Monday, March 7, 2011

Album of the Week: The Pretty Things - Parachute

Ray Davies of the Kinks once said 'Whenever I want to hear new Beatles songs, I listen to Guided By Voices.' Which raises a good point: the boys from Liverpool ended their recording career four decades ago. Where to turn for "new Beatles songs?"

I often get pieces of song lyrics or scraps of melodies in my head and swear they belong to the Beatles, only to dislodge them and discover that they're in fact Pretty Things. This isn't to make claims that the Things were the proto Beatles (or even mere knockoffs). Rather, they belong to a fierce tradition of Fab Four acolytes, with their beginnings in R&B and subsequent psych transformation. Post-peak, the Things' output sounded more and more like watered down retreads of Abbey Road.

Their most notable album -- 1968's S.F. Sorrow  -- could be accused of trading on the success of the '67 psych explosion of Sgt. Peppers, Their Satanic Majesty's Request, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Bee Gees 1st, Forever Changes, etc. It's belabored concept -- about the life cycle of a British nobody -- allegedly inspired the Who's Tommy and Pink Floyd's The Wall.

While S.F. Sorrow is more cohesive in its conceptual structure, I prefer their 1970 opus, Parachute. The album is essentially a Rosetta Stone of a certain type of British rock and is a useful bridge between the psych '60s and '70s prog (and, at its worst, portends the wretched radio-friendly soft rock of schlocksters like Badfinger).

The album begins with a triptych: Scene One/The Good Mr. Square/She Was Tall, She Was High. The songs flow into each other without a breath, winding their way from a ominous tribal monotone, through a snide indictment of the eponymous Mr. Square, and arriving at triumphant, cloud-breaking praise of a girl who "nearly touched the sky." The lyrics, by the way, are cut from the same cloth as S.F. Sorrow's: salvos at the vulgar rich, yearnings for a simpler life, broad stroke portraits of conformist society.

Next comes another unbroken chain of three songs: In the Square, The Letter, and Rain. The music begins with an airy harmony, describing a favorite meeting place for two lovers. She leaves the city for the country, writes him a letter, and the music become playful to the point of jeering. Finally, we find the abandoned lover back in the square in the middle of the rain, alone and soaked.

These two mini trilogies represent the albums pinnacle. What comes after is a bit uneven, though still laced with some amazing work - particularly Wally Waller's Parliament-ary bass.

Beatle homage/ripoff appears throughout. Phil May's vocals even straddle the line between John Lennon's rasp and McCartney's melodic trill.  The strummy ballad "October 26" hinges on a chorus that rhymes revolution with solution (this track - the only single to chart from this period - can only be found on the 2000 Snapper release, which includes singles and B-sides). "Summertime" would be right at home with the post-Faces output of Rod Stewart or some other MOR crap. Complete with whoos and yeahs! It's indicative of  the depths of awfulness where the Things' derivative tendencies would take them in the late '70s/80s

Incidentally, I've heard rumors that this was the only Rolling Stone Album of the Year that never charted States-side. However, I've not been able to confirm any of this.

The first ten minutes of the album can be heard here and are very much worth your attention.


  1. Always a favorite of mine! I think it was you who introduced me to this album.

  2. Shlocksters like Badfinger? I protest!

  3. Shlocksters like Badfinger? I protest!