Could The Pretty Things have achieved more than cult success in America if their manager didn’t have the lack of vision to book them on a New Zealand tour instead of taking them to the U.S. in the early days of their career? Did this possibly fatal decision allow The Rolling Stones to swoop in and swipe the title of Rock’s dirtiest, nastiest band in the world’s biggest pop market, leaving The Pretty Things doomed to cult act status? I kind of doubt it. Just hold up photos of the two bands circa 1965 side by side. See how relatively short the Stones’ hair is. See how nattily they dressed, even if they weren’t wearing matching suits like those fit-for-grandma Beatles did. See how long and unkempt The Pretty Things’ hair is, and I don’t just mean singer Phil May’s celebrated mane. Dick Taylor’s facial scruff looks like it reeks of beat clubs and pot stench and stage sweat. Had this mob appeared on American shores in 1965, they probably would have been tossed in the nearest zoo.
But could they have made it here if radio played their records more aggressively? I doubt that too. Unlike the Stones, who had good noses for pop hits, the Pretties were too uncompromising in their devotion to the hardest blues. They were so unwilling to bend to the strictures of radio that they not only recorded an obscure R&B song called “Come See Me” as aggressively as possible, they left in the line about laying a girl, and had the sheer madness to put it out as a single. Naturally, U.S. stations refused to play it. By the time The Pretty Things went psychedelic with “Defecting Grey”, a “song” that sounds like it was pieced together from bits of tape during some sort of arts and crafts class at the local mental institution, the possibility that they’d ever hit it big in America had long since gone AWOL. Hell, we didn’t even give them credit for putting out the first LP-length rock opera!
Normally, bands who don’t come within a mile of taking America as assuredly as the Stones did don’t get the kind of treatment The Pretty Things do with their new box set Bouquets From A Cloudy Sky: The Complete Pretty Things Deluxe Boxset Collection. Once again, they have little interest in such rules. This heavy duty set audaciously expects cultists to plunk down some serious coin for all eleven of the band’s studio albums, two extra discs of rarities, a replica acetate disc, two DVDs, and sundry books and posters and artwork. Actually, Bouquets isn’t terrible value if you don’t have all this stuff already. Compare it to another fairly recent box from Snapper records: Small Faces’ Here Come the Nice. That 2013 set only had four CDs and no DVDs and went for about £95.00 on Burning Shed.com compared to the £125.00 they’re asking for Bouquets as of this writing. Granted, that deal is less enticing for anyone who already owns all the Pretties CDs that have been available for years, because they are apparently identical to the ones in this new set. I only received a fifteen-song sampler, but listening to its tracks against the discs already in my collection, I detect no mastering differences. There is no indication otherwise in the pdf of the hardback book I also received (it’s a well-illustrated, critically balanced mini-biography of the band’s fifty years of bad behavior, though it does contain a few minor errors and really just whetted my appetite for the full-blown biography the band really deserves). Snapper’s decision to go with the stereo mix of S.F. Sorrow instead of the far superior mono one is a questionable decision, and the true completist will want to purchase it elsewhere.
Nevertheless, you still have three discs of material unavailable anywhere else. I am unqualified to assess those two CDs of rarities (which do not contain any of the fabulous recordings the band made under the name The Electric Banana, probably because of rights issues) since I didn’t receive it, but I did get to stream Midnight to Six 1965 – 1970, Reelin’ in the Years Productions’ documentary that was supposed to see release back in 2011 but was derailed by clearance and distribution issues. Like other entries in Reelin’ in the Years’ British Invasion series, Midnight to Six features new interviews with band members intercut with vintage song performances in their entireties. The interviews are interesting, though there’s a lot of informational overlap with the book included in this set. Still it’s cool to hear these wild stories right from the guys’ mouths, just as it’s cool to see them perform even when they’re only lip-syncing to recordings. The totally live performance footage, however, is spellbinding. It’s one thing to listen to these albums. It’s another to see 21-year old Phil May flipping his outrageous-for-1965-length hair while dropping to his knees as Viv Prince drums on his spine and an army of Dutch teens go to war with the cops in the audience. You wanna know why Rock & Roll used to scare the shit out of parents? This is why, motherfucker. Even seeing an awful, awful mime mugging while the band lip-syncs to “Private Sorrow” isn’t enough to make this early footage less potent.
The most well known footage of the Pretties from this era is the 14-minute short film “Pretty Things on Film” (sort of a grungier A Hard Day’s Night without all the plot and dialogue bits), which received wide release as a video bonus on Snapper’s Get the Picture CD in 1998. Midnight to Six doesn’t cheat by including this relatively familiar film within its two hours, but “Pretty Things on Film” is conscientiously included as a bonus. Hopefully the whole highly anticipated DVD will receive a stand alone release for the many Pretty Things diehards who already have every other disc in this box set.
Bouquets also throws in the band’s 1998 performance of S.F. Sorrow at Abbey Road, This is another readily available video, but it is an excellent one with the band performing their greatest work impeccably with bonus narration by Arthur Brown and occasional guitar support by Dave Gilmour. The name of this box set’s game is completeness, and it would not be complete without S.F. Sorrow Live at Abbey Road.
Despite having a pretty limited concept of what’s in Bouquets from a Cloudy Sky, I can say that anyone whose Pretty Things collection is currently pretty skimpy and wants to get everything in one swoop—and really, if you have any interest in sixties R&B and psychedelia, why wouldn’t you?—Bouquets From A Cloudy Sky: The Complete Pretty Things Deluxe Boxset Collection would probably be a wise purchase. Hopefully if enough of this limited edition set’s 2,000 pieces sell in the U.S., the Pretties will be a little less underrated here.
Get Bouquets from a Cloudy Sky on Burning Shed. com here.