The original title was Like Flies on Shit. Most of the recordings were made on flaky equipment by musicians in varying degrees of drunkenness. Vocals are mumbled, lyrics often unintelligible. On some songs it feels like Alex Chilton asked himself, “What are the most abrasive and obnoxious noises I can come up with?” and then made absolutely sure he captured those annoying sounds on tape. The producer filled in as guitarist because Alex thought he was a terrible guitar player. All the tracks contain multiple fuck-ups like missed cues, false starts, accidental noises and background chatter. The name of the frozen confection that replaced the word “shit” in the title is misspelled, but the title still evokes an image of something totally disgusting. And though the final mix took a year to complete, Like Flies on Sherbert was universally condemned on release for its poor sound quality, terrible balance and utter lack of professionalism.
Goddamn, I love the fuck out of this record.
Alex Chilton had hoped to turn his success as lead singer of The Box Tops into a more satisfying and successful career as songwriter and creative force behind Big Star, but ran into a series of obstacles from the get-go. The first was that despite a series of chart-toppers with The Box Tops, his name was curiously unfamiliar to the listening audience. My Big Star fan father explained it this way: “The Box Tops were a white soul pop band who weren’t taken all that seriously, so there wasn’t a lot of background chatter about them in comparison to the heavies of the era. People knew Jagger, Daltrey and Robert Plant. I didn’t know who Alex Chilton was until I discovered Big Star. And even then I couldn’t believe that was the same guy on ‘The Letter’ and ‘Cry Like a Baby.'” That delightfully gruff voice, a product of sore throat and plenty of Camels, gave way to a mid-to-high range voice with greater emotive capability.
The second problem Chilton ran into is that his melodic rock—the precursor of power pop—was yesterday’s news. “Rock had gotten a lot heavier, and Big Star sounded like something out of the mid-sixties,” dad commented. “If they’d released some of those songs in ’66, people would still be singing them today.” The failure of Big Star to catch on—certainly aggravated by indifferent promotion and distribution by Stax and Columbia—led to an unstable lineup and uncertain direction. Their last release—attributed to Big Star only for marketing purposes—was pretty much an Alex Chilton solo effort. Like all the Big Star releases, Third/Sister Lovers was critically acclaimed and commercially ignored. “I was and I think I still am the only Big Star fan I know,” claims my dear father, extraordinarily proud of his early discovery of a band that became quite influential over the years.
Commercial failure, over-the-top substance abuse and tenuous mental health resulted in the darker songs that pop up about halfway through Third/Sister Lovers. Those songs revealed a depth and complexity missing from his previous work, and one could have easily imagined Alex moving in a more contemplative direction in the future, accompanied by piano and strings rather than guitar and drums. Instead, we have Like Flies on Sherbert, which AllMusic critic Stephen Erlewine called “a front-runner for the worst album ever made.”
Other critics jump through hoops trying to connect the darker songs on Third/Sister Lovers to what they perceive as its disastrous follow-up. The narrative goes something like this—failure led to substance abuse, depression and mental instability, and Alex Chilton brought all that into the studio, providing irrefutable, recorded evidence that he was well on his way to self-destruction. The man was suffering and he chose to dump all his psychic shit into our unsuspecting ears.
But was he really suffering on Like Flies on Sherbert?
I don’t buy that explanation for a second. First, it sounds like Alex had a helluva good time! Like Flies on Sherbert is loaded with humor, sometimes black, sometimes Pythonesque, often beautifully accidental. The “mistakes” are a hoot because everyone knows they’re mistakes and none of them detract from the feel of the music. “So, you fucked up. Who gives a shit? Welcome to the human race.” In several cases, the mistakes improve the song, a paradox that challenges our sacred beliefs regarding professionalism. “Then why should any musician bother to get the song right?” you ask. “Exactly!” I reply. Like Flies on Sherbert is not so much a musical experience as an experience that demands an attitudinal adjustment on the part of the listener.
The attitudinal adjustment you need to appreciate Like Flies on Sherbert sprang from an attitude shift on the part of one Alex Chilton. That shift began with blown expectations, a common feature of all journeys that turn out to be worth the trip. Alex’s original plan for the album—an intimate recording session with producer Jim Dickinson and “one or two other people”—was blasted to bits when he showed up to find Dickinson had brought his entire band. Alex’s reaction to it all was the classic response of the improviser—say “YES!”
I thought . . . “hmmm, well, this isn’t what I had in mind really!” . . . but I didn’t say anything. I just thought we should try it an’ see how it goes.
George-Warren, Holly (2014-03-20). A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (p. 215). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
I think what happened next is that Alex began to reconnect with his teenage self. In the period leading up to the recording sessions, he had been taking in the emerging punk scene in New York and was trying to introduce punk to the hometown crowd in Memphis. Although Like Flies on Sherbert does not embrace the model of three-chord rock played at lightning speed, the attitude is pure fuck-it-all punk—and Young Alex was a guy with attitude. His thirteen-year-old girlfriend described him thusly: “He was funny and good-looking. He had a swagger and held a Camel like no other.” Young Alex was James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, smirking, smoking, setting off firecrackers—a part of himself that he’d revealed in late-period Big Star shows but very rarely on record. Shedding the expectations that had followed him since the days of The Box Tops, Alex reconnected with his rock essence, with his inner James Dean . . . though the consummate professional musician still had his doubts:
We started recordin’ an’ I thought, ‘Man, these guys don’t know the songs . . .’ an’ I was trying to teach them, and they’d go, ‘Yeah, we know the songs,’ and then just go and play the first thing they thought of. So we were rollin’ the tape and we were doin’ all this outrageous soundin’ stuff. . . . An’ I thought ‘Man that must sound terrible.’ But when I went in and heard what we’d been doin’, man, it was just this incredible soundin’ stuff.
George-Warren, Holly (2014-03-20). A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (p. 215). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The second reason I think critics have gone too far to dismiss Like Flies on Sherbert as evidence of instability comes from Alex’s own testimony:
“My life was on the skids, and Like Flies on Sherbert was a summation of that period,” he later reflected. “I like that record a lot. It’s crazy but it’s a positive statement about a period in my life that wasn’t positive.”
George-Warren, Holly (2014-03-20). A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (p. 239). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The history of the artist in every branch of art is riddled with fragile sanity, drugs and alcohol, as if an artist is a person doomed to exist in a purgatory where one door leads to creation and the other to self-destruction. After all, an artist is a person who chooses to differentiate him or herself from the status quo, and the status quo always informs our definition of sanity. It’s no wonder that “mental instability” is a common thread in art—we wouldn’t have art if artists were always “mentally stable.” Therefore, it’s not at all surprising that Alex Chilton would do some of his best work while suffering and searching for the thing inside that he needed to express. It sounds to me like the recording sessions to Like Flies on Sherbert were actually a healing experience for him, a temporary respite from the downs and a reconnection with the reason he wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll in the first place:
Good rock & roll started from the rockabilly singers of the fifties. It has always been wild and out of control, and you had a real chaotic sense, and the punk thing has brought that back pretty strongly. To me, it’s just good rock & roll. Rock & roll is supposed to be out of control, and it’s crazy and it’s supposed to drive you crazy.
George-Warren, Holly (2014-03-20). A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (p. 223). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
And if there’s one album that epitomizes wild, out-of-control chaos, it’s Like Flies on Sherbert.
There are three different versions of Like Flies on Sherbert. My dad has the Aura version (British), so that’s what you’re going to get. Though I don’t target music consumers on this blog, let me give you a heads-up: you can get the vinyl version on Amazon for about two hundred bucks.
Thank my lucky stars for a father with a great vinyl collection!
The Aura version opens with “Boogie Shoes,” a B-side from K. C. and the Sunshine Band. Like all of K. C.’s offerings, the original is slick, sexless and thoroughly overproduced. Alex Chilton’s version is messy, hot as yours truly on a Saturday night and as for production, well . . . Alex misses his cue and starts his vocal too early, the bass player takes a few measures to get in sync with the drummer and the fills feature an electric guitar with treble knobs on both guitar and amp set to the max, in shocking contrast to the bass-heavy bottom. I guarantee that when you listen to the album on headphones the first time, you will yank them off your head when the guitar comes in. Jim Dickinson turns into an absolute madman on the piano, taking over the groove and driving the forward movement. About two-thirds of the way through the song, the electric guitar overloads one channel, destroying everything in its wake for a few seconds. Somehow the band manages to pull itself out of the precipice to put together a pretty hot guitar duet, leading to the rather anticlimactic ending with Alex mumbling his way half-heartedly through the closing line. As a statement to Big Star fans expecting lovely harmonies, professional production and further development of Alex Chilton’s songwriting skills, “Boogie Shoes” is one stiff middle finger; as a statement of returning to the essence of rock ‘n’ roll and its inherent amateurism, it is a goddamn masterpiece—an absolutely gorgeous, sloppy mess of opener.
Next up is “My Rival,” our first Alex Chilton original. The buzz around this song focuses on its “darkness,” to which I respond, “Is there a music critic in the house with a fucking sense of humor?” Alex Chilton takes on the ever-present cave man mentality of insecure American men raised on the silly belief that women are property that other men can steal from you. Alex—who had recently been cast aside by a girl for a drummer, no less—fits nicely into the role of the cuckolded loser who blames his loss of pussy on his rival, the evil shadowy figure who “has muscles and is a deceitful person,” and “stole my girl away.” Feeling safe enough to dish out the trash talk when alone in his bed, he takes his bitterness to the logical conclusion:
And I haven’t got nothing
And I’m dropping off to sleep
And I had rather be a killer
I’m gonna shore my confidence up
My rival I’m gonna stab him on arrival
Shoot him dead, my rival
Exposing one’s worst thoughts through verbalization is a fairly effective way to show you how silly you are, so my take on the song is Alex is telling himself, “What the fuck were you thinking, man?”
The “arrangement” for “My Rival” is really no arrangement at all—it sounds like you’ve stepped into the garage and the band is about to take a shot at this new song they wrote. You hear Alex on distorted guitar playing the intro riff, but no one else in the band is quite ready, so you get some test runs on the Mini Moog before bass and drums step in—probably after looking at each other with the “Am I supposed to come in now?” face common in jam sessions. It takes a few bars for the drummer to take control of the rhythm, but once he does, the song settles into a dark and sexy groove. Meanwhile, Jim Dickinson is “just turning knobs” on the Mini Moog, adding a patina of general weirdness to the mix. “My Rival” doesn’t end so much as it collapses, with no one stopping at the same time and Alex commenting, “Sounds pretty hot.” I echo that sentiment—for all it’s sloppiness, “My Rival” is a great rock ‘n’ roll song—sexy, quirky and definitely anti-establishment. And as for Alex’s madness and its influence on Like Flies on Sherbert, lo and behold, there was a method after all:
At the same time Alex focused on playing distorted guitar, looking for new ways to attack the instrument. “Alex was at a juncture,” Sid Selvidge recalled. “He’d had a real bad experience with the Big Star stuff and was trying to distance himself from his acceptable past, I felt, because what he would do at the Procape would chase people off. They didn’t understand it. His whole concept was, If I were a thirteen-year-old right now, and I were just learning my instrument, how would I play guitar? People don’t realize what an accomplished guitar player Alex is, his versatility. He’s a consummate guitarist. So from that level of sophistication, he was trying to play without knowing all that he knows. He was trying to play note for note what somebody who doesn’t play the guitar would play like. That’s a pretty convoluted concept, but that was his idea. And it fits perfectly into rock & roll. This was popular music to him— from where he came at it and got his hits in the first place.”
George-Warren, Holly (2014-03-20). A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man (p. 188). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Keeping it as hot as my girlfriend in a studded leather bra, “Hey! Little Child” comes next, and though it takes about twenty seconds for the band to achieve the tightness this song requires, they do get there, grooving to the straightforward beat and nailing the repetition of the word “Hey!” that serves as the chorus. The beat drives the song, but the guitar fills are a delight, uncovering more melodic possibilities in the simple chord structure. The only oddity in the song is the use of a toy piano (or a horribly recorded real piano), but somehow it manages to lighten the overall sound without weakening it. The little child in the song is a Catholic teen girl in her school uniform, the ultimate symbol of superficially repressed but ready-to-rock sexuality. The stiff and steady beat reflects both her faux formality and the observer’s scarcely disguised desire to slip his stiff one in between her skirt, missionary style. With its disciplined simplicity and strong forward movement, “Hey! Little Child” is the most obvious evidence of Alex Chilton’s time in the New York punk scene.
By contrast, “Hook or Crook” has the breeziness of early Stones records with a touch of country, featuring a series of hot guitar licks to remind the listening audience, that yes, Alex Chilton knew how to play. Easily the most mistake-free song on the album, “Hook or Crook” turns out to be the least interesting track. “Bring back the fuck-ups!” I shout with brimming impatience, and the band responds with a cover version of The Bell Notes’ 1959 hit, “I’ve Had It.” Jim Dickinson takes the lead vocal on this one, making a game attempt to try to find the right key during the intro. He finally sort of gets there, delivering a performance that falls somewhere between bad karaoke and last-drunk-at-the-party. Alex sings in the second-fiddle position to give the vocal some depth, throwing in a little falsetto here and there that’s also a little off. The piano tends to stray from the percussion role from time to time with block chords that bear little or no relation to the theme. The ending is executed with no precision whatsoever, and I’m as happy as a slut with hard ones in all three available orifices.
And I’m even happier (if that’s possible—three at once would be an awesome experience!) with “Rock Hard,” a song that Alex re-jiggered during the mixing process. Even with the rewrites and overdubs, the feel remains loose and underproduced, and Alex sings this song like his penis is ready to explode. The lyrics essentially riff on the multiple connotations of the phrase “rock hard,” forming what is in essence a sexual meditation:
Have a party
Way on down
Alex does attend to the penis later in the song, thrillingly connecting a rock hard member to BDSM tendencies (fuck yeah!):
Nice and mean
Is really sweet
It’s gettin’ hard
Like a shot
The low-fi Duane Eddy-like riff is pure classic rock, and Alex’s solos (one repeating a single, twangy note) stick to the beautiful basics. I would have liked the piano to sound a bit more Fats Domino, but as it is, “Rock Hard” is one seriously hot number.
We now get three cover songs in a row, each from different genres. “Girl After Girl” is a fairly faithful rendition (vocally speaking) of Troy Shondell’s (real name Gary Wayne Shelton) hit that earned him the completely deserved status of a one-hit wonder. The song is bloody awful, and because Troy Shondell, re-named after early 60’s matinee idol Troy Donahue, tried with all his might to sound like Elvis, we get an Elvis impersonator’s version of an Elvis impersonator. After asking “What song is this?” Alex dives with great intensity into what proves to be a false start. When the band gets going, they manage to pull off a decent reproduction of bad surf music. It’s okay, but probably the weakest track on the album.
In the mid 1960’s, “Waltz Across Texas” was a big hit for Ernest Tubb, the Texas Troubadour. The contrast between Tubb’s strong, confident vocal and Alex’s sloshy mess couldn’t be greater. It’s like you walked into the worst honky-tonk bar in the world at 1 a. m. and, because it’s a slow night, the bartender-owner decided to let the busboy pull out his gee-tar and play for the two or three drunks propped up against the bar. Unfortunately, the bus boy can’t sing worth shit and has the habit of spitting out the word “Texas” like he’s spitting out bloody teeth. Alex finally goes fucking mad towards the end, clearly identifying the piece as satire.
The best of the three in this clump of covers is “Alligator Man,” where Alex delivers his vocal in his natural voice with genuine enthusiasm over the thumps, labored guitar and general uncertainty of his fellow band members. The song was sort of a novelty hit for Jimmy C. Newman, a guy who spent his career wobbling between country and cajun. Alex plays and sings with gusto, clearly carrying the band, who really don’t sound all that sure about this cajun stuff.
The title track closes the album, a perfect end to our journey into chaos, a song both grand and ridiculous, a performance so dysfunctional yet so perfect. The grandiosity of the piece comes from the synthesized theme, the big booming drums resembling timpani and the introduction of choral voices as the song builds to the finale. The ridiculous dysfunction comes from the fact that the synthesizer sounds like crap and the choral voices are the voices of rank amateurs. The lyrics are almost completely unintelligible, with “It’s . . . so fine” serving as the only clearly understandable line in a word salad consisting of German and perhaps another language (or English in a generic imitation of a foreign accent). The progression of the song is defined by the character of Alex Chilton’s voice, which moves from Beach Boy-quality falsetto to the screams of the first guy out the door when the inmates take over the asylum. I can’t give you a musical or technical explanation as to why this song works, I have no idea why I get happy when it comes up and I am completely unable to identify the part of my personality that causes me to sing along to a song whose words I CAN’T FUCKING UNDERSTAND . . . but to me, “Like Flies on Sherbert” is a hoot, a grand send-up of the pomposity of album closers that present themselves as serious, meaningful reflections on life but are as empty as the vacuum of space.
And once again, it sounds like Alex is having the time of his life, shedding years of frustration and a whole slew of expectations. Various accounts from those in the studio during the Sherbert sessions describe Alex Chilton as moody, prone to extremes and an absolute prick at times. The booze, coke and crystal meth probably didn’t do much to foster a sunny disposition, and there is little doubt that he was a man in need of professional assistance. Still, there are many moments on Like Flies on Sherbert when he sounds as happy as a teenage punk scoping out the chicks with a cigarette dangling from his lips, fully wired to the energy source that drives rock ‘n’ roll—the sweet spirit of defiance, the glorious rejection of taboos, the lightness of the freed soul.
And that’s the Alex Chilton I choose to remember.
The parachute isn’t the answer to everything because maybe the fucker isn’t going to open.
—Phil May, in the liner notes by Mike Stax from the 1999 release of Parachute
When I abandoned the United States for France in May 2013, I spent most of the time on the flight to Paris pondering an age-old question: “Am I running away from something or towards something?”
I had given up on the good ol’ USA following the aftermath to the Sandy Hook massacre, where instead of doing anything to rein in the madness, Americans flocked to gun shops in full support of their constitutional right to lock and load while the NRA-controlled Congress did absolutely nothing. I could no longer live in a society that treated the slaughter of innocents as just another item in the news cycle. Blessed with the fortune of dual citizenship, an employer with European operations and relatives in both Paris and Nice, I put on my parachute and left for La Belle France.
The transition was easier for me than most émigrés, as I spoke the language fluently and had spent a lot of time in France over the years. I ran into a few bumps along the road due to lingering Americanism—forgetting that shops close early and on Sundays, telling service people what I wanted before saying “Bonjour,” smiling too much—but nothing serious. Even though things went well, I think I would define those first three years as running away from something because I still held the hope that the United States would grow the fuck up. That hope was blasted to smithereens when Americans elected Trump. Going to the American consulate and handing in my passport the day after the election ended the running away period—I had passed the point of no return. I’d jumped out of the plane.
After returning from Marseilles that evening, I felt a strange sense of emptiness. After talking it over with partner and family at dinner, I realized that I had abandoned one country but hadn’t fully embraced the new country: I’d made the transition intellectually but not emotionally. I hadn’t defined what I was running toward. I felt like I was falling through mid-air, thinking, “Maybe my parachute isn’t going to open after all.”
Well, thank fucking whoever for Marine LePen, whose blatant racism and sheer stupidity awoke an undiscovered passion for French ideals and the European Union. The En Marche campaign turned out to be exactly what I needed to cement my relationship with my country (although I do wish Macron would lean a bit more to the left). Election night was the night my parachute landed, and when I hit the ground I rolled my body to make for a nice, soft landing.
Okay, I was on the ground was because I was as drunk as a skunk after the celebration and my legs were perfectly fucking useless, but I had to complete the metaphor!
Released in the pivotal year of 1970, Parachute is an album about larger transitions than mine—the multi-layered transitions that replaced the Swinging Sixties with the Disco Era. The broad movement that had fought for civil rights and world peace while dancing to the music of rock and folk icons began to devolve into a melange of alternative lifestyles. Gay liberation took its place alongside women’s lib; spiritual and earthy types left cities and burbs and headed back to nature; social activists either found jobs in the government or joined radical underground movements; the majority thought it was time to grow up and seek employment within the Establishment. All kinds of people were strapping themselves into parachutes.
Music reflected the transitions taking place in the larger culture. The symbolic coup-de-grace to the Swinging 60’s came on April 10, 1970, when Paul McCartney announced his decision to leave The Beatles (a formality, really, since John had told the others back in September 1969 that he was done). The break-up of The Beatles was certainly a traumatic experience for a generation who grew up with them and saw them “change the world,” but their departure allowed artists whose work had been hidden in the Beatle shadow to come to the fore. This newly-discovered diversity eventually led to the destruction of the “Woodstock audience,” music fans who listened to all kinds of music. Rock splintered into its various sub-genres during the 70’s in the same way the Baby Boomers fled into various cultural cul-de-sacs.
Despite critical validation, Parachute did not exactly turn The Pretty Things into household names or boost them to the forefront of those emerging from the Beatle shadow. However, I can’t think of another record that captured the transition from the 60’s to the 70’s as well as Parachute. The album features some of the best melodic rock on record (the style that would retrospectively earn the label, “baroque rock”) while integrating the heavier riff-based guitar rock that would dominate the early 70’s. The Pretties were unique in that they were exceptionally capable in both styles. Their second album, Get the Picture?, is a garage fan’s dream, and their magnum opus, the song cycle SF Sorrow, displayed their talents with more melodic and progressive styles. After some upheaval in the lineup in part due to the disappointing chart performance of SF Sorrow, creative force Phil May and bassist Wally Waller became the songwriting team, approaching their work through the shared realization that the musical and social assumptions of the 60’s no longer had any relevance. More importantly, they had the right temperament to take advantage of a rules-don’t-matter environment, experimenting with different ways to write songs and integrating creativity with daily life:
Sometimes Wally and I would get back at three or four in the morning, stoned out of our brains, and start writing, and write until 12 o’clock the next day, and then go out to a gig. The party was part of the writing. It wasn’t something you stopped working for to do, it just fused into it. It was all of one—the life was all about the music.
—Phil May, in liner notes referenced above
Recorded with Norman Smith of Beatles’ fame (as was SF Sorrow) at Abbey Road, the band brought the same spirit to the recording sessions, working long hours, experimenting and taking the time to get things right. The combination of excellent production, creative freedom and deep social insight is what makes Parachute such an amazing and horribly under-appreciated piece of art.
“Scene One” gets things rolling with an anxiety-inducing build combining Mellotron, rumbling piano and guitar feedback leading to an urgent guitar strum and a furious assault on the drum kit by Skip Alan. The song proper is almost Lizst-like in its dramatic intensity with sharp thrusts and stuttering rhythms. The poem supporting the music is brief, delivered in a wave of complex vocal harmony—an aural depiction of the ruthless energy of a great city:
Stone spires rise high, lacerate warmer skies
Iron laced populations, beneath molten fields
What follows is open to interpretation. In his liner notes for the album, Mike Stax describes the next five songs as two individual pieces and a three-part suite. What I hear is a five-part suite based on the experience of the protagonist in “The Good Mr. Square,” and this is coming from someone who didn’t read the liner notes for this edition until I prepared for this review. One of the themes in Parachute has to do with the migration of significant numbers of 60’s generation to rural areas—the “back-to-nature” movement. On Parachute, this conflict is manifested in the form of an unnamed woman who abandons city life for England’s pastures. The problem with the three-song suite concept is that you lose the conflict—the song that describes her as a city dweller (“She Was Tall, She Was High”) precedes those three songs. Add to that the fact the “The Good Mr. Square” segues seamlessly into “She Was Tall, She Was High”—so seamlessly that you have no idea you’ve moved to a new track—and the five-song suite makes much more sense.
Based on one of Phil May’s short stories, “The Good Mr. Square” is a stunning musical shift from the opener, a simple arrangement of acoustic guitar, bass and light drums containing a perfectly lovely melody spiced with luscious background harmonies. Wally Waller’s vocal is appropriately gentle, and I really love the way The Pretties change the shape of the vowels on those harmonies, moving from “aah” in the first line and “whoa-oh-oh” in the second. Our protagonist is a lonely fellow who allegedly “doesn’t have any hang-ups” and “spends his time looking through other people’s eyes.” The segue is crucial here, for the first four lines of the next song (“She Was Tall, She Was High”) are sung to the melody of “The Good Mr. Square,” which to me implies that Mr. Square is observing this young lass as she passes by his window. Even more evidence can be found in the way the last line of “The Good Mr. Square” is transcribed, ending with an ellipsis (“He spends his time . . .), indicating a continuous narrative.
The woman responsible for Mr. Square’s enchantment is a party chick with serious presence:
And as she weaves her way, through city streets,
The dawn arrives.
In concrete glades of metal grass,
Steel cords are woven tight.
But she is free, f . . . r . . . double e.
She was tall, she was high,
Lord she almost touched the sky,
Today, I said today,
She was tall, she was high,
Lord she almost made me cry.
Some fifteen years later this babe would reappear in Ian Anderson’s “Budapest” (“Yes, and her legs went on forever/Like staring up at infinity”). In response to her inspiring presence, the music becomes more libidinal, with sharp electric guitar cuts and a more intense vocal from keyboardist Jon Povey. The final words on the woman indicate either that the city is taking its toll (“Before the storm subsides, she’s flown/And leaves the body torn”) or that Mr. Square is experiencing deep anguish at her disappearance (or has a hard-on that will never probe her inner secrets).
Mr. Square then encounters the lady “In the Square,” perhaps having struck up some kind of casual friendship with her in the intervening days (“Hey,” she says to her friends, “I met this nice old chap in the square today.”) This is a perfectly sumptuous piece of music with clear baroque flavorings from Spanish guitar and electric harpsichord enhanced by a stunningly effective use of a sitar. The harmonies are once again absolutely gorgeous, sung gently and almost respectfully in support of the idyllic scene:
In the square, she came running,
I was lucky to be there.
In her hair, she wore flowers,
The scent it filled the air.
The flowers represent an important shift in the narrative: our hot city lady is about to go country on us. Mr. Square is appropriately devastated by her departure:
She must leave, not returning,
I was sadness standing there,
A silent square, bus of silver,
With my vision disappears.
Ah, but there’s always hope, even if it’s the terribly fragile hope of an unopened letter. Phil May finally gets a turn at the lead vocal spot in “The Letter,” a more upbeat number reflecting the delight Mr. Square experiences going through the post—the repetition of the line “She wrote me a letter,” with varied emotional emphasis on the part of Phil May, betrays his excitement and anticipation. Two aspects of the story are confirmed here: first, the pair did strike up a friendship with overtones of something more; and second, the girl describes her disillusionment with city life, clearly linking her identity to that tall drink of water in “She Was Tall, She Was High.”
She wrote me a letter
From the green fields it came
She wrote me a letter
Trying to explain
Now living came easy
In velvet valleys of sun
She wrote me a letter
She wrote me a letter
So many questions she asked
She knew, I just couldn’t answer
For they were all in my past
City life was too heavy
So she had run for the hills
A transitional passage highlighted by a intensely-picked bass line segues into “Rain,” where the vocal tone shifts to one of anguish and loss:
When I got to our meeting place
I stared into empty space,
No-one here for me, oh no no no
The phrase, “No, no, no, nobody here for me” is repeated several times during the fade, soon replaced by the dreary sound of cold raindrops. Whether you go with the a three or five-song suite, one thing is indisputable: these are magnificently crafted songs marked by poetic economy and performed with energy, professionalism and tremendous care.
But hold on there, we’re not done yet! Having given the 60’s a beautiful send-off, The Pretties embrace the emerging hard rock movement of the 70’s with the riff-driven ass-kicker, “Miss Fay Regrets.” The band is on fire throughout, bashing the shit out of everything they’ve got their hands on. The lead guitar duet in the break defines the word, “killer,” and as for the lyrics . . . well, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry in response to his story about an arrogant leading lady who peaked in the mid-40’s and now finds herself on the skids. Phil May manages somehow to stoke your anger at this bitch while also making you feel a bit sorry for her . . . but not too sorry:
Well could I spare the fare,
‘Cause your cheque book isn’t there,
Could I take you to where your hotel is?
Oh yes I told them who you were,
But they said they would prefer it,
If you would find another place to crash in,
I know the streets are very cold,
And the shallow walls don’t hold,
The shelter and protection you’re seeking.
And as I walk away,
You turn to me and say,
You’d rather I forget about our meeting.
Although Phil May described himself as a man with feet firmly planted in the city, he was hardly oblivious to the darkness inherent in any great metropolis. “Cries from the Midnight Circus” paints a vivid picture of hookers flagging down drivers “with faces greased and mouth full of shine” (or is it “shite?”—both work). It all sounds both rather sad and harmless at first, but sex workers are always the most vulnerable human beings in any city, as misogyny, dehumanization and guilt infect too many of their customers:
You lie in the alley, with blood on your clothes.
As fingers round your throat they close.
Your cries of murder, splash on the walls
As you die, you think about the injustice of it all.
The music is sexy-sleazy, dominated by heavy bass and improvised bursts of guitar—a soundscape reflecting the sheer noisiness of the city with the ever-present rumble in the background. What strikes me most about this song is its heavy but powerful social message, a feature missing from too many hard rock songs of the early 70’s.
We flip over to Side Two and find “Grass,” a song that has nothing to do with marijuana and everything to do with the city-country contrast that dominates Parachute. The song deals with separated lovers—she in the country, he in the city—and it’s tempting to consider this an epilogue to the suite. Phil May described the song as “a pastoral hymn,” but the language he uses to describe the pain of separation is hardly pastoral:
As silver tears they weave and lace,
Sad patterns upon her face,
She waits for you.
So low below a laser sun,
Through velvet fields she runs,
Reaching for you.
And so you bleed now,
Your hand holds the knife
That is tearing your life apart.
Why don’t you leave now,
The city’s too heavy
And your dreams they melt in the sun.
The melodic progression is fascinating, moving from pure loveliness supporting the country scenes to a more complex pattern in the city scenes—a pattern that refuses to resolve on the root note but leaves the listener suspended in uncertainty. The guitar duets that separate the verses are steeped in blues patterns, synthesizing the aching on both sides of the divide. If I were to choose one song that synthesizes the music of the 60’s and 70’s, “Grass” would come to mind in a heartbeat. What’s remarkable is you hardly notice the synthesis: the song flows easily despite the disparate parts. Equally remarkable are the four-part harmonies, where Norman Smith joins in because apparently only three Pretties could sing.
Up to this point, the songs on Parachute have accepted the notion of the countryside as a soft landing for those fleeing the cacophony of urban existence. That notion is put to the test in “Sickle Clowns,” where the gruesome ending of the film of Easy Rider is used to demolish the notion that rural areas are relatively free from hate. Shee-it, everybody in America knows that! That’s where the rednecks and the white supremacists hang! The “sickle” in the song is not the farm implement or communist symbol but short for motor-CYCLE, and the chord pattern, a modified blues pattern where the emphasis of the root 7th chord is the flattened third and the expected IV (major) chord is iv (minor), would have fit beautifully into the Easy Rider soundtrack. The band is tight and the song definitely gets your hips in motion.
“She’s a Lover” is a more melodic rocker but still pretty beefy, with outstanding support from the rhythm section of Skip Alan and Wally Waller. The song also breaks pattern—twice—in the middle of the song, first with a gentle passage dominated by vocal harmony then by a fascinating instrumental passage that moves in unexpected directions away and towards the base melody. The extended fade features both superbly executed rhythmic shifts from the band and surprising variations to the expected vocal harmonies, enhanced by a call-and-response pattern. The imagery in the song is that of Earth Mother—a sexier, more sinuous version as opposed to those fat broads the archaeologists always dig up in our ancestors’ caves—but still the nurturing image in perfect sync with nature:
With warm breezes
She will wipe away the sigh.
In the green folds of her skirt
A tired traveller lies,
She’s a lover and you know she’s coming through
Later, “She sheds her summer dress/Fearing it displeases you,” indicating that the concept of the dominant female had not sufficiently penetrated male consciousness. Fuck that! When I strip, I choose to strip and I don’t give a fuck who it pleases or displeases . . . though I rather like the awe that stripping can inspire.
Speaking of fuck, I really wish The Pretties had lived in another age with limited censorship and could have titled the next song, “Aw, Fuck It.” As it is, we’ll have to accept “What’s the Use,” which I will admit is probably a more precise choice of words but lacks the emotional impact of surrender. We could compromise and call it “To Hell with It” and I would be mollified. Suppressing my tendency to meander any further, this is a very clever little piece that opens beautifully with a heavily-reverbed piano playing a pattern similar to the gentle melodies you hear in old movies when the characters enter a bucolic town in China or Japan. The music shifts to a waltz for the verse proper, where vague hippie platitudes compete with nonsensical metaphors (“your smile was the wind” makes me think of someone with missing teeth). This absurdity is deliberate, for after the flower children admit they “can’t build to lines of a plan,” the pastoral harmonies and 3 /4 rhythm collapse into a poor-us repetition of “what’s the use, what’s the use.” The 12-string was a nice touch on this piece, a blast of folk-rock that fits the theme perfectly.
Norman Smith received co-writing credit for the lush album closer, “Parachute.” The exquisite harmonies are the work of Jon Povey, who took advantage of eight-track technology and layered eight different versions of himself to achieve the effect. In the liner notes, Jon describes how he pulled off the soprano parts, with Norman taking a more . . . assertive role:
The very, very high ones are very difficult to reach, so Norman used to come up behind me with a drumstick and stick it up my arse whenever I couldn’t reach the note. It was quite effective as well.
The lyrics are quite poetic; I’m not sure I agree with Mike Stax’s opinion that they evoke “The Waste Land,” but I do think they reinforce the themes of Parachute: the flight from city to nature and the uncertainty of a safe landing:
White ice towers, slow dissolving
Below savage moon
Iron cities soon to rust.
Warned first by the gathering shadows
From wide vapor deserts
They turned, turned towards the sea.
Pale worn the walking, pass
Through concrete glades.
Torn shadows, slashed silence
The harmonies segue into an instrumental passage where Povey demonstrates considerable skill on the piano before the arrangement descends and fades into a rising, single synthesized note that sounds like a fading siren . . . a curious warning of what might lie ahead.
Parachute is a wonderful multi-layered listening experience filled with excellent musicianship, superb vocals and lyrics that teem with meaning. It is a tragedy that both SF Sorrow and Parachute both wound up as chart failures due to poor support from EMI in the U. K. and the mind-blowing decision to sign a U. S. contract with a subsidiary of Motown. That is frustrating but I don’t think poor chart sales should minimize the extent of what The Pretties achieved here. Immersing myself in Parachute couldn’t have come at a better time in my life, for it encouraged deep self-reflection regarding a series of major life transitions that I had experienced as the blurry landscape that you experience when riding on a high-speed train. In the future, when I feel like reaching for a parachute, I know I will pause, reflect and think hard about whether I’m running away or running toward.
That’s what great art is supposed to do—get you to engage with your life, provide insight, raise questions—and Parachute does just that.