The following article was
written as the liner notes of "Pretty Things Vintage Years ":their best
album that was released on Sire in '76, over 20years ago!
But to read it still impress me and it
has historical significance not only about Pretty Things but Garage punk.
If you want to know more about the band you had better read Ugly
courtesy of Greg Shaw
You hold in your hands no ordinary album of nostalgic
'oldies'. True, these are the earliest recordings by a group whose current
popularity warrants their being repackaged. But such facts are merely incidental.
In reality , this album is a kind of social document; not just of a band,
but of an era, a generation, and a revolution in music that , at its first
outbreak, blazed so intensely that its byproducts, the records made in
a two or three year period in the middle Sixties, have been recognized
with the passage of years as an all-time pinnacle in pop music.
The pure and honest vitality of the early
Beatles and Beach Boys was as much a reflection of their young audience's
mentality as their own. And the same impulse that powered those groups,
the relentless outpouring of positive energy that characterized youth in
the last decade, found its most extreme expression in the work of a few
groups to whom the exquisitely raw power of Rolling Stones, in their early
interpretations of American rhythm & blues, served as a burning inspiration.
There were a lot of them, mainly in America;
these groups who sought to reduce the Stones' approach to a sound as basic
as the energy that was its source. Out the window went any pretense of
polish , subtlety or wit. Irrelevant, all of it; mere distractions from
the ultimate goal of isolating that single raw nerve ending where rampaging
guitars and a raucous singer could bridge the synapse and unleash some
of that maniacal energy that had been so long stored away, just waiting
to be tapped.
In America, it came to be called 'punk Rock'
But in England, where a monopolizing handful of record companies maintained
standards of 'professionalism' more strictly, it was virtually unknown.
Only by presenting itself as 'rhythm & blues' could music this primitive
Thus arose the British R&B movement of 1963-65 ,centered around
a West End. The kings of this scene were bands like the Stones, Animals,
Yardbirds and Manfred Mann, who had achieved pop success by polishing up
their sound. But the real heroes of British R&B were the bands whose
fame never spread beyond the small clubs and art schools where they were
all but the small cult who knew they were experiencing something quintessential.
Most of the British punk rockers are long
forgotten. Few had the opportunity to record, and those that did produced
records that are today regarded as legendary, impossibly rare artifacts
of an era we are only beginning to appreciate. Groups like the Downliners
Sect, the Wheels, The Measles, the Fairies, the Cheynes are worshipped
for their reputation alone, for their records have been heard only by a
handful of devout collectors. But for chance, and the fact that they stood
out as extreme even among such extremists, such a fate might also have
befallen the Pretty Things.
Intimations of destiny surrounded even their
beginnings. In 1963 ,the Rolling Stones had not yet gone fully professional.
Keith Richard still attended Sidcup Art School in Kent, where Dick Taylor,
then the group's bass player, was a fellow student. Mick Jagger was also
still in school at the time, and he was always around, along with Brian
Jones-each with their precious collections of American Chess blues records,
Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson.
It was quite the fashion among the hipper
art students in the early '60s to track down esoteric bits of American
black music-blues, R&B and Soul-which was considered somehow purer,
closer to the roots , than the rock & roll it had helped inspire. One
might even say that most of the British bands formed in this period were
an outgrowth of this sort of fannish activity. This was doubly true in
the case of the Stone, whose love of American root music came before everything.
They and their circle (which included Phil May, a younger classmate at
Sidcup)formed a nucleus of blues enthusiasts whose influence was considerable.
Of them all, Dick Taylor (nicknamed
'The Beard') was the acknowledged leader. His sense of style, and the strength
of his unconventional attitudes, made him a cult figure among students
even before his musical abilities became known. Such was his importance
that ,when Keith Richard was thrown out of Sidcup for neglecting his studies
and the Stones decided to goprofessional, Taylor elected to leave the group
and start a band of his own, in which he could play lead guitar and be
the dominant force.
The first recruit for Taylor's new band was
vocalist Phil May ,followed shortly by John Stax(bass), Brian Pendleton
(rhythm guitar) and Viv Prince(drums). All were local boys from the Kent
area, and had known one another through the years at various schools.
There was never any question about what the
group ,as yet unnamed, would sound like. Their music was rhythm & blues
, the songbooks of Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed, Fats Domino, and above
all, Bo Diddley. The basic, earthly strength of these records was transmuted
by Taylor & Co.into an exaggerated animal savagery. Rude, aggressive
and uncompromising, they captured the imagination of audiences wherever
they played-mostly school dances and parties.
The Merseybeat boom had been going for two years or more,
and it was only natural that the trend -conscious art school crowd would
have grown bored with the fresh-scrubbed, neatly trimmed, suit-clad,chirpy-voiced
legions of groups that had swarmed in the wake of the Beatles. The inevitable
backlash found its focus in the rhythm & blues bands, still only a
handful confined to one or two marginal clubs. Althought most of them,
including the Stones, still donned suits for the camera, their music and
stance contained more of the spirit of rebellion the kids were seeking.
The Pretty Things went straight to the heart
of this rebellion. They appeared on stage in their scruffiest street clothes,
their hair matted in unkempt dreadlocks. The songs weren't merely played-they
were attacked ,as by a tribe of wild-eyed barbarians. Discipline and professionalism
were thrown to the winds,so whtat if the guitars hit a few wrong notes,
or the drummer ended a song at double the tempo he'd begun it with? The
important thing was the energy being raved up, and that's what they generated,
more than anyone else around.
It was at the Royal College of Art that they were
spotted by songwriter Jimmy Duncan, who felt the power of their music and
saw its effect on their audience. He became their manager and got them
a recording contract with Fontana. When it became necessary to agree on
a name for the group, someone suggested a Bo Diddley song that was one
of their most popular requests, "Pretty Things." Since it was fashionable
to name contrasted with the vulgarity of their image, it stuck.
The Pretty Things wasted no time in broadening their
following. Almost immediately they were in London, recording all their
most popular songs. In addition to old favorites, they waxed a few originals-two
of which("Big Duncan")were destined to become classics.
"Rosalyn" was their first single. A frenetic Bo
Diddley beat, pushed along by maracas, doubled by a pumping rhythm guitar,came
as close to a pure wall of sound as anyone could in those days. May's hoarse
vocal might as well have been a screaming tenor saxophone; the lyricspaled
to insignificance by nuremitting blast of pure energy that was the song's
Released in July,1964,"Rosalyn"hit British
disc jockeys like a sudden electric shock. It was so bold, so intense,
it could not be ignored. The record was a mid-chart hit,followed by two
Top Ten smashes. "Don't Bring Me Down" was a weirdly attractive rever,
oddly produced with the drums and rhythm guitar buried in the distance
and May's voice, heavily echoed, riding on top with an amphetamine lead
guitar. It was a monster hit in England, and garnered wide airplay in the
States, where it was covered by a dozen or more local bands, such as the
Montells in Florida, whose recording had a 'censored' and an 'uncensored'
side: apparently the lyric"...and when I laid her on the ground" was considered
a bit controversial.
Indeed,controversy followed the Pretty Things
from the word go. The Rolling Stones had shocked staid England with their
failure to observe the standards of humility deemed proper for entertainaers.
And parents had found them ugly, revolting, and a blatant menace to the
sanctity of their daughters. That controversy was forgotten overnight when
the Pretty Things made their appearance. Ugly? They were beasts! Their
music belonged in the jungle, not the clubs of Wardour St. where any unsuspecting
child might be perverted by its shocking bestiality.
Newspapers reported the uproar in screaming headlines.
The question was even brought before the houses of Parliament, who debated
seriously whether this new trend in pop music constituted a threat to British
Meanwhile the hysteria continued to
mount ,as rhythm & blues groups began taking over the charts and the
new wave in British rock was approaching its crest. The Pretty Things followed
"Don't Bring Me down" with "Honey I Need"in early 1965,and it was their
biggest hit yet. Their popularity spread across the world, and everywhere
tehy appeared, from Sweden to New Zealand, they never failed to cause riots
A first album appeared in late 1964,just after the success of "Don't
Bring Me Down". It was a basic, undistorted reflection of what their live
show must have been like at the time. There was no attempt at 'production',
other than the liberal application of echo, and altogether there's a feel
of raw honestly to the record,which ranks along with the first couple of
Stones albums as the epitome of British R&B,1964 style.
It opened with "Road Runner", in which May's tortured
scream of "I'm a road runner baby"leads into a sizzling scrape of the bass
strings from Taylor, and a frantic maraca-laden Bo Diddley rhythm that
sets the album's tone. Next came "Judgement Day",an original
number with a heavy Muddy Waters feel and some impassined harmonica work.
"13 Chester Street" ,dedicated to the flat where the band first lived when
they moved toLondon, was a shameless reworking of "Got Love If You Want
It", and is interesting to compare to the Kinks' version in that light.
"Big City", never more than an album cut, was one
of the Pretty Things' most influential songs. Countless American'punk'bands
added it to their repertoires. It featured a classic chord progression
and a driving guitar break in the middle. So authentic was its feel that
it could, more than any of their other compositions, have been an actual
American R&B standard.
The first album also included "Honey, I Need", with
its odd, distantly-echoed guitar sound, an unnusual slowed-down version
of Tampa Red's "Don't Lie to Me"(taken from Chuck Berry by way of Fats
Domino), which was done by many other groups including the Stones, but
always at a breakneck pace, while the Prettys(who may have been the first
British group to do the song)give it a down-home bluesy interpretation;
and closed with "Pretty Things", their signature song.
Although the group never toured America until 1973,
and none of their records made the national charts, their reputation spread
by word of mouth and strong radio exposure, creating enough demand that
the album was also released here, with a slight change of content (dropped
were "Mama ,Keep Your Big Mouth Shut", "Oh Baby Doll", "She's Fine She's
Mine", and "Don't Lie to Me", in favor of "Rosalyn", "Don't Bring
Me Down", "We'll Be Toghether", and "I Can Never Say", an oddly fascinating
track that was never on album in England). Both versions of this album
are among the most prized collcetors' item of British rock. And unfortunately,
neither of the group's two subsequent LPs was issued in America.
If they had come to the U.S.A., things might have gone
differently for Pretty Things. A lot of theBritish goups of the time, from
Chad & Jeremy to Herman's Hermits, found in America a more avid following
than ever they enjoyed at home, with the possibility of constant touring
at premium fees and a steady stream of hit records. The Pretty Things'
management, however, responded to other offers and sent them on a tour
of Australia and New Zealand. Their only appearance in America was via
TV, with three guestshots on Shindig, one on American Bandstand, and an
interview with Jack Paar(taped in Dick Taylor's living room).
While in Australia, the mania and controversy followed
them, but problems arose as well. Viv Prince began exhibiting a tendency
not to show up at concerts, and the group was forced to find temporary
fill-ins. One of these replacements, Skip Alan(real name Alan Skipper)
took over permanently somewhere toward the end of the sessions for the
second album. His background had included stints with the Ivy League, Carter-Lewis
& the Southerners, and Donovan, on whose Catch the Wind alubm he had
played. Prince, meanwhile, went on to make a solo single, "Light of the
Charge Brigade"in 1966, following which he joined the Hell's Angels. Later,
according to Phil May, he achieved the singular honor of being the only
man ever thrown out of the Hell's Angels.
The second album, recoded in late 1965,was titled
Get the Picture? Although it lacked the sustained intensity of the
first LP, it did include a few of their best songs. "You Don't Believe
Me"was an unexpected departure form their normal style. Co-written by Jimmy
Page, it featured Byrds-style 12-string guitar (Perhaps picked up by Page
from Jackie DeShannon,with whom hd'd written some songs in 1964)and had,
of all things, a melody! A real curiousity. "Buzz the Jack" was more typical-a
snarled vocal over staccato guitar riffs and booming drums.
"Can't Stand the Pain"came out in America as the
B-side of "Midnight to Six Man", done at the same time as the Get the
Picture ?sessions, though not on the album. Both are brilliant examples
of the Pretty Things at their best. "Can't Stand the Pain" almost defies
description. The whole idea of the song is simply demented-it's the kind
of thing the Doors might have done, early on, before their style was refined.
The effect is haunting, intense, and unforgettable, "Midnight to Six Man",
perhaps Taylor and May's best original song is a classic portrait of the
raver who prowls the night time world and never sees his friends in the
light of day. Also widely done by American groups, it quickly became a
punk standard, by virtue of its wild sound, powerful beat and distinctive
piano work, possible by Nicky Hopkins.
Also of note on Get The Picture were "Rainin'
In My Heart", an old Slim Harpo tune, "You'll Never Do It Baby", an interesting
original, "London Town", with an unusually folkish arrangement, and raunchy
R&B number that would've been at home on the first album.
At this time, late 1965 and early 1966, the Pretty Things were at a
creative peak. They still had the raw energy that had been their foundation,
and their ability to condense and direct that energy had never been
more evident than on "Midnight to Six Man" and the subsequent single, "Come
See Me" the guitar chords roar out with the authority of Keith Richard's
playing on "It's All Over Now", heavily fuzzed and reverberating with echoed
noise. It's blockbuster record in every sense, and if only it had become
a hit, perhaps this phase in the Pretty Things' career would not have come
to an end so early.
The fact of the matter, though, was that their
raving days were over. Symbolically, the B-side of " Come See Me" in England
was "L.s.d.", which stood for pounds, shillings & pence, but of course
meant much more. It was primitive stab at punk psychedelia, the first intimation
that the Pretty Things would ,like most bands in 1966 , be going throughsome
The first change was the departure of Brian
Pendleton, whose replacement was Hohn Povey, formerly of Bern Elliott's
backing group the Fenmen became an effete vocal harmony group following
Elliot's split to become a solo singer. This influence, with the arrival
of Povey, was to have the immediate effect of altering the Pretty Things'
vocal sound, which had always been dependent on Phil May's hoarse, growling
The change wouldn't really be noticeable until
the next album. Meanwhile there were two more singles which put the lid
on the group's first incarnation. A nice ,raw version of the Kinks' "Howse
in the Country " was backed by a strong Taylor/May original, "Me Needing
You." It was followed by "Progress", a non-original pop songs that was
done by others including Paul & Barry Ryan. It's a good song, but lacking
the stamp of the Pretty Things' own personality , it could've been by anyone.
What came next was, even in the group's own opinion,
their all-time low-point. A third album, titled Emotions, was made
, consisting of half backed excursions into psychedelic blues. Ill-fated
from the start, the album was doomed when someone at Fontana decided to
bring in an orchestra and an arranger to give the record an even more 'progressive'sound.
What began in futility ended in disaster.
Songs that might have been good,simple rockers, like "There Will Never
Be Another Day" and "Photographer", are dragged down by the addition of
flatulent horns. "Bright Lights of the City" also had potential, as did
"Death of a Socialite". Of the out-and -out progressive efforts, "Tripping"
is the most successful, managing to retain a punk feel, reminding me somewhat
of the dripping arrogance of the Standells.
It was a false step for the Pretty Things , the
result of an identity crisis that was, most sadly of all, unnecessary.
The Fontana label, which was mainly singles-oriented and unable to cope
with a group that felt the need for experimentation, let them go when their
contract expired in early 1967. A period of great confusion ensued, with
numerous personnel changes, starting with John Stax, who emigrated to Australia,
being replaced by another ex-Fenman, Wally Allen, a multi-instrumentalist
songwriter who was to become a major influence in the group's next incarnation.
After leaving Fontana, the Pretty Things made a
series of anonymous mood-music soundtracks for the DeWolfe film company,
went to Columbia for three unabashedly psychedelic singles that began their
partnership with Pink Floyd producer Norman Smith, then ended up on EMI's
Harvest subsidiary, where they became entrenched as one of England's leading
bands of the ultra-progressive Art Rock era with the album S.F.Sorrow,
by all accounts the first pop opera and the inspiration for the Who's Tommy.
Following S.F.Sorrow , Dick Taylor left the
group. At one time he talked of joining Hawkwind , but aside from producing
their first album, he's done little since. By the time of Parachute, Phil
May was the only original member left. He stayed with the group through
1975, and at their concerts you could usually expect to hear "Rosalyn"
as an encore. Then in early 1976, May left. The group, at their greatest
popularity in years, ironically contains no original members, the oldest
being Skip Alan.
Regardless of what happens to the current
group of Pretty Things, a secure niche in rock history belongs to that
original band which got together in the art schools of Kent. Not just their
records, but what the group itself represented, made a deep impression
on everyone who was fortunate enough to be part of the scene in England
during the mid-Sixties. David Bowie, in choosing the 12 most representative
songs of the era for his Pin-Ups album, selected two ("Don't Bring Me Down"
and "Rosalyn") by the Pretty Things. And in 1976,a new generation of rebellious
street bands emerged with groups like the Pretty Things as admitted idols
and imspiration. Hearing this album, the reason should be self-evident.
The Pretty Things got as close to the source, the ultimate source of Rock&Roll
energy, as any band in the '60s. They were true punks.They were for real.
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