The Pretty Things deserve a more prominent place in British rock-and-roll history than they seem to have won.
The band started with a bang — a raggedy, rowdy rhythm and blues that would do the Rolling Stones proud — and then grew musically as styles changed during the ’60s. At its best, the Pretty Things combined the irony of the Stones, the brashness of the Who and the swagger of the punk-rock movement that was to come years later, creating a sloppy, revved-up rock and roll that helped set the stage for much of what was to come later.
The Stones comparison is apt for two reasons: first, the band hailed from the same milieu as the Stones. They were a group of disaffected art students from a middle class upbringing that jumped into the same kind of grungy, rhythm and blues niche in which Jagger and the boys swam (PT lead guitarist Dick Taylor had played with Keith Richards in a pre-Stones band). Second, and perhaps more important, the Pretty Things were not interested in just trying to imitate American blues and soul, as some of their British cousins were doing. The Pretty Things attacked the blues and R&B, remaking it, altering it, making it theirs.
On songs like “Midnight to Six Man”, one of the band’s earliest attempts at songwriting, you can hear seeds of the American garage movement beginning to sprout, its chugging, Bo Diddley rhythm underscoring the sexual heat of the lyrics. (The song was covered last year on 61/49, a surprisingly charged, if overlooked, album by the Romantics.)
And like the Who, the band sought to expand its musical scope. The Pretty Things actually beat Pete Townshend and the Who to the punch, releasing SF Sorrow in 1968, acknowledged as the first rock opera.
The Shout! Factory collection Come See Me: The Very Best of The Pretty Things offers the band at its best, focusing on its earliest work but offering a sample of the later music, as well, placing the band within the context of British rock and offering more than a glimpse into a band that both reflected and helped define the arc that rock and roll would take over the course of the ten years between 1964 and 1974.
The disc opens with the Pretty Things’ electric early singles — “Rosalyn”, “Honey, I Need” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” — and a truly explosive “Road Runner.” These four songs embody what was best about the band at the time, a raw energy built on Taylor’s guitar and the crack drumming of Vivian St. John Prince. These are songs that easily stand beside the early Stones as among the best and most rocking songs recorded in England at the time.
Critic Alan Palao, in his very fine liner notes, describes these earliest recordings as “gritty, incredibly focused recordings of classic R&B items that fully retained the sonic crunch and clang of the group’s black inspirations”. The band’s “raw take on R&B fully adopted the implied mayhem that the genre offered”.
Come See Me, because of its focus on these early gems (more than half of the 25-song disc focuses on the three-year period between 1964 and 1966), can be an exhausting if exhilarating experience for the listener. Rave-up follows rave-up for much of the disc, with Dick Taylor’s lead guitar grinding and driving things ahead. Listening to these early songs one can hear the genesis of pre-punk bands like the Stooges and the New York Dolls and current rockers like the Strokes, Jet, and the Von Bondies.
But the focus on these early rockers takes nothing away from the later songs. The band was definitely of its time, moving from its R&B-influenced sound through an introspective and psychedelic period with echoes of the Kinks and the late-era Beatles into their early-1970s sound, which borrows from Mott the Hoople/David Bowie glam-rock (without the glam outfits).
“Death of a Socialite”, in particular, with its reliance on a quickly-strummed acoustic guitar and punchy horn section, seems a 180-degree turn from their earlier work. It is a dreamy, Kinks-like mood piece that hangs in the air after it fades from the speakers.
More radical — and explosive — is “Defecting Grey”, with its tape loop, audio-collage sound. The song moves from an almost pleasant lightness, jump cutting to hard-edged guitars to barroom group sing, slipping back and forth, a short-circuiting, synapse-firing piece of art rock that is as effective as anything to come out of England at the time.
Come See Me: The Very Best of the Pretty Things is a document of a time and place in rock-and-roll history that deserves a broad audience.