The Walker Brothers “Night Flights”

Today’s Cool Album Of the Day (#314 in the Series) is The Walker Brothers, Night Flights

What do David Bowie, Brian Eno, Midge Ure of Ultravox, and Iggy Pop all have in common?  One unlikely musical hero: Scott Walker.

Okay, let’s dispense with the shameless yellow journalism right out of the gate: no, it’s not THAT Scott Walker.  In fact, none of the Walker Brothers, the subject of today’s Cool Album, are actually Walkers by birth, but, rather, took the Ramones approach to pop stardom, way back in the early 60s.

A little history: The Walker Brothers started as a pop group in pre-British Invasion Los Angeles, and found themselves positioned as a unique (and somewhat feeble) American “counter-strike”.  The three unrelated young men- Scott Engels, Gary Leeds, and John Maus- were hustled off to Mod-era London, where they grew to heights of boy band popularity, scoring several #1 hits on the UK charts in the mid-60s.

By the tail end of the 1960s, however, the teen idol popularity of the Walker Brothers had waned in Britain, and, failing to achieve substantial American success, Engels (now calling himself Scott Walker) struck out on his own, producing a series of increasingly bizarre solo albums.  What started as fairly middle-of-the road orchestral pop, recorded with a Phil Spector-esque “Wall Of Sound” production approach, augmented by sweeping string arrangements and London’s best session musicians, and anchored by Walker’s smooth and confident baritone, turned quickly into a fascination with Jacques Brel, a Belgian chansonnier whose melodramatic songs Walker adored.  Scott Walker’s late-60s solo albums alienated fans of his tenure with the Walker Brothers, but are regarded as some of the most inventive interpretations of Brel’s work, and contain some great originals, the most famous of which is Walker’s “30 Century Man”, as perfect a slice of Brian Jones-esque late-60s pop as one can imagine.

While Walker’s solo career was still going strong, by 1968, he had withdrawn from the public spotlight, secluding himself in a monastery on the Isle of Wight to study Gregorian Chant and researching experimental classical music extensively.  His fourth solo album, released in 1969, was an outing comprised entirely of originals, and it sent Walker’s solo career into a tailspin.  By 1975, in a desperate bid for comeback success, the Walker Brothers reunited under contract with GTO Records to produce three albums.  The first, 1975’s No Regrets, yielded a minor hit in its Tom Rush-penned title track, which climbed to #7 on the UK Singles chart.  However, the follow-up, 1976’s Lines, was a commercial failure, and, by 1978, GTO Records was poised to go bankrupt.

With one album still remaining on their contract, GTO encouraged the Walkers to record the album of their dreams: with the label’s demise looming imminent on the horizon, it certainly wouldn’t cause any harm.  The Walker Brothers responded with an unequivocal and courageous artistic statement, 1978’s Nite Flights.  The B-side of the album is solid, if harmless, late-70s progressive rock that owes a substantial debt to The Alan Parsons Project, but the A-side, which is essentially a Scott Walker EP, is one of the most uncompromisingly experimental album sides of the 1970s.

The lead-off track, “Shut Out”, sounds like a cross between the moody late-70s productions of Brian Eno (Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” and Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings And Food both come to mind), and the aggressive guitar-based hard rock of early UFO (the opening guitar solo, in particular, is a dead ringer for “Lights Out”, in my opinion).  As on the rest of the album, Scott Walker’s voice is oddly double-tracked, producing an eerie, narcotized effect, but there’s no question that the man could still belt it out.

The next song, “Fat Mama Kick”, sounds like a slowly melting blues shuffle, its vaguely familiar harmonies slip-sliding into dissonance in every direction and at every possible opportunity.  The song sounds like it is mutating, dripping off of the turntable, bouncing between Arthur Russell-esque post-disco and the heavy boogie of Tres Hombres-era ZZ Top, while Walker’s strange vocals, which never quite align with whatever harmonic structure exists in the song, glissando slowly into madness.

“Nite Flights”, the title track, follows, and sounds so much like “Berlin”-era Bowie that Bowie himself later covered the song, on 1993’s Black Tie, White Noise (and produced an excellent documentary about Scott Walker, 2006’s 30 Century Man).  The Walker Brothers’ version is all sweeping, majestic strings, rubbery bass, and Scott Walker’s epic, almost operatic croon.

But these three songs are merely priming the pump for the close of the A-side, one of the greatest rock songs of the 1970s, and almost certainly the decade’s most experimental.  “The Electrician” is probably the most terrifying rock and roll song I have ever heard.  This is rock and roll viewed through a scope of such epic, foreboding grandeur that it is practically without equal in the rock and roll pantheon.  Its closest sonic relative is probably not even rock and roll at all, but the classic Ennio Morricone score to “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”.  Leading off with a funereal synthesizer drone, Walker enters with a menacing, bluesy croon that Nick Cave would later cop wholesale on albums like Murder Ballads, and builds to a desperate, unhinged, operatic chorus. The lyrics, unique for 1978, discuss CIA-sponsored torture in apartheid-era South Africa: a far cry from typical boy-band subject matter!  “The Electrician” is a study in dynamic mastery: Walker and company know when to play it quiet and patient and when to play it loud, for maximum effect, exercising their mastery of tension-and-release seemingly at will in the song’s second half, a breathless romp through sparse guitars and lush, baroque strings.  The end result is one of the most beautiful and chilling songs in rock and roll.

Scott Walker would go on to an equally obtuse solo career, releasing albums roughly at the rate of one per decade for the next thirty years, recording avant-garde film scores, and making music that owes less to rock and roll than it does to European modernist classical composers like Iannis Xenakis or Krysztof Penderecki.  If you’re in the mood for a good rock doc, 30 Century Man is a fascinating glimpse inside the head of a reclusive genius, and documents the recording process for Walker’s latter-day solo albums in exhaustive detail.  As for Nite Flights, Walker would never again make an album so delicately and precisely balanced between pop accessibility and experimental art.  This album is a hard one to find: CD and vinyl copies fetch upwards of 500 dollars, but electronic copies exist aplenty, and renewed interest in Walker’s music has generated reissues of his late 60’s solo work, so perhaps a reissue of Nite Flights won’t be too far behind.  We can only hope: an album this good deserves to be heard.

— Charlie Olvera

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Track listing

Side one

  1. “Shut Out”  (Scott Engel) 2:46
  2. “Fat Mama Kick” (Scott Engel ) 2:57
  3. “Nite Flights” (Scott Engel) 4:25
  4. “The Electrician” (Scott Engel) 6:10
  5. “Death of Romance” (Gary Leeds) 3:44

Side two

  1. “Den Haague” (Gary Leeds) 4:03
  2. “Rhythms of Vision” (John Maus ) 2:55
  3. “Disciples of Death” (John Maus) 3:49
  4. “Fury and the Fire” (John Maus) 3:58
  5. “Child of Flames”  (John Maus )3:14

Personnel

  • Scott Walker – vocals, bass, guitar, keyboards
  • Gary Leeds – vocals, drums, percussion
  • John Maus – vocals, guitar
  • Mo Foster – bass
  • Ronnie Ross – soprano saxophone
  • Alan Skidmore – tenor saxophone
  • Big Jim Sullivan – rhythm guitar
  • Les Davidson – guitar
  • Frank Gibson – drums
  • Dill Katz – bass
  • Katie Kissoon – background vocals
  • Dave MacRae – Conductor, Orchestration
  • Chris Mercer – saxophone
  • Morris Pert – percussion
  • Peter Van Hooke – drums
  • Dennis Weinreich – recorder, background vocals, engineer, mixing
  • Joy Yates – background vocals

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Posted by Charlie Olvera

2 Comments

  1. Walker Brothers | Trends Pics (09 May 2011, 10:14)
    Reply

    […] The Walker Brothers “Night coolalbumreview.com […]

  2. W.R. German (21 May 2011, 4:20)
    Reply

    Scott Walker’s vocals are not double-tracked on his 4 songs on Nite Flights–that’s John Walker singing high harmony and doing it wonderfully well.



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