Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Musiquarium #2 (part one)

Chris sent me another installment of the Musiquarium, and this time he tells one of the most interesting stories in music history. It's all Chris from here on out.

It's 1969. You're Phil May, front man of an English rock band called The Pretty Things (the name's ironic;  only the 1984 Boston Celtics will rival you for being a homelier collection of humans gathered together in one place for united purpose). Your band's had better years, though you've certainly got bona fides. One of your founding members, Dick Taylor, was also a founding member of The Rolling Stones (An apocryphal story says he was given the heave for being too un-telegenic in a band that also included Keith Richards and Charlie Watts.) You had some hits in Britain, playing blues more raw than the aforementioned Stones, with a clunky, punky style that Ray and Dave Davies borrowed in full for their early singles like “You Really Got Me.”

Times changed, and British Invasion bands either grew or folded.  Thus, when the Beatles went far out with Rubber Soul, you and the Pretties went farther out on the 1967 album Emotions...only to see that upstaged immediately by Revolver and Pet Sounds. Figuring the gauntlet to have been thrown, you and your band go all-in on the new psychedelic sounds and sail right off the map with a string of ambitious, critically lauded singles (“Defecting Grey”, “Walking Through My Dreams”) that clearly splashed their acidic influence on the band recording in the next studio over with the same producer, a group of kids calling themselves Pink Floyd.

The good buzz from those singles (which didn't sell, sadly) led to the late 1968 release of what you were sure was your magnum opus, a sprawling concept album of linked songs (call it a rock...cantata?), S. F Sorrow. Sadly, that record bewildered critics and the buying public alike. To be sure, it gave a certain Mr. Pete Townshend ideas about doing an album of linked songs himself (rock...opera! That's it!), but not only didn't Sorrow sell, the record company, EMI, decided not to even put it out in the States. Founding member/guitarist Taylor told you and the the band he'd had enough and departed for other projects.

And so here you are. You're Phil May, and you and the other half of the creative core of the Pretties, bassist Wally Waller, have taken up in a rented, sprawling studio flat in London. The two of you share living space with artists, sculptors, and otherwise homeless poets. You're not sure if you have a record contract anymore. In fact, you're not sure if you even have a band. To make ends meet, you and Waller have begun working for the DeWolf Music Archive, about as far down the creative totem pole as serious musicians can get.

(With movies having recently been liberated by the ratings system to venture into all sorts of trash and sleaze, British films of that ilk and era turned to DeWolf. The folks at DeWolf--who really did also curate an important recorded music archive--would supply British filmmakers and TV producers with cheap, original music. In many cases, that would be the two Pretty Things who'd write and record forgettable, throwaway nonsense fake rock songs for DeWolf film clients over the course of single afternoons.)

You know as sure as anything that you and Waller are an ace songwriting team but you're frustrated.  It isn't just the living conditions.  It isn't writing junkshop music for DeWolf. It's your aspirations. You yearn. You've got an idea for an even more ambitious project than S. F. Sorrow. The problem is, this new project will require access to the expensive new studio tech just then coming into use (Sorrow had been recorded onto a four-track recorder; now studios like Abbey Road could do eight tracks and more). Your existence is rather hand-to-mouth. Your record company won't pay for studio time. EMI is happy to put out whatever new record you record...they're just not paying for the recording of it. Thus and so, you sulk through your days, finding spare time to work on more serious songs for a hopefully-still-existent band when not doing music for DeWolf, and wondering if you'll ever get a chance to make that next album.
It's 1969, and you're Philippe DeBarge, and it's hard to imagine how life could be much better. You still look youthful and handsome, even though you're now over 30. Beautiful women love to spend time with you. Did we mention yet that you're the scion and heir of a gigantic French pharmaceuticals fortune? Because there's that, too. You've got more money than you know what to do with. When you spend time at your beach house in St. Tropez, your 1908 Rolls Royce sits parked next to vintage Ferraris and Benzes. Your most impactful decisions are usually whether to drink the 100-year Bordeaux with lunch or dinner, or whether to use the saltwater or freshwater swimming pool. Life, as they say, is good.

Or is it? There's no hiding it, you're the restless sort. You're literally the man who has it all, yet feels as if he's missing something. You pine, and you know exactly what you pine for. Since you were a younger lad in your twenties and saw The Beatles on television, you've been a diehard rock and roll fan. You collect rare LPs and 45s from across the world to play on a state-of-the-art stereo. You've become completely absorbed in rock and roll music. For you, it is an obsession, and there's the rub.

You want to be a rock and roll star.

No, really! Not a pop star, either. You want to make art. You want to be recognized. You've done nothing your whole life. You're well-aware that your family and their social circle think of you as something of a louche, spoiled, millionaire playboy. You've never made anything of your life, and no one expects you to. What they don't know is that you burn, and you burn white hot inside. You want to be a professional musician. You want to be the first French internationally-known rock artiste. Your family and friends think you're going through a phase with this rock and roll nonsense. You're flighty. You'll move on to some other obsession the next week.

They don't know you. You're Philippe DeBarge, and you've got your heart set on making rock history.

Imagine once again that you're Phil May. One afternoon in 1969 the phone rings. The guy on the other end of the line speaks halting, heavily accented English. He wants to know if you're the guy from the Pretty Things. He says his name is also Phil—Philippe DeBarge, to be precise. He wants to know if he can arrange a meeting with you. He has, he says, a business proposal for you and Wally Waller. He'd like to fly both of you to his beach-side home in St. Tropez, if you're interested.

There are very few sure things in life, but one good rule to follow is that if someone is willing to fly you to their beach house on the French Riviera to listen to a business offer, your response should be to start packing a suitcase.

For his part, Monsieur DeBarge has decided that the folks to make his rock dream come true are the guys who wrote his favorite album. No one else in his circle of friends seems to understand the weird, ambitious, psychedelic swirl of the record, but DeBarge connects with S. F. Sorrow fully. To him it is a masterpiece, and he wants to make something similar and wants to talk to the fellows behind that album to find out if they'd be willing to help him out.

You can imagine May and Waller wondering exactly what they were getting themselves in for. DeBarge quickly impresses upon them that he has money. The house in St. Tropez, the cars, the must've been quite the contrast to the squatter's flat back in London. Even with such profligate wealth on casual display, however, the two Pretty Things are likely stunned by the proposal the young French millionaire makes them.

For DeBarge, it's a simple business partnership for a creative endeavor. He tells May and Waller that he wants them to write a rock and roll record, and then help record it with DeBarge singing lead and fronting whatever band the two Englishmen could put together. For their trouble, May and Waller will be very well compensated. Additionally, DeBarge agrees to pay any musicians needed for the recording session, and best yet, will happily pay for all the studio time himself.

Scarcely believing their luck, May and Waller headed back to London. May immediately decided he'd be the producer so as to learn the ropes of recording in a higher-tech studio situation. For his part, Waller rang up the remaining Pretty Things—keyboardist John Povey, new guitarist Vic Unitt, and  drummer John Adler (a/k/a “Twink”, soon to be the deranged drummer for folks like Syd Barrett and The Pink Fairies)--to let them know they were going into studio and there was money on the table. May booked the studio time at Nova Studios, then probably second only to Abbey Road as a state-of-the-art facility in London.

Tomorrow: the album.

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