The death of Pretty Things vocalist Phil May (he was in Bowie’s address book under ‘God’) prompted a re-listen to a 1970 album which at the time (mid ‘O’ Levels) had quite a profound effect on the 16 year old me. What I had no knowledge of at the time was that they were pretty anarchic and hardcore for the time when they emerged in the late 60s, called by some the Stones on steroids, and renowned for their chaotic and at times violent live performances. I just came across this record, I can’t remember how, and it became a reliable standby for something to stick on. It was immensely listenable, kicking off with a kind of song cycle which attracted fans of Abbey Road like me. I think the band had much more about them than their image suggested; they never really achieved the success of some of their contemporaries, but they didn’t really care. When they retired from gigging, the final performance featured appearances from Van Morrison and Dave Gilmour, who saw what others had missed.
The first few short tracks blur into each other, Scene One is a jarring combination of slashed guitar chords, frantic keyboard stabs and multi-tracked vocals, which shifts into The Good Mr Square, quite a Beatl-ey melody with lush backing vocals. Track three, She Was Tall She Was High, is pretty much part two of the same song. In The Square begins another section and then sharply changes tack into The Letter, a gorgeous melody which ends too soon by announcing the title of the next track, Rain.
Here we seem to be getting into the meat of things, while you still feel it’s all part of a whole – you can’t see the joins – is this track six? Who cares? Ask Miss Fay, maybe she will provide enlightenment. She regrets not. She was born to the screen. What became of her ninth husband? It sounds like more typical Pretty Things, charging to a breathless halt. Brownie points for no fade.
Cries from the midnight circus is more of a stand alone, churning rock rhythms and dark lyrics (“Daughters of Satan all stand in line with faces greased and a mouth full of… shine”), and at 6 minutes plus something more of a statement. The insistent guitar riffing gets inside your head and you don’t want it to stop. End of side one. Sides were A Thing in 1970.
Side Two is something else altogether. Grass sounds like getting it together in the country, but it’s darker, melancholy, it could be a breakup song.
There on a hill before the dawn
In silence a promise torn
She turns from you
And so you bleed now …
A lovely guitar solo too. Sickle Clowns follows, which is the story of a bike crash told in the film Easy Rider, one of the cult films of the late 60s (starring Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda), and a development of the insistent guitar driven feel of Midnight Circus, but a better song. ‘Young America murdered there’. Great rock music, love the rasping vocal, percussion and smooth organ chords, then the stripped back rhythm passage, into the fade. Brownie points removed? Actually it works.
She’s a lover again invites Beatle comparisons but they can write Tunes! On Parachute they seem repeatedly to effortlessly combine a hard-edged city mentality with a pastoral sensibility. One minute you’re in town and the next cruising past green fields, hence the cover art. It will seem dated to 21st century ears but in 1970 it was a revelation. What’s the use opens with lovely descending piano chords, followed by a vocal melody reminiscent of the Beach Boys or some such. But gone before it’s started. The title track is almost lounge jazz, very cheesy vocal stylings, are we in Vegas? But no, it’s just fab man, are they sending themselves up? I think so, judging by the ending, only dogs will hear the final seconds. Love it.
PS ignore the extra tracks found on CDs. The album ends with Parachute.