The passing of Scott Walker closes the final chapter in a remarkable musical story.
From teen idol to avant garde juggernaut, Scott Walker's many paths have opened up some incredible avenues, spaces for other artists to make their own.
Everyone from Radiohead to David Bowie doffed their cap to the songwriter, while his sonorous baritone influenced several generations of male vocalists.
Spending a few days absorbing the news, Clash writers gathered to pick their own personal favourites from the Scott Walker catalogue...
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Scott Walker - 'Boy Child' (As picked by William Salmon)
Scott 4's most spectral moment comes at the end of its first side. Walker's voice is carried aloft on a gently-undulating bed of strings on a song that eschews percussion entirely to create a mesmerising dreamscape. That it's immediately contrasted with the upbeat - and utterly bloody furious - 'Hero Of The War' is a perfect bit of sequencing on Walker's part.
Listening to the quartet of Scott LPs today in the light of his later, wilder and weirder work can be a disorientating experience. A lot of it sounds comparatively straight-laced compared to what was to come, but the idea that Walker's experimental instincts only developed later is wrong - they're clearly developing over the course of these records, reaching hauntingly beautiful fruition on 'Scott 4' and, especially, this lovely, song that sounds like a serenade from a heartbroken angel.
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The Walker Brothers - 'The Electrician' (As picked by William Salmon)
The Walker Brothers last - and best - studio album, 1978's 'Nite Flights', was the first where the former pop idols allowed themselves to make a record that truly reflected their interests. Its dark heart is 'The Electrician' - a six minute song that's opens with a deeply-sinister swell of strings before switching things up. Suddenly it feels bright, pretty even.
It's a con, of course - the song is, lyrically, about a torturer ("There's no help, no...") and it's constantly changing temperaments unsettle, even while the music seeks to soothe.
The song became an obsession of David Bowie and Brian Eno's on release and you can hear echoes of it in Big Dave's work on '1. Outside' and 'Blackstar', especially. But, more importantly, 'The Electrician' helped define the singular path that Walker himself would tread over the next 40 years.
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Scott Walker - 'It's Raining Today' (As picked by Susan Hansen)
After a period as The Walker Brothers’ enigmatic frontman, this track is one of the earliest releases from Walker’s career as a solo artist and it provides a vital key to identifying Jacques Brel’s influence on Walker.
During a TV interview from 1969, Walker referred to this song as being a reflection on his teenage years. During the Beatnik era he read lots of Jack Kerouac, it was a time when he got kicked out of school and met lots of ‘wonderful people’. He described the relationships as ‘ephemeral’ and ‘It’s Raining Today’ tackles some of them. It makes use of sparse instrumentation and the pace is slow, but it’s a mesmerising arrangement.
A highlight on ‘Scott 3’, it sizzles and builds towards the overall theme of the album, but contrary to the other tracks that follow, its lighter, far more uplifting atmospherics make it a well-chosen opening track.
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Scott Walker - 'Only Myself To Blame' (As picked by Nick Roseblade)
Scott Walker should have recorded a Bond theme. Can you imagine what that would have sounded like? Literally can you imagine? It’s the song he was born to record, but sadly it wasn’t to be.
The nearest we ever got was ‘Only Myself To Blame’. Recorded for the end credits of 1999’s ‘The World Is Not Enough’ it was written by David Arnold and Don Black. ‘Only Myself To Blame’ is a glorious jazzy slow burner which allows Walker to croon and wallow in self-pity whilst reminding us why we loved his Brel covers in the first place.
Sadly the director Michael Apted felt the film would be too bleak and fans wouldn’t enjoy the experience and went for a remix of the Bond Theme instead. So close…
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Scott Walker - 'Use Me' (As picked by Nick Roseblade)
When discussing Walker’s stacked discography it is usually his four Scott albums or his later more experimental work that gets the love. His 1970’s period is generally dismissed as being shit, sometimes by the man himself, and it his lack of creative control makes the albums suffer. No one is going to say that ‘We Had it All’ is better than ‘Scott 3’ or ‘Bish Bosh’ there are some amazing songs hidden in these overlooked albums.
1973’s ‘Use Me’ is one of these songs. Taken from ‘Stretch’ Walker’s glorious vocals sit over huge breakbeats and a dirty organ. It makes his vocals sound grittier than they ever had before. This is a ton of fun and a reminder that Walker could be at the top of his game when having fun, as well as delivering some avant-garde and terrifying.
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Scott Walker - 'Copenhagen' (As picked by Fergal Kinney)
‘Scott 3’ is the death throes of Scott Walker the commercial crooner, and the difficult birth of Scott Walker the avant-garde musician. Arguably the biggest shift in Walker’s career would be that which occurs between ‘Scott 2’ and ‘Scott 3’.
On ‘Copenhagen’, this transition is at its most explicit – introducing the twin peaks of Walker’s career to come. The first being a lyrical modernism, Walker’s words from hereon in owing more to TS Elliot than they do the Brill Building. The second being the mournful, dissonant use of that rich, velvet baritone. No matter how far Walker pushed his art over the ensuing decades, it would all operate within these two pillars.
In this short and dreamlike track, there is an embarrassing surplus of beauty. Wally Scott would be the string arranger on all four of the eponymous Scott records, but never previously had his arrangements so complimented Walker in their richness or ambition than here, all wintry and twinkling. Europe was proving profoundly inspiring for Walker at this point; indeed, as it would throughout his life.
Like so much of Walker’s work, there’s a complex interplay between contemporary pop and classical music, film and literature, philosophy and place. The track is gorgeous as a piece of baroque pop, but what keeps me returning to the track is quite how elusive it is. Images aren’t returned to. Like the melting snowdrops described in the song’s opening lines, images come into focus and then dissolve; fragmentary, quicksilver.
The only motif is the idea of childhood; there are three mentions of childhood in this short song, and even that, as innocence fades, must fade from view also.
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The Walker Brothers - 'Nite Flights' (As picked by NB)
The first song I reached for when I read Scott had passed was 'Nite Flights'. Something about the strange, languid defiance of this song has always lifted me.
The four tracks Scott contributed to the Walker Brothers final album represent the pivotal moment in his discography, the hinge that connects Scott Walker the faded 60’s pop star to latter day avant Scott.
The album itself was a contract filler, recorded in 1978 when the Walker Brother’s reunion had worn out a brief mid-decade welcome. They could have hashed out a few covers and called it quits, instead they each decided to make their own mini album.
In Scott’s case the results were all the more enthralling for the years of artistic near-dormancy that preceded them. Suddenly, here was the supreme command, the auteur’s precision and dark drama that had characterised the quartet of records that had seen him become the toast of late ‘60s British pop, only to overreach and fall precipitously from grace.
The person who made those records was irreconcilably altered by the years in the wilderness that followed. From this point on, his every word would be inscrutable, rich in bleak, often nightmarish imagery, while the music would skew ever forward down a path of discord and despair.
That said, 'Nite Flights' is an accessible song, at least musically. Over a pounding disco/kraut backing, that cavernous voice is reborn in roiling oddness:
it's so cold
dug up by dogs
torn and broke
the raw meat fist
has hit the bloodlite
And then the tonal shift into something like serene redemption:
be my love
we will be gods
on nite flights
with only one promise
only one way
That the album was another flop probably surprised no-one involved at the time, but it must have come as a major blow all the same. Scott had created arguably his finest work up to that point, and no one had cared. It wasn’t until Julian Cope’s Fire Escape in The Sky compilation a few years later that Scott’s fortunes really started to look up. Culthood set in around his increasingly enigmatic legend.
And while the cult of Scott centred around veneration of his solo ‘60s catalogue, his new work gradually gained acceptance. By 2006’s 'The Drift', things had come full circle. It heralded a late flowering, slow burning renaissance that represents perhaps the longest comeback in pop history, beginning with Nite Flights and gaining momentum over decades.
When his death was announced the disparity between the pop star many of his generation remember for a few 60s mega-singles and the totally committed, fearless, uncompromising artist that emerged much later was evident as ever.
The person born Noel Scott Engel embodied such a unique multiverse of possibilities in his music. Nite Flights captures him poised on the threshold of all the doors he opened, and those he left closed.
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