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The rise of the Walker Brothers and the terrifying reality of pop mania

The Walker Brothers
(Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Forget The Beatles. By the spring of 1966 it was all about the Walker Brothers. Shrieking fans followed them everywhere. Shows were abandoned right from the start, with hysterical crowds intent on grabbing whatever souvenirs they could. 

“As soon as the three of us began playing our instruments, the girls ran on to the stage and attacked us, ripping our clothes and hair, knocking us over, pulling out cables and wreaking havoc everywhere,” recalled John Walker. “It was complete chaos and mayhem.” 

The price of Walkermania was routinely measured in hard knocks. John passed out after a bunch of teenage girls choked him while ripping off his polo-neck sweater. Another time, while being chased down a flight of stairs he fell and smashed his head open. A desperate Scott Walker, sick of returning home bloodied and torn, and then to have fans pounding on his windows, took to wearing disguises in public. 

Gary Walker suffered similar intrusion. “The fans were like caged animals,” he said in his and John’s book The Walker Brothers: No Regrets. “They had glazed eyes… like looking into the eyes of predatory lions and tigers.” 

At that point, the Walker Brothers’ fan club was reportedly bigger than The Beatles’. It wasn’t difficult to understand their popularity. With their pin-up looks and sumptuous music – symphonic hymns to heartache and despair, set to Spector-like arrangements that inflamed the emotions – they were the antidote to 60s beat group pop.

The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore topped the UK singles chart in March ’66, staying put for four weeks. It was the Walker Brothers’ second No.1, after Make It Easy On Yourself, and established the trio as America’s most popular musical export. But it was all too intense to sustain itself. Especially for the deeply private Scott, who struggled with stage fright and quickly came to despise the trappings of celebrity. 

There were rumours of fall-outs, breakdowns and monastic escapes. By May 1967, the press announced that the Walker Brothers had split. It wasn’t quite true (they reunited briefly the following year for a Japanese tour), but to all intents and purposes they were finished. 

There would be an unexpected second act to the Walker Brothers’ career, when they regrouped in the mid-70s. By then Scott Walker had established himself as pop’s greatest enigma, a reclusive cult hero intent on following his own unique creative arc. History, however, has a habit of repeating itself. 

For the second and final time, the Walker Brothers’ commercial prospects became a casualty of his singular journey into the avant garde. 

“It’d make a great tragedy, the Walker Brothers story,” commented Scott. “It beats Hamlet.”

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The Walker Brothers were never quite what they seemed. For starters, they weren’t brothers at all. Each member had taken a different path to stardom. Raised in Ohio, the precocious Scott Engel landed roles in a couple of Broadway musicals as a teenager and was briefly mentored by actor/crooner Eddie Fisher. 

He was just 14 when he recorded his first single, 1957’s When Is A Boy A Man, and was billed as fresh-faced ‘Scotty Engel’. After arriving in Los Angeles two years later, his proficiency on bass led to steady session work and a regular spot in the instrumental surf combo The Routers. 

One local gig in 1962, at Pandora’s Box, brought him into contact with John Maus, another former child actor, who was then singer-guitarist in a duo with his sister Judy. After a couple of false starts, by 1964 Maus and Engel were playing regularly as the Walker Brothers Trio (the adoption of the ubiquitous ‘Walker’ was John’s idea), alongside drummer Al ‘Tiny’ Schneider.

A residency at Gazzarri’s, a happening nightclub on LA’s Sunset Strip, opened doors. They appeared on the TV show Shindig! and, having dropped the ‘Trio’ bit, secured a deal with Mercury Records. 

Under the guidance of arranger Jack Nitzsche, best known for his ‘Wall Of Sound’ collaborations with legendary producer Phil Spector, in January 1965 the Walker Brothers laid down their blueprint with their second single, Love Her, a Brill Building ballad driven by Scott’s sensuous baritone. 

By this time, Maus and Engel had already befriended Gary Leeds, ex-drummer with The Standells. Leeds had recently been touring the UK with British singer PJ Proby, a stint that convinced him that the Walker Brothers’ sound and longhaired image was better suited to the British market. A Europhile at heart, Engel didn’t need much persuading.

“Gary said we could do really well there,” he recalled. “I wanted to get out of America anyway and go to Europe, because I’d always been a European film freak. I wanted to see if I could meet Ingmar Bergman and a few other people.” 

With Schneider bowing out, the Walker Brothers secured a $10,000 loan from Leeds’s father and flew into London that February. It was good timing. The Righteous Brothers were then top of the charts with You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, a song from the same songwriting stable – Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil – as Love Her. The Walker Brothers signed a deal with Philips Records, an affiliate of Mercury, and soon found themselves on tour with The Yardbirds.

UK audiences took to the Walker Brothers immediately. An appearance on weekly pop show Thank Your Lucky Stars, recorded at ABC Television studios in Birmingham, was their introduction to fan delirium. 

“Suddenly they hit us and damn near tore us apart,” Scott recalled of trying to enter the studio. “I got inside and I was shocked and bleeding…‘Jesus Christ!’ was all I could say.” Success was equally swift. In the wake of the Righteous Brother’s success the Walkers’ version of Love Her cracked the UK Top 20 in the early summer of ’65. John Walker suggested reviving Bacharach and David’s break-up ballad Make It Easy On Yourself, previously a US hit for Jerry Butler, as a follow-up.

For the recording of that song producer Johnny Franz brought in a full orchestra, with Ivor Raymonde creating a lavish arrangement. It was perfect for Scott, whose sonorous delivery mined the acute agonies of separation in a way that few others could match. 

“That one really established the formula,” Gary explained to interviewer Mark Paytress years later. “From then on we’d find these big, beautiful, romantic songs that made everyone cry.” 

Make It Easy On Yourself rose to the top of the UK singles chart that September, dislodging the Rolling Stones(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. It went on to sell more than a million copies worldwide, making superstars of the Walker Brothers, especially lead singer Scott. 

A hit album, Take It Easy With The Walker Brothers, kept the momentum going. As did another flawless melodrama, standalone single, My Ship Is Coming In. By the time Walkermania peaked in March 1966, with their huge-production take on Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe’s The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, Scott Walker was struggling to cope with it all. Essentially a prisoner in his own house, with gangs of teenage girls outside, he drew the curtains and retreated into his own inner space. 

“He didn’t like being famous,” Gary observed. “And the more famous he got, the more he hid away. And the more he hid away, the more people wanted to see him.” 

Scott took to wandering the streets alone at night, the only time he was able to slip out unnoticed. For someone who defined himself as an existentialist – “A person who needs no other people, a world in himself,” he told the NME – being a pop star was painful. He sought refuge in the studio, spending hours honing his vocals, take after take. His meticulousness extended to the arrangements and overall sound, becoming more and more involved in the technical process. And the business of songwriting. 

A second Walker Brothers album, Portrait, was released in August. That same month, reports in the music press stated that Scott had been found unconscious in his flat, necessitating a stay in a Paddington hospital to have his stomach pumped. He refused to discuss it afterwards, even with his bandmates. 

In November ’66 he snuck off to Quarr Abbey, a monastery on the Isle of Wight, to study Gregorian chant. Alas, he had to leave early when fans discovered the place. 

There was a small handful of further hits, but theWalker Brothers had started to feud between themselves. They undertook a final tour in April ’67 (topping an odd-mix bill that also included Cat Stevens, Engelbert Humperdinck and the Jimi Hendrix Experience), bowing out with the show at Tooting Granada. Contractually tied to another album, they recorded Images, which consisted mostly of uninspired covers. 

“For the first time in some years I feel free,” a relieved Scott told the NME. “There are no longer two other guys on my back to take into consideration. I’m going to do what I want to do.” He duly threw himself into a solo career, as did John and Gary, the latter fronting The Rain.

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They may well have continued in that vein, had Scott not lost his way in the early 70s, releasing a series of poorly received albums.

“I think I did temporarily go crazy, because I don’t remember the period at all very well,” he admitted to The Guardian decades later. He was therefore highly receptive to an out-of-the-blue phone call from John, suggesting aWalker Brothers reunion, in late 1974. 

It started well enough. The three of them were all suntans and smiles on the sleeve of the resulting No Regrets. And while that comeback album was patchy, there was no denying the emotional weight of its extraordinary title track, a Tom Rush cover made lush by a stately arrangement and Scott’s devastating voice. Released as a single, it breezed into the UK Top 10 in early 1976. 

Sadly, that was as good as it got. Their next album, Lines, a largely flaccid set of covers, failed to even make it into the UK chart. 

“I was left wondering what had happened to that natural Walker Brothers feeling,” rued a disconsolate John. 

There would be one last hurrah from the Walker Brothers. Released in July 1978, Nite Flights defied all preconceptions. Out went the ploddy covers, in came a bunch of daring originals that bore little relation to what had gone before. 

Scott’s four contributions in particular were extraordinary, aligning themselves to David Bowie’s recent adventures in sound on his albums Low and “Heroes”: squally sax, icy synthesisers, industrial guitar, free-form lyrics. The real jewel was mini-epic The Electrician, a forbidding ambient piece ruptured by strings and flamenco guitar.

Nite Flights might have bombed commercially (another album that didn’t even make the charts), but it served to reignite Scott’s ambitions as a solo artist. After an ill-starred cabaret tour, during which John claimed Scott had lost interest completely, the Walker Brothers split. 

John returned home to America, Gary started a business “making reproductions of famous castles out of sand”, and Scott signed a solo deal with Virgin. For Scott, it was the beginning of a fascinating, if sporadic, journey into deep abstraction. 

Any faint hopes of a Walker Brothers reunion were quashed by John’s death in 2011. Scott passed away eight years later. By then, though, the Walker Brothers had long passed into legend.

“Those of us who lived through that time know that it was unique in history,” John once said, reflecting on the band’s meteoric rise during the height of Swinging Sixties pop culture.“I was lucky enough to be in the middle of that phenomenon."

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Why I ❤️ The Walker Brothers, by Foo Fighters' Nate Mendel

I’m the opposite of Taylor Hawkins – I don’t have a deep knowledge of rock’n’roll. If I didn’t run across it as a kid, I don’t know anything about it. 

So for years, Scott Walker was just this name I knew. But one day I was rooting around for something to listen to and I thought I’d check it out. It was this crazy Burt Bacharach shit. 

So I go deeper, and I learn about all the different eras of his life, including the period in the Walker Brothers where they made the Nite Flights album in the mid-seventies. 

That was kind of like their equivalent of Bowie’s Berlin period – this dark, weird thing that’s a world away from The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore. It was mind-blowing.