Graded on a Curve:
The Pretty Things,
Greatest Hits

Today we remember Phil May, The Pretty Things lead singer who passed away on Friday, May 15, 2020.

Mention England’s The Pretty Things, and most people will immediately direct your attention to 1968’s S.F. Sorrow, one of Western Civilization’s first rock operas (it preceded The Who’s Tommy by six months). Me, I prefer the band’s earlier, hard-driving R&B songs like “Rosalyn,” “Midnight to Six Man,” and “L.S.D.”

The pre-S.F. Sorrow Pretty Things specialized in a frenetic raunch-n-roll that split the difference between the Rolling Stones and Them. Powered by Phil May’s feral vocals and May’s stab to the heart guitar, the band’s sound was gritty as a mouthful of gravel, and you can hear them (as well as the band’s later psychedelic material) on 2017’s double LP Greatest Hits. Its 25 songs track the band from its R&B and blues-based early years through 1970’s Parachute, and make clear that Pretty Things were key players in the history of English rock ’n’ roll.

The 1964-66 Pretty Things were every bit the bad boys the Stones and The Who were, and quickly won a reputation for sowing chaos wherever they went. May claimed to have the longest hair in the UK; drummer Viv Prince’s mad behavior anticipated those of Keith Moon (and finally got hims sacked from the band). The band’s penchant for mayhem culminated in a 1965 stint in New Zealand, where they provoked as much outrage (and bad publicity) as The Who would later.

The early Pretty Things are best remembered for the 1964 song “Rosalyn,” which David Bowie covered on his 1973 LP Pinups. Bowie’s version reproduces the song’s primitive Bo Diddley beat, but Bowie’s vocals are positively enervated next to May’s Dionysian alley cat yowl. Ditto Pretty Thing’s 1964 hit “Don’t Bring Me Down.” Their version is furious, harmonica-fueled thing, and May goes at it in a full-throttle snarl. Bowie reproduces the song’s anarchic energy, but his singing’s prim, thin, mannered. It’s a case of savage vs. fop, and the savage wins hands down.

But May doesn’t always play the teengenerate. On 1965’s “Honey I Need” he tones down the primitivism and comes off sounding like the Mick Jagger of “Play with Fire.” And on “Cry to Me,” which bares a more than passing resemblance to Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me,” his vocals hold nary a hint of menace. He’s also on his best behavior on “Sittin’ All Alone” and the Dylanesque “I Can Never Say.”

The garage rock classic “L.S.D.” marks a demarcation from the Pretty Things’ R&B origins and the psychedelic direction they would soon pursue. Its title points towards the band’s acid-fueled art rock, but the song itself is a TNT blast of old school garage rock; May’s downright belligerent, and peace and love are nowhere in sight.

The next song, “Defecting Grey,” reflects what was to come. It begins life as a showcase of sitar whimsy (you can literally hear Mays’ transformation from punk to hippie acid head) before Taylor’s guitar kicks things into interstellar overdrive. By the time you get to “Talkin’ About the Good Times, “Mr. Evasion,” and “Walking Through My Dreams,” the Pretty Things had moved from the garage to the head shop, and there was no looking back.

Perhaps the oddest thing about The Pretty Things is that while they’ll always be best remembered for S.F. Sorrow, it was a colossal flop. In fact, the band reached it commercial zenith back in 1965, and would never reach the Top 20 of the pop charts again. For them, at least, climbing aboard the Magic Bus didn’t pay off. In a sense, Bowie got it right when he chose to cover “Rosalyn” and “Don’t Bring Me Down”; they were the songs that helped put the Swinging in London.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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