On paper, Scott Walker is the perfect cult icon. The singer and composer's recording career has all the requisite sharp pivots and dark shadows that make for excellent record collector lore. He made drastic stylistic changes, from boy band icon to brooding balladeer to avant-garde composer; he disappeared from the public view for a decade at a time; and Brian Eno namedrops him as an influence. But while Walker's story is intriguing, his music can be a challenging listen. The material of his I've heard is either saturated with his syrupy baritone croon, or sounds so uncompromisingly bleak it's like an old David Lynch film sucked dry of humor.
For those reasons, I've never dug deeply into Walker's catalog, but I've always been curious about why the attraction to his music remains strong. A new documentary, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man — the first film about the famously reclusive Walker, named for his 1969 song, “30 Century Man” — answered many of my questions. By collecting interviews with the underground legend and the musicians he's influenced, as well as vintage performance and modern studio footage, director Stephen Kijak takes us through Walker's history, methodology, and cultural relevance. The movie is a light at the end of Walker's poorly lit, twisting tunnel, giving valuable insight into this venerated nonconformist.
Walker was born Noel Scott Engel in 1943 in Ohio, and became a teen pop idol as Scotty Engel before earning real acclaim with the Walker Brothers, a pop trio he formed in Hollywood with John Maus and Gary Leeds. They spent the '60s in a reverse British Invasion, as the Walker Brothers hit it so big in Britain their zealous female fans mobbed the stage and shut down their shows. The band interspersed covers with originals, first landing on the British charts in 1965 with “Make It Easy on Yourself.” In the late '60s, Walker produced a handful of solo albums that borrowed from Jacques Brel (after being turned on to the Belgian crooner by a Playboy bunny), stepping out as a merchant of dramatic melancholy. (Sample lyric from “Rosemary”: “She hears the clock and it strikes like a hammer/Pounding the nails one day further in the coffin of her youth.”)
In the years following, Walker mixed forgettable easy listening drivel with further explorations of man's dark psyche, and then disappeared from the music industry completely for most of the '80s. His last three albums — 1995's Tilt, 1999's Pola X, and 2006's The Drift — offer another 360 in Walker's tale. Here his compositions stretch into the avant-garde, his voice a wailing beacon of misery, steering listeners through operatic pop tortured by inner demons (from “Cossacks Are”: “Medieval savagery/Calculated cruelty/It's hard to pick the worst moment”) No cocktail party soundtracks, these.
But director Kijak — and executive producer David Bowie, who discusses his passion for Walker on camera — offer safe entry into this strange music through their documentary. Eno, Sting, Allison Goldfrapp, Johnny Marr of the Smiths, Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, and members of Radiohead reveal how Walker's music inspired them, offering new angles from which to understand his work. Their admissions that Walker was one of the first artists to validate being overwhelmingly melancholy (as Marr sees it), bring this legend from the pretentious to the comprehensible. Over the course of the film, you can really hear how Walker's work was instrumental to music scenes from '80s dark wave to modern artists like Antony and the Johnsons.
And while parts of Walker's catalog can be intimidating, in interviews he is straight-talking and open, not what you would expect from an artist who hid behind sunglasses for years. He's shown as a warm, albeit serious, thinker. It helps to hear his uncomplicated explanations of his songwriting processes — the strong memory of a bloody WWII propaganda film, for example, that provoked terrorizing, fighter-jet string arrangements – juxtaposed with interviews of musicians who worked with him explaining the technical complications in his visions.
By the time Kijak focuses on a Drift percussionist pounding his fists into meat in the studio, you realize that Walker doesn't make his music sound ugly to be elitist. Rather, he lives with a head haunted by unusual nightmares that he's compelled to express through song.
After watching Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, I'm left with a richer appreciation for Scott Walker artist worship. Although I still can't have that dour disposition pouring out of my stereo.