Monday, January 5, 2009

Oh! You Pretty Things...

"They invented everything and were credited with nothing," declares Arthur Brown, the God of Hellfire himself. Never has such an influential band been so outrageously underrated and neglected within the annals of rock history. Their influence encompasses diverse acts, such as the Who, the Velvet Underground, and true PT acolyte David Bowie (hence the title). Needless to say, the Pretty Things are among my all-time favorite bands, and I shall champion their legacy at any given opportunity.

The Pretty Things were born out of the same intense love for American blues and R&B that produced the Rolling Stones. In fact, both bands were formed in lead guitarist Dick Taylor's front room! Taylor, lead vocalist Phil May, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards became friends at Sidcup Art College where Taylor and Richards were students. The young lads shared a common obsession with Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, and Bo Diddley (a song of Diddley's gave the Pretties their name), often pooling their money together to order imports of American records. Taylor had played bass in an embryonic version of the Stones but left the band when the Stones decided to go "professional," a decision Taylor has never regretted. "I could have been Bill Wyman. Or I could have ended up face down in a swimming pool," he dryly observed in a 1999 interview (Pulse!, April 1999).

Joining Taylor and May for the first classic line up included John Stax on bass, Brian Pendelton on rhythm guitar, and a wild character that could even give Keith Moon a run for the money--Viv Prince on drums. With the help of manager Bryan Morrison (also the manager of Pink Floyd), the Pretties soon gained the reputation of being more dangerous, scruffy, dirty, and outrageous than the Stones could even think of being. Phil May was specifically singled out for having "the longest hair in Britain" to the horror of parents everywhere. Their early singles were crunching R&B of the Bo Diddley variety, and as Paul Du Noyer writes in the liners for the CD reissue of the Pretties' debut, the prototype for every garage band to follow in their wake.

After several tumultuous years and a line up change that left only Taylor and May from the original group, the Pretty Things recorded their masterpiece at EMI Studios in 1967--the year of Sgt. Pepper and Piper--the first rock opera, the magnificent S.F. Sorrow. Taylor and May were joined by bassist and songwriter Wally Waller, legendary figure and drummer Twink, and keyboardist John Povey. During the recording of the album, John Lennon would often poke his head in to tell the boys they were sounding fantastic. (In fact, according to Povey, George Harrison's sitar and Ringo Starr's drums were used during the sessions!) Apparently, a roadie shared by the Pretties and the Who took an acetate of S. F. Sorrow to a party at Pete Townshend's house. Pete proceeded to play the acetate continuously, thus becoming inspired to create his rock opera, Tommy. This is still a sore spot for all parties...

After the commercial failure of S. F. Sorrow, Taylor exited the group (later to return) but the Pretties persisted and recorded the brilliant concept album Rolling Stone magazine selected as the best of 1971, Parachute. Yet due to poor publicity, Parachute failed to sale in the US, making it the first Rolling Stone album of the year to not reach platinum level sales. In my opinion, it is as much a masterpiece as S. F. Sorrow. In between those albums, the Pretties recorded an album with rich French playboy, Philippe DeBarge, which had remained officially unreleased until now; Ugly Things records has released an LP edition, with a CD issue to follow in Februrary. (I was very lucky to get an autographed copy!)

The Pretty Things continue to perform and record to this day, and they're not going anywhere. If you are not aquainted with them, there's no better time than the present to discover their catalog. They are the epitome of the best elements of rock'n'roll--all the rebellion, the attitude, the experiementation, the freedom, the creativity. Long Live the Pretties--unbowed and unrepentant!

References: Pulse! April 1999, liner notes to The Pretty Things, Discoveries and Goldmine magazines, Mojo Psychedelic Special Edition 2005, etc.

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