Who are the Pretty Things, and what happened to them? Back in the early to mid-'60s, they were the grittier, alter-ego B-side of the much more successful Rolling Stones. In fact, Pretty Things guitarist Dick Taylor was musically involved with school chums Mick and Keith, but apparently abandoned what proto-band there was because he took his finals seriously.
No matter. Soon thereafter, Taylor formed the Pretty Things with vocalist Phil May, and what followed was either the British Invasion's best-kept secret or the real life inspiration for Spinal Tap. Their hard-to-believe history sounds better suited to the pages of a postmodern farce or if you actually buy it, one of the greatest rock trivia questions of all time.
Rewind to 1963. The Pretty Things rock out on American R&B and blues tunes, like the Stones, but have developed a reputation for playing with a bit more edge. The Pretty Things pack up their instruments and try to invade, but a misguided manager picks the wrong continent (Australia over the States). En route, the intrepid Pretties set their sky chariot aflame. The baddest of the bad boys don't get the U.S. tour, but instead manage, as the story goes, a lifelong ban from Australia and New Zealand (due to the in-flight arson). They go on to rack up another 61 assorted offenses, including assault with a deadly weapon. The Pretty Things do manage some minor attention in the States with a banned single ("LSD"), but their stature falls well behind that of the Stones and other invasion bands.
Consigned to the second tier of Brit bands by the latter half of the '60s, the Pretty Things segue into a psychedelic period and record the album S.F. Sorrow. With the album's experimental sound and songs, and an interlocking theme/plot (including a sweetheart's death in a hydrogen balloon mishap), the Pretty Things created what many critics consider the first true rock opera. More typical, almost comical Pretties bad luck ensues, when the record company shelves the album for almost a year. In the interim, a band named the Who releases an album titled Tommy. You connect the dots.
The Pretty Things made a career of this type of thing: timeliness, prescience, and presence for several years, but with all the success and good fortune of Saul. After S.F. Sorrow, the band garnered an album of the year accolade from Rolling Stone (Parachute, in 1970), managed to get signed to Led Zeppelin's label, Swan Song (the Zeps were admirers, apparently), and according to Taylor, also gave an opening slot to a little known band of young punks, the Sex Pistols, for their first gig in London. These Zeligs of the Brit rock scene then weathered several lineup switches and a few larger tours into the '70s, but eventually faded from memory.
At present, however, they are enjoying a bit of a renaissance. After obtaining the rights to their music and finishing their latest recording, Rage Before Beauty, a project nearly two decades in the making, the original 1966 Pretty Things lineup has reunited. Last year they did a one-off gig in New York, and this year they've decided to finally get on with a proper tour of the States.
After going through what the Pretty Things did, you might expect that a frustrated lot of old rockers might lay siege to the Rock Hall after their show at the Grog Shop. But surprisingly, the humble guitarist Dick Taylor rather enjoys the status he and his bandmates currently have. "Basically, we didn't get as much money as a lot of people, but we remained alive, and we remained talking to one another," says Taylor. "I think that that's rather more important, in lots of ways. We aren't floating dead in swimming pools or lying in flats or anything."
Taylor pauses. "There's a lot of very famous dead people. I think I prefer to be alive."
And according to Taylor, the band members have more to be happy about than their status as living people. The band has kept a simmering cult following for years, and Taylor finds that he has always been able to make a living in music, whether it's been with a Pretty Things incarnation or in the various other bands he's played in. "We have such a cult following, I think that we're almost out of cult status, and I think that's great. I find that a happy position to be in."
For their show last year, they played songs spanning the spectrum of their career, from the early R&B up to their recent album, and that's the plan for their impending American tour. "On last year's show," Taylor says, "it was absolutely packed to the gills. [The crowd] responded amazingly well. It was a bit like [we were] long-lost heroes."
Heroes? Perhaps. Long lost? Most definitely. The Pretty Things had apparently lost themselves somewhere in the vicinity of the recording studio and the neighborhood pub. Rage Before Beauty took so long to complete, the newly recruited old band members not only played on the more recent cuts, they also clocked in on the earliest ones the first recordings predated them actually leaving the band the last time.
"What actually happened was that Phil [May, original vocalist] and I were working, and our manager, Mark St. John, got us together and said that we'd managed to get all the rights to all the recordings. He said, "Well, would it be an idea to see if the people who participated in the recordings of that time would want to join us again? Which we did. At various points, we've had revivalist things, and we've brought along Wally [Waller], Skip [Allen], and John [Povey], who are the main guys from that time. We've used them before, and now it seemed like a good time to do that again."
Rage Before Beauty does have its share of bad spots, most notably a few corny covers ("Mony Mony" and "Eve of Destruction") and a nasty power ballad ("Love Keeps Hanging On"). But for the most part, these rockers still churn out the same unrepentant, snarling, white-boy R&B, as if they'd been hermetically sealed in a beer vat for thirty years. But as for the offstage behavior, they have definitely mellowed. When asked about the Pretty Things' history of hooliganism, Taylor replies, "I'll tell you what, I'll say fuck off. That would be an outright reply to that . . . Don't get upset. I don't mean it. But you know what I mean. I dunno."