Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Musiquarium #2 (part two)

Chris continues with one of the most interesting stories in music history, picking up where he left off yesterday.
The first critical piece of this puzzle was the songs. There were a few songs that hadn't yet been in a finished state when S. F. Sorrow was recorded that were suitable. There were also a few songs that May and Waller had written but scrapped for the next Pretty Things album they wanted to record once they finished DeBarge's vanity project. Finally, they wrote a few songs specifically for DeBarge while setting up the studio.

The second, and perhaps just as critical piece was Monsieur DeBarge himself. In St. Tropez, May had asked him “Ever sung in school before?”


“Maybe in church, like a choir?”


When DeBarge arrived in London for the recording session, May was understandably nervous. What if their client couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, realized it, and called everything off?

Whatever they were expecting of DeBarge, it's fair to say he turned those preconceived notions upside down. He was absolutely dead serious about this endeavor, and quickly set May and Waller at ease. Their millionaire client could carry a tune fairly well. For DeBarge, his biggest frustration was his thick, Gallic accent. He worked ceaselessly learning to sing and pronounce the words phonetically (and those phonetics included May and Waller's own thick London accents). While the band was laying down instrumental tracks in at Nova, DeBarge would hole up at a nearby hotel room and work out the vocals a syllable at a time.

May came up with a brilliant solution to the situation. He recorded his own lead vocals for each song, sung quietly to a scratch track. They'd play May's vocals through the headphones so only Philippe could hear, and then he'd sing along to them on the recording proper. As a singer, DeBarge eventually got proficient enough to be included in the recording of harmony vocals with May, Waller, and Povey.

The Pretty Things and Philippe DeBarge finished their album and created a few acetate masters, all of which were presented to their client. The Pretties took the check they were cut for their services—and new-found studio skills--to record the 1970 album Parachute, a pretty good record that earned the distinction of being named Rolling Stone's #1 album of that year (that ranking was a bit of a reach, but it is a fine album.)

For his part, Philippe DeBarge took the acetate masters back to France to play for friends and family. Said friends and family were baffled by the finished record and appalled by how much the heir had paid to have it made. It was, he was told, a colossal waste of time. DeBarge tried to shop it around to some French record labels, only to find them uninterested in English-language rock and roll. Disappointed, he gave a few copies away to sympathetic pals. Over time, the DeBarge fortunes turned. Money ran out. Family members fell on hard times. Philippe himself died under mysterious circumstance in the early 1990's. The album he'd recorded in 1969 was an unknown curiosity piece.

Or was it?

In the 1970's, the Pretty Things were one of the first bands signed to Led Zeppelin's Swan Song label. This caused their early career to be reassessed, and people began to rediscover their 1960's output. By the late 1980's, S. F. Sorrow was earning recognition as a lost classic of the psychedelic era. One thing that was interesting, though, if you looked at the Pretty Things discography: you could trace a pretty straight line from 1967's Emotions into 1968's S. F. Sorrow...but then Parachute in 1970 seemed to be a bit of a departure. Was there something missing in-between? To put a finer point on it, it's impossible to listen to Sorrow and not think “I wish there was more of this.”

At some point in the 1980's, someone feeling exactly that way stumbled onto a third- or fourth-hand, cheaply made recording of the acetate master of the album Philippe DeBarge had recorded with the Pretty Things. It was widely bootlegged, and the sound was utterly awful. There were scratches and skips abounding on this bootleg, even problems with the pitch of the recording shifting at times. It sounded terrible. By the mid-1990's, with bands like Neutral Milk Hotel and The Olivia Tremor Control wearing their Pretty Things influence proudly on their sleeves, enterprising and curious folks associated with the Pretty Things set out in search  for an original master of the acetate. Eventually one was found in Finland, in a private collection. It was mostly unmarked and fairly clean.

The underground fanzine/record label Ugly Things (name not coincidental) undertook to have this master cleaned and dressed up. The DeBarge estate gave their blessings. The Pretty Things—who'd reunited in the '90s (and still perform today, even in their 70's) also signed off on the project. In 2008, the cumbersomely named The Pretty Things Philippe Debarge was finally given proper release 39 years after being recorded.

So the obvious million-dollar question is—is it as horrible as a vanity-project album contracted for a fee from an underground psychedelic band for a millionaire playboy sounds like it should be? The answer, short and long is no. Hell no. Astonishingly, the record is good. In fact, it's really, really good.

The opening track is a number that sounds as if it was lifted straight off the latest Tame Impala record, a looping percussion/acoustic number that builds as it goes called “Hello How Do You Do” that's likely to end up in an AT&T commercial before too long. Despite having only one line, “Hello. How do you do?”, there's a goofy, winning infectiousness to the track that sets the tone for what follows.

The next track, “You Might Even Say”, happily wears the influence of Love's classic Forever Changes album on its sleeve. Not only is there an almost flamenco guitar figure going on here, but somehow DeBarge manages a finess on the vocals that sounds like a ringer for Love's Arthur Lee himself. The following track, “Alexander” had been a favorite at Pretty Things live gigs for a few years, and was nearly a lead-in single for S. F. Sorrow, before someone suggested that a rock song about Alexander The Great conquering Asia Minor might not rocket straight up the charts. DeBarge had no such qualms and sings it enthusiastically, if a bit stuck to one note.

From here though the record really hits stride. “Send You With Loving” is a gleeful, swinging singalong that gives Philippe Debarge a chance to do a pretty nice Donovan imitation. “You're Running You And Me” is a fierce rocker that might be the Frenchman's best vocal on the whole record—squint hard and it might be the Guess Who's Burton Cummings snarling that chorus.

DeBarge had wanted to go artistic on his album, and the next section of it does just that. “Peace”, “Eagle's Son”, “Graves Of Grey” and “New Day” are thematically linked to one another (on some of the bootlegs these four songs are presented as a single medley). “Eagle's Son” is a stunning rocker, carried by Unitt's exceptionally heavy dual-tracked guitar work and a masterful production job by May.

As good as “Eagle's Son” is, it doesn't prepare you for “New Day”. It's hard to believe that May and Waller donated a song this good to this project, but there it is. DeBarge sings it with a wide-eyed sincerity over gorgeous backing vocals and a brilliant bit of playing and production. I sincerely believe that had “New Day” been released back in the day, it would have ended up as a massive FM radio staple.

The album closes out in fine fettle with the Floyd-ian “It'll Never Be Me” and then the defiant “I'm Checking Out”, although neither approaches the earlier heights of “New Day”, “Eagle's Son” or “You Might Even Say”.  (There's one final song, “All Gone Now” that almost feels like an afterthought here.)

What's truly amazing to me is how well this record stands up alongside two proper Pretty Things albums that sandwich it. It's almost like discovering there's a lost Beatles album between The White Album and Abbey Road. The songs, the playing, and production are all outstanding, and Pretty Things Philippe DeBarge now is a worthy addition to anyone interested in the best British psych-pop albums of the late 1960s.  Even better bet—if modern critical darlings like the aforementioned Tame Impala or White Fence or Ty Segall are your thing, this will scratch that itch perfectly. It's a pity Philippe didn't live to see this given the release (and critical raves) it deserved, but even so this is a gem worth discovering.

(The Pretty Things Philippe DeBarge is available for purchase through Amazon or CDBaby. S. F. Sorrow and Parachute, the albums directly before and after it, are widely available for digital or CD purchase,as well as streamed through services like Spotify.)

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