Where to start when looking to dive into one of the most rewarding and unsung catalogs in British Rock
They weren’t the best-known of the early ‘60s “British Invasion” bands, but the Pretty Things are undeniably one of the most enduring and influential of the first wave of U.K. rockers to wash up on U.S. shores.
With a December 2018 “farewell” performance held at the O2 Indigo in London, and the recent release of the show in a couple of formats by Madfish Music, the Pretty Things take a final bow after 55 years in the rock ‘n’ roll trenches. The line-up for this event was comprised of band originals Phil May (vox) and Dick Taylor (lead guitar) along with longtime guitarist Frank Holland, bassist George Woosey, and drummer Jack Greenwood. Former PTs bandmates Jon Povey, Wally Waller, and Skip Allan appeared onstage, and rock legends Van Morrison and David Gilmour (Pink Floyd) joined the band in celebrating their storied career.
The band’s story begins with guitarist Dick Taylor, who was the odd man out in the earliest incarnation of the Rolling Stones. With both Brian Jones and Keith Richards in the fold, the Stones didn’t need a third guitarist, so Taylor gamely switched to bass. Taylor quit the Stones a few months later, after he was accepted by the Central School of Art and Design in London. It was there that he met singer Phil May, who convinced him to form a new band. Named after a song by legendary Chicago bluesman Willie Dixon (1955’s “Pretty Thing”), England’s Pretty Things were a typical early ‘60s British R&B band playing American blues tunes by artists like Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed.
The Pretty Things scored a minor chart hit with their first single, “Rosalyn,” which was released in early 1964 and they quickly followed it up with the Top Ten hit “Don’t Bring Me Down” and, in early 1965, Taylor’s “Honey I Need,” which peaked at #13 on the UK charts. While the band never enjoyed a hit single in the U.S. they were extremely popular in Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands as well as their home country. As the 1960s wore on, however, the band’s ever-changing line-up and ever-evolving sound resulted in diminishing commercial returns. In 1968, the Pretty Things released what is considered by many to be their masterpiece, the S.F. Sorrow album.
One of rock music’s first concept albums, S.F. Sorrow was based on a short story by May and although it failed to gain traction commercially, it has only grown in fans’ and critics’ estimations in the decades since. Taylor left the band before the underrated 1970 album Parachute, replaced by former Eire Apparent guitarist Pete Tolson, who would perform and record with the band through the remainder of the decade on sorely overlooked albums like 1972’s Freeway Madness and 1974’s Silk Torpedo. The band effectively broke-up when May was fired by his bandmates after the release of 1976’s Savage Eye album.
May and Taylor reunited with bassist Wally Waller and keyboardist Jon Povey for 1980’s Cross Talk album, but otherwise the Pretty Things spent much of the 1980s and ‘90s out of the studio and out of the record-buying public’s consciousness. The band’s new manager, Mark St. John, helped keep the band alive and performing during those dark years, and in 1999 the Pretty Things released the band’s first album in almost two decades in …Rage Before Beauty, which included a new addition in guitarist Frank Holland. The critically-acclaimed Balboa Island album followed a mere eight years later in 2007, and the PT’s twelfth and final studio album, well-received The Sweet Pretty Things (Are In Bed Now, of Course…) was released in 2015. Throughout this period, the band stayed busy with live performances and, also in 2015, the PTs were honored with the release of the deluxe, career-spanning multi-disc box set Bouquets From A Cloudy Sky.
Listening to the two-LP version, the performance documented by The Final Bow makes little effort to include the band’s post-S.F. Sorrow material, largely eschewing the 1970s for a laser-focused trip back to the PTs’ beginning years. After a brief intro, the band rips into two of their earliest hit singles, swinging through “Honey I Need” with reckless aplomb before jumping into the swaggering, blustery “Don’t Bring Me Down,” which features some incendiary Dick Taylor fretwork. The title track of the band’s sophomore album, “Get the Picture?” is a swinging slice of mid-‘60s British R&B with spry May vocals. “Midnight To Six Man” was a modest hit in 1966 and the band plays it pretty close to the vest a half-century later, the upbeat tune propelled by an undeniable rhythm, shards of jagged guitar, and bursts of manic energy.
Jumping ahead to 1968, much of side two features the band playing a condensed version of their landmark album S.F. Sorrow, Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour sitting in with the band. The performances are so damn satisfying for the old-school PTs fan – “S.F. Sorrow Is Born” crackles with energy, the band backing May’s vocals with a swirling tsunami of psych-drenched instrumentation. Gilmour’s contributions to “She Says Good Morning” and “I See You” embellish, rather than detract from the original arrangements, his ethereal tone and fluid string-bending adding to the psychedelic vibe. The latter song is provided a gorgeous extended jam that will thrill any six-string junkie.
“Cries From the Midnight Circus,” hailing from the band’s underrated 1970 album Parachute, is chronologically the newest song here, and is afforded a rumbling, hard rocking arrangement with funky rhythms and May’s leather-lunged vocals, proving once again that the PTs were a few years ahead of the rock ‘n’ roll curve stylistically. Name-checking friends like Keith Richards and David Bowie (née Jones), the band revisits its past life as a British R&B outfit with the legendary Van Morrison stepping in to help on blues standards like the rollicking “Baby, Please Don’t Go” and the jaunty “You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover,” both of which benefit from Morrison’s infusion of Irish soul. May’s nuanced vocals and Taylor’s slinky guitar-picking take “Can’t Be Satisfied” back to its Delta roots.
The Final Bow’s final side closes out with another appearance by Gilmour on a thirteen-minute-plus “medley” of two early PTs songs – the controversial non-album B-side “L.S.D.” (ostensibly “pounds, shillings, and pence,” using the British currency symbol £ for the ‘L’ but really about the mind-bending drug that was in vogue in 1966) and “Old Man Going” from S.F. Sorrow. The first part is a foot-stomping rave-up before the song devolves into a dreamlike instrumental miasma with guitar interplay is every bit as enticing as you can imagine. The show’s encore includes the first Pretty Things’ hit, “Rosalyn,” the song shining every bit as brightly as it did 55 years ago (the late David Bowie adored the band, recording “Rosalyn” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” for his 1973 covers LP Pin-Ups). After a few fitting words from Phil May, the band closes out with another S.F. Sorrow track, the lovely, melancholy “Loneliest Person.”
The Pretty Things’ The Final Bow is available in a couple of formats depending on your financial status and dedication to the band, including a nifty two-LP vinyl set with gatefold cover and individual sleeve notes by Phil May and Dick Taylor. For those of you with deeper pockets, you can get The Final Bow in a deluxe package with two concert DVDs of the event accompanied by a pair of live CDs and a 10” vinyl record with tracks selected by May and Taylor. It also includes a 52-page hardback book with photographs and more. Either way you go, The Final Bow is both a fine introduction to, as well as a fitting swansong for this timeless band.
VIDEO: The Pretty Things featuring David Gilmour performing “She Says Good Morning” from The Final Bow