phase of his life. When the Proms put on a classical retrospection of his work in 2015 (featuring John Grant and Jarvis Cocker), Scott politely declined involvement and apparently his guest tickets to the premiere lingered uncollected at the box office.
From a personal perspective, Walker’s music meant a lot to me for what it stood for as much as how it made me feel. My friend Alex Gow (of Oh Mercy fame) recommended Scott at a record label Christmas party and my curiosity led to obsession. I started a Scott Walker Instagram account (still only 41 followers) and scoured every biography. When I first appeared on RocKwiz, my band mates rushed out and bought a Scott 2 vinyl to prop up in the background so that it would be in shot whenever I answered a question. More than one big night out ended with me trying to perfect the hand gestures Scott makes in the grainy video to Mathilde.
But my relationship with Scott’s music meant the most to me when I was alone. Sitting for hours in empty cafes, walking the northern suburbs at midnight, exploring the galaxy that his music creates between my left and right earbuds. The sad nobility of solitude, the heartbreak of mundanity, and the mystery of mortality were some of his most widely addressed themes, perfect for listless introspection by the dude in his mid-twenties who takes himself a bit too seriously.
Obituaries will overplay the narrative of Scott’s dichotomy; from pop poster-boy to avant-garde soothsayer. But for me, his career is a straight line. Listen to ‘65’s The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore next to 2012’s Pilgrim and you’ll hear as many similarities as differences. From the start, he represented a bastion of unapologetic appreciation for art and culture that is disappointingly absent from music today and perhaps the world at large. He was a patient journeyman perfecting his art by increments. Dressing his life, like his lyrics, with the bottomless beauty of reality’s mystery.