Talk From The Rock Room: October 2017

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Take One: The Pretty Things - 'Defecting Grey' 1967 Single-' Casting Gardens of Shadow'

Originally composed as an extended hallucinatory epic and then edited down due to vinyl restrictions to fit on the ‘A’ side of a 7’ singles, The Pretty Things November 1967 single ‘Defecting Grey’ initiated the ‘Pretty’s’ move from revolutionary British R & B to some of the era’s most rich psychedelia. A band that never reached the overseas popularity as many of their contemporaries, ‘The Pretty Things’ impressive catalog includes but is not limited to rock and roll’s first ‘rock opera’ (pre-dating Tommy).

The groups mid 1960’s output ranges from the gritty R &B that earned them their reputation in England through the subject of this rant, their experimental period leading up and through what many believe to be their pinnacle, the 1968 LP S.F. Sorrow; a song cycle telling the tale of protagonist Sebastian F. Sorrow’s journey through his own life cycle. 

‘Defecting Grey’ is S.F. Sorrow’s younger sibling, the song that gestated into Sorrow. Founding Pretty Phil May is quoted as saying in an interview with Richie Unterberger about the track, ‘That's about somebody who -- in those days, we used to call it "Grey", somebody, like, who does a job.  Grey suit, really.  And this was somebody, like the people we've met, who suddenly realized that everything they'd lived for, and were brought up to believe in, possibly wasn't right.  And this guy was actually going from being very straight...he was becoming homosexual, or his homosexual side was coming out.  But of course on the record, nobody picks that up.  But it's "sitting alone on a bench with you, the brush of your hand, chasing shadows away", that's the story.  But it didn't matter what people knew about it.  It was our idea that made us make the music.  'Cause we knew what we were doing, what the story line was; and the same with S.F. Sorrow.  Once I'd written the story, we suddenly had something to work from.  We had like 14 months to make this picture up.’

The song was the recipient of the band’s forward thinking, dabbling in psychedelics and the influence of their contemporaries, especially ‘Pink Floyd’ whom producer Norman Smith worked closely with during the same period.  Similarly to many of their contemporaries the group was leaving their formative R and B/Blues beginnings behind for deeper sonic experiments. Norman is also well known as engineering with George Martin on many Beatles recordings. Lyrically the song takes place in the pastoral setting of a British park, a bench the central location to the swirling cinematic changes that occur throughout the song. The lyrics remain stationary and disseminate the interesting narrative while the sonics paint the rest of the image. The track is a pastiche of segments and musical elements that develop together into the bigger image of the track.

Inspired by classical music, and the idea that an album should be an experience as opposed to a collection of singles, ‘Defecting Grey’ was the miniaturized impetus of this prospect. It’s almost as if the ‘main’ parts of the song, the ‘waltz’ verses of the arrangement play through as a normal song would. There is then a layer of sonic experimentation, an origami with soaring panache of sound layered over the framework where the ‘original’ arrangement can peak through.  The song is truly a multifaceted composition with tempo and key changes the norm, but somehow perfectly stitched together.  Transitions abound in both available versions of the cut. I am listening to the 1967 extended version which currently only exists in mono (like the single) from acetate which is the group’s original intention as they recorded it.  But I will also mention aspects of the officially released single reading which loses some of the extended aspects of the unreleased version. Even Norman Smith understood the organic story taking place in the song and did not feel like it required editing. Regardless, both versions of the track are very important and vital chapters in the psychedelic movement in 1960’s Britain. The single is tighter but the uncut version is like looking at a painting without the frame.

The song opens with an exotic, psycho-oriental descending melody line drizzled over the top of a dark  quivering , its sound caused by dropping a guitar to the studio floor. The carnival waltz of the verses bounds in, with a undulating bass and double click of a hi hat. Povey’s keyboards lend a smiley melody line, British dance hall at its finest. In spite of the comfortable pastoral setting, Phil May’s vocals sound if they are coming from ‘beyond the pale’, ghostly and mysterious.
Once the listener slides into a somewhat comfortable state, a disorienting and deformed backwards guitar and oscillated sitar (borrowed from the Beatles at Abbey Road) sweeps over the verse rising in intensity and color washing the track into a significant freak out.

The lush setting is sprayed in guitar day-glo. The rhythm intensifies as the jagged edge of Dick Taylor’s guitar rips into the fabric of the song. On the single version the guitar immediately explodes while on the extended version there is a chunky rhythmic lead in before the dissection begins. The ambiance is that of an alien sunset melted into a musical format.The music becomes weighted and begins to thrash around fuzzy and jagged. This is pure psych distilled to its mind-bending essence. The violent stomp soon dissipates into a fabric of exploding star fragments. The listener will be hard pressed to find such a stunning display of guitar distortion and effect captured on record.
After the distorted interlude a thick sonic wash acts as a disorienting segue back into the verses. The verses teeter totter to and fro again gently before being suddenly interrupted by an additional interlude. This movement is different from the heaver breakdown preceding it, this moment is a swirling vocal centered change a gentler approach than the first breakaway from the verses. The vocal melody line reminiscent of later Pretty's track 'Balloon Burning'

The final musical segment breaking apart the verses returns to the framework of the first aggressive freak-out of the track. A stringy electric beam of feedback blasts through the arrangement encouraging Povey’s keyboards to hurricane themselves into a swirling wash of white noise while underneath a gritty rhythm track chugs away.

The haunting verses appear once again this time now broken up by an unexpected dance hall interlude which peaks its head around the woody corner of a pub doorway. The contrasting sing-along pub segment is quickly sponged away as the verses appear again before sauntering away into the playground horizon and the slow fade out of the record.
In an era where musical creativity was reaching its apex and rock and roll bands were finding new and different ways of expression, a number of bands outside of the Beatles and Stones were releasing experimental and stunning records. The Pretty Things ‘Defecting Grey’ is one of those records that because of the wealth of creativity in the era made a statement and then fought for recognition as time passed on. The track encapsulates an era in the broader picture and represents a highly creative moment of the Pretty Things career when looked at in a macro level. The visceral track was influential to fellow musicians of the time and thought provoking for the music buying public and remains a song worthy of inspection and refection.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Ronnie Lane and Slim Chance - 'Ooh La La, An Island Harvest '-All Them That Took Me There and Back'

The perfect soundtrack to a resplendent Fall day, Ooh La La: An Island Harvest from the late Ronnie Lane and his ironically named early-1970s group Slim Chance is today’s rock room soundtrack.
Lane, founder of both the Small Faces and its follow-up group the Faces, penned or helped pen many of the most recognizable musical compositions of the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to his wonderfully melodic bass playing, Lane was a master of melody and colorful lyrical content. His later work with Slim Chance, however, was the rustic antithesis of his massive excursions with the Small Faces and Faces.

While always retaining the ability to create pop melodies, Lane’s music slipped into worn working clothes, tossing away the glitz and glamour of his prior band's world popularity. Of course, to this point Lane seemed destined to play a supporting musical role throughout his career, first to rock dynamo Steve Marriott, then to future Faces lead-man Rod Stewart. He often moved stealthily out of the spotlight, even as Lane’s other bandmates relished in it. The entire time, Lane would sit comfortably in the shadows writing classic songs, creating music on his terms and eschewing conventional commercial ideals.

After leaving the Faces in June of 1973, Lane purchased a sprawling farm in the English hills, and built his own mobile studio in order to create at home and also to follow his traveling musical circus, “The Passing Show.” Both of these decisions would eventually put Lane into debt, but they never dampened his incredible sense of adventure and his ability to elicit emotion through song.
Lane turned away from the rock stardom that he was never entirely at ease with, and in the process conceived a rustic and woody music rooted in honesty, simplicity and expression. Lane’s journey saw him mature from a kinetic mod to a musical farmer, and eventually into a folk-tale weaver.

The Ooh La La: An Island Harvest anthology, which comes in the form a two-disc set, compiles the best of Lane’s post-Faces solo work with Slim Chance. The set collects highlights from Lane’s two Island Records releases, Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance and One for the Road, in addition to a wealth of unreleased tracks and a prodigious concert appearance for BBC In Concert from April 23, 1974.

The only negative to the set is the absence of the first Slim Chance LP, Anymore for Anymore, which was put out on an independent label; hence its absence from this collection. What makes up for this loss are the live renditions of some of the songs from that LP, included in the live BBC concert, such as the bounding “How Come” and an intimate as well as definitive version of “Tell Everyone.”

Disc one begins with a resounding version of Lane’s “Ooh La La” which, drizzled with mandolins and horns, makes for a refreshing update of a well-known classic. The beautiful, largely forgotten composition “One for the Road” makes you wonder how the song was not Lane’s greatest achievement. His airy arrangement reflects a rediscovered country spirit, his comforting rocking-chair voice the ultimate bucolic refection.
The running order of the set does not reflect any chronology, but nonetheless gives the listener an organic pitchfork full of Lane’s finest creations. The delicate flight of “Harvest Home” is a highlight of disc one, a cinematic melody that sways on brittle prairie breezes and the rich thick scent of tilled earth. The instrumental resonance of the tune quakes with woody acoustics, tout strings and naturally created dynamics. There is an unpretentious musical attitude that pervades the collection and a true celebratory vibe that permeates the music.

“Give Me Penny,” another featured song, uses the stirring melodic basis that Lane would revisit for the song “Annie” off of the Rough Mix album, his future collaboration with Pete Townshend. An early take of Chuck Berry’s “You Can Never Tell,” also known as “C’est La Vie,” boogies with the windows down — showing off Lane’s rock ‘n’ roll roots were still firmly in place. The jam version of “Back Street Boy,” another unreleased track, hearkens back to Lane’s funky Faces days, with some chunky riffing and soulful saxophone arriving at just the right moment. The rest of disc one highlights Lane’s rich harvesting of hearty melodic memories with clandestine classics such as “What Went Down (That Night with You),” and the warm embrace of “Tin and Tambourine.”

The second half of the collection begins with an alternate take of what should have been Lane’s defining moment as a solo artist with, “The Poacher.”Striding acoustic guitar and swelling strings levitate the song to mystical levels. Lane’s diverse musicality is again on display, starting with the island groove of “Street Gang” and followed by the stony minstrel display of “Nobody’s Listenin'” and “Stone.” “G’morning” epitomizes the wealth of melodic riches sprouting from this collection, which highlights an involved and positive group collaboration. The 1974 b-side “Lovely” is an added bonus to the set, as its whistles, hand claps and rough-hewn vocals recall a vaudeville country jamboree.

The main course of the second disc is the complete BBC in Concert appearance. A perfect cornucopia of Lane’s Faces era compositions nestled nicely next to his blossoming solo pieces. The earliest lineup of Slim Chance wheezes its way through honky-tonk versions of “Last Orders Please” and “Flags and Banners,” as well as delicately navigating the melodic intricacies of “Done This One Before,” and “Tell Everyone.” Every song is a picturesque expression of the power of song, each player and instrument adding shade or detail into the final image. “Tell Everyone” elicits such understated power and grace that it’s difficult to not become emotionally invested. The final magical result of these performed pieces is a complete respect for the muse by the musicians — and true love for the art of the music.

Ooh La La: An Island Harvest is a must-have addition to any rock aficionado’s collection, as Ronnie Lane’s contributions to rock, folk, singer songwriter and even British folk and vaudeville music are unparalleled. His refusal to conform to rock business standards were probably his only fault, but the results contain some of the most honest and salt-of-the-earth melodic creations you will hear in the canon of rock. Ooh La La: An Island Harvest finally compiles the music that may have not found a home on the hit parade, but will always have a home in the hearts of those who listen.