The Pretty Things
The Complete Studio Albums: 1965-2020
“WORK YOUR asses off for ever, midnight highways really bring you down,” sang Phil May on Rip Off Train, summing up The Pretty Things’ hard-scrabble existence on 1972’s Freeway Madness. After nearly a decade of chasing the dream, the enfants terribles of British R&B were tiring of motel sheets, transport café breakfasts and dubious management calls, but had come too far to quit. “You’re there and you’re working so don’t complain,” May shrugs. “So many miss the train.”
As this sweep of their 13 albums shows, The Pretty Things clung on in pop’s standard class for nearly 60 years, three modest ’60s hits, some library music work and a great live reputation enabling them to remain more or less active until May’s death in 2020, from complications following hip surgery. They peaked with martial 1968 concept album S.F. Sorrow and its sun-streaked follow-up Parachute(1970), but if The Complete Studio Albums 1965-2020 stands testament to some questionable artistic decisions, it also shows what determined men with a basic knowledge of the Bo Diddley songbook could achieve.
A Dartford Grammar schoolmate of Mick Jagger, Dick Taylor quit the larval Rolling Stones when he was relegated from guitar to bass. At Sidcup Art College, he teamed up with pioneering long-hair May to form the sardonically named The Pretty Things. Their nasty, brutish 1964 debut single Rosalyn fell just short of the Top 40, but Don’t Bring Me Down (Number 10), Honey I Need (Number 13) and Cry To Me (Number 28) scored higher as the band left chaos in their wake. Their road manager was apparently fined for pulling a shotgun to fend off toughs in Trowbridge, May was hauled off-stage by eager girls in High Wycombe, while a riotous televised appearance at a 1965 festival in the Netherlands was taken off air due to viewer complaints.
It shows what determined men with a basic knowledge of the Bo Diddley songbook could achieve.
Like fellow travellers Them and The Animals, The Pretty Things burned bright on 7-inch (hear 1966’s Midnight To Six Man and tremble), but found albums harder to fill. May’s lusty Road Runner was a calling card, but the remainder of their self-titled 1965 debut lacks sizzle. They added primitive folk rock to the mix for quickie follow-up Get The Picture? (Jimmy Page gets a co-write on opener You Don’t Believe Me), but were still a little off the pace. Tellingly, while peers were invading America, The Pretty Things were sent off to break Australia and New Zealand. It didn’t end well.
Reading the room better, the leather-lunged May softened his delivery for 1967’s largely self-penned Emotions. The orchestration imposed on their final album for Fontana horrified the band, but the West Coast guitar on One Long Glance, the wigged-out Growing In My Mind and the knowing Tripping nodded hopefully towards the boot-boy psychedelia of the Small Faces.
A switch to Parlophone brought more studio time and the services of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn producer Norman Smith, and The Pretty Things stretched to their furthest extent for S.F. Sorrow. Slathered in backward guitar, sitar and mellotron, May’s gloomy extended piece about a disillusioned Great War soldier has a heft that fey Brit-psych contemporaries could not match. May’s molten-Wilfred Owen lyrics on Private Sorrow, the Greek chorus wails and Taylor’s sheet metal guitars on Old Man Going and Balloon Burning signposted a bad trip tour de force.
However, it was impossible to reproduce on-stage and did not come out until December 1968, by which time Sebastian Sorrow’s World War 1 helmet seemed a very old hat indeed.
Taylor left in 1969, but The Pretty Things pressed on with 1970’s Parachute, a jumble of excitable fragments strung together like a hairier Abbey Road. With swooping harmonies - The Good Mr Square; She Was Tall, She Was High; Grass - plus sub-Hendrix racket for the burgeoning metal contingent, it offered an array of possibilities. Had he built on the avant-Sweet foundations laid on Miss Fay Regrets, the bisexual May might have been a glam pacesetter (honouring a musical debt, David Bowie covered two Pretty Things hits on
"I’m not sure I want ‘He Stuck At It’ on my gravestone..." The Pretty Things's Phil May's final interview.
As it was, the band spent the ’70s joylessly pursuing a soft rock career. Good bits are dotted through Freeway Madness (the heavy Fabs of Over The Moon), 1974’s Silk Torpedo (Maybe You Tried’s elfin boogie and lava-lamplit opener Dream) and 1976’s Savage Eye (the 10cc schlock of My Song) but even with Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant in their corner, they could not catch a break.
Having briefly powered down, May had a punky reboot with Taylor for 1980’s Boomtown Rats-ish Cross Talk (fan Dave Gilmour helped them record demos), but their reliable money came on the Auf Wiedersehen, Pet Sounds European revival circuit. Later releases - 1999’s …Rage Before Beauty, 2007’s Balboa Island, 2015’s The Sweet Pretty Things (Are In Bed Now, Of Course…) - tapped into S.F. Sorrow’s posthumous cachet, but May and Taylor’s tastes skewed more rudimentary, as evidenced by the death watch blues of their final record, 2020’s Bare As Bone, Bright As Blood – recorded after ill health had forced May off-stage.
“We shall never change,” the singer told Disc vaingloriously in 1965. “I’d rather give up the business than conform.” However, if The Pretty Things were compelled to move (slowly) with the times, what shines through The Complete Studio Albums is their grim determination to keep the show on the road. Their output reflects the reality of a career spent toiling to make ends meet and staring out at those midnight freeways. It can be ugly, occasionally a real slog, but the long dreary gaps are mitigated by moments of inspiration. Hard work, but it pays off.
The Pretty Things: The Complete Studio Albums is out 31 March via Madfish.
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