Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Electric Banana—
Even More Electric Banana


Released 1969 on Music De Wolfe
The Seth Man, November 2005ce
“The members of the band have acquired more than 61 convictions for offences against the crown, including assault with a deadly weapon, unlawful possession of a sawn off shotgun, obscene behaviour, destruction of property, destruction of a civil aircraft in flight, conspiracy to pervert an unlawful assembly, incitement to riot, and possession of unlawful Class “A” drugs. They’ve even been banned for life from an entire continent.”
- “The Birth of Rock Opera: S.F. Sorrow Is Reborn,” T Max (1998)



As evidenced by their above resume, The Pretty Things were not a typical rock’n’roll band by any means.

And neither was their music: accordingly roughhewn and blessed without a hint of showbiz decorum that the 1964 pop world not only expected but demanded (the sole exception being their mercifully short-lived matching vest period) The Pretty Things defied all conventions every way they could... by oozing frustration from every pore that ranneth over and upon their earliest records in a spirited, slobbering mess of R&B/blues that cut to the primal core. And they had the looks to match their brain-beating soundtrack: The lead singer possessed a tortured larynx on the inside and long hair way before the tresses of Rick Andridge, Wally Tax and Ozzy Osbourne (who he somewhat resembled) went similarly south. Their sharp-eared guitarist was bearded and looked twice as old as the others and had even done time in a proto-Stones band with Keith Richards. Their hooligan drummer was a baggy-eyed maniac who favoured pork pie hats and unpredictable behaviour both behind and in front of his kit while managing to take the lion’s share of most of the black mark’d indictments listed above. And finally, the other two members of this mob raked and plucked up a rickety racket behind it all while looking damaged in a similar manner Mick Jagger would muse years later over his own guitar-wielding cohorts. So it was little wonder that their concerts created riots because they WERE a riot. Or, as one contemporary source nailed it while introducing the band to a frothing crowd of hopped up beat fans: “A pretty girl is like a melody...My Pretty Things...are like a big sound!!”

And with an attitude as big to match, they let loose with an upstart sound that was likewise incorrigible as fuck and raw and minimal as a pile of saw-toothed, splintery planks banged together during an overnight booze-up into a cubist nightmare called ‘home’ AND it managed to keep the rain out and the hearth lit as an endless double tap of lager fitted with a pair of brass balls just kept on flowing (It just occurred to me I could’ve just as easily been describing The Pistols for the past couple of sentences, but never mind and onto the main creature feature: ‘fore I wind up entitling this whole shebang “Your Pretty Things Is A-Going To Hell (And It’s Hard To Beat)” or “Between Fontana & Harvest: The Pretty Things Freak Out - 1967-1969” not least of all because I like a good cavort, but because that particular period of incubation was what set up and is integral to the period when The Pretties cut a hearty baker’s dozen on the side under the assumed alias of -- get this -- Electric Banana. I dunno know why, either except maybe because the boys were hard up after footing the production costs for the gatefold of ‘S.F. Sorrow” out of their own pockets once EMI passed the buck, no lie.)

Anyway, I hope that this crash course on these ravers will be of some or at least little use to the rock’n’rollers, archivists, completists, and/or enthusiasts of the hard rock idiom out there because The Pretty Things during this point in time was a band whose creativity was on fire as they produced one hell of a series of hubbubs that connected the earliest R&B rave-ups to primal garage punk puke-ups to psychedelia and heavy rock just before that junction of the sixties with the seventies. And since that comprises a huge chunk of the music I adore without reservation, well, here ‘tis...

Between the latter halves of 1967 and 1969, The Pretty Things found themselves at a crossroads that would turn out to be the headiest of their career in terms of experimental and artistic success, with an output littered throughout the most unlikely of places. Ranging from an abortive album backing a French millionaire, two film appearances, recording two outstanding psychedelic singles and the first concept album in Rock as all the while carrying on with a parallel career as a pseudonymous band for a film music archive, The Pretty Things could truly be said to have done it all within those two short years. It was as if their previous incarnation as pioneering aggro-fuelled R&B primitives with several top UK hits under their belt belonged to a different entity altogether, and they would prove time and time again to be overqualified with adapting to each new musical situation they took on, which speaks great volumes regarding their determination and bottomless reserve of creative energy.

At the onset of 1967, all that remained of the original lineup were vocalist Phil May and guitarist Dick Taylor, while Skip Alan was retained on drums since replacing founding drummer/looner module Vivian Prince two years earlier. Rounding out the lineup for the past year and a half were ex-Bern Elliot & The Fenmen sidemen Wally Waller (bass, vocals and keyboards) and John Povey (keyboards as well as deputising on drums when the occasion called for it.) This five-piece continued until springtime of 1968 when Alan quit and was replaced by John “Twink” Alder, ex-drummer for The Fairies, In Crowd, Tomorrow and the recently departed studio group, The Aquarian Age. More than a capful of magic at the time, Twink brought along not only his drumming but a theatrical sense to The Pretties’ in-concert performances with pantomime, clambering atop amplifiers, waving ash wands at the audience and many other likeminded antics that enlivened the proceedings greatly with hobbity mindfucking galore.

But before this psychedelicising switch in the big beat department, the five-man Pretty Things experienced a major impetus for change with the recording of “Emotions,” their third and final album on Fontana. This transitory LP found them thrust wholesale into the unfamiliar world of commercial pop and although consequently written off by the band (May later pronounced it ‘a real lash up’) “Emotions” did at least hold the valuable experience of working with an outside influence when paired with arranger Reg Tilsley. Although his orchestral bent did unnaturally smooth over their former roughshod qualities, the experience did at least add another dimension to their considerable arsenal of R&B/blues mixed with a loose cocktail of uncompromisin’ attitudinalisin’ that they had recently been throwing up lately on singles like “Get A Buzz” and “Midnight To Six Man.” But diametrically opposed to these ravers, deeply moody laments like the evocative “Can’t Stand The Pain” and the tough-but-tender-ballad-sneering of ‘You Don’t Believe Me” were served up simultaneously, casting an effective psychological contrast upon their records that would only grow.1

However, it was only temporarily that the rougher facet of The Pretty Things was waylaid by the light pop arrangements that dominated “Emotions,” as the balance quickly redressed itself with a total break from all previous manifestations when they took a sudden psychedelic nosedive with their first single for Columbia/EMI, “Defecting Grey”/“Mr. Evasion.” Originally demoed at over eight minutes in length and eventually shaved down to six (despite EMI’s petitioning to cut it down to three) both sides were driven by complex arrangements while its dense production colourations came courtesy of the label’s in-house producer, Norman Smith. Recorded at Abbey Road Studios where Smith had recently wrapped up engineering and production roles on “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Piper At The Gates of Dawn,” the single bore unmistakable elements from both albums, combined with the significant acquisition (and subsequent psychedelic retooling) of Beach Boys-inf(l)ected harmony vocal modulations (circa topping The Beatles in the Melody Maker poll in the ‘Best Vocal Group’ category.) All three of these divergent strands came together with The Pretties’ own redoubtable strengths and were integrated with the seamless of ease on “Defecting Grey” as multi-layered overdubbing and multi-tiered passages kept shifting every other chorus into a different sequence of rave-up, freak out or knees up. The B-side was another saucerful of mystery majesties secrets altogether, as was the follow up “Talkin’ About The Good Times”/“Walking Through My Dreams.” And all four of these sides pointed to the destination that culminated with their most ambitious album to date: “S.F. Sorrow.” With even more expansive a breadth of production and vision, the album was based on a storyline conceived by May and work continued on the project for months at Abbey Road Studios. Experiments were hatched on the spot, in-house technicians wheeled in a battery of electronic concoctions to match the creativity already in the process of outdoing itself. But despite its stunning results, this now widely championed album wound up selling so poorly at the time of its release that it caused the now-confused Pretty Things to pause and bide their time before their next release...Which they did by working out new material under the cover of the Electric Banana alias.

As previously mentioned, The Pretty Things had already begun to engage in recording a series of music library albums under this obtuse name for the archives of De Wolfe Music, a company that syndicated recordings worldwide for commercial use in film, television and radio. With a diverse selection of titles including “Industrial Complex” (‘Big industrial sounds by The International Studio Orchestra’), “Trend Setter” (‘The International Studio Orchestra in various moods’) and -- sound of a penny dropping -- “Tilsley Orchestra No. 4” (‘Big band and strings’) these albums were unavailable through retail music outlets, which is why the Electric Banana releases would remain all but unknown for the next ten years.

Comprised of tracks with vocals on side one (and the same tracks repeated on side two without vocals as readymade instrumentals) by 1968 The Pretties had completed two such albums for De Wolfe -- The eponymous “Electric Banana” which they cut with accompaniment by Tilsley, his baton and orchestra during the “Emotions” era: “More Electric Banana” which was a far more Rock effort in keeping with the direction they were already exploring with the “S.F. Sorrow” sessions (as evidenced by the preview of an early work-in-progress version of “I See You.”) But it was their third (and once again, generically-titled offering) “Even More Electric Banana” that would turn out to be the strongest of the entire series.2 Whereas the previous two outings echoed the approaches of the albums The Pretties were working on concurrently, 1969’s “Even More Electric Banana” did not, despite a prolific outpouring of songs that were conceived that year and in fact, it would not: for no new Pretty Things album would be forthcoming until 1970’s “Parachute.”

With that said, glimpses of what a virtual ’69 Pretty Things album may have sounded like resides on “Even More Electric Banana” in the form of five excellent tracks that are all unvarnished, live-run-throughs-in-the-studio that lacked Norman Smith’s “S.F. Sorrow” ornamentations. Many of these tracks evolved during the summer of 1968 in-between takes during the shooting of “What’s Good For The Goose” a light comedy which featured segments of them miming in the discothèque scenes. Although the same-named main title of the film (plus the sole un-Pretties instrumental, “The Dark Theme”) were the weakest links of the album, the remainder of the material is driving, robust Rock refracted through a hardened psychedelic lens.

The highlights of the set are oddly enough, the two places where Waller and not May sing lead: “Alexander” and “Eagle’s Son.” Taking place of pride as the album’s most finished, full-sounding and full-on occupants, the flammable lead fuzz guitar of Dick Taylor that merges into the organ to create a snarling combination begs comparison to his razing work on “S.F. Sorrow” (“Balloon Burning” and “Old Man Going” spring immediately to mind) as well as the parts he would contribute to the first Hawkwind album and perhaps even a seed of The Pink Fairies that Twink spirited off to plant in his solo album, “Think Pink.” Any which way you look at it, Taylor’s ever-underestimated guitar work burns down all over the place here, and the overall band chemistry walks a swift and hard tightrope straight down the line.

“Alexander” cracks open the album with a brief syncopated pandemonium of drums and with the entry of weirdly piercing organ trills falling into crosstalk with the soaring rhythm guitar during the verses that recount glimpses of love, promise and death with mythical proportions. Wally Waller handles the vocals here with greatly staggered, halting cadence:


“Poet dies stabbed with the knife of words...”
“Young girl marries with bouquet of letters...”
“One life explodes and slides into the sea...”


And all the while, the three-part harmony chorus rings out over the din and across the entire Mediterranean:


“You...Loving me...Like a fire god...”


As all the while, he keeps pumping the bass pumped up and driving as the drums hammer, mean cymbals crash as the whole piece constantly revolves and swirls from side to side. One of the best tracks from their psychedelic period, “Alexander” showed the post-psychedelic Pretty Things not only gaining ground into harder edged Rock territory, but also mastering it. How I wish they’d recorded an album in 1969: it would’ve been heavy as Hel, I know it. 3

“It’ll Never Be Me” takes a roughed up and simplified riff off “She Says Good Morning” and customises it with May sneering a mockery over the track’s broken crockery like Johns Lydon and Lennon while donning Ozzy’s tragic chorus mask bawl to soar throughout the harmony vocal sections. This mid-tempo stomp is rough and loose, and you can hear someone either giving the cue, delivering a half-assed response to May’s call or just taking the piss out of it all. The mood immediately drops into the raging and aching heaviness with attached lead weights of “Eagle’s Son.” Dick Taylor’s lead guitar features wildly here, exploding with unforgiving electricity, sensitive to the rhythm and responsive all at once with deft tone control and a highly focussed rhythmic sense as it punctuates every other line of the requiem with ferociously sustained fuzz/wah-wah counterpoint to claw and rend the sky like the gaping maw of death:


“Eagle’s son...

When you feel somebody there
A-tugging at your sleeve
(WAH-HHHHAAAAWWOOOUUUWWWW...)
(WAH-HHHHAAAAWWOOOUUUWWWW...)
Death it wears a uniform
Is asking you to leave
(WAH-HHHHAAAAWWOOOUUUWWWW...)
(WAH-HHHHAAAAWWOOOUUUWWWW...)

Flags are waving
Mean cymbals crash
You must not be last

Eagle’s son...

Countries smitten with the war
They burn beneath the sky
(WAH-HHHHAAAAWWOOOUUUWWWW...)
(WAH-HHHHAAAAWWOOOUUUWWWW...)
We don’t want to kill you
We’re just asking you to die
(WAH-HHHHAAAAWWOOOUUUWWWW...)
(WAH-HHHHAAAAWWOOOUUUWWWW...)

Eagle’s son...

When you saw the enemy
I heard you turn and run
(WAH-HHHHAAAAWWOOOUUUWWWW...)
(WAH-HHHHAAAAWWOOOUUUWWWW...)
But now your soul flies higher
Now they’ve taken away your gun
(WAH-HHHHAAAAWWOOOUUUWWWW...)
(WAH-HHHHAAAAWWOOOUUUWWWW...)

Eagle’s son...”


(And the compressed guitar solo wedged in the middle is one of the finest and most intense Taylor ever did play. That and the mental free form meltdown on “Old Man Going.”)

Continuing the pace with razor-edged and sinewy fuzz guitar, “Blow Your Mind” is more a blasting rave up with a brief tune tacked to its helm than a song with an instrumental tail out. The return of that searing organ/ fuzz guitar combo gains ground to fires up the track to more wild paces until it spins out of control and becomes unbearable to surmount any further and falls off. ‘Up tempo-freaky’ reads the next track description. And with a dead-giveaway title like “Rave Up”, little wonder it sounds every inch the set-ending bash up it most certainly was in live performance. Some frothing Dick Taylor guitar soloing, that careening high-pitched organ, May punctuating the mounting anarchic mess with “Yeah!,” “All right now, yeah!” and other such worthy one-liners that signal it’s time to just go for broke completely. Which they do -- and did do two months after the first Isle of Wight Festival during their performance at the Actuel Festival held in Amougies, Belgium. A brief portion was used in the film “Music Power” and caught them under very similar freak-out circumstances, a possible outro jam of their encore of The Byrds’ “Why.” May’s vocal mantra is the phrase “I See Fuzz,” John Povey walks barefoot and precarious towards the unmanned drum kit as Twink is already freaking out the audience with mime, a menacingly raised floor tom and blown kisses...

It may very well have been the last, if not one of the last live performances of the group in this incarnation, as Dick Taylor bowed out of the band by late ‘69 for a short stint as producer, quickly replaced by Edgar Broughton Band guitarist Victor Unitt. Twink also took his leave at this time to fly with The Pink Fairies, with Skip Alan returning back to the fold on drums. The Pretties were now shunted off from Columbia by EMI to its newly-formed progressive offshoot label, Harvest where they would remain for only one album and a clutch of singles before temporarily heading into a half year’s sabbatical. Only Phil May would remain the sole original member as the group carried onward throughout the better part of the seventies before winding down. Sporadic activity continuing throughout the eighties, but major reactivation in the late nineties has since seen them treading the boards far and wide, performing one of the earliest live broadcasts via the internet, overseeing the re-release of their impressive back catalogue and generally unwilling to never say never or let sleeping dogs lie while turning on yet another generation of snotsters to be in the process. Bravo, gentlemen of endurance, may you keep bringing on the “big sound” for many, many years to come.


Special thanks and acknowledgements must go to UGLY THINGS editor Mike Stax for lending an ear, clearing the air and most of all: for championing The Pretty Things on perpetual front burner just so the rest of us would only remember their achievements for decades to come. I’ve never forgotten and I know I’m not alone cuz the evidence is ridiculously abundant with the sight of a Pretty Things section in retail shops large and small when time was, all you had to go on were umpteen copies of “Savage Eye” swamping the miscellaneous “P” sections (which despite its Hipgnosis sleeve and Swan Song/Zep affiliations, just wasn’t enough to sway the teenage me of perennial cash flow problems any more than Bowie’s renditions on his respectful yet blatantly mirror-kissing-his-“heroes” Ziggy-stopgap, “Pin-Ups.” However, both did echo with a not inconsiderable weight that registered The Pretty Things in the back of my mind as candidates for future perusal. Which finally came not a moment too soon/half a decade later when the then-emerging Edsel label released “Let Me Hear The Choir Sing,” a compilation that laid out a perfect primer of The Pretties as they were at their earliest -- in all their brilliant, sloppy and demented R&B grandeur.)




FOOTNOTES:
  1. This sense of heavy contrasts would serve The Pretties well, with songwriter Phil May’s material flourishing through everything from diamond hard rave-ups to the gentlest of ballads. And it was the reining in of these polar oppositions in May’s muse that would wind up in its logical conclusion on “Parachute,” an album whose contrasting themes each comprised an album side. Grappling with the fallout of Altamont and its attendant demons and collaged with “Easy Rider” imagery, the themes of urban/oppression and pastoral/freedom operated as a glimmer of hope nailed to the bare wood of despair in a makeshift shelter or even, altar.
  2. Various incarnations of The Pretty Things would wind up recording a total of five albums for De Wolfe under the Electric Banana banner. But revolving personnel and changes in musical direction within the group caused the final two installments, “Hot Licks” (1970) and “Return of the Electric Banana” (1978) to sound like a different bunch of bananas altogether as they fell far short of the experimental boundaries and power previously exhibited.
  3. Even though that’s just conjecture on my part and not hard fact, the band did think enough of “Alexander” to include it in their May, 1969 BBC session as well as a track for the Philippe DeBarge album recorded the same year (it remains unreleased to this day.) DeBarge was a wealthy Frenchman and avid fan of the band, and he floated an offer to the band to stay at his villa and record an album. Along with “Alexander” and “Eagle’s Son,” nine other songs were worked on: “Hello,” “You Might Even,” “Send You With Lovin’,” “Running You And Me,” “Peace,” “A New Day,” “It’ll Never Be Me,” “Check Out” and “They’re All Gone Now.”


Electric Banana Discography: 1967-1969
“Electric Banana” (De Wolfe Music) 1967
“More Electric Banana” (De Wolfe Music) 1968
“Even More Electric Banana” (De Wolfe Music) 1969

Reissues
“Electric Banana: The Sixties” (Butt) 1979
“Electric Banana” (Repertoire) 1991
“More Electric Banana” (Repertoire) 1991
“The Electric Banana Blows Your Mind” (Carnabeat) 1999
“Rave Up With The Electric Banana” (Guerssen) 2005