July 2004

The Pretty Things - Come See Me: The Very Best of the Pretty Things
Shout Factory CD-DK 34132
Released: 2004

by Joseph Taylor

Musical Performance *****
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ****

The Pretty Things were a British band whose scruffy appearance caused English music editors in the mid-'60s to write such eye-grabbing headlines as, "Adults Hate Us More Than Stones" (Record Mirror, September 18, 1964). Guitarist Dick Taylor was, in fact, the original bass player for the Rolling Stones and his friendship with Mick Jagger predated that band. It was Taylor’s collection of blues records that helped convert Jagger, already a devotee of American rock'n'roll, into a blues fanatic. The first time Keith Richards played guitar behind Mick Jagger’s voice was at Dick Taylor’s house. When Taylor left the Stones in 1962 to attend the Royal College of Art, it wasn’t the last time stardom would allude him.

Two years later, Taylor was playing guitar for the Pretty Things, a band he started with singer Phil May. They were a tough, unglamorous R&B band, a critics’ favorite who were just as beloved by other musicians. David Bowie included two of their tunes, "Rosalyn" and "Don’t Bring Me Down," on Pinups, and Led Zeppelin’s manager, Peter Grant, signed them to his band’s label, Swan Song, in the mid-'70s (Jimmy Page had co-written "You Don’t Believe Me" with May in 1965). Rolling Stone chose Parachute (1970) as Album of the Year, but the Pretty Things never really clicked in the US. Come See Me, a compilation of 25 tracks from 1964 to 1975, gives us the chance to atone for that mistake.

"Rosalyn," opens the disc with the guitar amps in overdrive and the tremelo set to the saturation point. It pulls you right back to 1964. Phil May spits out the vocals in a growling voice, and Taylor plays a simple but powerful slide guitar alongside Brian Pendleton’s driving rhythm playing. The bass player, John Stax, adds a jumping bass line that’s pulled up prominently in the mix, and drummer Vivian St. John Prince hits hard (the Pretties would go through more drummers than Spinal Tap). Alec Palao’s liner notes lobby for the Pretty Things as "…far more uncompromising…" than the Stones. He pushes that point a little too hard, but "Don’t Bring Me Down," "Midnight to Six Man," and just about any of the other selections from ’64 to ’66 show the Pretty Things to be as hard-edged and as big an affront to polite society as the Stones ever were.

They also wrote great songs that should have made them more popular. Their garage-band edginess and pop craftsmanship bring to mind many of the songs from Nuggets, Lenny Kaye's compilation of American garage-rock hits. The Pretty Things adapted well to the fast-changing demands of the pop charts in the mid- and late-'60s and maintained both their punk attitude and their songwriting chops. Twenty-two of the selections from Come See Me appeared between ’64 and ’68, when the Pretty Things went through the same musical stages many of their contemporaries did. Rock'n'roll purists in the beginning, they later experimented with more complex instrumentation during the psychedelic era and recorded a rock opera, S. F. Sorrow, that preceded the Who’s Tommy by a year.

Although the band distances itself from the opulent production of 1967's Emotions, the two tracks included here from the LP are psych gems. "Death of a Socialite" has an especially amusing and batty string-and-horn arrangement that lets the Pretty Things remain true to themselves while taking a tentative step towards the larger musical ambitions typical of the time. In 1968 the band signed with a new label and jumped into the psychedelic era with both feet, grabbing electric sitars and Mellotrons as they landed. Even as the arrangements for songs like "Deflecting Grey" and "Talking About the Good Times" grew more involved and the musical ideas more complex, the Pretty Things kept their rock integrity. With "Walking Through My Dreams" they pay an obvious homage to the Who and, like that band, the Pretty Things could be progressive while retaining their raw power.

Come See Me includes two songs from S.F. Sorrow (1968) and one from Parachute (1970), ambitious records from a time in rock when, as Ben Edmunds wrote in the liner notes to a 1976 reissue of the two titles, "…it was not necessarily what you achieved that marked your worth, but what you were striving for." The set closes with one selection each from the two mid-'70s records the Pretty Things made for Swan Song, Silk Torpedo (1974) and Savage Eye (1975), which brought them as close as they would ever get to fame in the US.

Dick Taylor left the Pretty Things after S.F. Sorrow (he returned in 1978) and the band changed personnel often during the next few years, with only Phil May as its constant. The other constant was the band’s creativity and its ability to remain fresh and viable in a time when rock bands changed their sound with every album. I love the charm and artistic reach of the psychedelic-era songs, but the earlier, garage-rock tracks sound especially fresh. They also sound cleaner than on previous issues here in the US. You can spend time wondering, as I do, how the Pretty Things missed being as popular as other bands. But why bother? It’s enough to enjoy this collection and know where, whether they realize it or not, bands like the Vines and the Hives come from.

Don’t go another day without it.