Mar 182024

In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.

Karl Wallinger covers

Karl Edmond De Vere Wallinger: chorister and oboe player educated at England’s finest schools.  Karl Wallinger: hippy, Beatles fanatic, multi-instrumentalist and “likable smart aleck.”  Like Joe Strummer before him, also a product of a diplomat who had his children educated at Boarding Schools, Karl Wallinger took his music and his political passions in an individual direction.

Wallinger came from the small Welsh seaside town of Prestatyn.  As the crow flies it is not far from Liverpool (although it is more of a trek by road than across the Irish Sea), and his sisters gave him a love of the Beatles and Merseybeat which never left him.  Music engulfed him at a young age. He was a chorister at Eton College, a nursery for Royalty and Prime Ministers, and his skills earned him a music scholarship to another famous school, Charterhouse. In the latter he followed closely on the heels of Tony Banks and Peter Gabriel, as they started their path to the formation of Genesis. Gabriel gave one of the warmest tributes to Wallinger, noting that he had “the most creative and fun week I have ever had in the studio” during their time in a Real World Recording Week.

Always active in bands and musical movements, he first came to prominence as a member of The Waterboys. In many ways that does not distinguish you.  Mike Scott likes to claim that The Waterboys have had more members than any other band, and he has some receipts to help make his case. However, Wallinger was more than a bit part rental player. He was a key part of the band’s most successful incarnation, at least commercially. Having talked his way into the band (Scott had advertised for a guitarist, Wallinger sold himself as a keyboard player), Wallinger was part of the “big sound” that marked the most impactful phase of the band’s career, including their biggest hit, “The Whole of the Moon.” Scott remains on better terms with his many, many collaborators (when compared with The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, for instance), and his love and respect for Wallinger never waned. “Travel on well, my old friend,” he wrote on his X/Twitter page. “You are one of the finest musicians I’ve ever known.”

The band traveled on without him in 1985, when he left to do his own thing. That thing was World Party, which (in the early days) was essentially Wallinger on his own, multitracked in his own recording studio. Songwriting and image grounded in the musical traditions of the ’60s, but with a modern sensibility. Wallinger knew the music from his own love of it, but never achieved the commercial success that other Britpop imitators of their parents’ music did.

What he did achieve was remarkable songwriting. Serious when necessary, playful when required. Individual always. Respectful of the music that had come before him, but not bound by it.  Occasionally he would support a new artist, such as the late Sinéad O’Connor, and by 1993 he had two additional permanent members of World Party so he could record and play live. All he wanted was to have enough sales to finance his life and his next record. Sometimes he succeeded, and he had a number of top 10 albums, in the UK at least.

In 2001 that piecemeal existence was threatened when he had a serious illness. This caused a loss of speech and motor function for some time. With no resources to fall back on his family was at risk. Until former Waterboy and current collaborator with Robbie Williams, Guy Chambers, convinced Williams to record “She’s the One,” and they turned it into a number 1 single, giving Wallinger a cushion during his recovery.

Wallinger recovered physically and mentally to be able to play music again, but largely he did this for himself in his later years, not keen to be on the pop merry-go-round. He leaves behind a remarkable catalogue of songs from two decades at his peak.

A song such as “You’re All Invited to the Party” sums up some of his passions and his personality. Using the Blues sensibilities of the Rolling Stones, including Mick Jagger’s acting skills, along with a ’60s folk singer’s songwriting acumen, he delivers a broadside to a very ’80s target, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He sneaked it out on a forgotten EP. He got the message across.

Karl Wallinger covered the music of others, in whole or in part, but his music has also inspired others. Here is a selection.

Scouting For Boys – The Whole of the Moon (Waterboys cover)

The Waterboys termed their time with Wallinger in the band as their Big Music phase. Epic soundscapes, with big themes. Nothing epitomized this more than “Whole of the Moon,” which also became their biggest hit. A protagonist cannot decide to be impressed or exasperated at the more complete vision their partner has. In their live shows to this day the anticipation of where the (literal) fireworks are going to come from in their biggest hit is a part of the theatre. There are numerous versions which strip the song back, but this might be missing the point somewhat. Scouting for Girls do not make that mistake in their cover. They verge on overwrought in their attempt to keep their emotions in check in the face of a superior worldview.

Susan Wong – He’s The One (World Party cover)

Robbie Williams covering “She’s the One” after Wallinger’s aneurysm worked out well for everyone involved.  The royalties helped Wallinger in a time of need, and Williams got a huge international hit out of it. This has led to this being the most covered World Party song by far. Here Susan Wong brings her delicate sensibilities to a gender-reversed version.

Rosanne Cash – All Come True (World Party cover)

By the time of World Party’s Goodbye Jumbo in 1990 record company expectations were higher and the critical acclaim was huge.  The expectations might have prompted this upbeat song. Optimism trumps cynicism in the original.  In Rosanne Cash’s version the country tone has an undertone of hubris to it, pride coming before a fall.  As such it brings a novel tone to the proceedings. Ultimately Goodbye Jumbo did not fulfil the record company’s ambitions for it, although it is a stunning artistic achievement.  Perhaps Rosanne was right.

World Party – A World Without Love (Peter and Gordon cover)

We’re a beat group pretending to be the Beatles on one side and a hip-hop act with a space station on the other side. – Karl Wallinger

Wallinger never tempered his love of the Beatles, and wore Lennon glasses for much of his career. For a time he worked as a clerk for the music publishers of the band. He could intimate, and imitate, differences in the Liverpool accents of John and Paul. World Party covered several Beatles songs, particularly in their live shows. Here World Party takes on a piece of Paul McCartney juvenalia, which McCartney himself deemed not good enough for The Beatles. Peter and Gordon, who were connected to McCartney via Jane Asher, turned it into a huge hit, albeit one whose saccharine tone does not convince everyone. World Party embellish and improve on the original, and make it more rounded and reasonable.

Shawn Colvin – When the Rainbow Comes (World Party cover)

“Bombastic” describes Michael Bay movies, and probably Michael Bay as well. It does not describe Shawn Colvin. The process by which she landed on the soundtrack for Bay’s Armageddon, alongside Bon Jovi, ZZ Top and Aerosmith, is not a clear one. Nevertheless, she takes another beloved track from Goodbye Jumbo and takes it somewhere new. Whilst Wallinger had The Beatles as his touchstone, he was voracious in his musical tastes. It is a great pleasure to find licks and riffs from a wide canon in his work. “When the Rainbow Comes” has lyrics from The Carpenters, and Colvin leaves them there to continue the thread.

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  4 Responses to “In Memoriam: Karl Wallinger”

Comments (4)
  1. Lovely tribute. My favourite song is Is It Like Today – worth checking out by his Sheryl Crowe and Tim Smith cover

  2. That is a lovely version, thanks for posting.

  3. Here’s another lovely cover of “Is It Like Today”–from Eliza Gilkyson (which was featured on the wonderful ‘Better Things’)

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