Album Review by Mark Bayross
Formed in 1963 by singer Phil May and ex-Rolling Stones guitarist Dick Taylor, the Pretty Things were a frequently innovative band. They have been cited as an influence by the likes of David Bowie (who covered two of their songs for his “Pin Ups” album), Johnny Rotten, The Who (Pete Townsend declared their 1968 concept album S F SORROW a huge influence on TOMMY), and Led Zeppelin (Peter Grant, legendary Zep manager, signed them to their Swan Song label).
The Pretty Things lived the rock n’ roll lifestyle to the max: they were the first band ever to be busted for drugs in the UK; set fire to an aircraft mid-flight; got into endless scraps; and threw parties that were legendary (Phil May was famously evicted from the flat he shared with Brian Jones by their landlord, the Duke of Westminster, when he finally lost patience with them).
Musically, they veered from the early garage R & B of PRETTY THINGS and GET THE PICTURE, to the psychedelia of S F SORROW and PARACHUTE, to the rock of SILK TORPEDO and SAVAGE EYE in the 70s, and 1980’s post-punk CROSS TALK album. The follow-up, RAGE BEFORE BEAUTY is imminent, a mere 20 years in the making.
LATEST WRITS collects together 17 songs spanning their long and turbulent career, running in chronological order. For this reason, the early tracks suffer a bit on the production front, but the raw energy of COME SEE ME and boogie blues of DON’T BRING ME DOWN (one of the songs covered by Bowie) have an engaging immediacy.
Things get psychedelic with DEFECTING GREY, with its “Sgt. Pepper” harmonies and flower power melodies, and then seriously Woodstock with the acid-fuelled S F SORROW IS BORN and the rather obvious £.S.D (renamed after the original title LSD caused a furore). Drugs must have been a big part of their lives: ALL LIGHT UP is their controversial anthem to marijuana (complete with 40 singing schoolchildren); TALKIN’ ABOUT THE GOOD TIMES is all incense and arab motifs; while TRIPPING is kinda self-explanatory.
Considering when most of these songs were written, the Pretty Things really were ahead of their time. REMEMBER THAT BOY has some Zeppelin-esque chord progression, SINGAPORE SILK TORPEDO sounds almost glam, while ROSALYN, their big hit, is a two-minute swagger that pre-dates punk by a long shot. Some of these songs could even stand up to contemporary comparisons – the taut riffing of OLD MAN GOING and the Stones rawk of HAVANA BOUND could teach Oasis a thing or two.
Despite the band’s undoubtedly near-fatal chemical constitution by the end of the seventies, they had lost none of their energy even then. The closing BITTER END has driving bass, a squealing guitar solo and urgent vocal delivery.
The album sleeve comes with liner notes from Phil May about each song and a punk-style mish-mash of newspaper cuttings about the band and their exploits. It’s a neat package and a comprehensive collection of songs from a group that never really hit the big-time like so many bands they influenced.
When asked recently why he thought the band never enjoyed the kind of success of peers like the Rolling Stones, Phil May answered, “…If we had had more hits we’d either be dead or broken or both. Instead, we’re still here, we’re still doing what we want, and we’re still The Pretty Things”.