Scott Walker and The Walker Brothers

The 60s Pop Pin-Up Musician Turned Recluse

Scott Walker sitting in a chair and looking up.
Michael Putland / Getty Images

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.

Born in: January 9, 1943, Hamilton, Ohio
Key Albums: Scott 3 (1969), Scott 4 (1969), Tilt (1995), The Drift (2006)


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 bass player. 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." 40 years later, in The Guardian, he would recall:

"Oh, it was amazing at first. 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.

Scott Walker's Beginnings

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."

The Radical Reinvention of the Increasingly Reclusive Scott Walker

In 1981, Julian Cope of the English post-punk band Teardrop Explodes released a compilation, Fire Escape in the Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker, which re-introduced Engel as a serious avant-garde performer; its plain grey cover removing the element of "'60s middle-of-the-road cheese" that clung to Walker's work.

Six years after the last Walker Brothers album, Engel finally returned with the enigmatic, unexpected Climate of Hunter. A worthy, 15-years-later successor to Scott 4, it ushered in the new era of Scott Walker the avant-gardist. The album is defined by its incongruity: though plumbing lyrical terrain of dark depression, forging into minimal electronic ambiance, and populated by formless songs that are rarely given names, Climate of Hunter sounds slickly 1980s and features bizarre guest spots from Mark Isham, Mark Knopfler, and Billy Ocean(!).

"All the time, in the six years, I was rather working towards what I call a 'silence,' where this could come to me, rather than me force it," Engel said, in a radio interview to promote the record's release. The opening line of the album found Engel crooning "This is how you disappear," and, soon thereafter, he did.

It would be 11 years before the release of his next album, Tilt. In that time, recordings with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois were abandoned after Engel grew dissatisfied with the collaboration. Virgin, his record label, axed him from his record deal. By the time he arose with Tilt, Scott Walker was more myth than man, and the music did little to dissuade that notion. Working with massive, shifting 'blocks' of often atonal sound, the record works with extremes of emotion and tonality; Walker pushing his baritone into an eerie moan, like a ghost lost in the darkness. To The Guardian, Engel said:

"I try to avoid cliché. I want to make it sound like nothing I have ever heard before. All that guitar-based rock stuff, I just feel like I've heard it before so many times... It's just the same narrow ground being worked over."

After recording a cover of Bob Dylan's "I Threw It All Away" for Nick Cave's soundtrack to the film To Have and to Hold, Engel undertakes a lengthy collaboration with renegade French filmmaker Léos Carax on the punishing, metallic soundtrack to his bizarre film, Pola X.

Engel writes songs for chanteuse Ute Lemper, sings a song on a James Bond soundtrack (The World is Not Enough), and in 2001 produces We Love Life, the final album for Pulp, an English band whose Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley have long worshipped Walker. In 2003 the first major retrospective of Walker's career, the five-disc box-set Five Easy Pieces, is released.

The Drift and a New Scott Walker Era

After a 1995 article in Uncut promised that "Walker’s next album will be made not in 2006, but next year," Engel's follow-up to Tilt didn't arrive, amusingly enough, until 2006. The Drift, the most extreme, intense, and barren Scott Walker album yet was issued to near critical acclaim. The album found Engel working in increasingly bizarre ways: "Clara" finds percussionist Alasdair Malloy punching on a side of pork to summon the sound of angry citizens clubbing the strung-up corpses of Benito Mussolini and his mistress in a Milan piazza. Another song, "Cue," apparently took Walker six years to complete.

With the album released, a Dutch journalist is sacked after making up an interview with the reclusive Walker. A compilation called The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore: The Best of The Best of Scott Walker and The Walker Brothers is released coincidentally with The Drift and ends up charting higher than Walker's new album itself. At the time, Walker told Magnet:

"I make records for myself, because I'm interested in seeing where they're going to go. I think all artists do that, whether they're trying to alleviate some kind of pain or whatever."

Walker's career is explored in detail in the documentary film, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man. Produced by David Bowie, it features footage from the recording sessions for The Drift, as well as interviews with those who Engel has influenced, including Radiohead, Pulp, Sting, Goldfrapp, and Johnny Marr of The Smiths. It's issued on DVD in 2009, 40 years after Scott 3 and Scott 4 were released.

Also in 2009, Engel makes an unexpected guest appearance on Two Suns, the second album for the glamorous pop starlet, Bat for Lashes.