"On this path was there no other way we could have got it worse?"
Life can be strange. 1993’s Bang had flagged up World Party as a band to watch for the rest of the decade. An intelligent retro-pop act, with a frontman that was frequently capable of brilliance, and possessed the ability to stretch his music across genre boundaries, Karl Wallinger and his bandmates should have been held up as an act that others aspired to be. No less a name as Peter Gabriel had sought out Wallinger to collaborate with, and by all reasonable assessment, he should have been a made man, whose albums would regularly tickle the top of the charts during British music’s most retro-obsessed period.
There was trouble ahead though. While Wallinger entered the studio to work with such luminaries Sinead O’Connor, Deep Forest and the aforementioned Peter Gabriel, outside those studios something called Britpop was on the rise, and with it, a weekly music press could make you or break you in a few lines. When Wallinger returned to his World Party and recorded Egyptology in 1997, he released it in a music scene which was considerably more hostile than it had been just four years before. The tastemakers took one look at Wallinger, more mature and worldly than the Britpop hordes, while also less aggressively ‘cool’ as Paul Weller, and on hearing the charming retro-pop of Egyptology, eviscerated it. Rarely in the history of popular music was an album met with such universally dismissive reviews, simply because its creator was mature enough not to have to resort to the swaggering arrogance of the acts that had risen to prominence in his absence. Wallinger just didn’t fit in to what the weeklies felt they should be covering, simply because he wasn’t helping advance their dumb narrative that to be halfway good at guitar music, you needed to possess an incomprehensibly massive ego.
Listening to Egyptology nearly two decades after it was mercilessly torn to shreds, it retains a curious dignity. In retrospect Wallinger’s intelligent songwriting was still on point, he had focused on the guitar pop elements that had worked so well on Bang while dialling down the beats and samples, and created an album’s worth of tunes and then some. Granted, some of the song titles could have done with some work. Quite why Wallinger thought song titles like “The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb” or “Hercules” would hold water is anyone’s guess, but listening to both of those songs now, they’re actually solid and tuneful numbers that perhaps needed one further revision in the lyric and song title departments.
Where Egyptology excels is smart toe-tapping guitar-pop numbers in all their variety. “It is Time” kicks things off with a suitably rallying call for fans to reconvene, “Vanity Fair” has an ambitious arrangement and an immense chorus, and the whole album is a celebration of retro-flecked guitar pop. You know, the stuff that was clogging up the singles and album charts at the time that Egyptology was released, but much, much better. Best of all though was “She’s the One”, an effecting ballad by one of the masters of the craft, showing that hey, towering pop brilliance could be heartfelt as well. It bagged an Ivor Novello award, and quite right too, as it’s a highlight of Wallinger’s long career, and his beautiful, cracked voice made it all that more special.
If Egyptology has a flaw, then it is that it fell into the same trap that many albums of the 90s fell into, in that it was overlong. At fifteen tracks, it could have perhaps lost at least a quarter of its run time, with the lost tracks being used as B-sides to singles. On that subject, the fact that only “Beautiful Dream” was released as a single shows how little interest Chrysalis Records had in promoting Egyptology, especially in the face of such aggressive and vicious reviews. Perhaps they had other things on their mind.
While Egyptology had been savaged by the tastemakers of the era, World Party fans embraced it, and many actually rate it as one of the band’s finest efforts. While this didn’t compensate for the unfair mauling it received, it does go some way to demonstrating that class always wins out, and that the kingmakers of Britpop could be rattled when presented with an album and act that just didn’t fit into their rather myopic world view.
And that would have been that. Egyptology was a good album that was unfairly dismissed, yet still proved to be a good album.
A year or two later I found myself walking in to my parents living room half way through a music video on television. It took me a moment to place the music, and I was quietly delighted to realise it was “She’s the One”. Then I heard the voice and realised something was off. That wasn’t Karl Wallinger. This was bad karaoke. All of the genuine emotion and empathy in Wallinger’s voice had been replaced by an awful attempt to emulate it that had shorn it of all its nuance and vulnerability. As much as it hurt me to get to the end of the video, I had to know who had committed such a crime against music.
Then I saw the name of the act. That name. I was incensed. Robbie Williams. A chilling primal cry for vengeance screamed silently within me.
What got me more than anything, is that someone, someone within Chrysalis records had made the decision to give a prancing buffoon one of the finest songs released on their label in recent years, and they didn’t even bother to change the arrangement. It was almost a carbon copy of the World Party original, just with that idiot’s voice dubbed over the top. They were on the same label. They could have released the World Party version instead, but instead they chose to use one of Wallinger’s best songs to fatten their cash cow. The promotional machine that got the cheap copy to the top of the charts, could have been utilised to increase the visibility of one of their least appreciated acts, get them a number one single, thereby giving Egyptology a long overdue boost in sales, and stuck it to the reviewers that had previously torn the album apart. Okay, so it may not have sold quite as many copies, as Wallinger wasn’t the vacuous pin up that Williams was, but you know, I’d much rather live in a world where talent was prized over how popular you are.
And you know the worst part? Other than the fact that the man behind Robbie Williams, was Wallinger’s sometime collaborator Guy Chambers, who would presumably have some sway on what he recorded, Chrysalis seemingly did it all without offering Wallinger the opportunity to resist the decision.
Egyptology now stands as one of the great missed opportunities in 90s pop music. Taken on its music alone, it’s a great guitar pop album, and certainly among World Party’s finest. It also serves as a warning of what can happen to a great record if it goes against what the tastemakers consider to be what their readers should be listening to.
Wallinger would walk away from Chrysalis Records, and World Party’s next album would be the self released and pointedly titled Dumbing Up in 2000, which given his recent experiences, was more than a little fitting. A year later Wallinger would suffer a brain aneurysm, and it seemed that his music career was up. Ironically the thing that kept the wolf from the door and Wallinger in his recording studio were the royalty cheques for Robbie Williams’ version of “She’s the One”.
Strange thing life.