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Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Pretty Things: The Pretty Things


1) Road Runner; 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) 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.

It is pretty damn hard to discuss the early phase of The Pretty Things' career outside of the con­text of The Rolling Stones — and not just for formal reasons, such as Dick Taylor, the Stones' former lead guitar and then bass player, becoming one of the founding fathers of the Pretties. If there was an explicit ideology to this band from the start, it consisted of one driving purpose: to one-up the Stones and wrestle the title of Britain's wildest band from that snotty, too overtly com­mercialized Andrew Loog Oldham clique.

Even the cover art here is reminiscent of the early Stones cover: a bunch of long-haired, grim-looking, fuck-off-will-ya thugs staring you down or downright ignoring you out of the darkness, but their hair is really longer than that of the Stones (and Dick Taylor actually has a beard! like a grown-up!), and their facial expressions are way more Neanderthal, particularly that of drummer Viv Prince, the immediate spiritual and aesthetic predecessor of Keith Moon in his love to raise hell and make noise. «Pretty things» indeed — like the Stones, they took their name from the song of a Chess artist, but they chose Bo Diddley rather than Muddy to be their mascot, for all the wild African paganism reflected in the former's rave-ups. Let the Stones simply ooze aggressive sexu­ality: the Pretty Things were ready to embark on a highway to hell, right away.

Unfortunately, they miscalculated just a bit. Of the three most important elements in a pop music album — musicianship, songwriting, and attitude — the band had most heavily invested in the third one, somewhat downplaying the other two: none of the players here seem to be outstanding musicians by the standards of early 1965, and original songwriting is practically non-existent. The emphasis is strictly on loudness and wildness, reflected, above all, in the ferocious predator vocals of Phil May, who is, at this point, probably the single most interesting link in the chain: barking and roaring rather than singing, he shows certain rabid undertones to his voice that you would not be able to get even by the likes of Eric Burdon. There had already been wild screamers on the garage rock scene by that time — remember Gerry Roslie of the Sonics, for instance — but most of them still sounded more like rowdy pub goers than minions of Satan, and Phil has that leery, sarcastic whiff added to the bark-and-roar that really provides him with a certain demonic effect, like an early spiritual precursor to Iggy Pop.

Wild vocal practices alone are not gonna get you through the day, though: the entire band needs to get wild, and that is precisely what you get on their first single, ʽRosalynʼ (conveniently appen­ded as a bonus track to the CD edition). «Written» by their co-manager Jimmy Duncan, it is an amalgamation of the Bo Diddley beat, the Chuck Berry rap, and Animals-style dark harmonies, where the overall level of energy and nastiness matters far more than melodic ideas or playing techniques. Released in May 1964, it may have been Britain's wildest single for about three months, before getting undercut by ʽYou Really Got Meʼ — largely because of the insane proto-Keith Moon drum work and Phil's insane screaming, although Brian Pendleton's bashing the shit out of his rhythm guitar and Taylor's minimalistic waves of lead slide guitar certainly add to the atmosphere. The uncomfortable part is that outside of the context of May 1964, the song might seem a bit boring — in terms of sheer wildness, this sound would soon be overtaken by even more caveman-like styles of various garage bands (not to mention The Who), and in other terms, once the groove has been established in the first ten seconds, they stay with it forever, not taking it anywhere special. (Not that you could really frame this as an accusation, because it would apply just as adequately to Bo Diddley himself as it does to them; but hey, at least Bo was the author of this style).

This is pretty much how it goes with the entire album: coming in a bit too late on the heels of their first two singles, it may have already been a tad anachronistic for early 1965. Not in terms of the overall sound: the cover of ʽRoad Runnerʼ that opens the album is as noisy and reckless as it gets in those months, messy drumming and guitar feedback and caveman vocals and all. But in terms of creativity, the Pretty Things had little to offer — following the standard practice that an «original» song could simply consist of a stolen melody with a few changes to earlier lyrics; hence, ʽ13 Chester Streetʼ = ʽGot Love If You Want Itʼ; ʽUnknown Bluesʼ = just about any 12-bar blues (e.g. Robert Johnson's ʽKindhearted Woman Bluesʼ); and only their third single, ʽHoney I Needʼ, does not seem to be immediately ripped off, but it also kinda sucks.

And even though they had a good collective sound going for them, there was not a single truly impressive and / or unique player in the band — Taylor and Pendleton may have favored a rougher, dirtier guitar sound than Keith Richards and Brian Jones, but they lacked their sharpness, precision, and stylistic variety. A good starting point for comparison would be ʽThe Moon Is Risingʼ, a Jimmy Reed cover that (no surprise here) sounds almost identical to his own ʽHonest I Doʼ, covered on the Stones' debut album — the Stones' song has far more clarity, and their guitar and harmonica parts just slice through the speakers, making much better use of the scale than the Pretties; though the Pretties do sound wilder, dirtier, and sloppier.

All in all, this album has not aged all that well, though it remains an important historical link in the line of rock music evolution in those crazy days. But I still cannot resist giving it an honorary thumbs up, because it was driven by good purposes, backed by adequate talent, and, while we're at it, there is not a single ballad anywhere in sight — it's like the frickin' equivalent of AC/DC for early 1965! Indeed, the boys stay very true here to their wild, relentless nature, and this uncom­promising stance has to have some recognition. (I mean, they may have sucked much fun out of ʽDon't Lie To Meʼ by slowing it down and playing it closer to the Tampa Red original than the rock'n'roll version of Chuck Berry, but there's something to be said about authenticity, right?). It is, however, one of those albums where the whole is unquestionably more impressive than the sum of its parts — as I glance back at the track names, I do not think I recognize even a single embarrassment, yet I cannot for the life of me think of one or two particular highlights, either. It's just one of those group gang things.

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