Sunday, July 25, 2010

November 9, 2009: The Nuggets Record Buying Guide: The Pretty Things

There were a lot of ‘60s bands that huddled in the massive shadow cast by the likes of The Beatles, The Stones, and The Who that were easily in the same league as those groups. There was The Left Banke from New York City and The Move from Birmingham and Procol Harum from London and Love from Los Angeles. But the group that most deserved to be placed in the upper echelon of ‘60s Rock royalty may have been The Pretty Things.

I can go on about the ground they smashed: that they were the first band to release a full-length Rock Opera, that they were the first band to sport truly long hair as opposed to mere collar-length mop tops, that drummer Viv Prince was the first genuine wild man of British Rock, that guitarist Dick Taylor helped birth The Rolling Stones. Those milestones are all worthy of mention, but what really makes the case for The Pretty Things’ greatness and importance is their music. The Pretties dished out R&B as tough as the early Stones, psychedelia as wild as Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd, harmonies as rich and gorgeous as The Beatles or The Beach Boys, concepts as inventive and furiously delivered as The Who. Yet—unlike the bands I mentioned at the top of this paragraph—The Pretty Things never made much of an impression locally or abroad. The Left Banke and Procol Harum each had significant international hits. Love and The Move were both big bands on their home turf. The closest The Pretty Things came to making a commercial splash was managing a #10 UK hit in 1964 with “Don’t Bring Me Down”. They seemed to make the biggest impact on their peers. Surely, The Who’s Tommy would have sounded quite a bit different had it not been for The Pretties’ S.F. Sorrow. David Bowie was so fond of them that he covered two of their classics for his 1973 covers album Pin Ups. Led Zeppelin were big enough fans to sign The Pretty Things to their Swan Song Records.

When Rhino Records released Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts from the British Empire and Beyond, 1964-1969 in 2001, The Pretty Things were represented by a substantial three tracks: “Rosalyn”, “Midnight to Six Man” and “Walking Through My Dreams”. This triad is a powerful reminder of what a fine singles band they were, but their long players were equally important. Every L.P. they released between 1965 and 1970 is great, and you certainly couldn’t go wrong starting your Pretty Things collection with any one of them. But one clearly stands above the rest. During previous entries of The Nuggets Record Buying Guide about The Turtles, The Small Faces, and The Move, I selected albums that weren’t necessarily considered to be each band’s definitive release as the best one to hear first. In the case of The Pretty Things, their most celebrated album is the spot to start. Of course, I’m talking about S.F. Sorrow.

S.F. Sorrow (1968)

Yes, it’s neat that S.F. Sorrow was the first rock opera, but without a line-up of ace songs, the record would be nothing more than a historical footnote. Much like Tommy, the plot here is a bit obscure and hazily sketched, tracking the development of a troubled fellow from birth to disillusioned maturation. Unlike Tommy, there is no filler included solely for the purpose of storytelling… well, aside from the ambient track “Well of Destiny”, which is basically 1:47 of weird sound effects. Aside from that brief interlude, every single song on S.F. Sorrow is a stunner, each one bounding into fresh and freaky territory. The two pieces that bookend the album are the most straight-forward: the title track is a folk-rock gem that surfs along on a wave of lush acoustic guitars, sumptuous harmonies, and an incessant beat; the finale, “Loneliest Person”, is a brief, melancholic acoustic number that ends the record on a heart-wrenchingly elliptical note. Everything in between is a carnival of trippy experimentation and impeccable pop songwriting craft. The variety of moods and colors conjured throughout the record is incredible. “Bracelets of Fingers” is swirling, dizzying, intoxicating. “She Says Good Morning” is nightmarish yet beautiful. “Private Sorrow” intense, “Death” punishingly somber, “Baron Saturday” devilishly joyous, “Trust” ethereal and transcendent. “Old Man Going” is as tough an acoustic guitar-driven song as any Pete Townshend ever conceived, and it was clearly an influence on “Pinball Wizard” despite his assertions that Sorrow did not sway Tommy.

Lyrically, the record is more about creating impressions of events rather than establishing specific scenes with characters and dialogue, so it’s actually a lot more similar to Quadrophenia than Tommy in that department. In any event, the lyrics on Sorrow—based on a short story by singer Phil May (who turns 65 today)—are poetic in a way that neither the cartoonish Tommy nor the diary-like Quadrophenia are. Take “Balloon Burning”, a song about the death of Sorrow’s girlfriend in a balloon accident. The lyrics read like a collage of impressions of a tragedy that couldn’t be fully comprehended by the witness: “She throws down / lifeline of kisses / Anchored to the ground / Balloon descending / Then I see balloon is burning / Turning round burning.” It’s stark, evocative stuff.

“Balloon Burning”

Once you have absorbed S.F. Sorrow you should probably move on to Parachute, which is nearly as good. Yet again the band uses a loose concept as a blueprint for the record, with Side A offering an Abbey Road-like suite of city songs and Side B ruminating on country life. Yet again the album’s chief strength is the individual songs. Parachute is the Pretties’ album that is most similar to S.F. Sorrow, but their earlier R&B records are fantastic in their own ways, too. Their second album, Get the Picture, is the best of these, because it’s their first to host a string of thumpingly sublime originals— “You Don’t Believe Me”, “Buzz the Jerk”, “Get the Picture”—along with terrific covers of Ray Charles’s “I Had a Dream” and Tim Hardin’s “London Town”. “Can’t Stand the Pain” bears the first traces of the kind of psychedelia that would fully inform S.F. Sorrow. 1967’s folk-rocking Emotions is a very good one, as well, though not as consistent as these other records. But “Death of a Socialite”, “The Sun”, “There Will Never Be Another Day”, and “My Time” and are all essential.
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