By Dave Thompson
By a conservative estimate, there have been six different incarnations of The Pretty Things over the years. The first was the delightfully dirty, frenziedly fierce R&B band that emerged into the mainstream in 1964 with a clutch of driving hit singles that gradually morphed into the freakbeat pioneers who created the “Emotions” album — the band’s first bona fide classic.
Second was the band that cut the seminal “S.F. Sorrow” and “Parachute” albums — two more milestones, two more classics. Famously, Rolling Stone elected the latter as its album of the year; equally famously, it didn’t help, and it sunk like a stone.
Third came the hard-rocking road warriors who signed to Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song label for a brace of mid-1970s albums, shortly after David Bowie’s covers of two of their early singles, “Rosalyn” and “Don’t Bring Me Down,” dignified his 1973 “Pin Ups” album.
Fourth was the band that slipped off the radar and haunted the club scene of the late 1970s, 1980s and 1990s without anyone really being sure whether they were even still going.
Then came the rebirth, a series of bonus-track stacked reissues for the classic albums, and a new set, “Rage Before Beauty,” which restated each and every one of the values that made the band so important in the first place.
Today there is Pretty Things Mark Six, still led by the extraordinarily effervescent Phil May (vocals) and guitarist Dick Taylor — an original Rolling Stone, fact fans — and riding high once again. The Fruits de Mer label has unleashed a new Pretties single, and an EP, too, and the band had just returned from a Spanish tour when founding member May and, separately, “S.F. Sorrow” era drummer John “Twink” Alder, sat down to tell Goldmine about the prettiest things of all.
“S.F. Sorrow” dominates The Pretty Things’ catalog and its reputation. Recorded in spring 1968 and universally regarded now as the first (and arguably the best) of all the albums laden with the “concept” tag, it was scarcely a monster seller at the time, although today it seems everyone holds it in the highest esteem. Indeed, the band’s new EP, “Live in London,” features three of the album’s cuts recorded at the English capital’s 100 Club in December 2010, together with a magnificent archive find, a version of The Byrds’ “Renaissance Fair,” recorded live in 1969.
The remainder of the 2010 concert is slated for release, with the oft-threatened Pretties box set to follow — the cause, incidentally, for the band to be digging through a career’s worth of old tapes and acetates, and the source for another slice of vintage joy, “I Can Never Say,” recovered from a 1965 acetate, and released as the B-side to the band’s latest 7-inch, another cut from the 2010 show, “Honey I Need.” No matter how far reaching The Pretties’ reissue campaign was at the end of the 1990s, there is clearly a lot more to come.
Back to “Sorrow,” though, and its peculiar genesis. Famously, the world’s first rock opera grew out of a short story that May wrote and decided to set to music; not so famously, much of it was written while the band members cooled their heels on a film set on England’s northwestern coast.
“What’s Good For The Goose” is one of swinging ’60s England’s most adorable time capsules. Starring and bankrolled by comedian Norman Wisdom, it was tale of a mouse-like banker who heads north for a conference and falls madly in lust with a young lady (actress Sally Geeson), whom he meets there. He falls, too, into her lifestyle: the world of sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll that was the straight world’s vision of the period’s teenaged kicks. The rock ’n’ roll was provided by The Pretty Things.
“It was a mad month or six weeks we did there,” says May. “But we wrote most of ‘S.F. Sorrow’ up there, because there was a lot of sitting around every day. We had our amps and guitars up there, and I think we must have done at least a third of ‘Sorrow’ there, sitting around writing, because although we didn’t get much money for the film, we were all in one place, being well looked after.”
Considering what a vast reputation that album now has, it was recorded in a very piecemeal fashion. Twink, who was best known at the time as drummer with The Fairies and Tomorrow (which nearly had a hit with “My Friend Jack”), had just been recruited to the lineup at the time.
“I was a friend first and a fan of the group,” Twink recalls. “I first knew Viv Prince [the Pretties’ original drummer] in his Blue Cedars Jazz Band days, and my Dane Stevens and the Deepbeats days. When The Fairies moved to London, we all moved in the same circles, and that’s how we became friends.”
Twink even played drums on a couple of tracks on the second album, “Get The Picture” (Prince was a no-show that day). In April 1968, he was visiting the management agency that he shared with the Pretties, the Bryan Morrison Agency, to learn that the band’s latest drummer, Skip Allen, had quit.
“Dick Taylor was there looking a bit panicked; he said, ‘Skip has left and we have a gig in Rome this weekend. Can you do it?’ Twink remembers. “So we rehearsed for a couple days, did the gig at the Piper Club in Rome and then started working on ‘S.F. Sorrow’ at Abbey Road.”
Three songs had already been recorded: “Bracelets of Fingers,” “S.F. Sorrow Is Born” and “I See You,” and as May explains, matters were moving slowly.
“The whole thing with Abbey Road was, we got in and out on downtime. We weren’t priority like the Beatles and the Floyd, so [producer] Norman Smith got us in in blocks, and then we’d have to go off and do live work, because we had no money coming in,” May says. “So all the way through ‘S.F. Sorrow,’ we worked. We’d do two or three weeks, then we’d go off to tour Germany or play a festival or whatever, so the break we had for the movie was great, because it gave us writing time, and it contributed a lot to ‘S.F. Sorrow.’ ”
There is no need to reiterate the sad fate of “S.F. Sorrow,” filed away in the bunker marked “lost classic” for so many years, and only gradually re-emerging as one of the key documents of 1967-68.
“I realized it was an important album, but it was not presented by The Pretties’ management and EMI to the fans and the public properly,” Twink says. “We as a band did all we could, but there was no support.”
Neither was the movie the only desperate measures that the band was forced to take, simply to keep their collective heads above financial water. Also in 1968, The Pretty Things recorded two LPs’ worth of odds and ends that history now knows as “Electric Banana” and “More Electric Banana.” The band has had a love-hate relationship with those albums.
“ ‘Electric Banana’ was a way for us to use the studio situation, songs we weren’t using, developing different things, it was the writing thing going on parallel,” May explains. “We had to call it another name because of contractual problems … the sour thing about that is, it was never, ever meant to be released; they were all library recordings for adverts, films or whatever.”
But it was released, and “Electric Banana” became one of those sideways little secrets with which The Pretties’ career so delightfully abounds — so much so that last year saw the current lineup of the band perform, for the first and only time, the legendary “Electric Banana” album at a London university.
“Some of the songs, I didn’t recognize. ‘What do you mean, I wrote this?’” May says.
But the band pulled it off, and there is just one downside to the experience. Plans to record, and ultimately release, the show were dashed not by the band’s own decisions, but anti-terrorism laws. Two days before the gig, by which time it was too late to make any other arrangements, the owners of the venue announced that security concerns forbade the band from parking its mobile studio outside. Another legend in The Pretty Things story.
The “Electric Banana” project was the last that featured either Twink or founding guitarist Dick Taylor. Both quit The Pretty Things in 1969, with Twink going out in a haze of glory following a now-legendary performance at the Isle of Wight festival (his forthcoming biography promises to tell that story).
Taylor, on the other hand, simply needed a change. When we talked in 1999, Taylor explained, “It was the end of ‘S.F. Sorrow;’ I actually felt … I really liked ‘S.F. Sorrow,’ but at that point, I really wasn’t sure how things were going to go. I thought, ‘I’m really not going to do a better record.’ I fancied a break, and also, I saw something happening to the music scene which I wasn’t particularly in love with, this thing about ‘Let’s get big advances,’ moving away from what it was like in the early days, ‘Oh, now we’re the aristocrats,’ and I felt less than happy about that. And I wanted to see what the world was like outside of just being in a band. I felt like a change.”
Vic Unitt replaced Taylor, Skip Alan returned to the fray, and the Pretties moved on to the glories of “Parachute,” and then slipped, it seems, off the radar. (Among the wealth of tapes being explored for the box set, the writing sessions for this remarkable album are close to the top of the pile.)
Certainly by the time David Bowie came to record his “Pin Ups” tribute to the glory days of Swinging London in 1973, the Pretties were just another name from rock’s sainted past. Bowie, however, had very personal reasons for wanting to re-record the band’s greatest hits.
“David used to follow the band when we started out. Every gig we did at the very start of our career, he was always there, just soaking up everything,” May recalls. “But he wasn’t like a normal fan. I thought first of all, maybe he’s gay, or maybe he’s a stalker, because he was very different from the other fans. He was obviously very bright, very sensitive, and very shy — I never would have thought he’d turn into Ziggy! But he was just absorbing everything.”
The Pretty Things have never been far from Bowie’s musical consciousness, in name if not in sound, as the songs “Oh! You Pretty Things” (1971) and “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell” (1999) will testify. And, let us not forget how, through their own early years, The Pretties themselves flaunted an image that leaned toward the scuzzier side of what would become the Glam look. Imagine the New York Dolls with better songs. And tailors.
The Pretties resurfaced the following year, newly signed to Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song label, and destined to record two magnificent albums, “Silk Torpedo” and “Savage Eye.” It was a period that saw the band flirting with one of the most unexpected and dramatic comebacks of the era, particularly in the U.S. where, even more than at home, The Pretty Things were barely more than a well-kept secret among British Invasion students and collectors.
It was also an age of incredible excess.
“I love the albums,” says May.
Unfortunately, Swan Song’s vision of the band as a power to rival labelmates Bad Company was never going to sit well with the Pretties.
“That was how Zeppelin and Peter [manager Grant] wanted to play it. We seem to have done three years of launches, going around the world being launched in every major city,” May says. “Which was a big jolly, and occasionally we did play a gig. But other times, we just got wrecked with Zeppelin and Bad Company and Maggie Bell, which was fantastic, but at the end of the day, it stuck in the craw a bit, it was hedonistic and you kind of felt … this stadium thing wasn’t really The Pretty Things.
“Then, we were going to do the tour with Zeppelin, which would probably have been really important, but then Robert Plant had some personal tragedies, the tour was cancelled and it was one of those things,” May says. “You just watched it fall apart.”
With “Savage Eye” climbing the U.S. chart, the band planned to tour in its own right and suddenly found itself the victim of circumstance.
“Half the tour had not being confirmed by someone who had an issue with Zeppelin, which left us sitting in Lafayette, watching ‘Savage Eye’ falling out of the charts. We stopped playing. We didn’t have any gigs. The album dropped out of the chart, and at that point you think, ‘Ah, this is probably three years of work down the drain,’ and Peter just said, ‘Oh don’t worry; come back and start another album,’ May recalls. “But we’d had the stuffing knocked out of us. It was like one of those animals that someone shoots, and they follow the trail and 20 miles later, they find it dead.”
The band could have picked itself up. Instead, it shattered. May’s bandmates remained together as the band Metropolis; May went to Rockfield Studios to begin work on the solo album that Grant insisted was his next logical step. May’s heart never was in it, however, and when he called a halt on the incomplete sessions, the seeds of a new Pretty Things were never far away. May reconvened with the band’s original guitarist, Dick Taylor.
“We started doing May-Taylor gigs with different musicians, and it was a relief after the Zeppelin experience,” May says.
In a 1999 interview, Taylor explained the 1978 reunion:
“We had a revival gig in Holland; some guy phoned me up and asked if I wanted to do it, and I said, ‘Yes, why not?’ So we did, and it was absolutely great fun. Terrible, but great fun. And I’ve done everything ever since. Phil and I were doing lots of stuff in small clubs in London for a while, we played in Europe a lot, and then we reassembled. It’s a bit like belonging to a secret society; you get the summons: You will be Pretty Things again. We blackmail each other.”
Those gigs were an education, a reminder of how things had been when The Pretties first were starting, and how music was a roar of adrenalin and enthusiasm, as opposed to the over-produced slop that hallmarked the 1970s, a roar that was reflected in the emergent sound of punk rock. When the reformed Pretty Things set out to record a new album, punk was firmly on the band’s radar, May says.
“People say ‘S.F. Sorrow’ and ‘Parachute’ are the jewels in the crown, but my favorite album is ‘Crosstalk.’ I love it, maybe because it’s a bit like the kid that didn’t get the recognition you thought it would, because it was just two people writing songs for a six-piece band to start up and play. And that was it,” May said. “No post-production, no pre-production, and that was really exciting, even though we sometimes had to play a song 10 times to get the take right. We’d done all the layer-cake recording. It was great to do something that was on the coattails of, and not totally uninspired by punk, this whole thing about anyone can make music; you don’t need all the technical shit.”
And that’s just what The Pretty Things did.
“We went to this studio in Covent Garden, a converted dairy, and it was very minimal. It was a cellar with the Revoxes gaffer-taped to the walls. It wasn’t like being in Abbey Road or Olympia; it was completely different, but it was about making music,” May says. “What they needed, mics and machines, they had. But all the cosmetic stuff you get at the places we recorded before … none of that. There was an electric kettle and tea bags. That’s all you need. A chip shop round the corner. Fantastic.”
So was “Crosstalk” — at least for the few handfuls of people who actually heard it. As the group lurched into the 1980s, nobody was really sure whether The Pretty Things even existed. Occasionally, the name would show up someplace. But in an age when too many of The Pretties’ contemporaries were on the road in guises that no fan would ever have recognized — where one of the roadies might well have been the only original member, or maybe the drummer, if you were lucky — The Pretties never went that route. But without even a grapevine to put the word about, it was easier just to ignore the band.
And then, The Pretty Things re-emerged. First came a series of still-spectacular reissues, lovingly recrafted after the band won back the rights to its entire catalog. The Pretty Things performed “S.F. Sorrow” live in its entirety for the first time, taking over Abbey Road with David Gilmour, a longtime admirer and friend, on guest guitar (catch the DVD; it is amazing). That new album, “Rage Before Beauty,” emerged and was a fitting companion to any past glory. There’s been another once since then, too, 2007’s “Balboa Island,” and that was a masterpiece, too.
Which brings us to today, and a lineup headed up by May and Taylor, guitarist Frank Holland (a veteran of the past 13 years), and a rhythm section of George Perez and Jack Greenwood, who, laughs May, were barely even out of short trousers when “Rage Before Beauty” was released. Both in their 20s, Perez and Greenwood both have been with the band for five years already. Start them off young! Because that is how The Pretty Things have always sounded.