Detail from a Works Progress Administration poster, 1937
Reading back over my write-up of the Pretty Things' Philippe Debarge record from a while ago, I realized that I never mentioned that it was my first real exposure to the Pretty Things (beyond the singles I've enjoyed from '60s psych comps). So, yeah - I bought a weird one-off project first, instead of going for one of their popular late-'60s pysch-rock albums. (I do that a lot for some reason.) I liked Philippe Debarge a lot, though, so I decided I'd track down more of Pretty Things records. I didn't really have their 1965 record Get the Picture? in mind, but when I saw the now out-of-print (I think?) Original Masters version of it in a used CD store, I had to get it.
I knew that Get the Picture? had the derivative R&B sound that a lot of rock bands favored in the mid-'60s, but I was curious to see how the Pretty Things had sounded in their early days. The album starts out with several originals from bandleaders Phil May and Dick Taylor, and I took to these songs immediately. The jangly opener "You Don't Believe Me", the stomping title track and the hazy psych/R&B of "Can't Stand the Pain" were all promising, but the album takes a real nose-dive once it gets into the bog-standard R&B covers. Phil May tries too hard to sound like Mick Jagger here, and that's no surprise - the Pretty Things were vying for the title of Britain's baddest bad boys at the time. But soulful R&B doesn't play to May's strengths - he sounds much better in the more melodic and harmony-oriented stuff they did later on. The problem is especially evident on their single "Cry to Me" because everyone is familiar with the excellent Solomon Burke version, and the Rolling Stones released a superior version the same year the Pretty Things covered it.
The real redeeming feature of the Get the Picture? CD is the bonus tracks, which include all the singles and EP tracks recorded at the same time as the record. A lot of the Pretty Things' best early singles are found here, including "Midnight to Six Man" (a song that benefits greatly from some Nicky Hopkins piano), the rocking "Come See Me", and the controversial "L.S.D", a song that featured the chorus "I need LSD, I need LSD" a full year before anyone knew enough about the drug to make it illegal. If some of these bonus tracks had replaced the weaker R&B covers on the actual record, Get the Picture? would be stronger and seem a lot less dated.
Unsurprisingly, my favorite song of the whole lot is the one that points to the more interesting psychedelic stuff the Pretty Things would do on the albums that followed Get the Picture? - "Can't Stand the Pain". The song pairs a folky guitar lead and wood-block arrangement (reminiscent of the Beau Brummels) with some pretty heavily reverbed vocals chanting the song's title. At times, the song tries to exert some R&B muscle, especially on Taylor's excellent solo section, but the way that it goes from hazy to focused and back again is the most interesting thing about it. This song makes me think that I really need to go out and find the essential Pretty Things albums Emotions, S.F. Sorrow, and Parachute.
"Can't Stand the Pain" by the Pretty Things