May 20, 2008

Back Tracking Volume 2: The Walker Brothers - "Deadlier Than The Male"

In 1966, Britain's biggest band was not The Beatles. Do I have your attention? Okay, now who might you guess was? The Rolling Stones? The Beach Boys, whose Pet Sounds was perhaps the most-beloved record released that year across the pond? Some Motown act whose crossover appeal influenced the burgeoning Northern Soul scene, like, say, The Supremes?

None of the above - or even close. In 1966, three Americans who jumped a ship to the United Kingdom hoping to turn their loose-limbed brand of Hollywood garage pop into piles of money outsold both the Beatles and Stones with a string of cinematic, tightly-controlled, producer-penned-and-engineered tracks. The Walker Brothers put "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" into both the U.S. and British Top Ten, but where their popularity at home waned, it exploded in the U.K. Scott Walker, nee Engel, and his make-believe brothers Gary [Leeds] and John[Maus] were the perfect American counterstrike to the scrappy British Invasion bands that washed everyone except Phil Spector and Louis Armstrong out of the charts in 1964: blonde, stage-ready crooners who took their vocal cues from the Righteous Brothers, their musical ones from... uh... The Righteous Brothers, and their fame just a LITTLE too seriously. But for all the pre-fab hits they cranked out (including the Bacharach/David number "Make it Easy on Yourself"), the rising songwriting talent of Scott Walker would not be fully constrained by his svengali-like management. In That Thing You Do! terms, Scott was Jimmy Mattingly. He just wanted to play HIS songs. He was alone in his principles. But he had the goods, too.

Almost seamlessly, the cinematic sweep of Walker's compositions fit in with the group's established sound -- a huge, reverb-laden, melodramatic take on baroque pop that stood in brooding contrast to the sunny variety of the baroque boomlet that turned both Los Bravos and The Zombies' Odessy and Oracle loose in that same year. At his most excessive, Walker oozes a kind of smug affectation in his delivery that recalls a pretentious, demonstrative sad sack playing "woe is me!" to win the heart of no one in particular, but when The Walker Brothers manage to balance pathos with playfulness, the sound is seismic. Booming drums and weeping strings balance against bright horns and loosely jangling guitars to create a surround-sound panorama (and before "surround sound" existed, no less) that pulls the listener in by his heartstrings. The musical flights of a good Walker Brothers single recall the emotion and stateliness of classic film, with Scott playing Humphrey Bogart as both a vocalist and narrator. There is a fine line between Casablanca and Dr. X that bears notice here, but luckily a few of Walker's early efforts captured Bogey shrugging on the airstrip and not simpering at the top of the sinister mansion staircase.

"Deadlier Than The Male," which was sold as the theme to the movie Heisse Katzen starring Elke Sommer, begins with the kind of orchestral filigree one might expect from a James Bond movie knockoff, but settles into an easy groove of drums, tambourine, bass, and string obligatto. The production of the song places Scott's vocal way out front but its straightforward arrangement leaves plenty of room for John Walker's easy harmony line into the chorus. Like many Walker Brothers songs, the rhythm and melody both vaguely recall an Ennio Morricone film theme. By wisely not overdoing the strings into a weeping, complicated mess (as heard in "My Ship is Coming In," among other Walker Brothers non-starters), arranger Ivor Raymonde - who, incidentally, produced Black is Black for Los Bravos shortly after completing this song for the Walkers - allows the group's strengths to step to the fore. Gary Walker's muscular drumming is one of these (he was the one Walker who played his instrument on most recordings by the group); another is the relaxed vocal interplay of Scott and John.

One of the stranger trends in Walker Brothers songs is that the darker and more dispondent the tone of the piece, lyrically, the happier Scott Walker sounds to sing it. On "Sun Ain't Gonna Shine," for instance, when his vocal soars into tenor range in the chorus, he seems positively beaming to explore the hopelessness of "when you're without love." Ditto horror-movie-flavored "In My Room," which neatly reverses the emotion of Brian Wilson's classic of same name -- Walker narrates a scene in which his lonely room is literally all he has sans his long-gone bride, and in the chorus the line "have all DIED" (referring to "the flowers she left") sounds downright triumphant. And when Scott Walker issues his stern warning about the antagonist of "Deadlier Than The Male," his line "take care, my brother... TAKE CARE" emerges from his deep baritone croon bathed in tones of celebration and exclamation. In contrast, when Walker sings of positive and/or meaningful futures - "Love Her," "First Love Never Dies," and others - he sounds like a cancer patient relating the prognosis to close friends. This, of course, makes sense in context of Walker's cynical and desolate solo work, but even on self-penned Walker Brothers songs like "Archangel" and "Orpheus," which are both pretentious and bloated where "Deadlier Than the Male" is direct and lean, the bathos of his delivery slows the pacing terminally.

Perhaps, then, for combining a glimpse of Walker as a songwriter with the sophisticated energy of the Walker Brothers as an entity, "Deadlier Than The Male" is exceptional. Despite only experiencing a limited run in the U.K. charts (and none in the U.S.), the song remains one of the more sophisticated singles of 1966 -- certainly not of the caliber of "Reach Out (I'll Be There)," "Paint It, Black," "God Only Knows," "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted," or even its spiritual cousin "Walk Away, Renee" by The Left Banke, but an impressive cut above nonetheless.

Here it is in all its widescreen glory framing the credits of Heisse Katzen:

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