BRITISH BLUES ARCHIVE

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THE PRETTY THINGS

The Pretty Things - raucous bad boys who loved the blues and breaking things. Read the story written by our own Stevie King, who loved seeing them live but was too intimidated to clap

Formed: 1963

Disbanded: Not for long!

Resurrected: Many, many times!

Contribution to British Blues: First R&B band to chart with original compositions, first to realise the power of the rhythm section, and first to set foot into funk.

Which era: 1960's

Album to get: “The Pretty Things”

The song that is perhaps the best example of their work: “Don't Bring Me Down.”

Associated bands: Little Boy Blue & the Blue Boys, The Rolling Stones, Jerome & the Pretty Things, The Pretty Things/Yardbirds Blues Band.

Personnel: Dick Taylor, Phil May, Brian Pendleton, John Stax, Vivian Prince, Skip Alan, John Povey, Wally Waller and others.

Founded by an ex-Rolling Stone, The Pretty Things were so raucous and rebellious that they made the Stones seem sedate by comparison. Their hair was longer, their behaviour more outrageous, and their R&B rocked without a hint of restraint. But they were not to share the Stones' success, and after two classic albums they turned their backs on the Blues, to become pioneers of British Psychedelia and record the first “Rock Opera.”

Dartford lad Dick Taylor took his first steps towards becoming a Pretty Thing when he and schoolmate Mick (then Mike) Jagger teamed up with Sidcup Art College student Keith Richards to explore their mutual love of R&B. Along with fellow enthusiasts Bob Beckwith and Alan Etherington, they formed a band that they named Little Boy Blue & the Blue Boys , possibly after the DC comic characters created by Batman writer Bill Finger, or perhaps in reference to Sonny Boy Williamson II, Rice Miller, who in his early days toured the Delta under the name ‘Little Boy Blue.'

While the Blue Boys were rehearsing in Dick's front room, Brian Jones, then calling himself “Elmo Lewis” and playing slide guitar in the style of Elmore James, had paired up with mouth-organist Paul Pond, who later adopted Brian's surname to become Paul Jones, and sing for the group Manfred Mann. When Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated started their new London residency in March 1962 they attracted Blues devotees from far and wide, so it was no surprise that there should be Blue Boys in the audience when “Elmo & Paul” were bashing out their Blues at the Ealing Club. When Brian decided to put a band together, though Paul couldn't be persuaded to join, Keith Mick and Dick all passed the audition.

Before the year was out, Brian's band, now known as The Rolling Stones , took over Blues Incorporated's spot at the Marquee when Korner got his group its first BBC radio broadcast. Around this time, the line-up featured Mick and Keith with Brian on slide, Ian Stewart on piano, and future Kink Mick Avory on drums. Dick Taylor had been relegated to the bass position, and frustrated by the game of musical chairs happening at the drum stool (Tony Chapman, Carlo Little and Charlie Watts had all taken turns) he become sufficiently disillusioned to quit the band. Before the year was out he had returned to his studies at Art College, though he hadn't lost his interest in the Blues and R&B, and it wasn't long until he was sought out by another student Blues fan by the name of Phil May.

Taylor had been intending to continue his studies at the Royal College of Art, but was unable to secure a place, and finally succumbed to May's insistence that they should put a band together. Their first recruit was John Edward Lee Fulligan (rendered elsewhere as Fullagar) on bass. His playing was hard and powerful- Phil May once eloquently described his sound as “Black Bison bass strings driven by the hands of a demon butchers apprentice”- but the name was too much of a mouthful, so in deference to the new American record label that was producing so much hot R&B and Soul, he became John Stax. Rhythm guitarist Brian Pendleton came in reply to an advertisement, and Pete Ketley bought himself a drum kit to take his place on percussion, though it's a pity he didn't save his money, for in the space of a few gigs he was found wanting, and sacked.

The group decided to name themselves after Bo Diddley's cousin and sideman Jerome Green, and his song ‘Pretty Thing,' becoming Jerome and the Pretty Things , though the ‘Jerome' part didn't last much longer than Pete Kitley did, and soon The Pretty Things were out with new drummer Viv Andrews working the pubs, clubs, and art school dances. It was at one of these that the band was seen by Bryan Morrisey, who already managed The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (an unusual and somewhat surreal retro combo, imagine Salvador Dali meets The Temperance Seven.) He saw potential in the ‘Pretties' and, providing them with a road manager, added them to his roster.

At another such gig, this time at the Central School of Art, the group came to the attention of Jimmy Duncan, who worked for Fontana, a Philips subsidiary. The label was quite prepared to offer the band a contract, though they had one stringent requirement- the band had to have a new drummer, and Fontana already had one in mind. His name was Vivian Prince, and his credentials must've seemed sound enough. Though just 19 he was an experienced and inventive pro drummer who'd already worked with The Dauphin Street Six, and Carter Lewis and the Southerners. He'd played recording sessions alongside Jimmy Page, too, and record executives believed he would bring an air of professionalism and stability to the rather rough and unruly ‘Things.' Sadly, that spell was destined to work in the reverse.

But initially, Viv Prince was just what the Pretty Things needed. Musically, he bonded perfectly with Stax, creating a driving and forceful rhythm section of a like as yet unheard in British R&B, predating Entwhistle and Moon in The Who, or Redding and Mitchell in The Jimi Hendrix Experience. And in the words of Dick Taylor “he could play about twenty times better than the rest of us.” The new, improved Pretty Things soon found themselves working five nights a week, and Duncan honoured the deal, himself composing the A-Side for the boys' debut single, Rosalyn .

Kicking off with rhythm guitar and maracas, there's just one line before John Stax's huge, overdriven bass jumps in, to be joined a line later by Prince's pounding drums, and the whole thing settles into a hypnotic one-chord verse like Bo Diddley on amphetamines. On the chorus, May desperately pleads “do you really love me, Rosalyn?” repeatedly crying, “yeah, gotta know!” as Prince's fills become increasingly frantic, forcing the beat insistently onwards. The New Musical Express review read, “Not a great deal of melody, but ample enthusiasm, sparkle and drive.” On the B-side was a creditable cover of Jimmy Reed's Big Boss Man , with wailing harp in the background and Taylor's snappy guitar fills to the fore. Though it only reached No.41 in June 1964, this was the first time a British R&B group had released a home-grown composition as a debut single, and taken it into the charts. It would be another four months before The Animals brought out their own ‘I'm Crying' as their third single, and the Rolling Stones would issue five covers before ‘The Last Time' in March 1965.

A promotional spot on TV's Ready Steady Go brought the ‘Pretties' to the country's attention and much media mileage was made out of their long hair, wild appearance, and the group's tongue-in-cheek name. As Phil May told Beat Instrumental, “We know people don't like our hair, the way we behave or the way we dress. But we've got a big fan club and our money has gone up a lot for one-nighters and that's good enough for us." The band were certainly enjoying some success although their notoriety also had its drawbacks, as May noted: “One look at us and taxi drivers stick the hired sign up, and, as Dick says, restaurants always close down as soon as we walk in.”

Their next requirement was a follow-up single, again written especially for them, this time by Johnnie Dee, formerly vocalist with a band called The Bulldogs. Peppered with hip slang, Don't Bring Me Down expresses a young man's reluctance to change his lifestyle. Opening with harsh, clanging guitar, its stop-start rhythm, punctuated by handclaps and tambourine, breaks unexpectedly into pounding rock and roll, then just as suddenly changes back again. In the solo passage, Taylor delivers eight bars of knuckle-cracking speed and ear-damaging treble, while Stax's big fat bass riffs and drives along beneath. Unfortunately the line “I laid her on the ground” was considered too sexually provocative for the morals of the day and resulted in a ban in America.

It's very hard to find the original lyrics on the internet today, and you will more than likely be offered a song of the same name that Gerry Goffin and Carole King wrote for The Animals, or any number of incorrect translations claiming to be the definitive article. However, if he doesn't own “a pad just like a cave” where they have “a little rave,” then they're probably not genuine.' With a May/Stax/Taylor slow blues, We'll Be Together on the flip side, the single spent eleven weeks in the charts at the end of 1964, reaching No.10, and the band became bona fide pop stars, enjoying more TV exposure and making an eight-day tour of Scotland.

The group began 1965 with another original, Honey I Need , co-written by Dick Taylor. With an intro on a 12-string, the song soon settles into a thumping beat with heavy emphasis on the bass drum, Stax's bass booming around beneath the jangling rhythm and handclaps. With another speedy eight-bar solo from Taylor and a catchy, two-chord chorus, this novel mélange of folk, pop and R&B made No.13 in the top twenty. On the B-side was I Can Never Say , credited to the whole band. Beginning with a blast on the harmonica, the song features both guitarists strumming acoustics and Prince playing, uncharacteristically, with brushes, lending the whole piece the air of an impromptu busking session.

By now, The Pretty Things were ready for their first album, though Jack Baverstock, head of A&R, seemingly wasn't ready for the Pretty Things. “After 20 minutes,” recalls May, “he ran out of the studio and told 'em to get Bobby Graham on the phone, and said I'm not spending another minute with those animals." Graham, a session drummer who'd already played on ‘You Really Got Me' by the Kinks, wasn't intimidated by the loud and undisciplined ‘Pretties' and got great results. The LP kicks off with Bo Diddley's Roadrunner , covered with such extraordinary energy and vitality that it makes Bo's original seem almost staid. Prince's drumming is constantly busy, with fast, showy fills that propel the beat along and Stax's big warm bass keeps pace with him all the way. Maracas shake, harps vamp, and every element of R&B is thrown into the mix with reckless abandon, but to tremendous effect. The same treatment is meted out to Judgment Day , credited to manager Morrison, though the structure and lyrics would no doubt seem familiar to most Blues fans, and Stax's bass is pushed high in the mix on this lively shuffle.

13 Chester Street , described in the sleeve notes as “a light-hearted skit dedicated to the memory of this now famous house in which they once all lived” is in fact a weak one-chord workout on a thinly-disguised ‘Got Love If You Want It' with May offering his teenage listeners the reckless advice “even if you're under age, gonna love the same.” But Big City , written by Jimmy Duncan and Alan Klein, is a fine piece of straight-ahead, home-grown R&B which benefits from an uncomplicated guitar/bass/drums format and rocks along very nicely. Mama, Keep Your Big Mouth Shut is another Diddley cover, and the boys inject some unexpected teenage menace into Bo's song about family squabbles. The musical dynamics come down and build back up expertly, and full marks must go to Brian Pendleton for the unceasingly solid rhythm guitar that glues it all together.

Pendleton's playing is also the core component of She's Fine, She's Mine , the band's excellent re-invention of a raw, almost-unfinished track that Bo Diddley cut for Checker in 1955. The guitars lock riff and rhythm together so effortlessly that the effect becomes entirely mesmerizing, and Prince's ride cymbal combines with Taylor's tremoloed solo to lift the mood without destroying the hypnotic spell. This is undoubtedly one of the stand-out tracks on the album, which also contains an enjoyable version of Chuck Berry's Oh Baby Doll and the hit single Honey I Need . Though patchy in places, there are more hits than misses on The Pretty Things and the disc rose to No. 6 in the LP charts, consolidating the band's position as one of the premier British R&B groups.

For reasons best known to the band's management, The Pretty Things never toured the U.S.A. Their Don't Bring Me Down was banned there, but a garage band managed to have a regional hit with the song in Florida. And though manager Bryan Morrison confidently told Record Mirror 'It now looks fairly certain that they will visit the States early in the New Year,” that never came to pass. Certainly they had more than enough work to keep them busy, though they never failed to cause rifts and ructions wherever they went.

At home, their road manager was fined £25 for pulling a shotgun when the lads were menaced by local thugs at a gig in Trowbridge. Phil May was cut and bruised when he was pulled off stage by five girls in High Wycombe, and they were kicked out of their rented flat in Belgravia because of neighbours' complaints. On their first visit to Holland, where they had a large and dedicated following, there were uncontrollable riots during their appearance at the 1965 Blokker Festival, which was being shown on Dutch TV, and the broadcast was terminated when outraged citizens rang the station to complain. And there was worse was yet to come.

Meanwhile in July of the same year, they released their fourth single, and their first A-side cover, Solomon Burke's Cry To Me. Unfortunately the title had also been recently issued by The Rolling Stones on their album ‘Out Of Our Heads,' and though the Pretties version was closer in feel to the original, there was no doubting that Jagger's singing was more expressive than May's, whose vocals had always been at best idiosyncratic and highly stylised. It reached no higher than 28 in the U.K. charts and marked a turning point in the band's fortunes. The B-side, Get A Buzz , is a rough-and-ready affair with instruments coming in one at a time, trying to find their place in the sequence, until it settles into a twelve-bar with a fuzzy lead guitar and droning harmonica. And in its raw simplicity lay a template for much of the next album.

When the band embarked on a tour of New Zealand, Prince's relations with the rest of the group became increasingly strained by his drunken antics, which included carrying a dead crayfish around for days, and breaking into the dressing room with an axe after they'd locked him out. The press took the opportunity to savage them, claming the band drank whiskey at the New Plymouth Opera House, broke chairs, lit fires backstage, abused officials, and ruined heartthrob Eden Kane's stage act. The New Plymouth Daily News defended the band, saying “theirs was R&B at its raving best. Electric excitement, and an original stage style, plus good R&B drumming.” But too much damage had already been done, and when Prince was thrown off their flight home for disorderly behaviour, his days as a Pretty Thing were numbered. Rather than bring stability to the band, he'd proved himself to be the most unstable of them all. As May later put it, "we were sort of novice lunatics, but suddenly they hand us, like, the high priest of lunacy." As a result, the band received a lifetime ban from New Zealand.

Nothing was heard of Prince for weeks, and when the rest of the band returned home they had dates to play, and recording sessions booked. They called on the services of a number of drummers, including Bobby Graham, Mitch Mitchell, and John Alder (a.k.a. Twink) of Tomorrow, at that time John Stax's flat-mate, and later to join the Pretties on the seminal British Psychedelia album S.F.Sorrow . Also involved was 17-year-old Alan Ernest Skipper, now better known as Skip Alan, who was to become the group's longest-serving drummer in their post-R&B phase. Though it's hard to know exactly who played what, when, it's suggested that Prince still did his fair share of the drumming on their second LP, Get The Picture? and his photo appeared on the cover.

Starting with jangly guitar and sounding like a hybrid creation of Phil Spector and P.F.Sloan, You Don't Believe Me is fairly forgettable pop, co-written by session guitarist Jimmy Page. But it's the second track, Buzz The Jerk , that packs the bigger punch. Harsh fuzz guitar ushers in a big, hard, two-note bass and a stabbing rhythm that's taut and sparse. Though you'd now find it classified as ‘mod' or ‘freakbeat,' in essence it's tough, edgy funk- Soul played not by a big band with a horn section, but by a small guitar combo. Though it's not even two minutes long, it hits a mighty groove, and is undeniably one of the album's high points.

So, too, is Can't Stand The Pain , starting with reverb-drenched guitar over melancholy chords that build to an insistent rhythm, pulling bass and drums in behind them. May wails “on my mind, it's on my soul, I feel lost, out of control,” and the chorus repeatedly replies, “can't stand no pain,” before the beat breaks down and starts over. Moody and atmospheric, the track features some fine, controlled lead work from Taylor, and rates as one of the band's most imaginative offerings. You'll Never Do It Babe, written by half of the contemporary Bo Diddley-inspired group Cops & Robbers, pits a staccato riff against some fluid and inventive drum fills, sounding typical of Prince's work. The song makes use of the ‘stop-start' style the Pretties used with such good effect in Don't Bring Me Down , and the rhythm section rocks away nicely behind Taylor's bright, clean solos.

London Town centres round acoustic guitar and bongos, giving it a folksy feel, while busy drumming drives the beat along and Taylor's lead picks through heavy reverb. The composing credits go to Taylor, but this appears to be the same song that was recorded by folk singer Donovan Leitch and credited to Tim Hardin. The album closes with I'm Gonna Find Me A Substitute , which comes in with a deliciously fuzzy bass and fast, furious, forceful drums. May squeals and wails his hoarse tale of looking for a new love, “it might be her, or even you,” and Taylor delivers one of his clanging 8-bar breaks before the track fades out to a totally unrestrained bass & drums workout, a truly glorious noise unlike anything heard before in British R&B.

According to history, Get The Picture? was released in December 1965, less than a year after their debut album, although according to Morrison's sleeve notes it was eighteen months since The Pretty Things , and it's now too long ago for me to know for sure. But by the time it was in the shops Vivian Prince had already left the band, to be replaced by Skip Alan, and the group began work on their next single, the ambitious May/Taylor composition Midnight To Six Man . After a sudden flurry of drums, Taylor crashes out power chords worthy of Pete Townsend, and is joined by the instantly-recognisable tinkling of ex-Savage Nicky Hopkins' piano. The big sound is swelled out further by the warm Hammond of Margo Lewis, organist with all-girl group Goldie & The Gingerbreads, helping to bring an American Garage feel to the hard-edged R&B. The song tells of the hip London youth, sleeping through the day and clubbing all night, “checkin' some sounds, maybe we'll score,” that were part of the band's own scene. The release paired it with Can't Stand The Pain, from the second album. However, despite encouraging reviews in the music press, the single only rated one week in the Top 50 at No.46.

The group's next project was a 14-minute movie, which began with the titles over Me Needing You , then featured the band in the studio, apparently recording Midnight To Six Man in one take (rather than the 16 hours the A-side's session allegedly lasted.) There followed a Beatlesque chase sequence set to a re-edited version of Can't Stand The Pain , and finally the group ‘playing' the studio-recorded version of £SD ‘live' at the 100 Club. The four tracks were released as an EP (extended play 45rpm) but the movie didn't receive a great deal of exposure, and Brian Pendleton later claimed to have been very disappointed as making it had cost the band, and not their management, a lot of money.

Appropriately, £SD , a riff-driven song about money (but with the timely suggestion that it could be referring to the popular hallucinogenic) was re-released as the B-side to their next single, the rousing Come See Me . The Pretties had already been showing their Soul credentials with Buzz The Jerk and Cry To Me , and this track reinvents American Soul singer J.J.Jackson's composition, setting it to the same stomping beat at Solomon Burke's ‘Everybody Needs Somebody.' Featuring the biggest, baddest bass yet from John Stax and the dirtiest, fuzziest guitar from Dick Taylor, augmented again by keyboards, the sound is absolutely immense and brimming with energy as May trades the line “I'm your man” back and forth with the vocal chorus. Sadly these 2½ minutes of bliss were largely ignored by the record-buying public and it scraped into the charts at No.43.

Their best efforts having met with failure, the band went through changes in line-up and style. Pendleton left and was initially not replaced. The band owed Fontana one more LP under their contract and drifted away from their R&B style to concentrate on self-penned material. John Stax left during the making of the album and the band was completed by the addition of John Povey and Wally Allen, a.k.a. Wally Waller, from Bern Elliot's old band The Fenmen. The ensuing product, Emotions , was a source of much contention with the group, as producer Steve Rowland added Reg Tilsley's brass and string arrangements without consultation. Very rarely the embellishments add to the songs and in most cases actively detract from them, and the album is generally weaker than its predecessors.

However, it did help May and Taylor to hone their songwriting, and the new line-up with keyboards and other voices afforded the band much more musical scope. With a little help from ‘Twink' they went on to record the now-seminal piece of British Psychedelia S.F.Sorrow for E.M.I. at Abbey Road with Norman Smith, a ‘rock opera' that predates The Who's more famous ‘Tommy' and is a dramatic work of power and imagination even if far-removed from the Blues, R&B and Soul that gave the band its beginnings.

I remember seeing the band at the Chelmsford Corn Exchange in the period between Emotions and S.F.Sorrow , and their musical performance was excellent, but sadly the Corn Exchange, which had only a year or so before presented The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Pink Floyd, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and many other progressive acts had, by the time the Pretties arrived, become the haunt of all the Essex Soul Boys. After the first few numbers, my long-haired friends and I were too intimidated to remain the only five people in the place applauding, so the band played on to deafening silence.

I saw them again at the Roundhouse when they were signed to Swan Song and promoting the Silk Torpedo album, and they were astonishingly good. There seemed to be keyboard players and guitarists everywhere, but the sound was exactly like the record only a few hundred decibels louder, and every aspect of the performance seemed faultless. The encore of Old Man Going made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up for minutes on end. When the 1980's Pretties promoted their excellent, punky Crosstalk album I saw them at the Sir George Robey in Finsbury Park, and the album material was tight as a duck's behind, though we were treated to some looser R&B towards the end, and Dick Taylor remains the only guitarist I've ever heard to play Blues solos through an Octivider. So in spite of their reputation for being undisciplined and unmanageable, they were obviously able to deliver the goods when it counted.

Now it would seem our story ought to end here, as The Pretty Things went on with their life as a Rock Band, with many albums, many line-up changes, much critical acclaim and seemingly a fairly limited amount of success. But in late 1990 May and Taylor reformed the band with new musicians, and went back to their Blues roots for a European Tour with Stan Webb's Chicken Shack and Luther Allison. And in 1991 the duo teamed up in Chicago with ex-Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty and Canned Heat bassist Richard Hite as The Pretty Things/Yardbirds Blues Band to record two albums for George Paulus, The Chicago Blues Tapes '91 and Wine Women & Whiskey . These albums feature Phil and Dick going right back to where they started from and powering their way through a selection of classic Blues titles from Bo Diddley, Howlin' Wolf, Slim Harpo, Jimmy Reed and many others, to their very obvious enjoyment. May's voice benefits from his maturity, displaying a much greater range and control, and the recordings are well worth a listen.

Even when I saw the re-reformed Pretty Things perform the entire of S.F.Sorrow live at the South Bank years later- another fine performance, aided by David Gilmour and beautifully narrated by Arthur Brown- we were still treated to an encore of Roadrunner . So it seems whatever they do, as long as May and Taylor are together, there's bound to be some evidence of the band's R&B roots. I sincerely hope that continues.

©Stevie King 2012

 

 

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