The Pretty Things were the also-rans of the British Invasion, a band that never got its due. Despite this lack of recognition, they were never quite ignored, cultivating a passionate cult that stuck with them through the decades -- a cult that was drawn to either their vicious early records, where they sometimes seemed like a meaner version of the Rolling Stones, or to their 1968 psychedelic masterwork S.F. Sorrow. Some of their fans advocate for the entirety of their catalog, noting how the group adeptly shifted with the times. Despite these shifts in style, they rarely racked up hits on either side of the Atlantic. In the United States, they didn't chart until 1975, a full decade after they released their rough-and-tumble debut. Back then, the Pretty Things seemed like rivals to the Rolling Stones and that was no great leap: guitarist Dick Taylor played bass in the first incarnation of the Stones, not long before he teamed up with Phil May to form the Pretty Things in 1963. Taking their name from a Bo Diddley song, the Pretty Things were intentionally ugly: their sound was brutish, their hair longer than any of their contemporaries, their look unkempt. This nastiness was evident on their first pair of singles, "Rosalyn" and "Don't Bring Me Down," two 45s that charted in 1964, their success helping to get their eponymous debut into the U.K. Top Ten a year later, but that turned out to be the extent of their commercial success. The Pretty Things may not have shown up on the charts but their cult proved to be influential: it's been said Pete Townshend was influenced by S.F. Sorrow to write Tommy for the Who and David Bowie covered both "Rosalyn" and "Don't Bring Me Down" for his 1973 album Pin Ups. Critics liked them too but that acclimation didn't sell records. Nevertheless, the Pretty Things were survivors, soldiering on through the '70s, turning into a harder, heavier outfit that was rewarded with marginal U.S. success -- 1974's Silk Torpedo and 1976's Savage Eye made the lower reaches of Billboard -- cutting a credible new wave album at the dawn of the '80s. The Pretty Things would split not long afterward but their cult remained so strong that they became a semi-active concern at the beginning of the new millennium, as they would occasional reunite for tours and recordings.
Such perseverance would've seemed unlikely back in 1963 when Dick Taylor and Phil May first formed the band. Taylor had been playing with Mick Jagger in a London outfit called Little Boy Blue & the Blue Boys since he was a schoolboy and he later met Keith Richards at Sidcup Art School. In 1962, Taylor, Jagger, and Richards all started playing, once again calling themselves Little Boy Blue & the Blue Boys, with Brian Jones and Ian Stewart aboard, and this group turned into the Rolling Stones, but Taylor tired of bass and left to concentrate on art. Soon, he was convinced by fellow Sidcup Art School student Phil May to form the Pretty Things. The duo brought in bassist John Stax, guitarist Brian Pendleton, and drummer Pete Kitley; the latter would soon be replaced by Viv Prince. Bryan Morrison, who also was attending art school with Taylor and May, managed the band and helped get it signed to Fontana.
"Rosalyn," the group's first single, peaked at 41 in 1964 but "Don't Bring Me Down" went to ten and "Honey I Need" topped out at 13 in 1965. These three singles helped the group's self-titled debut reach number six on the U.K. album charts, but with success came some turbulence. Drummer Prince left toward the end of 1965 and was succeeded by Skip Alan, while the group's 1966 album Get the Picture? showed the rough, ragged rock & roll group adopting a slight pop art stance.
More lineup changes soon followed -- Pendleton and Stax left by early 1967, with John Povey and Wally Waller taking their place -- and Fontana pushed the group in a softer, string-laden direction for that year's Emotions. This wasn't a hit and the Pretty Things soon lost drummer Alan and decamped for EMI's Columbia, where they recorded what is roundly regarded as their masterpiece, S.F. Sorrow. Appearing at the end of 1968, S.F. Sorrow is by many measures the first rock opera, earning a big cult but not selling much.
Dick Taylor left in the wake of S.F. Sorrow -- guitarist Victor Unitt, previously of the Edgar Broughton Band, took his place -- and Alan returned to the band. This new lineup first stretched its legs supporting French playboy Philippe DeBarge as he dipped his toes into rock & roll -- these recordings were long shelved; they appeared in 2010 -- and this wasn't the only way the Pretty Things made money; they moonlighted anonymously for the music library company DeWolfe, recording film music that wound up reissued under the name Electric Banana. Despite all this activity, the next big release from the Pretty Things was Parachute in 1970, which received acclaim but no sales.
The lack of success led to a temporary disbandment, but they regrouped for a new contract with Warner that was inaugurated with Freeway Madness in 1972. Next, they teamed up with manager Peter Grant -- the giant behind Led Zeppelin -- and were signed to Swan Song, which released Silk Torpedo in 1974 and Savage Eye in 1976. These harder, heavier records were a bigger success in America than any previous Pretty Things LP, but it wasn't enough to keep the group together: they split up in 1976.
A full-fledged reunion teaming Phil May and Dick Taylor came in 1980 when the group recorded Cross Talk, an admirable attempt to ride the new wave that did not sell. They split again, but May and Taylor started to perform regularly under a variety of different monikers, including teaming with Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty in the '90s. As the new millennium approached, they embarked on special projects such as a revival of S.F. Sorrow, and then they recorded a brand-new full-length album called Rage...Before Beauty in 1999. Reissues and biographies followed in the 2000s as did one more album, 2007's Balboa Island, and the band also toured regularly.
They decided to celebrate their 50th anniversary in style, touring Europe and the U.K. in 2013 and releasing the career-encompassing box Bouquets from a Cloudy Sky in 2015. The box set found the Pretty Things looking back during a potentially dark time, as Phil May suffered a serious health scare in 2014 when he was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which impacts the lungs and makes it very difficult to breathe. But after giving up smoking and adopting a healthier lifestyle, May was well enough to begin work on a new Pretty Things album with Taylor, guitarist Frank Holland, bassist George Woosey, and drummer Jack Greenwood, and late 2015 saw the bloodied but unbowed Pretties not only winning enthusiastic reviews for The Sweet Pretty Things (Are in Bed Now, of Course...), but touring Europe and the U.K. in support.
~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine