If you’re unfamiliar with The Pretty Things’ music, drop everything, leave this page immediately, and check out some songs on Youtube or wherever else you go to hear music. Then go buy some of their albums (I recommend starting with S.F. Sorrow or Get The Picture?). You won’t be disappointed.
Seeing as how this blog is named after a Pretty Things song, it made sense to try and score an interview with the influential British group. Mission accomplished. I spoke to the group via email in two sections. First, with Phil May (Vocals) and Dick Taylor (Guitar), the core duo of original members, going back almost 50 years! Mark St. John (Manager/Producer) answered some of the more business-related question in that section as well. Then I spoke with “the new guys”: Jack Greenwood (Drums), George Perez (Bass) and Frank Holland (Guitar), who have done a tremendous amount to revitalize the band in recent years.
Midnight To Six: Did you see a lot of American blues acts touring the U.K. in the first half of the 1960s? Do you remember any specific shows you saw that stand out from that period?
Phil May: I talked to Dick about this the other day because I have a strong image of going with him to see Bo Diddley when The Stones supported him in 1963 at the Woolwich A.B.C. But mainly my early blues feed came from import recordings.
Dick Taylor: I remember seeing Sister Rosetta Tharpe with her wonderful white Gibson SG. I was enthralled. The list could get quite long. One great one was Little Walter, he played at the Black Prince pub in Bexley and was just as good as the records. I remember waiting at the bus stop in the fog and seeing a bloke chase another with a huge axe. That certainly sticks in the memory. Later, when all the soul acts came over, we used to see people like Wilson Pickett in tiny clubs.
MTS: Early on you worked a lot with outside writers. Phil, you wrote “You Don’t Believe Me” with several other writers (including a young Jimmy Page) and Dick, you wrote “Honey, I Need” with other writers. You guys wrote some great material together, so I’m wondering why you needed to work with other people? Did either of you have any anger towards the other for writing with people outside of the group – especially on a single, where there was publishing money to be made?
Dick Taylor: How “Honey, I Need” came about was that I was sharing a flat in Highgate with a guy called Pete Smith who was a fellow art student. He just said “Why don’t we write a song?” All of us who lived there just sat round and bashed it out, that was really before Phil and I started writing seriously, but we did twig that money could be made from both sides of a single, hence everyone had a share in “I Can Never Say”.
Phil May: You’ll have to wait for the book to come out for my answer.
MTS: Was your reputation for being the wildest, most unruly band on the scene a source of pride or something you had to overcome? Do you remember ever hearing another wild and crazy band at the time and thinking “Uh-oh, we may have some competition here?”
Phil May: My time at art school was good preparation for being a Pretty Thing. There was some arrogance and sometimes it felt like us against the rest of the world. The newspapers fanned the flames and after our appearance on the TV show Top Of The Pops the headlines were vitriolic. We were “Public Enemy Number 1” and the die was cast!!! And it was a long time before The Sex Pistols would arrive on the scene.
Dick Taylor: Did we think about such things? I think not, we were too busy having a good time.
(The Pretty Things – the early years)
MTS: I was curious about the thought process in choosing to release your cover of The Kinks’ “House In The Country” as a single in 1966. Were you friends with The Kinks? If so, do you check with them before releasing their song as a single?
Dick Taylor: I was quite friendly with Dave Davies, but that wasn’t why the song was chosen. Our producer suggested it, Phil was saying the other day how much he hates it, but I’m not totally in agreement.
Phil May: I never rated the song. Ray has written some classic songs, but this wasn’t one of them. I wouldn’t say that we were friends exactly but we had done TV shows and concerts together. We were feed material by song pluggers all the time. I guess this came from their publisher via the record company.
MTS: Once the riff in “Old Man Going” (from S.F. Sorrow) kicks in it sounds exactly like Black Sabbath to me – but it’s from two years before their first album. Do you hear the similarity? Did you ever encounter those guys and if so, did they ever say anything about being influenced by that song?
Dick Taylor: Can’t say I ever twigged the Sabbath connection, but there is a tune that reminds me of the intro. We’re not supposed to mention it, otherwise a certain guitarist/songwriter will get his lawyer out. Sad really.
MTS: I was curious what you thought (if anything) back when David Gilmour took over for Syd Barrett in Pink Floyd. At the time there was no precedent for a band replacing it’s leader and creative force.
Dick Taylor: We were in the same stable as the Floyd and obviously knew that Syd was having problems. David was always mindful to look after Syd’s interests. If they had broken up there would have been a wealth of great music lost and Syd would not have been so well supported.
Phil May: I think the fact that Syd’s departure didn’t kill off The Floyd had a lot to do with Roger Waters’ strength of personality (which would later cause problems). The initial focus in the beginning was on Barrett, but Roger was in the mix there somewhere. As for David Gilmour’s arrival, it seemed the perfect fit. The Cambridge “Muso’s Mafia”. A strong musical network. A lot of good musicians all interconnected. And you can count Hypgnosis (Storm and co. who did Pink Floyd’s album covers) in there too.
MTS: Dick, Right after you left the band in 1968 they recorded an album privately as backing band for wealthy playboy Philippe DeBarge – did that move surprise you? Did it make you feel like maybe you left at the right time?
Dick Taylor: Hmmm, I’m not sure I was paying that much attention, although I knew Parachute (released in 1970) was a brilliant work and I went to Abbey Road a couple of times when it was being recorded. I just wanted a change really.
MTS: Dick, after leaving the band you produced the first Hawkwind album (as well as albums for Cochise and Skin Alley). How did you get involved with them? Were they comfortable in the studio at that time?
Dick Taylor: I somehow got friendly with the guys at Clearwater Productions, went to a Hawkwind gig and was kind of reminded of early Pretty Things gigs in that despite there not being fantastic musical skill there was such energy and excitement, then found we kind of clicked. In the end, after teasing a couple of tracks out in the studio Andrew Lauder and I decided the best way to capture them was to just set them up in the studio like a live gig, PA and all. After that it was just a natural progression to the other bands.
MTS: Through Hawkwind were you hanging out with bands like The Deviants and The Pink Fairies (featuring ex-Pretty Thing Twink on drums)? Those bands always sounded like they had a pretty wild scene going on.
Dick Taylor: I wish I could remember it better! I think it was a very interesting time. Unfortunately the harder drugs kind of came along and fucked everything up, but the spirit of the time and that was amazing. I think it’s still around where the corporate mind doesn’t rule.
MTS: What were your reactions to punk rock once it came around in the mid-’70s?
Phil May: Exhilaration. Like a breath of stale air. Good and offensive. The music business had become staid and smug. Very pleased with itself. It badly needed a kick up the Kyber – and with varying degrees of some great and some dire performances and recordings from the punk movement, it got it.
Dick Taylor: A breath of fresh air. I remember seeing The Clash and thinking that proper rock’n’roll was back. Without it music would have been restricted to a musical elite again, and I probably would have not started playing again.
MTS: The band is coming up on 50 years in 2013. Any plans to commemorate the milestone?
Dick Taylor: Do some gigs I guess. What else is there?
Phil May: We were thinking of doing a world tour and asking Mick and the boys to be support! The real answer is, loads of plans to be unveiled soon. Watch this space!
MTS: Are you working on new songs at the moment?
Phil May: I tend to only write on demand (or, as our manager Mark St. John would say, I’m a lazy bastard). We have, collectively, heads full of thumbnail sketches and unfinished ideas squabbling like unruly children seeking attention. This also includes a load of stuff that didn’t make it onto the last album, Balboa Island.
MTS: I’ve been enjoying the recent Pretty Things releases through Fruits de Mer. How did you get hooked up with them?
Mark St. John: I was approached by Mike Stax, who told me about the Fruits de Mer release “Sorrow’s Children” (an album of covers of songs from S.F. Sorrow). I spoke to Keith at Fruit de Mer and we have a common interest in vinyl and analogue (all the Pretties do, in fact). I own the iconic Ronnie Lane Mobile Studio, and we make a number of vinyl-only albums with special artists (The Pretty Things are releasing their 1st album live, preformed at The 100 Club, on vinyl only) and that gave us something in common with Fruits de Mer, whose work we really admire.
MTS: Are there any cool archival recordings left in the Pretty Things vaults?
Mark St. John: There are some great things in the archives. Phil has just discovered his old demos for Parachute – the Westbourne Terrace demos – and we have plans to release them sometime soon. There are also some outtakes from the Balboa Island and Rage Before Beauty sessions, and some great rehearsals and acoustic jams.
MTS: I saw the band play a really great set at Little Steven’s Underground Garage Festival in 2004, and I wanted to know what you remember about that day, especially with the rotating stage breaking , which severely cut everyone‘s set times? What was the scene like backstage?
Mark St. John: We nearly didn’t play – it was a total shambles, as it relied on the rotating stage, which stopped working after the first act and all the equipment, sound-check stuff, monitors, etc, were scattered around the whole thing. Also it jammed kinda between the three main stages and so it was very hard technically. More important was that it was the day of the Hurricane, and the New York Health and Safety Examiner was on Randall’s Island, trying to shut down the show and evacuate the audience. We were cancelled by the show’s production manager and I went into his office and had a major up and downer of an argument with him and told him we were going on no matter what, as we’d come from the UK. It was tricky, as I was operating as a manager, but was also actually playing drums on that show – bit of a mixed message. Eventually (Little) Steven stepped in between us as it was getting ugly and we went on. We had no monitors and were pulled off after 4 numbers…all because of the weather. Such a pity.
MTS: Have you ever been approached to write a Pretty Things biography? There’s more than enough material to make a great book.
Phil May: It’s now a work in progress.
Dick Taylor: The first page was pretty good, but I was too busy doing other things to get any further. I’m going to leave it to Phil to do the Pretty Things one. Mine (if it ever gets done) will maybe have a lot to do with some of the other things I have got up to as well.
(The Pretty Things today)
MTS: How did you “new” guys come to be part of The Pretty Things?
George Perez: Due to sharing management and our record label, the band I was in prior to The Pretty Things (The Malchicks) were the support when touring. We were part of a triple bill: us, the mighty Arthur Brown and then The Pretty Things. I’d grown fond of The Pretties and at a very young age and I was learning a lot from them. Dick taught me how to play slide guitar when I was sixteen, and all the time spent supporting them was an incredible head start for me. Wally parted ways with the band when I was seventeen and I was offered his role, I’ve been playing with them for about five years now but I still remember my first show with them at The 100 Club on Oxford St.
Jack Greenwood: I had just started studying at a music college in Brighton when I was 16 and I wasn’t really getting as much out of it as I thought I would. I was lucky enough to be invited down to audition for George’s band who at that time were supporting The Pretty Things. Dick Taylor was also there at the time and both he and Mark St. John felt my drumming style wasn’t quite right for that type of music. A short while later, Mark contacted me and said that Skip was leaving the band, and would I like to audition for The Pretties? Of course I jumped at the chance, not really thinking I would get the gig as I was only 16. But luckily for me, I was offered the job! I played my first gig with them at the ICA, London, then a European tour when I had just turned 17. Bit of an eye opener! Been playing with them ever since and have loved every minute of it. I have learnt a huge amount in that time, and I consider them all family..
Frank Holland: In about 1991, I was working at a studio on Wardour Street, London, when my old friend, Mark St John told me that he had met up with Phil May who had a few ideas for songs, and wanted an opinion. We started to form the ideas in the studio, just myself, Phil and Mark, and sometimes Dick. As we continued to work we realized that we had some strong songs. Mark thought it was time to put the original line up together again, so the other guys including Pete Tolson came to some rehearsals. I was present and knew the material pretty well, and after a time it was apparent that Pete was not up for going any further. So it was suggested that I step in. So, from then on I have been a Pretty Thing. It’s been a great experience so far, being involved with touring and co writing some of the new material.
MTS: How do you see your roles in the band?
George Perez: I’d say me and Jack (Greenwood) share a role I guess. Rhythm sections can really make a band and I think we’re pretty locked in. I suppose our role is to do the band and its past members justice, as well as adding something. Punters and reviewers seem to think the band is in the best shape that it has been in many years. I’m not saying that its down to the line-up change, but I’m thrilled to be a part of it.
Jack Greenwood: It’s not an easy job following the likes of Viv (Prince) and Skip (Alan). The Pretty Things have always had such a strong rhythm section, but hopefully George and I are stepping up to the mark.
Frank Holland: I try to be a ridged backbone, rhythmically and melodically to support these great songs that have now found their way to the younger people all over. We seem to now have a new audience, which is great. Who knows what’s awaiting round the corner?