The Pretty Things: Bouquets From A Cloudy Sky

Fifty years of R&B, prog, AOR, psychedelia and rock’n’roll – all in a heroically-curated box set.

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Whereas the Rolling Stones did rebels-by-numbers (‘Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?’), The Pretty Things frontman Phil May taunted parents with the line: ‘I’m in love with your little girl and your little boy’s in love with me.’

They took it all too far, to filch a line from their super-fan, David Bowie. Bad luck, self-destruction and poor decisions scuppered the Dartford five’s career, leaving them penniless, despite producing some of the decade’s best records.

That this collection exists at all is down to the heroic efforts of manager Mark St John, who dragged record companies through the courts to win back copyrights and unpaid royalties. It’s all here in this box (legal letters included): the band’s wayward progress from raucous R&B renegades, through psychedelia and experiments into prog and AOR.

Aside from the self-titled 1965 debut album, Get The Picture? and SF Sorrow, there are heartening discoveries. Demos unearthed for the rarities discs reveal that 1967’s Emotions was better before strings and horns parped all over it. And while 1970’s Parachute often misfires in its attempts at underground rock, when it does work (such as on Cold Stone), it’s a blast of pure adrenalin.

Among the overlooked gems is Alexander, a fuzz rocker from their Electric Banana period, and 1980’s Cross Talk, with hints of Elvis Costello and The Ruts. The DVDs include footage of the notorious 1965 Dutch show where May, maracas in one hand and fag in the other, presides over a riot.

As well as notes by fan Mike Stax, the book contains cuttings, rare photos and accounts of ludicrous incidents, such as the Led Zep-hosted launch party for 1974’s Silk Torpedo, featuring a giant phallic ice carving and naked girls throwing jelly. Guess what? The album had rave reviews. Listening to it without those incentives, its merits are less apparent.

By 1976, the band had collapsed into a coke-ridden, overblown mess, with May failing to show for a Wembley gig opening for Uriah Heep. By a strange twist of karma, The Pretty Things were rescued by punk, the movement their mid-60s snotty selves had helped ignite. As in so much of life, their first idea proved to be best and so …Rage Before Beauty, the 1999 return-to-roots album, paved the way for a revival of fortunes.

Their story is one of the great oversights of rock’n’roll and it’s a joy to see it curated with such care. Let’s hope Phil May, Dick Taylor and the boys stick around long enough to mess it up all over again./o:p

Claudia Elliott

Claudia Elliott is a music writer and sub-editor. She has freelanced for BBC Radio 2's Sounds of the 60s, Uncut, History of Rock, Classic Rock and The Blues magazine. She is a 1960s music specialist.