“It’s very stark,” Scott Walker says of his music in a 2006 interview for the documentary 30 Century Man. “As I go on, things get starker.”
Did they ever. It’s hard to think of a popular, or once-popular, musician whose work transformed more completely, or fascinatingly, than Scott Walker’s did during the course of his career. Starting out crooning big, dramatic pop ballads with the Walker Brothers — “Walker” was none of the three members’ actual last name; Scott was born Noel Scott Engel — he gradually moved toward a kind of musical no man’s land. By the time of his 1995 solo album, Tilt, Walker — who died today at age 76 — was creating some of the lushest yet most unsettling music on earth: songs that seemed to take the orchestral palette and velvety baritone of his Walker Brothers days and repurpose them in the name of pure disorientation and terror.
“I have a very nightmarish imagination — I’ve had very bad dreams all my life, and things — so everything in my world is big,” he explains in the clip above, which dates from the period of Tilt’s 2006 follow-up, The Drift.
The video also includes rare studio footage of Walker working with producer Peter Walsh in London. For anyone who heard Tilt, it would probably come as no surprise that Walker’s work would eventually reach a point where conventional instruments just wouldn’t cut it. We see his engineers constructing a plywood box in a sound booth and slamming a brick on it to get just the right percussive thud. And, incredibly, we also get to watch Walker telling a man how to punch a large piece of meat — maybe a slab of fatty bacon? — to produce the exact smacking sound he’s in search of to augment the track “Clara.”
“You’re gonna have to give it more like, ‘uh-uh,'” he says, mimicking the cadence he’s after. “You know what I mean? ‘Cause if you wait too long between punches… Not that it’s too fast, but it’s got to be more varied.”
For a lesser talent, such measures would seem ridiculous, if not outright insane. But as weird as it got, Walker’s later work always sounded coherent, not to mention extremely specific. See The Drift’s “Jesse,” inspired by Elvis Presley’s stillborn twin and containing lines like “Six feet of foetus/Flung at sparrows in the sky,” which Walker croons over a dread-inducing soundscape featuring whispers of the word “pow,” masses of dissonant strings and eerie fragments of guitar. It wasn’t for everybody, but unlike his Walker Brothers singles, it wasn’t remotely meant to be.
“We’ve reached a point now where we’re pretty well set in the noise that is our own and that people identify with, and like Beckett did, we just keep honing things and honing things down,” he says in the clip. “For instance … there is no real arrangement; in point, there are big blocks of sound. And that started to happen in Tilt, with the big organ that we used. There are big blocks of noise and no attempt at any glamorizing arrangements, or anything like that.”
Walker’s devotion to his own singular muse won him a devoted cult of fans, some of them famous and highly respected musicians, from David Bowie to Sunn O))), his collaborators on an acclaimed 2014 album. At the end of the clip, we see Brian Eno speaking about what made Walker’s achievement unique.
“He really should be, as far as I’m concerned, recognized as one of our, not only great composers, but great poets as well,” Eno says. “His lyrics are absolutely peerless, I think. And it’s very surprising to me that he’s regarded as a slightly marginal figure. He isn’t very prolific but the quality of the work is absolutely extraordinary.”