The Vinyl Issue: The Pretty Things

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It’s the autumn of 1968 and The Pretty Things are convinced this is it. The London band have just finished work on their most ambitious album to date. S.F. Sorrow, a vivid song cycle that follows the fortunes of an everyman soldier from birth to death, is a masterpiece to rival The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper in scope. It is, in fact, the world’s first rock opera. The whole thing has taken nearly a year to record. Now it’s time to play it for their bosses at EMI.

Speakers are brought into the boardroom of their Manchester Square HQ. Producer Norman Smith, noted for his work with the Fabs and Pink Floyd, is along too. The band have even gone to the trouble of handing out typed sheets detailing S.F. Sorrow’s narrative, with elaborate artwork to boot. But things don’t go to plan. The suits listen in silence, perplexed and, as it turns out, resolutely unmoved. What should’ve been The Pretty Things’ moment of triumph instead becomes a non-event.

“We were absolutely flabbergasted,” recalls singer Phil May today. “We went to all that trouble, brought the master tape in and did the presentation. At the end, there was a lot of muttering and they left.”

S.F. Sorrow wasn’t like anything else they’d ever heard,” reckons bassist Alan ‘Wally’ Waller. “So it didn’t seem to them like a proper commercial venture. They just didn’t understand it and we didn’t get any kind of promotional budget for the album.”

With next to no support from their paymasters, S.F. Sorrow died on the vine. The Pretty Things were distraught. “It was an incredible blow,” admits May, who has likened the album’s commercial failure to a death in the family. “And to Norman Smith it was devastating. He really thought he’d out-Beatled The Beatles.”

They weren’t the first band to be undermined by their own record company. But the sorry tale of S.F. Sorrow can also be seen as The Pretty Things’ entire career in microcosm. This was a band who arrived either too early or too late, often because of circumstances beyond their control. Or were simply ignored, mistrusted or misunderstood. Wilder than the Rolling Stones, they were a bunch of huffy R&B bruisers whose live shows swiftly became the stuff of legend. They made grandiose rock operas before The Who, were courted by Led Zeppelin (who signed them to their label) and inspired uncommon levels of devotion among those who witnessed them in full flight.

The young David Bowie, who followed The Pretty Things from gig to gig in their early days, was besotted. Next to Phil May’s name in his phone book, Bowie had scrawled: ‘GOD!’ At the height of his new fame in 1973, he paid tribute by covering Rosalyn and Don’t Bring Me Down, The Pretty Things’ first two hits, on covers LP Pin Ups.

They’ve subsequently been hailed as one of the great unsung British bands by artists as disparate as Van Morrison, Joey Ramone, Jack White and Bob Dylan, who invited them over during a whistle-stop tour of London in 1965 and immortalised them in the lyrics of Tombstone Blues – ‘The sweet pretty things are in bed now of course’.

Mick Jagger was reportedly less impressed with the band who were once the Stones’ main challengers for the title of best British R&B group. After an incendiary performance by the Pretties on TV show Ready Steady Go!, Jagger supposedly urged the Stones’ management to stop their rivals making a return appearance. As their then co-manager Tony Calder put it, Jagger’s view of May was that “he’s just too fucking pretty… He’s dangerous”.

“The Pretty Things always made the Stones look tame,” said Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. It’s a sentiment echoed by Gary Brooker of Procol Harum: “You could like the Stones, but if you were a real rebel it was always the Pretties.”

There was very little about The Pretty Things that was ordinary, much less conventional. Raised on a council estate in Erith, Kent, Phil May’s world was ripped apart at the age of 10 when he discovered that the people who he thought were his parents were actually his aunt and uncle. A court order decreed that he be immediately placed in the care of his stepfather and birth mother, who’d abandoned him as a baby. For the next five years he wasn’t allowed any contact with his aunt and uncle, a deeply distressing situation that led to a retreat into a hermetic world of books and art. The experience was to manifest itself years later in The Pretty Things’ most celebrated work.

Guitarist Dick Taylor was a classmate of Mick Jagger at Dartford Grammar School, where they bonded over a shared love of American blues. In 1960 the pair formed Little Boy Blue & The Blue Boys. The following year, with Taylor now enrolled at Sidcup Art School, the line-up welcomed his friend and fellow student Keith Richards. With the addition of Brian Jones and Ian Stewart in 1962, they became The Rolling Stones. But Taylor was bored playing bass and opted to form an R&B band of his own with May, who was also by then at Sidcup.

The first incarnation of The Pretty Things, named after a Bo Diddley tune, arrived in September ’63. Taylor took on lead guitar, Brian Pendleton was on rhythm and May’s childhood neighbour John Stax played bass. The classic early line-up was completed in 1964 with the addition of wildcat drummer Viv Prince, fresh from his time alongside a youthful Jimmy Page in Carter-Lewis & The Southerners.

From the outset they offered a surly, pugnacious take on the music they loved – namely the holy trinity of Diddley, Jimmy Reed and Chuck Berry – refracted through the post-war drizzle of working-class Britain. Fuelled by pills, booze and dope, The Pretty Things grew their hair long and nurtured a reputation as the fiercest new kids on the block. It was an attitude that didn’t exactly ingratiate themselves to the rest of the blues-worshipping community.

“A lot of people were purists in those days,” recalls Taylor. “Which always struck me as a really funny stance to take. Alexis Korner’s band was great, but it was definitely about trying to reproduce something. But you couldn’t do that and make it sound authentic because you didn’t come from that culture. I think it’s legitimate to put your own stamp on things.”

May, who describes The Pretty Things’ savagery as “thrash R&B”, remembers visiting the Ealing Club with Taylor and Brian Jones. “The high priest, Alexis, was very damning about anybody who didn’t respect the blues bible. We respected it as an inspiration, but to us it would’ve been more hypocritical to try to be black and follow the dots and crotchets of a Jimmy Reed song, than be a Dartford boy using it as a vehicle to excite girls. Or boys for that matter. So that’s what we did. And there was this wider sense that, if you had long hair or were slightly different, you were an outsider.”

Appearances on Ready Steady Go! and Top Of The Pops introduced them to the nation in 1964, via Rosalyn and Top 10 hit Don’t Bring Me Down. The tabloids screamed headlines about May’s long hair and cited the band as troublemakers.

“When we appeared on our first Top Of The Pops, the headlines were vile,” offers May, a sense of incredulity still apparent in his voice. “They were calling us The Dirty Things: ‘Did you see them last night? Disgusting!’ It was unbelievable and quite a shock, because we didn’t think we could create that kind of hatred and vitriol. The press had pops at The Beatles, but it was more tongue in cheek. Whereas with us it seemed to be very personal. We were having hit records, but the notoriety meant that we didn’t stay in good hotels, because they wouldn’t let us in.”

There’s some fabulous footage of The Pretty Things from 1965, headlining a Dutch festival in Blokker. The band are ablaze, attacking their songs with a brutality that borders on the animalistic. May draws the blues into freeform patterns that owe more to Sun Ra than Son House, the rest of them improvising around him. Viv Prince, stoked by amphetamines, jumps out from behind his kit and begins rattling his drumsticks on the stage floor. Then he sidles over to May, by now wailing on his knees, and uses the singer’s spine as percussion. John Stax leaps onto the piano and starts blowing into a harmonica. The crowd, predominantly male, are in a frenzy. Fights break out and the stewards battle to stop a full-scale riot. At one point, the throng attempt to charge them with a stage barrier. Dutch TV bosses, in panic, shut the live broadcast down altogether. Screens across the nation go blank.

This may have been an extreme example of the Pretties at their most anarchic, but such hysteria was commonplace at gigs. “We were used to having fighting audiences,” Taylor declares. “We used to play a mod club in Harlow and would literally conduct the brawls that were going on. We’d play a bit louder and they’d all start hitting one another.”

“We always had a very mixed audience,” adds May. “The blokes would be at the gigs, but were usually pissed off with their girlfriends screaming down at the front and throwing their knickers at us. So there was a kind of animosity. Then the boys would be waiting for us in the car park afterwards, to kick shit out of us.”

By 1965 the Pretties were primed for the next logical step: America. Offers to tour the US had been steadily arriving since the band’s first TV appearance. Alas, for reasons that were never made perfectly clear, manager Bryan Morrison elected to take them to New Zealand instead. It was a decision that was to have far-reaching consequences, effectively cutting their momentum in one fell swoop.

“Sid Bernstein, who brought The Beatles to America, couldn’t believe it when Morrison turned him down to go to New Zealand,” says May. “Bernstein said later: ‘The guy was just so fucking arrogant. He slammed the phone down on me.’ So who knows what might’ve happened.” Taylor is slightly more understanding of Morrison, saying that a States tour would’ve eaten up money that the band just didn’t have. Yet he does concede that the decision “was short-termist, because Bryan didn’t see the alternative”.

New Zealand turned out to be a disaster. The deeply conservative music press had already sharpened their knives by the time the Pretties landed. Viv Prince merely responded by being more obnoxious, boozing himself into oblivion and smashing hotel rooms. He was even barred from the plane home, either for arguing with the pilot or setting fire to a dead crayfish, depending on which story you believe. The upshot was that the group were banned from New Zealand for life.

December 1965 saw the release of second LP Get The Picture?. Prince was gone by then, sacked after his increasingly erratic behaviour. Producer Bobby Graham partly filled in on drums, and Jimmy Page played on You Don’t Believe Me. But the main thrust, after a debut album of mostly covers, was the developing songwriting partnership of Taylor and May. There were still searing flashes of white-boy R&B, but also a smattering of soul and freakbeat, plus a fresh level of sophistication.

Prince’s long-term replacement was the 17-year-old Skip Alan. His first recording with the Pretties was Midnight To Six Man, a gruff stomper whose theme reflected the after-hours habits of the band themselves. The single felt like an instant classic, but despite glowing reviews in Melody Maker and the NME, it barely crept inside the UK Top 50. The same fate befell the equally hard-charging Come See Me. By the summer of ’66, even the minor hits had dried up. Brian Pendleton stopped going to rehearsals and quit at the end of the year.

The arrival of bassist ‘Wally’ Waller and keyboard player Jon Povey in January ’67 signalled the second phase of The Pretty Things’ career. Both had spent the preceding years in the rather more conventional outfit, Bern Elliott & The Fenmen. But the pair added a new dimension to the songs that eventually fetched up on third album Emotions. “The Fenmen always did a lot of vocal harmonies and backing,” explains Waller, whose association with May went back to their childhood in Erith. “And when we moved to The Pretty Things I think Phil was looking to that. He wanted some more colours to play with, and that’s what we brought. It was the crest of the wave of psychedelia and there were massive changes taking place all the time.”

Waller and Povey both remember rehearsing for months with the Pretties, prior to making their live debut in the South of France. Nothing had quite prepared them for what lay in store.

“The curtains opened and it was as if all those rehearsals went completely out of the window,” laughs Waller. “Everything was mayhem. In the middle of the first song, Skip got up and waded through his drumkit. There were drums scattered everywhere. Jon and I looked at each other as if to say, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’”

It transpired that the Pretties had replaced one mad drummer with another. “I was a lunatic myself,” affirms Alan. “I heard that Viv would come out from behind the kit with the band, so I always did that in the early days. I out-Viv-ed Viv.”

He cites one particularly memorable gig, a pirate-radio benefit at the Alexandra Palace, in July ’67. “We were playing with The Move, who had this effigy of Harold Wilson that they broke up at the end of their set. We were thinking how we could top that, so I filled the piano with flowers and smashed it with a pickaxe. The thing is, I couldn’t get the axe out of the piano and it dropped on Jon’s foot. He had to go to hospital afterwards.”

With debts piling up and the band no longer selling records in any great quantities, the Pretties were obliged to see out their contract with Fontana/Philips. Emotions proved to be very much a transitional album. May, Taylor and Waller shared the writing, offering a more refined, harmony-driven batch of songs, brushed with a thin glaze of psychedelia. But if the tone was downbeat, they reckoned without staff producer Steve Rowland, who duly brought in brass arranger Reg Tilsley.

“When it came to Reg’s horn sections, Phil used to visibly cringe,” recalls Povey. “He’d almost throw up when he heard those arrangements on his songs. It wasn’t what we thought it was going to be.”

May reasons that the making of the album came at a bad time. “John Stax had had enough, Pendleton had had a breakdown and we just didn’t think it was a healthy environment for The Pretty Things to continue making music in. I couldn’t wait to leave. And we already had stuff like Defecting Grey, which we knew we couldn’t possibly do under the auspices of Fontana.”

Five minutes of trippy psych-pop that flitted between time signatures like a dayglo butterfly, Defecting Grey marked a whole other direction for The Pretty Things. The song found them experimenting with studio effects, creating a dizzying collage of sounds and melodies, strung together by a loose narrative.

“When we played the demos to Bryan Morrison, his words were: ‘Gawd, you bastards. I told you that stuff you smoke would fuck you up!’” says May. “He thought we’d gone completely mad. But Defecting Grey was the maquette for S.F. Sorrow. It was a piece of music that moved through different phases, a musical journey in micro form. And that gave us the clue as to what we wanted to do.”

Morrison brokered a deal with EMI, where the Pretties found a champion in producer Norman Smith. “He went out on a limb for us,” asserts Waller, “because we wanted to do some strange things with this album. There were so many places on the musical canvas that had never been visited, by anybody.”

Ensconced in Abbey Road Studios from late ’67 to September ’68, they set about creating S.F. Sorrow. A rich fantasia that chronicles life, love and loss through the eyes of a World War I soldier forced to confront his innermost secrets, the whole concept was directly inspired by May’s own childhood. “I’d had a very strange upbringing and there was a lot of that in it,” he reveals. “There were relationship issues, though it’s not specific. It’s experiences of loss, of being taken away from something that you’ve been completely used to up until the age of 10, and placed in another situation. It was really quite a shock and affected things that I’d never dealt with. You troll on and on and, to some extent, you’re in denial.”

The key to unlocking this vault of hurt was the Pretties’ newfound love of LSD. “Acid gave you an inward perspective as well as an outward one,” May says. “It’s like going from two dimensions to five. Talk about the doors of perception. We wanted to make an album that was more than just a collection of songs. It was a statement. And because the parallel was classical opera, it was a case of, ‘If they can do it, why can’t we?’ The music was driving the story as much as the other way round. A lot of it evolved at Abbey Road.”

With its surreal wordplay, phased effects, fluid tempos and three-way harmonies, S.F. Sorrow is a dazzling piece of work that sounds like a high-water mark of 60s psychedelia. “The whole atmosphere of what was going on permeated the creative process,” offers Taylor. “But was it solely acid? Certainly not. We were listening to some pretty freaky music before any of us had even dabbled in it. Jon Povey would happily put on a piece on musique concrète and I had my Sun Ra albums and Ornette Coleman. The trippy music was as much of a factor as the acid.”

The creative juices were also loosened by the presence of famous company at Abbey Road. At either side of the Pretties were The Beatles, recording The White Album, and Pink Floyd, making A Saucerful Of Secrets. “There was a real vibe around the place,” May recalls. “It was like sitting on top of a huge transformer. The vibrations came up through your arse and you could feel it throbbing. John Lennon always stuck his head round the door when The Beatles came in: [does great Liverpool accent] ‘Oh, fuckin’ S.F. Sorrow, man. Great. They’re gonna fuckin’ love that!’” Adds Povey: “George and Ringo used to come in and listen to us when we were doing S.F. Sorrow. Don’t tell Ringo, but we used his snare drum on a couple of tracks and raided a cupboard to use George’s sitar. Creatively, it was very much like a village at that time. It was almost like flying in the air. We were all moving in the same direction, musically.”

Unfortunately, the fates seemed to be moving the other way, at least for The Pretty Things. For once, the record label’s concerns proved to be founded, and S.F. Sorrow didn’t sell at all. Meanwhile, Taylor had quit the band in the aftermath, simply because he wanted a change of scenery. His next job was with Hawkwind, for whom he produced their debut album.

The Pretties, still signed to EMI via Harvest, brought in Victor Unitt from the Edgar Broughton Band. The resulting Parachute, issued in the summer of 1970, struck a fine balance between heavy, proggish rock and more pastoral soundscapes. Still shaken by the indifferent reception to S.F. Sorrow, May and Waller wrote the bulk of the songs at their flat in Bayswater, which they shared with architects, filmmakers and Ossie Clark’s top models.

“I think we were saved [from despair] by the fact that we were already writing Parachute,” reckons May. “We were already in the boat, rowing away from the sinking ship and heading somewhere else. That’s the only way I can explain why the band didn’t pack up at that point. We weren’t that hard-nosed and insensitive.”

Waller recalls conversations with May about how to follow up S.F. Sorrow. “We had this thing where the first side of the album was all about the city,” he said. “Then side two was about somebody who didn’t know which way to go: the city or the country. That dilemma was the theme of the whole album. Phil rationalised it by saying that a parachute is something you take with you as a last resort, but even that’s not guaranteed to work.”

Parachute is a more visceral experience than S.F. Sorrow and, as evinced by songs like Cries From The Midnight Circus and She Was Tall, She Was High, another landmark piece. Norman Smith returned too, “waving his magic wand and sprinkling some stardust on it”, in the words of Jon Povey.

Again, sales were less than spectacular. Despite it rising to a fairly respectable Number 43 on the UK album chart, the record bombed in America. It was enough for Waller to leave the Pretties – “We were kind of punch drunk. And there were negative things about us in the press all the time” – and fulfil an ambition to become a house producer at EMI. May admits to “a kind of defeat” in its wake, during which time the band, now without a record deal, went their separate ways.

Come the end of 1971, though, The Pretty Things were back. “Talk about not staying down when we should’ve,” chuckles May. “Looking back, it seems impossible that we got up again and dusted ourselves off. We brought in Pete Tolson, who was a fantastic guitarist, and he and I worked on new songs. Suddenly I thought, ‘Fuck it. Let’s make another album.’”

There’s a distinctly mid-Atlantic vibe to 1972’s Freeway Madness, the sole LP they recorded for Warner Bros. “It was meant to be our bridge to Babylon,” confesses May. “We’d always had this tug, from other musicians and promoters, about The Pretty Things going to America. And we’d never resolved that.”

In truth, it’s not a great record. But it did at least open the door to the US by attracting the attention of Led Zeppelin, who signed the band to their new Swan Song label. Longtime fans Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were instrumental in bringing them aboard. But Zeppelin manager Peter Grant took more convincing. “Peter said to me: ‘Fuck off. Your ex-manager’s already said you’re unmanageable and I’ve got Led Zeppelin. I need you like a fucking hole in the head,’” says May.

Nevertheless, the deal eventually went through and the Pretties became the second act, after Bad Company, to join the roster. As ever, though, and despite being bankrolled by the biggest band on the planet, things didn’t quite run smooth. “I thought that signing to Swan Song was finally going to do it for us,” laments Skip Alan, “but Peter Grant was coked out of his head all the time. They were all very sweet to us. They took us out to America and the Zeppelin guys would come on stage and play with us. In LA they hired Marilyn Monroe’s house and threw a party to launch Silk Torpedo. They had big 40-foot billboards on Sunset Strip, advertising The Pretty Things.”

Silk Torpedo, the Pretties’ first album for Swan Song, hasn’t aged particularly well. There’s the odd nugget, namely the two-fisted boogie of Joey, but mostly it sounds like a product of its time. Nor does it feel like The Pretty Things, which is less surprising given that May was by then sharing vocal duties with newcomers Gordon Edwards and Jack Green – something that is as unthinkable today as it was at the time.

The album didn’t ring the tills like Swan Song might’ve hoped, stalling outside the Billboard 100 in the US and failing to bother the charts at all back home. Still, at least the band were living like bona fide rock stars. “We were into cocaine big time,” says Jon Povey. “You’d go for a meeting at Peter Grant’s office and he and Richard Cole [tour manager] would put a line out on the table. John Bonham was just about to snort some when Richard made him laugh and blow it off the table. So we were all on the carpet, trying to snort whatever there was. It was all like that.”

Savage Eye from 1976 was a far better follow-up, the band catching fire on a number of songs like the Pretties of old. But now the cracks were really starting to show. May’s breaking point came when they were due to record an Edwards co-write, Tonight, as a one-off single in advance of the album. On the eve of a show at Wembley, supporting Uriah Heep, he simply quit.

“It was a build-up of a lot of things,” May explains. “Our proposed tour had collapsed, we were doing far too many drugs and cocaine is so destructive. Also, we were getting pressured to put out this song that, although I’d written it with Gordon, I hated. I thought it would be a real betrayal of everything The Pretty Things stood for. There were a couple of new members of the band who just didn’t understand the ethos of The Pretty Things and wanted to be successful musicians regardless. They would’ve bitten your hand off if you’d offered them a cheap hit for the sake of it. So I stood my ground and said I wasn’t going to sing it. We had a big row and I walked out of the band.”

The Pretty Things were over. Or so it seemed.

But that’s not where the story ends. In 1980, the S.F. Sorrow line-up, with the addition of Peter Tolson, reconvened to record a new album. Cross Talk was a biting return to form, marked by May’s terse vocals and some raw guitar runs from Tolson that chimed with the post-punk era. “Having Dick and Wally back in the fold, as permanent members, was like squaring the circle for me,” adds May. “These were the actual blokes that I’d made it with, the ones who’d been in the trenches with me.”

Their luck hadn’t changed much in the interim. Rather than a triumphant comeback, Cross Talk fell foul of mistakes at Warners’ record plant, which pressed thousands of copies incorrectly. Then the label was hit by a payola scandal. When the dust settled, the album was already a memory. More sessions were planned, but the Pretties couldn’t stay civil to each other for long. “Three days into recording,” recalls May, “Jon [Povey] and I had a massive punch-up out in the street.”

Most of the next decade-plus was spent apart. The turning point came in 1994, after the Pretties’ new producer-cum-manager, Mark St. John, had successfully fought legal cases against EMI and Phonogram for unpaid royalties (dating back to the 60s) and rights to the band’s back catalogue. Re-energised, the classic EMI line-up began gigging again. By 1999 there was a fresh studio album, …Rage Before Beauty, a return to guiding principles that proved they were in very rude health. A follow-up, Balboa Island, landed in 2007.

Now there’s another new album upon us, The Sweet Pretty Things Are In Bed Now Of Course. Lifting its title from Dylan’s Tombstone Blues, it includes a reworked version of Turn My Head, first cut for a John Peel session in 1967 but which has never been officially released. The 2015 line-up features a couple of young bucks, drummer Jack Greenwood and bassist George Woosey, plus guitarist Frank Holland, a mainstay for the past 20 years. But at its core, and now both into their seventies, are Phil May and Dick Taylor. Which, you can’t help but feel, is exactly as it should be.

Wally Waller, who quit in 2008, marvels at the band’s sheer resilience: “Someone once said to me, ‘In the wake of a nuclear holocaust, there’ll be this flattened landscape and something will disturb the dust. Then a couple of figures will emerge and start walking. And it’ll be The Pretty Things reforming.’”

Taylor is equally moved: “We still seem to inspire an incredible kind of devotion. In some ways it’s a nicer place to be than if we’d had this huge, monster career and then faded anyway. So many young people have discovered us in the last few years.”

Phil May remains defiant to the last. “We’ve always been a cult band and I don’t mind that. Is that a poor excuse for not selling 20 million records? I don’t know. But I couldn’t bear being who I am now if I’d ever compromised. And that’s the thing about The Pretty Things. There isn’t a moment where this band has bent down and touched its toes for the queen’s shilling.”

The Bouquets From A Cloudy Sky box set is out now via Snapper. The new album, The Sweet Pretty Things Are In Bed Now Of Course, will be released this summer.