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The Pretty Things

The Pretty Things were the also-rans of the British Invasion, a band that never got its due. Despite this lack of recognition, they were never quite ignored, cultivating a passionate cult that stuck with them through the decades -- a cult that was drawn to either their vicious early records, where they sometimes seemed like a meaner version of the Rolling Stones, or to their 1968 psychedelic masterwork S.F. Sorrow. Some of their fans advocate for the entirety of their catalog, noting how the group adeptly shifted with the times. Despite these shifts in style, they rarely racked up hits on either side of the Atlantic. In the United States, they didn't chart until 1975, a full decade after they released their rough-and-tumble debut. Back then, the Pretty Things seemed like rivals to the Rolling Stones and that was no great leap: guitarist Dick Taylor played bass in the first incarnation of the Stones, not long before he teamed up with Phil May to form the Pretty Things in 1963. Taking their name from a Bo Diddley song, the Pretty Things were intentionally ugly: their sound was brutish, their hair longer than any of their contemporaries, their look unkempt. This nastiness was evident on their first pair of singles, "Rosalyn" and "Don't Bring Me Down," two 45s that charted in 1964, their success helping to get their eponymous debut into the U.K. Top Ten a year later, but that turned out to be the extent of their commercial success. The Pretty Things may not have shown up on the charts but their cult proved to be influential: it's been said Pete Townshend was influenced by S.F. Sorrow to write Tommy for the Who and David Bowie covered both "Rosalyn" and "Don't Bring Me Down" for his 1973 album Pin Ups. Critics liked them too but that acclimation didn't sell records. Nevertheless, the Pretty Things were survivors, soldiering on through the '70s, turning into a harder, heavier outfit that was rewarded with marginal U.S. success -- 1974's Silk Torpedo and 1976's Savage Eye made the lower reaches of Billboard -- cutting a credible new wave album at the dawn of the '80s. The Pretty Things would split not long afterward but their cult remained so strong that they became a semi-active concern at the beginning of the new millennium, as they would occasional reunite for tours and recordings.

Such perseverance would've seemed unlikely back in 1963 when Dick Taylor and Phil May first formed the band. Taylor had been playing with Mick Jagger in a London outfit called Little Boy Blue & the Blue Boys since he was a schoolboy and he later met Keith Richards at Sidcup Art School. In 1962, Taylor, Jagger, and Richards all started playing, once again calling themselves Little Boy Blue & the Blue Boys, with Brian Jones and Ian Stewart aboard, and this group turned into the Rolling Stones, but Taylor tired of bass and left to concentrate on art. Soon, he was convinced by fellow Sidcup Art School student Phil May to form the Pretty Things. The duo brought in bassist John Stax, guitarist Brian Pendleton, and drummer Pete Kitley; the latter would soon be replaced by Viv Prince. Bryan Morrison, who also was attending art school with Taylor and May, managed the band and helped get it signed to Fontana.

"Rosalyn," the group's first single, peaked at 41 in 1964 but "Don't Bring Me Down" went to ten and "Honey I Need" topped out at 13 in 1965. These three singles helped the group's self-titled debut reach number six on the U.K. album charts, but with success came some turbulence. Drummer Prince left toward the end of 1965 and was succeeded by Skip Alan, while the group's 1966 album Get the Picture? showed the rough, ragged rock & roll group adopting a slight pop art stance.

More lineup changes soon followed -- Pendleton and Stax left by early 1967, with John Povey and Wally Waller taking their place -- and Fontana pushed the group in a softer, string-laden direction for that year's Emotions. This wasn't a hit and the Pretty Things soon lost drummer Alan and decamped for EMI's Columbia, where they recorded what is roundly regarded as their masterpiece, S.F. Sorrow. Appearing at the end of 1968, S.F. Sorrow is by many measures the first rock opera, earning a big cult but not selling much.

Dick Taylor left in the wake of S.F. Sorrow -- guitarist Victor Unitt, previously of the Edgar Broughton Band, took his place -- and Alan returned to the band. This new lineup first stretched its legs supporting French playboy Philippe DeBarge as he dipped his toes into rock & roll -- these recordings were long shelved; they appeared in 2010 -- and this wasn't the only way the Pretty Things made money; they moonlighted anonymously for the music library company DeWolfe, recording film music that wound up reissued under the name Electric Banana. Despite all this activity, the next big release from the Pretty Things was Parachute in 1970, which received acclaim but no sales.

The lack of success led to a temporary disbandment, but they regrouped for a new contract with Warner that was inaugurated with Freeway Madness in 1972. Next, they teamed up with manager Peter Grant -- the giant behind Led Zeppelin -- and were signed to Swan Song, which released Silk Torpedo in 1974 and Savage Eye in 1976. These harder, heavier records were a bigger success in America than any previous Pretty Things LP, but it wasn't enough to keep the group together: they split up in 1976.

A full-fledged reunion teaming Phil May and Dick Taylor came in 1980 when the group recorded Cross Talk, an admirable attempt to ride the new wave that did not sell. They split again, but May and Taylor started to perform regularly under a variety of different monikers, including teaming with Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty in the '90s. As the new millennium approached, they embarked on special projects such as a revival of S.F. Sorrow, and then they recorded a brand-new full-length album called Rage...Before Beauty in 1999. Reissues and biographies followed in the 2000s as did one more album, 2007's Balboa Island, and the band also toured regularly. They decided to celebrate their 50th anniversary in style, touring Europe and the U.K. in 2013 and releasing the career-encompassing box Bouquets from a Cloudy Sky in 2015. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine
full bio

Selected Discography

Comments

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Love their music, but , c'mon, Phil and Mick don't look anything like each other. Who came up with that?!? They're trippin'....
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If Balboa Island is any idea of where these guys are living, then awesome. They sure as hell deserve it!! AWESOME TUNES !!!
One band came up with a better name, that's it, and all.
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The best hard rock band
Ever. Period....
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Sorry but not close to Chuck Berry's OH BABY DOLL
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Wish I was around 66 to see em live
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milosdad
These guys would have fit in really well with the 70's CBGB's scene.
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This band made some incredibly good and powerful music considering the radio culture of 1965-66. They should have considered a name change by 1967.
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Awesome music just makes you feel so great!
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Best unknown band in the land!
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to me, they blow the Stones away!! Phil May is fantastic & they segueway into great Psych tunes later
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Been a Pretty Things addict since the 70s. A very well-kept secret, too bad!
Still love all their stuff.
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Believe their "Singapore silk torpedo" and "savage eye" albums are their best albums and they aren't even represented here...to bad!
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Great Band. I picked up a "Best of" compilation and was unduly impressed by the qaulity of music, songs, etc. Too bad they didn't make any impact on the US market.
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robbhare
Love the sound of this band. Wonder if The Doors were influenced by them.
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cool stuff
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Thought these guys were new, the recordings were so well done. I listen to a lot of old rock and I missed this. Awesome.
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Good but this song belongs to Jimmy.....
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KNOCKOUT!
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not o up on the pretty things. will travel back in time and play catch up. bill kelly and joe belock from wfmu play their stuff. wfmu.org
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i saw these guys in exeter, u.k. brilliant. such energy and power. phil may rocks....... . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
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huntingn
I was listening to Gluecifer and reading about Pretty Things and got confused and thought they were them. But they're not.
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I dont see " Freeway Madness" here either. another 1 of thier best. im new here and it Seems like this site only goes back to 2000.
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I saw them open for Grand Funk Railroad at the Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg Pa. in 73-74. First time I got stoned. I vaguely remember them on this huge pink phallus on stage. First of many concerts under the influence.
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hausman9467
How could you not have the album "Parachute"? It was voted Rolling Stone's album of the year when it came out, and the single "stone hearted mama" is truly one of the pretty's best sides.
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My band COLDSTONE plays a lot of Pretty Things, one of my favourites is Havana Bound, we are based out of Detroit keep an eye out.
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I JUST DISCOVERED THIS ARTIST RECENTLY AND HAVE ONLY BEEN ABLE TO FIND TWO ALBUMS. ANYBODY KNOW WHERE I CAN FIND MORE?
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i bought their debut album as part of an introductory offer into the Columbia Record Club in either 1965 or 66 and played it until it couldn't be played any more. I recently acquired it on cd and still enjoy it.
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S.F. SORROW IS ONE OF THE MOST UNDERRATED PSYCHEDELIC OF ALL TIME ROCK AND ROLL!

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