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.