THE PRETTY THINGS
Factory Theatre, Marrickville, Sydney
Friday, December 7
By THE BARMAN
It scarcely seems believable that the Pretty Things are playing a show in Sydney in 2012. One of the seminal bands of the British Invasion mob - although they they didn't get to the US until the 1970s - they swept out of the same blues scene as the Stones et al to become badder boys than all of them,
Think about their greatness. One of their members (guitarist Dick Taylor) was a member of the first incarnation of the Stones. That fact apart, their enduring legacy as primal scene starters and then psychedelic innovators speaks for itself. They made the first rock opera ("SF Sorrow") and were an inspiraiton to the Who and Pink Floyd among others. They've even made superb comeback albums in their dotage. Today they have just two original members, granted, but this band was always prone to shifting line-ups.
This is supposed to be the second of three Sydney gigs. The Thursday night show, scheduled for a restaurant on the northern beaches, was blown out due to slow ticket sales. Tomorrow night is in a 200-capacity hipster bar in the CBD. Tonight's venue, The Factory Theatre, is a big room by comparison. The operators have curtained off half of it and the first impression on arrival is that it is going to be a stiff, crowd wise. There's a desultory crowd in, some sitting in lounge chairs, and the mood is flat.
There was a support band. Major Tom and The Atoms were on first and the self-described "R & B orchestra" came across like a pale version of The Jim Jones Revue. The presence of an ex-Little Red member in the ranks was never going to sway me. I didn't give them much of an ear cocking and mill around in the outdoor bar downstairs.
Which is thinly populated. Mostly by older people who look like they came straight from a record collector's fair. You've been to record collector fairs? Personal hygiene problems abound and I swear the incidence of obsessive compulsive disorder would be many times higher than the background rate. That "Hi-Fidelity" movie missed its mark when they set it in a record shop, although people might not have been able to cope with the strangeness if they'd chose Glebe Record Market instead.
The first thing you're confronted by when you get inside the gate tonight is a bloke holding a copy of The Missing Links LP, asking people if they know the whereabouts of the only living member who hadn't signed it. I'm not making this up. Another more sane seeming collector carrying LPs for autographing (hi Phil!) borrows my phone to make a call. There's the usual smattering of familiar band member faces but otherwise it's shaping as another under-attended Sydney gig. much like Roky Erickson's show here earlier this year.
Not for the first time, I've spoken too soon. Suddenly, a couple of hundred people appear from nowhere and the upstairs room becomes comfortably full. This is what Sydney's ailing live scene needs. Promoters take risks on bands like these and deserve support. Rusty Hopkinson from You Am I is DJ'ing some ace tunes and the venue starts to look respectable. Cue: The Pretty Things onstage.
There are no surprises in the line-up. Vocalist Phil May strides on, stockier than I thought but still a sprightly 69. He's wearing de rigeur white shirt and loose, thin black tie with wraparound shades that end up on his forehead most of the night. Dick Taylor, six weeks shy of his 70th birthday, is suited and hanging back from the stage lip, visually dominated by Mark St John, the band's manager who's been a driving force behind their resurgence and a stream of re-issued and new albums. A sometime drummer, he's on percussion and backing vocals.
Mop-topped Frank Holland is a "new boy" on guitar - he only joined 24 years ago - but his short tenure is an eon compared with that of the rhythm section. Cuban-heeled bassist George Perez looks like he started to shave last week while drummer Jack Greenwood is aged in his mid-20s.
"Road Runner" opens the set and the conversion of The Factory Theatre to a '60s Midlands dance hall is underway. May's voice is sounding great and if Taylor's a little low in the mix out front, his playing is amazing. His stage is a pedal-free zone and from front-of-stage you can appreciate his tone's warmth coming out of that combo amp like heat from a radiator on a chilly night.
"The Beat Goes On" from "Balboa Island" is the only new song (it's from last decade) and it's placed early in the set. Am I the only person to recognise it? At least the songs from "SF Sorrow" find familiarity. "SF Sorrow Is Born" is amazing but the mind/preference-bending "Defecting Grey" is even more so.
May engages the crowd from the outset and come across as a sly dog, a "Jack the lad" type with a twinkle in his eye. He says the band is off to Manly tomorrow because it's more refined than Bondi. I'd like to tell him right there that these things are relative and that we have sand on our beaches, as opposed to pebbles. Best to move on.
Not without a bitch: You'd think any international touring band would seek - no, deserve - decent stage crew. The Pretty Things have no-one attending to their needs. Zilch. Phil May's discomfort is apparent when an overhead mic and then half the drum kit fall apart. The guys who seemingly reluctantly creep onto the stage to fix things act like bumbling amateurs and whoever put the production side together needs a fucking smack in the head for being so slack.
The insertion of a two-song blues interlude into a bracket would have stopped most bands' momentum dead. In the case of the Pretty Things, Dick Taylor's bottleneck guitar is so good it's not a problem. May tackles Muddy Waters' "I Can't Be Satisfied" like the pro he is. Holland adds harp to Robert Johnson's "Come On In My Kitchen" that's a reminder of where the Pretty Things (and the Stones) copped their acts.
(It's a pity afterwards that Taylor had to lean his vintage guitar against an amp as he didn't have a rack but that's another mark against the stage production hacks.)
"Come See Me" comes next and Perez bangs out original member John Stax's brutal bass-line like he should. At one stage - in the middle of a Bo Diddley beat mash-up of "Mona" and "I Wish You Would"- his engine room colleague is granted the indulgence of a lengthy solo. Now this is something that no drummer should be allowed to do. They should have their sticks taken from them and be put in the naughty corner for even thinking about it, or made to sit alone in a room with that guy with the Missing Links LP. If I didn't think it was the band's collective idea, I'd blame the stage manager. If he could be found.
I'm not the only one to wonder if Mark St John is under-employed. Banging a cowbell and harmonising are added touches that work but maybe they should be done from the rear of the stage. I'm not being nasty because he bagged the Aussie cricket team before the encores, but there seem to be more maracas than knackers on-stage at various points. Deep down, I'm concerned that he's set a precedent that most bookers, managers and promoters can't hope to replicate because they can't hold a tune or function to a beat.
Anyway, this is not a cabaret show by any stretch. It rocks hard if a touch quietly. My ears aren't ringing with tinitus the next day so I know this. There's a real sting in the tail of the set with "Midnight to Six Man", "Buzz The Jerk" and "LSD" capping things off. Taylor gets an amazing sound on "Buzz" while he and Holland bend "LSD" right out of shape. "Judgement Day" and (of course) "Rosalyn" round out an encore that delivers.
Were the Pretty Things one of the greatest things to grace these shores this year? Easily. As Phil May observes, it took "49 fucking years to get here". We can only hope they don't leave it that long to return.
Mama Keep Your Big Mouth Shut
Honey, I Need
The Beat Goes On
S.F. Sorrow Is Born
She Says Good Morning
I Can't Be Satisfied
Come On In My Kitchen
Come See Me
Don't Bring Me Down
13 Chester Street
You Can't Judge A Book By Its Cover
Mona/I Wish You Would
Midnight To Six Man
Buzz the Jerk