Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The Pretty Things—
October 26/Cold Stone


Released 1970 on Harvest
The Seth Man, February 2006ce
The “October 26” / “Cold Stone” single capped off The Pretty Things’ career as Abbey Road-psychedelic stylists; one that would conclude a period of three years of reinvention and experimentation that first lurched forward with the false start “Emotions” 1967 LP only to sally forth unabated with a clutch of psychedelic singles, “S.F. Sorrow” and “Parachute” and the albums they recorded as The Electric Banana.

With the core Pretty Things lineup of Phil May (vocals), John Povey (keyboards/vocals), Wally Waller (bass/vocals) and Skip Alan (drums) still intact, the guitar spot shifted upon completion of “Parachute” when Peter Tolson was brought in as replacement for Victor Unitt. Tolson’s first appearance was on the “October 26”/“Cold Stone” single, The Pretty Things’ second of three singles on Harvest. And in the recent “Parachute” tradition, both sides stood in bold contrast to each other as the A-side, “October 26” is a quiet, slow-tempo’d elegy to hippy and opens with the same queasy phased effect as the sound of cassette spooling out of its housing while mournful wah-wah/slide guitar explores a desolate, earthen place where once only colourful movements of life held sway. The overall effect is that of the wrung dry weariness of post-Altamont resignation bidding the Aquarian dream of the sixties farewell, like “God” off Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band” album of the same year. Harpsichord notes glow gently like dying embers, only to melt into the darkness instantaneously. Voices soar and fall in refrain of the song’s sometime-bracketed subtitle, “Revolution” and the weighted down doldrums-ness as the piece drags itself in aching retreat across the new morn’s deserted festival sites littered with the debris of failed dreams.

The attendant flipside strikes back, getting its ass into gear with “Cold Stone,” a study in heavy that in the hands of a producer like Rodger Bain or Martin Birch instead of Norman Smith would’ve probably tilted the rhythm guitar into a more foreground position. Production aside, the performance itself is fine, one-off proto-metal; a genre for which The Pretty Things were never noted for, completely suited for and unfortunately never got around to fully exploring. Having only scratched the surface earlier with “Old Man Going” plus a precious few other guitar-pinned outpourings of underground Rock they had been unleashing in-between pop singles and sitar-trimmed ballads in the final two years of the sixties, had their focus been a little tighter and avoided being blindsided by favouring present modes of acoustic instrumentation and melodically-vocal based songwriting, they could have cut at least one perfect album of heavy Rock.

Although with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, it’s all fine and well to reflect at what could’ve been. But it’s also doubly as hard to take when the evidence is right there staring you down. As it does on “Cold Stone” where new guitarist Tolson earns his keep by leaps and bounds as he kick starts by breaching the stillness with a series of tightly played saw-toothed guitar chords that hew at the silence. Accompanied only by a series of trounced hi-hat hits chillingly ticking off the seconds in a gathering darkness, the ensuing avalanche of sound matches the crazy-quilt streams of nightmare snatches from the shadow (or ‘sha-dooooowww’ as May sang it on more than one occasion always drawn out in melancholy at surrounding twilight) of May’s mind that it’s thrown up against. How nightmarish the lines “‘Neath the sky you’re flying/Grey mucus in your throat/Chased by the blood-stained weasel” run; intoned as desperate as they are disconnected while drums bash out at the speed and rhythm of conquering steed gallop. And for all the touched-by-Sabbath qualities of Tolson’s harsh, neatly-regimented Iommi-esque mono chording, the lyrics could’ve just as well included “Young rabbits/Born dead in traps” for crying out loud. The guitar solo is a fried, wah-wah mess-terpiece, overdubbed over the rhythm riff, ending only to allow reentry of the stereo-panned introductory hammering hi-hat one more time before coursing through into the next rapidly-paced flight of “two-fingered tease.” Tolson switches to slide as May concludes over and over, “The world is just cold stone” before bearing down into the tightly-timed, riff-laden coda.

This particular lineup of The Pretty Things was all too-brief in duration; producing only this and one further single for Harvest, the “Stone Hearted Mama”/“Summertime”/“Circus Mind” EP before ceasing to exist in mid-1971. A reconstituted Pretty Things reconvened half a year later, resulting with the “Freeway Madness” album for Warner Brothers. But by this point, the original components of The Pretty Things had broken down considerably, with the group’s chemistry altered into something far more orthodox in approach than before.