Wally Waller interview
by John Wisniewski
It would be a bit of an understatement to say that the Pretty Things weren't your average British invasion band. True, they started as blues revivalists like the Stones (who guitarist Dick Taylor was a part of early on) but by 1968, they had other ideas in mind. Swept up in the psychedelic craze, they crafter 1968's S.F. Sorrow, a rock opera before such a thing was supposed to exist and its psych-rock twin, 1970's Parachute. Along with Taylor and singer Phil May, the other important songwriter then was bassist Wally Waller. Waller would leave after 1971 and became a house producer for EMI and would even produce his own band's 1972 album Freeway Madness. Then there was the story of the Pretties alias mystery band The Electric Banana, which he helmed. And then there were assorted Pretties reunions that he joined in on. And his own band. And a new band with former Pretties drummer Twink. And... let's let him tell you himself...ED NOTE: We'd be remiss if we didn't tip our hat to Pretties singer Phil May, who passed away on May 15th this year.
PSF: What bands were you with prior to Pretty Things?
WW: From the age of 16, I was in a number small bands in and around the local area of Bexley/Dartford/Erith, which at the time was part of North-West Kent, but is now part of Greater London. These bands included the likes of The Echoes, The Marshalls, etc., they came and went and disappeared without a trace. We just did a few very low key gigs in pubs and things. In 1962, there was a move to form a kind of local 'super-group' which was called Bern Elliott & The Fenmen. I wasn't originally selected to be part of this newly formed line-up, but one of the two guitar players dropped out and I got my chance. Jon Povey (who had been the drummer in all my previous bands) who was in The Fenmen got me the job. This new outfit quickly became the hottest thing around. We were asked to go to Hamburg, Germany for a month in October 1962. It meant I would have to leave my apprenticeship as an electrical engineer, and turn professional, which I promptly did, not without some misgivings from my widowed mother.
On our return from our second trip to Hamburg in 1963 (The Star Club this time), we were beginning to make a bit of a name for ourselves - we were talent spotted by a record producer from Decca Records called Peter Sullivan (Lulu, Tom Jones etc.,) and to cut a long story short, we recorded a cover of the Barrett Strong Motown hit "Money." It scraped into the Top Ten of most charts in the UK. We were sandwiched between The Rolling Stones (also from the Dartford Area) at No.13, and Little Eva at No.15
A VERY young Waller and Phil May
PSF: Could you talk about recording S.F. Sorrow and Parachute? What were the recording sessions like for both classic albums?
WW: When we signed our EMI contract in mid-1967, the most sophisticated recording machines available (even at Abbey Road) were 4-track Studers. So the recording process was a technical challenge that needed a lot of planning. It involved a lot of sub-mixing along the way, and that was difficult to reverse unless you went all the way back and started again. We would fill the four tracks with maybe the basic backing, and then wheel in another 4-track machine and mix things down to a 2 track stereo on the new 4-track, leaving two vacant tracks for new stuff - this process could be repeated maybe 4 or 5 times, and sometimes we were even adding things 'live' during the final mix-down. The really big drawback with this was that in an 'analogue world' like that was, every time another generation or sub-mix was made, it introduced another generation of tape-hiss and loss of quality, despite even the best efforts of some of the best technical staff on the planet at that time. S. F. Sorrow, just like Sergeant Pepper and a great many other albums were recorded like this.
By the time we were recording Parachute two years later, Abbey Road had introduced 8-track machines! We couldn't believe how great that was, but even then, we were still sometimes doing sub-mixes to be able to get everything we wanted onto the tape!
The kind of things that we were trying to do in those early 'psychedelic times' took a lot of understanding and 'buying into.' but we were lucky that our producer at EMI was Norman Smith, who had been the engineer on all the early Beatles' recordings up until Rubber Soul. We found in him a kindred spirit who allowed us to indulge our passions. Quite often, we found ourselves treading in the 'virgin snow,' both musically and technically. We burned lots of recording time making those first two albums at EMI, but fortunately most artists' contracts of the day involved the recording company picking the tab for the recording costs. The bean counters in EMI did get a bit worried about the amount of money we were spending in Abbey Road recording time, but Norman took all the flak, and he had a track record through his connections with The Beatles and Pink Floyd, so nobody bothered him too much.
S. F. Sorrow was a very organic sort of album. It was my idea to illustrate a story with music, rather than just have a dozen or so completely unrelated songs - which was, and still is, the norm. The story itself mostly from Phil. He was writing a story at the time and it soon became the story for the album. The writing sessions for the music were quite often a communal affair, and we would sometimes spend the whole night till dawn at Phil's parents' house, with the help of one or two strange substances. When we set out on this musical journey, we didn't really know where we were going. We didn't have everything written and set in stone, it just kind of grew with the music and story aiding and abetting each other ‘til we reached the end. Because of this, we recorded everything more or less in the story's chronological sequence.
Parachute was very different in the way it was conceived and written. Dick had left the band by that time, and the whole of that album was written by myself and Phil May. It was very loosely themed affair and we had a lot of encouragement from Norman Smith for the songs we were writing.
It seems that those two EMI albums. S. F. Sorrow and Parachute are mostly where our legacy will lie. They are the two albums from our back-catalogue that still generate the most interest and sales still after half a century. It didn't seem possible at the time that were making music that would have this kind of longevity!
Pretty Things with pretty long hair
PSF: Could you talk more about Norman Smith, who also worked with Pink Floyd then?
WW: Norman, I think, produced the Floyd's first album, and at about the same time that we became EMI artists (early 1967). We joined the roster of artists that Norman took care of. He was a record producer in every sense - an accomplished musician in his own right. He had also written some fine orchestral scores, as well as being a multi-instrumentalist. Apart from his 'artistry,' he was also a master of the technical side of sound recording. Amongst his many achievement there, he was of course the Beatles' engineer - he recorded all the Beatles output up to and including "Rubber Soul"! It was not common practice in those days at EMI to give engineers a written credit on any recording output. We regarded him as our producer though I think his official title was 'A&R Man' (Artists & Repertoire). I had always taken a keen interest in the art of recording sound, and Norman and I soon forged quite a strong friendship.
We had a lot of crazy ideas, this was the beginning of the age of 'Psychedelia,' and even though Norman was from a different generation, we found in him a kindred spirit, and co-conspirator. The first thing we wanted to do was a crazy 6 minute long single called "Defecting Grey." We took our demo to Norman who made a few suggestions, and we did cut it down a bit, and Norman wanted to record it straight away. But Abbey Road was fully booked so Norman booked some time in a studio in Chelsea Church Street - I can't remember the name off hand.
PSF: Could you tell us the time before that in 1967-68? There was a film made about Pretty things at about this time.
WW: Our next project (after "Defecting Grey") was another single called "Talking About The Good Times" - it was another multi-faceted song, though with more structure to it than "Defecting Grey," but still pretty 'off the wall.' There's is loads of stuff on this record - and it was a real technical challenge to get it all on there! We were recording on 4-track machines, and this time we were working for the first time in Abbey Road. If you were trying to push the available technology to the limit in those times - the place to do it was Abbey Road. Lots of planning was required and lots of sub-mixing from one 4-track machine to another was the way for us. Norman's expertise helped us here enormously - he was able to instruct the engineers on how to achieve certain things. They were things he knew from his own personal experiences going back to his previous days as an engineer himself!
That single, our first recorded at Abbey Road, made me realize what the possibilities were in this cathedral of sound recording. EMI were now calling for an album - during one of our tours of Denmark, I suggested that we made an album whereby we used music to illustrate a story - the words 'Rock Opera' had not really occurred to me. It was not immediately accepted with open arms - but Phil picked it up and started to run with it - most of the story of "S. F. Sorrow" was from Phil's pen, and we all pitched in with the writing of the material, although a lot of cross-pollination happened too.
Norman was thrilled by the idea, and gave us every encouragement, and in the studio, he was just like another band member in many respects- he helped us tremendously to overcome technical issues that could potentially prevent us from doing some of the things that we wanted to do. We were using quite a lot of studio time (EMI paid for recording costs under the terms of our contract) and we were beginning to face some opposition from the 'bean counters' back at EMI's HQ. Norman's clout enabled us to soldier on - we became a bit insular I guess - it was a bit like 'us and them'. It became a bit of a cause celebre for us, and we got it finished!
I joined the band in early 1967 - I think there had been a short promotional movie made shortly before I joined, but I don't recall any filming taking place in my early years in the band.
PSF: What happened for you after you left Pretty Things in 1971?
WW: I worked for E.M.I. as a producer from 1971 - 1975, and then I spent a couple of years living in France, and helping Philippe Debarge (with whom I'd made an album with in 1969). In 1975, I put together a band of English musicians (that I was part of), and we lived and worked in France - Philippe Debarge was the lead vocalist.
PSF: What did you think of later Pretty Things albums such as Savage Eye?
WW: The personnel in the band then were all great musicians, but in my opinion, they were too overly-preoccupied with being clever and not concerned enough about touching the real pulse of the moment. I think that Phil felt marginalized too which led to the eventual break-up of the band in 1976. I don't think it was Norman Smith's best work as a producer either. It doesn't seem to have struck much of a chord with people in general - the whole of the Pretty Things' back catalogue is now available from Snapper Records or Repertoire, and the thing that out-sells everything else by a country mile is the E.M.I. era band, 1967 - 1971, things like S. F. Sorrow and Parachute, etc..
PSF: Could you tell us about Phil May and the Fallen Angels?
WW: When I returned from my French escapade, Phil and I did some exploratory recordings with some other musicians including Pete Tolson and Ed Deane, two amazing guitarists. We spent about a week in a studio in Wales called "Rockfield." The whole thing was financed by Swan Song - and we gave the tapes to Peter Grant at Swan Song but never heard anything else about them. The tapes seem to have completely disappeared, they are nowhere to be seen anyway. Maybe they will show up one day... I hope so!
Not long after that, Phil and I became involved in 'The Strange Case Of The Fallen Angels'! We were contacted by an old friend of ours: Mickey Finn. Mickey had found a financier who had agreed to finance the whole project. Mickey had been putting together this band called The Fallen Angels, and had encountered a lot of problems with the various musicians who came and went. He didn't have anybody who could sing, and nobody seemed able to write any songs either. So with the addition of Phil and I, the band became viable. We wrote the material and rehearsed the band before spending about a month in Geneva recording the album. It was like a cameo in our career's. It was a surreal and bizarre alcohol-fueled episode that was definitely not a career highlight.
PSF: Could you tell us how The Wally Waller band formed and who played with you in that group?
WW: The Wally Waller Band was not a proper band as such. I was asked by the De Wolfe Music Library to write and produce some music for them. I had worked for De Wolfe many times as 'The Electric Banana' (The Pretty Things in disguise). So they knew me well, and I knew them too. I used musicians I knew on the sessions: a nice guitar player called Ed Deane, a drummer called Chico Greenwood, and I occasionally used Howie Casey on tenor saxophone - the rest, including all the vocals, was me. I later did another album of library music for them - this time I called myself "Charlie Flake." I used Pete Tolson on that album.
PSF: What are you currently working at?
WW: There are a few things that I've half arranged to do. Last year, I did a couple of gigs with Pretty Things' ex-drummer Twink, and we committed to recording an album together. I've also got a half finished single with for an Italian band Technicolour Dream featuring Twink & myself. It's my song, I'm playing and singing the song, and it's my production. I really want to get back on the road again. I've got a real appetite for that. It's been a long time, but there are a lot of unanswered questions in my mind about personnel etc.. I'm certainly not short of material. I've been writing a lot recently and generally feeling in a creative mood. The dark cloud that now hangs over us all, inevitably means a lot of plans will be shelved for the time being. There is so much uncertainty around at the moment, so heaven knows when this world will be back to anything like what we might regard as 'normality.' So I guess it will largely be a question of 'watch this space'!
Also see our 2000 interview with Phil May and Dick Taylor
And Wally would like to wish you a Merry Xmas...
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