Interview! The Pretty Things – a special feature ahead of the release of the band’s deluxe, career spanning box set, due out next week

With The Pretty Things about to release a deluxe, career spanning box set, due out on the 23rd of February, we present a special feature on the band which includes interviews with both Phil May and Dick Taylor. Michael Halpin takes up the story…

After celebrating 50 years since the release of their debut single Rosalyn, The Pretty Things release a major box set entitled Bouquets From a Cloudy Sky later this month.

Louder Than War recently spoke to founding members Phil May and Dick Taylor about the bands initial success, their struggles with record companies and sharing Abbey Road studios with both The  Beatles and Pink Floyd.

There was also the small matter of SF Sorrow.  An album ignored upon its release in 1968, it has since gone on to become one of the most widely celebrated and revered albums of the psychedelic era.

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In 1962 Dick Taylor was accepted into the London Central School of Art.  As a result, he quit the little known blues band he was playing bass in at the time.  They were called The Rolling Stones.

While studying at the London Central School of Art, Dick Taylor met fellow student Phil May.  Phil had ambitions of being a singer while Dick was a guitarist rather than a bass player at heart.  Both huge Bo Diddley fans, they decided to form a band and name themselves The Pretty Things.

Taylor and May recruited Brian Pendleton on rhythm guitar, John Stax on bass and eventually the madcap symbol basher Viv Prince on drums.

A residency at London’s 100 Club soon gained them a solid reputation as hard-edged exponents of American rhythm and blues covering the likes of Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

At a time when the length of young men’s hair was a genuine talking point amongst Britain’s chattering classes, Phil May was busy cultivating what he would later claim to be ‘The Longest Hair In Britain.’  The great PR line was not without its problems however as the lead singer told Louder Than War recently, “I got beaten up by some angry boyfriends!  They took fuckin’ lumps out of the back of my head!”

If Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham had ambitions of molding the Stones into the very antithesis of The Beatles, then The Pretty Things ambition was to be dirtier, scruffier, raunchier and more threatening than the Rolling Stones.

These ambitions, over the course of the coming years however, did (to some degree) stall the progress of The Pretty Things and leave them with a reputation for being underachievers in comparison to contemporaries such as The Stones, The Kinks, The Yardbirds and Manfred Mann.

The Pretty Things debut single Rosalyn reached No. 41 in the UK charts in the summer of 1964, while its follow up Don’t Bring Me Down (see video below) gave them their first real success reaching number ten in October of the same year.

Following a well received, R’n’B based eponymous debut album; The Pretty Things output become a touch erratic.  After single Honey I Need hit number 13 in February 1965, the band failed to have another top 20 hit.  Their second album Get The Picture? released in December of the same year, showed a band who had rapidly become ill at ease with their musical identity.

Phil May: “In between the albums we were changing a lot, just by playing live and changing the way we played.  We got better at playing.  We became more capable.”

Sitting somewhere in between Thames-Delta-Blues and Soul, whilst also attempting to embrace elements of Folk-Rock, Get The Picture? portrayed a band wishing to move with the times and not be left behind on the British R‘n’B.

Following Get The Picture?, single Midnight to Six Man and Come See Me b-side LSD grew into counter-culture classics from 1966 onwards.  Although fans could be forgiven for finding it difficult to understand what The Pretty Things musical intentions actually were.  A cover of a Ray Davies penned number sounded good on paper but the tame A House In The Country only managed to limp to number 50 in the UK charts.  As much as The Pretty Things seemed to be holding the mantra of ‘never making two singles that sounded the same, it appeared that they were losing the hard edge that had initially made them so enticing.

By the time they released their third album, Emotions in April 1967, they were lost at sea.  The blame for the failure of Emotions however landed not only on the band but also on their record label, Fontana.

Fontana took the decision to hire producer Steve Rowlands whose previous track record consisted of working with bubblegum popsters Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch.  Fontana hoped that some of Rowlands hit-single-making-magic would rub off on The Pretty Things.

During an era when artists were dictating their ideas to record producers for the first time (rather than vice-versa) Steve Rowlands, who felt that the material on Emotions sounded empty, hired arranger Reg Tilsley to add strings and horns to the albums tracks.  The gesture may have been made in an attempt to bring The Pretty Things music back into line with their forward thinking contemporaries but no amount of strings or horns could disguise the fact that much of the material fell short of the mark in comparison with what was needed to have a hit album in the spring of 1967.

Knowing that Emotions was their final album with Fontana the band refrained from putting up too much of a fight against Tilsey’s arrangements and  reckoned that the sooner they could get out of their deal with the label, the better.

“We had such a bruising with the Emotions album,” Phil May told Louder Than War, “We had a kind of cowboy, Steve Rowlands (producing). Very strange bloke.  Then they got Reg Tilsley who plastered this brass and at that point, I was decimated.  I couldn’t believe what they were doing.  We were hi-jacked basically. It was time to get out and unless we finished that album, we wouldn’t have been free. It was almost like paying off a debt before you can move on but in the meantime we were evolving in the stuff we were doing, more experimental stuff, just waiting for a deal to come through.”

When ‘a deal’ did come through The Pretty Things signed to EMI Records.

Dick Taylor: “It was literally the end of our contract and rather than renegotiate with them we went on the market looking for someone else and Steve O’Rourke and Bryan Morrison (Pretty Things management) started talking to EMI.  Meanwhile we were in limbo and we thought, ‘Hey we can do stuff exactly as we want’ and we’d just acquired, while recording Emotions, John Povey and Wally Waller and consequently they were aboard with us.”

“We’d lost our rhythm guitarist literally! We went round his flat one day and he wasn’t there!  That was Brian Pendleton.  He literally just disappeared.  It was all very odd.  Then John Stax (bass) decided to immigrate to Australia, so we got John Povey and Wally Waller from The Fenmen.  They came aboard as keyboard player and bass player and harmony voices, and after doing some gigs with us so we thought ‘lets record some demos.’”

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Following their move to EMI, Phil May privately began writing a short story, which eventually evolved into the concept of one Sebastian F Sorrow.

“I was writing a short story, funnily enough called Sgt Sorrow and I suppose we were looking at a way of not making 5-a-sides and 5-b-sides.  So you look at something like classical music, operas and things and you think, ‘Well this is something that goes from one side of the vinyl to the other, its a complete work, its not bits, a rag-tag of different bits…and all the different influences come in, all the different colours.’  That’s kind of where I started from and we worked on what I had with SF Sorrow…the short story…and it evolved on the floor at Abbey Road.”

Louder Than War: Obviously, the drug-culture at the time must have played an important part in the creation of SF Sorrow?

Phil: LSD did.  My God!  That was really incredibly important.  In terms of my lyrics and the images I had.  (they) wouldn’t have been there (without LSD). A little bit less obviously with Marijuana as well but it was so visual (acid) it was incredible.

I kind of look at some of the lyrics now, when we perform SF Sorrow and I go through them and I think ‘How on earth did I come up with it?’”

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Through the bands links with EMI Records, The Pretty Things met a man whose record-production skills, would ensure that over time, they would become regarded as one of the most important acts of the 1960’s, rather than  British rhythm and blues also-rans.

In September of 1967, when the band eventually put pen to paper with EMI, Norman Smith (former Beatles recording engineer and early Pink Floyd Producer) expressed an interest in working with them.  The bands Manager Bryan Morrison set up a meeting and it was agreed that Smith would produce the group, albeit on a very small budget – even by EMI’s notoriously thrifty standards.

£3000 were set aside to cover everything linked to what would become SF Sorrow.  This included the albums sleeve design, photography and instrument hire.  The instrument ‘hire’ however usually took place when The Beatles, who were also working in EMI Studios at the time, had finished recording for the night.  This would leave Norman Smith free to discreetly borrow Ringo Starr’s bass drum or George Harrison’s sitar.

EMI studios was key to the recording process Phil May believes. “I don’t think we could have made that album for anybody else at the time, anywhere else.  Some people say ‘Why did we sign to EMI for two-and-a-half-grand?’ You know? A shitty advance and shitty money? We signed to Abbey Road and Norman Smith! EMI didn’t even come into the equation!  Unlimited studio time.  The money wasn’t important.  It was totally creative and selfish in some ways but because we felt we had something to say…We’d met Norman and he’d bought into the (SF Sorrow) idea.  He was working with the Floyd, and he’d done The Beatles and he was at this stage, I suppose, where he was thinking ‘fuck it…lets shoot for the moon!’”

In November 1967, the recording of SF Sorrow began.  It took 9 months, during which EMI Studios was also inhabited by Pink Floyd recording a Saucer of Secrets and the Beatles recording The White Album.

The Pretty Things 8-minutes plus creation, Defecting Grey, was the first piece of work they completed with Norman Smith and it was released as a single at the end of that month.  The band found Smith an inspiration.

Dick Taylor:  “He was so creative and very quickly became the ‘6th member of the band.’  He actually encouraged us to go further and further and we were all writing and giving input.  Wally was singing and writing and Povey was wrapped up in the new sounds.”

Phil May: “I mean, Brian (Morrison), when he heard Defecting Grey, thought we’d gone fuckin’ mad.  To him it was like career suicide.  I mean an eight-minute single?  I think he thought we’d gone completely potty.  Norman got it, Norman bought it.

We’d gone back to the underground and been adopted by the psychedelic scene and a lot of  things were going on.  We’d lost out pop star status and been embraced by the underground.  It was a great time for being stimulated by what other people were doing.  It was an exciting time.”

Sharing EMI Studios with The Beatles and Pink Floyd during such thrilling period brought The Pretty Things their share of musical admirers.  “Lennon always used to put his head around the door when he came in.” Phil May told Louder Than War. “That sounds happening man, fuckin’ great!’ He was really nice and of course the doors opened as you go up and down the corridor and you’d get a bit of The Beatles, a bit of the Floyd, as it was going on.  I remember being in the studio a few times when the Floyd were putting something down and it was a really exciting place to be.  It felt like the only place to be, at that time, in the world.  It was like a throbbing generator that was just pumping out the stuff.  Very, very exciting.  Very stimulating.”

Although, Defecting Grey failed to sell upon its release, it did serve to give the band a new confidence regarding what they could actually create in the studio.

Phil May: “We were all very excited but we still had to work because all of the EMI (contract) money was swallowed up in debts.  That’s one of the reasons why SF Sorrow took as long as it did…we had to go off and do five days in Germany or six days in Scandinavia or France or somewhere because we needed the money.

That was paying for us to go in the studio and also write and do a stupid film with Norman wisdom (What’s Good For The Goose) where we were off the set so much of the time that we wrote quite a lot of SF Sorrow up there while we were being made up and waiting to be called.  So that was good for us and we were being paid and fed and put up in a hotel.”

As the SF Sorrow concept developed and the ideas behind what bands could actually achieve musically stepped up a gear in the mid-60s, The Pretty Things could not help but be affected by the musical environment and counter culture of the period:

Dick Taylor: “SF Sorrow just seemed a fair enough thing to do at the time.  I always think there’s an inspiration for it in terms of the idea of a concept album.  With thing like  A Love Supreme, where you got a whole album where one side of it was completely one work.  I listened to that so many times.  That was definitely the theme song of when I was living in Kensington.”

Louder Than War: Do you recall what else you were listening to at the time?

Dick Taylor: “So many different things.  Otis Redding to Sun Ra.  The Doors, Buffalo Springfield.  My personal taste is a bit wide and I think all of us were like that and that really goes right back to Phil and I being at art college.  What everybody would do was bring their favourite records in and we would play them at lunch time and you’d have Jerry Lee (Lewis) and then there was the hipster who brought in Oxford Town and then there’d be the folkies who brought in Woody Guthrie and we all loved Smokestack Lightnin’.  So you got all these different things.  Trad-Jazz and everything”.

By the time we got to do SF Sorrow we were listening to musique-concrete and whatever.  Everything.  John was listening to his sitar and we were all hearing Indian music.

Although the creative melting pot between May, Taylor, Povey and Waller was in full flow, the occupier of the drum stool in The Pretty Things was once again proving to be a cause for concern.

Unfortunately, The Pretty Things held a history of employing slightly unhinged drummers.  ‘Skip’ Alan, who replaced legendary lunatic Viv Prince, suddenly decided without warning that he was going to drive to France in his Mini-Moke and descend upon Biarritz halfway through the recording sessions for SF Sorrow.  Sometime later, ‘Skip’ would eventually return to London with a young French girl who was unable to speak a word of ‘the queens’, nor could ‘Skip’ utter a word in French.

The band then hooked up with ‘Twink’ (John Adler), formerly the drummer with Tomorrow.  Beings broke they were unable to pay Twink for his work.  All that they could offer him was a share of the songwriting credits once the album had been released.  A decision which Phil May still regrets according to SF Sorrow’s 2003 CD reissue

“He was quite interested in money (Twink) as I recall and we were completely skint, so I agreed to give him a share of all the publishing on the album in return for him completing it with us.  It still really hurts me that those songs, which were all written before he even arrived, bear his name…He started out with only some of the song credits, but he ended up on all of them.  He and Wally absolutely hated each other, and it was never really a “match made in heaven”.  He wasn’t even with us a year.  There was a big “punch-up” on stage one night and the next gig Skip was back – he’s been there ever since.”

In February 1968 a second single, the double A-side, Talking About the Good Times / Walking Through My Dreams was released.  Both tracks were originally intended for SF Sorrow and although like Defecting Grey, Talking About The Good Times/Walking Through M y Dreams failed to make an impact upon the singles charts, they showed to those who cared that The Pretty Things were moving in a new musical direction.

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As the band was recording their masterpiece, one of the most socially turbulent periods of the 20th century was in flight.  The Tet Offensive in Vietnam, violent anti-war demonstrations in London’s Grosvenor Square, the assassination of both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy along with Race riots in Watts, Los Angeles.  Student demonstrations were taking place in West Germany and France, riots in Czechoslovakia, Enoch Powell made his ‘Rivers Of Blood’ speech and the London drug squad seized £1.5 million pounds worth of LSD.  The hippy dream that had seamed a true possibility only 12 months earlier was turning to dust.

The anti-Vietnam war demonstrations and topics surrounding those demonstrations should have placed SF Sorrow at the zeitgeist of popular culture upon its release in  December of 1968.  Themes such as the horrors of war and its mental effects certainly offered a more realistic viewpoint than The Beatles Revolution released in the same year.  However, like much in The Pretty Things career, they rarely received the acknowledgement they deserved.

From the album’s scene setting opener, SF Sorrow Is Born, right through to the gentle finality of Loneliest Person, SF Sorrow was an intricate creation made by a band who had finally managed to weave together dreamy psychedelia with a solid, if slightly warped version of British rhythm and blues. Baron Saturday, Bracelets Of Fingers and She Says Good Morning all attested to that and the fact that the album held a clear narrative to boot, surely made the album one of the most interesting creations of the period.

Following SF Sorrow’s completion, former art students May and Taylor were tasked with creating the albums artwork.  Once Phil May’s painting for the cover of the album was completed and the photography taken care of by Taylor, the album was ready for release.  Or so they thought…

Phil May:  “EMI weren’t giving us any budget and the day before it was about to be pressed up, EMI rang me and said, ‘There’s an awful lot of printing cost on this album gatefold.  Do you think it’s really important to have the story printed on the album?’ That’s how much they didn’t get it!  So we said ‘What do you mean?’ So EMI said ‘Can we just leave the story off?’ and we said, ‘No you can’t.’  So they said ‘It’s going to cost another £768 and if you’re prepared to pay for it, we’ll do it.’”

“They (EMI) took that off our future earnings.  They made us pay for the printing of the story – otherwise it would have just been lyrics and credits, which is what the whole fuckin’ point of it was.  Also, we’d already read the story to them!  We’d took them down to the boardroom in EMI, Norman read the story and we played the tape and EVERYBODY was there.  From publicity to the head honchos and marketing you know… We thought we’d convinced them what we were trying to do and then when they said ‘Can we leave the story off?’ You realise ‘Fuck…they didn’t get it at all!.’  That was a complete waste of time and when it came out we took the little ad saying ‘New Album by The Pretty Things – SF Sorrow.’  End of story.  That was a small ad in the Melody Maker.  They (EMI) didn’t get it at all.”

The lack of promotion and investment from EMI meant that SF Sorrow barely registered at all on the public’s radar.

Phil May: “If you’re bringing something new to the market place, you have to explain it.  If you put it out as just another Pretty Things album with no ‘Rock Opera’ on it.  Just a Pretty Things album…it just said ‘New Pretty Things Album – SF Sorrow’. And also they didn’t drive it like they drove The White Album.  We were well down the pecking order.”

Louder Than War: Were the band aware that there was the possibility that SF Sorrow might just not take off?

Phil May: “No.  I think we were stupid optimists.  We genuinely assumed that when people heard it, it would be enough.  The music would sell itself.  What we didn’t realise was that because nobody knew about it, not many people would hear it and what’s so interesting is that now, everybody that you meet got SF Sorrow on day one!  Like there’s enough copies out there for that to have happened! Really what happened was people got it 5, 10, 15, 20 years later and they heard it and then said, ‘oh God, I’ve heard this thing!”’

Like The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, SF Sorrow’s lack of commercial success cannot have been helped by the fact that it was released within weeks of three of the biggest albums of the era; The Beatles’ White Album, The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet and The Jimi Hendrix Experiences’ Electric Ladyland.  The late release of SF Sorrow in America (on Motown’s Rare Earth Subsidiary Label) also lead many to believe that The Who’s Tommy had been released first and that SF Sorrow was merely an album inspired by Pete Townshend’s own tale of war and seclusion.

A number of critics over the passage of time have also suggested that one reason behind the album’s lack of success was the depressing storyline.  However, while The Pretty Things did quietly run with their own storyline idea, The Who, and ultimately Pete Townshend, ran his story past several music journalists to establish what they did and did not like about his Tommy storyline.  Most famously, when learning that rock journalist Nick Cohn was a huge Pinball fan, Pete Townshend quickly wrote Pinball Wizard and shoehorned the Pinball theme into his story in preparation for a visit from Cohn who was due to hear some of the yet to be released tracks from Tommy.

Whilst describing The Who’s up and coming album to Beat Instrumental in February 1969 Townshend told the magazine, “Its fairly similar to the Pretty Things SF Sorrow, but a little tighter’.

Louder Than War: How do you feel about the Tommy link now?

Phil: Well that’s a bitter pill because it was totally Tamla Motown’s fault and at the time I was very friendly with Kit Lambert and Daltrey and even Townshend.  When we would meet at some sort of watering hole in London, they would say ‘When is SF Sorrow coming out in America?’  Tommy is coming out so-and-so….’ and I said ‘I can only pass that on’ but because Rare Earth (Tamla Motown’s Rock’ label) fucked up their launch, it meant it came about a month after Tommy and got slaughtered in America.  Absolutely creamed.

We had a lot of people coming back saying ‘We didn’t realise blah blah blah’ but the damage was done.  It was dead at birth.  They just tore into it saying it was ‘just a copy of Tommy and it was made 14 months before Tommy was completed.  That was a bitter pill, very painful.

The problem was, that Pete (Townshend), for years, was going round the world…and I’d go into a Canadian radio station who were saying, ‘We had your mate Pete saying how influenced he was by SF Sorrow and then suddenly, when we did the Abbey Road broadcast (1998) his attitude changed and it was almost like a solicitor had told him to write this letter to me saying, ‘I never heard SF Sorrow before we made Tommy’ which I know is a lie because Arthur (Brown) was there and people were there when he was playing it.  That’s what made it more bitter.”

While The Who won over the Woodstock crowd in August 1969 and finally cracked America through their thunderous live performances of Tommy, The Pretty Things, by comparison, were struggling to play SF Sorrow live at all.  Aside from an attempt at London’s Middle Earth Club in January 1969, where the band played to backing tracks in an evening billed as ‘The Pretty Things in Mime’ – The disparity between The Who and The Pretty Things was, at this point, vast.

Louder Than War: What did it feel like when you did the SF Sorrow in mime, was it strange?

P: “It was strange. Probably the only way we could take it onto stage then.  You know we didn’t even have the facilities that the Floyd had at the time.  We didn’t have the gear and it was impossible for us to  do it (live), you know Mellotron’s and the stuff we used in the studio.

When Tommy opened as a musical production in the West End in 1972 Phil May was invited to carry out a review of the performance, “I think it was for the Evening Standard who asked, ‘Do you want to do a critique on it and rubbish it?’ and I said, ‘No way, it’s a good album, there’s room for Tommy and SF Sorrow.  So I wouldn’t do it.  I said, ‘Good luck to them, I hope it goes well.’  The only bitterness was really with Tamla Motown for fuckin’ it up.”

A full performance of the SF Sorrow album was not to take place until a 30th anniversary gig at Abbey Road Studios in 1998. “

M: “Do you recall a point where you realised that SF Sorrow was beginning to get the recognition it deserved?”

P: “Things happened like it got voted as one of the top 100 albums in certain things.   There would be collectors collecting, I think Amazon added it into their top 100 and also it was selling.  We sold many more copies over the last 10, 12, 15 years than when it first came out.  We performed it live as a world internet broadcast, then we did the SF Sorrow live at the Festival Hall and that really started to gather momentum.  Basically a lot of people hearing it for the first time.”

Louder Than War: Younger generations?

P: Well, Dick and I were doing an MTV interview when we did the in-store HMV thing in Oxford Street with Kasabian and Serge (Pizzorno) was there getting ready for his stint.  Dick and I were sitting on the couch and Serge was standing watching the filming and Serge said, ‘Do you mind if I sit in on this because I’ve got something I want to say about the Pretty Things?  Kasabian thought they knew what a rock ‘n’ roll band had to be but when we heard SF Sorrow we tore up our idea of what we thought a rock ‘n’ roll band had to be and suddenly we realised you could have anything, any rhythms.  It completely changed our perspective about what Kasabian were going to be.’”

Louder Than War: How do you feel when you hear the album now?

Phil: “I’m still incredibly proud of the album, I think it’s an incredible piece of work and I don’t say that about many Pretty Things albums.  A lot of them, when you have to listen to them again because you’re re-learning the songs, I get twitchy and I think, ‘Why did we include that song?’ but with SF Sorrow its kind of set in stone.

It was good that it was a slow cooked meal because if we’d have had the money to go and do it in 3 months it wouldn’t have been the same album – so unfortunate things can work out to be to your benefit.

There’s a little bit of bitter sweet quality about it being brought home now.  It’s now getting the recognition it deserves and that’s certainly eased the initial pain.”

The Pretty Things 50th Anniversary Box Set ‘Bouquets From A Cloudy Sky’ is released on 23rd of February.

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Official Pretty Things Website is here: theprettythings.net. They can also be found on Facebook.

All words by Michael Halpin. More from Michael can be found at his Louder Than War author’s archive.

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