Probably the best classic rock band that most people can’t name,
The Pretty Things were the lost patrol of the British Invasion.
Guitarist Dick Taylor was in Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys with fellow Sidcup Art College students Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. Brian Jones came along, bringing with him a somewhat better name for the band. Taylor was shifted to playing bass, a role he did not relish. In one of history’s poorer decisions, he quit the World’s Greatest Rock Band after a few months, going back to school. It was there that he met singer Phil May and formed The Pretty Things.
After three R&B-based albums, the band worked the night shift at Abbey Road, recording the first rock opera, S.F. Sorrow, while The Beatles were doing Sgt. Pepper and Pink Floyd was making The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Members of The Who say the record did not influence the writing of Tommy, but I — and The Pretty Things — suspect otherwise.
S.F. Sorrow is a darkly twisted psychedelic journey through one man’s life — from birth to
first love, war, tragedy, and a descent into drug-addled madness — that stretches the boundaries
of recording technology every bit as much as the efforts of the band’s legendary associates.
I am amazed that no one ever mentioned The Pretty Things or the record to me, and I only stumbled upon it a few years ago.
After the bitter disappointment of their brilliant release falling on deaf ears, The Pretty Things made a more straightforward rock album, the equally good Parachute. (Dick Taylor also took some time away to produce and play guitar on the first Hawkwind release.)
Three more rock solid efforts came out in the ’70s, but it’s arguable who
did more harm — indifferent record companies or the notoriously hard-partying band themselves.
In the ensuing, embattled years, The Pretty Things put out a New Wave record, and later, returned to their more traditional blues sound, and have recorded as recently as 2007’s Balboa Island. They also got together for a live webcast at Abbey Road in 1998, performing S.F. Sorrow in its entirety, with help from Arthur Brown as narrator and David Gilmour on guitar. The response on the net was so overwhelming that the servers crashed and no one actually got to see the performance, but thankfully it’s out on DVD now.
The band are probably forever marked as also-rans — particularly in light of the world-conquering groups they ran with — but their great, forgotten concept album and Parachute should be an essential part of any classic rock fan’s collection.