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The Pretty Things

+ {Phil May & The Fallen Angels} + {The Electric Banana}

Often unfairly compared to fellow R&B-revival/British Invasion cousins The ROLLING STONES (lead guitarist Dick Taylor had played bass in an early incarnation of the latter act, Little Boy Blue & The Blue Boys, while singer/harmonica-player Phil May was a spit of JAGGER), The PRETTY THINGS were hairier, trashier and dirtier than their “ugly-boy” rivals. And if one thought The WHO’s “Tommy” was the first rock opera, then one would be wrong – it was The PRETTY THINGS’ 1968-released “S.F. Sorrow”, a big influence on guitar icon PETE TOWNSHEND.
Formed 1963 in London via Dartford, Kent by the aforementioned Central School of Art boys, May and Taylor, The PRETTY THINGS half-inched their moniker from a BO DIDDLEY-sung dirge. Completing the line up with Brian Pendleton (rhythm guitar), John Stax (bass) and Viv Prince (drums); the latter superseding Pete Kitley, the management/agency team of Bryan Morrison (a pal from art college) and James Duncan secured them a deal at Fontana Records. The latter guy (and fellow author, Bill Farley) were behind the quintet’s initial chart breakthrough, `Rosalyn’, and although it only hit No.41, it was pivotal in getting the band exposure and media attention. Happy to find the odd outside songsmith to provide hits (this time through Johnny Dee), 1964 ended in fine style with rootsy Top 10 classic, `Don’t Bring Me Down’, which drew inspiration from black American blues artists of the 50s. Both hits were a major influence of a certain BOWIE, who paid the band homage by performing the tracks on his 1973 covers set, “Pin Ups”.
The Dick Taylor-co-penned `Honey, I Need’ just failed to emulate its predecessor (it peaked at No.13), while its eponymous parent debut LP, THE PRETTY THINGS (1965) {*7}, went all the way to No.6. Produced by session drummer extraordinaire, Bobby Graham, originals were few and far between as the “Chess”-conscious combo presented raucous renditions of BO DIDDLEY’s `Road Runner’, `Mama, Keep Your Big Mouth Shut’ and `She’s Fine She’s Mine’, CHUCK BERRY’s `Oh Baby Doll’ and `Don’t Lie To Me’, JIMMY REED’s `The Moon Is Rising’ and WILLIE DIXON’s `Pretty Thing’.
A rather rushed sophomore effort, GET THE PICTURE? (1965) {*7}, was left high and dry without a major hit (although Bert Berns’ `Cry To Me’ had earlier reached the Top 30), the exclusion of Top 50 breaker `Midnight To Six Man’ was somewhat ill-advised. A reckless and unreliable Viv Prince was now basically out the picture as the set drew on the support of fill-in drummers John C. Alder and producer, Graham, himself; a young JIMMY PAGE (on guitar) performed a cameo role and received a writing credit on opening track, `You Don’t Believe Me’. May and Taylor were given free reign on the LPs best cuts, `Buzz The Jerk’, `Can’t Stand The Pain’ and the hook-line title track.
Skip Alan was duly drafted in the early weeks of ’66, but the once promising PRETTY THINGS found it tough and trying as singles such `Come See Me’ and the RAY DAVIES-penned `A House In The Country’, just missed out on UK Top 40 status. Unlike the Stones, their hits had dried up by ‘67, due to a misguided foray into brassy bubblegum/psychedelia by way of that year’s album, EMOTION {*6}. Abandoning R&B and influenced by DAVIES and his KINKS act, the sessions for the set (in December ’66) were blighted by the dissatisfaction of Brian Pendleton, who was first to bail out, John Stax was next out the door. Bassist Wally Waller and keyboard-player/vocalist John Povey, were duly drafted in, but subsequent platter `Children’ performed as well as previous flop, `Progress’. If fans felt cheated, there was solace in finding copies of the group’s alter-ego inaugural set as The ELECTRIC BANANA; the group continued in the pseudonymous moniker for the next decade, records surfacing from films and whatnot.
John “Twink” Alder from TOMORROW was now placed as permanent drummer in 1968, and things looked virtually kaleidoscopic and bright as The PRETTY THINGS (now on Columbia Records) turned the slide towards theatre and rock opera. Their most ambitious project so far, and indeed ever, S.F. SORROW (1968) {*8}, the album received the thumbs down by the press, although it has since become regarded as an innovative piece of work that was essential to the development of pop music. Taking the confusing cradle-to-grave story of everyman (or life itself), S.F. Sorrow, the concept was trippy and freewheeling in a folky way, one could follow the heroic character through songs from `S.F. Sorrow Is Born’ and “Sgt. Pepper”/“Piper At The Gates Of Dawn”-esque `She Says Good Morning’, to `Private Sorrow’ and the heaviest trip on show here, `Balloon Burning’.
During this late 60s period, the group made a cameo appearance (alongside funny man, Norman Wisdom) in the film, What’s Good For The Goose; songs including the title track recorded as The ELECTRIC BANANA. After the “S.F. Sorrow” recording, Taylor became the band’s producer; while other members recorded an album of songs with French wannabe rock-star singer businessman, Philippe DeBarge; it was released some 40 years later.
Meanwhile, the post-Taylor PRETTY THINGS re-grouped for a heavier, Top 50 “Harvest” set, PARACHUTE (1970) {*6}. Produced by BEATLES engineer, Norman Smith, Phil May and Wally Allen Waller continued the concept preoccupation, although its ambiguous storyline of peace, love and sexy suburban idealism was rather tepid. `Cries From The Midnight Circus’, `Grass’ and `The Good Mr. Square’ all recalled The BEATLES in their prime, although other funkier and jazzier elements were filtered in.
The PRETTY THINGS (aka Phil May, John Povey, Pete Tolson, Skip Alan and newest through the door, Stuart Brooks on bass) struggled on regardless, the Warner Brothers set FREEWAY MADNESS (1972) {*5} probably mindless to the fact that FM-friendly, AOR was alien to prog/glam-loving Brits. Hard-rock or soft-rock, `Love Is Good’, `Havana Bound’ and `Country Road’, were probably the choice pickings, but many thought they’d lost their way when Taylor struck out.
Subsequently signing for LED ZEPPELIN’s heavyweight Swan Song division, two mediocre albums, SILK TORPEDO (1974) {*4} and SAVAGE EYE (1975) {*4}, picked up airplay and eventual chart returns in America, but why that was a mystery to one-time acolyte of the R&B-cum-psychedelic act. The immediate split was then inevitable; May deciding that his fortunes lay with the short-lived Fallen Angels; the remaining members formed Metropolis. After numerous personnel changes blighted the outfit, only a few friends and plucky players were left to augment the lonesome singer on the band’s tumultuous LP, PHIL MAY & THE FALLEN ANGELS (1978) {*4}.
Buoyed be a cameo in the Vincent Price vehicle, The Monster Squad, 1980 saw the PRETTY THINGS (aka May, Povey, Tolson, Allen/Waller, Alan and the reunited Taylor) produced a belated paean to the new wave and power-pop through CROSS TALK {*5}. If there was any reason to love ELVIS COSTELLO, The KNACK or a knackered NICK LOWE (or even a ballad-y THIN LIZZY), then The PRETTY THINGS gave one a reason here. From `I’m Calling’ to `No Future’, this was almost embarrassing.
May and Taylor continued in one form or another, while low-key LPs such as LIVE AT HEARTBREAK HOTEL (1984) {*4} and OUT OF THE ISLAND (1988) {*4} were hardly pretty, just raw and meaty with plenty out-of-date veg; one “thing” that was picked out for a single was their re-vamp of P.F. SLOAN’s `Eve Of Destruction’, a long-time staple in their live diet. Passing by cash-in attempts at combining forces with another Brit-invasion combo, PRETTY THINGS & YARDBIRD BLUES BAND (aka one Jim McCarty), on the subsequent covers albums THE CHICAGO BLUES TAPES 1991 (1992) {*4} and WINE, WOMEN & WHISKEY (1994) {*3}, incarnations of the proper PTs were almost underway again; save for yet another joint set, A WHITER SHADE OF DIRTY WATER (1994; but recorded 1992) {*4} with London’s R&B imitators, The INMATES and PROCOL HARUM’s Matthew Fisher.
A more or less original line-up of the band inevitably came together for a late-90s reunion, although few might’ve predicted that they’d attempt a recording of the classic “S.F. Sorrow” in its entirety live in the studio. The result was RESURRECTION (1999) {*6}, which hardly improved upon the original but was notable for the inimitable narration of one Crazy World of ARTHUR BROWN; PINK FLOYD’s David Gilmour performed guitar on a handful of tracks.
Presumably buoyed up by the project, they proceeded to record a bona fide new album, RAGE… BEFORE BEAUTY (also 1999) {*4}, albeit with a few covers including the unavoidable JAGGER-RICHARDS cut `Play With Fire’, TOMMY JAMES’ `Mony Mony’ and their perennial piece, `Eve Of Destruction’. It was sad news when the deaths of Brian Pendleton (lung cancer) and mid-70s keyboardist, Gordon Edwards (drug overdose), were reported in 2001 and 2002 respectively.
Recorded with a degree of grit and determination to resurrect The PRETTY THINGS of old, and in R&B mode, BALBOA ISLAND (2007) {*6} was just the ticket to kick up the 00s. But for the odd slip into trad/folky territory (example `Feel Like Goin’ Home’ and DYLAN’s `The Ballad Of Hollis Brown’), the rasping Phil and the er… boys (Waller, Mark St. John and Frank Holland – Skip Alan was ill) rocked the blues once again on `Buried Alive’, the autobiographical `The Beat Goes On’ and the retro-like DIDDLEY-like ditty, `Mimi’. The PRETTY THINGS had now come full circle.
51 years and counting from their “hey, Rosalyn” halcyon days, the wrinkled retainers were re-charging the batteries and proving to be more resilient than their Richmond rivals The ‘Stones (could be corrected soon as?). For the Repertoire-released THE SWEET PRETTY THINGS (ARE IN BED NOW, OF COURSE…) (2015) {*8}, a re-invigorated May (back from serious illness), Taylor and Holland, plus fresh recruits George Woosey (bass) and Jack Greenwood (drums), rise like a phoenix from the ashes – or the duvet-covers – to courageously hold up space time continuum on a psychedelic-punk set of pure quality. From the opening riffs of `The Same Sun’ to the GROUNDHOGS-esque haze of closer, `Dirty Song’, The PRETTY THINGS get ugly without a cause. Raiding the vaults for the mind-swirling `You Took Me By Surprise’ (a SEEDS B-side) and a lost-long flower-power cut `Turn My Head’ (`Dark Days’ also echoed something from “S.F. Sorrow”), this was the 60s incarnate. Want a YARDBIRDS/Gregorian chant-styled instrumental to ice the cake, the SANTANA-meets-“Dance With The Devil”-ish `In The Soukh’ was the ace in the pack. Too old to rock’n’roll? Never!
Sadly, after surgery to sort out his hip after a cycling accident, Phil May died in King’s Lynn hospital on 15th May 2020; he was 75.
Together with Dick Taylor, and help from guitarists George Woosey, Henry Padovani and multi-instrumentalist Sam Brothers (plus violinist Jon Wiggs and percussionist Mark St. John), that September saw Madfish Records unleash Phil May’s PRETTY THINGS epitaph, BARE AS BONE, BRIGHT AS BLOOD {*8}. As derived from the title, every track was stripped back to an acoustic minimum; the likes of `Can’t Be Satisfied’, `Come Into My Kitchen’ and the poignant `Ain’t No Grave’, managed to echo the ghosts of JOHNSON, WATERS and CASH. Phil might be drinking somewhere next to these icons of the blues and beyond, however the surprise element came in the shape of his reading of BLACK REBEL MOTORCYCLE CLUB’s `Faultline’.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Nov2012-Sep2020

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