What does it sound like?:
Pretty Things are a ‘cult’ band, meaning they enjoyed little commercial success but attracted a loyal and fervent fan base. This year, their lead singer and lyric writer, Phil May, the only constant member through the decades, sadly lost his life, effectively ending the band as a going concern. This 50th anniversary edition of Parachute, their fifth album, serves as a fitting tribute.
Pretty Things began by playing ugly, unkempt rhythm and blues. Their debut is more than a match for The Rolling Stones’ for raw excitement, except for the fact it came out the following year. Early singles bothered the UK charts. They missed the wave of The British Invasion in America, spending much of 1965 touring the Southern Hemisphere, their drummer, Viv Prince, wreaking havoc wherever he went. They flirted a little with Soul (they even signed to a subsidiary of Tamla Motown) but the drugs Phil May started taking made him see himself as a sweet, sensitive poet, aspiring to be T.S. Eliot. Their sound became more psychedelic and they created the first Rock Opera, S.F. Sorrow, in 1968. Parachute, produced by Norman Smith in Abbey Road, is the follow up, by which time their musical creative force, Dick Taylor, had left the band. Bassist and vocalist Wally Waller stepped into his songwriting role and Victor Unitt guesting on lead guitar from The Edgar Broughton Band.
Parachute is a concept album, straddling the sixties and the seventies, wrestling with the end of the hippy dream and the harsh reality of modern, urban life. A young woman is drawn to the nirvana of a commune in the countryside but boredom drives her back to the squalor of the city. It begins with a five song suite and concludes with May’s attempt at rewriting The Waste Land as a Rock number. Gentle, pastoral songs are juxtaposed with gritty, urban ones. The pastoral songs are mainly acoustic and feature harmonies that would grace The Beach Boys or Crosby, Stills and Nash. The urban ones presage Glam with squealing Bolan-like guitar and a Woody/Bolder sounding rhythm section. Mellotron, sitar and castanets echo from the sixties. Snarling vocals, throbbing bass and multi-layered arrangements foretell the seventies. The best examples of the contrast on the album are squeezed together on side two. Grass could easily be recast as a track on an early solo McCartney LP, swiftly followed by the m aggressive groove of Sickle Clowns. An acoustic guitar motif on In The Square was later borrowed by Steve Hackett. Cries From The Midnight Circus could be set in Hunger City. Bowie was a big fan. He grew his hair long to compete with May, who, at one point, claimed to have the longest hair in the music business, he wrote a song inspired by them, styled his acoustic guitar strum on them and covered two of their early singles for Pin-Ups. Parachute, like its predecessors, failed to sell, their route to American success blocked by numerous drug busts. They even out-stoned The Stones.
On this 50th anniversary edition, there are the eight A and B sides from their singles that were also included on the 40th anniversary edition. Stone-Hearted Mama is a reminder of how hard they can rock and Summer Time is genuinely beautiful. The fourth side of double vinyl is a Phil May etching.
Pretty Things had an innovative spirit and were unafraid to embrace grand ideas. They had charisma, attitude and ambition in abundance. Sadly, the magic ingredient they lacked was catchiness. On Parachute, in particular, despite fine musicianship, there are few hooks, ear-worm tunes or singalong choruses. There are melodies and riffs aplenty but none are sharp or powerful enough to stick. Listening to it today, it is a well-crafted historical curio, a bridge between urban and rural, free love and salacious sex, the West Coast and Glam Rock, one decade and another. Parachute is a pleasurable nostalgia trip but very much of its time.
What does it all *mean*?
Phil May R.I.P.
Goes well with…
A long memory. They don’t make records like this any more.
Might suit people who like…
Both the late sixties and the early seventies.