“OK, this is an American number one…” This rash, and, as it turned out, woefully inaccurate prediction comes courtesy of Karl Wallinger. One delivered, with due sceptical optimism, in a voice that sounds as if its owner has just O’Ded on nitrous oxide. Then again, if your career had been stymied by an aneuryism and you’d made what minimal fortune you’d amassed thanks to a song Robbie Williams’s people retrieved from a commercially disastrous album, a sense of humour comes in mighty handy.
I’ve never been able to quite decide whether Karl, the head, hands, feet and minor genius behind a sometime “band” marketed as World Party, is the Celtic Macca or the Prince of Prestatyn: to this particular pair of slightly misshapen ears, both these pet noms de guerre constitute an only slightly exaggerated reflection of his grossly and unfairly underappreciated powers. The release of Arkeology, a five-CD collection packaged ingeniously yet defiantly old-fashionedly in a ring-bound diary, has merely affirmed this shameless lack of disinterest.
Comprising 70 tracks of outtakes and live recordings, it showcases a magpie so remarkable he can even persuade you he has added something fresh to the familiar even though he goes more for gentle tweaking than reinterpretation. The other day I went to my local record store (look who’s the lucky one) and exchanged raves with the owner, a musical soul brother with whom I must confess, shamefully, I have never even shared names. He’d never given the original more than a cursory listen and I’d always adored it, but neither of us could get our strictly metaphorical needle off the grooves of Fixing A Hole. Takes on Cry Baby Cry, Happiness Is A Warm Gun and Dear Prudence stand further testimony to both the source of Karl’s inspiration and the Wallinger family vinyl collection, a lean creature that during his boyhood amounted to approximately 40 singles and 15 LPs.
Then there’s that US No.1 That Wasn’t But Bloody Well Shoulda Bin, What Is Love All About? According to the skimpy details, the only difference between this 1992 version than the one that wound up on Bang! is a different drum mix, the handiwork of David Bowie’s former skinsman Andy Newmark. It’s longer, zestier and bouncier, Karl’s jaunty pianistics in particular kindling memories of Monkberry Moon Delight, my very favourite Macca confection. He’s even enough of a slave to all things Macca to resurrect Man We Was Lonely, though one reviewer had got so confused by this juncture he thought it was a Wallinger original, describing it as “Wings-like”. Which must have tickled old Karl.
Not that our Karl is exclusively a Moptop man. While making distinctiveness elusive, having a chameleon for a voice has its plus points. Kuwait City from the same sessions is Beach Boys-meets-Saddam-Hussain; Paisley Park’s chief ranger is aped miraculously on It Ain’t Gonna Work; the live-in-LA version of Like A Rolling Stone is angrier than Bobby Z’s; Who Are You is a skiffly Subterranean Homesick Blues pumped up to No.11:
Maybe sunstops caused the blindness
Maybe someone crept up behind us
Maybe something deep inside us wants the opposite of best
“I looked for a rubbish bit,” admitted Word magazine’s Rob Fitzpatrick, “but couldn’t find it, sorry.” To say I know how he feels is, of course, to lay myself wide-leggedly open to allegations of the most grievous of crimes against commercialkind: an insistence on living in even the recent past. Guilty, m’lud. Horribly guilty. But that’s not the only reason I’m currently, hopelessly, irredeemably in lurve with Arkaeology.
There’s only so many notes you can perm, only so many instruments and sound effects you can pile on to mask that innate, unavoidable restriction. What floats this boat about Wallingerland, what floated it from the opening chords of Ship of Fools from that maiden post-Waterboys outing, Private Revolution, through to 2000’s pre-aneurysim Dumbing Up, is that fusion of passion, wisdom, reverence, nudge-wink knowingness, wittily indignant wrath, exemplary taste, unbridled enthusiasm, humanitarian warmth and sheer unadulterated tunefulness. A rare package in any language.
Try the live blast of Call Me Up for Johnny Walker’s GLR show featuring that estimable Blockhead string-plucker John Turnbull: part-Lady Madonna, part-Day In The Life, utterly uncynical, wholly Wallingeresque. Then check out the diary, especially the entries for July 25 (“Doo Wah Diddy Diddy Dum Diddy Do Day”) and October 19 (“Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah Day”), not to mention the quotes from Luis Bunuel (“I am an atheist still, thank God”), Bertrand Russell (“I’ve become a Bertrand Russell salesman,” he tells one crowd, “he doesn’t talk bullshit unlike anyone who controls anything”) and Willie the Shake. The last of these seems most pertinent to an appreciation of the Wallinger schtick: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so…”
“Have you ever been to Love Street, and tried on all the shoes?” he wonders on the ditty celebrating the same address. Recorded at Tennessee’s 2006 Bonaroo Festival (so accustomed does one become to the author’s musical hinterland, you half-expect him to call it the Desitively Dr John Mix), it’s a swoonsomely tender goosebumper of a song recast, reinvented and enriched by David Duffy’s sweetly sombre violin. The only word for it is beautiful.
Karl Wallinger has tried on all the shoes, worn out most of his socks and pounded the streets from Memphis to Maesteg. Is it too late for him to broaden his audience, to reap the recognition he deserves? Probably. Then again, I can find more Todd Rundgren and Laura Nyro CDs at HMV these days than at any time in their careers, so anything is possible. Here’s to Karl’s larks ascending.