Take One: The Pretty Things – ‘Defecting Grey’ 1967 Single-‘ Casting Gardens of Shadow’

by | Oct 15, 2017 | 0 comments

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.

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