Home » Karl Wallinger of World Party, the Waterboys dies at 66

Karl Wallinger of World Party, the Waterboys dies at 66

by Marko Florentino
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Karl Wallinger, the mastermind behind the neo-psychedelic pop classicists World Party who also played in the Waterboys during their early years, died Sunday at age 66. His family confirmed his death through his publicist.

Unabashedly steeped in vintage sounds, World Party crackled with Wallinger’s sonic invention and melodic craft, gifts evident on the modern rock hits “Ship of Fools,” “Way Down Now,” “Put the Message in the Box” and “She’s the One,” a song Robbie Williams took to No. 1 in the United Kingdom. Pop singles weren’t explicitly part of Wallinger’s purview, as far as the contemporary charts of the 1980s and 1990s went. Largely recording on his own at his Seaview Studios in the U.K., he synthesized elements of the Beatles — he had a knack for splicing the melodicism of Paul McCartney with the gritty sneer of John Lennon, David Bowie and Bob Dylan, adding a significant dose of playfulness learned from Prince. Wallinger’s hybrid of sumptuous pop, hippie mysticism and postmodern cynicism helped World Party carve out a niche on college rock radio and MTV with their 1987 debut “Private Revolution” and 1990 sophomore release “Goodbye Jumbo.”

Despite Wallinger working as the musical director for Ben Stiller’s 1994 slacker romantic comedy “Reality Bites,” World Party was among the artists swept away by the alternative rock explosion of the early 1990s. Too tuneful and idiosyncratic to compete with the grime of grunge, World Party evolved into a cult act, maintaining a faithful audience but rarely crossing over into the mainstream.

Upon learning of Wallinger’s death, Mike Scott, his old partner in the Waterboys, posted “You are one of the finest musicians I’ve ever known.” Curt Smith of Tears for Fears mentioned, “I was a big fan of Karl’s.”

Born on Oct. 19, 1957, in Prestatyn, Wales, Karl Wallinger developed a love for music in his early childhood, an interest that he continued to cultivate at Charterhouse, a public school that also called every original member of Genesis an alumnus; he later collaborated with Peter Gabriel on an eclectic project called “Big Blue Ball.” Mastering several instruments, Wallinger initially started his professional career as a keyboardist, playing in a group called Pax, which featured Dave Sharp and Nigel Twist, both future members of the Alarm.

After serving as the musical director in a West End production of “The Rocky Horror Show,” Wallinger joined the Waterboys, an ambitious Scottish rock band led by Mike Scott. Wallinger first appeared on 1984’s “A Pagan Place,” the group’s sophomore set, but his collaboration with Scott flourished on “This Is the Sea,” a majestic modern rock record anchored on the single “The Whole of the Moon” and propelled by Wallinger’s lively piano. (The creation of “This Is the Sea” is documented in full on the recent box set “1985.”)

Wallinger’s time with the Waterboys was brief. Courted by Chrysalis as a solo act during the making of “This Is the Sea,” Wallinger left the group by the end of the album’s supporting tour, releasing “Private Revolution” early in 1987. The caustic “Ship of Fools” wound up being a modern rock hit in the U.S., even crossing over to Billboard’s Top 40, turning Wallinger into a hot commodity in the process. He helped Sinead O’Connor create demos for her 1987 debut “The Lion and the Cobra” and arranged “Black Boys on Mopeds” for its 1990 sequel, “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.” O’Connor returned the favor by singing on “Goodbye Jumbo,” the second album from World Party.

“Goodbye Jumbo” was the apex of World Party’s popularity, generating a pair of modern rock hits in “Way Down Now” and “Put the Message in the Box,” earning a Grammy nomination for best alternative music performance while placing 15 on the Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop critics poll. Wallinger designed “Bang!,” its 1993 sequel, as more of a band affair, adding drummer Chris Sharrock and guitarist David Catlin-Birch as official members. Despite the initial success of its melancholy lead single “Is It Like Today?,” “Bang!” struggled to find an audience during the heyday of grunge. When World Party released “Egyptology” in 1997, the band was overshadowed by the clamor of Britpop, a scene as equally enamored of 1960s guitar-pop as Wallinger but skewing considerably younger.

After releasing “Dumbing Up” in 2000, Wallinger suffered a brain aneurysm that necessitated a prolonged recovery period. He reemerged in 2006, playing a live show at South by Southwest, then appearing at Bonnaroo later that year. World Party continued to tour into the mid-2010s, releasing “Arkeology” — a five-disc set of unreleased songs, covers and live material — in 2012.

At the time of his death, Wallinger was at work completing his first new song in 25 years, a composition with the working title of “Change.” He also began planning for a new album and tour.

Wallinger is survived by his wife Suzie Zamit, his son Louis Wallinger, his daughter Nancy Zamit and two grandchildren.

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