Thank You World: Karl Wallinger bids farewell

World Party singer-songwriter dies aged 66

Karl Wallinger the singer-songwriter who was best known for World Party, his almost-solo outfit, has died aged 66, it has been announced.

Wallinger first came to prominence as the touring keyboard player in The Waterboys although his role grew by the time of 1985’s This Is The Sea and Mike Scott has acknowledged his significant contribution in terms of arrangements and his skills as a multi-instrumentalist (Wallinger also co-wrote opener ‘Don’t Bang The Drum’).

Karl left during the This Is The Sea tour to pursue his own solo career (what would become World Party) and the first album Private Revolution was released in 1986. The second single from that long-player, ‘Ship of Fools’ was a significant success, especially in America where, remarkably, it reached No 27 in the Billboard Hot 100. In the UK, the song underachieved, peaking frustratingly just short of the UK top 40 at No 42. Singles being within touching distance of commercial success but not quite getting there, would become a common theme during World Party’s 13 or 14 years of regular activity.

Neither ‘Put The Message in the Box’ or ‘Way Down Now’ – both superb pop songs – from World Party’s undoubted 1990 masterpiece Goodbye Jumbo were a hit, which seems unfathomable now, but Wallinger was probably just too far ahead of the curve with his fusion of sixties songwriting idealism and one-man-band recording techniques. Remember, this was all happening during the embers of PWL, Acid/House, Grunge and the ‘Baggy’ dance/rock scene. Even The Las album (issued six months after Goodbye Jumbo) only peaked at number 30 and neither ‘Timeless Melody’ or ‘There She Goes’ were a hit when first released, to reinforce this point. We’d have to wait three or four more years for Oasis to turn up before the public were seemingly ready for bands to channel The Beatles.

But Goodbye Jumbo is a truly wonderful album. I remember exactly where I bought my copy, in Cheapo Cheapo record shop in Soho, probably around 1991. I don’t remember knowing anything from it at the time but I must have vaguely read or heard something about World Party being quite good. Karl Wallinger could write brilliant tunes with great hooks and lyrics, but it was the sound and the production that made everything work so well. ‘Ain’t Gonna Come ‘Til I’m Ready’ is pure perfection; so many tiny sonic details placed, layered and mixed with precision and Karl sings beautifully with that Prince-like falsetto. He could build a song for days, weeks, months with that studio craftsmanship and then write an achingly simple tune like ‘Love Street’ or the piano ballad ‘Sweet Soul Dream’.

When Goodbye Jumbo entered the the UK album charts at No 41 in May 1990, the top 20 included Paula Abdul, Big Fun, Sonia, Phil Collins, Michael Bolton and the Inspiral Carpets. A week later the album moved up to No. 36 for its single week in the UK top 40, before disappearing. Almost a year later, Ensign (part of Chrysalis) issued ‘Thank You World’ as the third and final UK single but any hope that it might give the album a late boost was dashed by it’s failure to be any kind of a hit (it peaked at No 68).

In spring 1993, a couple of years after the Goodbye Jumbo campaign ended, World Party returned with their third album Bang! and, somewhat against the odds, it was a commercial success! This was all down to the first single, the brilliantly languid and lovely Is It Like Today?, which was a hit, offering the band national exposure on Top of the Pops.

I say it was a ‘hit’, ‘Is It Like Today?’ actually only got to No 19, but hey, so did ‘Losing My Religion’ two years earlier in 1991 and look how much that helped R.E.M.’s Out Of Time. World Party’s Bang! entered the UK album charts at No 2 and only Automatic For The People, R.E.M.’s follow-up to Out Of Time, denied them a number one album.

On reflection, the second single, the funk-rock of ‘Give It All Away’, was perhaps not the song to shoulder the responsibility of maintaining this hard won territory inside the actual pop charts and World Party were back to their old ways of peaking just outside the top 40. It was borderline criminal that the commercially catchy pop of ‘Sooner Or Later’ wasn’t the second single from Bang! and by the time the sunny ‘All I Gave’ was released, in the autumn of 1993, the moment was gone. This period was great in some ways because fans were rewarded with some fantastic CD 1 / CD 2 singles with a plethora of extra tracks, such as an extended version of ‘Give It All Away’ and the excellent ‘Basically’ (B-side to ‘Is It Like Today’).

The wait for the next album, Egyptology, seemed very long at the time, but was actually only four years. Nevertheless, the momentum had gone (Wallinger told me the label encouraged him to get back into the studio rather than tour on the back of the success of Bang!) and ironically having been ahead of the curve with Goodbye Jumbo, Karl had missed the best years of Britpop (1994-5) when World Party’s retro style of pop-rock would have probably been best received. ‘She’s The One’, which was famously a No 1 hit for Robbie Williams in 1999, features on Egyptology, but was only released as a promotional single and at the time with Chrysalis opting for ‘Beautiful Dream’ as the lead track from the album (issued on three different CD singles in the UK). That stalled at No 36 and no more singles were issued. Egyptology had its moments, but it always felt too long and while there was nothing fundamentally wrong with it, the magic was missing to a degree, and it was rather weighed down by solid, if not outstanding numbers.

What we now know as World Party’s last album, Dumbing Up, was released on Karl’s own Seaview label in October 2000. One single, ‘Here Comes The Future’, was put out to little fanfare. Not long after this, in early 2001, Wallinger suffered an aneurysm that left him unable to speak and it took almost half a decade for him to be well enough to make a return, albeit only on stage. The next decade featured a series of sporadic tours, normally in America, although World Party did support Steely Dan in Australia in 2007 (“we were like the naughty kids on their tour”). They played festivals, vineyards and the like and by all accounts had a very pleasant time of it!

Karl was always disinterested in reissues (“I don’t like it when you go to buy a CD and it’s got five other tracks at the end that are basically rubbish versions of other tracks on the album. I hate that” he told SDE in 2012), and even when he grudgingly approved the band’s one and only greatest hits compilation (2006’s Best in Show, not issued in the UK) he didn’t bother sweating over the tracklisting and just looked at the iTunes chart and picked the 13 most downloaded World Party songs (the reason seven tracks are from Goodbye Jumbo).

What Karl did approve, in 2012, which now seems like an amazing gift, was the release of Arkeology, a 70-track anthology (“it isn’t a box set” he insisted). This 5CD set contains no studio album tracks which illustrates just how prolific Karl was, even if he seemed reluctant to actually release anything (surely only Prince could perhaps have put together a similar collection). As well as old B-sides, live cuts and covers, Arkeology included what were new recordings at the time, songs like ‘Everybody’s Falling in Love’ and ‘Photograph’ (finished in 2011). In November 2012, World Party played their first UK show in 12 years at London’s Royal Albert Hall. I was there and it was beautiful.

SDE spoke to Karl at length around this time. He admitted he was “quite insular” and said “I have been locked away in a studio, I do have all the masters up there, and I am my own boss, but in the same way that this Arkeology project is so personal, back then it was always these record companies pulling you into this de-personalised zone. I’m much happier now, I’m able to do my own thing”.

He was a kind man. At end of our conversation (which was conducted on Skype) I asked if he might be able to sort me out with a copy of Arkeology for an SDE competition. He’d surely never heard of this fairly new blog called ‘Super Deluxe Edition’ and had no idea who I was, but on realising I lived in East London he said he would immediately take a copy he had in his home (at the time in North London, he later relocated to Hastings) and put it in a black cab and deliver it to me. When it turned up it came with the lovely handwritten note below, which I will always treasure. Rest in Peace, Karl Wallinger.

Karl’s handwritten note accompanied a copy of Arkeology

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