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Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Pretty Things: Emotions


1) Death Of A Socialite; 2) Children; 3) The Sun; 4) There Will Never Be Another Day; 5) House Of Ten; 6) Out In The Night; 7) One Long Glance; 8) Growing In My Mind; 9) Photographer; 10) Bright Lights Of The City; 11) Trip­ping; 12) My Time; 13*) A House In The Country; 14*) Progress; 15*) Photographer (alternate mix); 16*) My Time (alternate mix); 17*) The Sun (alternate mix); 18*) Progress (alternate mix); 19*) Children (alternate mix).

Emotions indeed — by the time the band had completed the album, only two members were left from the original lineup for the previous one. First Brian Pendleton, and then John Stax both quit because of financial pressures and artistic disagreements, as the Fontana label was pressing the group to move in a more pop direction, which is where pretty much everybody else was moving at the time, including the Pretties' biggest competition acts on the hard rock market — the Stones, The Kinks, The Who, The Animals, you name 'em. The challenge was certainly a difficult one, because hard rock acts could allow themselves to rely on groove and energy rather than song­writing, but in the pop sphere, you couldn't really get anywhere unless you got busy composing your own material; and although May and Taylor had already cut their teeth on several impres­sive singles, such as ʽMidnight To Six Manʼ, they hardly had what it takes to break through into the big leagues — not yet.

Nevertheless, it was do or die; so, with the extra aid of the band's new bass player, Wally Waller, and their old friend Ian Stirling, May and Taylor wrote the entirety of their third album, once again following in the footsteps of the Stones, to the extent that a few of these songs sound very much like forgotten outtakes from Aftermath (ʽGrowing In My Mindʼ is so instrumentally and vocally close to ʽI Am Waitingʼ, for instance, that it is hard to imagine that Aftermath had not been sitting on these guys' turntables as a guiding light, even if they did not openly admit it). The big difference lies in production values: American pop producer Steve Rowland, who'd previous­ly worked with Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, thought that the band's songs would feel more fleshed out with brass and strings, so he called in arranger Reg Tilsley and overdubbed a lot of the material against the band's wishes.

These «sappy» arrangements have frequently been criticized, and dissatisfied fans were rewarded in the CD era with several bonus tracks presenting «clean» mixes of the same tracks without the sentimental overdubs — but I think that where the tracks are good on their own, Tilsley's arrange­ments actually suit them fine, never obscuring the main melody and always emphasizing the required mood rather than going against it. After all, he is not drowning the sound in lush Holly­wood orchestration: his preferred treatment is either a touch of jazzy brass fanfare or a modest string flourish à la Left Banke or other baroque-pop acts. It must simply have been the shock of hearing one of the world's wildest R&B bands suddenly get civilized and sentimentalized that prompted the reaction, but what with the future proving that the change was not a fluke, but part of a general transformation of the band from a purveyor of R&B into an art-pop ensemble, we must now simply regard Emotions as the beginning of a new chapter in history.

And while the Pretties had not yet reached the peak of their songwriting potential, the songs do not exactly look like naïve attempts to ape their superiors. It is true, of course, that everything here was written under the huge influence of Jagger/Richards and especially Ray Davies — after all, one of their preceding singles was Ray's ʽHouse In The Countryʼ, which they somehow managed to release before Ray issued it himself as an LP track on Face To Face; for some reason, they thought that it could have chart potential (and maybe it could, but they sure did not add anything to it that was not on the Kinks version already). Clearly, if you begin your album with a number called ʽDeath Of A Socialiteʼ, you are walking in Uncle Ray's footsteps. But they are not stealing any of Uncle Ray's melodic moves, and they still preserve a certain burly roughness, even when they are just playing acoustic guitars, that separates them from the «gentlemanly» Kinks sound. It makes sense to compare the opening acoustic strum of ʽDeath Of A Socialiteʼ with the corresponding acoustic strum of the Kinks' ʽDandyʼ — I think that the former still sounds as if they are on the verge of breaking into an R&B groove at any time, whereas the Kinks are too busy folk-dancing to do anything of the sort.

In addition, Emotions is a pretty dark album. If the Stones' social comment was largely all sneer and grimace, and the Kinks' one was sadness and empathy, the Pretty Things rather decide to specialize on quietly boiling anger and frustration. ʽDeath Of A Socialiteʼ, in particular, was written based on the car crash incident of Tara Browne (the same one that later got indirectly mentioned in ʽA Day In The Lifeʼ), and while the song's jumpy, fussy rhythm guitar symbolizes the protagonist's mad rush through life, May's lyrics and vocals are those of an angry preacher, frustrated at the perspective of his client trading in his life for a bunch of nothing; "don't you know it's over?", he nearly shouts at the end, bitterly amazed that somebody could be so stupid. (Tilsley's little brass flashes, spread all over the place, are actually quite clever here — creating the atmosphere of a busy street intersection, with honking cars as the harbingers of death). ʽChil­drenʼ is nowhere near a Graham Nash type of sentimental ballad, but rather a gritty prophecy about how society's ills are already rooted in the playground level, with ominous martial drums and mournful raga-style guitar providing a sharp contrast to the seemingly cheerful and upbeat verse melody. And ʽHouse Of Tenʼ, contemplating the faceless fate of a lower class worker, is far more brooding in nature than any given Kinks song — maybe not as directly bang-your-head-against-the-wall hopeless as ʽDead End Streetʼ, but ultimately reaching the same conclusion.

The best of these mournful ballads, however, is not directly related to any social issues: it is ʽThe Sunʼ, which I have always regarded as not just the masterpiece of this particular record, but as an all-time classic song by the band that never truly got what it deserved (the song, that is, not the band). Here is where Tilsley's string flourishes work particularly well (the alternate mix without the strings sounds fairly hollow in comparison), giving the impression of the sun's mechanical, emotionless, faraway circular movement, and May's sad vocals second that movement — the song's two main verses form a completed cycle with implications of the endlessness of suffering. To that particular date, I believe, none of the big British Invasion bands had yet penned anything comparable in sheer grimness and hopelessness... well, maybe the Zombies did, but even their grimmest material is all on Odessey And Oracle, and that wouldn't be openly forthcoming until a couple more years.

Not all of the album is spent in the throngs of doom and gloom: ʽPhotographerʼ is a lively post-Berry pop-rocker, punctuated by more of Tilsley's brass bursts and a rapid-fire angry vocal deli­very from May (as, once again, opposed to a comparable sneery-sarcastic delivery that a Mick Jagger would have probably loaned to the song); ʽTrippingʼ has the most Stonesy sound of all, being the only track here on which May adopts the same sneery-sarcastic tone, well attenuated by the equally sneery high-pitched acoustic lead guitar; and ʽThere Will Never Be Another Dayʼ, to me, sounds like Elton John would later use it as a blueprint for ʽSaturday Night's Alright For Fightingʼ, though I wouldn't be as stupid as to take him to court for that. And at least ʽMy Timeʼ finishes the album on a more optimistic note than the rest of Emotions, even offering a chaotic, quasi-Stravinsky-passionate orchestrated climax to support Phil's last-minute stab at self-assertion and hopefulness for the future.

But if we really want to re-establish this album's reputation, and cease regarding it as some sort of embarrassing transition stage between the band's early wild days and their later cult status as the creators of rock's first opera, then, I think, the only way to do this is to focus on the darker aspects of Emotions — an album that, with a little extra care, could outgrim them all, despite arriving on the market at a time when most of the competitors were too busy trying to change the world, rather than mourn its pathological resistance to change. Maybe that was not even the intended message — who really knows? — but this is a cohesive image that somehow got congealed in my mind, and I'm perfectly happy-sad to let it stay that way, so that the thumbs up rating — yeah, for both the Pretties' work on it and Tilsley's intelligent arrangements — could be fully justified.


  1. To me the strings are a perfect fit for the slow numbers. But the brass arrangements are turning The Things into The Turtles circa 'Happy Together' (funny thing, The Turtles also got help from Ray Davies on their 'Turtle Soup' record 2 years later). And on certain occasions they feel totally out of sync with the band (take 'Out in the Night', which really makes my head reel with its' stereo arrangement and two different rhythms in left and right channel). I'd say my problem with the brass arrangements is that Tilsley used them to toss in his own musical ideas instead of enhancing May/Taylor's ones — probably that's why the band hated it. Glad they included guitar-focused versions in the bonus tracks — 'There Will Never Be Another Day' feels more tight and dynamic without the brass.

    But the song quality is a real treat here. No Stones or Kinks ripoffs, very distinct individual style — it's really a miracle May and Taylor managed to catch up with the songwriting standards of 1967. Even without not being too original, 'Emotions' really stand out of all the pop competition of the time, one of the albums to remember for life. My favorite Things' record.

  2. I got into them via the Old Only Solitaire site and was hoping for a revisit in these blog posts due to the partial coverage of their discography in the old site. So a happy surprise today with Emotions which happens to be my favorite Things' record too. I tend to agree with Sergei on the idea of Tilsley tossing his own musical ideas. Yes, they do sound good in the ultimate result, but I also am uncomfortable with the idea of tweaking someone else's work without their knowledge/permission as a general principle. Even if the results do enhance the original.