The Pretty Things
The Pretty Things are an English rock band. Their sound was a key influence for 1960s garage rock bands in the United States, and they were a contemporary harder-edged rival for the Rolling Stones.
The roots of the band can be traced to the late 1950s when Dick Taylor (b. 1943), Michael ('Mick') Jagger and various school friends would meet for after-school jam sessions at Taylor's parents' house in Dartford. By 1961, the small group had adopted a blues approach and dubbed themselves Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys (named after the DC Comics' heroes). Taylor was by now attending Sidcup Art School, where he and fellow student Keith Richards, sharing a passion for blues and R&B, got together to play guitar. As it turned out, Richards was a childhood friend of Jagger, and after the pair renewed their acquaintance, Jagger invited him to join the Blue Boys. By mid-1962, they had hooked up with guitarist Brian Jones, necessitating Taylor's switch from guitar to bass, and had renamed themselves the Rollin' Stones (soon to be changed to the Rolling Stones).
The Stones' decision to go professional in late 1962 coincided with Taylor's acceptance at the London Central School of Art. At the time, rather than continuing to play a secondary instrument in a background role, he chose to bow out of the group to concentrate on his studies. Taylor still had the desire to perform though, and in 1963 he teamed up with another Sidcup art student, vocalist and harmonica player Phil May (b. 1944) and put together a group. They brought in May's friend John Stax (b. John Fullegar, 1944) on bass, along with rhythm guitarist Brian Pendleton (1944-2001) and a succession of drummers, including Pete Kitley and Viv Andrews. The name Pretty Things was chosen with a certain sarcastic glee, in homage to Bo Diddley and his 1955 song 'Pretty Thing', and as a challenge to those who would deride the musicians' long-haired appearance. The group started playing at the Dartford Station Hotel before moving on to some college dates in the city. Around this time, Jimmy Duncan spotted them playing at the Royal College of Art and decided to become their co-manager along with Bryan Morrison, who had attended the Central School of Art with Taylor. Their new management team found them gigs on the art school circuit and at the Railway Station Hotel. During this period they also met Peter Grant, who would later manage them during the 1970s. By May 1964, the band started playing the 100 Club, located at 100 Oxford Street, London, where they quickly 'built up a reputation as one of the hottest new acts on the London scene,' according to the Record Mirror.
In early 1964, the group signed with Fontana Records. The label proposed that they add Viv Prince (b. 1944) on drums. Although only 19, Prince was already something of a music business veteran, having played with the Dauphin Street Six and Carter Lewis and the Southerners. Earlier he had also been an income tax officer in Loughborough, Leicestershire. Executives at Fontana believed that Prince would bring a degree of stability and professionalism to the Pretty Things' rather undisciplined sound. Their misread of Prince would emerge later, but in the meantime, Prince fit perfectly into the group-his skillful, energetic drumming giving their music a powerful drive. For their first single, the group recorded a track penned by Jimmy Duncan. 'Rosalyn' (backed with 'Big Boss Man') was released in June, and the screaming, hard-pounding A-side received encouraging reviews. 'Not a great deal of melody,' wrote New Musical Express, 'but ample enthusiasm, sparkle and drive.' Likewise, Record Mirror described it as a 'Bo Diddley beat, wild vocal, good song, but maybe a little too confused for the charts.' An appearance on the TV show Ready, Steady Go! followed, and the group's long hair, frilly shirts and animalistic sound sparked sufficient press furore to propel the single into the lower regions of the charts. An American agent who had seen them on Ready, Steady Go! offered the group a US tour and an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, an opportunity their management failed to take advantage of.
Although together for less than a year, the Pretty Things were now touring extensively throughout the United Kingdom, creating mayhem both on and off stage. Such media headlines as 'Adults Hate Us More Than the Stones' and 'Would You Take the Pretty Things into Your Local?' became commonplace. Early articles dwelled incessantly on their appearance, particularly their long hair, with one newspaper observing, 'Phil May must have the longest hair on the long-haired current pop scene.' Ironically, while the group was being bashed for their fashion sense, they were making plans to open a woman's boutique called the Penny Halfpenny near London's Portobello Road. While outrage 'Stones' style was limited to schoolboy pranks, the Pretty Things were attacking grand pianos with axes, setting fire to stage sets, and being arrested for pulling out a sawn-off 12 bore shotgun to deal with some violent mob after a gig.
Finding a suitable follow-up single to 'Rosalyn' was not easy. They considered several titles, including a slow Jimmy Reed song called 'The Moon Is Rising'. The group found the perfect number penned for them by Johnnie Dee, former lead singer of the Bulldogs. Dee travelled with the band to 'soak up the atmosphere.' 'Don't Bring Me Down' backed with 'We'll be Together' was issued at the end of October 1964. The A-side's crashing, wailing tempo changes and leering, sexually provocative vocals combined to ignite more controversy, and more sales. The single smashed into the UK Top Ten in November, and Fontana capitalized on the group's success, recycling their first two singles on an EP by year's end. To promote the single, the group embarked on an eight-day Scottish tour on 12 October, followed by television appearances on Ready, Steady Go! and Thank Your Lucky Stars.
With the success of their first two singles, they made plans for an album and a film, with offers coming in for an American tour. 'It now looks fairly certain that they will visit the States early in the New Year, possibly for the last two weeks of January,' co-manager Bryan Morrison told Record Mirror. But again, the plans fell through and the group didn't tour America. Looking back, the band felt that their not touring the US until the 1970s was a big mistake. 'Honey, I Need' backed with 'I Can Never Say' was issued in February 1965. The A-side, a raucous yet somewhat folksy number co-written by Taylor, was another UK hit, peaking at number 13. The Pretty Things' eponymous debut album followed in March, capturing the ferocious R&B sound of their live show on tracks like 'Roadrunner' (one of four Bo Diddley covers on the album), 'Judgement Day' and 'Oh Baby Doll'. Meanwhile, original compositions like '13 Chester Street' and 'Unknown Blues' showed the group using R&B as a form of personal expression, effectively grafting autobiographical lyrics onto traditional blues structures. Session guitarist Jimmy Page also guested on some of the tracks. Record Mirror aptly described the Pretty Things as 'a lively album which although it is rough at the edges proves the Things to have a great deal to offer.' The album was a strong seller, climbing to number 6 in the UK that spring.
In April 1965, the Pretty Things made their first visit to Holland, where they had amassed a fanatical fan base. A riotous concert in Blokker was shown live on Dutch TV, but the broadcast was terminated midway through the band's third song after outraged viewers called the television station to complain. While the press reported that their next single might be a Donovan composition, the Pretty Things instead decided to use 'Cry to Me', a track found on a Solomon Burke release. Released in July 1965, the soulful ballad offered a change in direction. The B-side, 'Get a Buzz', was a fuzz guitar-driven studio jam recorded in just one take. The single was a minor UK hit, peaking at number 28. Based on their last single, any illusions fans might have had that the Pretty Things had mellowed were shattered that August when the group toured New Zealand. 'Pretty Things' Shock Exhibition' announced the headlines of the New Zealand Truth. 'Shocked police found long-haired, drunken members of English pop group the Pretty Things swigging whiskey only minutes before their performance in New Plymouth last week. In scenes unprecedented in the 50-year-old history of the city's opera house, the long haired "musicians" broke chairs, lit fires backstage and abused officials.' Offstage, Prince insisted on carrying around a dead crayfish for several days. The orgy of tabloid headlines and lurid details shocked the conservative nation and earned the Pretty Things a lifetime ban on playing in New Zealand. At the end of the tour, Prince was removed from the plane heading home-prior to take-off, fortunately, after an altercation with the pilot. Even with the quintet's acknowledged penchant for outrageousness, it was apparent that Prince was becoming a liability. Increasingly, Skip Alan, Mitch Mitchell or Twink (aka John Alder) had to substitute when the drummer was incapacitated or failed to show up for gigs. However, Prince stayed around long enough to complete most of the group's second album, Get the Picture?, released in December 1965.
Ranging from the jangling pop of 'You Don't Believe Me' to the folkishness of 'London Town' to the savage R&B of 'Gonna Find Me a Substitute', the album showed incredible diversity and marked the continuing emergence of May and Taylor as songwriters on the tracks 'Buzz the Jerk', 'Get the Picture' and the atmospheric 'Can't Stand the Pain'. Record Mirror gave the album an enthusiastic review, noting that it 'could shake up a few folk who think of the Things as being a bit of a musical joke.' By the time of the album's release, Viv Prince had officially left the band. His replacement was 17-year-old Skip Alan (b. Alan Skipper 1948), who had previously played on sessions with Donovan and had fronted his own Skip Alan Trio. His first recording with the Pretty Things was 'Midnight to Six Man', a single released at the end of the year right after the album. The group reportedly spent 16 hours in the studio recording this composition, which they felt certain would return them to the upper regions of the charts. Though propelled in part by recommendations from Melody Maker ('a hard swinging modern R&B record') and New Musical Express ('the general atmosphere is exciting and tingling'), the single barely scraped into the UK Top 50, spending one week at number 46. They recorded their European drug anthem 'LSD' - a not too subtle reference to the preference chemical drug of the moment, a full year before Donovan and the Stones caught on. When rock royalty in the form of Bob Dylan arrived in Britain for his fateful 1966 tour (immortalised in the motion picture, Don't Look Back), it was the Pretty Things that he wanted to meet. Their meeting is documented on 'Tombsone Blues' recorded immediately he returned to New York, and appears on the first big electric Dylan album Highway 61 - they're still the only band to have that honour.
Line-up changes followed, with Wally Waller replacing Stax on bass and John Povey added on keyboards. The Pretty Things tried again in 1967 with Emotions, a more mature effort that emphasized acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies. Unfortunately, the band felt that the album was marred by string arrangements added without their approval. The album failed to generate much interest, and the Pretty Things parted ways with Fontana soon after its release. To supplement their income in the meantime, they recorded film soundtrack material for the De Wolfe sound library under the name the Electric Banana. The Pretty Things' next album, S.F. Sorrow, appeared on the Harvest label in the UK in late 1968. Based on a short story by May and recorded over a 18-month period, the album is considered to be the first true rock opera. Held together by narration, the interrelated songs featured psychedelic effects that were a far cry from the band's R&B roots. In Abbey Road's Studio 2, the album was recorded with drummer Skip Alan in place and half the recording was completed, until he disappeared to Paris for a weekend and sent a message to the studio on Monday that he had got married to a French girl and wasn't coming back. 'Twink' from Tomorrow was hastily called in to complete the remaining handful of songs, but he didn't last long. Bass player Wally Waller took a dislike to him and three months after his 'French marriage,' Skip Alan was back in place as if nothing had happened. Bad luck plagued the band once again, however. By the time S.F. Sorrow was released in the US on the Motown distributed Rare Earth label in 1969, the Who had already released their own rock opera Tommy. As a result the Pretty Things were regarded as imitators rather than innovators, and S.F. Sorrow unfortunately failed in the marketplace. The band then recorded an unreleased album for French millionaire Philippe DeBarge.
In late 1969, Taylor exited the band, leaving May as the remaining original member. With Victor Unitt brought in on guitar, from the Edgar Broughton Band, and with continued support from Beatles stalwart, producer Norman Smith, the Pretty Things released Parachute in 1970. Continuing the band's experimental streak, this sonically diverse work was named Record of the Year by Rolling Stone. Sales of Parachute did not meet expectations, and the band's fortunes seemed to be at a low ebb. Extricating themselves from their unhappy EMI contact, they were immediately signed by Warner Brothers, but on the way they lost bass player Waller, who became a house producer at EMI. In June, 1970 they broke up, only to reform not long afterwards with May at the helm once again, with new bass player Stuart Brooks. This new line-up released Freeway Madness on Warner Brothers in 1972, which led them to the US and, after adding guitarist/keyboard player Gordon Edwards to augment the line- up, they finally undertook their first ever American tour, playing to rave reviews although the album stalled on the charts. The new record and the US shows also caught the attention of old acquaintances Jimmy Page and Peter Grant, who were scouting artists for their new record label. In 1973, long-time admirer David Bowie covered 'Rosalyn' and 'Don't Bring Me Down', on his Pin Ups album.
Swan Song era
Signing with Led Zeppelin's Swan Song Records label the band ventured into a more commercially viable hard rock sound. Released in 1974, Silk Torpedo reflected this direction. Such songs as 'Joey' and 'Singapore Silk Torpedo' gained FM airplay, while lengthy US tour helped to raise their profile further. Silk Torpedo was their first ever charting album in the US. But their next Swan Song release, 1976's Savage Eye, failed to perform as well as its predecessor. They also toured extensively in the US, always to rave reviews, but they were still the masters of 'self-destructive' behaviour. Even Grant, who dealt daily with the excesses of Led Zeppelin remembered them as totally impossible to deal with and lacking any business sense whatsoever: 'They couldn't half get through the gear, though they spent all of their advance on coke within three months ... and it was more than US$100,000, a lot of money in 1974.' Dissension within the band's ranks led May to quit in late 1976, which brought the Pretty Things to an end for the second time. May went on to lead a band called the Fallen Angels, while the remaining members continued on as Metropolis. Neither project attracted much interest. May recorded an aborted 'solo' album with the Fallen Angels, featuring Mickey Finn and others, Jack Green went on to AOR success in Canada, and Edwards went into session work, helping record Death Wish II with Jimmy Page in 1982.
In 1980, May and Taylor rejoined forces to launch the Pretty Things yet again. The no-frills sound and jittery rhythms of new wave rock influenced the resulting Warner Brothers album, Cross Talk. Despite this attempt to keep up with the times, the album didn't find a large audience. However, the renewed partnership of May and Taylor held together throughout the 1980s, resulting in sporadic live shows and a number of recordings with a changing roster of band mates. With the help of new manager and sometime drummer Mark St. John, the Pretty Things worked to acquire legal rights to their old recordings (held by Fontana and EMI). By the late 1990s, they had regained ownership of their first five albums, which were reissued through the British label Snapper. At the same time, the 1966 edition of the group May, Taylor, John Povey, Skip Alan and Wally Waller had re-formed and was actively recording and performing. In 1995 they rerecorded their single 'Rosalyn' with Peter Grant, who had spent a day being filmed in the video for 'Rosalyn', with the band. Sadly, it was Grant's last ever public appearance and his last stills were taken alongside the band he had always loved best after Led Zeppelin. He died three weeks later. One highpoint was a performance of S.F. Sorrow in its entirety at Abbey Road Studios in September, 1998, broadcast live over the World Wide Web and later released on CD as Resurrection. All of this activity served as a lead up to the March 1999 release of ...Rage Before Beauty, a CD of new recordings that was praised by critics as a strong return to form.
- The Pretty Things (1965) UK #6
- Get the Picture? (1965)
- Emotions (1967)
- S.F. Sorrow (1968)
- Parachute (1970) UK #43
- Freeway Madness (1972)
- Silk Torpedo (1974) US #104
- Savage Eye (1976) US #163
- Cross Talk (1980)
- ... Rage Before Beauty (1999)
- Balboa Island (2007)
- The Sweet Pretty Things (Are in Bed Now, of Course...) (2015)
- Brunning, Bob (2003) Blues In Britain: the History 1950s to the Present. Second edition. London: Blandford Press. ISBN 978-0-7137-2457-8 (OCLC 32274382)
- Lakey, Alan (2002) The Pretty Things: Growing Old Disgracefully. Wembley: Firefly. ISBN 978-0-946719-45-7 (OCLC 471714840)
- McStravick, Summer and Roos, John, et al., (2001) Blues-Rock Explosion, Mission Viejo, Calif.: Old Goat Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9701332-7-4 (OCLC 263449882)
- Stax, Mike (1991) The Pretty Things: Their Own Story. London: Brisk Publications.
- Stax, Mike; Neill, Andy and Baker, John (2006) Don't Bring Me Down ... Under: The Pretty Things in New Zealand, 1965. San Diego, Calif.: U. T. Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9778166-0-6 (OCLC 156695870)
- Official The Pretty Things site
- The Pretty Things YouTube
- The Pretty Things at iTunes
- The Pretty Things store
- The Pretty Things MySpace tribute
- The Pretty Things Facebook Fan page
© 2009 SoundHistoria. All rights reserved.