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The Pretty Things: life, legacy, and the original bad boys of rock'n'roll

Dick Taylor and Phil May.
The Pretty Things' Dick Taylor (left) and the late Phil May (Image credit: Madfish)

In 1962, guitarist Dick Taylor formed Little Boy Blue And The Blues Boys with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards

Upon bringing in Brian Jones the band changed their name to the Rolling Stones, and Taylor switched to bass. Five months later, he swapped the Stones for art school, where he founded The Pretty Things with vocalist Phil May. 

In December 2018, having metamorphosed from the bad boys of R&B into respected elder statesmen, via creating SF Sorrow, the world’s first rock opera, The Pretty Things played their final live show, at London’s Indigo O2. 

After completing the recording of a stripped-back Pretty Things acoustic blues collection titled Bare As Bone, Bright As Blood, Phil May tragically died in May last year. Taylor’s future remains unwritten, but “seventy-seven is nowhere near as old as it used to be, so watch this space”, he says.

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When you started Little Boy Blue And The Blue Boys there was clearly no expectation of a sustainable career, only a devotion to rhythm and blues. Are you still an evangelist for the blues? 

It’s something I love, but I’ve always liked lots of stuff. When I was at school the class was divided into tribes according to what music you loved, and I always thought why have an argument about trad jazz versus modern jazz versus folk versus blues versus rock’n’roll, why not just take it all in? 

Committing to the Rolling Stones would have meant committing to being a bass player

That was definitely one of the factors behind me leaving. And it’s funny, because when I play the bass now I love it. People moved around bands a lot in those days. Every time Mick, Keith and I went to see Alexis Korner at The Ealing Club the line-up would change. After The Beatles, the idea of a band as an entity rather than just a singer’s backing band became far more prevalent, and that’s when line-ups started solidifying. 

It’s often said that after you left the Stones, Phil May ‘convinced’ you to form a new band. Did you take much convincing? 

Phil was at Sidcup Art School, and in the summer before I started at the Central School of Art he really nagged me to start a new band. When I got to Central I met Bryan Morrison, who was President of the Student’s Union. We became friendly, and he said: “Maybe your band should come and do one of the art school dances.” So we did. And he became the Pretty Things’ manager. 

Was there ever any intention for The Pretty Things to become the bad boys of rock’n’roll? 

No. We behaved as we behaved. I don’t think we were in the top echelon of bad behaviour particularly, but our appearance and the publicity attendant on our appearance meant it all fell into place whether we liked it or not. Then again, Phil was like a man possessed on stage, and we had [drummer] Viv Prince.

Drummer Viv Prince was a bit of a handful, by all accounts. 

The final straw with Viv came at The Twisted Wheel in Manchester. He refused to play because the pub across the road wouldn’t serve him. What he hadn’t twigged was that it was attached to the hotel he’d been in the night before, causing mayhem with The Kinks. In the end Phil said: “You’d better just go home.” He was a wonderful drummer, but… 

The Pretty Things’ story could have been very different if in 1965 you’d gone to America instead of New Zealand

We all could have been dead a lot earlier, or not lasted the course. The really gratifying thing about our career was how appreciation for the band increased over the last couple of decades. If we’d gone to America and had our fifteen minutes of fame we might have sunk into obscurity and not enjoyed the status we finished up with. 

The Abbey Road of 1968, where you recorded SF Sorrow, appears to have been an amazing working environment. The Beatles were there making the White Album, and Pink Floyd making A Saucerful Of Secrets. How do you remember the sessions? 

It was a wonderful place to be. We were rubbing shoulders with amazing people. We weren’t all gathered together in one spot, but we’d occasionally bump into each other at the terrible coffee machine. 

You left The Pretty Things after all of the various promotions for SF Sorrow were completed. How did you come into the orbit of Hawkwind?

[Record company exec] Andrew Lauder took me to see them play. They weren’t the most fantastic musicians, but the crowd loved it, so I was captured by their enthusiasm and the fact that it was so off-the-wall.

I’d imagine half the battle with producing the first Hawkwind album was translating what they were doing live into the studio. 

After recording Hurry On Sundown, Andrew said: “Why don’t we just record them live.” And that’s what we did for the rest of the album, because it was like drawing teeth trying to do it the conventional way. So we just literally stuck the PA up, mic’d it and away we went. I gigged with them for a couple of weeks, which was an interesting experience. One night Dave [Brock] said: “Sod this, I’m going off busking. I can make more money.” 

The last electric Pretty Things show, at Indigo, was never meant to mark the end of your work with Phil. You always planned to carry on playing acoustically. So Bare As Bone, Bright As Blood was meant to mark a new beginning rather than a conclusion. 

Yes, exactly. The electric band finishing was largely due to Phil’s health. 

The world really rediscovered The Pretty Things only in recent years. It must have been heartbreaking having to call a halt to the electric shows when you did? 

It was very difficult. But it became obvious that Phil was finding it very difficult. We’d looked at ways of trying to alleviate the stress of travelling for him, but in the end we thought that rather than struggle on it’d be better to just draw a line under it. 

At those final gigs Phil was still able to carry his indisposition well, there was no suggestion he was under any kind of stress

That’s the amazing thing. The very last thing Phil did was when we guested with Arthur Brown. Beforehand he was going: “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this”, and his breathing was really bad – he had COPD [a lung condition] and emphysema in the end – but when he got on stage he’d just radiate. 

Can there be a Pretty Things without Phil? 

I don’t think so. But we’ll see what happens with this album. 

Do you still hear from the blokes out of Little Boy Blue And The Blue Boys? 

Messages have been passed, but not really. I met up with Keith and Ronnie when they played the Isle of Wight. That was the last time… Anyway, good luck to them.

Bare As Bone, Bright As Blood is available now via Madfish.

Ian Fortnam

Commissioning both album reviews and live reviews, Classic Rock reviews editor Ian has been fearlessly filtering the rock from the cock since 2003.