The Pretties were one of the more dynamic proponents of the British R’n’B boom, perennially tipped for stardom, and admired by their peers: the young David Bowie, for one, was apparently so besotted with the band that he filed singer Phil May’s phone number under “God” in his address book. But their course was pitted with missteps and misfortune, mostly self-imposed by their anarchic reputation. May was famously reputed to possess the longest hair in the country, which helped make the band prime tabloid targets; and drummer Viv Prince was so drunkenly uncontrollable that he seemed to court antagonism everywhere he went – Fontana’s head of A&R head refused to have anything to do with the band after Prince puked over his drums in the studio.
Other decisions proved ill-judged. Their singles weren’t included on their albums. Their first original song, “We’ll Be Together”, was about prostitution. Another was called, somewhat bluntly, “LSD”. And due to one of their most potent singles, “Don’t Bring Me Down”, including the line “And then I laid her on the ground”, it was effectively denied the chance of widespread airplay, especially in America. Then, when they should have been capitalising on early inroads into the American market, they were instead shipped off to tour that hotbed of rock’n’roll fever, New Zealand – where they triggered such a riotous response that they were promptly shipped right back, banned from ever entering the country again. At every turn, it seemed The Pretty Things were determined to sabotage their own career.
Given which, it’s astonishing that they managed to come up with several of the most thrilling pieces of primal UK R’n’B, before going on to invent the rock opera, following one of the more creatively intriguing examples of ’60s pop’s transition from mod to psychedelia.
Their position in pop history is undeniable. Guitarist Dick Taylor founded The Rolling Stones with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, before hooking up with fellow art student Phil May to form the Pretties. They would subsequently share a house – in Belgravia, no less – with Brian Jones; their raucous lifestyle there was celebrated in the song “13 Chester Street”, a “Not Fade Away” soundalike whose rhythm track featured Viv Prince’s leather belt being whipped against a chair. Prince’s avalanche drums were a crucial element of early successes like their visceral debut single “Rosalyn”, the musical embodiment of a primal urge with the waspish appeal of the early Stones. It’s one of the era’s emblematic recordings, as is its follow-up “Don’t Bring Me Down”, a blast of feral momentum periodically arrested by a sexually frustrated stop/start structure.
Their eponymous debut album was mostly R’n’B covers by the likes of Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed, lusty plaints given a pulsing pep-pill throb by the band’s whipcord-thin sound and May’s louche, laconic vocal sneer. The follow-up Get The Picture? featured more of their own material alongside covers of Ike Turner and Solomon Burke songs, but was mostly notable for the broadening of their approach, with fuzz-guitar effects, reverbed harmony vocals and odd chord-changes featured on some tracks. But when Fontana, frustrated at the failure of singles like “Midnight To Six Man” and “Come See Me” (both of which sound stunning half a century on), saddled them with string and brass arrangers and Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich’s producer, the Pretties lost interest in the subsequent Emotions album, never playing any of its tracks live. By that time, anyway, they were a completely different band, in terms of outlook and lineup. Viv Prince had long since tried the others’ patience and been ditched in favour of Skip Alan, while further changes saw the recruitment of keyboardist Jon Povey and May’s childhood friend, multi-instrumentalist Wally Waller, both from The Fentones, who brought with them a love of West Coast harmonies that fed into the band’s broadening sound as the Pretties made the move from mod to an eclectic psychedelia.
The first declaration of this new intent came with the landmark single “Defecting Grey”, a multi-sectioned psychedelic extravaganza of rasping guitar, electric sitar, backward guitar and looming bass. Helmed by the inventive Beatles/Pink Floyd engineer/producer Norman Smith, “Defecting Grey” is the Pretties’ “Lazy Sunday”, their “Tomorrow Never Knows”, and an indication of the untapped reserves of musical ambition and imagination that would bear fruit on SF Sorrow, the world’s first rock opera. Somehow, SF Sorrow failed to hoist the band into the first rank of psych-rockers, remaining instead a cult classic, but it stands up better nearly half a century on than most of their contemporaries’ efforts. Based on a Phil May story following the titular Sorrow from cradle to grave, it’s a densely textured work woven from threads of layered guitars, keyboards, horns and gorgeous harmonies, with Mellotron and sitar “borrowed” from The Beatles’ studio down the hall, and Smith ladling on all manner of bespoke effects. But compared with the single-minded R’n’B approach that the band were famed for, it was perhaps too confusingly diverse, with tracks like the martial, rhythmic “Private Sorrow”, the ebullient “SF Sorrow Is Born” and the soaring prog-scape “The Journey”flying off at disparate tangents.
The follow-up, Parachute, a pastoral-psych album themed around the contrast between urban and rural lifestyles – a voguish concern at the time, with hippies intent on getting back to the land – proved similarly outré, despite again featuring intelligent material, ambitiously treated. It’s at this point that the band’s career started to drift seriously off course, with the slick cover to Freeway Madness signalling the desperate urge to please American punters that would take up the Pretties’ next decade. There were occasional highlights – the blend of jaunty, offbeat piano interspersed with darker intimations gave Silk Torpedo’s “Dream/Joey” something akin to the ambivalence of The Doors – but the hook-up with Led Zep’s SwanSong label inevitably led to a coke-fuelled hedonism that gradually eroded the group’s integrity. Following several further personnel changes, even Phil May was moved to quit, displeased at how money was becoming the driving force behind creative decisions.
Without him, the band collapsed – though there’s a certain poetic justice in their eventual reformation resulting from the other Pretties joining him on a solo project. And there’s something heroically noble at their continued existence, intermittently performing and releasing LPs like 2007’s Balboa Island, whose “The Beat Goes On” offers an autobiographical overview of the life and times of those “dirty Pretty Things… back in the day we stole the blues”. The fame has gone, they concede, but regardless, “the beat goes on inside me and you”. And always will, no doubt.