Richard Abberline is a DJ/Writer/Musician, based in Bristol, England, and this is where he comes to talk music, vinyl records, and anything that rocks (or irks) his world.
Richard Abberline is a DJ/Writer/Musician, based in Bristol, England, and this is where he comes to talk music, vinyl records, and anything that rocks (or irks) his world.
We are hurtling through into the 21st Century, and as we do,we’re catching up on the late record producer Joe Meek. The beginning of the century ushered in an array of reissues, transposing his legacy from collector compiled cassettes into the modern age. In 2008, the film “Telstar” dramatised his life for the popcorn-crunching fraternity. Indie hipsters The Horrors raved about and covered his work. Currently there’s a kickstart-funded documentary in the works.
It was his birthday on Friday, and I decided to dedicate this week’s Hurly Burly Radio Hour to his legacy. Meek was a local character (Hailing from Newent in The Forest Of Dean), so it seemed even more worthy for community radio. Personal circumstances got in the way however, and in such tight time constraints I struggled to reflect his legacy. That’s why I’ve returned to the subject here. I’m also a bit miffed that presently the best Joe Meek compilations are out of print (“Alchemist Of Pop”was essential) and dodgy public domain reissues are flooding the marketplace, which don’t sum up his legacy at all.
Joe Meek’s career spanned around ten years. At the beginning of that decade, he was an in-demand in-house recording engineer, recording hits by Lonnie Donegan and Humphrey Lyttleton. Disenchanted with his subordinate role, and already feeling the outsider in the studio system, he sought independence. His first attempt to strike out on his own with an independent label was foiled by logistical issues ironically caused by the demand for a hit record. The solution, it was decided, was to set up as an independent producer. That way he could choose his artists, record them the way he wanted, and then hawk the finished masters to the record companies.
Meek might not have been the first independent producer, but the success he had with the model in the sphere of British pop was unprecedented. By 1963, “RGM” had scored a bunch of chart hits, including two number ones. The second, “Telstar” by The Tornadoes, would end up topping the American charts, the first British group to do so. A big part of these success was the way the records sounded – unusual, otherworldly creations loaded with technical innovations that dumbfounded rival producers. To confuse them even more, these productions weren’t even made in a conventional studio – but a dingy flat that Joe Meek lived, above a leather shop in North London (304 Holloway Road).
It was a brief time for RGM at the top of the world. Grinded down by a long list of failures, lawsuits, blackmail and paranoia, Meek’s mind gave way in the most sordid circumstances : On February 3rd, 1967 – Meek shot his landlady in the ruins of his beloved studio, before turning the gun on himself.
I don’t want to dwell on the more tabloid aspects of Meek’s story, plenty have already done so, but his recordings. His legacy comprises of an astonishing 250 singles scattered across a myriad of record labels, a clutch of albums and a tonne of unreleased material. Less than a fifth of the singles troubled the top 50 charts. It’s a bit of minefield for neophytes, as a lot of his material, though lovingly reissued recently, has gone out of print. Compilations like these are cobbled together from public domain sources, which are incredibly misleading and atrociously incomplete. Here’s a more fuller introduction to the man’s work. Hardcore fans might argue about glaring omissions, but bear in mind my time and taste is finite and i’m trying reaching out to people from 2012, not 1962.
WORDS OF WARNING
Consistency is not one of the strongest traits in Meek’s back catalogue. It’s a lot more fun if you are aware of this. For every innovative and timeless production Meek made, there are more than a couple of dreadful duds – the aural equivalent of an Ed Wood Movie. Meek came from the generation before the Beatles, a world filled with teen idols and rather dated instrumental “dance music”. Despite his technical innovations and ear for the unusual, he was unashamedely a pop producer. “Artists” for Joe Meek were very much “models” around which he could build his productions, a lot of who were chosen for their looks rather than their technical or songwriting ability. That’s why Joe Meek would see more promise in a tone-deaf body-builder rather than The Beatles, who he turned down. He also had a penchant for campy horror, tasteless novelty and extreme over-production. Sped up vocals, excessive compression, and cavernous reverb are used frequently to very varied results.
THE EARLY RGM SUCCESSES
The songs which you and your granny might both recognise are one’s on which his reputation in pop music lies. The very biggest of these was the worldwide hit, “Telstar” by the Tornadoes from 1962. Ushered in by sonic gates of meteorite dust, Telstar sounds like nothing else, unless you can imagine what the William Tell Overture would sound like galloping through space. It is very much a part of it’s era, the sound of a prosperous Britain that still had a tangible future. On the subject of Britain’s future, it’s Margaret Thatcher’s desert island disc – maybe her and Dennis shared their first dance to it.
Before Telstar, RGM’s number one success came through the actor John Leyton. “Johnny Remember Me” is a dramatic tour de-force, one of the ultimate death discs. It’s follow up, “Wild Wind”, is just as good. If Fitzcarraldo had wanted to transport Wagnerian opera to the Wild West rather than the Amazon, it would have sounded like this.
Raves from the grave were a popular source of inspiration for Joe Meek and his left hand man (and fellow séance regular) songwriter Geoff Goddard. One of RGM’s first chart successes came through Mike Berry’s “Tribute To Buddy Holly”. A while later, they had a similar success with the more upbeat but just as endearing “Just Like Eddie”, this time with Heinz. More on Heinz later.
Meek recorded a lot of instrumental music, which one should note was very popular around the turn of the sixties. There’s a myriad of band names littering his discography, but it’s sometimes how many of these were real groups or just a bunch of session musicians who happened to be at 304 when Joe’s inspiration got the better of him. His house band, “The Outlaws” recorded quite a few punchy wild-west themed numbers. They had two minor hits,“Swingin’ Low” and “Ambush”, the latter filled with obligatory sound effects that put you in the centre of the “action”.
Of course, there was The Tornadoes. On the b-side of “Telstar”, is “Jungle Fever”, the missing link between exotica and psychedelia. The introduction on “Lost Planet” sounds like a covert cold war transmission. The Flee Rekkers bring us a frenzied take on “Greensleeves” (“Green Jeans”) and their “Sunday Date” sounds like The Shadows bombed on opiates. Just as good is The Packabeats’ unsettling “Theme From The Traitors” : The Champs “Tequila” re-imagined by East End Gangsters.
It’s best to listen to the instrumental material in small doses. Like Telstar, Meek would spend most of his time sculpting the intros and outros, little ambient vignettes. The actual tunes are often quite dull, even if they do sound like fifties ice rink music played by Martians.
HORROR, THE HORROR
Meek relished making novelty horror and science fiction records – his work in this field endured him to groups The Cramps, Jello Biafra and the aforementioned Horrors. RGM’s own Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was the irrepressible Screamin’ Lord Sutch, who would later gain wider fame as founder of The Monster Raving Loony Party. “Til The Following Night” and “Jack The Ripper” are both slasher classics, with Sutch swimming through Meek’s bubblebath of atmospherics.
“Night Of The Vampire” by the Moontrekkers is The Ride Of The Valkyries for vampire hunters. Around it, Meek created a sinister sound collage of menacing footsteps, diabolic ambience and bloodcurdling screams (supplied by himself). It’s a genuinely creepy record.
Not so creepy but endearingly so is Geoff Goddards’ solo single “Sky Men”, inspired by the sight of alien craft over Berkshire. These extraterrestials are nice and friendly, at least to the thick-accented Goddard and his ladyfriend. Meek pulled out all the stops on this one – nothing can prepare you for the sound of the alien voices therein.
Joe Meek is often compared to Phil Spector, a similarly stubborn maverick who decided to work outside the industry at large and craft very recognisable productions. There are many interesting parallels, even if they don’t sound that much alike. Overall, Joe Meek’s Girl productions are much more intimate and less polished than Spectors. The exception to the rule are the singles of Glenda Collins, RGM’s Dusty Springfield, who inexplicably never troubled the charts. It wasn’t that Meek didn’t try – until the very end he really did his best. “I Lost My Heart At The Fairground”,“Baby It Hurts” and “Something I’ve Got To Tell You” are some of the best lost Girl Pop singles of the sixties. Her work is almost unformly consistent. “Been Invited To Party” is a fantastic rocker, with a baffling instrumental break your head could swim in. 1966’s rousing “It’s Hard To Believe” is arguably Meek’s Swansong – girl pop gone socio-political, at least until the aliens invade.
Flip & The Dateliners’ “My Johnny Doesn’t Come Around” is one of Meek’s greatest productions, but often overlooked. Coming on like the The Shirelles in spacesuits, it’s a sparse, almost unfinished production has dated so well that it makes the present day wilt in its swamp of retro decadence. This is music that’ll make your hard drive cry.
Pamela Blue and Jenny Moss both recorded two great double headers at Holloway Road. “Hobbies”, “Big Boys” and “My Friend Bobby” are as confectious as Kendal Mint Cake. The b-side of Blue’s My Friend Bobby is the twisted and melancholic “Hey There Stranger”. Meek had a real affinity to femme pop. Meek struggled with homosexuality in a time when it was not only frowned upon widely but forbidden by law. He clearly poured his repressed emotions into these productions.
The bountiful recordings of male pop singers in the Meek Catalogue are more horse race than space race; And the best a lot of these runners could hope for is second to last. “Teen idols” were very lucrative in the late fifties, and early sixties, but it’s a genre that sounds incredibly dated in the 21st century, no matter how strongly manufactured pop persists.
Rather than have a Rod Stewart or Tom Jones (both were sent packing from 304), Joe prefered conventionally pretty hunks. If they couldn’t really sing, he could always iron out the weaknesses by adding loads of echo and speeding it up. Embodying this category to the hilt was body-builder turned potential popstar Ricky Wayne. “Muscles” could have just been bad, but with it’s sped up backing vocals and sound effects, it’s pretty creepy. Scottish “singer” Iain Gregory couldn’t find a tune if it was swooning in his lap. It’s fun to hear him trying on “The Night You Told A Lie”. Gerry Temples’ “Since You Went Away” is just a pretty lame song to start with, but when it gets infested with chipmunks on it is at least entertaining.
Meek’s biggest folly was his attempt to make Heinz (pretty boy bassist in the Tornadoes) into the next Cliff Richard. Meek was clearly smitten with Heinz like Berlioz was obsessed with Harriett Smithson, but Heinz couldn’t really sing his way out of a paper bag. Despite trying to move mountains for his muse – the results are pretty tame. The aforementioned “Just Like Eddie” and the vaguely Merseybeat “You Were There” are likeable creations not earth-shattering.
Amidst this – there are a few surprises. Mike Berry’s Loneliness purveys what it proclaims beautifully. Bobby Rio’s Value For Love is a lost classic, powered by shimmering strings and almost bomb-squad bass compression. Rio sings his heart out for Meek who, no doubt feeling the same sentiments himself, rises to the occasion. Value For Love sounds like The Drifter’s Stand By Me squatted by tear stained loners, tired of being unable to be it’s protaganist or subject.
In a curious footnote – Rock N’ Roll legend Gene Vincent recorded a Joe Meek number at 304. Temptation Baby, whilst not quite on a par with his fifties recordings, is a joyous rock n’ roller with some fine squalling guitar. It can perhaps be looked at as Meek waving farewell to the old order that had inspired him. He would increasingly have to compete in the new…
As I previously mentioned, Joe Meek had famously turned down The Beatles, dismissing them as a lot of noise. He very much belonged to the fifties generation, producing the very Lonnie Donegan recordings that brought those boys John & Paul together. One can wonder if, when they turned the music world upside down in 1963, Meek regretted his decision. If anything made his teen-idols and ice-rink music from space sound passe, it was the beat groups.
Meek soon realised, whether he liked it or not, that he would have to play catch up. His “beat” recordings make for some of his most restrospectively loved work, even if a lot of it sold dozens at the time. It’s arguable when listening to some of his productions from his last few years, he hadn’t so much caught up with the beat scene, he’d overtaken it.
The most successful Beat group Meek produced were the Honeycombs, whose staircase stomp (and anthem for forbidden love) “Have I The Right” hit the top of the charts in 1965. The Honeycombs were a much more wholesome proposition than a lot of his earlier artists. They had some character to start with – Dennis E’ils distinctive swooping voice, and the unusual asset of a female drummer(Honey Langtree). Their managers, Howard & Blaikley, wrote solid songs for the group – giving the Honeycombs discography a sense of purpose and a consistent quality. “That’s The Way” and“I Can’t Stop” and “Something Better Beginning”(a Ray Davies number) are good pop singles.
Aside from making Dennis E’il sound like a rock n’ roll castrato, Meek did have time to play with the proceedings. B-side “I Can’t Get Through To You” is driven by such a menacing riff you’d be forgiven for thinking you weren’t listening to a Bauhaus record at 78 rpm. “Eyes” is enfused with forbidden passions and a terrible foreboding, a strange choice for an a-side. There’s a great late Honeycombs single with a different lineup – “That Lovin’ Feeling”, which comes across like the Mama’s and Papas with a vitamin D deficiency.
After a bunch of weedy pop singles, Meek found the right formula for Heinz, though it was too late. Pairing him with the Outlaws (now featuring a young Richie Blackmore), he reinventing him as a sneering rocker. “I’m Movin’ In”, “Big Fat Spider”, “Questions I Can’t Answer” and “I’m Not A Bad Guy” are all fantastic, Blackmore hinting at his future career by tearing his guitar to pieces in the instrumental breaks.
If you thought Heinz’s new direction was too noisy for you, two Meek recordings from 1965-66 will send you for cover in nearest disused air-raid shelter. If any record was to define that bizarre record dealer’s tag “Freakbeat”, it would be The Syndicat’s Crawdaddy Simone, unbelievably relegated to a b-side. It sounds The Who receiving electroshock treatment. The pummelling instrumental break hits 11 like no other record i’ve heard, and Ray Fenwick’s guitar breaks sound like Hendrix melting in lava. This is 1965, remember.
I would loved to the peachy faces of the young lads who played in the Buzz when they first heard what Joe Meek had done to their record “You’re Holding Me Down” It’s more ATP 2006 than London 66. Hear the sound of Joe Meek trying to sonically exorcise his real-life demons through a wall of white noise and delay (“GO BACK, GO BACK WHERE YOU CAME FROM”). The song dissolves into an almost minute long sonic noise ritual that recalls the Stooges’ L.A. Blues more than it does Rubber Soul.
There’s lots more good rock hidden in those last few turbulent years, mirroring Joe Meek’s dissolving state of mind. David John & The Mood’s “Digging For Gold” is ever so apt for a producer trying to find the hit that would stave off bankruptcy. Jason Eddie & The Centremen’s take on “Singing The Blues” is pure speed psychosis, at loose with a riff so sharp it could mutilate a Stanley Knife. Their “Whatcha Gonna Do Baby?” is graveyard psychedelia before psychedelia left it’s playpen.
Whilst Meek’s psychotic moments in the studio are well documented – he must had trying moments alone, sobbing in the corner, isolated and afraid. Meekencholy mans the controls on a series of beautiful ballads that emerge from 304 near the end. The Blue Rhondos “Little Baby” is the best Roy Orbison tear-a-thon he never recorded. Liverpool group The Cryin’ Shames deliver a sobbing summation of the Drifter’s “Please Stay”. It’s a great mystery why that single (Joe Meek’s last), stalled at 26 in the charts. Two of Meek’s last singles – The Riot Squad’s “Walking On Ice”, and Charles Kingsley Creation’s “Summer Without Sun” both drift by with a numb,sad knowing dignity. Bookending the dreampop of the similarly late “Wishing Well” (The Millionaires) is the return of those otherworldly gates of sound Meek had so loved to signature his hits with. This time, he’s passing on the baton to whoever will take his place. If it sounds a bit like Brian Eno to you, i think it’s touchingly fitting.
JOE MEEK’S DEMO RECORDINGS
Joe Meek’s demo vocal recordings have a cult all of their own. As he couldn’t play an instrument, the best way of getting his ideas across was to sing them. As he was often inspired late at night, he would sing along to a backing track that was lying around until he thought he’d got the tune right. “Tune” is a debatable word here, as anyone who has heard his historic demo of Telstar will know, his was vocally incapable. He would famously get irate if his musicians couldn’t make out the tune, or burst out laughing at his tortured larynx. On “Baby Doll”, he sounds like Buddy Holly in purgatory. There’s a lovely little affecting demo called “I’m Not Sleeping Too Well Lately”, where Joe keeps his voice together, even if, as the songs suggests, he was falling apart.
Because of the way things worked at RGM, and due to his tremendous success, bands would often just turn up at 304 Holloway Road wanting an audition. It seems any wannabe rock star from the 60s spent some time in Meek’s Studio – David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Rod Stewart, Tom Jones are some of the one’s who eventually made it. Some unreleased material has made it on to official releases and bootlegs, and there’s an awful amount of stuff on Youtube. The majority of the surviving recordings are owned by Millionaires Cliff Cooper who purchased them by auction after Meek’s death. “The Tea Chest Tapes” are still in possession, and attempts to sell them at auction for mega-cash have so far failed to find a buyer. There’s some debate whether these releases will ever see the light of day commercially. Let us hope at least that somebody will buy them with a view of preserving them for future generations.
Great unreleased material includes a late Tornados vocal track “No More You and Me”, (actually a Gloucestershire group who’d previously recorded for Meek as The Saxons), a great rocker by The Cryin’ Shames (“Let Me In”), two moody rock n’rollers from RGMS early days from Pete & The Boulevards, and a sparse ballad by his assistant Patrick Pink (“True To You”).
Joe Meek made quite a name for himself as a house engineer in the fifties and early sixties, before setting up the ill-fated Triumph Label. Some of the stuff is brilliant. Humphrey Lyttleton’s “Bad Penny Blues” was the first of Meek’s productions to get widespread notice – and he does a great job capturing Skiffle King Lonnie Donegan the epochal“Cumberland Gap” and the live recording of “Gamblin’ Man”. Frankie Vaughan’s “Green Door” is fun if you remember Shakin’ Stevens cover version. “Rock Around The Mailbag” by Terry White is good early British rock n’ roll. Emile Ford and The Checkmates “Why Do You Have To Make Their Eyes At Me For” is a nice tune. Whilst these songs don’t often display the techniques that would give his RGM records such character – a lot of them were enormous hit singles. Worth seeking out for a listen is Kenny Graham’s “Lullabye” which is embued with a spooky otherworldliness that anticipates his later work rather well; also Terry White & The Terriers Blackout, which finds Meek getting to grips with bolts of delay.
The Triumph recordings plot Meek’s first steps outside the studio system. A lot of it is lightweight pop…Triumph’s only hit “Angela Jones” is the most well executed and realised. The pound shop skiffle of “Sizzlin’ Hot” by Jimmy Miller & The Barbecues is skewered with bizarre sound effects.
I HEAR A NEW WORLD
If you want to hear Meek at his most pure and ground-breaking – you have to hear the only album-length statement he put his name to. “I Hear A New World”, originally invisaged as two Eps to be released on Triumph, was very much his labour of love, and not a commercial project. Here you can hear his imagination running wild, using his production skills to create the sounds of space. Unlike virtually all the RGM material, the record is in stereo, allowing the weightless sounds to drift or speed past in front of you. While some of the sounds (particularly the voices) might sound quaint, this expedition into Joe Meek’s head is a beautiful and graceful journey, anticipating both future past and (hopefully) the future to come. Fans of ambient and electronica will be amazed by the benchmarks Joe Meek hit here, pretty much at the beginning of his independent career. “Love Dance Of The Saroos” and “The Bulblight” are prime interstellar exotica, the melody of it’s brother “Valley Of The Saroos” is timeless and beautiful before it fragments into the depths of space. The sound sculptures of “Magnetic Field” bring to mind The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which you feel would have been a safer home for Meek if he wasn’t so attracted to the mug’s game of the Record Industry. A masterpiece of sonic innovation and a great testament to a time when technology and imagination were not mutually exclusive.
Yours truly has put together a radio show and thrown it up into the deepest reaches of that bearpit of sound that is Mixcloud. It follows the same sort of format as his old radio show for Radio Winchcombe 107.1.
If you missed this first time around – one of my favourite pieces.
In Autumn 1977, when NASA launched the Voyager probes to explore the mysterious reaches of Space, Scott Walker was presumably writing his contributions to The Walker Brother’s final LP, Nite Flights. Those songs would represent a drastic leap from the Pebble Mill MOR the Brothers had peddled for most of their seventies comeback, and re-establish Walker on the artistic path he’d trod (and abandoned) in the late sixties.
Virtually all of Scott’s work since, starting with those four songs he wrote for Nite Flights, sound like space itself – cold, dark, and virtually Impenetrable. In 36 years, with a total disregard to nostalgia and pop convention (are they any different?), he has only released four-full length albums and a handful of commissioned works. Around the time Voyager 1 had left the outer reaches of our solar system and entered interstellar space in August 2012, Walker was finishing up his latest offering Bish Bosch, which featured a song that suggested, in his mind at least, Scott had got there already.
The trajectory that Walker has travelled through the musical universe wouldn’t be so compelling and iconic without an understanding of where he started. The creator of Bish Bosch didn’t start his career like the classically-trained John Cale, who in 1963 was playing Satie’s Vexations for almost a day, but as a potential American teen idol . By the mid sixties, Scott was household name (in much of Europe and Japan) scoring enormous number one hits with The Walker Brothers, and even hosting his own television series for the BBC. It’s hard for the mind to fathom that the star who sang “Make It Easy On Yourself” in 1965 would be singing about a Brown Dwarf in 2012, but it’s this journey from the corridors of pop nurturedom to the outer limits of music itself that has made Scott one of the most respected artists in the realm of popular music today. Unlike so many of the elder statesmen and women in Pop, he has so vehemently avoided the nostalgia-chewing profitability of live performance or the guest-studded ‘comb back’ record. Those waiting for him to ‘give in’ are well advised to ‘give up’. The Voyager 1 of Pop is unlikely to return to Earth.
Yours truly has been a Scott fan for 15 years or so, after completing his Scott Walker vinyl collection with the acquisition of a copy of Climate Of Hunter this week, it seemed like a good time as any to start putting together a few vinyl mixes of his material. Setting aside the teen idol years (which I’ll come back to at some point, no doubt), which aren’t so important, I’ve devote the first part to the Walker Brother’s sixties recordings.
The Walker Brother’s are slowly sinking into the realms of footnote today. They pleasingly fill time on oldies radio, and have become the band that Scott Walker was in before he went ‘Solo’. They don’t have to cool enduring appeal that the The Beatles, The Stones and The Who do, because they are seen as, quite rightly so, more of a “pop” group, who didn’t write the majority of their material, and didn’t play on it either. Their flame is kept flickering by an ageing generation of fans who caught them first time round, and Scott Walker obsessives.
But in 1965, when these three exotic-looking long haired Americans hit the UK scene, they triggered a teenage earthquake on the scale of Beatlemania. Within just a couple of years, after two massive number one hits, the group went their own seperate ways, with Scott setting off on the solo career that today earns him such critical acclaim.
The Group has come together in California, all rock N’ roll Journeymen of sorts. Their two lead singers, (Noel) Scott (Engel) and John (Maus) had been active in the business since their teens, treading the boards of the teen-idol scene. Coalescing in 1964 as a r&b beat combo to play the clubs of Los Angeles, they met drummer Gary Leeds, who had been an early member of garage greats The Standells, who would eventually usurp the Walker’s original drummer, Al “Tiny” Schneider. Gary’s strength wasn’t in the drum department, but his sheer force of nature – he had the gift of the gab and access to capital. Gary had toured England with PJ Proby in 1964, and was amazed that a demo singer like Proby, who meant nothing back home, could become a sensation in a smaller pond like Blighty. He suggested the Walkers follow suit, and with his father providing the necessary capital, set off for the UK in February 1965.
The Walkers had already recorded two singles with Nik Venet (The early Beach Boys producer) for Mercury Records. The second of these, “Love Her”, supervised and arranged by Phil Spector’s right hand man Jack Nitzsche, became a shock top 20 hit in the UK that spring. Philips, the label who distributed Mercury Records in the U.K., took the Walker Brothers under their wing, setting them up with Dusty Springfield/Shirley Bassey producer Johnny Franz. The first fruits of the association, a version of Bacharach/David’s “Make It Easy On Yourself” (originally a hit in the U.S. for soul singer Jerry Butler) – hit the number one spot, and all of a sudden, The Walkers were huge – teenage girls (“Screamagers“, as Scott would call them) would turn their shows into near riots, their fan club subscriptions overtaking the Beatles.
School girls would debate their favourite – The goofy drummer who spent more time clowning around than playing drums (He didn’t play on the records either, but he was the Walker’s de facto publicist and peacekeeper), the sensual poseur John, or the rather uncomfortable, sensitive Scott, who would often hold his hand in front of his face to block out the world whilst singing. – Scott’s blue romantic croon and brooding demeanour did him no favours, for it just caused his female fans want him even more.
After the success of Make It Easy On Yourself, and the top 3 “My Ship Is Coming In”, Johnny Franz would refine the formula happened on by Venet (Who, when recording Love Her, put Scott’s beautiful baritone up front) with spectacular results. “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore)”, was originally a minor hit for the Four Seasons’ Frankie Valli, but was transformed into one of the most enduring pop singles of all time. With a typically aching Scott lead, a cinematic arrangement from Ivor Raymonde and a sound so huge you could run a London Bus through it, it stormed to the Top Of The Pops in March 1966.
The 23 year old Scott’s artistic restlessness was already evident even then. He had developed a strong friendship with his producer Johnny Franz, and using the knowledge he picked up from hanging around studios for almost a decade, played a significant role in how these records sounded – an unusually forward role for a pop star. The Walker Brothers’ sound owes a serious debt to the huge ‘Wall Of Sound’ productions of Phil Spector – heavily orchestrated ballads interspersed with a few more soulful R&B numbers to vary the pace. Although the arrangements were to get more classical (at the hands of arranger Reg Guest), and occasionally slip into jazz, their sound as such was incredibly static. They were at unable to eclipse a record as perfect such as “Sun”, but they tried anyway. Maybe they weren’t trying hard enough, as b-sides and album tracks show that an incredible amount of work was being put into Scott’s artistic development as a songwriter.
Scott had been encouraged to write material by his label, because the publishing rights for b-sides and album tracks were particularly lucrative. As well as developing his own “voice”, he had clearly chose some of the material they recorded. “I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore” (an early work by songwriter Randy Newman) and John Stewart’s “After The Light Goes Out”(which shows up on the b-side of “Sun”) are very much on a par with the songs that would find himself writing – kitchen sink melodramas and caricatures such as “Mrs Murphy”, “Orpheus” and “Genevieve”. No expense was spared at creating these works, they are arranged meticulously for large orchestral forces – an approach that Scott has continued into his now current work. “Archangel”, an oblique organ led Engel number that was tacked on a b-side, sounds unlike anything anyone has recorded since, except Scott Walker. The fact that they recorded the pipe organ in a Leicester Square Cinema shows that these creations were being made with considerable expense and effort.
The Walker Brothers released 3 albums for Phillips – which, in the infancy of the Album form, try to balance styles in a way that has dated badly. Their Debut, Take It Easy With The Walker Brothers, sounds rushed (to capitalise on their swift success) relying very much on the R&B soul repertoire the Walkers played live – even though they rarely sounded entirely convincing. Their second record, Portrait is probably the most thought and executed. “In My Room”, which opens the album with an hook lifted from a Bach fugue, would no doubt spend a long time spinning on Count Dracula’s record player, if he ever had to move into a bedsit. On the centrepiece of the album, an take on Gershwin’s “Summertime”, The Walkers and Reg Guest recusitates this worn out old chestnut to life. With an orchestral tension turning the humid air to running gunge, Scott and John harmonize like real brothers. All of a sudden, a jazz group breaks out of the basement, creating a sense of unease and confusion that are underlined by the songs powerful finale. It’s the nearest the Walkers got to psychedelia. Their last album Images is not bad at all. made as the group were belting in for their solo careers(In the case of Scott’s bizarre number “Experience”, into Lederhosen), but searching for a huge hit to bow out on (“Everything Under The Sun”, “Stand By Me”, “Just Say Goodbye”) The aforementioned Scott numbers “Orpheus” and “Genevieve”, would’ve not been out of place on Scott’s first solo record.
John Walker often played second fiddle to Scott on the Walkers’ biggest hits (he often provided the harmony vocal), but was ultimately frustrated to convincingly take front stage. A great song written by Maus, “The Saddest Night In The World” even gets sung by Scott. When in 1966 they released a Solo Scott/Solo John EP, the writing was on the wall. Scott was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with being a pop star, running off to monasteries to hide and deriding his records to the press. They’d also become seen as being old fashioned in the face of the much cooler beat groups. On one package tour they were supported by a young American guitarist called Jimi Hendrix, who ahem, stole their fire. The Walker Brothers didn’t play their own instruments – on the records, as their massive studio sessions were often recorded quickly in one take (minus the vocals or overdub), the guitar and bass was left in the more than capable hands of session musicians, who could get the parts right first time around(they ARE the unsung heroes of British pop). Live, the storms of kids who invaded the stage when they performed meant they were given a backing group pretty early on (with a drummer behind the curtain to cover the notoriously unsteady Gary). The band would split in march 1967. Scott and John would stay on Philips, using the same production team. They would reform in the 1970s when each of their careers were at a particularly low ebb, scoring an unexpected hit with Tom Rush’s “No Regrets” and at the very end, recording the paranoic post-punk sounding Nite Flights (to be covered in another post).
I limited myself to an hour to illustrate the Walker Brother story, but it’s not a “Greatest Hits”. I’ve put my emphasis more strongly on Scott’s development as an artistic force. Many of the singles sound formulaic, too much to take at once, and in my opinion, they trail off somewhat after the utterly epochal “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore)”. Most of Scott’s work as a writer are hidden on b-sides or albums, so they are well represented here. I’ve tried to create an engaging, especially for a younger neophyte, cause that’s primarily what I’m aiming for. Whilst I like a lot of the Walkers’ stuff, I must admit some of it will sound a bit old fashioned now. I hope Scott fans who haven’t checked this era out find something new they didn’t expect, Dusty Springfield fans should really enjoy the sound of these records : Scott Walker was her sort of male equivalent as a singer, and any similarities after all, aren’t coincidental : they shared the same label, producer and personnel.
I’ve taken all the recordings from original Philips releases – 45s, EPs and LPs. Virtually all are mono mixes (a lot of which are unavailable on CD) except a couple of selections on Images. Some of them are a bit crackly, and there were a few technical issues, but hopefully not too many for you to enjoy it.
* -There’s a false start to this, apologies…Was also meant to end with this – but I had enough technical difficulties I just had to leave it off!
Most of the 1960s material is served up on this budget 2 cd compilation, which also features unreleased studio tracks from the era. Each album was released by Mercury with bonus tracks in the 1990s, and these are very good if you can find them. There’s also a tacky looking boxset that gathers up everything including their 70s recordings. If you want ’em on vinyl – most of the original Philips LPs, EPs and 45s can be gotten easily for peanuts due to (much) more supply in the market than demand (50p-£10).
The Saints – I’m Stranded(1976) Fatal Records (AUS) / Power Exchange PX 242 (UK)
I was in a hostel in Brisbane, Australia – worn out, feeling unloved and on the edge of despair after what felt like the worst week of my life. It didn’t help that Brisbane, once you’d got through the museums, was incredibly dull. I had two weeks left in Oz, and no remaining reason to stay there.
I was sitting in the computer room, trying to figure out how to get out of Brisbane, at least. I was listening to my iPod on shuffle to drown out the teenage pubcore yelling (Brisbane seemed to be a gap year holocaust of UK 18-30ers) when, all of a sudden, The Saints’ (I’m) Stranded burst out of nowhere, tearing me a third earlobe as it went:
“Like a snake calling on the phone
I’ve got no time to be alone
there is some one coming at me all the time
babe I think I’ll lose my mind
’cause I’m stranded on my own
stranded far from home”
A.Perfect.Summation.Of.My.Mind, huh? Even more perfect for the fact that the Saints came from that very hole I had found myself in – Brisbane. Never has a moment in my life felt so perfect, so true, so cruel, so hilarious. It tasted like Ecstatic Truth.
I originally thought that The Saints may have recorded the song in England (where they eventually decamped), but after going to Brisbane, I wasn’t too sure they could get so nostalgic about the place. It was actually recorded in a cheap studio in Brisbane in june 1976. After the group couldn’t find a label to release it, they pressed up 500 copies themselves (as Fatal Records). In the UK it was eventually released by an independent label Power Exchange Records & Tapes, who specialised in of all things, soul music.
While that might sound unusual to say the least, there was no “Punk” labels, or for that matter, “Punk” records (at least outside of The U.S.A.) when (I’m)Stranded was released. Sounds Magazine deemed it the “Single Of This And Every Week“, the week before The Damned released ‘New Rose’. Not only is (I’m) Stranded one of the earliest Punk Singles; It’s one of the best, delivered with so much sloppy petulance that it could make coachloads of pensioners quake with fear.
Whilst any excuse to bring up this fantastic record is justified, I’m primarily writing this to celebrate the power of the iPod Shuffle, even if I don’t particularly have any great love of Apple. By unexpectingly nailing the perfect song to my most inperfect moment it somehow put me in a peculiar secular state of grace. That Steve Jobs-inspired moment of divine intervention would mark the upturn of my Australian fortunes : The next thing I knew, I was out of Brisbane (due to act of unforseen hospitality),watching Bad Seed Conway Savage work his way through a sublime piano set (and a bottle of red wine) in a backgarden in Melbourne. Fine times. R.A.
Dedicated to, with fond memories, to A.M. & J.P.
Okay…I’ve moved in to this cheap room at the crowded tenement of net.thought that is wordpress.com. As you can see by the picture above, I need a bit of a tidy up; but if you are careful you can wander around. There’s some new and old content up, lurking in the menu bars, so do check this out if you have the time or inclination. I shall be winding down the mentionthebear site in due course.
I’ve just moved to Bristol, England. That’s the birthplace of Cary Grant & The Pop Group, folks. I’m not used to these bright lights, live entertainment on tap, but I’m liking it. I’m currently looking for opportunities to get some DJ work and (gulp) start playing shows again – hence the DJ FAQ and Performer sections in the menu. If anyone has any suggestions or connections that may help, please get in touch, or direct people here. Youtube freaks and list geeks find some fun to be had with the Cine101 and Bad Top Ten pages. There’s also a page where you can listen some of my old radio shows and dj mixtapes, or read articles on things such as ahem, ‘Clambake’ here. More content shall be coming soon, so do come back, though let me sort the record pile out first ;)