Madfish [Release date 13.10.17]
There are few bands who have make it to their 50th anniversary, let alone with such a welter of re-issues to mark the occasion.
Indeed, The Pretty Things enthusiastic record company Madfish has already issued three compilation albums, starting with 2000′s ‘Latest Writs: Greatest Hits’, which included a handful of r&b staples, but focused more on the early to mid 70′s material onwards, as part of a 35 year retrospective.
Then they coupled the 1970 ‘Parachute’ album with a CD of ‘Single, B Sides & Bonus Re-Recordings’, in a 2010 release represented here by 4 tracks.
They’ve also released a separate double set of the first two albums with bonus tracks. And though with the exception of their #10 ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ and #13 ‘Honey I Need’, the band only registered 5 UK lower chart placings, the new Greatest Hits’ compilation does deliver in terms of compiling the band’s essential early catalogue highlights, as well as a 2010 live rendition of the whole of the first album.
But then The Pretty Things are no ordinary band. 4 years after their half century anniversary they are still going strong. Who else but rock’s original bad boys could have crossed over from their r&b roots and morphed into a psychedelic band, before hitting the rock mainstream when they signed with the Zeppelin Swan Song label in 1974? Their subsequent renaissance has come about through an amalgamation of their stylistic diversity.
Truth is, they will always remain a significant presence in British r&b and rock history, partly because they outdid the Stones in terms of outage in the 60′s but also because they cut ‘S.F. Sorrow’, rock’s first concept album or rock opera, a year before The Who’s ‘Tommy’.
Reading between the lines of manager Mark St. John’s triumphal liner notes, they are a band with a stop-start career and a constantly changing line-up, including a time when May even found himself sacked!
And though the album notes significantly skip over the lean years in the 80′s and 90′s and the fact that 12 studio and a couple of live albums isn’t a big return for half a century on the boards, the enduing part of their back catalogue featured on this album still excites.
The key to the band’s longevity is they way they’ve managed to reconcile a head-on collision between their hi-octane R&B and more adventurous song writing projects
There’s the early R&B nuggets such as May’s wild ‘Rosalyn’, the tempo change of ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’, the exuberant ‘Midnight To Six Man’, the sheer heft of ‘Come See Me’ and the aptly titled LSD’, all neatly juxtaposed with the psychedelic ‘Talking About The Good Times’, ‘SF Sorrow Is Born’ and ‘Defecting Grey’, as the band revels in a mix of stellar harmonies, mellotron and psychedelic phasing.
There’s also some overlooked classics such as the meditative, tremolo infused ‘Can’t Stand The Pain’, and the West Coast acoustic feel of ‘I Can Never Say’.
‘Cold Stone’ originally the B-side of ‘October 26′ – but sequenced back to front here – is a slide and wah-wah fuelled exemplar of the band’s new hard rock direction. It doesn’t beguile like the bluesy hippy lament of the A-side, which features Pete Tolson’s sculpted wah-wah on the second of 3 singles cut for Harvest.
The ‘Greatest Hits’ package is book-ended by a relative new track, the 2016 reworking of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, which the band turned down before it became a hit, to focus on their own material.
Phil gleefully attacks the opening brace of songs on Disc 2′s ‘Live at the 100 Club’ with undiminished vigour, but it isn’t until a rocking version of ‘Big City’ – without the annoying guest harp player and complete with a special Dick Taylor solo – that things really cook.
The live favourite ‘Mama Keep Your Big Mouth Shut’ is one of 2 Bo Diddley songs and is an example of their taut style and there’s also a rocking version of the short, sharp ‘Honey I Need’.
Chuck Berry’s ‘Oh Baby Doll again features Dicks intricate guitar work, but it’s more of a reminder of the mid 60′s pill popping energy levels than anything musically significant.
They save their best to last, with second Diddley classic ‘Pretty Thing’ which gave the band its name, as Phil steps up to the plate alongside Taylor’s imperious guitar playing over a whip crack rhythm section.
If nothing else, it serves to remind us that 54 years after the Taylor/May duo originally cut this material, they still have the chops and energy levels to deliver bristling R&B. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
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