Die Old Stay Pretty


While so many of the manjacks in my fiftysomething-else cohort may have rushed out for a Viagra script the minute the ol’ missionary did a paradigm shift on them, I find that pure rock ‘n’ roll still keeps the jeweled erector set functional to a T. What shocks me here on the outthrust lip of The Millennium is that my contemporaries in the Pretty Things, fellow postvirgins ever since the Zinging ’60s, can still inject me with juice on their new set, at this theoretically late-assed date. Are we all stuck in some twilit zone of a tape loop, in which the classic ’60s version of the British Invasion not only isn’t played out yet, it’s just getting started?!?

Once upon a time, the two most enduring Pretty Things, vocalist Phil May and guitarist Dick Taylor, were Sidcup Art College chalkabouts energized by youthful Britain’s early-’60s celebration of black American r&b, but with the added and now bizarre factoid that their immediate mates in this enterprise were none other than Mick Jagger and Keith Richard(s). Yep, the same. Dick Taylor was even the bassist of record in an early edition of the Stones. But there was an overload of egos, so in 1963 May and Taylor founded their own Pretty Things (named for a Bo Diddley song), and set out to play those blues.

By 1999, with Jagger and Richards long since wizened into the kind of society-page crones they once so wickedly satirized, the Pretty Things have already lived out several blues lifetimes (more painfully authentic than an eager artschool lad ever could’ve imagined), but are still contemplating an initial breakthrough in now-long-Ed-Sullivan-bereft America. They had talent and promise from the beginning, as May’s voice was probably ultimately better than Jagger’s, full and rich like Eric Burdon’s, while Taylor and the other Pretties always provided a rhythmic slash of sound, and the band attracted that essential press notoriety for their hair (May’s was actually longer sooner than Dave Davies’s) and general rowdiness.

Yet the Pretties’ fatal flaw was a singular knack for making strange, non sequitur career choices. They turned down a chance to cover Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” (before the Byrds) because they wanted to do their own songs. They declined a tour of the States in 1965 because they wanted to play the teeming record markets of Australasia. They arguably created the first-ever “rock opera,” their 1968 S.F. Sorrow album, watched Peter Townshend lift the whole concept-album concept and even some of the music for his own Tommy (1969), then got slagged by the U.S. press as copycats when their entry came out after the Who’s in America. The Pretty Things’ last real chance to achieve British-Invasion-in-its-time validation slipped away in the mid ’70s, when the band was promisingly taken up by Led Zeppelin’s management, but then imploded while touring the States. Once more the Pretties had snatched defeat from Mick Jagger’s tongue-engorged jaws.

The group struggled on, at one point without either May or Taylor, and finally collapsed into shambles in the early 1980s, which, on the eternal Pretty Things doomsday clock meant that it was time to . . . start a new album! One that’s just now emerging, some 18 years later. Whole schools of fatally haired Britpop have burst upon the scene then flocked like seagulls into the void while Rage Before Beauty was still in the works. This latest version of the Pretty Things’ beyond-Sisyphean comeback has been guided by manager/producer/rescuer/denmother Mark St. John, whose exertions have already blessed us with Snapper Music’s 1998 reissue of six classic Pretty Things albums on extended CDs: The Pretty Things and Get The Picture? (both from 1965); Emotions (1967); the legendary S.F. Sorrow (1968); and the two sets from their Swan Song swan song, Silk Torpedo (1974) and Savage Eye (1976). Get The Picture? (with its stunning concentration of primordial Britpunk in the songs “Midnight to Six Man,” “Come See Me,” and “L.S.D.”) and S.F. Sorrow (both more concise and musically prettier— so to speak— than Tommy) are probably the two best.

And this year, the terminally eccentric Pretties have simply inverted the last two digits of “1999” and resurrected their 1966 lineup for Rage Before Beauty. As with each of their earlier albums, the new set has a high zeitgeist quotient, but as it was created over so many years, there are several zeitgeists involved. The liner notes don’t provide specific dates, but it’s likely that “Love Keeps Hanging On” and “Fly Away” are among the oldest songs, judging by their arena-hushing power-balladry. Much more stimulating are what I take to be the “newer” (in their uptempo assertiveness) tunes, especially the churning “Not Givin’ In” (which would sound like Steve Forbert doing the John Mellencamp songbook if the Pretties hadn’t been closeted in Their England the whole time those Yanks were on the charts) and the We-did-it-OUR-backassward-way “Everlasting Flame,” distinguished by its 19th-bipolar-breakdown opening and by May singing “media” (!) as though it’s really “meteor.” (Hey! Maybe that’s what hit them!) “Passion of Love” g-l-o-riafies that beat like an opening cut should, while “Vivian Prince” is an incredibly affecting and vampy saga of the Pretties’ original headcase drummer, reputed to have inspired the Who’s Keith Moon early on. (Keith’s dead but I’m wearing his hat!)

Rage Before Beauty is further arousified by a trio of cover versions so irrational they’re obsessively perfect: Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” (if you can’t break the States, imagine ’em anyway), Tommy James’s “Mony Mony” (with erotic vocal exchanges between May and Ronnie Spector), and the Stones’ own “Play With Fire,” with Jagger now cast as the mature “heiress” who “owns a block in St. John’s Wood”— in contrast to these skint but virtual youngstuds in the Pretty Things, for whom “maybe next year” has been the watchword for 35 of the little buggers already. In Rage Before Beauty, the Pretty Things have erected their most toweringly imposing recording since the momentous ’60s, when such tall trees routinely grew on trees. Let’s hope their latest redwood doesn’t topple into a
vacant forest.