ALL THINGS PRETTY...
Dick Taylor Phil May
The Pretty ThingsSome bands get all the breaks. And some bands get a few. But most bands don't get any. The Pretty Things got a few and made the most of them. Well, at least sometimes...
interview and photos by Ed Mabe
Formed in London in 1963 by Phil May (lead vocals) and Dick Taylor (guitar) The Pretty Things rode the crest of post-Beatles British Invasion bands with an unrivaled reckless attitude. Along with The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and the Yardbirds, the Pretty Things would help make fashionable the raunchy, R&B version of English rock 'n' roll that was about to change popular music forever. Still considered by many as the original bad boys of rock 'n' roll (first English band to get busted for drugs) the Pretty Things are also the most unheralded of their peers. Especially in America.
In 1967 after a string of successful mid-60s pop hits like "Don't Bring Me Down," "Honey I Need," and "Rosalyn" the Pretties changed gears and soon found themselves immersed in the sounds of psychedelia. Their primary achievement during this period of experimentation was the first ever "rock opera," SF Sorrow, a brilliant musical journey that would inspire Pete Townshend during his creation of Tommy almost a year later.
Although the band would continue to have success in the late '60's and early 70s with albums like Parachute (1970 Rolling Stone Album of the Year), when guitarist Dick Taylor left at the end of the SF Sorrow sessions it started a succession of rotating members in the band. The wayward Taylor would rejoin the band in 1976 but by then the Pretties were anything but a household name. They also found themselves constantly mired in a battle with their record companies over the rights to the back catalog of their 1960's classics.
Now after 35 years of inconsistent recording, personnel changes and word-of-mouth folklore the infamous Pretty Things find themselves together again recording the type of music R&B fans still get worked up over. Recording with the band's original 1966 line-up, their new record, Rage Before Beauty is a testament to persistence. And a testament to the brand of sweaty, guitar-driven, R&B garage rock which never really seems to go out of fashion.
I was lucky enough to catch their final performance in the America (Philadelphia's Theater of the Living Arts) before they made their way back to London. Which is when I sat down with Pretty Thing co-founder Dick Taylor to have a beer and hear the bands story. As he sat cross legged smoking a cigarette and speaking with the heir of an English aristocrat, I honestly felt like I was in the presence of true rock royalty. And for good reason: I was. Here was a man who was an original member of the Rolling Stones (ED NOTE: and later a Mekons member!). Let's face it: it doesn't get anymore royal than that...
PSF: Let's start by talking about the new record, Rage Before Beauty?
DT: We stuck it together over the course of a few years. Its funny because while we were doing it, it was not one of the records where we were conscious of the fame or unity of the band. But after we'd done it a load of people said "what we like about this record is that it represents all the different phases of the band. There seems to be bits and echoes of all the different periods. Now when I listen to it I think they're right, actually. I'm very pleased its out, finally. Because we did it over a very long period.
PSF: How long did it take you to do?
DT: If I say it took 18 years, it seems ridiculous. It makes it sounds like some piece of art work some bloke's been working on forever. Tweaking, ya know... but it wasn't like that. Because we met Mark (Mark St. John, producer) at the very end of the 70s and we recorded some of it then. We had a big gap and then we started recording with Mark again about 10 years later. (Starts counting off years to himself) 14... 15... 18... whatever. So it gradually got formed. And we also got diverted by attacking a couple of record companies trying to get our music rights back.
PSF: What exactly happened between the Pretty Things and the record labels you were "diverted" by?
DT: Fontana Records picked up on us in the first flush of post-Beatles, Rolling Stones type bands. They picked up on us and were quite good for awhile. We had Bobby Graham as our producer and he was great. And then he had a falling out with Fontana and we had a guy named Steve... I can't remember his name. He was an American guy and I must say there was a level where he didn't understand the band. Because we'd made some reasonable singles with him but he wanted us to be something we weren't. Hence, that's how the Emotions album sort of got blanded-out with them. I still quite like it but I think its less than what we could have done. Maybe its something we had to go through. After that we got feed up with Fontana. And probably Fontana got feed up with us too. And then we had a period of "no label" before we went to EMI. And EMI artistically were absolutely brilliant because we had a lot of freedom to do what we wanted. Which lead to SF Sorrow. And a few pre-SF Sorrow singles. It was also at that point that I left the band.
PSF: When was it you actually left?
DT: I left at the very final note of SF Sorrow. In the interim I left to see what else was out there. It was no big blob with the band, I just wanted to see what else I could do. And to be honest I got bored. After I left I didn't play for a few years. Then one day I went to see the Clash, for a laugh. And I thought, "yeah, I like this."
PSF: The Pretty Things influenced a lot of the English punk bands of the '70's.
DT: Yeah, so I started playing with a few people then. These sort of punk bands. I really liked what was going on then because I didn't like what was going on with the "relaxed side" of the 70s. Then we had a reunion gig. The band had been playing up until 1976. The reunion gig was in 1978 and I've played every gig since.
PSF: How is the new label treating you?
DT: They're brilliant. Its called Snapper Records and they're a small company in London. But they're very "go ahead" and the way they treat the material is good. Like the first album (reissue of the 1965 LP The Pretty Things) has got an enhanced CD and its got a video on it. Same with the second one (reissue of the 1966 LP Get the Picture?) which has got a film we made in the 60s. And its all on there with its Real Player type stuff. But its actually very good in the way they've done it. I still don't know how they manage to fit it all in on the CD.
PSF: How did David Gilmour get involved in production of Rage Before Beauty?
DT: He's an old friend. David plays on the new record and he's been a friend of ours for ages; particularly of Phil.
PSF: What's your favorite song off the new record?
DT: I like "God Give Me the Strength" very much. It's not really a blues and to call it a ballad is absurd. I don't know, its mid-tempo. Mark (St. John) actually wrote it and I think its very telling of our lives in the 60s. Its just a good song, ya know...
PSF: I like "Passion of Love" a lot.
DT: I like "Passion of Love" too.
PSF: How about the cover songs?
DT: Of the covers I really like "Play with Fire."
PSF: What attracted you to doing that Stones cover?
DT: Well its a good song. And we thought Jagger might need some royalties with his new divorce and all.
PSF: Yeah, that is a great cover song. Which brings me to the Stones. I know its inevitable but I have to ask you about the Stones.
DT: Yeah, I know... and NO, I don't regret leaving them.
PSF: Before we get that far let's flashback to the early 60s for awhile. When you were a young guitar player in Art School. Who were you R&B influences?
DT: Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry...
PSF: Did you ever meet or play with any of those guys?
DT: I did a gig with Jimmy Reed once. But I don't think I ever met Chuck or Bo.
PSF: That's too bad. You seem very "Chuck Berry" influenced.
DT: Yeah I am. I read his book recently and I really liked it. Its wonderful the way he writes. Just like his song lyrics. And it has such a ring of truth to it.
PSF: I read it too and I liked it because it wasn't real gossipy or into name-dropping.
DT: Yeah, no ghosts around. A really good book. Someone suggested a couple of years ago we back Chuck but I don't know... he's not the most friendly guy. A wonderful artist but...
PSF: How did you end up meeting Mick Jagger and Keith Richards?
DT: Well I was at Grammar School when I met Mick. We had some classes together and we were both into music; Chick Korea and some jazz music. So that went on for years and we started doing stuff. (Phil May enters the room) DT (to Phil): Don't start trashing the dressing room like the old days. Its funny Phil, you've just come in during the "inevitable question." PM: Why did you leave the Rolling Stones?
DT: No, it wasn't exactly that one. A little more subtle. But anyway...Mick and I were playing together. And then I went to Art School and Keith was there. I was still rehearsing with Mick. And Keith was playing a bit too. We used to talk quite a lot, Keith and I. But he was too shy to ask us to come along. Then one day he bumped into me and we started talking together and the next day he started coming to rehearsals. That formed the basis of Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys. After that we went out and met Brian Jones and we all joined up with Brian. Initially Mick and Keith joined up with Brian and all the other guys in Brian's band left because Keith was such an animal.
PSF: How do you mean, "Keith was such an animal"?
DT: Well they all thought he was a real "rock 'n' roller. (Pretty Things lead vocalist Phil May joins the conversation) PM: Another thing about Brian was he thought everybody had joined "his" band. One thing he always said to me when he really got buried under was the Rolling Stones were actually his band.
DT: Yes, it was initially. But it was, and it wasn't. PM: It was all about how they functioned. And Mick and Keith were the partners.
DT: Brian had a band and he basically invited Mick to join. And Mick said, "I won't come out without Keith." Then I joined the band and we had the Little Boy Blue thing. So it grew from Brian's band.
PSF: So why did you leave the Stones?
DT: I don't remember really. Probably over nothing. It was more that I met Phil and he wanted to do the things I liked doing.
PSF: I would love to talk about your rock opera, SF Sorrow. What brought about its creation? At the time it was an extremely novel idea because Tommy had yet to be released.
DT: I think it was an extremely novel idea and I think it was also an idea a lot like the jet engine; someone would have invented it. The way it actually happened was Phil had written a story independent of any concept of a concept album. And Wally (Wally Waller - guitarist and vocalist) had listened to some of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album. Wally had been told that Sgt. Pepper was a story and listened to the record thinking it was story. When he realized that it wasn't a story after all he made the suggestion that we should do a record that was. And since Phil had already written a story that's how it happened. It was an idea that bubbled up despite itself.
PSF: What type of reaction were you getting from the label?
DT: As I said artistically they were very good. Monetarily... that's another story.
PSF: Was there positive reviews from critics?
DT: There were actually. Many were very positive. And then we had a glitch. It was released in England but it wasn't released in America. And EMI insisted Rare Earth, a subsidiary of EMI, bring it out in America. And Rare Earth didn't want to do it. But they did and it didn't benefit us at all financially because they never reported how many they'd sold or accounted to us. It was very difficult to know exactly how many were sold. I mean, you saw plenty: people bring their America copies up for us to sign all the time. So it did get out there. Several people have recently been telling me that they were playing it on their radio shows. And of course the other thing that happened was that Tommy came out prior to SF Sorrow in America. Pete Townshend has always acknowledged that it was quite an influence on him. And its documented he said that. But... funny enough lately he's said different. About a year ago he sent Phil a letter saying he'd never heard SF Sorrow, to his knowledge. It's my knowledge he did. And it did influence him in the writing of Tommy. It was very pleasantly couched and absolutely fucking rude because he'd acknowledged Sorrow in interviews in the past. Its an odd thing to say. Just listen to the start of "Pinball Wizard" and "Old Man Going." And obviously the two stories very similar.
PSF: So SF Sorrow was released in England prior to Tommy?
DT: Yeah, and the other way around in America.
PSF: So I guess a lot of people in America probably thought you had ripped-off The Who.
DT: Yes. But like I say, The Who were very good about it at the time. Then November of last year it all changed. The curious thing to me is, "why is Pete worried?" I don't understand that. I think he's forgotten that he heard it and I think maybe at the time he was too pissed to remember he heard it.
PSF: Did Pete or other members of The Who ever come by the studio you recorded SF Sorrow?
DT: We saw each other quite a lot. One of our roadies went to work for The Who and he actually took a copy of SF Sorrow and played it for them. He came back and said they were very knocked-out by it.
PSF: I read you recorded SF Sorrow at Abbey Road Studios while Pink Floyd was there recording Piper At the Gates of Dawn.
DT: Yes, and The Beatles were also there recording as well. It was a very special time and very creative atmosphere.
PSF: I know the band recently performed Sorrow over the internet. Do you have any plans for a theatrical performance in the same vein as Tommy?
DT: No... not like Tommy. Because Tommy, whatever it was in the first place, has gotten completely killed. It's been turned into Jesus Christ Superstar.
PSF: Why aren't there more rock opera's or concept albums being produced in rock music these days?
DT: Probably because most people don't have concepts. Makes sense doesn't it?
Also see our 2020 inteview with Pretty Things bassist Wally Waller
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