❉ Martin Ruddock presents an indepth look at proto-punk miscreants The Pretty Things’ moonlighting activities as Electric Banana
In mid-1967, The Pretty Things were in the doldrums. They’d enjoyed some success with their brand of feral R&B, but the last 18 months had been a mess of arrests, court cases, deportations, and they had lost three band members due to drugs, alcohol, and general burn-out.
In the studio they’d initially flourished, as their early bluesy style mutated into a hard-as-nails garage punk sound, but the hits dried up and pop music became increasingly florid and sophisticated around them. The three remaining members, singer Phil May, guitarist Dick Taylor, and drummer Skip Allen completed their third, proto-psychedelic, LP for Fontana, Emotions, as a contractual obligation. After Emotions quietly flopped, they swiftly disowned the album, and the band found themselves in the market for a record contract shortly.
It’s at this point that the broke Pretties, skint and disillusioned, received an offer they couldn’t really refuse, reduced to posing as a different band entirely as a sideline to pay the rent.
“De Wolfe Music approached us and asked if we’d be interested in making an album of music for their library”, Dick Taylor told Drowned in Sound in 2016. “Basically they licence music for films and television shows, so we had to do it under a different guise. Once we started doing it we made quite a few albums for De Wolfe.”
“De Wolfe Music approached us and asked if we’d be interested in making an album of music for their library”
Thus, Electric Banana was born. As a money-making scheme, it seemed a sure thing. The pseudonym gave the band plausible deniability, and the records were only issued for licensed use on film and TV, therefore unlikely to trouble the charts. All the band needed do was keep it under wraps, once they signed another record deal, and make sure neither the new label or De Wolfe found out about each other.
The Pretties set to work, recording tracks for De Wolfe, producing themselves, but saving their preferred material for the road. De Wolfe released Electric Banana in mid-1967. It was a fairly undistinguished effort, except for the garage-ballad If I Needed Somebody, but as a bit of moonlighting, it paid the rent.
With the Electric Banana album in the can, the Pretties returned to work on their own, increasingly fried, material. Emboldened by self-producing the DeWolfe material, the band’s sound mutated even further, concocting the dark-eyed, episodic Defecting Grey in a demo studio as a calling card to tout around prospective labels.
The Pretties ultimately signed to EMI, after Pink Floyd producer Norman Smith showed an interest in working with them, and the Pretties began work on their opus, the early rock opera S.F. Sorrow. They had creative control and all the studio time they wanted, with an enthusiastic, gifted producer. But it was a poor deal, and the band was still heavily in debt.
“Some people say ‘Why did we sign to EMI for two-and-a-half-grand?’ You know? A shitty advance and shitty money?” May told Louder Than War in 2015. “We signed to Abbey Road and Norman Smith! EMI didn’t even come into the equation! Unlimited studio time. The money wasn’t important. It was totally creative and selfish in some ways but because we felt we had something to say…”
The sessions for S.F. Sorrow were drawn out, and the pace of touring and maintaining two parallel recording careers was intense, but necessary to survive as a band. “We’d go away and do four days work for De Wolfe in Germany, then come back and spend four days on S.F. Sorrow. This went on for the best part of a year”, May told Drowned in Sound.
“We signed to Abbey Road and Norman Smith! EMI didn’t even come into the equation! Unlimited studio time. The money wasn’t important. It was totally creative and selfish in some ways but because we felt we had something to say…”
Another two Electric Banana albums were recorded during S.F. Sorrow’s gestation. More Electric Banana (1968) was a tougher, rockier offering. To disguise themselves further, the Pretties began to mix up the lead vocals, an innovation that would find its way onto their official albums. The lines between the Pretty Things and their shadowy alter ego began to blur with the inclusion of an early version of I See You, later re-recorded for S.F. Sorrow.
“It was a good way to try something out”, May told Richie Unterberger in 2000. “It’s only when some kids who worked at the company started selling them out the back door that that whole thing blew. The kids got sharp and started getting a good trade. They were doing like 50 copies a week up in Camden Market. We were under contract to people. We could have gotten sued.”
“The kids got sharp and started getting a good trade. They were doing like 50 copies a week up in Camden Market. We were under contract to people. We could have gotten sued.”
To be fair on the kids running the backdoor trade on Electric Banana records, the Pretties didn’t exactly keep a low profile. They likely drew attention to themselves by re-using I See You on S.F. Sorrow, and risked their necks again when it came to making their last, and best, De Wolfe album of the 60s, Even More Electric Banana (1968). Uniquely, all the songs form a soundtrack album of sorts, to the low-rent Norman Wisdom vehicle, What’s Good For the Goose? (1969).
The film stars Wisdom as a middle-aged banker who falls for Sally Geeson’s pretty young student and ‘drops out’. At one point he meets her at a ‘Mod Discotheque’, where the Pretties take the Electric Banana facade one step further by actually appearing as the house band.
The whole album, bar the title track, is energised heavy psychedelia, smeared with vicious fuzz and wah-wah, with apocalyptic lyrics to match. Tracks like It’ll Never Be Me (later the soundtrack to Jo Grant’s engagement party, Doctor Who fans) were arguably too good to throw away on De Wolfe and a bad Norman Wisdom film.
The band seem to have come to the same conclusion, as they soon began to claw back the Electric Banana material for their own use. With S.F. Sorrow finally out, they toured the album in early 1969. The album wasn’t selling well, but EMI had greenlit a follow-up, so the Pretties put De Wolfe on the back burner to work on what would become Parachute (1970), losing founding guitarist Taylor in the process.
The Pretty Things would continue to fight, self-destruct, split up, tour, and make albums throughout the 1970s, before reforming for good in the 80s. They also continued to record Electric Banana albums for De Wolfe throughout the 70s, tracks from which would grace many a low budget horror or soft-porn film. Their fortunes as a band finally began to improve in the 1990s, first winning back control of their back catalogue, then experiencing a critical rebirth as S.F. Sorrow was discovered by a new audience. They’re still out there, gigging and recording, over fifty years on.
Ironically, the only part of their catalogue that they’ve never wrested control over is the Electric Banana albums, for which De Wolfe still stubbornly cling to the rights. Periodically, the albums are compiled and reissued, but are currently out of print. A well-hidden selection of Electric Banana tracks can be found spread across the discs of The Rubble Collection Vol.11-20.
Ironically, despite not owning these albums, the Pretty Things managed something remarkable. They became another band, but didn’t do a good job of hiding it. They signed another contract, which they flouted. But most remarkable of all, they got away with it. Keep ’em peeled.