Fifty years is a long time to be a ‘known’ name in entertainment, there are many, many names which barely last a couple of years. This year is the 50th anniversary of two huge names in entertainment but in quite different fields – television and science fiction has Dr Who and music has The Rolling Stones. What might not be quite so widely know is that music has another 50th anniversary in the from of The Pretty Things.
Named after a Bo Diddley song The Pretty Things were resolutely a product of the British blues boom of the early sixties. British Blues soon turned from acoustic to electric and formed it’s own sound which would successfully be re-exported to America with the British Invasion. The electrified British Blues Boom included and developed into bands such as John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, The Yardbirds, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, The Animals and The Pretty Things. So why do we easily call to mind at least the influence if not actual tracks of all these bands except The Pretty Things?
In the very early 60’s Dick Taylor (lead guitarist of The Pretty Things) went to Sidcup Art College with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger and was lead guitarist with their bands Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys. Keith, Mick and Dick then joined Brian Jones’ band “Rollin’ Stones”. Taylor was relegated to bass before deciding to leave the band and attend the London Central School of Art, where he meet Phil May (who became the band’s vocalist) and formed The Pretty Things.
They released four singles which charted in the UK in 1964/65, the first two and the fourth were covers, the third was one of their own – “Rosalyn” (41), “Don’t Bring Me Down” (10), “Honey I Need” (13) and “Cry To Me” (28). Subsequent singles would either not chart so well or not chart at all, which was a shame because their psychedelic double A side of 1968 “Talking About The Good Times” and “Walking Through My Dreams” is quite fantastic.
My knowledge of The Pretty Things had been limited to “S.F. Sorrow“, their ‘psychedelic’ album of 1968. I had been attracted to the album because I’d heard that it was essentially the first Rock Opera, pre-dating (and more than likely influencing) The Who‘s “Tommy” (although Pete Townhend denies it!), which I was completely in awe of at the time. It was, in fact, Nirvana‘s first album “The Story Of Simon Simopath” (1967) that has the accolade of being the first story based rock album. I was aware that The Pretty Things were previously a blues group, but I had not ventured into that era of the band. What struck me about the gig at The Cellars (Eastney, Portsmouth) was how bluesy it was, it had the raw, hard edged sound that the early Yardbirds had – even the venue had the feel of an early sixties blues club, it was a converted old street-corner pub with a bar up one end and a platform for the band up the other.
A few weeks ago I came across the fact the The Pretty Things were doing an extensive 50th Anniversary Tour which traverses Europe and as I’d missed seeing them a year or so ago I decided to catch them on one of their UK dates. I got to The Cellars early because I didn’t have a ticket, it cost £20 and I was ticket 104 of 150 I believe. While we waited for the music I got chatting to a guy from Bournemouth who was evidently a true fan of the band and even claimed that he’d rather have a few Pretty Things albums than all the recorded output of the Rolling Stones, which I found a little hard to believe. Our discussion ranged through psychedelia and progressive rock and he told me that his discovery of that music had saved him – he’d got in with a bad crowd and into drugs when he was younger, but an old hippy who lived in a bed sit with nothing more than an electric frying pan and boxes of tapes to his name, turned him onto the crazy sounds of the 60’s and 70’s and he’s been addicted to the music ever since. He suggested a number of bands that I should check out from the seventies, some I’d heard of and some I hadn’t, and I suggested a few to him. When the band arrived on stage he got up saying that he liked to dance around and that was the last I saw of him.
I didn’t know any of the songs they played until “Defecting Grey“, their first experiment in psychedelia and something I really was not expecting. When you first hear it you simply do not know what the hell is going on! It’s completely schizophrenic – it starts out like a nursery rhyme then morphs through spaced-out sitar into heavy rock, which then gets even heavier (so heavy in fact that the recording equipment appears to fail and the sound drops out!) before returning to nursery rhyme again. It alternates like this for about five minutes (on the uncut version) – no wonder it failed to chart, what’s more unbelievable is that it actually got issued as a single in the first place! But it was fantastic to hear it live! They then played the first part of S.F. Sorrow, including one of the best tracks from the album “She Says Good Morning“.
Then we had more blues, including a solo spot on guitar with slide from Dick Taylor. I think the inclusion of the psychedelia and Dick Taylor’s solo parts really made me appreciate the band more than I had done at the beginning of the set and by the end and the encore, when they played “Can’t Judge A Book”, “Rosalyn”, “Cry To Me” and “LSD”, I had fully connected with their sound and was much more appreciative of their music.
So why are they not as well remembered as many other bands from the British Blues Boom? Their live shows were certainly up to the mark (they were known to be wilder than the Stones and longer hair than any other band in the early 60’s). I think it was largely due to the lack of self written stand-out singles – it not only relegated them to the second tier in the UK but also prevented them from succeeding in the US where they strangely did not tour (concentrating on the southern hemisphere when every other band of the time were desperate to play the US!), all of which would probably have established them in a higher regard.