The Pretty Things
David Lee Beowülf
Boxing Day, London, 1962. The Rolling Stones, that is, Mick, Keith, Dick, Brian, Ian, Bill, and Tony, just played the Piccadilly and netted a lousy £7. The transient nature of the band members didn’t help things either. ’63 didn’t look any better. It was Charlie or Tony on drums, maybe. And was Bill official or wasn’t he? Those day jobs and families… And then, out of the blue, Dick Taylor, the amazing lead guitarist, had to leave because final exam time had hit and if he didn’t do well at the Royal College of Art, what kind of career would he have? Certainly being in a rock and roll band wouldn’t put food on the table…
So Dick Taylor left the Stones for a more secure future…
I don’t know how he did on his finals, but he sure didn’t stay away from rock and roll for long, and joined the Pretty Things, along with vocalist Phil May.
And that is just iceberg’s tip in the story of the original Spinal Tap, the Pretty Things, one of the best British Invasion rock and roll bands of the 1960s. But while all the other groups were establishing beachheads in the United States, the Pretty Things kept missing the boat!
Although they’d released a number of singles (I recommend looking for “LSD,” a 1966 B-side to “Come See Me”), and a few of albums of hard-rockin’ rock and roll, the attention from the “right people” at the record companies must’ve been focused on something else, like this hippie thing.
So some genius (the real-life Ian Faith?) decides that the band should by-pass America and tour Australia instead. On the way, they set fire to the airplane – in mid-flight. The band earned a lifetime ban from New Zealand, as well.
Then the Pretty Things record a “concept album,” or “rock opera,” if you will, called S.F. Sorrow, completed in 1967 — only to be released by Motown’s not-too-well-done excursion into “white” rock label, Rare Earth. And Rare Earth decides to keep S.F. Sorrow in the can for an entire year, only releasing it after the Who’s Tommy hits the street. And the Pretty Things get labeled “plagiarists.”
Not that any of this put them off, not at all, they continued to record albums, including the acclaimed Parachute and Freeway Madness, and were soon after signed by Led Zeppelin’s label, Swansong, under which they released a couple of albums (Silk Torpedo and Savage Eye). All thanks to the Pretty Things remaining friends with Jimmy Page and band from the “old days.”
But constant lineup changes, drugs, drugs, drugs, “trouble,” and “bad luck” kept the Pretty Things a bit too far out of the picture in the 1970s, except for one reunion in 1978. Flashing through the 80’s, they all got “real jobs,” married important people, too, but released a “punk” album, nevertheless; through the ’90s, where they itched to get back into it (thanks to long-suffering manager Mark St. John), we find them jamming on a Webcast show in early September 1998 with the last line-up of Wally Waller (bass), Phil May (vocals), Dick Taylor (guitar), Frankie Richard (guitar), John Povey (keyboards and vocals), and Skip Allen (drums). A new album is set to come out in the Spring, and features the additional talents of Ronnie Spector and David Gilmour, among others.
I interviewed, under the watchful eye of Mark St. John (who also wrote the excellent liner notes to the 1998 re-releases of Savage Eye and Silk Torpedo), Phil May, Dick Taylor and Skip Allen on November 21, a couple of hours before they appeared briefly on WNYU and later on performed live during a WFMU record fair simulcast. And the day before they headlined the massive final day of Cavestomp ’98 at New York City’s Coney Island High. I did manage to see their show, and they played a raging blend of rock and roll and psychedelic garage R&B- all from the good old days.
Before getting into things, though, let me point out that interviewing them was like interviewing someone’s grandfather. Or so I thought. More like interviewing someone’s grandfather who never grew up, who never cut his hair; a grandfather who had cool friends like the Stones or the Who, who did really crazy things while a “kid,” and still has the urge to do even crazier things. The scene was a crowded hotel room in Manhattan, and the band was “giddy.” Not only were they eager to discuss anything, including ways of loosening the air conditioner and dropping it out onto the street, but they were excited. Excited to finally really hit America after 35 years!
[We’re in their hotel room after a photo shoot in the hotel’s basement. The interview commences while they’re changing clothes. I heard Phil May sing “Norwegian Wood,” “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help” as he changed.]
Dick Taylor: I have the new album, I can show it to you, but this is my copy. It doesn’t come out for another few months.
It’s shrink-wrapped already! You know they sell devices for the express purpose of opening shrink-wrapped CDs.
Dick: Well, what you do is simply aim for that crack.
Phil May: I’ve been doing that all my life…
Dick: I know…
Phil: It’s got me in all sorts of trouble. [To manager Mark St. John, who’s outside:] … Just putting the wheels on my skateboard!
I found out how old you gentlemen are.
Phil: Well, I lied about my age.
So you really aren’t 32?
Phil: Take an inside leg measurement, that’s how you really find out.
Do you have any children to share the joys of rock stardom with?
Dick: I have children, 10 and 13.
Phil: You have ten children?
Dick: No, a “brace.”
Phil: When you shoot pheasant, two isn’t “I’ve got a brace.” If you shoot two, and it’s a cock and a hen, it’s a brace. Two cocks isn’t a brace.
There is no way I would have known that.
Dick: It’s a real rock and roll answer…
[In comes Skip Allen with manager Mark St. John. Skip has a video camera with him and immediately starts filming. Phil starts singing the Stones’ “We Love You,” I think… ]
Skip Allen: Maybe we can interview each other.
I’ve always considered myself the most un-photogenic human being in the world…
Skip: I’ll just get a quick atmosphere of the room.
So why’d you maniacs get banned from New Zealand and Australia anyway?
Phil: Possibly, of course, we’ve never tested it. It’s never been lifted. We corrupted the morals of New Zealand youth.
How was that possible?
Dick: There are a few patches of bare earth where there once were theaters, as well.
Phil: We did things that you might not do now, but we liked doing them then.
Skip: I can’t imagine doing, I couldn’t imagine doing what we did then on the plane the other day.
I take it you didn’t set it on fire?
Skip: Because they’re much stricter now. You’ve only got to put your hand up for a Bacardi and they’ve got a pair of cuffs on you and wrestle you to the ground because they’re so paranoic. In those days, it was just going into the loo and roll a joint and that was it.
Phil: Skipper [that’s what they call Skip] was so bad on a plane going to America once, so nervous, that the air hostesses were smart and gave him a job of serving the drinks! So he was pushing a trolly up and down from Heathrow airport to JFK!
Skip: … And one of them sat me down when the glam rock was big with David Bowie and made my face up. And I loved that, and haven’t stopped doing it since.
Phil: Looking at him walking down the aisle with make-up and wearing ladies shoes… There were some very shocked Americans on the plane.
Skip: [Skip looks at my “dog playing harmonica” T-shirt.] How many lessons did the dog have before playing?
I think he was born with it in his mouth.
Skip: I saw Rudolph at Macy’s, and if you push his nose he goes bom-bom-bom, bom-bom-bom [“Jingle Bells”]. Without moving his lips.
What a talented stuffed animal that is…
Skip: But you have to spend thirty dollars, without batteries. $30 in Macy’s to get one. You can’t buy one, then you have to pay another $15 for him.
Dick: I think you’d be banned from places for different reasons now. Espionage, political…
So showing up in dark glasses and suits, like you just were for the photo shoot, would make just right for these days.
Phil: They probably think that we’re G-men.
Skip: I think in some ways it’s easier to get banned. I’ve been to really dangerous placed like Eastern Europe and Russia and Ukraine, they don’t ban you, I think they just waste you. You go right into customs and they wanted me to give them a two thousand-dollar bribe to get some pictures out of the country. And they wanted to meet me at a deserted airport at ten o’clock at night. And they were big bastards.
Phil: We didn’t go out to get banned from anywhere in the first place. So if it happens, it happens. It’s not a question of trying to get banned. I mean, I could get thrown off the plane anywhere, you know the rules, it was just a case of they didn’t like fires on the planes at that time, and but we didn’t know that.
Now, you recorded through the 1970s…
Phil: Most of the non-stop recording went up to the 1980s.
You were there for the whole UK Punk Rock explosion…
Dick: Oh yeah. We had the Pistols play for us at their first London gig at St. John. It was their first ever public gig, at the Roxy, and it was supporting the Pretty Things! Also, John Lydon used to come to our gigs when he was twelve years old with his mum! She was a Pretty Things fan. They had a great irreverent attitude. They were the closest thing to a band behaving like… , attitude doesn’t mean you’re a nasty bunch of bastards, it means irreverent in “not that serious.”
Phil: Murdering your girlfriend is a little bit serious, though.
That happened just down the street [I point southwest].
Dick: But the thing is, it’s about not taking yourself too seriously, and a lot of bands think attitude means being nasty, and they take themselves incredibly seriously.
So how did you fellows handle the so-called “British Invasion.”
Skip: We didn’t really invade because we never made it! Some of our vans got stuck on the beach and we couldn’t get out. So we had to go back to Dover.
Do you keep in touch with your old pals from those days?
Phil: In a passing way. We talk at arm’s length. We talk [in a] third party sort of way. The rockers, a lot. Yeah, we get letters from them occasionally. I got one the other day from Peter [Townshend], dear Peter… Dave Gilmour, too.
While you were changing and singing Beatles’ tunes, Phil, Dick showed me his advance of the new album…
Dick: Someone summed it up the other day, listening to the stuff at rehearsal, some of it sounds like the early stuff, some the ’70s,
Phil: Quite a good reflection!
Dick: Maybe, though we weren’t conscious of it, we sort of hit all periods.
Phil: There’s some very hard R&B-ish things, then there’s some kind of almost psychedelic things. When you’re doing it you don’t really notice how it’s come out until after. You suddenly think, “oh, that’s quite psychedelic really!” Then instead of doing 4’s in the drums, they end up being sort of 16’s or something, with a slow bass track. Just something happens that isn’t like you set it out to be. I was always taught that if you were about to do a painting and you could see it before you start, then you shouldn’t paint it. I think it’s the same with songs. If you can hear the song you’re about to record, then it’s not worth doing, because it’s not precious.
Dick: That’s why Van Gogh cut his ear off.
Phil: I guess he couldn’t put his glasses on, then.
Is the new record another rock opera?
Phil: No, no!
Are you going to sing about drugs?
Phil: There is some lyrics, some drug things. Mostly it’s very personal.
Skip: There is something about [original drummer] Viv Prince
Dick: Shh! We’re not supposed to say that! Shhh! We’re not telling Viv!
Phil: There’s a line “… and there was enough under the mat to put you away for five years… ” I don’t know what that means.
Skip: Well, Brian Jones [yes, that Brian Jones] and I went out, and in his car, and Viv hid the drugs under the rear mat of Brian’s rover. When we came back, we were surrounded by police.
Who got arrested?
Skip: Nobody did! Because Brian was told after we drove away, and Viv started laughing. And Brian said “why are you laughing?” and Viv said “I put the dope under your mat!”
Dick: Actually Skipper carried so much dope through customs once…
Phil: Skipper was bouncing along through the airport, and Stax [bass player at the time] hands him this big portable record player box full of dope and says to Skipper, “hold this for me, will you?” So Skipper is holding it, walking through, being very flamboyant and the customs guys, but didn’t know it was in there.
The good thing is, in those days, you just couldn’t take a certain amount of money out of England. So the customs bloke says, “how much money you got on you?” And Skipper says “none” and they say, “come on, you must have some.” “Nope!” “What, not a penny?” “Nope! Not even a penny, search me!” So they did. And we were all completely terrified because Stax had thought he knew! When he got stopped we thought, “oh God, there’s enough to put him away for 25 years! “And then we were all waiting white-faced and he comes bouncing out from being completely searched by customs…
Skip: They didn’t tell me…
Phil: And we told him and he shit himself.
Skip: I turned a very funny color.
Dick: It’s a funny thing to do, but when he got stopped. There’s no way Stax could tell him then, obviously there was no way. It seemed funny at the time, though.
So you enjoy playing “jokes” on each other…
Skip: I told my mate once after pulling out an earplug that looked like a little Christmas tree that it was a condom. “Yeah?” he said. I said “you put it on the end of your thing.”
So three months later he comes up to me and said, “that thing you gave me, have you sold many of those?” “No,” I said, well, he said: “it doesn’t work! It comes of the end… I used it with my wife!”
It disappeared inside and he was in excruciating pain! So he kept drinking pints of waters filling his bladder until he just shot it out. And as he’s telling me, I just couldn’t tell him it was an earplug! And he told me that I should put a much longer thing on them if I decided to market them!
Dick: So you started the whole earplug contraceptive?
Phil: Maybe it works this way: you put it in your ear, and when she says, “can I have it,” you can’t hear her, so you don’t make a baby?
Dick: [To manager Mark St. John, a very nice former pub manager] Can we have some coffee?
You’re playing Cavestomp ’98 tomorrow night. Will you be playing the more “hard rock” Pretty Things from the mid-70s, or will you get back further to the more insane rock and roll of the 60s?
Skip: I’m more of a jazz drummer.
Dick: We’re going to distribute contraceptives, that might start a riot.
[In comes the coffee.] Now, Phil, according to the band’s press release, you’re part of the British aristocracy…
Phil: Only because I married one.
Well, are they fans?
Phil: I hope not, otherwise I’d get up tomorrow and say I must be doing something wrong!
Isn’t it strange to be part of that and part of this.
Phil: If you go back to the 60’s, we were all going out with debs and Lady Charlotte Tomkins and such…
Dick: Speak for yourself! I didn’t go out with them!
Phil: They were very very intrigued.
Dick: We used to pick up everything in England, then it got terribly dangerous.
It’s pretty amazing that you’re all still alive, you know.
Dick: We only seem to lose road managers. We’ve lost a couple of those.
[The video camera falls, knocking my tape deck to the floor and coffee spills.]
Skip: There goes the Chicken shack radio.
[No damage at all.] That’s why I bought the armored model. Now, Phil, you were singing “Help” a little while ago…
Phil: Do you understand why? That’s my feelings about being back in Abbey Road studios [where the new work was done].
Is this “reunion” permanent?
Dick: It’s being going for three years now!
Skip: This is a tour, we’re doing in February… This is it, only black, this coffee?
Mark St. John: No there’s milk here, in this cup.
Why don’t you drink tea, being part of the English aristocracy?
Dick: Because you can’t fucking get it in America, because you wankers only make coffee!
We like cold beer, too!
Phil: You can get that in England, now, too!
Dick: I think it’s hard to get bad food in England, too. There’s some really bad food here, though.
Don’t you guys eat pig stomachs and such over there?
Phil: Do they?
What will satisfy you about this new album and the tour?
Phil: Well, we’re going to come back, that would be the most satisfying result. That we generate enough interest to be invited back. The album’s ready, we feel
Dick: We have a fan club magazine, Ugly Things, from Mike Staxx. He’s kept the flame burning. We had dinner with him in London two years ago.
Skip: So where is this magazine from?
Florida and Atlanta, Georgia [They have a song called “Atlanta” on Silk Torpedo].
Skip: Who plays there?
Well, the problem with Florida is that you have a lot of fans, but the people in charge of the clubs are really stupid, and…
Skip: Yeah, I found that. I went to see Paul Rogers [Bad Company] in some room, and I’ve forgotten what it was, it was really strange. The people were simply “there.” The African Queen’s there, too, I think they renamed it the “Florida Queen.”
On the new record you have guest appearances with David Gilmour and Ronnie Spector…
Phil: With David it was pretty straightforward, because I wrote the song in his house. And with Ronnie; Mark and I were looking at a picture of Ronnie and I back stage at Ready, Steady! Go!, a British television show, right around when she was married to Phil [Spector] in 1964. And we were saying how sexy she looked, so Mark started making inquiries, and got her to come over and do a session in 1992, which is when that was recorded.
The show with us was the last thing Ronnie did, before she got imprisoned with Phil; before she got locked away. The last thing she was allowed out for was a tour with the Pretty Things in England. That was the tour where she was ringing Phil and they were leaving the phone lines open – transatlantic lines over night – and she would leave the phone lines open over night while she slept! But the new album’s been made over a long time, and the recording in 1992 was the first time she’d done any recording in a long time.
Dick: Do you think the Americans would like her singing “Mony Mony” with the Pretty Things?
Skip: They’d expect to hear that from us?
Sure! It’s got a good gimmick, and it’s a rocking song! Radio, though, in the United States, is pretty abysmal.
Skip: It’s like that all over the world!
What about hooking up with David Gilmour?
Phil: He was there when we started on Denmark street, which is sort of like Tin Pan Alley, where the bands were. That’s where the Pretty Things met with Marc Bolan and Pink Floyd, too.
Did you play with Syd Barret at all?
Skip: Both before and after he was in Pink Floyd. I remember their shows were really “light shows.” So we decided to get a light show, too. But by that time, everyone had laser shows.
So what was up with being on Motown Records?
Skip: Tamla/Motown released on us on their new rock label, Rare Earth, but they’re mostly an R&B label. What really happened was that the guy working us tried to get my clothes off, and that’s why we didn’t hit: because we didn’t take it up the ass. He later went to went on to do the Bee Gees, Elton John, and I think even George Michael.
I wonder… Well, folks, the Pretty Things are definitely back and they sound just as insane as they probably did back in “the day.” Check them out and welcome them back!
I am indebted to the excellent web coverage of the Pretty Things, notably the Official Pretty Things page [http://www.mindspring.com/~us000091/pretties.htm] and Ugly Things Magazine, 3707 Fifth Avenue #145, San Diego, CA 92103, USA, as well at V Entertainment Network’s Veronique Cordier and Maria Gonzales. I also must credit the book Our Own Story by the Rolling Stones, edited by Pete Goodman, Bantam Books, 1965, for some of the background information.