CD Review of Balboa Island by The Pretty Things

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Balboa Island
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Released: 2007
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Back in the day, the Rolling Stones were one bad-ass group. People who felt the Stones were kinda wimpy were into this band, who terrorized the world with their exploits and still probably might be shot on sight if they were to set foot in New Zealand, where legend alleges they really did have to hide their daughters and their sheep last time this band came around. Like all legendary garage bands worth their salt, the Pretty Things had a brush with greatness: Mick and Keith were in an art school blues group called Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys. Then guitarist Dick Taylor got kicked down to bass when Brian Jones came along, and the band renamed itself the Rolling Stones. Taylor quit and formed the Pretty Things soon after, and 43 years later, the band plays on after a lifetime’s worth of ups, downs, and absolutely no radio play whatsoever.

Early in their career, the fire of hype was behind the Pretty Things (who named themselves after the Bob Diddley song), and they, well, almost were popular for an Andy Warhol 15 minutes. “Midnight to Six Man” was enough of a hit—and captured the club scene so perfectly—that it lives on as their most popular tune, along with “Rosalyn,” a Bo Diddley-style frenetic pop romp that sounds so beautifully lo-fi and unpreserved that it captures the essence of the garage-rock epoch in three minutes. They sing about all this stuff on “The Beat Goes On,” the Balboa Island opener. They never did catch on like the Stones. But they were good enough to hang on as a band with a cult following, and every time the garage-psych Nuggets phenomenon comes  around (in vinyl in the 1980s, in CD in the 1990s, and whatever we call the music underground today…the MySpace basement? in the 2000s), the Pretty Things’ legend grows.

Thing is, a lot of the Nuggets groups were one-hit wonders who did the old sparkle-and-fade thing. The Pretty Things never sparkled much, and the have yet to fade. They just kept banging away with their proto-punky, psychedelic sound, outliving the crazy 13th Floor Elevators, then the MC5, then Zeppelin, then the Clash, Nirvana, and you can bet your ass they’ll outlive Blink 182 (oh, they broke up already?) Balboa Islandfinds the band belting out rocking pre-punk, fuzzed-out, sometimes Who-style pop rock with a dirty undertow that betrays the era; you can take the band out of the garage, but you can’t take the garage out of the band. This band sounds like it’s playing its same old vintage keyboards (“Mimi” could have been a remastered holdover from 1967) and beat-up guitars it always has, ‘cept in state of the art studios. They scream between chorus and bridge like a lot of the groups from the period, and slowing it down every once in a while for an acoustic white-Brit-blues a la early Yardbirds or Stones (it’s much more believable sung by Taylor in 2007, after all the gigs, drugs, and resurrections) as in “Blues for Robert Johnson.”

Then there’s the matter of “All Light Up,” a Beatlesque psychedelic history primer that approximates the Fab Four better than their more well-known acolytes, the Electric Light Orchestra--and a lot less nostalgic then George Harrison's cute but saccharine "When We Was Fab." “Buried Alive” evokes the Who, circa “I Can See for Miles.” Of all bands, the Pretty Things have the right to flit back and forth from style to style, and pull it off and not have us critics finger-wave for hitting the nostalgia buttons. They were the originators, kicking around the same clubs and even playing with their contemporaries. They have a right to throw out whatever sounds they wish, and use as many classic vintage stomp-box fuzz and filter effects to get there. Fans of garage rock and of the classic rock that came out of early- to mid-1960s England should chase down the Pretty Things, starting with this record. It’s not your fault you haven’t heard of them before—it’s a conspiracy between the record and radio industry against them, which didn’t mix well with the band’s own tendency to step into personal troubles. Yet they’ve risen above all that again, and by gosh, it looks like they might outlive the record industry, the way things are going for both the record industry and the Pretty Things, who are now on the road again, playing everywhere but New Zealand.

~Mojo Flucke, PhD