Author’s note : “This was my first book and obviously a real learning curve. It was fun to do although getting it published was tortuous. Originally commissioned by Helter Skelter books, it’s publication was cancelled when the owner of that company tragically died. It then went to Omnibus books where it was dropped at the eleventh hour, it’s subject matter being deemed ‘Old Hat’. Eventually the wonderful Jawbone books picked it up. I was delighted at the quality of the edition and yet still feel that this book never really found it’s audience. (There was also a proposed follow up, covering Scott’s work from 1984 onward but that never came to pass either. I still feel a decent book needs to be written on that period of Scott’s work.)
“The Impossible dream…” was written between 2004- 2005 and I was lucky enough to interview many people who are no longer with us. Below is the final chapter. My only gripe regarding this chapter is that I was unable to find any photos of the boys at work in the studio. Other than that, I like to think this is as definite an account of the recording of the last ever Walker brothers album that we’re likely to get…”
Long Day’s Journey Into Nite
“Now we’re writing our own material, finally, again, because we’ve decided to get off our asses because we’re basically very lazy, because the years have made us this way, because people would pay you a lot of money … not to write. So, you get very spoilt.”
Scott Walker (1977)
Geoff Calver (Producer of No Regrets and Lines) : “In the purest sense of the term, Scott was an artist. As his subsequent solo efforts have been “art for art’s sake,” they are in contrast with what we were doing with the Walkers, which was blatantly commercial. I think Scott, ultimately, felt he should do things for the right reasons rather than take the obvious commercial route … He kept the Walkers going as long as he did because, you know, a guy’s got to eat.
“I didn’t do anything with him after Lines. I think he found the commercial thing a bit distasteful. I think he was a serious musician who wanted to make serious music for serious people. I don’t think he really was happy doing the pop star bit or ever had been. Obviously, it had been his living but I think he’d been a very reluctant pop star and I think that’s why he wanted a change in direction, and go off and do the more esoteric stuff that he did after Lines.”
As it had been exactly a decade before, 1977 was to be a year of unequivocal change for The Walker Brothers. Since the initial split, all three had, to varying degrees, tangoed uncomfortably with their famous past, both in their personal and public lives. During 1977, many of those associated with that past would disappear. Producer Johnny Franz died on January 29, at the age of 54, his early death hastened along by a chain of countless cigarettes. That summer, former manager Maurice King also died, from a cocktail of whisky and barbiturates, in the flat above his Baker Street office. Maurice King
Photo : Johnny Franz and Scott Walker, London mid 60’s.
Franz and King had helped drive The Walker Brothers toward pop immortality. As far as Scott, John and Gary were concerned, with these men went the last nicotine-tinted vapour trails of swinging 60s London. But perhaps their passing was a liberation for The Walker Brothers. The London of early 1978 was abuzz with both the energy of the previous year’s punk storm and the new wave which would follow. On a superficial level, the Walkers were set apart from such a climate – and yet, on another, unquantifiable, level, they were saturated by the zeitgeist. Scott, Gary and John were writing up a storm, with no thought of consequence other than ‘to hell with it’.
Photo : The enigmatic Ady Semel, early 70’s.
A further reminder of how the Philips years had dissipated came when the enigmatic Ady Semel retired as their manager. The Walkers’ (underworked) live agent, David Apps, would take over Semel’s role in a limited capacity. By now the trio were no longer living together, John and Gary having moved out of the flat above the King’s Road bistro, leaving Scott to write alone there. All three converged regularly, and Gary and Scott in particular still socialised frequently, clubbing into the early hours at London’s Tramp and Rags nightclubs.
Despite the tepid reception of everything since “No Regrets”, two years earlier, label manager Dick Leahy, who was about to sell GTO to CBS, was ever supportive. Consequently, the Brothers were in a position with nothing to lose. This freedom left them confident and energised. John in particular, going through one of his periodic dry spells, spoke with the conviction of a born-again. “Yeah, I’m teetotal these days,” he beamed optimistically, “I’m feeling in darned good shape too … Booze was my escape when I became a victim of The Walker Brothers’ success. Just as ‘No Regrets’ was sliding down the charts again, I found myself with some time to think. I woke up one morning and felt a new man. We’re going to be tremendously successful again and there’s no way success is going to almost destroy me this time round. I’m going to enjoy it. Already I’m writing some great songs and learning to play some good guitar again. We’ll make it because we’ve got something over most of the groups right now. We can sing and I can’t think of too many others who come into that category. Lots of acts put on a good show but have nothing for the ears. We’ll do both. I’m gonna love it – and I wont be looking for an escape through a whiskey bottle.”
The urge would, inexorably, return and John’s drink of choice throughout the coming recording sessions would eventually return to brandy and Cognac, while Scott and Gary, still perusing a strict health kick, threatened to overdose on a rainbow-coloured array of vitamin pills. Further ties with the more recent past had also been cut with regard to their place of work. The new studio of choice was Scorpio Sound, of Euston. Although it shared basic specifications with the Marquee studio (24 tracks at a rate of £500 a day), it was virgin territory to the Walkers and the crew manning the newly-assigned studio were all fresh faces.
Steve Parker was the mandatory teenage assistant engineer. It was obvious to him why the trio were not continuing with Calver. “Well, maybe because the first two albums they’d done with him hadn’t sold that great, it was obvious to try something new,” he reckoned. “I think with Nite Flights, Scott was trying to get an ‘off the wall’ vibe and Geoff Calver was very much a mainstream producer. Scott wanted a new approach and Dennis Weinreich, partly because he was from California, had a reputation at the time for having his own unique sound.”
Weinreich was an up-and-coming studio boffin whose already impressive resumé included big hits with Supertramp and Queen (including “Bohemian Rhapsody”).
Photo : Dennis Weinreich at mixing desk. Date unknown. Although judging by the funky apparel, probably late 60’s, early- mid ’70’s.
“I think Geoff was probably the better engineer,” says Weinreich tactfully. “I was probably slightly more ‘down and dirty’ than Geoff was. His stuff was magnificent, his orchestral stuff. I respected what he did. But I think maybe that what The Walker Brothers were looking for with this album was something a little edgier. Not that he couldn’t do it, but my kind of records, the kind of records I used to do with Jack Bruce, Jeff Beck, had a certain atmosphere that I was known for. People liked to work with me for the atmosphere.”
Scott would no doubt have gone out of his way to listen to Weinreich’s work before considering him as right-hand man. But an equally important factor in choosing Weinreich as head engineer was that he be ignorant of the Walkers suffocating past. The young Californian was fully qualified in this respect: “I have to admit to not knowing The Walker Brothers’ material beforehand. I was aware of the hits but I wasn’t a fan particularly. They were one of those bands that weren’t particularly successful where I was from.”
On first meeting Weinreich was struck by Engel’s presence and sincerity. Within moments of the ‘job interview,’ arranged by manager David Apps, Weinreich was already thinking ahead, like a man who had already bagged the job. “I remember Scott arriving at the studio in his orange Volkswagen Beetle,” he says. “He had a white pork-pie hat on. Real low over his eyes, all the time. He never took it off. Constantly playing with it. So he talked to me about making records and stuff and he said to me, ‘We need to work out how to record the vocal. Because the thing that pisses me off is that, when I’m ready to sing, I’m ready to sing right now. And I need to be able to perform once and that’s it’. So, I got this idea of [Scott’s voice] sitting very, very compressed on top of the record without a huge amount of dynamic. I felt, from listening to him talk, that he had a natural dynamic, that it wasn’t based on level. It was based on this intensity he had in his voice.”
Scott and Weinreich hit it off immediately. “I told Scott that once we had found a vocal sound, we’d keep it for the album and when we’re ready to go! And then I’d modify it for the song. I said, ‘But when you’re ready to go, I’ll be ready to go’.” The younger Californian had the gig. Things moved fast and sessions were arranged for early February. Scott’s attitude was one of fatalistic resignation. It was a state of mind that was, ironically, empowering. He knew before beginning that this would be the Walkers’ last stand and as such was going all out to please himself for the first time since Scott 4. “It had gone on too long, the reunion, all the awfulness … I thought, I’ve had enough. We were told the company [GTO] were gonna fold, so went back and pow-wowed and said, ‘Let’s do something we wanna’ do’. It was as simple as that.”
The ever-amiable Leahy was right behind them. “Dick backed us on this and he wanted us to do it,” confirms Leeds. It was agreed by all three at the outset that this record would contain no cover versions. In anticipation of the early February starting date, the trio worked apart and in seclusion, honing their pieces as best they could. Even Gary was writing up a storm. By the time they had compared notes and headed for the studio, they were as ready as they would ever be.
“Back then, records came in different categories,” states Weinreich. “There were those long and luxurious ‘let’s book a month and go into the studio’ [ones], and everyone arrives on the first day and you kinda get some sounds up and y’know, ‘Ok, what’s the first song gonna be?’. ‘Ah, well, I got this little riff.’ And, you know, it’s all very slow and mellow. Nite Flights was not in that category.”
Steve Parker remembers the sessions as being “well prepared; there wasn’t much rewriting in the studio. We would have spent the first week doing the basic tracks; drums and bass. And then strings and voices etc. [Musical arranger] Dave McRae would have a chord sheet prepared and we all would have worked from that.”
Once again, the dynamic of the unlikely trio made a unique impression on the studio crew. Weinreich thought that, “Scott was nice looking but nothing special, kinda like the type of guy I went to school with. John looked like a real man, you know, kinda hunky. Gary … I certainly felt that of the three of them, the one who was in the strongest financial position was Scott. But he certainly wasn’t wealthy. John was living out of town, on a council estate, I think. Hard to tell with Gary. Gary was kind of, like Dennis Wilson had been in The Beach boys: he could play, as long as you didn’t dissect it, but he was no Hal Blaine.”
Scorpio soon became base camp Walker and although superficially all would assume the usual roles, this time round John and Gary would be much more involved. For the first time both Gary and John would submit their own material alongside Scott, who throughout the sessions sat beside Weinreich at the mixing desk, the sonic equivalent of an actor-director.
There was a buzz in the air as usual, but this time its accent was skewed, edgier. The Walkers had never worked together like this before. “I got the feeling that they all, Scott most of all, just wanted a total break from what had gone before,” noted Steve Parker. “They didn’t bring any demos. I mean you didn’t even have Portastudios back then. Scott would play us records he liked the sound of.”
While Scorpio Studios no doubt felt like a universe within itself during the six-week sessions, the record being made there would ultimately correlate with the prevailing musical trends of the day: punk and disco. And then, as RCA’s advertising slogan for the album “Heroes” went, there was old wave, there was new wave, and there was David Bowie. In an interview following the sessions, Scott would state that, “David Bowie, he’s a very smart guy. He comes up with the goods and makes sure of delivery right down the line. I thought, ‘Shit, if he can do it, so can I’.”
Parker affirms: “Bowie’s album ‘Heroes’ was the reference album while we were making Nite Flights. In fact, Scott himself bought me a copy when we started.” Parker also points out a major difference between the two albums. “[Nite Flights] wasn’t done in [the way] [Tony] Visconti, Bowie and Eno worked. We could have been more adventurous maybe. If we’d had an Eno character in there it would have been even more stunning I think.”
The man closest to the Eno role, Weinreich, explains that, “It’s not unusual in the studio to have a record that you refer to. You’re not ripping it off or plagiarising it, you’re using it as a reference point and Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ was like that. And Scott bought me a copy. Scott was like that. There was a classical music magazine called Gramophone and he bought everybody subscriptions to it. He had a thing about Gramophone. He insisted that you read it.”
Now that the core crew was established, it was time to draft in the players. Scott, working closely with pianist and arranger David McRae, chose to employ the cream of the session circuit. This would result in the appearance of some familiar faces and in some charming incongruities. “Mo Foster on bass, Peter van Hooke on drums; these guys were the top session men of their day,” states Parker. “But it meant that they did a lot of different things. For all I know, the day before they did [Nite Flight standout track] ‘The Electrician’ they would have been playing on ‘Disco Duck’ or ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’.”
Sixties stalwarts Big Jim Sullivan and Alan Parker were also involved. Sullivan was glad to get the call and noted that the Walkers set-up was much more bohemian than it had been when he’d first encountered them back in 1965. So much so that he was under the impression that the Walkers were paying for the sessions themselves. “I just got the sense that they were going to do whatever it was they wanted to do,” he says. “It was much more experimental than it had been back at Philips.”
Weinreich remembers everyone being open to new approaches and technology. “Big Jim had a Roland guitar synth, one of the first,” he grins. “It was kind of a weird thing, it looked like a Les Paul, kinda, and I remember it being delivered, taken out of the box. I’d never seen such a thing! Nobody really knew how to use it but we had a lot of fun messing around with it.”
Sullivan: “I remember I plugged the guitar into the amp and it was set up in such a way that it started feeding back and the lead was crackling. I went to fix it and they said, ‘No! Leave it like that, it sounds great’. I didn’t go mad with effects, as I can recall, maybe some phasing. When I played on ’em, there was not much else going on. No strings, not much at all. So, I just tried to use my imagination. There was only a guide vocal, bass, drums, and perhaps keyboards here and there … And I don’t think the drums and bass were the finished article either. It was a bit different to working with ’em in the 60s. They were a bit looser now. Some of the things they’d ask me to do, you know, ‘Improvise! Go crazy! Make something up …’.”
For those musicians new to the Walkers, it was essentially just another gig. Mo Foster: “It would have just been one session among many. I would have done my parts in about five days, recording two or three songs a session. One did the job as quickly as possible but also as well as one could … There was no ‘dark atmosphere’ though, no. It was lights full on and staring at music stands.” Foster also raised an eyebrow at the unique Walker trio dynamic. “Scott was the one who knew anything … the other guys weren’t that … they didn’t really play. Gary seemed lost.”
Weinreich, a perceptive Walker collaborator, is quick to defend the hapless Leeds: “The boys only came to the UK because of Gary,” he points out. “There was an incredible loyalty between the three of them. They all knew that the sum of the parts was greater than the individuals. From outside you may question as to why Gary was even there. But without him there was a key ingredient missing. John has a great voice but lacks focus. Step in Gary. Scott also took something … vital from Gary.”
Parker noticed that, “It seemed that Gary and Scott were mates and John was a bit outside of that … he was more ‘regular’. Scott and Gary had more going on between them I think. I could see Scott and John as a kind of Righteous Brothers thing, but I couldn’t see where Gary fitted in to that, although the outthere-ness of this album seemed to me to fit Scott and Gary more than it did John. Saying that, Gary was the most unlikely pop star in the world.
“With his denim, jeans and hair, you could see John out on the cabaret circuit but I couldn’t see him touring on the back of this. I think this shows in his songs too. Scott was obviously into his foreign cinema and all that but you got the impression that John’s favourite actor was John Wayne.”
While the studio was Scott’s domain, he dominated without any untoward expression of ego. As a producer, he was less ‘hands on’ and more of a conceptualist, describing what he wanted to the engineers in sometimes slightly abstract terms. This was ably backed up by McRae’s sound musical training – a unique mix that filtered well through the self-contained climate of Scorpio.
“It was an intimate place with a family atmosphere,” says Parker. “No ego stuff at all, just a nice bunch of guys.” McRae, a veteran of various homegrown progressive rock and jazz-fusion groups, was the latest in a long line of foils for Engel. Throughout the recording process, Scott had always referred to an authorative presence outside of himself. This seemed to have started seriously at Stanhope Place in 1965. The lineage included Franz, Wally Stott, Reg Guest and, to a lesser extent, Del Newman. These individuals were visionaries in their own right but, while technically advanced compared to Scott, they were also unified in respecting his vision.
“McRae is probably not credited as luxuriously as he should have been,” considers Weinreich. “He was the interpreter of Scott’s musical vision into something that the musicians could cope with. McRae was the bandleader. He’d go to the piano and say, ‘Do you want this chord or that chord?’. He was a great interpreter. Scott knew music, no question, but he wasn’t schooled in music. His references were obscure and McRae would translate them … he was so important, I thought of him as the producer.”
Once Scott had the laid down the foundations of drums, bass and guitar, he would begin to layer and experiment on top, as a painter building from a wash. For someone considered such a ‘serious’, artist his methods were often playful. “Scott wanted us to go to a farm in Hayward’s Heath and set fire to a piano,” grins Weinreich. “He wanted to record the ‘ping!’ of the strings as they heated up and snapped. I wish we’d done it … .”
One extravagance was the recording of the Royal Albert Hall’s huge organ for the track “Fat Mama Kick”. The RAK mobile studio was hired and Weinreich, Parker, Engel and McRae booked the Hall for the day. McRae played some thundering chords which would be ‘flown in’ to the track back at Scorpio. GTO were hesitant at such expense at first but ultimately acquiesced. “Leahy was good on this project,” says Weinreich. “A lot of people would lose interest in this kind of project as it started to evolve but Leahy maintained interest all the way through.” Leahy: “I let them get on with it. My only reservation was that it was more of a Scott Walker album than a Walker Brothers album.”
True to form, as the actual songs slowly materialised, it was the Engel compositions that did so most vividly. As with the recording of No Regrets almost three years before, one track began to stand out amongst the others. “The Electrician” was a huge leap in Engel’s writing, drawing a luminous, gossamer thread between “Boy Child” and his brotherless future. With John’s voice haloing the least romantic vocal Scott had ever recorded, this was the closest The Walker Brothers would ever get to the 1980s.
Steve Parker ruminates: “It’s interesting that Midge Ure apparently wrote ‘Vienna’ after hearing this track. If we’d had the technology that was around in the 80s, ‘The Electrician’ would have sounded more like ‘Vienna’. I remember we recorded two versions.”
“There is another version that we recorded first,” confirms Weinreich. “It was identical really. What happened was that we had a metronome in the control room. And while McRae was conducting, Scott was varying the tempo for McRae’s headphones – the metronome was going right into his cans. And McRae was chasing it. But Scott wasn’t happy … So we’d completed it, vocals and all and Scott asked to do it again. So we were recording another bunch of songs and Scott says ‘let’s squeeze it in’. So we tried and it was better except … we lost the great drum sound we had on the first version. I was disappointed with that aspect. But overall, Scott had been right. The second version was better.” This was not an album with an unlimited budget by any means. GTO could not afford to have orchestras just hanging around. Scott had to seize his chance when the moment presented itself as Parker explains:
“These were the days when if you wanted strings you had to get in strings, you had no samples. The orchestra would be booked well in advance. And real strings always give a track a new dimension. And I think once we put the strings on ‘The Electrician’, then you kind of hear where Scott and McRae were coming from.”
Scott was probably working to a preconceived vision that everyone else would have to trust him on. As the recording progressed it became obvious that not only did Scott know what he was doing but that he had chosen the right personnel to help him realise that vision. “The guitar solo on ‘The Electrician’ is just scrumptious,” says Weinreich. “Big Jim [Sullivan] had ‘been there, done that’, but he still performed with energy and passion. Everybody did. Most of the time with session players, you’d struggle to extract a performance out of it. They could play it but could they perform it? The band who played on Nite Flights had passion.”
Of the ten compositions, four each came from John and Scott and the remaining two from Gary. Individual contributions to each track were less democratic, with John adding harmony to all of Scott’s vocals but singing half of his own songs solo. Scott would be present throughout the entire album, adding additional bass, textural keyboards, and uncredited backing vocals to “Den Haague”. The session musicians, reading from lead sheets and chord charts, were not made aware of who wrote what and the basic tracks of the songs were recorded back to back under unified circumstances. When the time came to record vocals, each singer would complete the lead on their own compositions in batches.
By working apart conceptually – there was still no co-writing going on – even Scott’s definitive production could not impose a unified sound. The result would be more akin to a compilation album. “It wasn’t a conscious decision to be three separate people on one album,” allowed Scott. “John’s on all my tracks but I’m not on his. That’s just the way he heard it.”
Gary adds: “This was three people writing in separate rooms and bringing together this bizarre thing that really worked. I don’t know how that worked ’cause none of us knew what the other was writing, what the sound would be or what the thread was and it turned out that the three different colours made it more weird than it was.”
Nite Flights would be the first (and last) album to feature a serious contribution from Gary. His vocals were recorded first. True to his ‘wacky’ reputation, Leeds did not record vocals like anybody else. “Gary had a nasal problem,” chuckles Parker. “And we got round that by laying him on his back to do his vocals. Gary was very hunched and one of the things we tried was laying him down flat. It opens up the tubes. Helps his breathing.”
Weinreich: “Oh yeah, Gary would have enjoyed being strapped down! We had a big grand piano in the studio and we made him lay down on the piano and put sand bags on his shoulders. And that’s how he sang it.” A supportive Scott ably coached Gary and the results match those of the previous Engel/Leeds collaboration on “You Don’t Love Me”, all those years ago.
Next into the booth was John. Although the studio lights would be dimmed as a matter of course during vocal sessions, John still had to move within the deeper darkness of Scott’s shadow. Weinreich was sympathetic: “I felt sorry for John because by default he was bound to be compared to Scott … he had high values, he was a decent guy and I liked him. But he had this monkey on his back called The Walker Brothers. But he had a great voice … although John wasn’t a ‘one-taker’ at all. Not like Scott. But he was not far from it. John would ‘produce’ Scott’s vocals and vice versa. There was a trust. Scott needed someone in the control room to tell him if something wasn’t right, if there was a pitch issue … and the only person who had that was John. No one else could say that to Scott. I mean Scott is one of the greatest vocalists of all time! So, who can tell him to do that verse again because it wasn’t good enough? John. And it worked vice versa.”
When the time came for Scott to lay down his vocals (which were usually done last), he tried, as ever, to move fast. It was less about performing and more about attempting to capture something; a mood, a fragment of a moment. He would occasionally sing while hearing sound effects on his voice, but any such technicalities would have to be set up and ready to go. “Scott had no time for that shit,” exclaims Weinreich. “But … he was an incredible vocalist.” Scott sang in relative seclusion, with only Weinreich and Maus in attendance. Parker and anyone incidental were, as usual, prohibited from the studio while he utilised the most powerful and sensitive instrument at his disposal.
By the end of February, the album was complete and the mission accomplished. This was no follow-up to No Regrets or Lines … or anything else for that matter. The Walkers’ swansong is the most unique and daring album they ever recorded. It’s the sound of psyches crashing after the MOR indulgences of No Regrets and the aptly titled Lines. At its best, Nite Flights (working title: Death Of Romance) sounds like a comedown. Scott’s tracks in particular evoke the claustrophobic worldview that the worst drug and alcohol hangovers inflict. “I took drugs, but it was mostly cocaine in the 70s,” Scott would recall in the mid-90s. “It was mainly drinking that was the issue.” By his own admission, Gary states that he “Never really liked drugs. I like whiskey.” As for John: “In my bad days I was doing everything to excess, so if I’d gotten into drugs at all, it’s doubtful I’d have lived to tell the tale.”
Thus Nite Flights, their most narcotic-sounding album, was conceived and recorded, relatively clear-headed. “The sessions were 100 per cent drug free, as far as the band was concerned. Which was pretty odd for me at that time,” laughs Weinreich. “The focus was on health and well-being. Gary was not as committed to the healthy outlook as Scott. And John was not as committed as Scott. There was a bit of wine as I recall but it was no drinking session, either.”
Similarly, Parker remembers that, “They seemed to be clean-living boys, in the studio at least. Scott certainly didn’t smoke – I’ve no idea why he is in the cover photos of the album. John liked his brandy.”
Despite the influence of “Heroes”, Engel and Weinreich would only touch superficially on the innovative working methods employed by Bowie, Eno and Visconti on that album. No songs were improvised in the studio and little was left to random, certainly as far as composition went. Engel was still essentially old school and preferred to work quickly, using for the most part whatever tools were readily available. Scorpio, while new, was not specially equipped and the unique and progressive sound of Nite Flights was mostly down to the Walkers’ attitude and Weinreich’s imagination and technical know-how.
Nite Flights begins with the four Engel tracks. On “Shutout”, death goes to the disco. Scott’s lyrics are both vivid and impregnable: “There were faces bobbing in the heat / For some rising / From her zone / Moving / Hitting / Holding on … .” Driven by a crisp disco groove (Van Hook’s hi-hat work is particularly excellent), the effect is taut, powerful and punchy. The nightmare lyrics and ragged guitar work add a vague sensation of vertigo. John’s harmony work is perfect, hovering mosquito-like above Engel’s lead.
Another nightmare scenario, “Fat Mama Kick” makes the serious business of the opening track sound more like The Village People. The arrangement verges on the unmusical: Scott and John shriek above slabs of sound. Steve Parker: “That murky ‘wash’ sound is the piano chords left to ring and slowed down. The only effects we had really were delay and a harmoniser.”
“Nite Flights” is a perfect symbiosis of the album’s first two songs. It grooves more smoothly than “Shutout” whilst retaining the eerie undertow of “Fat Mama Kick”. It still sounds fresh and modern today, signifying some future that never was. John’s voices are as ever impeccable and Scott reports that the song was written with “[John] in mind [singing] above me all the time.”
Dennis Weinreich: “Scott came up with basslines, musically he came up with everything. The blending of his and John’s voices was magnificent. You know, when you double-track somebody, you record a voice and then you say, ‘Ok, we’ll put the other voice over now’ and it’s always loose and you have to say things like, ‘Don’t say any S’s, only say the S’s on the first track’, because otherwise you just get a big ‘schh’, you know, it’s all funny-sounding, the overlap and all. But you never had to say that with John. If he was putting a harmony to Scott or the other way round, you never had to do that. They had something really quite special in that they knew how each other sang.”
“The Electrician”, according to Scott, is “about the Americans sending in these people who train torturers in South America,” and “I imagine these lovers in a conversation.” The lyrics are among the most explicit of Scott’s on the album. This piece is an epic in itself, starting off sounding like a painting of Hiroshima, before blooming into something akin to Rodrigo’s “Concierto De Aranjuez”. It was written by Scott, “In a flat in Fulham [sic], above a very noisy restaurant, late at night. No one could hear me so I could work.” Dennis Weinreich: “Don’t you love the castanets on it? We were trying to get that South American vibe.”
Gary’s ambiguous but sinister lyrics on “Death Of Romance” are a revelation; he clearly has a natural gift for the poetic and sounds surprisingly natural singing them, except on the chorus. For a drummer his timing is particularly awkward, however. Steve Parker: “The phrasing on the chorus does sound uncomfortable. I don’t think it’s meant to be … more that he couldn’t really sing.” Dennis Weinreich: “Gary was either writing from his experiences or from his fantasies. Either is possible. When Gary wandered off on his adventures, I didn’t go with him. So I don’t know.” An unreleased outtake features a three-part harmony vocal by Gary.
Leeds explained that his “Den Haague” is “about the seediness of Amsterdam. I tried to make a comedy of it.” It’s among the strongest tracks on the album, slithering along at exactly the right tempo, suggesting seediness, shame and self-reproach. It was apparently born of true-life experience. Steve Parker: “I remember Gary saying at the time that he was sitting in this brothel [probably run by the notorious Madame Xavier Holland] and someone actually did come in and ‘hang their coat over a statue of Christ’.”
The arrangement is pure Scott, static strings, treated piano, and even some backing vocals by Engel himself. The Bowie/Eno influence is plain in the harmonised snare and the pitch-shifted tubular bell. The slightly flanged bass sound is actually two basses. Scott played along with Mo Foster’s line. Foster wasn’t impressed by Scott’s bass chops: “He was more of a bass owner than a bass player,” says Mo. Gary: ‘We always wanted to do something a bit funnier, that’s why we did the ‘Den Haague’ thing. That was why we had that radical change into Nite Flights from the romantic stuff.”
Of John’s four contributions to the album, “Rhythms Of Vision” features a down and dirty, bass-heavy groove, over which Maus rasps: “She knows the hard well / And making it twitch / Just waiting to open / Her sacred stitch … / You’ve lost to the bitch.”
Dennis Weinreich: “Regarding the lyrics: yes, there were discussions that went, ‘just what the fuck is this about?’. I think they were looking to create images with the lyrics, not necessarily narrative. Scott is very naturally narrative so his songs do have that quality. John’s lyrics were more obscure and I recall on a number of occasions Scott turning to me while John’s vocals were going down with that ‘What the fuck!?’ look on his face. There was quite a bit of re-writing during the sessions. Scott particularly had visual links he wanted to make. John, I felt, was looking to try and shock.”
“Disciples Of Death” is a neutered, polyester-clad Satan, boogieing at Stringfellow’s … “I sing to the opening eye / Only fools live to die”. “Fury And The Fire” is more sadomasochistic MOR, with a faintly embarrassed Scott singing along gamely, almost inaudibly in the final mix, while Big Jim Sullivan et al provide moving, sterling performances.
The grand production on John’s “Child Of Flames” cannot disguise the vacuum at the heart of this song. At its best, it sounds like an outtake from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (and it’s a delight to imagine the bouffant John hand clapping along to a flamboyantly choreographed dance routine). To be fair, it suffers most its close proximity to Scott and even Gary’s compositions.
Dennis Weinreich: “My personal opinion: the lyrics were mostly contrived. Intended to cash in on some kind of punk/rock/glam ‘You can say fuck on ITV if you want to’ way. The four songs John wrote are not bad songs, but he was trying to do something, create some shock. They weren’t about anything. He was not comfortable in his own skin. A well brought-up, solid human being but you got the impression that all this wonderful stuff had happened to him and he wasn’t in control of it. He was looking for some control and I got the impression that this album gave him that. Y’know, ‘these are your four songs – go do what you want’. And Scott and Dave McRae helped him.”
By the summer of 1978, GTO was in a state of irreversible flux and about to be sold to CBS. As such, while Leahy had allowed the final indulgence of Nite Flights the general feeling at the GTO office was that Scott should have used the opportunity to record solo. Expectations for this record were the lowest of all three reunion LPs and such a pressure-free environment undoubtedly allowed the album to become what it was, a quixotic, three-headed mutant, the truest Walker Brother album ever recorded. But, whatever its pedigree, Nite Flights was still bona fide music-business product and GTO would process it as such.
Weinreich remembers the unveiling. “We had a playback for the album and everybody from GTO came down and it was really strange because it was like everyone was paying lip service. And no one was really listening to the record. It was more a social occasion. And we put the record on and that first side … it’s a funny side ’cause the first song is a good song but it doesn’t really do much. It doesn’t draw the listener in. And I had this horrible feeling that we lost them all. And after that everyone was completely blown away … until Gary’s song. And when ‘Death Of Romance’ came on, everyone was staring at each other thinking, ‘What the fuck is this all about?’.”
Gary: “Rod [Temperton, from GTO stablemates] Heatwave said that my two tracks on Nite Flights, were the best thing he’d ever heard. I liked him.” GTO pressman, Mike Peyton was politely understated in his response. “I remember hearing it and thinking that we were going to have trouble getting airplay.”
The album was released in the mid-summer of 1978. Although totally ignored by television and radio, the weekly music papers, by now staffed by those mostly too young to have properly experienced the Walkers first time round, were unusually perceptive and enthusiastic. Those that bothered to listen were duly intrigued and one can only speculate as to what may have happened if Nite Flights had been their first GTO release. The reviews, whilst refreshingly positive also matched the feeling of those at GTO, who felt that the album was not so much an LP by The Walker Brothers but more a Scott Walker EP with six B-sides. They weren’t far wrong. Nite Flights was less the death of The Walker Brothers and more the reincarnation of Scott Engel.
Weinreich: “It was a fun album to make. There were no jerks in it, the record company left us alone, Scott was great, John was great, Gary was … great. Musicians were great.”
Apart from the alternative vocal version of “Den Haague” and the alternative version of “The Electrician”, already mentioned, there were a couple of songs recorded during the sessions which never made it to the final release. Mistitled due to an admin error (the title actually belonging to a quite different, reggae song), “The Ballad Of Ty And Jerome” is one of the best things Maus ever wrote. Finally released on the If You Could Hear Me Now CD compilation in 1998, Maus also re-recorded it as “The Ballad” in 2005. Although of a higher standard than anything else by Maus on Nite Flights, this smooth AOR ballad would not have sat comfortably on the finished record.
Scott’s futuristic, ARP-heavy instrumental “Tokyo Rimshot” owes more to Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds than anything from “Heroes”. It too was finally released, as an instrumental, on If You Could Hear Me Now, although a vocal version was apparently recorded.
The Nite Flights cover, an abstract gatefold designed by the trendy Hipgnosis, attempted to depict all three reborn. Hair lightly permed and darkened, sucking earnestly on full filter cigarettes, the trio stare meaningfully into the bleak blankness of tomorrow. Maus, borrowing the jacket Bowie wore on the cover of “Heroes”, draws on his Camel Light whilst leaning against some corrugated iron, a man with no particular place to go. Scott’s facial expression veers between psychotically-wounded horror and that of a distracted model in a Marlboro advert. Gary looks like an existential icon; or at the very least like a sexed-up, world chess champion. Appearing like a set of stills from a Beckett-scripted version of Starsky And Hutch, the cover once again fails the record.
GTO had the balls to release a single, “The Electrician”/“Den Haague”, that July, but it and the album itself would go nowhere commercially. Walkers fans of old just didn’t know what to make of it.
It didn’t even make release in the US. Gary: “If it wasn’t country, blues, rock’n’roll … [America] had to have a category. And of course, there was no category for this. They didn’t know where to put something that was this extreme.”
Long-time fan Margaret Waterhouse dutifully bought it but would rarely play it: “My first reaction on eyeing up the cover as the sales assistant was wrapping it was, ‘Oh my lord – have they lost the plot?’. These were not the same guys as on the two previous albums, which I had actually liked a lot. I really didn’t care for it on first hearing. I was disappointed because they had changed style from a soft, well-rounded image to an altogether sharper, jagged edge. I felt this was not for the better.”
Unlike No Regrets and Lines, the LP would become a sleeper, gaining a reputation of quality and influence in the coming years, way beyond the miniscule sales it reaped that year. The cooler press ‘got’ it. “Hip or otherwise, this is frontline 1978 rock and roll,” the NME declared. “Engel has always had similar interests to David Bowie, his European consciousness and Jacques Brel fixation predated Bowie’s by several years. If there’s any influence at play here, it is latter-day Bowie/Iggy Pop.”
Melody Maker: “Nite Flights makes Bowie’s Low sound ‘high’.”
Although there was no fast return investment, almost everyone involved in the record would ultimately be rewarded. “I got a lot of work from being involved with ‘The Electrician’. It’s a lot of people’s favourite piece of music,” says Weinreich. “As the 1970s turned into the 80s, I got calls from people saying, ‘I want you to work on this record I’m doing. Because you did “The Electrician”, right?’.”
Steve Parker would go onto work with some of the biggest names in the business but remains unconvinced by one of the most special entries in his resumé. “It’s strange that it’s seen as such a seminal album when the way it’s been done is a very traditional way to make an album. You would have thought Scott would have gone for an Eno-type character or a load of new musicians. Dennis was not a particularly ‘off the wall’ producer but he then was the most ‘off the wall’ guy they had probably worked with.”
Weinreich is philosophical. “The fact that Nite Flights didn’t do so well commercially at the time … well, there was a set of goals at the time of making the record that were either stated or implied. Whatever they were, there was a kind of honesty about the music you were gonna make. Only later did I add to the stated goals’ ‘commercial success’. It had nothing to do with the quality of the music.
“If we conveyed energy to you as a listener, 20, 30 years after the fact, then we succeeded in doing what we set out to do. We wanted to impact on an emotional level to the listener. This was the stated aim. We wanted to convey an emotion from the studio to the listener in their living room. Whether that was a good emotion, bad emotion, real, whatever. We wanted to impact. And there are moments on that record that do that.
“I don’t think it should have been a commercial success. I don’t think it was good enough to embrace a mainstream audience. I think it was slightly out of time. It was kind of … it was mature while trying to be young, youthful and dangerous. And it wasn’t … I recall a conversation with Dave McRae during the making of the album. I said, ‘I’d like to have an image of the guy whose gonna buy this record. I wanna know. Does he live in Essex, drive a Ford Escort, and have a banner across his windscreen that says “Brian and Shelly”? Or is he a guy in a blue suit with white collar and cuffs? I wanna know whose gonna buy this album because I’ve lost focus’.
“And Dave turned to me and said, ‘I have no idea, but it doesn’t make a difference.’ I said, ‘Well, it kind of does, because I want to make sure that what we’re doing satisfies that goal’. And I was completely dismissed. But I didn’t know who was gonna connect with [this] Walker Brothers record. And nor did they. It was their last go.”
Sadly, neither John nor Gary could seem to capitalise on what was, in effect, their debut Walker Brothers album. “It would have been fine if it made us some money,” bemoaned Gary. “The money would have given us that thing to be able to go a bit further … and do other things … it would have been good for the industry too. [But] it was a good stretch because it started Scott on the direction that he wanted, in a sense.”
John also felt an unfinished future: “We kind of went out leftfield and I think it was the beginning of something that could have happened – but it didn’t continue. The record company decided to sell itself to somebody else. All kinds of strange things were going on and none of it was conducive to actually doing anything beyond that point.”
One-time fan club president Chrissie McCall thinks that “Gary never got over losing it. He really enjoyed it all. It was his dream.”
For Scott, The Walker Brothers was all but over. Although as a unit they still had some unfinished business together, on stage, in effect, the dream was dead. Nite Flights was their flawed and warped swansong. In this respect, it suited the nature of The Walker Brothers aptly. And it was round about now that Scott Walker began to disappear.
Steve Parker: “I used to see Scott in Chiswick a lot after the album. We lived in the same area. I’d see him queuing in the bank with his hat on, or driving up and down Chiswick High Street in that orange Volkswagen Beetle. The last time I saw him was on a bench in the park. He’d just bought a gatefold LP and was sat there looking at it.”
Weinreich: “I saw him twice in the immediate aftermath. I have an image of the very last time I saw him. It was at the end of Parkway in Camden opposite a pub that’s been closed down now for years, opposite where Regent’s Park begins. He was in his car sitting at the traffic lights and as I drove past I honked my horn and he rolled down the window of his car and said, ‘I’m gonna call you and we’ll go for dinner’. I went, ‘Great, Scott’. And I haven’t seen him since.”
John: “It was kind of weird, we just drifted apart. We were kind of floundering around and didn’t know what we were going to do. It seemed like we just drifted apart. It was really odd. Nobody said anything … nobody actually said, ‘Oh well, let’s do something else, this isn’t working out’. We just kind of said, ‘Ok, let’s get together and we’ll find out what’s going on, yeah? Ok’. And then about three or four months after that I went back to America and I didn’t hear anything from Scott and Gary for a while. It just dissolved.”
Finally, abruptly, The Walker Brothers story had reached its conclusion.
John: “It was a real strange thing. I still don’t know what happened. We just … disappeared.”
From “The impossible dream : The Story of Scott Walker and The Walker brothers’, published by Jawbone press, 2009.
You can buy the book here – The Impossible dream…
Or here – U.S. Edition