Gig review: THE PRETTY THINGS – London, 100 Club, 21 December 2013

The brief was, I am led to believe, simple. “It’s a mod do,” promoter John Hellier had said to the band beforehand, “so keep it strictly Mod- all R’n'B, no psych.” Admittedly, that’s not how I’d have played it, but my own thoughts (which could and would incite debate across several pages of New Untouchables or similar websites) regarding this particularly single-minded, Meaden-esque definition of the subculture aside, I have to say in retrospect that old Johnny-boy  made the right decision.

For, though my preferred Pretties era runs roughly from SF Sorrow to somewhere between Silk Torpedo and Cross Talk, I have seen them perform the former in its entirety twice, the complete Electric Banana set once, and a mixture of both on at least two other occasions: thus, tonight makes a welcome change from what I have gradually begun to perceive as the ‘norm’. And change is, as we all know, good as a rest.

Mark you, that doesn’t stop them from throwing renditions of ‘Alexander’ (at the incessant request of a fan) ‘SF Sorrow Is Born’ ‘She Says Good Morning’ and ‘Danger Sign’ in quite early on: such tunes have, by now, become such an essential part of the legend that is the Pretty Things that it would be ludicrous to imagine a set entirely devoid of them.

And with a guitarist as gifted in the art of low-end noise, screeching feedback and swirling, chiming modal melody as Dick Taylor – remember, kids, this is the bloke that Jimmy Page, Tony Iommi and Mick Box looked up to, and probably still do – it would be a shame to not put such talents to good use for at least 20 minutes.

He may look like Are You Being Served’s Young Mr Grace these days, but don’t be fooled by appearances: inside this esteemed, slightly-built, respectable-looking elder gentleman still beats the heart of the prime architect of the British garage riff. And even if we take into account that British bands of the 60s generally didn’t own cars, so technically they didn’t actually play garage, Taylor, vocalist Phil May and the other Pretties still remain the finest ‘shed’ band ever to grace a stage…

The lineup has stabilised in the last six or seven years since bassist George Perez and drummer Jack Greenwood replaced their elder predecessors, bringing back the fiery, thrashing dynamic that the likes of Viv Prince, Skip Alan, John Stax and Wally Waller had once engendered, and giving the likes of ‘Come See Me’ ‘Get The Picture’ ‘Can’t Judge A Book’ and ‘Road Runner’ the Cuban-heeled boot up the arse they needed: this is still very much the case this evening, and with the youngsters’ hair now grown to suitable lengths, things aren’t visually too far from a 67-68 vintage, even though May’s own barnet may have long since ascended to a higher astral plane.

Stage right, rhythm guitarist, blues harpist and all-round ‘musician’s musician’ Frank Holland, present since the 80s, is also an essential cog in this well-oiled rock and roll machine, bringing particular finesse to the acoustic section mid-set which features, among others, magnificently sleazy yet dapper deliveries of ‘Come On In My Kitchen’ and ‘Little Red Rooster’, and an amplified, all-thrusting ‘Mona’, the latter completely annihilating any memories of bad renditions by dodgy early 90s soap stars. Close your eyes and we could almost be in the 100 Cl…oh, look, we are.

In an ideal world, of course, the Pretties would be far more recognised for their contributions to the invention, let alone the propagation of, British rock and roll in all its developmental stages – truly, from beat to R’n'B to freakbeat to psych to prog to metal to glam to pub rock to punk to AOR, they’ve been there right at the start of it all, and while not every album has been a surefire success either artistically or creatively, they’ve persisted, even through years of chemical abuse and emotional upheaval, with an anger and hunger for acknowledgement that has never abated.

Yet the mere fact that they do remain, at heart, a club band -theatrical productions at the South Bank and a few of the more adventurous European festivals aside- means that we can experience them in tight close-up, with May’s every hoarse, wailing yet peculiarly English (make that Sarf East Lahndahnish) blues shout, and Taylor’s every fuzz, thruzz and strum (as adept at gently picked acoustics as at fully amplified Gretsch terrorism) magnified to the nth degree. Try getting that intimacy from the Stones two miles away in some cavernous arena.

Taking all the above into account, however, I must admit to still hankering at various points for a little less blues and maybe just a teensy little bit more mind-bending: it would therefore be a misfire if, after all the aforementioned standards, they didn’t round the evening off with at least one more of their own, pioneering compositions.

Thus, ‘L.S.D’ – which actually meant ‘pounds, shillings and pence’ back then, trivia buffs, and which bridges perfectly the gap between their hardcore Mod and more exploratory eras- is the perfect choice.

And “Maximum R’n'B” Pretties is, as I said at the start, still a welcome change from complacent Pretties. As with many of their contemporaries, 2014 sees them celebrating their 50th anniversary in rock and roll (with a mooted new studio album in the works) – but very few of their peers can still approach this music, which was never expected to last twenty years, let alone this long, with such attack, which as far as I’m concerned should, at the very least confirm their seat among the elite and elect. Welcome To The Monster Club.

Review by Darius Drewe

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