Pretty in Punk: The Pretty Things, more Punk than “Punk”

The term “punk rock” gets thrown around with such frequency that its meaning is now effectively vague. The term has been despoiled by idiots and charlatans over the years. But to be sure there are certain qualities associated with the platonic “punk rock,” and in retrospect many bands from the pre-punk era embody these elements, often times more so than the bands that are considered to be the initial crop of punk rock groups. Looking back, there are plenty of examples of shit that is way more punk than punk is, like the Marquis DeSade or Jesus or the first human civilizations, who effectively had a DIY policy toward everything since they had to invent it all. History is full of examples of people giving the proverbial middle finger to the world and doing what they felt had to be done regardless of conventional wisdom. Largely this doesn’t concern us however, so get focused. Also, take a fucking history course if you’re so interested. Or go to the library. This article doesn’t concern itself with moldy old history; it’s about kick-ass rock and roll. And at any rate, history for me can effectively be said to start when Elvis first entered Sun Studios because prior to that I don’t give a flying fuck. If electric guitars are not in the equation and no one is doing drugs or having sex, I just can’t get interested.

Guitars had their biggest premiere in the 1960s. In the early part of that decade, American music was hitting England like a punch to the throat–or at least hitting a select audience of bored teenagers. Bored kids were hanging around art schools in England at the time, trying to figure out a way to avoid having a real job, not entirely unlike kids that go to art school today. Trad jazz was the big thing in Britain musically at the time and it was pretty dull. So these limeys decided to start investigating blues musicians and rock and rollers from the states. Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Son House, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed records started showing up and it was unlike anything these Brits had heard.

A group of kids started hanging around together, skipping class and spinning these records. They began to teach themselves how to play the guitar licks they heard and soon realized that they too could play music. Some of them would go on to form The Rolling Stones. However, it is another group that sprang from this scene that I want to rant about. The Pretty Things.

Formed from the ashes of various R&B groups, the Pretty Things arrived on the scene with a complete disregard for anything other than their own interests, which as far as I can tell, centered around Bo Diddley and not bathing. After various line up changes, they eventually settled into a consistent group and began banging out versions of their favorite songs, such as tunes from Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed. While many nascent bands were emerging with similar influences, The Pretty Things were their own entity. Far from pretty, they were dirtier then my ex-girlfriend and raunchier then a Nashville honky-tonk. They played with passion, and what they lacked in technical knowledge, they more than made up for in subversive attitude and presence.

Singer Phil May declared himself to have the longest hair in England specifically because it was offensive to British sensibilities at the time. They were scruffy and mean and seemed to have nothing but contempt for the establishment. They flaunted their grimy image and it worked wonderfully, probably because there was no difference between these guys at home or on stage. They were the same scruffy rock and roll fans no matter what was going on.

It is the music though, that embodied their punk ethos. After cutting their teeth on the British R&B circuit they developed an audience and garnered enough attention to record. From their first single “Rosalyn,” it is apparent that these guys were taking no prisoners. The guitars are a spitfire barrage of amps being pushed to the limit; the vocals are just nasty. Phil May sings everything in a tone that suggests to me that immediately prior to recording his vocals, he was engaged in an orgiastic frenzy of drunkenness and violence that left several peoples’ lives in ruin, a fact he is unconcerned with.

Their self-titled first album hits you like a tsunami, if tsunamis wore cool shoes and smoked French cigarettes. The lead track is a cover of the classic “Roadrunner,” and once it starts you’ll want to load up the car you just stole from police impound with TNT, and drive directly into a volcano. You can hear the enthusiasm on every track. These guys didn’t give a fuck about fame or money, they just wanted to rock the fuck out and pay tribute to the pioneers who inspired them. I find it difficult to imagine why anyone cared about The Beatles when they could listen to “Momma, Keep Your Big Mouth Shut.” The Beatles were tame, cute even. They wanted to hold your hand. The Pretty Things wanted to get jacked up on speed and cheap brandy and have an orgy with you and all your friends before stealing the furniture to sell to gypsies in exchange for Vox guitars.

With the band’s second album, Get The Picture, The Pretty Things established themselves as great songwriters as well. Just listen to “Buzz the Jerk” played at an appropriately loud level. The bass guitar will shatter your neighbor’s will to live while the guitars slash and burn through your remaining brain cells. The album continues to boggle the mind with its explosive, yet danceable amped up R&B. It’s a rock and roll punch to the nuts.

The ultimate depiction of The Pretty Things place in the pantheon of grimy punk rock and roll came with the band’s single, “Midnight to Six Man.” Now, I could not possibly articulate what this song does to me when it comes on. An ode to a life of weird hours and scoring speed, the song manages in less than two and a half minutes to invent an entire genre, the genre in question of course being “music to smash windows to.” The lead guitar licks trade off with boogie piano and the drums hit you with the intensity of a meteor. It’s one of those tunes that you play seventeen times in row despite your roommates bitching at you to take the speakers off the porch before the cops show up. Fuck them anyway because if you’ve taken my advice, your roommates are either coke-dealing strippers or alcoholic bounty hunters and thusly won’t be bothered a bit by 24/7 garage rock.

The Pretty Things recorded many other gems that are equally appropriate for blasting at full tilt. “Come See Me,” features explosive bass that will shake the foundations of your house, “L.S.D.” is great track that marks the start of the band’s psychadelic phase. The Pretty Things were paragons of hallucinogenic mayhem. The song “Defecting Grey,” will induce acid flashbacks even if you’ve never done drugs…or maybe it just does that to me, but regardless, it’s an amazing foray into well-crafted psychedelic sound. Additionally, the song sabotages you with a heavy metal bridge section that’s just evil before returning to a playful droning rhythm.

Many bands of the era walked down this particular drugged-out avenue but few managed to pull it off artistically without succumbing to noodly pretention. Frankly, I think The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s is a piece of garbage as is The Stones’ Her Satanic Majesty’s Request. Neither can compare with the masterpiece that is the Pretty Things album S.F. Sorrow. It’s more or less the first concept album, the concept being “Holy fuck, I am high and this album rules.” It is also tied together thematically, telling the story of a man’s life. The fuzz guitars mix with spacy vocals to create well-crafted yet surprising songs that merge the excesses of 1960s acid rock with the raunch and roll that has always been the band’s hallmark. Forget The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, the song “Talking About the Good Times” not only outright acid rocks those assholes but it is still high octane enough to make you want to smash an American car to smithereens with a baseball bat. Next time your buddy doses you with twenty gel tabs of acid without telling you, cling to this album. It will be your guiding light through the darkness of surreal existential crisis and introspective nightmare.

Yes indeed, The Pretty Things represent the epitome of what punk rock and roll should be: A bunch of guys who just wanted to play dirty rock and roll who evolved over time into astonishing songwriters and musical experimenters. But it doesn’t stop there. Any number of other great bands existed in the heady days of garage rock and roll. The beauty of it is that you can pick any city, anywhere in the world and find hidden classics. And ignore those hipster fucks in Williamsburg who amass garage rock albums and rate them based on obscurity. Sometimes the best shit is right there in front of you. Check out the Attack or the Sonics. Things have gotten easier these days because there are hundreds of garage rock compilations out there. The best place to start is probably Nuggets, a Lenny Kaye compiled collection of some renowned acts. When you need an infusion of subversive, sloppy and passionate rock and roll to melt faces to, you really can’t go wrong with Nuggets. The Pebbles series is also great. But the lesson to take to heart, and one that truly is punk, is that you can do it too. These bands formed in the suburbs, in the cities, and in the countryside. All it takes is a cheap guitar and a bad attitude. Rock and roll emerged out of a love for the music and an irreverent attitude. It rings true because it wasn’t about fame and fortune. It wasn’t about becoming accomplished musicians or recognized artists. It was about doing it because nothing else compares to the rush of banging out an open A chord on a fuzzed-out telecaster with the volume all the way up. Listen to the Stooges, the Pistols, or any other “punk” band and it becomes clear that their inspirations came from the same twisted place. “Midnight to Six”? That’s my time.

–Mr. Evasion, Josh Bala

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