David Bowie. Radiohead. Damon Albarn. Alison Goldfrapp. Jarvis Cocker. Sting. What do all of these artists have in common? They all cite as an influence an American singer-songwriter who left his path as a 1960s pop star to become a modern avant-garde musician. That man, of course, is Scott Walker.
At the height of his fame with the Walker Brothers, Scott was routinely mobbed by fans, whose numbers may have rivaled those of the Beatles. The group often had to stop shows after one or two minutes because the stage would be rushed by rabid admirers, and on one occasion their van was flipped over by a mob of thousands. And yet in 2018, Walker is hardly a household name like John, Paul, George, or Ringo.
Why? Well, to answer that requires a bit of a history lesson—a history told in intimate detail by the 2006 documentary 30 Century Man.
After his early success with the Walker Brothers, Walker set off on a solo career and produced an incredible four albums, simply titled Scott 1-4, between 1967 and 1969. The first three were well-received collections of classic ballads and his own compositions, but by the time of Scott 4, Walker was caught between his own strong creative desires and industry efforts to sell him in the familiar, safe genre of crooning male singers. The album failed and Walker subsequently entered a period of “lost years”, churning out commercial albums at the behest of his record company.
The 70s saw a reunion of the Walker Brothers, but after a promising start they faltered and Walker once again entered a reclusive period. He didn’t emerge until 1984.
Climate of Hunter, Walker’s first solo album in years, was unlike any of his previous output and didn’t sit comfortably with contemporary rock, either. It signaled the beginning of themes that would follow his future work: a lack of melodies and dark, gothic lyrics delivered in his trademark baritone voice. While the album received critical acclaim, it again failed to sell and—you guessed it—Walker disappeared once more.
During this period, Walker attained a kind of mythical status—nobody really knew where he was or what he was up to. He shed his previous sunglasses and scarves look for an equally enshrouding baseball cap pulled down low over his eyes, and once again kept a low profile for a decade before releasing Tilt in 1995. Another decade or so later, and the same year 30 Century Man was released at the London Film Festival, he released The Drift. Both albums continued and expanded on the sound of Climate of Hunter, pushing further into modern composition, orchestral arrangements, and unusual effects work.
To make a contemporary analogy, imagine if Justin Timberlake, after leaving NSYNC, had not found continued fame as a solo artist, but had fallen out of favor after, say, FutureSex/LoveSounds. Imagine that he had then disappeared for almost ten years, only to reemerge after undergoing mitosis and becoming both members of Matmos.
The headline is that over the course of three decades, Scott Walker transformed himself from a member of a massively popular boy band to a formally complex, lyrically poetic and critically acclaimed musician whose influences can be felt in a huge range of artists—even some who don’t realize they’re drawing on it.
That’s the quick version, anyway—30 Century Man gives you the details. We hear from celebrity fans about their admiration for his work, from collectors of Walker’s varied output, and from producers and studio musicians about the drama of working with him (“like having your teeth drawn slowly”, one says). One of the highlights of the experience is the score, mostly Walker tracks with some other material tossed in, which works as a chronological survey of his discography. It’s almost hard to watch the film in one go, because you’ll be tempted to pause and listen to the full versions of early songs like “Jackie” and “Montague Terrace,” as well as newer tracks like “Clara,” “Psoriatic,” and “Cue.”
The other highlight is the dialogue with Walker himself, who actually removes his seemingly-omnipresent baseball cap to speak with the camera, doling out introspective commentary on his career. “I just want to get to a man singing,” he tells us. “And when it has to have emotion, hopefully it’s real emotion.” We get a picture of a man grappling with his work, but one who, unlike many experimental artists, isn’t dismissive of his audiences. He’s humble but self-critical, playful but serious. “Anyone is very lucky to go through life singing,” he recognizes. “But it’s a genuine terror that I’m not going to get it right.”
By the time we get to the end of the film, Walker is giving notes from a recording booth to a percussionist punching a rack of meat in the studio. We’re a long way from the Scott who was trapped in an upside-down van by admiring young girls. It’s a genuinely funny moment, with Scott delighted at the second take. As he says, “there’s humor laced throughout all this stuff—if it were all that awful gothic thing, it would be terribly boring.”