Tag Archives: Nite Flights

Never Any Clapton, Part 5 – The Electrician by the Walker Brothers

Big Jim Sullivan was a giant among British session musicians. A guitarist of impressively wide stylistic talents, Sullivan was a professional in his teens, when he’d only been playing for a couple of years. After playing with early Brit rockers like Vince Eager and Vince Taylor, he met Marty Wilde and joined his band, the Wildcats. During this time, Wilde gave him what’s thought to be the first Gibson Les Paul to be owned by a British player.

Sullivan soon found his way into session work, where his ability to play just about any style of music made him a godsend for producers, and a man constantly in demand. He played with Dusty Springfield, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Frankie Vaughan, Billy Fury, Adam Faith, Frank Ifield and Cilla Black – so many pop and rock ‘n’ roll artists of the era, it’s easier to say who he didn’t play with. Visiting American artists sought him out, too: the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Bobby Darin and Del Shannon.

In 1977, Sullivan got the nod to join a Walker Brothers session. The “brothers” (the entirely unrelated Scott Engel, Gary Leeds and John Maus) had already made two albums since reforming in 1975, and with their contract with GTO records running down and Scott in particular unhappy that the band’s first two reunion records had not been artistically fulfilling, Engel, Maus and Leeds felt it was time to take some risks. This meant writing their own material rather than relying on covers as they had mostly done in both phases of their career.

Scott truly rose to the challenge. His four songs represented the best efforts he’d made as a writer since the days of Scott 4 (Duchess, Boy Child, The Old Man’s Back Again, et al). The album’s finest moment was The Electrician.

It starts with a tolling-bell-style bass, nicked from Bowie’s Warszawa, overlaid with the dissonant string chords Walker had been using since It’s Raining Today on this first solo album. During the song’s middle section, the band comes in and Walker unveils the voice that he’d increasingly rely on for the rest of his career – straining half an octave above a comfortable range, its unsettling, hard edge replacing the romanticism of his baritone range.

The song is crowned by its exquisite string arrangement and Big Jim Sullivan’s short but masterful solo on classical guitar. A song about the CIA’s involvement in shady goings-on in South America in general and its use of torture in particular (the middle section is from the psychopathic point of view of the torturer himself), The Electrician is full of Latin signifiers – castanets, lushly romantic strings and, of course, classical guitar. Sullivan’s solo, then, beautiful as it is, is also the darkest of musical jokes – it’s the soundtrack to a torturer’s most sadistic fantasies.

Rare indeed is the solo that advances, and ironically comments upon, the narrative of the song itself. For this, and many other reasons, The Electrician is a central work of the Scott Walker canon, and its solo deserves to be remembered as much as Sullivan’s celebrated, poignant lead work on Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Alone Again (Naturally) – also played on classical guitar.

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Scott Walker RIP

What Scott Walker meant to me is fearlessness, I think.

Several times in his career, Walker took the brave, adventurous road when he could have had an easier time sticking to what history had shown to work. First he ditched his “brothers” to make solo records that reflected his new and growing love of Jacques Brel. And then he stopped recording Brel to focus on his own material exclusively. Then, after a humbling period in the seventies when at his record company’s insistence he made throwaway light pop records (containing recordings of songs like If and Delta Dawn) and a reunion with Gary and John that had seen them score a big hit with a cover of Tom Rush’s No Regrets, he ripped up the rule book once again to make Nite Flights.

Yet, for all that Scott has been, and will continue to be lionised as an avant-garde talent, it’s worth remembering too just what a good singer he was. His wracked nobility on Make it Easy on Yourself, his bottom-of-the-ocean sorrow on The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, his distracted heartbreak on No Regrets, his provocative glee on Jackie, his simple tenderness on We’re All Alone* – Scott Walker would be one of the greats if we only knew him as an interpretive singer and he’d never written Montague Terrace (In Blue), Duchess or The Electrician.

Ah yes, The Electrician. Somehow it does all comes back to that one. His music got darker than that song. It got weirder. It got longer. But in no other song did Walker find a more perfect balance between his need to give voice to humanity’s darkest emotions and his ability to give those feelings beautiful expression. The Electrician, from its first tolling-bell bass note, casts its spell perfectly every time I hear it.

A fearless writer and a performer of technical and expressive virtuosity – Scott Walker was a true one-off.

*Yes, despite what you may have heard he did make good music between Scott 4 and Nite Flights. Just, not consistently.

 

 

 

Montague Terrace (In Blue) & Such a Small Love – Scott Walker

The Walker Brothers’ first three albums had included occasional compositions by band members Scott (born Noel Scott Engel) and John (born John Maus), but those were largely lost in the midst of the covers picked out for them by Maus and producer Johnny Franz, some chosen well, others less so. For a true head-scratching moment, search YouTube for the Walkers performing Land of 1000 Dances live: Scott was not born to sing “Mashed potato, alligator, do the snake, do the hippie shake” for a crowd of teenie-boppers, and even as a young man he was self-aware enough to know it. His body language bespeaks a soul-deep wish to be somewhere – anywhere – else.

And so he only really starts to figure as a songwriter on his first solo album, Scott, although even here his own work represents just one of the album’s interweaving strands; he also tackles contemporary pieces by Tim Hardin and Mann/Weill, a couple of Hollywood movie songs, and English translations of Jacques Brel chansons. The trick is how seamlessly they blend together, how of a piece with each other Walker and Franz make these songs sound.

Such a Small Love and Montague Terrace (In Blue) are the album’s standout Scott originals, and taken together, they say a lot about where Walker was at in 1967. Such a Small Love is most notable for the disquieting cloud of dissonant strings that hang over it throughout. They’re uncannily predictive of Walker’s great masterwork, The Electrician (from the Walker Brothers’ 1979 reunion album Nite Flights), which was over 10 years in the future. The song is a minor work, but here is the sound of Walker ambitiously attempting to create a style for himself whole cloth, and damn near achieving it at the first attempt.

Montague Terrace (In Blue) is a rather different animal. Its arrangement is on an even grander scale than that of Such a Small Love, with swirling strings, crashing cymbals and booming tympani, but the sources for it are more obvious: it’s a cross between Broadway, Hollywood and Gene Pitney-style melodrama. Its lyric, meanwhile, shows a heavy, but gauche, Brel influence: the verses are laden with metaphors and similes (“her thoughts lay cold like shattered stone”, etc), while lines like “his bloated, belching figure stomps” are best left unremarked upon.  Walker would later would absorb and assimilate Brel’s influence, but at this point he could still fall into pastiching.

Yet despite its lyrical clumsiness, the song is more than sturdy enough to bear the weight of its magnificent, enormous arrangement. And that chorus is the most glorious he ever wrote. In the long, strange career of Scott Walker, Montague Terace is a big moment, in every sense of the word.

Scott

We’re All Alone – The Walker Brothers

This post was previously published on Yo Zushi’s Board of Fun blog, about 18 months ago. Hope you like it!

We’re All Alone was a standard almost the minute that Boz Scaggs finished writing it. Released on his masterwork, Silk Degrees, in 1976, within a year it had been covered by Frankie Valli, Bruce Murray, Rita Coolidge, the Three Degrees and the Walker Brothers. It’s been covered plenty more times since.

It’s easy to see what would attract a singer to such a song, but Scott Walker is no ordinary singer and in light of his work since The Electrician remade his career in 1978, one does have to wonder whether he sang the song with his arm twisted behind his back. Nonetheless the Walkers’ version is one of the most appealing, the track mixed drier and closer than the cavernous Scaggs version, Scott’s vocal managing to combine the warmth that Coolidge’s alto brought to the song with some of the soaring lightness of Boz’s performance.

Such AOR covers are not what Scott Walker is known for today. To the extent that he is known at all, it’s for his quartet of solo albums from the late 1960s — Scotts 1 through 4 — and the three arty, avant-rock albums he’s made since the Walkers broke up for the second time, a sound that was previewed on his contributions (including The Electrician) to the last Walker Brothers record, Nite Flights. These records are apt to leave reviewers groping for superlatives or scratching their heads.

Like many others, I often feel humbled in the presence of latter-day Scott Walker. His work is clearly that of a rare imagination and aesthetic sensibility. He creates music that wouldn’t occur to most people, and his sonic curiosity is obvious. Yet while prettiness and beauty are not the same thing, they’re not mutually exclusive either and since his music began moving away from conventional tonality, melody and rhythm in the 1990s, Walker has paradoxically limited his scope as a songwriter. For him to present a straightforward expression of an everyday feeling, like love, hope or empathy, in the declamatory, highly theatrical voice he has sung in since Tilt would be ridiculous; he knows it, so he doesn’t.

But people (myself included) like music that expresses of love, hope and empathy. Walker’s writing is now so ornate, so stagey (“Samuel Beckett at La Scala”, as one critic described it), that it can no longer be a vehicle for reflection on the small moments in life, the minor disappointments and simple consolations. Death, disease, pestilence, terrorism, the fathomless horror of existence — these are the subjects he’s left himself. And while that is radical subject matter within popular music (at least, outside of thrash and death metal), surely what would be truly radical would be a sensibility that allowed for both The Cockfighter and covers of We’re All Alone? That treated both the same? I’m not being conservative here; I’m not arguing that he should stop recording the sound of himself punching dead animal carcasses; I like that, too. Tilt and The Drift are excellent records. But his first producer, John Franz, was right when he judged Walker one of the great ballad singers and it’s a shame that we no longer get to hear him do something he was so good at.

Yet Walker is on his own little-travelled path — from teen idol to intrepid adventurer in form and sound — and it’s reassuring to know that such journeys can be made by anyone, wherever they start from. I’m looking forward to hearing the found-sound records that Justin Bieber will no doubt be making in 2050.

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Scott Walker

No Hendrix, no Clapton, no Vai – five personal favourite guitar solos – part 1

Hi all. I’m working on some longer form pieces for various Christmas-related things, and I don’t want to reprint them here, so I find myself unable to write a standard post this morning. Instead I’d like to talk about guitar solos in series of looser posts over the next few days. I hope you’ll indulge me!

I’ve been playing guitar since 1995. I’ve got a bag of tricks that’s reasonably broad and eclectic. But I can’t play really fast and my string-bending technique isn’t what I’d like it to be, so to my way of thinking, I’m not a real lead guitarist – I’m a good rhythm player who can give you the odd solo.

I’d love to be a proper lead guitarist, to have David Gilmour’s compound-bending ability, to be able to summon up Hendrix-like pyrotechnics, to have the imagination of Tom Morello, the lyricism of Robbie Robertson, to be able to play slide like Lowell George or Bonnie Raitt. It’d be awesome.

I can’t do that stuff, but I spend a lot of time listening to great players, great soloists. Let’s talk about some of them. I’ve resisted any overly obvious choices, or any excessive fret-wankery, so they’ll be no Clapton (if I have to explain why, you’re reading the wrong blog), no Joe Bonamassa, no Satriani, no Vai, and – of course – no Yngwie Malmsteen.

1) Shutout – The Walker Brothers (from Nite Flights. Solo by Les Davidson)
Nite Flights marked Scott Walker’s return to adventurous music-making after an alcohol-sodden mid-seventies lull. He made some great records during this period, but seemingly only by accident, through his undiminished voice and a still-functioning ear for a good cover. But as a songwriter, he was becalmed.

His four songs on Nite Flights (the last Walker Brothers album), then, marked his return not just as a maker of vital music but as a writer of vital music. The Electrician is the song most predictive of his latter work, but Shutout is the ear-grabbing album opener, the statement of intent.

Other than The Electrician, about which a whole volume could be written, Scott’s songs on Nite Flights are built on the ubiquitous late-seventies disco beat, but this is avant-garde disco, post-apocalytpic disco. How else are we supposed to take the gnomic lyrics, of which few lines make much immediate literal sense (these lines include ‘Something attacked the earth late last night’ and ‘There were faces bobbing in the heat)?

Les Davidson was the guitarist given the job of playing the song’s solo. Having to make your guitar sound like Bad Things Are Happening is always a fun challenge, and Davidson takes an ear-grabbing approach. Rather than go for sheets of noise and texture (perhaps he would have done if it had been made just a year later), he instead goes for face-melting speed. He’s present at the start of the song, playing a howling, string-bending lick in the intro, with its piercing feedback-laden sustain, but it’s at 1.03 that he really makes his presence felt, with a solo so unexpected that you’re left stunned at the inappropriateness of it all. Within a few years, every single note of Davidson’s 27-second solo would be a cliche – every idea, every phrase, every legato run pounded into the dirt by overuse. But in 1978, high-gain, high-speed soloing was still novel (Nite Flights was recorded the same month that the first Van Halen record was released), and in the context of this sort of record, vanishingly rare. Obviously enjoying it, the producers (Scott Walker and Dave McRae, though I suspect that Scott took the lead when producing his own songs) push the solo proudly to the front of the mix, almost as a provocation.

Davidson went on to a stint in Sniff ‘n’ the Tears and has played guitar with Joan Armatrading, Donovan, Mick Taylor, Paul Rogers, Pete Townshend, Rumer and Laura Mvula. It’s this solo, though, that will be his epitaph.

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Scott Walker

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Les Davidson