The late Scott Walker was one of the most fascinating artists of the rock era, successful as both a crooner and as an avant-garde composer. Accordingly, this list of Walker favourites is scattershot, ranging from easy listening covers to his experimental later work.
Scott Walker was born in Ohio but relocated to London with The Walker Brothers. He sang lead on 1960s hits like ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’ and ‘My Ship Is Coming In’. At their peak, The Walker Brothers’ fanclub was larger than The Beatles’, but as they fell out of fashion, Walker went solo in 1967. He was initially successful, crooning his way through Jacques Brel covers and blossoming as a songwriter. Walker shed his audience as his work became less mainstream, and spent much of the 1970s making mediocre cover records while lost in a fog of tranquilisers and alcohol. His tracks on the 1978 Walker Brothers’ album Nite Flights were a return to form, and he became a beloved cult artist with records like Tilt and The Drift.
I traditionally put 10 songs on these lists, but I needed 12 to fit in all my favourites – this list draws from five different decades. Two of these songs are from Walker’s tenure in The Walker Brothers. Covers by The Walker Brothers weren’t eligible for the list. Walker’s originals on 1978’s Nite Flights are key in his artistic evolution, however, and needed to be included here.
12 Best Scott Walker Songs
#12 Thanks for Chicago Mr. James
written by Scott Walker and Ady Semel, from ‘Til The Band Comes In, 1970
‘Til The Band Comes In is a curious record – Philips Records were becoming wary of the commercial appeal of Walker’s songwriting after 1969’s Scott 4 bombed. Walker started writing with manager Ady Semel, explaining “he acts as my censor, vetting all my lyrics and striking out the words likely to harm old ladies.” The last five tracks are inessential covers, but Walker’s originals are fascinating – he delves into big band jazz on ‘Jean the Machine’ and delivers this oddly touching ballad.
from Bisch Bosch, 2012
Walker’s final two studio albums, 2006’s The Drift and 2012’s Bisch Bosch, are too nihilistic and dark for comfortable listening. But ‘Epizootics!’ is downright zany – Walker always had a sense of humour amidst the darkness of his artistic vision. The arrangement features the tubax, a tuba/saxophone hybrid, while Walker sings lines like “Chirp chime clambaked cups/Don’t step on that rotting tartare/Just might bust your conk.”
#10 The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti (Here’s to You)
written by Joan Baez and Ennio Morricone, from The Moviegoer, 1972
Walker famously went through a lost period for much of the 1970s. Discouraged by the lack of success of 1969’s Scott 4 and 1970’s ‘Til The Band Comes In, his record label steered him toward safer material, a succession of four cover albums. Struggling with addictions to alcohol and tranquillizers, Walker did little to resist, although he did choose his material for The Moviegoer. Walker’s vocals remained sumptuous, but his cover albums are often overlooked by hardcore fans. One beloved track, however, is his cover of ‘The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti’. It’s a lovely arrangement, with acoustic guitar and strings, and Walker sings with a passion sometimes missing from his 1970s records. ‘Sacco and Vanzetti’ isn’t on Spotify, so here’s a Youtube.
From Walker’s lost period, I also enjoy his mellowed-out take of Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Sundown’, from 1974’s We Had It All.
#9 Nite Flights
written by Scott Walker, from Nite Flights, 1978
Walker snapped out of his 1970s artistic slump on The Walker Brothers’ final album. Listening to Joni Mitchell reignited his songwriting, while he was sonically inspired by Bowie’s Berlin records, bringing a copy of Heroes into the studio as a template. Bowie was also a fan of Walker’s – he was introduced to Walker’s work when he dated Walker’s ex-girlfriend. She preferred Walker’s music to Bowie’s and played his albums constantly. ‘Nite Flights’ features the funky sound and disturbing croon of Bowie’s late 1970s work.
#8 Plastic Palace People
written by Scott Walker, from Scott 2, 1968
Walker spent much of his first three albums outside the realm of contemporary pop/rock music – singing Jacques Brel covers and easy-listening favourites. But from his second album, ‘Plastic Palace People’ indicates that he’d been listening to the psychedelia of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. Like ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘Plastic Palace People’ is nostalgic for childhood, while like ‘A Day in the Life’ it’s a multi-part suite that ends with an orchestral freakout.
#7 Bolivia ’95
written by Scott Walker, from Tilt, 1995
Walker’s only album of the 1990s has him heading into uncharted waters, abandoning conventional verse/chorus structures for avant-garde compositions. ‘Bolivia ’95’ is apparently written about Bolivian refugees, although Walker’s lyrics became more oblique as he aged, singing about “lemon bloody cola”. The guitar motif that runs through the piece is gorgeous, giving it a central hook to come back to.
#6 30 Century Man
written by Scott Walker, from Scott 3, 1969
A 2007 Walker documentary was named for ’30 Century Man’. It’s a logical choice, as it’s a statement of purpose from Walker. “See the dwarfs and see the giants/Which one would you choose to be?”
’30 Century Man’ is notable for what it doesn’t include. Every other song on Walker’s first three albums is heavily orchestrated, while ’30 Century Man’ is accompanied by a simple guitar strum.
written by Jacques Brel, from Scott 2, 1968
Scott Walker’s early solo career is entangled with Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel. Walker covered three Brel compositions on each of his first three solo albums, often the first English-language version of each song. Brel is best known for writing the 1970s hit ‘Seasons in the Sun’, but his material is generally edgier. On ‘Jackie’, Walker sings of selling boatloads of opium, authentic queers, and phony virgins. ‘Jackie’ was released as a single – I already posted about its b-side.
#4 The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime)
written by Scott Walker, from Scott 4, 1969
‘The Old Man’s Back Again’ was written about the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. New leader Alexander Dubček had steered Czechoslovakia is a more liberal direction, but the other Warsaw Pact members invaded to restore the status quo. After three albums dominated by orchestration, Scott 4 moves Walker toward a late 1960s sound. ‘The Old Man’s Back Again’ is driven by a prominent bassline.
Coincidentally, ‘The Old Man’s Back Again’ served as the b-side for the next selection on this list.
#3 The Seventh Seal
written by Scott Walker, from Scott 4, 1969
Walker’s strongest album, Scott 4, opens with the pretentious melodrama of ‘The Seventh Seal’. It’s inspired by a 1957 Ingmar Bergman film, itself taking its title from the Biblical Book of Revelation. Walker’s portentous vocal is accompanied by music that recalls Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks.
Anybody seen a knight pass this way?The Seventh Seal, Scott Walker
I saw him playing chess with Death, yesterday
#2 Track Three
written by Scott Walker, from Climate of Hunter, 1984
Walker’s only release of the 1980s was Climate of Hunter. It’s interesting hearing him a 1980s sonic landscape, especially on rockers like ‘Track Three’. ‘Track Three’ was the album’s only single. Incongruously, Billy Ocean provides backing vocals – Mark Knopfler appears on the b-side, a cover of Tennessee Williams’ ‘Blanket Roll Blues’. Walker refused to give songs on Climate of Hunter titles, on the basis that it might ‘lopside’ or ‘overload’ them by drawing attention to one lyric.
#1 The Electrician
written by Scott Walker, from Nite Flights, 1978
All four Scott Walker songs on Nite Flights are amazing, overshadowing his bandmates’ meagre contributions. The main event is ‘The Electrician’, a creepy tale of torture from the perspective of a C.I.A. operative. The contrast between the terse opening section and the soaring second part is a thing of beauty, while the string arrangement is unexpectedly gorgeous on a dark song.
“He’s drilling through the Spiritus Sanctus tonight.”
Did I miss your favourite Scott Walker song?
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This is the very first time I’ve listened to any solo tracks by Scott Walker. Even when it comes to The Walker Brothers, the only tune I can name is one most folks know, i.e., “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.” Based on your picks, it’s obvious Scott Walker was a very versatile artist. While it’s easy to instantly dig a tune like “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”, it appears Walker’s solo work requires more time to explore and appreciate.
I love him – he would easily make it onto my top ten male solo artists, alongside Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bowie etc.
I find it endearing how he bounces between crooning easy-listening music and making really difficult avant-garde stuff.
Cool selection. But surely you’ve gotta have ‘Joanna’ in there. ‘Farmer In The City’ maybe too.
I have heard Joanna, although I mainly know it from Love Actually. It’s a bit disadvantaged from not being on a studio album.
Bolivia 95 has always been my Tilt favourite, but the whole thing is excellent, obviously. My second favourite Walker album behind 4.
Lots of stuff here I’ve never heard, even though I have a large clump of SW in my iTunes, so I will check out your picks. He really was a fascinating character. I would have included the pop ballad Joanna, the riveting little biography of a lonely woman that is Rosemary and You’re On Your Own Again (with the killer final line “I was so happy I didn’t feel like me”. Also the story of old men fallen on hard times, Two Ragged Soldiers
Yeah, you’re the second Joanna voter. Scott 4 is pretty much all terrific, but I couldn’t really squeeze more tracks in from it. I’ve always liked Duchess and Get Behind Me as well.
This post is one of the most educational ones I’ve read. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard songs by him…I heard of him and his brothers of course…wow it’s way more sophisticated than I would have ever guessed. I don’t know why but I was thinking light pop….this is NOT light pop by any stretch of the imagination.
Great stuff here Graham…I will be checking more of these out in detail.
Some of his best known early stuff kind of fits in that light pop. But he’s kind of up there with Bowie for experimentation and reinvention.