The Walker Brothers

 

The Walker Brothers photo 1

Scott, John, Gary

 

 

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Walker Brothers playlist

 

Contributor: Philip Downer

Ah, 1966. One of the greatest years ever for popular music, but in the old family homestead we didn’t do pirate radio, and I was too young for Top Of The Pops, let alone RSG. Music came from my mother’s old 78s (Guy Mitchell and Doris Day), and from Two-Way Family Favourites, the sound of the Sunday roast. Jean Metcalfe didn’t play Tomorrow Never Knows, Paint It Black or Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, but I’m guessing she spun The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore every single week, as it’s etched very deeply indeed on my subconscious.

Like me, you too have always known this record. As soundtracks to an apocalypse go, it’s hard to beat. It’s an epic, a whole John Ford movie packed into three minutes and thirteen seconds. When the big brass riff rolls back over the horizon at 2:27, the sun truly does vanish forever, there’s no likelihood of a moonrise, and Scott rides off, utterly alone, into a desolate landscape, swallowed up by magnificent melancholy. “And that was a request from Geoff and Sheila in Droitwich for their son Keith, who’s serving with BAOR in Dortmund.”

Despite Scott Engel, John Maus and Gary Leeds being veterans of the California music scene, their speculative trip to the UK in late ˈ65 recast them as a British-based act, and posterity – as well as Scott’s subsequent career – sees them as part of our cultural history, rather than America’s. For a brief period – which can be roughly dated to the months between the Beatles growing up and the Monkees’ debut – they were Britain’s Top Pop Heart-Throbs. In just over a year, they had two number one singles, four other top twenty hits and three hit albums, and then it was all over.

Since Fire Escape In The Sky, Julian Cope’s definitive 1980 Scott collection, the Walker Brothers have tended to be viewed as, at best, the warm-up to Scott’s career, and at worst as something closer to Engelbert Humperdinck than to the acts that spearheaded the 1966 musical revolution. This is unfair – dammit, it’s just wrong. Here are ten tracks to relish on their own merits:

TrackSingle / Album
Love HerPhilips BF 1409 (A-side)
My Ship Is Coming InPhilips BF 1454 (A-side)
Love Minus ZeroTake It Easy
The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine AnymorePhilips BF 1473 (A-side)
After the Lights Go OutPhilips BF 1473 (B-side)
Saturday's ChildPortrait
ArchangelPhilips BF 1537 (B-side)
Everything Under The SunImages
GenevieveImages
No RegretsGTO GT-42 (A-side)

 

Love Her was the first Walkers’ single, and it predated their arrival in the UK, having been arranged by Jack Nitzsche and produced by Nik Venet. It recasts a forgotten Everlys B-side into a thing of doleful splendour, and introduces the Walker Brothers sound with a bit of Californian echo. The result is She Loves You, as interpreted by Bruckner.

Once in England, and under the wing of Philips’ Johnny Franz, Ivor Raymonde and Reg Guest, the Walkers sailed to number one with Make It Easy On Yourself – which doesn’t make the cut here, as it’s just too close to the superior Jerry Butler original. Third single My Ship Is Coming In merits your attention though. Listen to the orchestration and the hopelessness in Scott’s voice – the whole point is that his ship isn’t coming in, he’s busted, he’s desperate, and he’s clinging to a pathetic illusion. This is the music on the radio at Montagu Terrace – but we’ll dream, won’t we.

An album was rushed to the shops for Christmas 1965, and it’s a mixed bag. With the best will in the world, the Walker Brothers rarely work well when they go upbeat (e.g. Land Of 1000 Dances); the songs fronted by John are forgettable (he has a pleasant enough voice, but it works better harmonising with Scott), and sometimes the arrangements are just too overblown (even for me) and end up spinning their wheels in the sonic mud.

Love Minus Zero is very heaven though. The song had already been covered by the Leaves and the Turtles, and the Walkers take the latter arrangement, strip it down and create a thing of pure beauty. Dylan’s cockiness is transformed into a Zen-like meditation on the madness of the world, from an observer safe in his cocoon. Dime stores and bus stations have never sounded so holy.

The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore spent its well-deserved month at number one for Easter 1966. Its B-side, logically enough, was After The Lights Go Out, in which Scott retreats to the room where he would metaphorically spend much of the rest of the decade (though it was still a room containing a full orchestra and a crack-of-doom drumbeat).

The Walkers’ second and more consistent album, Portrait, was released later in 1966, by which time their star was already starting to fade. It leads off with the superlative In My Room, which has previously featured on Rob Webb’s solo Scott Toppermost. Saturday’s Child is the aching heart of a Swinging Sixties Londoner, reminiscent of Helen Shapiro’s She Needs Company; a promo film for this track would be awash with neon lights, speeding Sunbeam Tigers, nightclub dancefloors and Rita Tushingham lookalikes.

Archangel is a late B-side which introduces a full-scale pipe organ and uses the orchestra imaginatively to create an atmospheric sound and quasi-religious imagery – again, Scott is testing his musical and verbal vocabulary for his eventual solo career.

By the time Images, their final album, came out in early 1967, the jig was up. The singles were pedestrian covers of Stay With Me Baby and Walking In The Rain, but the album’s lead track Everything Under The Sun at least had some oomph, crunching forward remorselessly, the sound of desperate men looking for (and failing to find) a good time. Perhaps it should have been the album’s closer, but that was Just Say Goodbye, and it’s all just too much. However, the album does include Genevieve, Scott’s must obvious trip to Brel World during the Brothers years. It’s a track that would have been much more comfortable on Scott 1, and consequently it’s been a little overlooked. The time signatures and key signatures drift, and the trumpets and tubular bells sound from a lonely hilltop while Scott remembers the summer rain and love hanging on a string.

The years passed. Scott did the whole Godlike Genius thing, John and Gary pursued solo careers, and then in 1975 the band reformed. No Regrets proved that the Walker Brothers formula was ideal for adaptation to the 70s. The bombast was dialled down, the sound became more immediate and intimate, and country steel guitars provided a new foreground to the orchestration. The arrangement shows impeccable restraint– but this was still a thorough-going Walker Brothers record, and after four minutes an electric guitar solo (shades of Goodbye To Love) unleashes the old sturm und drang. It was a smash hit, but they never successfully repeated the trick, so for the public at large, this was the last of Scott and the Walkers.

Of course, Scott’s later tracks on the band’s 1978 Nite Flites LP (The Electrician etc) are extraordinary, but they really belong to Scott alone, and look forward to his avant-garde years. The spirit of this Toppermost lies back in 65/66, when the Walkers were very briefly kings of the charts, and Scott became the thing he least wanted to be, the nation’s dreamboat. The body of work they rushed out during that period is flawed, but there was no blueprint for what they were doing, and it’s only in retrospect, now we can judge their music on its own qualities, that we can see how good a lot of it was. A deep shade of blue is always there …

 

The Walker Brothers poster

 

3 UK Top 5 Singles from The Walker Brothers (1965/1966)

 

 

 

Scott Engel (1943–2019)

John Maus (1943–2011)

 

The Walker Brothers (Wikipedia)

The Walker Brothers biography (AllMusic)

Philip Downer is a retired shopkeeper who sold records, books and gifts in shops from Lowestoft to Chicago. He enjoys foraging in cities and villages for architectural details, unlikely history and the quieter corners of galleries and museums. He posts recondite ephemera on Twitter @frontofstore, and Instagram @philip.downer.His previous post for this site is on The Turtles.

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