Album Review: Philippe DeBarge & The Pretty Things — Rock St. Trop

The Pretty Things never really broke through into the American Market. Despite some fine singles and albums, the British band formed by early Rolling Stones member Dick Taylor suffered a fate not unlike that of contemporaries like the Small Faces and the Kinks: their music didn’t get played on American radio stations. They didn’t mount a major U.S. tour, either.

As a result, most American listeners remain unaware of such gems as the 1968 concept album SF Sorrow (despite Pete Townshend’s protestation, a likely inspiration for Tommy) and 1970’s Parachute, an underrated album that – while not quite rivaling Abbey Road – is superb and unjustly overlooked.

So it goes without saying that the Pretty Things’ side-projects will be completely unknown to all but the hardest of hardcore rock Anglophiles. One of those was quite fascinating: under the pseudonym The Electric Banana (no, really), the group cut quite a few sides for De Wolfe Production Music, a film company in Great Britain. At least one of those, “Alexander,” is a stone classic.

Even less known is a truly oddball project the Pretty Things undertook in 1969, between making SF Sorrow and Parachute. Acceding to the wishes of a millionaire playboy called Philippe DeBarge, they collaborate and recorded an entire album’s worth of music as the Frenchman’s backing group. Those recordings were not released in any official manner, though somehow bootleg copies found their way into the hands of collectors.

After many years of being traded as an underground gem, those sessions got a kind of official release in 2009 on UT Records, an imprint of the music magazine Ugly Things (a fine publication for whom this author wrote occasionally, many years ago). Still not quite pristine quality, that release was sourced from the best possible tapes available, and the labor-of-love release represented a massive upgrade from the bootleg versions. But the release was low-profile, and despite good intentions did little or nothing nothing to bring the music to the attention of a wider audience.

Fast forward nearly a decade to present day. Though it’s an indie label, Madfish enjoy greater distribution and publicity resources than did Ugly Things Magazine’s Mike Stax. So Madfish has licensed the DeBarge material, releasing the twelve tracks from 1969 plus a 2008 recording by band members Phil May and Wally Waller, a song about DeBarge called “Monsieur Rock.” The new release includes two other songs that are not part of the 1969 sessions.

Here’s the thing: despite the project’s beginnings as a sort of vanity project, this material is quite good. All of the songs were written by May and Waller, who at the time were at the peak of their creativity. The band is in excellent form, and – surprise! – DeBarge is a fine lead vocalist. There’s a version of “Alexander” here, and the other songs are nearly as good. “You’re Running You and Me,” “Eagle’s Son” and “Hello, How Do You Do” sound like hit singles of the freakbeat era.

Rock St. Trop isn’t likely to cause a complete re-assessment of the Pretty Things’ importance and place in rock history. But it’s quite good. As good, I’d argue, as the projects that book-ended it, SF Sorrow and Parachute. For anyone who appreciates one or both of those releases, this missing link is essential. For everyone else, it’s still a worthwhile curio, an example of a one-off side project that is ultimately far better than it has any right to be.