It's June 6, 1999, and the Pretty Things have just finished a rehearsal, climaxing with "Rosalyn," the 1964 debut single that took the British blues-rock pioneered by the Rolling Stones to its punkiest extremes. In a few days, they'll play the 100 Club on Oxford Street, one of the dives where they -- and the Rolling Stones -- built their following 35 years ago. That very weekend, the Rolling Stones are also playing in London. It's across town from the 100 Club, in a somewhat larger venue, Wembley Stadium.
Pretty Things guitarist Dick Taylor used to be in the Rolling Stones back in 1962. The band he founded after leaving -- and the one he's still playing with -- had a few hits in Britain, and provoked more than a few comparisons with the Rolling Stones, back in the mid-1960s. While the Rolling Stones conquered America, though, the Pretty Things stayed on the other side of the Atlantic, never touring the States in the 1960s, their music known to just a handful of US record collectors.
"Now we're a cult band," says the still-gaunt Taylor as he sips tea. "As with all these decisions, we can't go to a parallel universe where you do go to America. And I can't go to a parallel universe where I'm still in the Rolling Stones," he laughs without bitterness. One senses that Taylor would much rather be playing to the true believers at the 100 Club than the sea of anonymity at Wembley in any case -- and that he certainly has no regrets about ending up in the Pretty Things rather than the world's second-biggest rock'n'roll band. "Commercial success was never particularly on our agenda," declares Taylor.
Taylor's pride in his lot is not perverse, but entirely justified. For the Pretty Things were unquestionably the finest British group of the 1960s not to have a hit in the United States. That inexplicable failure to tour the United States, causing them to be overlooked entirely in the tidal wave of British Invasion rock, provides the hook to most stories on the Pretty Things, but is hardly the whole tale. The Pretty Things were front-line pioneers of not just one, but two major styles of British rock, playing blues-R&B-rock with a savage power second to none in the mid-1960s, then taking experimental psychedelia into the stratosphere in the latter part of the decade.
Along the way were a number of firsts and mileposts, including the singer with the longest hair bar none among British mid-'60s rockers; the drummer who set the standards for modern rock looniness, predating even Keith Moon; the creation of the first rock opera, predating (and probably influencing) the Who's =Tommy=;, and, in 1998, what was likely the first broadcast of a rock opera live on the Internet. In the 1960s, no group, American or British, made as much fine music that remains unknown to the mainstream, and entirely neglected by rock history books. The band's explosive personalities and devotion to on-the-edge musicmaking may have ensured that they did not become established stars. Those are the very qualities, however, that have enabled the Pretty Things' cult following to thrive over the last three decades, drawing new generations of listeners and -- as the millennium comes to a close -- according them a widespread critical respect denied many more famous bands of their age.
If there is one overused phrase to describe the Pretty Things' early sound, it's "a rawer version of the Rolling Stones." (Indeed, one of the musicians interviewed for this book -- Scott Morgan, of the fine Michigan group the Rationals -- described the Pretty Things to me, without any prompting, as "an even more raw version of the Rolling Stones.") The similarity did not arise from imitation, however, but from deeply shared musical and cultural roots. Dick Taylor attended the same grammar school as Mick Jagger in the London suburb of Dartford, and in the early 1960s, began playing R&B with him for fun in a group called Little Boy Blue & the Blue Boys. At Sidcup Art School, Taylor made the acquaintance of fellow student and R&B enthusiast Keith Richards. When Jagger and Richards, childhood friends who had not been in contact with each other for years, ran into each other in a train, they discovered that they both knew Taylor, and it was natural for Richards to enter the Blue Boys rehearsals.
Taylor continued to play with Richards and Jagger for a time as the group became more serious, changing their name to the Rolling Stones, and adding other musicians, most notably yet another guitarist, Brian Jones. In hindsight one group was not large enough to accommodate Jones, Richards, and Taylor, all guitarists with distinctive styles and musical visions. It was Taylor who got the squeeze, and although he might have been able to continue with the group if he'd been willing to accept the bass player position, he amicably drifted away from the ensemble, many months before they began recording. Although some would view this as a rotten turn of events, Taylor turned this to his advantage by helping to found a similar band that would allow him the lead guitar spot, and a much greater role in songwriting and musical direction than would have likely been possible in the Rolling Stones. The singer would be another Sidcup Art School student, Phil May, who happened to look a bit like Mick Jagger, with even longer (especially by 1963 standards) hair.
The British blues movement was taking off in the early 1960s under the guidance of "purist" older musicians, especially Alexis Korner, who were dedicated to preserving and recreating classical traditional blues forms. The Pretty Things, like the Rolling Stones and other younger bands, had something different in mind. "The Pretty Things found, in people like Jimmy Reed, Howlin' Wolf, and Muddy Waters, a kindred music we could identify with," says May more than 35 years later, over beer at his neighborhood London pub. "Where we stood, in society, being art students, was right on the fringe. The urgency where we were standing was overlaid on songs about being marginalized and fucked up by society. That's what was happening to us.
"But we weren't respectful in the fact we didn't copy it. We played it fast because we were 17, 18 years old. We added some kind of thrash metal to it, put some urgency into it. And we played it at a speed, which early godfathers of British R&B said, 'ah, disgraceful!' All the people like Korner, to them [playing the blues] was like a church. You couldn't be disrespectful. The harmonica was learned note-for-note. It was such bollocks. We just took what we wanted and made it our own. Everyone would dance faster, [at] the pace of our life."
May actually used Mick Jagger's songbook -- which had lyrics of "every Chuck Berry, every Bo Diddley, every Jimmy Reed song" -- to learn material. Yet the Pretty Things were also conscious of not trying to merely sound like the Rolling Stones, or other of the numerous fine R&B bands starting in London around 1963, the Yardbirds being (other than the Rolling Stones) the best of them. "All the bands were very careful to play different things," May points out. "We had even a more irreverent attitude than the Stones did. The Stones almost copied stuff. They did quite a good rendition of the records, slightly faster. But we took that another step, and had to find our own identity in it."
"The Stones weren't a purist R&B band, but we were even less so than them," concurs Taylor. "We liked the same music, but we were maybe pointed a little bit more towards Bo Diddley." The Pretties, indeed, would take their name from a Bo Diddley song, "Pretty Thing," which they covered on their first album (which included no less than three other Diddley titles). It was an witty name given that to most of the public, the Pretty Things' appearance was not pretty, but downright shocking. When the average British band still played in matching suits (including the Rolling Stones at some 1963 appearances), the Pretty Things played in casual lounging-around-the-house wear. Phil May grew his hair past his shoulders at a time when only girls did that, with most of the other band members letting it down almost as far. With the addition of John Stax on bass and Brian Pendleton on rhythm guitar, they began playing art school and club gigs, within a few months attracting attention from Fontana Records. Before embarking upon a recording career, however, a final element would fall into place to elevate the already rowdy pack to a full-on threat to the status quo.
Drummer Vivian Prince, ironically, was drafted in by management and record label interests in the hopes of bringing some much-needed professionalism to the outfit. At a glance Prince's credentials, including sessions and work with the Carter-Lewis & the Southerners (during which he played alongside a young Jimmy Page), seemed sound. Prince would soon prove himself, however, to be the most out-of-control musician in the band by a longshot. In May's estimation, "We were sort of novice lunatics, but suddenly they hand us, like, the high priest of lunacy." As Taylor observes archly, "Viv was a very, very professional musician when he wasn't completely pissed."
But, Taylor quickly adds, "Even when he was completely pissed, he was a very professional musician." Prince was also a wholly overlooked influence upon Keith Moon, who would take a similar manic energy to the drum kit when he joined the Who. "I always remember Keith coming and standing in front of our set, watching the gig, right in front of the drums," says May. "Keith, later, would also say he idolized Viv. Before that playing drums was quite sedentary. Boring. And through Viv, you'd suddenly realize you could be a drummer, but also an extrovert. You could be a star, and play your drums too. I think Keith realized he could be Keith, and didn't have to switch instruments. He could still play drums and let out all his lunacy through the drum kit. 'Cause Viv was amazing. He'd hit anything -- mike stands, fire bucket, just anything he'd play. Drummed on the floor, on the guitars themselves."
Percussive madness was much in evidence on the Pretty Things' debut single, "Rosalyn," which in addition to Prince's nonstop hurricane of rhythm featured May's trademark hoarse wail of a vocal, pounding Bo Diddley chords, and keening slide guitar. Punk blues at its zenith (although the term "punk" was not in use then), it was hero Diddley's R&B-rock hybrid taken at a tempo accelehy. Backed with a somewhat more refined version of Jimmy Reed's "Big Boss Man," it made the lowest reaches of the UK singles charts. The follow-up, "Don't Bring Me Down," was another prime slice of R&B-rock with garage raunchiness, with infectious stop-start rhythms and one of May's most salacious vocals. It made #10 in England, and the Pretty Things were British stars, for a while anyway, with Fontana granting them studio time for an album.
The Pretty Thingslargely replicated the band's stage set at the time, with songs by idols Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Jimmy Reed standing alongside originals, or numbers supplied to the Pretties by management and other songwriters. Although the pace dragged at times, on the whole it was British R&B at its most raucous, punky but not so sloppy that the sheer energy of the group was undermined. "Big City" and "Judgement Day," though written by management, sounded like downright authentic Chicago blues covers, while "Mama, Keep Your Big Mouth Shut," "Roadrunner," "She's Fine, She's Mine," and "Pretty Thing" revealed the band as the finest white rock interpreters of Bo Diddley, particularly in May's half-shouted, half-sung vocals. "We did 'Roadrunner' and made it our own," proclaims May. "It's quite different from Bo's. Bo's is quite studied, quite nice, but quite controlled. [Ours is] a completely different speed, and much more rock."
The album made the British Top 10, but Fontana Records may have wished they didn't have to deal with the band at all, so unlike were the Pretties to the rest of its artist roster. "The guy who signed us was so straight it was untrue," recalls May. "He thought he was gonna produce the first album. And after 20 minutes, he ran out of the studio and told 'em to get Bobby Graham on the phone, and said I'm not spending another minute with those animals." Graham, a session drummer who had played on the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" among many other records, would produce the Pretties' first two LPs.
"We'd never done
So we were incredibly loud, and the mikes were getting blown up, and
engineers threatening to leave. They said we were very
We didn't know what we were meant to be cooperating with, you
In the end, basically, they put mikes in front of what we were doing,
set up in a line, and we played what we were doing on stage every
The album also included "Honey I Need," written by Dick Taylor and some friends, which gave the Pretty Things a #13 hit and expanded the R&B template a bit with the aggressive acoustic guitar that propels the song through its tricky rhythms. It would also be the group's last Top 20 hit.
Throughout 1965 and early 1966, the Pretty Things generated classy singles that became small British hits, and deserved to do better. "Midnight to Six Man" was one of the best hits-that-never-were of the '60s, its slashing, descending riff, double-time chorus, and piano/organ embellishments (courtesy of Nicky Hopkins and Genya Ravan) tethering May's leering narrative of a swinger on the prowl for night action. "Come See Me" had another devastating riff (this time on John Stax's bass) and an effective mating of rock and soul grit; the B-sides "Can't Stand the Pain" (with its eerie pre-psychedelia aura of glissando slide guitar) and "L.S.D." (another riff-driven R&B stomper that referred to the old British abbreviation for pounds, shillings and pence, although there was an obvious double meaning) more than carried their weight. The group may have made a strategic blunder, however, in covering Solomon Burke's soul song "Cry to Me" on a single in mid-1965, as the Rolling Stones covered it as an album track at the same time. The Pretties always tried to avoid duplicating the Stones' territory, as previously noted (and they had previously abandoned "Walking the Dog" after the Stones recorded it), but did so here by chance. In any case, it was the single to start the band's commercial slide.
Those who summarize, or even dismiss, the Pretty Things as a junior Rolling Stones are overlooking the group's subtlety and diversity, which not only set them apart from the Stones, but also proved them capable of more than just growling R&B-rock (as magnificent as they were in that capacity). It's not often noted that Dick Taylor, in addition to playing raw'n'ready lead guitar somewhat in the manner of a more spontaneous Keith Richards, effectively varied his textures with acoustic guitars that sometimes even treaded towards folk-rock territory, as on "Honey I Need" and the much folkier "London Town." "We'd all been brought up on acoustic guitars, so it seemed like a completely natural thing to do on some things," says Taylor. "One of the drawbacks about recording electrics in those days was that studios got so uptight about you playing at any volume. They'd put you up against a wall, in a little booth, with a blanket over it, and say, play quietly. At least you didn't have that argument with acoustics. You could thrash it out acoustic."
Also underrated were the group's sharp eye for material and interpretive abilities on songs that came from a variety of left-field sources. As noted earlier the Pretties were conscious of not duplicating the cover choices of the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, and others, not an easy feat considering how deeply the Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley catalogs in particular were getting plundered. Less noted is the group's knack for coming up with newly-penned tunes from the most obscure and off-the-wall places by outside songwriters, some of whom had no connection with the American R&B scene. "Rosalyn" and "Big City" were co-written by co-manager Jimmy Duncan; "Don't Bring Me Down" by little-known British singer Johnny Dee (who co-wrote one of the best songs on their second album, "I Want Your Love"); "Honey I Need" by Taylor and some friends; "Judgement Day" by co-manager Bryan Morrison; "You'll Never Do It Baby," another highlight from their second LP, by unknown British R&B band Cops & Robbers; "Come See Me" by American soul musician J.J. Jackson and others; and "You Don't Believe Me," the leadoff track of their second album, with the assistance of then-session musician Jimmy Page. And, Phil May emphasizes, the Pretty Things added a lot to such songs once they found them. "Don't Bring Me Down," he claims, "was pretty tame" when they first heard it, with a much slower tempo. "We hijacked it, and made the song."
The Pretty Things' musical force is still easy to appreciate on their early recordings, but the shock and outrage inspired by their live performances and very appearance is less easily grasped today. The Pretties' stage show was, according to Taylor, "louder and less controlled than even the singles. Nothing would ever be the same night after night. We used to sometimes let riffs go on for hours. Things like 'Hey Mama' -- we could jam on that for hours." George Gallacher of the Scottish band the Poets (see chapter elsewhere in book) saw the Pretties for the first time by chance on a wander down the 100 Club, and corroborates, "They were the best live band I have ever heard, before or since; I was metaphorically and literally stunned. They did much the same set of blues standards as we did, but Jesus! The power and the playing was astonishing." The electricity sometimes spread through the audience as well, and May remembers riots at their appearance at Holland's Blokker Festival in 1965, where "it was like almost the Paris barricades. It's where the Dutch youth said, 'We're not going to be controlled. This is our music.' For the first time, the police couldn't control it, like they normally did. It was almost an establishment of the right to have a party, or the right to listen to music, and not let the church control youth."
Decent record sales and plenty of live work did not mean that the Pretty Things themselves avoided harassment, and it was a constant struggle for them to get served in pubs and taken in by hotels, merely due to the length of their hair. At times they were physically attacked because of the way they looked. "When you see the early pictures," muses May, "I guess we looked fairly radical, but it still doesn't equate, the effect it had on people. We used to get in a fight every night. If you had long hair in those days -- I can't think of anything in comparison now. You could have your dick out -- you'd have to be that far [today], to walk into a pub and get the kind of vibe we got."
The Pretty Things were among London's wildest ravers, and particularly renowned for the parties held at their abode at 13 Chester Street, where the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones also lived for a time, coming up from the basement to listen to records. One Pretty Thing proved too wild even for the rest of the band to accommodate. The group's 1965 tour of Australia and New Zealand aroused massive media indignation Down Under, particularly in New Zealand, where they earned a lifetime ban. This was particularly due to the antics of Viv Prince, who was alleged to have gotten wildly drunk at performances and set fires onstage. Prince was thrown off their flight back from New Zealand before it took off for disorderly behavior, and didn't show up in England for weeks. "We had to sack him because he was so bad in the end," laments May. "We couldn't finish a concert." To May's recollection, the capper was the time Prince refused to play a gig when the pub across the road refused to serve him a beer. "What he forgot was the night before, he'd gone there with a bunch of musicians and smashed the place up."
Now fondly recalled in the track "Vivian Prince" off the Pretties' 1999 Rage for Beautyalbum, Prince had, in his brief career, arguably set the benchmark for rock excess, only to be exceeded by the legendary Keith Moon. (Ironically, Prince would fill in for Moon in the Who for a couple of weeks in December 1965, when Moon was ill.) For the rest of the 1960s Prince drifted through obscure bands (including one with ex-Moody Blues and future Wings guitarist Denny Laine), played with an early version of the Jeff Beck Group (which didn't last past through the rehearsal stage), and did a flop solo single. In the early 1970s, he was said to have somehow managed the difficult feat of getting kicked out of the Hell's Angels for unruliness. Today he lives in an orange grove in Portugal, breeding Alsatians.
In the meantime the rest of the band had recordings to do and live dates to fill. Their second album, Get the Picture?,came out in late 1965. While not as consistent as their debut, it showed the group starting to stretch by absorbing soul and folk influences, as well as writing more of their own material. Much of the drums on Get the Picture? were handled by session players, particularly a pre-Jimi Hendrix Experience Mitch Mitchell and the 17-year-old Skip Alan. Both were considered for the permanent job, the band opting for Alan, "an embryonic lunatic" (in May's words) whose personality was much more suited to the Pretty Things than the relatively straight-laced (at that time, anyway) Mitchell.
The Pretty Things were still a successful group in the UK and Europe. Holland in particular seemed to take the Pretty Things to heart as a major band, judging from the abundance of Dutch groups that made records saturated with the Pretty Things' influence (such as the Outsiders, one of the best rock bands ever to hail from a non-English-speaking country). Yet the Pretty Things were almost wholly unknown in the US, where they didn't tour and their records weren't played, or sometimes even released.
Since this was a time when the Stones, Yardbirds, Animals, and other tough British groups soaked in R&B were taking the States by storm, this has remained the big Pretty Things mystery over the decades: why such a fine band did not make a determined effort to invade America. You had to be a very dedicated fan to even find Pretty Things releases in the States. Somehow a few US garage bands even released some Pretty Things covers, most notably the Montells from Florida, who had a regional hit with "Don't Bring Me Down." It didn't help that the Pretty Things' own version of "Don't Bring Me Down" was banned from many radio stations for the line "and then I laid her on the ground." (There were also the Brogues from California, featuring a pre-Quicksilver Messenger Service Gary Duncan on guitar, whose "Don't Shoot Me Down" was modeled on the Pretty Things' version of "Mama, Keep Your Big Mouth Shut"; Duncan named Phil May as his favorite singer in a Brogues bio, and even today feels the Pretty Things were "much better than the Rolling Stones.")
May concedes that the decision not to concentrate on the US market "was a dumb move by [co-manager] Bryan Morrison. But don't forget, the record we would have gone with was banned from all the radio stations within three weeks. It started off being bleeped, and then it got more and more bleeped. In the end, they wouldn't play it. So we'd have gone there, and a week later we wouldn't have had our record played on the air. It was banned [for the line 'laid her on the ground']; well, in some places, they were bleeping more than that. We were doing very well in Europe, and it seemed like, okay, we'll go with the next record, or the next record. But in some ways, it kept the band hungry. It left something to shoot at a bit later on. If we'd gotten to America and had the same effect in America we were having in Europe, I think we'd be dead, and it'd all been over in three or four years."
Taylor is less equivocal about the band's failure to tour America. "What decision could be more wrong than not doing that?" he laughs. "Obviously, it was a very big mistake. We all wanted to go. The decision really rested with the fact that we would have probably had to lose money for a couple of tours. Also we were doing quite well in England and Europe. But really, we should have just bit the bullet and gone."
Late 1966 saw the band in a bit of a crisis. Their last two singles, a cover of the Kinks' "A House in the Country" and the anonymous soul-pop "Progress," hadn't sold or been appropriate material.. "We realized that unless we made a move, we couldn't exist with what we'd been doing," recounts May. "We had to write for ourselves, find our own voice as writers. We couldn't rely on people to bring us material. We wouldn't have survived. It wasn't something I wanted to do. I hate writing." But May and Taylor were already involved in writing most of the band's original material (most notably "Midnight to Six Man"), and their credits appeared on every track on Emotions,the band's third album. Other Pretty Things were not destined to stay the course, with Brian Pendleton simply getting off the train on the way to a gig and never returning, and John Stax leaving sometime during the recording of Emotions . They were replaced by multi-instrumentalist Wally Waller and keyboardist John Povey, both of the little-known harmony pop group the Fenmen; the new musicians would influence the band's turn away from R&B and toward psychedelia.
Emotionsis still a source of great controversy among both the band and their fans. May and Taylor (with some songwriting help from Waller) were, for the first time, going away from R&B and into a poppier direction, with intimations of folk and psychedelic music. Their songs were no longer rompers, but gentle, inquisitive, frequently third-person sketches with a British slant. Sometimes the ventures were quite effective, as on the hastily strummed acoustic guitar and dramatic storyline of "Death of a Socialite"; the anthemic "My Time," with its jubilant Swinging London vibe; and the lovely "The Sun." Other songs were awkward, the group still ill at ease with their new territory, muting both their guitars and the rasp of May's voice. Most controversial, though, was the addition of overdubbed strings and brass by outside musicians, without full consent from or participation by the band members. Although these could sometimes enhance the mood of the songs when used sporadically, at other points their flatulence all but drowned the tracks.
Some takes of tracks without the overdubs appear on Snapper's CD reissue of Emotions(and also on the Pure & Prettybootleg), but the damage was done, and even so the group never got to record the compositions in the way they would have preferred. "It was something we were working on that got hijacked," states May flatly. "When they started fucking around with Emotions,putting orchestras on it, we could have said okay, cancel the whole album and we'll start again. But that would have meant another six months under contract."
Emotionsended the group's association with Fontana Records. Originally, summarizes Taylor diplomatically, "The people who saw us from Fontana did realize that where our merit lay wasn't in musicianship exactly. It was far more in the fact that we were rough, ready, and raw, had a lot of energy. That's why the first album and Get the Picture?work very well. Bobby Graham certainly realized the best way to go about recording us was to get as much immediacy as he could. I don't think [Emotionsproducer] Steve Rowland ever got to grips with who we really were. It was a pretty transitional thing; I actually quite like some of it very much. I'd have personally liked to put a load of electric guitars on and what have you. But we were starting to explore a bit, and it was something we had to do get somewhere else."
That "somewhere else" would be EMI Records, where the Pretty Things would be able to, at the hallowed Abbey Road Studios, put down on tape what they were starting to hear in their heads...
For the lowdown on the Pretty
from R&B punks to creators of the first psychedelic rock opera,
part two of the chapter in Urban Spacemen & Wayfaring
Overlooked Innovators and Eccentric Visionaries of '60s Rock.
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