POP: Party spirit

Karl Wallinger of World Party (the one in the glasses) hits 40 soon, but the group's new album indicates that the songwriter is far from ready for a bus pass.
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With his greying beard, dark glasses and long, unruly hair, the rather bohemian-looking man standing in the foyer of Ronnie Scott's jazz club could pass for a saxophone legend, but he is Karl Wallinger of World Party. "You must be a journalist," he says, clocking my tape-recorder and shaking my hand. "I'll be with you in a second." With that, he makes his way to the stage, sits down to sound-check the piano, and knocks out the opening bars of a new song entitled "She's The One". It's a typically Beatlesque ballad, and a reminder that Wallinger, now almost 40, is one of the finest singer-songwriters Britain has produced in the last two decades.

Neatly enough, it was at Ronnie Scott's that Prestatyn-born Wallinger first met Sir Paul McCartney, at a Q magazine awards ceremony in 1990. Back then, it was Wallinger, rather than Noel Gallagher, who was the most noted keeper of the Fab Four's flame, and Q readers were impressed enough to vote World Party's eclectic classic Goodbye Jumbo album of the year. As a self-reliant musical polymath who wrote, performed and produced his own material, Wallinger was also hailed by some critics as the white Prince. This was perhaps his finest hour.

Back in Soho tonight for a show-case gig which will preview songs from his forthcoming album Egyptology (Karl has suggested that dealing with life's vicissitudes is akin to deciphering hieroglyphics, in case you were wondering), Wallinger will be joined onstage by Lightning Seeds drummer Chris Sharrock and John Turnbull, guitarist from Ian Dury and The Blockheads. When we begin the interview in a quieter room downstairs, Wallinger seems a little reluctant to discuss the new album's rather personal subject- matter. Given that he was bereaved three times in the four years that he was working on Egyptology, and given that several songs on the record seem to allude to difficulties in his relationship, this is wholly understandable.

"The album is just about the trials and tribulations of an ordinary bloke who lives in Crouch End," he begins, somewhat guardedly. "There are some songs on the album that I don't mind talking about, though," he adds, preparing to open up a little. "The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb" was just a stream-of-consciousness type lyric which he wrote about three months after his mother died in November, 1995. "It's about that desperate search to make sense out of your loss," he says, "and that point where you reach the epicentre, cool down a bit, and realise that there is simply nothing you can do about it."

Wallinger goes on to explain that he also lost drummer Roy Morgan, who had been a friend since they worked together at ATV Music in the Seventies, and photographer Steve Wallace, who had taken all the shots for World Party's album covers. "Fortunately, I was bequeathed some of Steve's work," he adds. "That wonderful shot of a crystal ball on the cover of the 'Beautiful Dream' single is Steve's, so I guess that's a kind of posthumous tribute."

With its carpe diem sentiment, irresistibly melodic chorus and psychedelia- influenced coda, "Beautiful Dream" is a typical Wallinger composition. "Running around with the world on your shoulder/ you look around and you're just getting older", he sings at one point. A self-directed pep-talk as he approaches middle-age, perhaps? "Yes, undoubtedly," he says, sipping at his capuccino. "It's a bit steep coming from someone who has taken four years to make an album, I suppose, but when that comfortable chubbiness sets in, and you wake up thinking 'Hey! I used to be Peter Pan and now I'm Bernard Manning,' well, it's a spur to get on with it."

I put it to him that with rock musicians such as Neil Young still retaining credibility at 50-plus, artists of Wallinger's comparatively tender years have little to fear if they continue to produce quality material. He agrees that Young is an inspiration, but inevitably it's to McCartney - whose sustained credibility remains a rather moot point - that Wallinger shows most loyalty. "I just love him for being a dope-smoking knight - if he still smokes dope, that is - and I really do like the Flaming Pie album," he says. "There have been some really harsh reviews, but I think he has just become the whipping-boy for the cool brigade because he's a nice guy who still writes songs with the word 'love' in the title. What can I say ? I've tried to record 'Penny Lane' both for fun and as a learning exercise, and lyrically, I still think it's a wonderful snapshot of normality."

As the interview draws to a close, I can't resist asking the six-million dollar question - if he got the call from McCartney tomorrow, would he take on Lennon's mantle and be the fourth Beatle? "I'd be shitting myself large bricks of everything and my waters would certainly tremble," he says, entertaining the fantasy for what one suspects is not the first time. "I'd have to do it, though. It would be rather churlish not to, wouldn't it?" n

The single 'Beautiful Dream' was released this week on Chrysalis Records. The album, 'Egyptology', follows on 16 June