- Posted on May 13th 2011 5:00PM by James Sullivan
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"So we lost the American war of independence," gushed one radio host at the height of the Walker Brothers' carpet-bagging fame. "So what! We've got the Walker Brothers." The recent death of founding member John Walker is a reminder that this idiosyncratic pop group left behind a long list of admirers, ranging from David Bowie to Radiohead.
Born John Maus, the guitarist who called himself John Walker co-founded the group with Scott Engel, a bassist and baritone crooner who took his new partner's adopted surname a decade before the Ramones played their own name game. Engel had a brief career as a would-be teen idol in the late 1950s, making appearances on Eddie Fisher's variety show. By 1964 he was a masterful bassist and budding arranger.
When the two musicians met another Californian, drummer Gary Leeds, the Walker Brothers decided to take their chances overseas. Leeds, a former member of the Standells, had just toured the UK with P.J. Proby, a Texas-born rock 'n' roller who had become a star in England. In London, they quickly caught on with Dusty Springfield's producer, Johnny Franz, who collaborated with Scott Walker to develop a symphonic pop template to rival Phil Spector's famed Wall of Sound.
The group's third single, a cover of the maudlin Burt Bacharach-Hal David song 'Make It Easy on Yourself,' was an instant smash, reaching the top spot on the UK pop chart. A follow-up, 'The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore,' was another chart-topper, and the group -- particularly Scott Walker -- were suddenly teen-magazine cover boys. Concert crowds grew hysterical. After losing dozens of costly outfits to attacking hordes of girls, the group had to resort to wearing cheap sweaters and T-shirts onstage.
For a moment, their music was everywhere in Swinging London. The Walker Brothers' second No. 1 was allegedly playing on the jukebox when the notorious gangster Ronnie Kray walked into a pub and shot a rival point-blank. "The sun wasn't gonna shine for him anymore," Kray recalled.
Yet as the culture began moving toward psychedelia, the Walker Brothers fell out of favor as quickly as they'd earned it. A bizarre touring package featuring the Walker Brothers, Cat Stevens, Engelbert Humperdinck and an emerging guitarist named Jimi Hendrix made the group seem like ancient history overnight.
Meanwhile, Scott Walker was rebelling against the group's commercial aims and lapsing into depression. A suicide attempt was rumored; the singer took a sabbatical on the Isle of Wight to study Gregorian chant. By 1968, the Walker Brothers were disbanded.
Scott Walker's first solo album was kept from the top spot on the British chart only by the Beatles' 'Sgt. Pepper,' and near the end of the decade he hosted his own BBC program. But each of his subsequent solo albums sold less than the last. His former bandmates had no luck at all with their own solo careers.
A 1975 reunion briefly inspired Walker Brothers nostalgia in England, but the group soon drifted apart once again. After years spent in a self-made wilderness, Scott Walker made eccentric, well-reviewed comebacks with 1995's 'Tilt' and 2006's 'The Drift.' He'd become the Orson Welles of music, he complained: Everyone wanted to take him to lunch, but no one wanted to pay for him to make a record.
"When I have to get it up once every 10 years," said this monkish onetime idol, "it's a tough way to work."