Friday, November 12, 2010

Everything you need to know about the Pretty Things

Mike Bandy from the Me-Thinks had never heard the Pretty Things until just recently, and he's been listening to music for a good while, so perhaps you haven't, either -- a situation that should be remedied at the earliest opportunity.

Although there's lots of other stuff I listen to, I've never really gotten over the '60s Brit bands that were my first obsession, as you've probably noticed if you read this thing at all regularly. The Who, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, the Small Faces, the Move, and these guys: I've owned all of their catalogs innumerable times (as I've tended to divest myself of record collections at times when funds were low).

I first got wind of the Pretty Things via Nik Cohn's Rock From the Beginning (the "R&B England" chapter, to be exact), in a passage that was so hilarious that it had to be substantially toned down for the much-less-snazz (libel lawsuit-fearing?) 1973 revision. Here I'll quote the '69 original in full:

The most classic were the Pretty Things, who'd been deliberately designed to make the Rolling Stones look like that proverbial vicarage tea party. Man, they were ugly. I mean, really ugly -- Phil May, the singer, had a fat frog face, entirely covered by hair, and he'd bang about the stage like some maimed gorilla. The others looked even badder. And their music was all chaos: the big bad blues. Actually it wasn't either big or the blues. Bad it was, however.

What 14-year-old boy _wouldn't_ want to hear them after reading that description? And it was true: Phil May and the bassplayer, John Stax, looked like either Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum or precursors to James Earl Jones' evil henchman from the Conan the Barbarian movie. But their early records, which I first heard on a cheapie German import, later on a Sire double LP reish, were more raucous than their contemporaries and local competition the early Stones (for whom the Pretties' jazzer-bearded guitarist Dick Taylor had originally played bass) and Yardbirds.

Where the Stones took their main inspiration from Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, the Pretties drew on more primal influences: Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed. May's tonsils were more tortured than Jagger's, and drummer Viv Prince, who was given to stunts like getting his ass kicked by Hell's Angels, was the proximate percussive and behavioral exemplar for Keith Moon. (Dig his relentless kick drum on "Honey I Need," f'rinstance.) Their second album, Get the Picture, in particular is a masterpiece of fuzzed-out Mod R&B to rival Them Again.

While I got the impression, studying what was then relatively recent history, that the Aftermath/Between the Buttons Stones were very consciously chasing the Rubber Soul/Revolver Beatles, the Pretty Things seemed more like the Zeitgeist incarnate and so _of course_ on their third album, Emotions, they toned things down, ditched Bo and Jimmy, covered the Kinks, and added cod English horn sections to their mix.

That was a transitional album for the Pretties. During the sessions, Stax and rhythm guitarist Brian Pendleton decamped and were replaced by Wally Allen (bass, voxxx) and Jon Povey (keys, voxxx) from Bern Elliot and the Fenmen, a close-harmony surf outfit, of all things. The addition of those two brought a new musicality and paved the way for the Pretties' finest hour: their psych phase, commencing with the epic single "Defecting Grey," which winds its way through several themes and is a harbinger of the sound of their masterpiece album, S.F. Sorrow.

Trumpeted after the fact as the first rock opera, Sorrow was recorded at Abbey Road at the same time the Beatles were working on the "White Album" and Pink Floyd were cutting A Saucerful of Secrets there. It wasn't released in the U.S. until after the Who had toured Tommy, and so made zilch impact. (This was typical of the Pretties' history of hard luck/bad decisionmaking, which included passing on the opportunity to cover Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" as their first single before the Byrds got hold of it and failing to tour America until the '70s -- although they did tour Australia in 1965.)

As a narrative, Sorrow's a lot more coherent than Tommy, and as a record, it meanders a lot less, with music that's in turns lush (the dense, quirky vocal harmonies throughout), experimental (the stew of Mellotron and primitive tone generators cooked up by the white-lab-coated EMI engineers), and hard-edged (the archetypal heavy psych jams like "Balloon Burning" and "Old Man Going"). Along with the Small Faces' Ogden's Nut Gone Flake (which also has a song called "The Journey") and the Zombies' Odessey and Oracle (which also has a song about World War I), it remains one of my favorite artifacts of 1968.

It's a popular untruth that Parachute, the album which followed Sorrow in 1970, was a Rolling Stone "album of the year" when it was released -- a fallacy which, if true, would validate the suspicion that there was payola, or at least drugola, in the rockcrit biz. It's not exactly the "Pretties' 'White Album' or Abbey Road" that some would make it, either, but it is a fine example of Brit post-psych -- not exactly "gettin' it together out in the country" like Traffic and their post-John Wesley Harding ilk, but a step back from the lysergic heights that had preceded it. Dick Taylor having split after Sorrow's commercial failure, bassist Wally Allen steps up to do the lion's share of writing and even lead singing here, before leaving the fold himself.

The first Pretty Things album I actually owned was 1973's Freeway Madness, recorded by a lineup built around May, Povey, and ace guitarist Peter Tolson. It's kinda directionless and sounds like it was recorded under the same mountain of cotton wool as the Velvets' Loaded and MC5's High Time, but it features the Pretties' greatest moment of Stones-like Berry-ismo ("Havana Bound") and some nice acoustic numbers ("Peter"/"Rip Off Train," a "Country Road" which is not the same as John Denver's) alongside "Over the Moon," which sounds for all the world like a Mott the Hoople song. This latter disturbing tendency was even more in evidence on the follow-up Silk Torpedo, released on Led Zeppelin's label, the title song from which is indicative that Phil May had sort of run out of ideas, lyric-wise, by this point.

My boss at the record store where I worked in high school saw them around that time, at the Beacon Theater in NYC, opening for the Strawbs. He said they played a very long and unconvincing rocker entitled "Freakin' At the Beacon." In the fullness of time, one wonders why so many performers were trying _so hard_ to "rock out" back in those days. Maybe, subconsciously at least, they realized that that particular historical moment was over, and that the '80s were going to be more like the '50s with stupider clothes.

I kind of lost the thread after that, until the Pretties had a nice resurgence starting in the mid-'90s, with small-scale but ecstatically-received U.S. tours (nope, I never caught 'em; sigh) and a succession of ever-more-deluxe reissues of their catalog. Everyone should own S.F. Sorrow, and hearing Parachute would also make your life better. I'd also seek out a good singles compilation: Shout Factory's Come See Me: The Very Best of the Pretty Things CD is ace and a fave at mi casa, and I'm saving my milk money to buy Sundazed's 2LP Singles '64-'68 when I can lay my hands on one. Long live the Pretty Things!


Blogger Grubbermeister said...

Nice review of those pretty things!

11:02 AM  

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