The Pretty Things

TrackSingle / Album
RosalynFontana TF 469
Don't Bring Me DownFontana TF 503
Road RunnerThe Pretty Things
Buzz The JerkGet The Picture?
Midnight To Six ManFontana TF 647
Defecting GreyColumbia DB 8300
S.F. Sorrow Is BornS.F. Sorrow
Balloon BurningS.F. Sorrow
RainParachute
Love Is GoodFreeway Madness

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The Pretty Things photo

The Pretty Things (l to r): Dick Taylor, Brian Pendleton, Viv Prince, Phil May, John Stax

 

Contributor: David Tanner

“Squares say they’re crummy, we say they’re yummy.” (Big Beat magazine, October 1964)

Well, yes, though they were never quite the pin-up darlings like their friends the Rolling Stones.

So how did the Pretty Things come about? In 1962, Brian Jones was looking for musicians for a band he was forming and Dick Taylor, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, all Sidcup Art College students, joined Brian and Ian Stewart in the “Rollin’ Stones”. Taylor quit the Stones five months later when he was accepted at the Central School of Art and Design, but at college another student, Phil May, convinced him to form a new band. The Pretty Things were born.

The band’s history is complicated, suffice to say they have had over 40 different members over the years and I’m only going to mention major changes, especially when it affects their style.

We have ten tracks to explore their evolving sound. Obviously, this only gives a brief overview of their output and these songs will all come from the 60s and early 70s for reasons that will become apparent. So, off we go, with a recurring theme of a band who were always the underdogs, always just missing out, always striving for new sounds.

First up we have the 1964 debut single Rosalyn. With a pounding Bo Diddley beat and snarling vocals from May, the Pretty Things provide the template for a hundred future garage bands. It reached #41 in the UK charts … but the next single would do much better.

Don’t Bring Me Down made it to #10 in the singles chart and consolidated their early success. All the early Pretties hallmarks are here; bluesy vocals, thrashing guitars and crashing drums.

The recording of their first album, 1965’s The Pretty Things got off to a rocky start with the original producer leaving, apparently dismayed by their attitude and extreme volume. The first track, Road Runner (this time not just the Diddley sound but a Bo cover), and my next pick, sets down the template with May screaming his vocal entry in a way that surely Jim Morrison heard and copied. The band thrash away around him and John Stax wails away on harmonica. As someone once said, it made the Stones sound lightweight.

The next album, also released in 1965, was Get The Picture? which included the classic Buzz The Jerk with its slinky beat and a fuzz guitar line. It also features a great Dick Taylor guitar solo, well, I’m assuming it’s Taylor even though Jimmy Page is given a couple of credits on the album. This album has more of an R&B feel to it, progressing away from the full-on blues of the first album. Can’t Stand The Pain in particular seems to point away from the band’s original roots into the poppier side of the Yardbirds.

Midnight To Six Man was released as a single in late 1965 and refused to advance further than the bottom reaches of the top 50. A pity as it’s a great distillation of their sound at the time, choppy time signature changes and all. But Fontana were getting anxious for higher sales and the band themselves were changing their sound and personnel. The outcome of this was the patchy though underrated Emotions album of 1966, their last for Fontana. It’s a bizarre mixture of psych, baroque pop and R&B. Controversially swathed in strings by Reg Tilsley and his Orchestra on many tracks with producer Steve Rowland – who was making hits for Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich – assigned to pop up their sound.

House Of Ten is a good example of what you can find on Emotions, with a slightly restrained orchestral arrangement and a softer vocal from Phil May.

Also in 1966, they made the highly unusual short film, The Pretty Things On Film. Worth a look for the influence the Beatles were having on all band films at the time and for the bonkers live footage.

The Pretty Things now began to immerse themselves in the new London underground scene, centred on Ladbroke Grove, fully availing themselves of the many chemical stimulants around. A good introduction to this period featuring the Deviants, Edgar Broughton Band, Junior’s Eyes and many more can be found on the Cries From The Midnight Circus CD.

In November 1967, they released the single Defecting Grey on their new label, Columbia. Phil May has stated that they were trying to fit an album’s worth of ideas into one song.

It’s become a psych classic. It bombed in the charts. It sounds like the Beatles, Pink Floyd and the Yardbirds are all playing in the same room, at the same time and someone is fading them in and out of the mix. No, really.

Deflecting Grey review

Peter Jones’ review for Record Mirror (reproduced from the simply wonderful 1960s Music Magazines website

 

Around this time, the Pretty Things were asked to provide music and appear in a Norman Wisdom film, What’s Good For The Goose. They were credited for contractual reasons as The Electric Banana. Phil May recalls: “We wrote a lot of S.F. Sorrow then. We spent weeks sitting around, made up, not being called and that was great. In full slap!”

 

The S.F. Sorrow album was recorded with Norman Smith during late 1967 and early 1968. He was fresh from his work with Pink Floyd and became almost a sixth member according to the band. Using the full resources of the Abbey Road studios they utilised all the latest recording techniques and instruments (tape loops, mellotron etc.) to put down what was – arguably – the first rock concept album. The story of S.F. Sorrow from birth to (psychological) death.

S.F. Sorrow Is Born opens the album and throws the kitchen sink at the mixing desk, with cascading acoustic guitars and bass and featuring mellotron and speeded up looped trumpets. Also to the fore is the newish sound for the Pretties of intricate vocal harmonies from Wally Waller and Jon Povey.

My favourite track, however, is Balloon Burning, a strident repetitive riff driven drone of a song, with a vicious guitar solo from Dick Taylor.

Alexis Petridis notes: “The taut drums and endless two-note guitar riff of Balloon Burning sounds remarkably like motorik krautrock a decade early.”

However, it was all too late. By the time it was released – with a six month delay in America – the album seemed to hark back to a psychedelia that the Beatles (White Album), the Stones (Beggars Banquet) and others had passed through and moved on. Then the Who released Tommy and that became the de facto “first” rock opera and S.F. Sorrow was forgotten for a few decades.

 

Pretty Things poster

Dick Taylor left the band in 1969 disillusioned by the lack of success, replaced by Vic Unitt (Edgar Broughton Band) and the last great Pretty Things album, Parachute, was recorded for the new Harvest label (EMI’s new “progressive” label) and produced again by Norman Smith. It builds on the sound of S.F. Sorrow though with a more pastoral edge, eschewing psychedelic tricks.

My pick from this album is Rain; a mid tempo chugging riff becomes irresistible as Phil May takes the main vocals again and new guitarist Vic Unitt gets to execute an exquisite solo.

Parachute failed to sell and Unitt rejoined his former band and for a while the Pretty Things disbanded, only to reform fairly quickly with new guitarist Pete Tolson and record Freeway Madness, released in 1972.

Love Is Good is the standout track on Freeway Madness with lovely harmonies and some great guitar from new recruit Tolson. Rip Off Train nearly made my 10, it’s a bittersweet look at the band’s history, maybe any band’s history:

Find a sound, lay it down
They say it’s underground
Starts to sell, do it well
But you never can tell

After this they made two more albums, Silk Torpedo (1974) and Savage Eye (1976), both to my mind suffering from the mid seventies ‘rawk’ malaise. The lack of decent tunes was becoming increasingly evident even as they strove for a more transatlantic 70s sound.

However, throughout the 1980s and to this day, Phil May has kept a version of the Pretty Things going. Touring and releasing albums fairly regularly and with the re-evaluation of S.F. Sorrow as a lost classic, they have regained their rightful position as one of the pioneering sixties groups.

Recently, they have announced that they will cease live performances at the end of 2018 with a farewell “Final Bow” in December – the last ever show from the Pretty Things, with just Dick Taylor and Phil May from the original line-up, and with very special guests David Gilmour, Van Morrison and Bill Nighy.

 

 

 

 

Brian Pendleton (1944–2001)

Peter Tolson (1951-2016)

 

The Pretty Things official website

The Pretty Things (with special guests Arthur Brown and David Gilmour) perform S.F. Sorrow in full at Abbey Road in 1998

The Pretty Things on Discogs

MusicNews.com reviews the 2015 album The Sweet Pretty Things (Are in Bed Now, of Course …)

The Pretty Things biography (iTunes)

David Tanner hails originally from South Wales and spent 40 years working as a librarian – the last 30 in Yorkshire – and is now happily retired in Northumberland. There are not many music genres he doesn’t like and he’s never stopped seeking out good music. Always another unknown band around the corner!.

TopperPost #733

1 Comment

  1. Joyce Gibson
    Aug 1, 2018

    I really enjoyed this article – a tale of near misses from great survivors. I’m really sorry I won’t be able to attend the farewell show – the band sounded smoking hot in session for Marc Riley on 6 Music a few weeks ago!

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