Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Walkermania! Part Three

I will now conclude Walkermania by talking about the Walker Brothers' second and third album released in the UK, Portrait (1966) and Images (1967). These weren't obviously their last albums, as the Walkers returned in the 1970s with three more albums. I might cover them some time later.

Whereas Take It Easy.. was relative cheerful and uptempo, on Portrait and Images the basic concept has been turned upside down. This means that there are now only a couple of uptempo songs per album and the rest is ballads or at least very peaceful and slow songs. Both albums are really good and even though Portrait was more successful back then, I personally prefer Images.

After the debut album and number one hits Make It Easy on Yourself and The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore, the Walkers were household names in the UK. They were on top of their fame even though they never had another number one hit single again. Their music was becoming even bigger and more dramatic than before. There was also an increasing number of songs that were very intimate or jazzy. In my opinion, some of the most quiet numbers weren't able to capture their best qualities. Still, the Walkers obviously didn't lack ambition rendering songs like Just for a Thrill, Old Folks and Once upon a Summertime.

The Walker Brothers were at their most glorious when performing dramatic, grandiose songs that had almost a gothic quality to them. When I say ”The Walker Brothers” it is in fact often more like ”Scott, big choir and big orchestra”. John got more room on these albums and sang really well but he was obviously destined to remain in Scott's shadow all the way. Not only was Scott the most celebrated Walker brother, he was also beginning to show major signs of great songwriting skill. He wrote or co-write and sang on such amazing classics as Archangel, Deadlier Than the Male, Orpheus, and Genevieve. Scott wrote both very dramatic and gentle songs – it can be said that most of his material from this period is, in fact, focused on exploring the opposites. In addition to Orpheus and Genevieve, some of his more gentle songs included I Can See It Now, Experience, and Mrs. Murphy, the latter of which was released as a solo single.

Some of the best ”quiet and intimate” songs on Portrait and Images include No Sad Songs for Me, I Will Wait for You, I Can't Let It Happen to You (written by John, presented with an atypical arrangement including organ and no strings), as well as Where's the Girl, a song that once again captivated the amazing emotional quality of Scott's voice. And of course, there is a stunning version of Summertime, with a great jazz sax solo and all. Curtis Mayfield's gospel People Get Ready is also really fantastic whereas Living Above Your Head almost sounds out of place with a sunshine pop choir singing ”ba bop bop baa”. Still, it is really catchy, just like Walking in the Rain, a song made famous by the Ronettes.

There were indeed so many great songs that I am finding it difficult to mention all of them without sounding like a list. The main reason why I prefer Images is probably that it is a bit more lively as a whole. There is, for example, Everything Under the Sun, a midtempo happyish song that has a lot of kick and the kind of uplifting quality that is present in many of my favorite Walker Brothers songs. It Makes No Difference at All is also one of my most cherished favorites: a hearbreaking ballad with Scott singing in the lowest range of his voice. Just Say Goodbye is a somewhat similar experience, but it has an even more fantastic and subtle soundscape outside the massive chorus.

It goes without saying that the Walker Brothers were definitely not just any ”boy band” of the 60s!

Check out some music:

Friday, October 12, 2012

Walkermania! Part Two

Take It Easy with the Walker Brothers came out in December 1965. However, I now intend to talk about the Walkers' music from that period in general, based on CD 1 of the box set Everything Under the Sun (which I felt compelled to buy).

Given that the Walker Brothers were mostly famous for big ballads, the music on their first album is not very much dominated by ballads. There are actually only a couple of songs that are clearly ballads. Mostly it is comprised of midtempo songs that aren't even particularly gloomy despite Scott Walker singing lead almost all the time. The Walker Brothers' music comes across as very classy, aurally massive, a bit melancholic but definitely more uplifting rather than dark.

The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore was originally performed by Frankie Valli without any huge success. The Walkers version could have suffered the same fate if Scott hadn't demanded it to be recorded once again after the first attempt. The end result was a huge classic, a track to cherish from now to eternity. Despite being rather dark in the lyric section, the overall feel you get from it is something completely different. It is a great song, great arrangement and performance by both Scott and the studio band.

Randy Newman's I Don't Want to Hear It Anymore is one of Scott's most fantastic vocal performances. It seems almost unbelievable that with this kind of power, style, emotion and flawless phrasing he is still pretty much a self-learned singer. And even though Scott is just as great as he is, he also sounds fantastic when singing together with John Walker. John's background vocals appear in many songs, and the lovely female choir also plays an important role. Therefore, don't forget to check out the Walkers' take on the Everly Brothers song the Seventh Dawn which was the b-side of the Love Her single. There we have probably the most heavenly, uniquely beautiful harmony ever recorded by Scott and John. And speaking of great harmonies, also check out their version of Bob Dylan's Love Minus Zero!

Even though Scott sang lead on almost anything, John got one lead vocal on the debut album. His performance on Dancing in the Street may sound even a bit too cool but is in fact very good. John's talents were at this point largely overshadowed by Scott's amazing performances on songs like The Girl I Lost in the Rain (chilling!), There Goes My Baby (probably Scott's best uptempo number here) and, obviously, Make It Easy on Yourself. One Engel composition is even included on the debut album, You're All Around Me. More of his compositions appeared on b-sides.

An interesting thing is that at times the Walkers seemed to be very much drawn towards soul and funk music. However, when it comes to the funk part, the results rarely were very commendable. Songs like Tell The Truth and Everything's Gonna Be Alright were great live numbers but not really Scott's strongest area. Land of 1000 Dances was included on the debut album and was also a very popular song but I think it just sounds bizarre when Scott Walker sings it – especially when you think about what was to come.

Take It Easy with... was certainly a worthy debut but if you're interested in hearing the singles and b-sides, which are all very, very good and not included on the album, I recommend checking out the extended version as a whole. You don't want to miss the uplifting beauty of songs like I Need You, After The Lights Go Out, and Young Man Cried. One of my personal favorites is My Ship Is Coming in, which will probably always amaze me. Scott and John make quite a theatrical opera duo!

Here are some samples:
The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore (promo video - now that's what I call Marketing! And by the way, can you imagine they also performed it live)

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Walkermania! Part One

It comes as no surprise that the Walker Brothers have very much become an everyday activity to me. Back in the early 60s there were many great things going on in southern California. One of these things was bass player Scott Engel meeting guitarist John Maus. Original drummer Al “Tiny” Schneider was replaced with Gary Leeds after some time. Debut single Pretty Girls Everywhere was followed by Love Her which was musically a massive step forward. For various reasons, the trio decided to aim at the UK market. Especially Engel was very much interested in moving to England where he felt the band's music might get a better reception. Leeds managed to get financing for the trio to step on a plane.

Engel, Maus and Leeds arrived in England in the freezing cold winter of 1965. They were soon signed to Philips Records. Love Her caught a lot of attention and the first single recorded on English terrain (Make It Easy on Yourself) was a number one hit. Between 1965 and 1967 the Walkers released several top 20 hits, three albums and toured in the UK and abroad. At some point they were even said to be more popular than the Beatles, which is probably the result of their fan club growing out of proportion, thanks to the devotion shown by young girls towards their favorite Americans.

As the Walkers became more and more popular they also began to attract girls – hundreds, thousands of hysterical, screaming girls. A typical Walker Brothers gig consisted of screaming rather than music, even though the Walkers always gave the best performance they could. Some major violence occurred during tours of this period. Fans, tour personnel and the artists themselves ended up in hospital on many occasions.

So, there were definitely many interesting aspects about Walkermania. The most memorable thing is obviously the music and superb production quality, not to mention Scott Engel/Walker's voice that has continued to amaze people up to this day. In the mid-60s England pop was a lot about beat music. However, a typical Walker Brothers recording session was something quite different. Instead of two guitars, bass and drums there were more likely two or three sets of drums, three pianos, a brass section, a big string section and a chorus. The music definitely cost a lot of money to record but when you listen to the results... They just don't make music like this anymore! Or can't afford to.

Tune in next time, when I discuss some of the most beautiful, magnificent and heartbreaking  Walker Brothers songs! Meanwhile, check out something really good.