What to buy first when you’re acclimating yourself to the most underrated discography from The British Invasion era
The Pretty Things’ catalog of music isn’t particularly large or daunting, comprised of a mere dozen studio albums released over the course of 50 years.
The various eras spanned by the band’s work could give the uninitiated pause, however, ranging from the PTs’ mid-‘60s British R&B romps and the unbridled psych-rock of 1968’s S.F. Sorrow to the hard rock ‘70s when the band was signed to Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records label, and beyond into the 21st century. To follow is a “buying guide,” of sorts, to the best that the Pretty Things have to offer from across the band’s storied half-century of music. Many thanks to longtime PTs members Phil May (vocals); Dick Taylor, Pete Tolson, and Frank Holland (guitars); Wally Waller and John Stax (bass); Jon Povey (keyboards); and Skip Alan (drums) for all the great music!
Note that I haven’t included any live albums in the guide – there wasn’t really a “legit” live set released during the band’s heyday (1965-1980), the first (of sorts) being 1998’s Resurrection, recorded live in the studio with guest David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. If I had to recommend a couple of live discs for the still-hungry new PTs fan, I’d go with Live at Rockpalast (which features German TV appearances from 1998, 2004, and 2007) and Live at the BBC (which offers British TV appearances from the 1960s and ‘70s) as well as The Final Bow, of course…
The Pretty Things (1965)
A notch above contemporaries like the Rolling Stones or the Beatles in their status as England’s premiere R&B outfit, the Pretty Things’ self-titled debut was a rockin’ collection that relied heavily on American blues standards by folks like Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon, and Tampa Red. Even when the band cranked out an original like the hit “Honey, I Need” or “13 Chester Street,” they dressed it up in their best Chicago blues garb and played like they were auditioning for Chess Records. As was the trend at the time, the U.K. version of the album differed in song selection and sequencing from the U.S. release, which front-loaded the hit singles and added a couple of tracks not available across the pond. Thankfully, Snapper’s CD reissue includes all the songs from both versions in all their electrifying glory.
S.F. Sorrow (1968)
The band’s unquestioned masterpiece and one of rock music’s first concept albums, S.F. Sorrow was released at a point where rock ‘n’ roll was experiencing “peak psychedelia,” and the PTs obviously rose to the occasion. Based on a short story by Phil May, the album is structured as a song cycle that tells the story of its protagonist, “Sebastian F. Sorrow,” from birth to disillusioned old age, with all the travails that ensued in between. From a musical perspective, this is probably the most imaginative and daring as the band would ever get, with Taylor, Waller, and Povey contributing some of their finest performances. Although much psychedelic rock has aged poorly, the time and effort that the Pretty Things put into S.F. Sorrow paid off in a timeless quality echoed only, perhaps, by the Beatles Sgt. Pepper.
Get the Picture? (1965)
The Pretty Things’ sophomore effort and the band’s second album in less than a year found the PTs relying less on American blues standards in favor of exploring their own growing songwriting chops. The results were inconsistent, but impressive nonetheless as the band delivers a blistering set that ranges from jangly ballad “You Don’t Believe Me” (co-written with then-session pro Jimmy Page) and the fuzz-drenched, garage-rockin’ title track to the freakbeat classic and minor chart hit “Midnight To Six Man.” Get the Picture? was the last PTs’ disc to feature notorious (and erratic) drummer Viv Prince.
The PTs entered an uncertain new decade as disillusioned founder Dick Taylor left the band after S.F. Sorrow failed to improve the PTs’ fortunes. The band borrowed guitarist Victor Unitt from the Edgar Broughton Band as Taylor’s replacement for the recording of Parachute, a criminally-underrated follow-up that took the psychedelia of its predecessor into interesting new directions. The vocal harmonies are outstanding, Unitt’s fretwork offers a fresh perspective, and the songwriting displays the band’s unique penchant for reinvention and evolution. Sadly, Parachute was virtually ignored at the time of its release, but critical reappraisal of the album would begin almost immediately, with Rolling Stone scribe Stephen Holden calling it an “obscure underground classic” a mere two years later when reviewing Freeway Madness for the magazine.
Freeway Madness (1972)
A new year, a new record label (Warner Brothers), and a new bass player in the form of Stuart Brooks (from Paul Kossoff’s Black Cat Bones) after longtime PTs member Wally Waller flew the coop. Oddly, Waller hung around after quitting, producing Freeway Madness for his former bandmates under the pseudonym “Asa Jones.” The results moved the band further onto the hard rock turf they’d fully explore during their Swan Song years. Waller did a great job in capturing the band’s sound; May took more chances with his vocals; and new guitarist Pete Tolson clearly found his comfort zone here, tearing off creative, cutting-edge solos. Proving that you can teach an old dog a new trick, the PTs further updated their sound; the mix of blues, boogie, and rock ‘n’ roll on Freeway Madness is period perfect, fitting right in alongside esteemed colleagues like Humble Pie or Jo Jo Gunne.
Worth Another Listen
Balboa Island (2007)
The band’s 21st century “comeback” album, Balboa Island was the first PTs release in almost eight years, and only their second album in over a quarter-century. The classic trio of May, Taylor, and Waller are all in the saddle alongside old friends like keyboardist Jon Povey and drummer Skip Alan, as well as the “new guy,” guitarist Frank Holland, who had played on 1999’s …Rage Before Beauty. Another underrated entry in what’s not an enormously large Pretty Things catalog, the album isn’t without its hiccups…the album-ending title track kind of fizzles out without ever hitting escape velocity, and the vamping “(Blues For) Robert Johnson” would have been embarrassing even in the band’s glorious 1960s heyday. But the musicians’ 40+ years of chemistry clearly shines on blustery originals like “Livin’ In My Skin” and “Buried Alive.” Throw in inspired covers of Dylan and Muddy Waters song and you’ll wonder why Balboa Island didn’t get more love when it was released.
Silk Torpedo (1973)
The PTs go “glam” with an inconsistent set of songs that takes a stab at a more commercial sound while eschewing the tough-as-nails British R&B and imaginative psychedelia with which they’d made their bones. Turnabout is fair play, I suppose, the band finding inspiration in acolytes like David Bowie and Ian Hunter, and while Silk Torpedo provides, at times, an ill-fitting musical direction, songs like “Joey,” “Singapore Silk Torpedo,” and “Belfast Cowboys” rock pretty hard for glam, riding the rails of Pete Tolson’s wiry lead guitar and May’s reckless vocals. An often-overlooked entry in the Pretty Things’ catalog, Silk Torpedo remains many a fan’s favorite nonetheless.
AUDIO: The Complete De Wolfe Sessions [as Electric Banana]
The Complete De Wolfe Sessions [as Electric Banana] (2019)
It’s a poorly-kept secret among collectors that, during the late ‘60s and well into the 1970s, members of the Pretty Things supplemented their meager cash flow by recording tracks for British music library company DeWolfe under the alias ‘The Electric Banana’. The music was never designed to be released commercially, but rather licensed to cheap-o movies and TV shows for soundtrack filler. That didn’t stop the band from cranking out some cool new tunes for their paydays, and the Electric Banana ended up recording what amounted to six albums worth of material for the De Wolfe library, all of which have been collected in a nifty, budget-priced three-CD box set The Complete De Wolfe Sessions. Each “album” included five or six vocal tracks accompanied by instrumental versions, and the box set preserves 55 tracks in total.
One Size Fits All
Greatest Hits (2017)
If all you want is a taste of the Pretty Things to whet your appetite, you can’t do better than this 2017 release. Although the band didn’t have “greatest hits,” as such, they did enjoy a modicum of commercial success in the U.K. during the early ‘60s, and charting singles like “Rosalyn,” “Don’t Bring Me Down,” and “Cry To Me” are among the two-dozen tracks included here. Greatest Hits covers a period from the band’s first hit in 1964 through their 1970 LP Parachute and includes a wealth of obscurities as well as four tracks from their masterpiece, S.F. Sorrow. I’m giving extra credit to the band for including a 25th bonus track, a new recording of the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” which displays the band’s ability to creatively reinterpret material in their own image.
AUDIO: The Pretty Things Still Unrepentant 1964-2004