Ever since they began seeing release in the 1990s, material recorded live at Britain’s BBC studios has made a nice addition to the discography of any respectable UK band from the ’60s/’70. The Beatles, Hendrix, Zeppelin, Bowie, The Zombies…pretty much everyone but the Stones and Pink Floyd have put out a Live at The BBC disc (both recorded enough material there to release one). Now it’s The Pretty Things turn, and they’ve unleashed a whopper, with no less than four discs spanning eleven years, from their earliest session in October of 1964 through to 1975, one year before the band went on hiatus. With so much material there are some serious peaks and valleys for listeners to navigate.
The first disc is an absolute highlight, with twenty five songs charting the band’s 1964-1971 prime. Their tough-as-nails R&B origins dominate the first ten songs, and they all sound fresh today. Whether paying tribute to the American blues songs that inspired them (“Big Boss Man” and “Roadrunner”) or lashing audiences with originals like “L.S.D.” or “Midnight To Six Man” (which gave this blog its name), the band play like they’re out for blood, even outstripping the ferocity of the studio versions in a few cases. The next two sessions capture the band’s heady psychedelic years, with S.F. Sorrow-era tunes like “She Says Good Morning” and “Defecting Grey” all sounding as good in the more immediate recording environment of the BBC sessions as their original album versions. The real revelation from these more experimental tracks is a wah-wah drenched number from ’67 called “Turn My Head” which, as far as I know, was never properly recorded in the studio. The final nine songs from 1969-1971 mix folkier numbers like “Spring” with heavier fare like “Sickle Clowns”. They’re interesting, but you can hear the band struggling to keep up with the rapidly changing times, unable to wow you like the newer sounds of Led Zeppelin or David Bowie (both of whom would play major roles in keeping The Pretty Things afloat in the ’70s).
The next three discs are awful. The ’70s could have been a great time for The Pretty Things – bands from the ’60s were treated like gods, David Bowie covered two of their songs at the height of his popularity, and they were signed to Led Zeppelin’s record label Swan Song – but there were endless line-up changes (Phil May was the only original member) and the music they made during this period sucked so badly that nobody paid much attention. From the sounds of these sessions, the band were trying to find some kind of crossroad between The Who, Led Zeppelin and CSNY, but all they happened upon was a heap of turgid jazz-rock that has nothing in common with the band you loved just a few years earlier. The only respite you get from crap like “Onion Soup” or “Come Here Mamma” comes when they dip back into their earlier catalog (“Big City”, “Roaslyn” and “Route 66”). Not that these versions compete with the originals, but at least they’re brief and to the point.
Not only is 3/4 of the music on this set terrible, but, to add insult to injury, several songs on these discs repeat themselves. Not different versions of the same song – the same recording. This includes an entire five song set which appears twice on disc 3! I guess the thought in including them twice was that the 2nd versions came from a rebroadcast of the same set and have different DJ intros, but there isn’t a single mention of this on the packaging, which makes their inclusion seem pretty dubious. Besides, who cares about DJ intros? There isn’t a DJ alive or dead that can make you want to hear live versions of “Havana Bound’ or “Love Is Good” more than once.
By all means, figure out a way to get your hands on the white-hot first disc of this reasonably priced set, but don’t expect the other three to do anything other than collect dust.