In many ways, Scott Walker was the inspiration for this entire blog. I had the pleasure of watching a documentary, 20th Century Man, centered around Walker and his impact on the music world. Watching David Bowie and members of Radiohead discussing the impact this man's music had on them, I was struck with the revelation that bands and artists most people have never heard of helped shape pop music without ever being included within it. The Velvet Underground and The Stooges may be the classic examples, but Scott Walker was the example that really drove the point home.
After all, the true tragedy of the punk genre (and, as previously mentioned, the alternative and grunge movements of the 90s) was that it was a deliberate reaction against what was already popular. Once the genre itself became mainstream, the artists suddenly lost their purpose. The simplest illustration of this is The Clash, who went from who went from their 35 minute, self-titled debut to the three-disc, 144 minute album Sandinista! in three years.
The point is, the proto-punk all-stars were never meant to be mainstream. They deliberately pushed boundaries by reducing their music to a skeletal version of what the public considered rock music. It's considerably different from how David Bowie chose to push boundaries, and how he chose to revive the careers of the two kings of proto-punk, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. Bowie, after all, made new music by combining elements of already popular groups into an unfailingly interesting (at least until the early-80s) whole.
Scott Walker falls under the Bowie-camp described above. Formerly a part of the reasonably successful Walker Brothers, Scott broke off on his own after it became clear that his ambition and artistic influences far outstripped those of his 'brothers' (none of the group were actually named Walker; Scott's real name is Noel Scott Engel). While the other Walkers operated in basic, MOR pop, Scott found himself attracted more to the baroque and embellished, symbolized by the work of Jacques Brel.
Already one of the more popular Walker brothers due to his distinctive baritone, Scott was allowed to pursue a solo career by his parent label, releasing the critically and commercially successful album Scott. It's impossible to tell how much of the album's baroque-styled violin and horn embellishments were actually Scott's idea instead of his producer, but the lyrics and melodies were certainly his. Many of the songs were translated versions of Brel's songs (including the classic "My Death" which Bowie himself often performed on tour though never, oddly enough, on record) but Scott's own songs displayed his touch for the dramatic and memorable.
His next two albums, creatively titled Scott 2 and Scott 3, followed a similar pattern, though 3 provided early hints of Walker's later musical style. The records continued to be successful as well, helped along by Scott's own television show.
None of this exactly sounds like an obscure, cult-following musician, does it? Though he has never been successful in the US (which is ironically his home country) Scott's albums consistently hit the top-ten in England, no doubt helped by the fact that his baroque style had at least vague similarities with Sgt. Pepper.
That all ended with Scott 4, the first album to be released under Walker's birth name instead of his alias. The change was prompted by Walker's belief that this album represented his first 'true' artistic statement, growing from the avant-garde subtext of 3 into full blown experimental music. To give an idea of just how experimental it was, the first track is "The Seventh Seal", a five-minute summary of the Ingmar Bergman classic. That's about as far from pop as you can get without going into Metal Machine Music territory. The album was also bereft of most of the baroque-style of his first three albums, further suggesting that those orchestra overdubs were the responsibility of the producer.
Predictability, the album flopped. Whether it was too off-the-wall or simply lacked Walker's name recognition is impossible to answer; it was likely a combination of the two, but the album isn't really that beyond the pale for late-60s pop music.
Though Walker faded into a period of obscurity following Scott 4, he made a psuedo-comeback with '84's Climate Of The Hunter. I say psuedo because it merely marked an artistic comeback; Walker has never captured his early success and, judging from his current style, he doesn't want to.
Hunter kicked off Walker's avant-garde, heavily experimental period. That album, along with everything that followed, fall into the No Wave territory that Sonic Youth briefly strode out of during the late-80s. Those albums, especially The Drift, released in 2006, are the aural equivalent of a slasher movie. I don't like them, but I also hate Sonic Youth so it shouldn't really be much of a surprise.