November 7, 2019

The complete works Of The Pretty Things’ alter ego, collected for the first time

This is a fascinating artifact from the rarely encountered underbelly of the great ‘60s / ‘70s UK music scene

A word of explanation is almost certainly in order here, for any of those people who may have scratched their heads and muttered ‘The Electric who?’ when looking at this title. In fact, it’s one of the greatest examples of a rock ‘alter ego’, running for a decade throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Because, as many fans will surely be all too well aware of, The Electric Banana were none other than The Pretty Things, in their guise as provider of ‘library music’ for film and TV use.

Now, just in case anyone is now asking ‘The Pretty who?’, The Pretty Things were contemporaries of the Stones and the Beatles in the early ‘60s, but rawer and dirtier than either with their take-no-prisoners hard R&B style. They went through several distinct phases, along the way managing to produce what is regarded as the world’s first rock opera in SF Sorrow, allegedly inspiring Tommy in the process, and also the ecological concept work Parachute, which was voted Rolling Stone album of the year in 1970. Their strident hard rock of the ‘70s continued to impress, but by the mid-point of that  decade they were folding and, apart from infrequent reunions since, were gone. Shockingly, they were allowed to fade from the public consciousness and by the time another few years had passed they were all but forgotten in the minds of most.

Despite their relatively prolific releases, they also found time – somehow – to coexist as The Electric Banana for most of that duration. De Wolfe Music were one of the providers of ‘library music’ for the TV and film industry, whereby music written for that purpose was distributed within the business on albums never commercially released, and those needing any incidental music yet unable to pay the high licensing costs of actual chart music would pick out what they wished. This was the world which, for their own reasons, the Pretties elected to explore.

This three-disc set gathers together all of the five Electric Banana albums produced between 1967 and 1977 on CD for the first time (some material has been compiled before, but never all of it), to what will be the delight of Pretty Things collectors worldwide, as these recordings have been the subject of fascination and discussion among the cognoscenti for decades. The first one was actually a ten-inch album, unusually. So, is there actual music of substance to back up the mythology? The answer is that yes, there most certainly is.

The song they are playing on stage in the film is the stunning Eagle’s Son which, with its wild psych-rock feel and surrealistic lyrics could easily have graced the SF Sorrow album

The first album. ‘Pop Sound, Pop Group’, it says, helpfully…

The first disc here contains the first two albums here, Electric Banana and More Electric Banana, from ’67 and ’68 respectively. These first two albums are the least essential, as they are largely composed of fairly generic psychedelic pop-rock, similar to that found on the Pretty Things album of the same vintage, Evolution. The best track here is probably the closing A Thousand Ages From The Sun, though I See You and Grey Skies (both also from the superior second album) also show much improved songwriting. The original albums as provided to the industry people all consisted of one side of songs and a second side of instrumental versions of the same tracks – in case instrumental music was required, of course – and all of these are reproduced here. That may at first appear as if half of the music here is redundant, but surprisingly that is mostly not the case. On several occasions, particularly on the earlier recordings where the words are simplistic and disposable, the music even works better without the vocal content, with Dick Taylor’s prominent and powerful guitar work being more to the fore.

More imaginative packaging for the film guys

Disc Two has the best material on offer, particularly in the shape of third album, the imaginatively titled Even More Electric Banana. The music here may be familiar to some, as the six songs were all written for the same film, a 1969 Norman Wisdom film entitled What’s Good For The Goose, which saw the veteran comedian play a businessman who turns to a dalliance with the hippy lifestyle as he falls in with a crowd based around his unlikely ‘love interest’, the unfeasibly gorgeous Sally Geeson. I can vividly remember as a teenager seeing the film on TV and, apart from the charms of the lovely Ms Geeson, being particularly taken by the band playing in a nightclub called, bizarrely, The Screaming Apple. On discovering this to be The Pretty Things, a search for the brilliant music being played led to the discovery that it was by their Electric Banana persona and was unavailable (until now, of course). The song they are playing on stage in the film is the stunning Eagle’s Son which, with its wild psych-rock feel and surrealistic lyrics could easily have graced the SF Sorrow album. A close second is another highpoint of the film, Alexander, but in fact all of these six tracks, apart from perhaps the poppy title song, are essential late ‘60s freak-out rock, with Taylor’s guitar again a standout.

The other album on the second disc here is Hot Licks, released in 1973, four years after the third Banana outing. Unsurprisingly, like the previous records, it mirrors what the band were doing in their mainstream career at the time, with the more straightforward rock sound of Freeway Madness and Silk Torpedo being in evidence. Several more notable high points here though, with the likes of Sweet Orphan Lady, Walk Away and The Loser holding their heads up alongside the official material.

If you’re a film buff or a habitual viewer of TV from the ‘70s and ‘80s, some of this music will sound ever so slightly familiar.

Just when you thought it was safe…

That seemed to be that for our Banana heroes, but in 1977, as the Pretties themselves were disappearing over the horizon, there was one last hurray with the album Return Of The Electric Banana. This one is the most varied of the lot, with the songs in several styles, from funky rock through to country rock and Grateful Dead Americana, along with a song entitled James Marshall which is not, as you may imagine, about Hendrix, but in fact is, from Phil May’s vocal stylings and the wah-wah guitar use, a clear homage to the great man.

If you’re a film buff or a habitual viewer of TV from the ‘70s and ‘80s, some of this music will sound ever so slightly familiar. Doctor Who? Yep, It’ll Never Be Me from Even More… turned up in a 1973 episode very predominantly. UK cop show The Sweeney used The Loser from Hot Licks in an episode, and Dennis Waterman got in on the Banana action a second time when Take Me Home from the final album turned up in an episode of Minder. Entitled A Star Is Gorn, fans of the show will remember the episode featured a master tape by a singer called Zak Zolar which was stolen. The song playing on said tape (which began ‘Jump back in the alley / Police Car’s on the road’) is indeed the strains of the Banana! Looking back, it is astounding that, knowing this music was (as far as they knew) destined to be heard only as uncredited incidental music, the band put so much effort into making the songs as good, and as complete, as they are.

Fans of the Pretty Things will of course need this, but beyond that this is a fascinating artifact from the rarely encountered underbelly of the great ‘60s / ‘70s UK music scene. The booklet contains fascinating insights into the recordings and subsequent screen usage, and all in all this is the completely definitive work on its subject. Now, if only it came with a poster of Sally Geeson…