Pretty much on top of their game
Vic Conrad's band The First Third has a drummer who plays hard and owns the kit, a guitarist who knows how to dance in and out of a tune, a bass player who, like Vic, runs a record shop.
Vic himself sings, plays guitar and two keys. They're really damn good. Sixties structures sieved through to now. Apparently they'll have a new CD out soon.
But I'm here to see the Pretty Things.
As I left, the two original members and one of the more recent recruits were answering questions and signing merch, while the bassist and drummer were chatting at the exit with assorted fans. This is a band who are comfortable with their crowd. Because, to them, they're not that far removed.
Let's get rid of the "original members" thing. Like a lot of bands who came up through the R & B scene in the 1960s in England, not only was their lineup not always been stable, some of the band were linked to the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd and god knows who else.
Phil May, the vocalist (looks a bit like a movie star) and one of the band's songwriters, is one of the two members who've stayed the distance. The other is the incomparable guitarist Dick Taylor, picured right.
Vic Conrad and The First Third. Vic Conrad is not pictured.
The Pretty Things
+ Vic Conrad and The First Third
October 13, 2018
Dick Taylor and Phil May photos by Jeremy Tomamak.
Why incomparable? Well, for a start, he's 74, and has the fingers of a master watchmaker (and looks a bit like one too). See, as guitarists get older, they begin to worry about their fingers, their ability to make swift runs up and down the fretboard without it beginning to sound a bit like an asthmatic cat.
The late and much-missed Charlie Tolnay (of Grong Grong and King Snake Roost) latterly began to get some sort of arthritis, rheumatoid, I suspected, with his fingers beginning to distort so that they looked like drunken crabs shovelling about on the guitar. To compensate, Tolnay began to use the whammy bar (or whatever that bloody stick is called) to cover a series or a complex sequence of notes. Dick Taylor...he's got the fingers of an extremely talented 12-year old. And his playing is exquisite. Never too much of a solo, never over-staying his spot in the limelight, always able to step back when the song demands.
The other men are Frank Holland, on guitar and harmonica, who has been with them for over 25 years. Jack Greenwood and George Woosey, drums and bass respectively, have been with The Pretty Things for 10 or more years.
Holland's guitar was damn good, but his harmonica playing ... was very moving, and I should explain I'm not a big harmonica fan. George Woosey ... his vocals, and his perfect rumble fitted in brilliantly with Jack Greenwood's drums. In fact, hell, Greenwood was a fucking legend. Left-handed drummer at a right-handed kit (so a drummer friend informs me), tucked away at the back, head hanging over, never too showy, never too loud when it's not needed, able to go completely berko when required ... and then rein it in...
Greenwood is a rare drummer, and a very gifted man. His solo was something I'll be muttering about when I'm filling my trousers in a nursing home. Phil May's aside as the tempest drew to a close was classic moment of understated father-like pride, "He's pretty good, isn't he?"
Speaking of incontinence, as I know you were, did you know that The Pretty Things once shared a bill, the Phun City festival in July 1970 (organised by Mick Farren) with The Pink Fairies (and the MC5), and the PFs did their set nekkid. I bet you're all jealous of The Pretty Things now.
Anyway, this tour celebrates the 50th anniversary of their 1968 LP, "SF Sorrow", one of the first concept albums (but certainly the first a record company took exception to). "SF Sorrow" was more complex than expected at the time, and (a bit like The Clash's triple set, "Sandanista") either took time to get into properly, or had people listening to their favourite bits. "SF Sorrow" strikes me now as a firm step toward prog-rock. However, as an LP it works, really very well, and more than holds up today. There's a humungous box set too.
Just to make you salivate ... the box features four 12" LPs, four rare European 1960s picture sleeve 7” singles, and handwritten recollections from Phil May, Dick Taylor, Jon Povey and Wally Waller on individually signed inserts. Wet your pants, much?
The Pretties have done gigs where they played "S.F. Sorrow" in its entirety, which is the kind of event which, as with all the gigs in Australia, brought out those normally reclusive musicians and music lovers: at the London show dedicated to the LP, Jimmy Page was spotted, as was Nina Antonia.
Okay, now. Just to make the eastern states jealous, I met a few folk who were following the band around the country. Tonight, The Pretty Things played a different set to both Melb and Sydders.
And tight? This is a band utterly on top of their game. What they pulled out for us tonight was a considered, smartly chosen set. Starting out with their '60s club r'n'b shoved up with huge, powerful male harmonies (and Frank Holland's Beatle boots), they shifted on and forward, always referring back to the blues which got them started, to later material (the change in direction was manifest) including one song from "Electric Banana", before rediscovering their raw blues, then returning, via a stonking rendition of "Mona" (with Jack Greenwood producing the most jaw-dropping drum solo I've ever seen) and back, returning to the 1960s and off.
All I can say is I hope they recorded these gigs, they'd make a superb release. We were in the presence of some seriously switched-on talent, powerfully realised.
Now, I know some of you will have seen the publicity stuff about The Pretty Things being rivals, or better than, the Stones at one point.
Oh, sorry, I meant The Rolling Stones, not the much more enjoyable (and not quite as pricey) Stones, the Chickenstones. Sorry for the confusion.
That may well be. And that was then and this is now, as S.E. Hinton so aptly put it. But it's unfair to compare the two bands. I mean, really. The Rolling Stones, like so many bands, found themselves losing direction and impetus during the Seventies (and jesus, don't talk to me about their output after that) but somehow their juggernaut of popularity has kept a'rolling like a cartoon rock bouncing down a hill. And now ... well.
But let's be fair, shall we? If you put The Rolling Stones - that is, without all the big stages, light shows and soul backing singers and razzlin' sax players and all the hype and folderol and awkward seating and echo-chamber sports arenas ... and stuck the buggers in a pub, would they sound as good?
Nope. I mean, sure, don't get me wrong, they'd be very good, and Jagger running around all night like Christopher Robin on speed always impresses. Phil May didn't do any of that "beseech the crowd" thing, nor did he run around in an array of sparkly cossies, nor did he revel in the adulation as so many inadequate front men do (perhaps I'm being unfair. And I won't mention Morrissey. No, I won't. Oh, alright then). Instead, May engaged us with simple movements, held our attention, and was himself, older and (probably) wiser, and in bloody tremendous voice despite, I suspect, a bit of a cold.
But ... mmm. Look. I'd rather see The Pretty Things instead. Any old time. The truth is, I find their songs - including the ones currently in their arsenal - far more interesting than the Stones'. And no, not because I've heard the Stones' material quite a lot over the years (some bands you can't escape, not ever, like Foreigner, the Eagles, Cold Chisel, and I'm sure you can fill in a few blanks) and I still prefer their '60s and early '70s stuff.
I'll say this before I go. The Pretty Things got onstage and delivered an unhistrionic, unspectacular spectacle, devoid of backing singers and sax and piano, hundred-metre video screens and wizzoflashbangs, and every, and I mean every, eye in the room was fully glued to them. They were that rare band, an outfit with three or eight sack-fulls of fine songs in their repertoire and they let those songs do the talking, played absolutely bang-on, note perfect, tight as a gnat's rude bits and loved every moment of it.
Yeah, so obvious highlights were "SF Sorrow", "Mona", "Big Boss Man", "Mama Keep Your Big Mouth Shut", "Don't Bring Me Down"... but, er, no. Nononono. That's not right. The whole damn gig was the highlight.
If you missed 'em, you're either a dolt, broke, or just plain ignorant, and if you're reading this and you're the latter you'll just have to hope they come back again, or, if you're broke, that you win lotto.
No, you can't always get what you want. But tonight was magic.