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"Sitting on top of that white cloud, looking for someone there to trust"
|Main Category:||Rhythm & Blues|
|Also applicable:||Psychedelia, Art Rock|
|Starting Period:||The Early Years|
|Also active in:||The Psychedelic Years, The Artsy/Rootsy Years, The Interim Years|
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Everybody's got to have an idol, an ideal that one strives to reach and, if possible, surpass. For the Pretty Things, such an ideal were the Rolling Stones. This was really a predictable thing, though: the band was founded around 1964 by Dick Taylor, former bass player for the Stones before they actually had a recording contract. Dick quit the band because of financial troubles and personal ambitions (not content with his minor role since Brian Jones shoved him in the background), and became one of the founding fathers for the Pretty Things - but the band still kept a tight connection with the Stones. Initially, their image was supposed to be modelled after the Stones, only even more hardcore: they were even wilder, had even longer hair, and were banned from even more TV shows than the Stones ever have. At least, that's how the legend goes. Too bad that the actual music played by the Pretties was nowhere near as enduring as the Stones' stuff: the band was nowhere near as professional or talented, and their lead singer, Phil May, had, to put it mildly, a pretty limited vocal potential. Thus, the Pretties' early albums are rife with filler, even if the aggressive rock'n'roll energy contained in their best stuff easily compensates for the weaker numbers.This all began to change around the Summer of Love epoch: unlike gazillions of their even less talented and/or ambitiousd colleagues, the Pretties had time and will to jump on the accelerating rock music wagon (together with the Stones!) and drifted away into artsier, more sophisticated territory. Unfortunately, the band never really made the big time; despite a few moderate hits, their image had already been soldered as that of second-rate Stones imitators, and this, taken together with poor management and inner lineup problems, never did much to improve the band's financial situation. And yet, it's the late Sixties that count for the Pretties - not every band can successfully transform itself from a basic R'n'B outfit into a full-blown psychedelic machine, but that's exactly what happened. The 1967 record, Emotions, is a minor (and thoroughly underrated) Brit-pop/psycho gem, but, of course, it's the 1968 tour de force, S. F. Sorrow, that the Pretties are going to be remembered for, if they are going to be remembered at all: the first rock opera (or 'rock narrative', whatever), a cohesive and complex album with a level of twistedness and sophistication no other former R'n'B band, not even the Stones, would ever achieve. If anything, S. F. Sorrow just goes to show that the band had serious potential in them, and were actually able to realize that potential instead of always drag in the shadow of their superior pals. Too bad neither Emotions nor S. F. Sorrow hit the big time; after their failure, the disillusioned Dick Taylor quit the band, and although it dragged on for half a decade more, fuelled mostly by the energy of Phil May, and released three more LPs at least one of which (Parachute) is said to be very good, by the mid-70s it was obvious that there was simply nowhere else to go. The Pretties therefore disbanded into nothing, and despite several attempts at reunions and even some new studio output and live performances in the Nineties, they're still a pretty dark spot in popular culture. I'm not an avid fan, of course, but one thing is obvious - the Pretty Things are more than just a potential bait for collectors of Sixties' antiques (and while we're at it, it is every Sixties' antiques collector's duty to procure the band's catalog in its entirety, now!). They didn't have that much talent in them, nor did they possess a particular thoughtful inspired talented creative guy; most of the band's best compositions are group efforts. Yet they seem to have possessed a certain 'group mentality' that was enough for their records, at least, the 1967-68 ones, not to sound like weak pathetic clones, but instead provoke a strong and deep emotional reaction. They were trend-followers, but they didn't follow these trends in half-measures: there's enough soul and feeling in their music to make it likeable. They never deserve anything more than a weak two on the band rating scale, that's for sure, but neither should they just be allowed to sink in the general mire of talentless mid-Sixties rip-offs because, frankly speaking, they were better than most. Don't believe me? Buy S. F. Sorrow today and spin it three times in a row to see what I mean. Then slowly and gradually work your way forwards and backwards, never letting your expectations run before the actual music - and hoopla, you just might have something there... Lineup: Phil May - vocals, harmonica; Brian Pendleton - guitar; John Stax - bass; Dick Taylor - guitar; Viv Prince - drums. Prince dropped out, late 1965, replaced by Skip Allan. Pendleton and Stax quit, 1967, replaced by Twink (drums), Wally Allen (bass), and John Povey (percussion). Dick Taylor quit, 1968; on later Pretties lineups see different sources, or maybe I'll get around to it when I get around to actually hearing later albums.
Listenability: 3/5. They
weren't "masters of the hook", and the early period in particular
is generically boring. Or boringly generic.
Resonance: 2/5. 'The Sun' and 'Trust' make me cry. That's two songs. Hence two points. (Kidding, but you more or less get the drift).
Originality: 1/5. Well, they DID have the first rock opera, and that can't be denied. That's one point.
Adequacy: 3/5. They were definitely more adequate in the early days, but still, even their 'artsy' period usually matches decent melodies with a decent level of pretense, so... ah well.
Diversity: 3/5. The usual route: R'n'B > psychedelia > hard rock.
Overall: 2.4 = D on the rating scale.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1965Record rating = 7
Daring R'n'B, but generic R'n'B. See, it was released before "My Generation", but that doesn't mean... oh well.Best song: whatever they ripped that stuff from.
Track listing: 1) Roadrunner; 2) Judgement Day; 3) 13 Chester Street; 4) Big City; 5) Unknown Blues; 6) Mama Keep Your Big Mouth Shut; 7) Honey I Need; 8) Oh Baby Doll; 9) She's Fine She's Mine; 10) Don't Lie To Me; 11) The Moon Is Rising; 12) Pretty Thing; 13) Rosalyn; 14) Big Boss Man; 15) Don't Bring Me Down; 16) We'll Be Together; 17) I Can Never Say; 18) Get Yourself Home.
You don't need to get your PhD in record industry business to guess that the Pretty Things' British/American discography has to be one hell of a nightmare. However, the current CD re-issue of their debut LP is actually quite nice, as it includes every single track from both the British and the US variant, plus some contemporary singles thrown in for good measure. I'm not going to give any more specific details on these songs' chronological features - after all, wasn't the Internet invented specifically for the purpose of clearing up long-forgotten discographies of second-rate British Invasion bands? - but that won't stop me from issuing a useless, space-occupying compliment to whoever was in charge of the reissue. When Allen Klein dies and goes to his specially-reserved titanium-covered frying-pan, this guy will be sneering at him out of his nice, clean window in heaven. For sure.A completely different problem is, is this album actually worth buying. The Pretty Things were certainly an entertaining and mildly recommendable band at every stage of their career, but at every stage of their career they also managed to drag behind the Beatles and the Stones, always trying to catch up but hardly even making number three in the race (only S. F. Sorrow might be truly considered an innovative record - at least they beat Jethro Tull to the flute!). And nowhere does this nagging "second-handness" show better than on their debut LP. Consisting entirely of R'n'B covers and R'n'B "originals" that are in fact disguised covers as well, the record is little more than a vain attempt to outstone the Stones in their brand of 'ugly rhythm-and-bluesmaking' to scare the shit out of easily scared mothers and attract their naughty children. Well, the Stones' connection is not at all amazing, considering that the band's guitarist, Dick Taylor, originally played bass in an early version of the Stones, before being replaced by Bill Wyman; but if you ask for my opinion (and you should!), it's also obvious that these guys don't hold a candle to the Stones or to the Animals. First of all, there ain't a lot of imagination or inventiveness displayed on here. By early 1965, the Pretties had only mastered three styles of playing: (a) the generic Chuck Berry boogie, (b) the generic Bo Diddley beat, and (c) the generic Muddy Waters blues shuffle. Practically all the eighteen tracks on here fit into one of these three categories, and this makes up for a really monotonous record (not to be rude or obnoxious or anything, but, in comparison, the Stones' debut was at least thrice as diverse). Second, the instrumentation is extremely poor - no keyboards at all, just the usual guitar/harmonica business all over the place. Dick Taylor is a competent guitarist with a tasteful approach to his playing, but nowhere near as masterful as Keith Richards: obviously, somebody hadn't done his Chuck Berry homework as diligently as the Riffmeister. His interplay with the second guitarist is usually draggy, with the guitars very poorly separated in the mix and displaying no personality. The rhythm section is competent, and at least they never mess up the rhythm, but they're not able to keep up a firm, steady, never-wavering, and actually threatening groove like the Stones' rhythm section could in those early days. And one really irritating factor on here is the lead singer. Phil May tries to ape Jagger's approach to the material, with wild screams, 'evil' intonations and gloomy vocal overtones everywhere, but his voice, unlike Jagger's, isn't really suitable for such things, and he ends up overemoting and producing a really bad effect. Don't get me wrong: he ain't bad in a 'yeah, just another white boy trying to sound like a bluesman' manner, like, say, Keith Relf from the Yardbirds. Rather he's bad in a 'just another garage punk who's too feeble and limp to be truly scary' manner. If I want true brawl 'n' brawn, I'll take that guy from the Sonics, I guess. In short, the R'n'B material wasn't so submissive and tame in the hands of the Pretties: at least, it certainly didn't yield to them all that much on record. Their live shows at the time established the band's reputation as "dirtier and scarier than the Stones", but you really couldn't guess that by this album. It's just way too blunt and minimalistic - too few things of interest are going on to hold my attention. And, once you get to know the "sources" of the band's material better, I can't imagine how the hell you could still retain any yearning for these tunes in your heart. You don't need to go further than the opening blast of 'Roadrunner'; nothing beats the hilarious Animals' version of the song, or the shiver-sending slowed-down Who rendition as captured on the Kids Are Alright soundtrack. The Pretty Things just sound like your ordinary drunk blooze band on it, 'sall. That said, I find their approach to the material and the resulting listening experience far more endurable and tolerable than, say, the Kinks' approach. While the record hardly displays a lot of professionalism or a lot of authenticity, it at least displays some true sincerity. It's quite easy to give in to the material, stomp your feet and clamp your feet along - these guys mean what they're playing, whereas the Kinks and certain lesser bands were just playing their R'n'B because, well, they didn't have anything better to do at the time (Dave Davies always sounded like the only motivated guy in the band when it came to doing that stuff - if only he could sing at least!). Whether engaging in the standard chaotic guitar noisemaking on 'Roadrunner', playing up a storm on the fast boogie version of Chuck Berry's 'Oh Baby Doll', or playing pretty tasty harmonica on the slow blues version of Chuck Berry's 'Don't Lie To Me', the Pretty Things show that this is their true meaning of life. So, if you're truly desperate, why should you care that the Animals sing and play better on 'Roadrunner', or that the fast version of Chuck Berry's 'Don't Lie To Me' is always superior to the slow one, or that the guitar solo on 'Baby Doll' winds up just a wee bit less frantic and exciting than any given Keith Richards solo on the same kind of material? So they're not yet fully competent, but they're going to be fully competent anyway. And so, I eagerly give them their 'credit of faith' and quietly groove along. Hard to define the higlights, even - for me, these are probably their take on 'Got Love If You Want It' (shamefully renamed '13, Chester Street' and credited to the Things themselves - heh!), faster rave-ups like 'Oh Baby Doll' and 'Big Boss Man', and their "band anthem" - an adaptation of Bo Diddley's 'Pretty Thing' that makes its point over a glorious one minute and thirty-eight seconds. Oh, the single 'Don't Bring Me Down' is pretty energetic, too, and one of the few songs when May's voice doesn't crack me up at all. Maybe one more thing in the band's defense is how they are for the most part choosing rather obscure tracks to cover (or re-write) instead of the obvious choices. No 'Sweet Little Sixteen' or 'Who Do You Love' on here: apart from 'Roadrunner', most of these Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry tunes will only be familiar to the real pros. The drawback is that when all those Fifties' artists wrote "lesser" material, it always ended up as re-writes or re-arrangements of their "better known" material, so it's not like the melodies are exactly a million light years away from 'Sweet Little Sixteen' or 'Who Do You Love'. But I suppose that credit must be given where there's room for credit, and the Pretty Things, after the mediocre playing, singing, production, and inspiration have been discarded, still have a little bit of that left. And for the record, The Pretty Things still blows away nearly everything Manfred "R'n'B Murderer" Mann regurgitated during that time period.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1965
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11
Now some of this really rocks - but what's up with all the inane R'n'B stuff, I wonder.Best song: BUZZ THE JERK
Track listing: 1) You Don't Believe Me; 2) Buzz The Jerk; 3) Get The Picture?; 4) Can't Stand The Pain; 5) Rainin' In My Heart; 6) We'll Play House; 7) You'll Never Do It Baby; 8) I Had A Dream; 9) I Want Your Love; 10) London Town; 11) Cry To Me; 12) Gonna Find Me A Substitute; [BONUS TRACKS:] 13) Get A Buzz; 14) Sittin' All Alone; 15) Midnight To Six Man; 16) Me Needing You; 17) Come See Me; 18) L.S.D.
The debut album hardly ever lives up to the Pretties' "wilder than the wild" image, but the sophomore effort (provided you can really call it 'sophomore', seeing as how both were released within the same year) is about as close as they ever got to really letting us "get the picture". And considering that the band's official caveman, Viv Prince, got kicked out of the band for, er, inefficiency-related stuff almost immediately upon the album's release, it can be argued that you're not gonna get anything wilder and more brutal from this band, ever. Besides, it wouldn't be too long before the wave of artsiness would hit the British Isles, too - you could say the latter half of 1966 and the entirety of 1967 were about as alien to brutality as 1965 was akin to it.So what's the big deal? First, the Pretties gain more confidence as songwriters; almost all of the first side of the album is self-penned, mostly by the May/Taylor team, with occasional help from outside songwriters. Nothing earth-rattling in particular, but it's better early than late, you know. Second, the sound is refined to the extent that it's no longer possible to make direct Stones comparisons - they have really veered off in a different direction, placing their bets on the crudeness, spontaneity, and sexual brutality of uncombed garage rock rather than on the dark sneering subtlety of Jagger and co. Which works very much to their advantage - with musicianship dragging considerably behind the Stones' level (yeah yeah now sue me for libel if you dare), it's only natural that they're gonna pretend they don't really need it in the first place. And I like everything natural, me. Thus Get The Picture? (not forgetting the question mark - essential to the proper understanding of the album, and just about the rough equivalent of a heavy punch in yer muzzle) is an essential document of its epoch, and, the way I perceive it, quite enjoyable today as well, especially if you get the proper CD issue that slaps on six bonus tracks, stemming from the band's contemporary EPs as well as an early '66 single ('Come See Me'). Some of it's so daring, in fact, that it looks almost scaringly before its time - very few bands, I suppose, would have the audacity to use titles like 'Buzz The Jerk' back in those days, and the musical backing for it, with cruel fuzz rhythm, minimalistic proto-metal bass, and stern, uncompromising lead guitar, totally lives up to its name, not to mention May's hooligan-on-the-corner delivery. It's not a very fast song, but it's, like, the quintessential British garage rocker of the day. The word 'buzz', so popular with the band for reasons one might guess about, also reappears in the four-minute blues-rock jam 'Get A Buzz', a song that breaks the three minute level with one and only one purpose: to show how there should be no limits to true genuine toughness in this world. With every new harmonica or guitar solo, the heat level goes up a few notches, and only when the fuzz is so intense that it's obviously impossible to go any further do they allow themselves to stop. They're not looking for interesting new patterns or concocting clever, logically constructed solos, or subtly inviting you to hum along with the tune - it's all about pure, raffinated headbanging. Of course, you still can't dub them the AC/DC of their day, because there's only so much headbanging that even these wild guys are allowing themselves. And that's where the going gets back to square: there is still way, way too much boring, useless R'n'B rubbish involved. And every time there's R'n'B involved, the band has no choice but to try and get by on the strength of May's vocal stylings, and May's got no vocal stylings at all. Okay, I said I wouldn't involve the Stones in it any further, but I'll break my promise just one last time because I can't help it - after all, the Pretty Things released their version of 'Cry To Me' just months after the Stones' one, and if a comparison ain't in order here, I don't know where it is. In any case, regardless of how well Solomon Burke did the original, Jagger's version towers like a monster over Phil May's one - where Mick gives out a whole vocal journey, going from tender to aggressive and intimate to hysterical (and Keith - or maybe Brian - cleverly follows him everywhere), May just... sings. Like any average dude on the street with half a voice. 'Sall. Dull. Not much better - in fact, a little worse - are tepid versions of 'Rainin' In My Heart' (where Phil tries to stick a little closer to Jagger-style, with no success at all) and Jimmy Witherspoon's 'I Had A Dream', only enlivened a bit by Taylor's "weeping" slide solo. To tell the truth, I am a little puzzled about the motives that forced the boys to release this perfunctory, instantly-trashable product - heck, it's not like anybody's forcing you to self-pen all of your material, but at least you can concentrate on covering, I dunno, Chuck Berry or Gene Vincent, if that's what you do best. Imagine that - 'Be-Bop-A-Lula' in the hands of the Pretty Things. Priceless! But, alas, non-existent, unless there's more surprises to the band's discography than I'm aware of. One and only one curio-type thing that stands in between the band's predictable, but wildly entertaining brand of rock and predictable and yawn-inducing brand of soul is an original composition called 'Can't Stand The Pain'. Opening with an imaginative folksy "spllloing..." type of dreamy guitar lick that was later given a more polished look by the Doors in 'End Of The Night', it's... well, it's hard to pigeonhole it, it's sort of a proto-artsy, semi-psychedelic rocker, full of unusual stop-and-starts and dense, dark, brooding vocals. I'm not head over heels with it - a bit too scattered and unfocused for my taste, with the balance between subtle and furious not figured out perfectly - but it's certainly an important milestone in the band's catalog, and the only hint at a band that would later embrace psychedelia and art with such an unexpected verve on Emotions and S. F. Sorrow. The other rockers mostly qualify - the provocative, angry title track ('I ain't gonna quitcha / Get the picture?' qualifies as the album's most instantaneously memorable dumb line), the intense rave-up of 'We'll Play House' (with Phil actually doing an impressive James Brown impersonation for once), the quirky, clever melodic lines of 'You'll Never Do It Baby' (although I do like the Boots' version, which can be found on Nuggets II, somewhat better), it's all good. Better than all of them, though, is the '66 single 'Come See Me', which is sort of a proto-heavy-metal rewrite of 'Can I Get A Witness' - they really go overboard with the fuzz and feedback on that one, especially in the mighty bass opening. Many a kid of the day must have been blown out of the window by the sheer force of those first notes. Funny that the band's heaviest track up-to-date would also turn out to be one of their very last truly heavy tracks. The bonus tracks are also famous for including the well-known single 'Midnight To Six Man' - a decent raver, also included on Nuggets II - and the world's most blatantly unconcealed ode to drug use (up to that point, at least), directly titled 'L.S.D' - although the first letter is disguised as the pound symbol, so that you can interpret the whole song, tee hee hee, as a rave about libra solidus denarius, very, very clever. 'Yes I need LSD' - yep, whoever heard of somebody not needing LSD if the somebody's in question place of residence is the UK? Double entendres? Nah, I don't get you. Consequently, if you weed out the irksome R'n'B fluff and replace it with the provocative LSD stuff of the bonus tracks, what you get is a dang fine album all along, even if the songwriting still had a lot of catching up to do and Viv Prince's drumming is not always on par (probably had his mind all set on New Zealand fire engines at the time this was recorded - read any of the band's biographies to see how the guy was even more of a nutcase than Keith Moon in those days). And speaking of wild, this CD release of Get The Picture? is even CD-ROM-compatible, coming with a video clip of an excerpt from a Pretties' live performance in some London club or other. Unfortunately, the damn CD I happen to have wasn't able to read the .mov file, so I can't actually tell you if the video is worthwhile or not. Judging by people's descriptions of the band's habits, though, I suspect it should be.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1967Record rating = 9
The Pretties' Brit-pop masterpiece. Multiply the Kinks by the Stones plus throw in an orchestra... not bad, really.Best song: THE SUN
Track listing: 1) Death Of A Socialite; 2) Children; 3) The Sun; 4) There Will Never Be Another Day; 5) House Of Ten; 6) Out In The Night; 7) One Long Glance; 8) Growing In My Mind; 9) Photographer; 10) Bright Lights Of The City; 11) Tripping; 12) My Time; [BONUS TRACKS:] 13) A House In The Country; 14) Progress; 15) Photographer; 16) There Will Never Be Another Day; 17) My Time; 18) The Sun; 19) Progress.
For whatever reason, the Pretties missed 1966 as an album to further instigate their creativity. But in 1967 they emerged totally transformed - good lads, they probably knew they would be blamed for blindly following the fashion of the day, but it was worse for them to stagnate in the old R'n'B image that had already been milked to the extreme. And so we have Emotions, essentially a Sixties pop album with the band's image radically transmutated. Occasionally, there are still some blasts of the raw energy of yore, and at times, gritty feedback explosions will make you recoil in terror niftier than on any Hendrix record (the ferocious coda to 'One Long Glance'), but generally, this is just mild, mild and mild. Which is good: now that the Pretties rely more on melody than on tight R'n'B interplay, they are able to hide their obvious weaknesses and expose their strong side - the composing talents of Waller, May and Taylor. Besides, Phil May sounds SO much better on soft pop numbers, when he's not trying to imitate Jagger, that I wonder if the man actually took the decision to change his style after listening to one of his early records for the first time...Anyway, the approach the band takes on Emotions is fully in accordance with the direction some of the more 'progressive' R'n'B bands of yesterday were taking. The Stones were firmly embedded in Brit-pop by 1967; so were the Kinks, and the Pretty Things scratched their backs and followed suite. The general idea of making pop songs is, as usual, ripped off of the Stones; you will find numerous Stones references all over the place, with rhythms, vocal harmony arrangements and occasional instrumental stylizations all reminding of albums like Flowers. However, the Kinks arrive as a major influence here as well, a direct influence at that, not in the Stones' interpretation of the Kinks' ideas (this all sounds pretty convoluted, I know, but heck, whaddaya want? The Sixties were a mess, a melting pot the likes of which the rock scene has never seen since). And it's not just because the bonus tracks to the album include the band's failed single, a cover version of the Kinks' 'House In The Country' - it's a good cover, but hardly essential. It's because the album is full of soft, sad, philosophic ramblings on social topics - heck, the opening track is called 'Death Of A Socialite', and that certainly should remind you of 'Death Of A Clown', at least. 'House Of Ten' also sounds uncannily like it could fit easily onto Something Else; just substitute May's vocals for Ray Davies and you have a patented Kinks' social portrait for you. Add some other stuff like 'Photographer' or 'Bright Lights Of The City', and... ...but don't get me wrong: it's not a full rip-off. It's pretty similar to Love's Forever Changes - a formerly derivative and insecure band finally finds some niche it can expand upon, all the seams showing and all the influences glaring, but at the same time, adding up a necessary drop of individual personality to make things interesting. (Don't forget that this approach eventually led to S. F. Sorrow, an album whose uniqueness would be hard to challenge). Here, the individuality is very much supported by a clever use of orchestration and a brass section; some actually complain about the extra instruments not fitting in and 'dating' the album or something, but whoever claims this (and yeah, I'm talking to ya All-Music Guide!) probably just does so in order to put forward some 'insightful critique'. What we have: "mid-Sixties album with an orchestra". Question: "Is this a Beatles album?" Answer: "It is not". Logical conclusion: "Then it sucks". Yeah, I'm aware that the band themselves weren't too satisfied with the result seeing as how the producers actually tacked on the strings and brass without the lads knowing it, but who really cares. Some think Phil Spector ruined 'The Long And Winding Road', too. Figures. Well, know something about the orchestration here? It doesn't suck. And the bonus tracks tacked onto the end, raw demo versions without orchestral arrangements, prove that. Would 'The Sun' turn out to be such a gorgeous ballad had it not been based on the majestic strings melody? It sounds so dang bare without the strings - still nice, but there's already lacking something. It's truly beautiful, with a breathtaking vocal climax that sure screams for a better voice than May's, but then again, you can get used to it. This song alone bears the important function of actually convincing the listener that yes, the Pretty Things can sound authentic when doing mild psychedelic pop, and not just authentic - positively enchanting. I, for one, shiver whenever I hear that song, there's just something, eh, creepy about it. 'Nuff said. Now then, it's not like these guys had matured into perfect songwriters in a blink of an eye. To tell you the truth, 'The Sun' might just be the only perfect song on the album. That doesn't mean the rest aren't good or interesting, though. Stuff like 'Photographer' or particularly 'Tripping', with its marvelous slide guitar parts and Phil's funny 't-t-t-t-t-t-ripping' stutter, is quite catchy and involving. 'House Of Ten', to me, sounds like the 'minor' stuff on Something Else - not particularly memorable, but atmospheric and moving. Then there's the experimental side of the band. It shines forward on songs like 'Bright Lights Of The City', which gives the impression of an introspective-misanthropic rant more than an actual song, maybe due to the fact that May's vocals are uncannily pushed forward into the mix; obviously, with the intent of every listener clearly making out the words, including lines like 'the sins of the fathers must fall on the children, and they should be seen and not heard'. Quite Stones-influenced as well, yet pretty weird at that. And then, of course, the loudest song on the album, the blazing 'One Long Glance', which is again built as a Stonesish pop number (check out the vocal harmonies and compare them with some of the Stones' harmonies on Between The Buttons, if you don't believe me), but also incorporates some really dirty guitar lines and ends in this grumbly grumbly bunch of psychedelic noise, with Taylor's guitar sound growing from a naggin' feedbacky whine to all-out electric roar a la Jimi. That's classic. Bonus tracks on the CD edition, as I already said, include orchestra-stripped versions of some of the songs (an interesting, but not necessarily amazing) idea, plus the band's take on 'House In The Country' and another catchy B-side called 'Progress'. Altogether, that comes out to form a somewhat spotty and inconsistent release, but none of the tracks are horrible, and 'The Sun' alone is worth your purchasing the album. It's nowhere near close to most 1967 masterpieces in terms of innovativeness, but as simply a collection of seriously influenced pop/psycho numbers, it should be right up there with Forever Changes, at least. Drastically underrated and slandered, not a masterpiece but a perfectly solid piece of work.
READER COMMENTS SECTION
Year Of Release: 1968
Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 12
The first rock opera ever. Hope the 13th Floor Elevators or somebody didn't beat them to it, or I'll really be flunked.Best song: TRUST
Track listing: 1) S. F. Sorrow Is Born; 2) Bracelets Of Fingers; 3) She Says Good Morning; 4) Private Sorrow; 5) Balloon Is Burning; 6) Death; 7) Baron Saturday; 8) The Journey; 9) I See You; 10) Well Of Destiny; 11) Trust; 12) Old Man Going; 13) Loneliest Person; [BONUS TRACKS:] 14) Defecting Grey; 15) Mr Evasion; 16) Talkin' About The Good Times; 17) Walking Through My Dreams.
I'm not getting into the discussion over whether S. F. Sorrow kicks the shit out of Tommy or whether Tommy bashes the chitlins out of S. F. Sorrow. It's clear that, since S. F. Sorrow came out first, Townshend was heavily influenced by the storyline and the concept in general; however, if you hear misguided rants about how S. F. Sorrow has no pretentions and no bombast as opposed to Pete's overbloated project, don't you go around believing it - this is an equally mystical and convoluted tale, with a plot that's even harder to guess, especially if you haven't read the story it is supposed to accompany, and while the subject matter of Sorrow is a wee bit more grounded (after all, the protagonist does have to deal with a lot of ordinary life problems before having his magical dream about Baron Saturday), the overall message is even less clear than that of Tommy. And that's all I'm gonna say. Draw your conclusions yourself after you've heard this.But one thing's for certain - hear this you must, as it's undoubtedly the Great Lost Psychedelic album of the Sixties. The Pretties are really one unjustly forgotten band: having achieved no success with their gritty blend of R'n'B and having effectively reinvented themselves as one of swinging London's coolest psycho outfits, they achieved even less success. R'n'B fans naturally thought they were betrayed, and as for the new breed of hippies and loony Tolkienists, they didn't want no aliens, being perfectly happy when entertained by the likes of Barrett's Pink Floyd, Marc Bolan and the Soft Machine. As a result, S. F. Sorrow bypassed the public eye completely, and it's a shame. It's not even that the album has a great load of melodies. It doesn't; none of the band members were perfect songwriters, and there ain't a single instantly memorable riff or a single absolutely smashing vocal melody on the record. It's the incredible, exciting atmosphere that one just has to soak in. To a certain extent, S. F. Sorrow takes a little bit of everything Britain was living on at the time: pop, psychedelia, hard rock, magic and mystery, illusions and naiveness, beauty and ugliness, whatever. In these songs I can feel everything that the Pretties were raised on - Beatlesque harmonies, Rolling Stones grittiness, Kinks humbleness, Hendrix guitars, and early Pink Floyd schizophrenia, and, what's more, lots of things that would follow on. Seems like the Who weren't the only band who got their clue from this record. Listen to the flute rhythms in 'Private Sorrow' and tell me this doesn't sound like vintage Jethro Tull. Listen to the aethereal chantings in 'Trust' and tell me Peter Gabriel didn't rip this off for a section in 'Supper's Ready'. Listen to 'Balloon Is Burning' and tell me this doesn't predict the chaotic jams of Yes. Listen to the 'love love love' chants on 'Bracelets Of Fingers' and tell me this doesn't render Freddie Mercury superfluous. Come on, you tell me all this and I'll just reply that you're not able to build up a solid historic perspective. :) Anyway, in case you're just an unexperienced reader who doesn't know what the hell I'm talking about, here's the rub. S. F. Sorrow is a rock opera (concept album, whatever - one can make some nitpicks and say that since there are no clear differentiations between singer parties it ain't no opera, but well, that's just a nitpick), based on a short story by some author whose name I have forgotten. It tells about a guy named S. F. Sorrow who is very lonely all his life, has an unhappy romance, joins the army, ends up in America, gets disillusioned in life and then dreams of a certain Baron Saturday who leads him away to the Moon, which he used to dream of when he was a child, and shows him his true self. It all ends up rather sadly, with S. F. Sorrow just getting further disillusioned and spending the last days of his life in isolation and misery. In other words, Ray Davies (the 'little man' line) meets Pete Townshend (the 'mystery' line). But to hell with the story. Like I said, it's just great fun to take this as a whole without bothering too much about the concept. A couple of the tracks are nothing more than dated psychedelic collages ('Well Of Destiny'), and a couple are rather primitive pop songs with rudimentary melodies ('She Says Good Mornings'), but every now and then the band falls upon a deep and rich psychedelic gold mine which, combined with their existent pop instincts, provides you with everything that, for instance, Syd Barrett could never provide you with. 'Bracelets Of Fingers', where S. F. Sorrow dreams of the moon, starts with some breathtaking accappella lines and goes from a heavenly chant to a wah-wah-driven rocker to a sitar-embellished mantra. 'Private Sorrow', as I already said, predicts Jethro Tull: the main melody, represented by a war march accompanied by a Celtic-sounding flute, is perhaps the most memorable moment on the album, and it brings such images to my mind as Tull rarely can - armies marching high up in the cold mountains, under a gray sky... wow, sorry for the lyrics. 'Death' is gloomy, dreary and sends shivers down your back. 'I See You' could threaten to conquer the world in its pomposity, if only 'hallucinogenous' didn't squeeze out from all of its openings. And 'Trust' is gorgeous beyond words, simply gorgeous beyond words. It's songs like that that really give 'psychedelic' a good name, apart from all the Beatles stuff, of course. Are you listening? Notice how the echo reprises everything Phil May chants out in that calm, awesome voice of his, too. To diversify the picture, the band rocks out in a couple of places, notably on the shrill, frantic 'Baron Saturday' and the grizzly 'Old Man Going', and they certainly haven't lost any of the roughness of the early R'n'B days. But it's not the rocking out that really makes the record, no. If you want to summarize the Pretty Things at that stage of their career with just one phrase, it would be something like this: "The Pretty Things weren't the only band to go psychedelic after the Beatles showed the way, but they were the only band that were able to expand the theme of 'Tomorrow Never Knows' over the length of an entire album and get away with it'. 'Nuff said. And don't forget to grab the re-issue, too: it adds four excellent bonus tracks, taken off the Pretties' psychedelic singles. 'Defecting Grey' in particular is a classic, one of the definining singles of its era: a multi-part psychedelic 'mini-suite' glued together from many pieces ranging from lightweight shuffles to backward sitar gimmicks to astral collages to heavy guitar freakouts. The others are no slouch, either.
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Year Of Release: 1974
Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 11
Strangely seductive, and no, I'm not talking of the album cover (although that, too!).Best song: DREAM/JOEY. Or BELFAST COWBOYS!
Track listing: 1) Dream/Joey; 2) Maybe You Tried; 3) Atlanta; 4) L.A.N.T.A.; 5) Is It Only Love; 6) Come Home Mama; 7) Bridge Of God; 8) Singapoure Silk Torpedo; 9) Belfast Cowboys; [BONUS TRACKS]: 10) Singapoure Silk Torpedo (live); 11) Dream/Joey (live).
No, I'm not joking, it's a really good late period Pretty Things album. Hits right at the bullseye - without smashing the target to pieces, of course, but then again, what else is to be expected from an old rusty musket like the Pretty Things? Rolling Stone actually praised the record when it came out (last good thing that thing did? Possibly so!), but for the Things it was, of course, too late already; not being taken seriously with S. F. Sorrow, they could hardly be taken seriously with a derivative glam record thrown out at a time when glam was already on the wane, unless you count KISS, too.Silk Torpedo is the Pretties' last attempt to make an important statement, and let's admit it, it works. For one thing, the record is admirably well done; in terms of production, I could only compare it with Quadrophenia, so fine do they handle the "big sound" they're going for. The songs are never overshadowed with bombastic synth solos or lengthy guitar wankfests which the Things couldn't have handled anyway, although when they do solo, the solos are good (I forget the guitarist's name - by 1974, there was nobody left from the original lineup but Phil May anyway); the main bet is on tight band interplay and cleverly placed overdubs, and when they're at their best, the resulting wall-of-sound is pure big band perfection, especially considering the amount of really well-crafted riffs and melodic lines. Another miraculous point is that, despite the fact that this does fall under the "glam" territory, there's no "glitter-rock" for miles around: nobody is showing off, nobody is 'dazzling' the audience with outbursts of gluttonous machismo, nobody is 'shocking' anybody with cheap gimmicks, and still it all works. The lyrics aren't superb, but they're serious enough to be taken into account (on paper) and unintelligible enough not to be dismissed as pretentious tripe. And Phil May's vocal stylisms range from slight sarcasm (where needed) to mild drama (where needed) to classic boogie raunch (where needed!). Add to this the general memorability of the tunes, and you got nothing to complain about. There is no conceptual unity to the songs, but somehow the album still feels very well connected - there's a subtle theme of disillusionment and despair running through many of the songs (not an unusual subject for a band whose commercial luck had totally run out before even having a chance to start), and even the 'raunchier' numbers sometimes feel infested by that theme. 'Dream/Joey' opens the record on an excellent note, with its gloomy Freudian lyrics nicely matching the overall nervously-trotting tempo of the song - and each time that music hall memory of an organ riff breaks through the verses and starts carrying the song, I get a shivery feeling I usually only get from the very best Kinks songs of the Sixties. Well, maybe not quite like that, but you DO get what I'm hinting at. And three cheers to the band for that coda - I sure feel like I could listen to that magnificent riff for ages and ages, with Phil's paranoid 'Joey! Joey! Joey!' screams in the background and the unknown guitarist wailing away with a melodic, touching, and economic solo. Starting off the proceedings with one of the best numbers, they're somewhat obliged to end them with an equally strong conclusion, and I suppose 'Belfast Cowboys' does the job nicely. Don't be put off by the first minute and a half, when it might seem they're just pushing a super-boring mid-tempo rootsy number on us; the real kick is in the chorus, at that ONE exact moment when the song revs up and the band chants 'heeeeeeeeeey, Belfast cowboys, whatcha gonna do, where you gonna run?'. Call me crazy or subjective or whatever - that one line is worth sitting through the entire seven-minute song. There's just something in the way they do it that totally tips me over. A hint of a sarcastic sneer, a hint of compassion, a hint of mockery, a hint of criticism - it's easily the subtlest Ireland-politics-related song ever recorded, especially when opposed to Lennon's 'Luck Of The Irish (Is Certainly Worse Than My Own, Plus I'm Loved By All The Radicals In The World)' or whatever Messianistic messages U2 would be propagating almost a decade later, but also one of the best I've ever heard. There's also that little piano (or synth?) melody, a very minimalistic one, serving as the pompous coda to both the album and the song; don't miss it. In between we have our standard combo of ballads and rockers, none of them as stunning, but most of them quite satisfactory from my point of view - bear with that! 'Maybe You Tried' shows that The Pretty Things can do that fast funky groove and top it with a catchy chorus; 'Come Home Mama' is rollicking barroom boogie the way it's supposed to be, the way the Stones would do it on Exile... well, they actually did it with 'Rip This Joint', and it was even faster and more insane, but on the other hand, The Things don't do it so bluntly; and 'Singapoure Silk Torpedo' is their take on the "stupid cock-rocker" that actually starts with a pseudo-classical piano introduction and then plunges in a sea of battering-ram-capacity guitar overdubs and a chorus that David Bowie would die for (that's not the highest compliment I could give out, but if you do enjoy Aladdin Sane, you're bound to enjoy this, or my name ain't Engelbert Humperdinck!). As for the ballads, 'Atlanta' is cute and romantic, and I love the unexpected twist with which it runs straight into the Latin-tinged jammy coda ('L.A.N.T.A.'); and 'Is It Only Love' is grandiose in an almost Who-like way and you'll be singing its chorus for sure - for some reason, they really miss the possibility of sounding contrived and cheesy even if they had it in spades. Maybe it's because Phil May's voice is so rough and jarring he can't sound pretentious if his life depended on it, just like his elder brother Mick Jagger. The remastered CD edition also comes with two bonus tracks - live renditions of 'Singapoure Silk Torpedo' and 'Dream/Joey', both of which show that the Things could still kick major ass onstage, adding more distortion to their guitars to fully embrace the hard rock stylistics of the Seventies (the guitarist adds extra guitar solos in the 'Joey' coda, and they're good); both are decent additions to what is already a very decent buy. It's interesting to compare where the Pretty Things were in relation to the Stones in 1974: definitely more contrived and having lost quite a bit of the original "primal energy" which the Stones still had a lot of, but, at the same time, more daring and tastefully subtle when it actually came down to composing. Don't overlook this minor gem in their catalog.
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