To rack up 50 years of playing a together is an extraordinary feat. Hitting the road and hammering out '60s psych rock and R&B a whole half-century since getting the band together is to be admired in our book, especially if you’re still delivering it with a good punch. And it’s not the globally publicised Rolling Stones reunion tour we’re talking about here, but their old schoolmates and contemporaries, The Pretty Things. This isn’t an extortionately priced concert at the O2 Arena either, but an intimate gig at one of the country’s best small venues, The Trades Club in Hebden Bridge. Guitarist Dick Taylor was actually one of the first members of the Rolling Stones with Keith, Mick and Brian, but left to form The Pretty Things with singer Phil May.
Taylor has clearly let go of any regret at leaving the world’s biggest band and is warm and talkative on stage, laid back in everything but his guitar playing, which has thankfully stayed with him, undiminished. May is equally affable and his voice still has the power and threat of the rabble at its edges. Together with a timeworn bassist, and two immensely talented twenty-somethings, the current line-up is taking their batch of underground classics around the UK and extensively through Europe.
They kick off with their original UK debut single, ‘Rosalyn’ and the crowd – a predictably mature bunch with a healthy peppering of younger fans – react instantly. They follow up with the two UK Top 20 singles from their earlier days, ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ and ‘Honey I Need’. The energy is unquestionably still smouldering, so much so that Dick Taylor snaps a string. This allows for a fortuitous segment of chugging, laid-back blues, and while his young guitarist band-mate mends the string, Taylor pulls up a pew with a blues guitar and displays the meticulous talent that has always been the bedrock of the band.
Guitar mended and blues interlude over, it’s back to some breakneck business and the band blasts out vigorous renditions of ‘Road Runner’, ‘Mona’ and ‘You Can't Judge A Book By The Cover’.
The crowd are lit up, feeling treated to see these long-time legends, and the Pretty Things may be preaching maximum R&B to the already converted tonight, but they still invest mighty energy into getting it right.
They cover a lot of their back catalogue and the audience roars at the initial notes of ‘SF Sorrow’. The first concept narrative album, ‘S.F. Sorrow’ was released in December 1968, five months before The Who's rock opera ‘Tommy’ and for our money, is undoubtedly better. The album flopped commercially – another unfair piece of ill fortune – but the material stands the test of time.
They only select a handful of tracks from the album, with the relentless bad trip dirge that is ‘Balloon Burning’ sadly taking precedence over the uplifting brilliance of ‘Baron Saturday’ (one of Noel Gallagher’s favourite songs), but it’s a privilege to hear such seminal tracks live.
The Pretty Things may have had to live with an unjust lack of recognition and under appreciation for their music by a mass audience, but there is no doubting the admiration of their peers. As Van Morrison puts it, The Pretty Things are, “One of the greatest R&B bands of all time”.
Words and photo by Nick Rice