Dick Taylor was guitarist and founding member of the Pretty Things, the finest 1960s British band never to have a hit in the United States. He was also a very early member of the Rolling Stones, leaving in 1962 to help form a band that would give him a more prominent role. In mid-1999, he talked about the Pretty Things' odyssey from raunchy R&B to psychedelic rock opera, as well as their belated appreciation, particularly in America, where a reunited Pretty Things have recently toured.
How did you end up joining the early Rolling Stones?
Brian Jones pulled Mick and Keith, and then myself, into the band. We were definitely Stones at that point. All the elements were there, apart from Bill Wyman, because Charlie [Watts] played. At various rehearsals, Charlie played.
Then you left and the Pretty Things formed, who had a lot of the same musical influences. How were the Pretty Things different than the Stones, though?
I think, just a natural...just the fact that it was different people. Different personalities, different levels of musicianship and what have you, completely stamped, made a different stamp on the band really. However much we'd have wanted to be the Stones...it's basically the same as the Mersey bands being so different from one another. It's really very much do with that chemical combination of people. I mean, we liked the same music. But maybe, we were maybe pointed a little bit more towards the sort of Bo Diddley. We were, right from the start, kind of rawer, more raw than the Stones, and we maybe didn't feel like...I mean, I know the Stones weren't a purist R&B band, blues band, but we were even less so then them. That did make a difference, right from the start.
The term used to describe you so often is "a rawer version of the Rolling Stones."
It's not far from the truth. Maybe we initially went back a couple of little degrees in sophistication, because Brian by this time was a pretty accomplished musician, and Charlie had been around a lot, and played with various jazz things and Alexis Korner. Having said that, as soon as we started, we then got a rhythm guitarist, Brian Pendleton, who had played a bit, and then just soon after, we changed drummers. Viv [Prince] was a very, very professional musician when he wasn't completely pissed. Even when he was completely pissed, he was a very professional musician. So, that again, started taking us into a different league. Certainly when we started, back at art school, Phil had never sung before, and I'd played various things...yes, we were kind of starting from down there again.
Why didn't you stay on with the Stones? Was it because you might have had to switch to bass?
There were various little things which nudged me towards not continuing. Basically, the bass thing was one of them, because I felt, I'd always wanted to play guitar. I think if I'd have been the guitarist in the Stones...but I must say, there was no personality clashes or anything like that, we all got on very well. That's one of the things that I think everybody should know, that while I know that they had their problems later between Brian and Keith, in that time everybody got on very, very well. And the same thing with the Pretty Things as well.
Was Brian Jones the leader of the band at that point?
There's no sense of particular leadership or anything. We found our own way into what we were doing. But having said that, we were all pretty much of a mind, in the Stones as well, we don't want to do particularly pure-y-pure-y, just blues as on record already. We want to kind of come at it a bit from a slightly different angle. So we were all thinking in the same direction. The same thing applies, very much, to the Pretty Things. [There was] never any question of arguing as to what direction we were going to go, because we all kind of knew what that was. We all knew what we regarded as hip music, and it coincided very much. One of the great things about art school was that everybody at lunch time would come and bring their records in. There was a lot of different styles being played. Someone would have, like, Thelonious Monk at Town Hall. I really got into that. Another guy brought Joey Dee and the Starliters. No one went, I'm not listening to this shit or anything.
But having said that, what kind of to a certain extent controlled what we played was what we could play. And we all loved nice raw R&B, and it was the most accessible music to play for us. And we'd all sort of listen to folky stuff and try to play that. But the thing we really wanted to do was electric guitars and make noise. And that's the stuff we were most into.
It's not often noted, though, that a bunch of your early tracks had very prominent acoustic guitar.
I bought this Gibson 12-string acoustic. I loved it; it was a really brilliant guitar. The great thing about in the studio was you could use acoustics, and very often we would have an acoustic with a pickup on it, and not mike it up, but have it actually plugged in. And sometimes we'd mike it up as well. But it was--we'd all been brought up on acoustic guitars, so it seemed like a completely natural thing to on some things, to use acoustic. And it did give a different texture.
One of the drawbacks about recording electrics in those days was that studios got so uptight about you playing at any volume. 'Cause you'd take your Vox 30s in there, which of course are completely killer amps, and they'd put you up against a wall, in a little booth, with a blanket over it--no, they hadn't got round to blankets then. They'd put it up against a wall, and say, play quietly. "No, fuck off--we'll play loud," you know (laughs). At least you didn't have that argument with acoustics. You could thrash it out acoustic.
One song where the acoustic was a big part of the arrangement was your hit "Honey I Need."
I wrote that song with some friends, and we wrote it round an acoustic. And the riff I wrote on the acoustic I think impressed the producer--"hey, that's quite a cool sound." Then we introduced the electrics over it.
How did your studio and stage sound differ?
I think that the live sound was obviously, it was louder and less controlled than even the singles. 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 and ready and raw, but had a lot of energy and what have you. I think that's why the first, particularly the first album, and Get the Picture as well, work very well. Because I think they wanted to bring that out. What happened was Jack Baverstock produced the first couple of songs, and I think he found us a bit too animalistic maybe. And then he employed Bobby Graham, who was a drummer. I think he certainly realized what the best way to go about recording us was to get as much of the immediacy as he could. He was our producer for some time, until Steve Rowland stepped in, who was producer for some of the later stuff on Fontana. And I must say, I don't quite think Steve ever got to grips with who we really. I think Bobby Graham was very much clued into what were our essential merits, really.
You also used some keyboards on some mid-1960s tracks. Was Nicky Hopkins playing?
He's on "Midnight to Six." He plays piano on that, I'm pretty sure. And the organist was played by the organist from Goldie and the Gingerbreads. We were quite friendly with them, actually. Glyn Johns, I think actually, produced "Midnight to Six." 'Cause that was done in a different studio, that wasn't done in a Fontana studio, it was done in a...I think I'm right. I'm not sure why he just did that one track. Then I'm sure that Bobby Graham went back to producing us again after that. I don't know.
You and the Stones were covering some of the same artists. Did you consciously try to avoid recording songs that they were also covering?
It did happen a couple of times, by pure chance, particularly with "Cry to Me." I had that by Solomon Burke, and I loved it. I thought it was absolutely wonderful by Solomon Burke. And we started playing it. And then, that's when we heard the Stones' version. I think we'd recorded it when we heard the Stones' version. That was absolutely, 100% both admiring the same record. The other thing was, I remember hearing "Walking the Dog" when that first came back. And lo and behold, the next day...I heard it very soon afterwards by the Stones. I think we might have started rehearsing it, and it came out, and [we said], "we'll avoid that, because they've done it." So, whether they were as conscious of any of us doing stuff, I don't know. But we certainly tried to avoid, you know...
There was the feeling, we mustn't be too much like [the Stones]. Probably hardest for me in a way, because playing with Keith and Brian and everything, and hearing the same stuff, working out the same Chuck Berry things, it's quite hard not to sound very, very similar. Especially with Keith. Because Brian came a bit more with a ready-made repertoire of licks. But Keith and I were certainly sort of learning at the same time, in a way.
Was it a difficult transition from covering songs to writing your own?
Obviously, we didn't want to just write more 12-bars. In some cases, we did write 12-bars. It's very difficult to control what comes out of your head, isn't it, as well? Especially when you're learning how to write. When we were first writing, we were hearing all these things from different artists, different styles. Some of it absorbed, and we just wrote what we could. You don't set out to write a song just like blah-blah, you don't set out to write, oh, I think I'll write a song which is really similar to a Chuck Berry song or whatever. Or maybe you do, you certainly wouldn't write a song which sounds "Who Do You Love" or something like that. You've got to try and be, "well, what can I do different?" And that's really how we approach writing, and "Midnight to Six" is a pretty weird song really, isn't it?
"Can't Stand the Pain," I can tell you exactly how I wrote that. That little minor-y thing, just wrote that, had that, nothing else. And then I literally sat down and almost randomly put chords together until they sounded kind of interesting. And that's how it was done. I tried to do it without going to the obvious chord, and things like that (laughs). But hopefully that worked. It's an odd song, isn't it, really. I just literally sat and down and played the little bit on the guitar. Bobby Graham was there and just talked about, and it was definitely written in the studio. And then Phil hummed the words over it, and it gradually over the course of half an hour, turned into what it was.
["Midnight to Six Man" was weird] in the construction. The way it changes rhythm, that's the particular thing. I can remember sitting down and writing that with Phil, and I'm not sure if I had the riff. I think we might have had the riff and went on from there. It's very much a collaboration. We were trying to write something a bit different. "Baby Let's Play House"--now that, I really liked that song "Suzy Q." You listen to "Let's Play House," that was more of a ripoff, really, in a way. That's how that one got born.
Phil May was telling me that the band, and Viv in particular, was a big influence on Keith Moon.
Keith used to come and watch us. I was reasonably friendly with Keith. He used to [come] down to the 100 Club and watch us play. I certainly think he [Viv] had quite a lot to do with Keith. He was a technically rather good, very good drummer, because he'd come up through playing jazz. He was slightly older than us. I think a lot of the drummers in the bands, [it was like] "you've gotta play drums, you can't play anything else." But Viv was a proper drummer, and he could do stuff which I think a lot of people couldn't. One of the things I think Viv was kind of responsible for in a way was, because he was himself a very good musician, I think we all felt like, oh, we better get on our toes a bit. Because now we're playing with a real musician. He was exceptional as a drummer, and he was great to play with. That was the thing, probably, we had which a lot of bands didn't, which was a very swinging drummer. I think that's the thing he brought to the band.
I always liked jazz and improvisation, and I think he was very much into improvising. Nothing would ever be the same night after night. It was the start of us doing some pretty odd things onstage. Numbers would last for ages. No one was gonna go, "hey, you played two choruses too long there," or whatever. We just used to sometimes let riffs go on for hours. Things like "Hey Mama"--we could jam on that for hours. I remember we played--I live on the Isle of Wight, and we did a couple of concerts there. We played in the Commodore Theatre in Wight. They've still got the poster in there. It was Matt Monro, more like a crooning type. He was second on the bill, I think. And in the first half, we did "Hey Mama," and it went on quite a while. And the manager came over--"if you do long numbers like that in the second half, we'll pull the curtain down on you." In the second half, we played "Hey Mama Keep Your Big Mouth Shut," and it went on and on and on. Phil wouldn't stop. They closed the curtains on us.
That used to happen all the while. I remember playing in the--there was a world fair or something in Belgium, and there was a really strange building, which was like an atom. It's in Brussels. We played there with Helen Shapiro.
With Helen Shapiro (laughs)? How did that happen?
Why did they put on the same bill? It was happening all the while. And we'd play somewhere else with Engelbert Humperdinck. Just insane. But there was a lot of crossover. That was actually, in a way, a very good thing. Because what's happened now is that music is so compartmentalized and put into boxes, and people know what the boxes are and what the labels are, and what is acceptable for these people to play. But you don't get all these sort of strange billings and things, you know. Nowadays, it has to be the headline band plus a band of that ilk on with them. Otherwise, the people'll boo us. I saw something quite amusing, which was the Clash supported by Suicide. And I've never ever seen so many cans hit the stage as when Suicide went on.
What early Pretty Things recordings did you think were the best?
Well, "Midnight to Six" was. "I Can't Stand the Pain." Actually, "I Can Never Say," an odd song. And "Get the Picture." Once I start, I'll probably name them all. Things which were a bit different I certainly liked. They're all a bit different, really, there's quite a good variety, I hope. That was the reason that "Get Yourself Home" didn't become the follow-up single to "Don't Bring Me Down," just 'cause we felt it was a bit too much like "Don't Bring Me Down." When in actual fact, we should have just done it, and it would have probably sold loads. Because it was so much like it. But then we probably wouldn't have done "Honey I Need."
"Come See Me" was an unusual single, very soul-influenced. How did you get that?
It was written by an American, and it was just brought to us at the studio by someone in the record company. I think what we heard was the actual single, or what we heard was the demo of the song. But there was certainly a very good version of it. I can't remember the guy's name. Someone Tubbs. I'm delighted if they did [cover it], because that was my different music then. I loved soul. It was what I played all the while when I was at home. It was very much what was on the London scene. I remember going to see Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, and Charlie & Inez Foxx, Lee Dorsey. And Tina Turner, in a tiny club. That was the stuff I really liked. "Come See Me" was pretty soul-y. There was quite a bit of Jamaican music as well, which was interesting.
The thing about London was this whole clubby scene, which was very much into soul and bluebeat and ska and all that. Go down the Flamingo Club and see Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames and stuff like that. People imagine it was all sort of going to see the Yardbirds at the Ricky Tick and things like that. Nah, the people who actually lived in London would probably much prefer to go and see Wilson Pickett, go and see some American bands. 'Cause all the English groups, we could go and see them anytime.
Now we come to the question you're asked so often: do you think it was mistake not to tour the United States in the 1960s?
What decision could be more wrong than not doing that? (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. And also we were doing quite well in Europe and Australia and New Zealand--well, that was a kind of, just a strange diversion really. But particularly both in England and in Europe. So there was enough work paying. We were probably in actual fact, although we were doing rather well, we were living a kind of hand-to-mouth existence, in the sense that what came in went out. And we only had a reasonably small management company at that point. And so, that was probably influencing the decision not to go. But really, we should have just bit the bullet and gone. And there you go. Now we're a cult band. You wouldn't be sitting here. 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 (laughs).
It was hard to even get your singles in America, although some bands managed to cover your songs there.
Who was it who covered "Don't Bring Me Down"? I can't remember the name of the band. I think in a way, non-availability also brought us to the attention of a few people who became garagey fans and what have you. The fact that we were influential was slightly to do with the fact that we were less obtainable, just the same way as rare R&B records over here were sort of, "oh yeah, let's listen to this one." It would have helped to have sold a few records in America, obviously. But on the other hand, again, maybe it makes us more interesting now.
The Emotions album was something of a transition from your R&B phase to your more progressive one.
It was a pretty sort of transitional thing. I actually quite like some of it very much. But we seemed to be going through this thing of it being made awkward for us to record. I'd have personally liked to put a load of electric guitars on and what have you. I keep thinking of getting the bare bones of the songs and sticking guitar parts on things now. I think we kind of were reasonably...I don't know if we were really happy with it, but we were starting to explore a bit. And it was something we had to do to get somewhere else, if you know what I mean. And listening to it, I really like things like "The Sun," "My Time," "Death of a Socialite." Quite how they would have turned out, I'm not sure. Maybe what would have happened, they would maybe have sounded a bit more like the stuff which we did on the Norman Wisdom film, on the Electric Banana stuff. It would have been more...maybe that's what we were progressing towards. I find that interesting stuff, the stuff in between the Fontana stuff and EMI. I think that's when we were really sort of going, let's experiment and all that. So this year, we're not riding the crest of the pop boom, we're in some other territory entirely. I think it was quite interesting.
The sound changed a lot when Wally Waller and John Povey joined, and you went into psychedelic music. I've always found it interesting how swift and dramatic the transition was from R&B-influenced rock to psychedelia.
I don't think we really had our hearts set on buying a Rolls Royce. We did it because we liked doing it. We're certainly not doing it [all these years] for the money. That point, post-Emotions and before EMI, we were sort of certainly in an experimental stage, a scuffling stage. And changing the lineup also made things kind of different. It was a bit like here we are, let's see what'll come out of this lot. As I say, I think commercial success was never particularly on our agenda, really.
One of things which made it easier us try--during the whole course of the Pretty Things, we weren't [sitting] listening to records like ourselves. Phil and I had a great interest in odd music. You'd go home and put on Sun Ra, rather than listening to the Yardbirds or the Who. When we heard the first stuff by the Doors, that was really interesting. John Peel started broadcasting. John Peel loved Beefheart and stuff like that. But even before that, and certainly back at art school, we were listening to things like Ornette Coleman. A pretty catholic taste in records, altogether. So that when we were in the first incarnation, we were playing stuff we could play. Stuff we liked as well. But not to the exclusion of any other music.
Then kind of what happened--it became acceptable to play stranger sort of stuff, different sort of music. We discovered we had maybe acquired the technique to play other things than straight R&B. And also, even during our R&B phase, we used to do that huge long improvisation things. "Hey Mama"--we used to get into some pretty odd stuff, doing huge solos, basically around one chord, and sort of going home and listening to John Coltrane, [who] constructed all these things using modes. I don't think that all worked. But what it did, though, was that you weren't tied down to an eight-bar solo, which used to sound the same every night. Some nights, when everybody was really out of it, it would get really quite wild. Which wasn't reflected in a lot of recordings, especially when we were recording for Fontana, and with Steve Rowland, who wanted us to be a pop band. Fair enough, to sell records.
But by the time we got to Get the Picture, some of the stuff on there is a little bit odd. But then you get into Emotions, where they were trying to keep the lid on us most of the way. The live shows were much more interesting. It was a bit like someone just opened up the doors, and let us out to play in the garden. Maybe some of the stuff had stored up. I don't mean specific songs, but ideas were allowed to come out. Also, if you think about it, generally the music scene in the world was changing rapidly. Norman [Smith, producer] was very open to experimentation. Just physically, the studio was big. Things were starting to change in recording techniques.
How did the onstage show change at this point?
We did a happening at Alexander Palace. We bought a piano for about a fiver, and we filled it in with flowers, and we stuck microphones in it. And we got Skipper [drummer Skip Alan]--this was our version of Flower Power--got Skip with a pick-ax coming with flowers. And he came off the drums, and attacked the piano, and destroyed it onstage.
How was it that you had so much time to work on S.F. Sorrow in the studio?
We were probably hideously over-budget, but Norman just kept laying more and more time out. He was completely relaxed about that. He listened to "Defecting Grey," the demo, which was essentially the same as what we tried to reproduce in EMI. He was the first to admit the demo actually was very, very hard to capture the same sort of atmosphere. Having heard the demos we'd done, that was the direction we wanted to go.
We were doing things like out-of-phase mikes. And there was some really good boffins in EMI who'd come up with little boxes that would do remarkable things, [like] ring modulators. Then we had this Vox guitar which had a lot of groovy sounds. We were certainly trying to use what was available. I remember doing things like working out lots of the little guitar and sitar bits with John.
What I noticed the other week--I only noticed this after goodness knows how many years--that I knew that I deliberately based a part of "Balloon Burning," that riff--that is actually, there's a band called Fifth Dimension. And there's a track on there which had this "glom, glom, glom, glom-glom-glom, glom, glom, glom." I knew that that, roughly, came from that. But what I didn't realize was that [from Love's "A House Is Not Hotel"], I had literally been talking about inadvertent plagiarism. As related to "Pinball Wizard" and "Old Man Going"--I'd been talking about that. And someone gave me a copy of the Love album [Forever Changes], the second track, and I suddenly went, "bloody hell, that's where I got--that's the guitar riff. If you listen to the Love thing, it doesn't repeat like it does on "Balloon Burning." But the guitar starts "dah-dah-dah dah-dah," and then goes on to make a solo. I'd never thought of that. Of course it was one of my favorite albums at the time. Possibly I was listening to that, and I was looking for a guitar riff, and out the sky came [sings riff]. But it wasn't really, it was playing the album Forever Changes.
Would you call S.F. Sorrow the first rock opera?
It was just one of those things where, as a complete work, it obviously worked. And we wanted it to be a complete entity. Apart from just being a story, we wanted it to not just be a sort of collection of songs stuck on a piece of plastic. I think it fits together very well, story or no story.
It certainly wasn't from any--there were influences coming from every direction. You'd have to be on a desert island for there not to be. There certainly wasn't any particular, there wasn't a precedent, as far as we were concerned, for having whatever you call it, a rock opera. It's not opera, it wasn't really. Maybe Tommy is a rock opera. That [the story] was the thing that the whole album was hung upon. I don't know when Phil actually wrote the story, at what point he wrote the story as it appears. I know that we'd written bracelets, braces I think is what we called it, before the rest of the album. "I See You" was kind of fitted in, 'cause it fits rather perfect for the position it occupies. But I don't know at what point we actually said, or at what point Phil really went, "Hey, I've got a story, let's make an album just with it."
Sometimes cases are made for other albums, like one by the '60s British group Nirvana, though I think it's not nearly as concept-oriented as S.F. Sorrow.
There wasn't any precedent for it. We didn't think there were any precedents. There may well have been...yeah, there was a precedent. A Love Supreme. That's the kind of precedent we would have been thinking of, rather than whatever it was by Nirvana, whoever they were (laughs). That was a sort of area where we'd have been thinking of. There were certainly lots of jazz albums-- Sketches of Spain. But it just, there were no really pop albums which had any real proper links that we knew of when we started, not with an actual story.
Do you think the Who were influenced by it in doing Tommy?
The only reason I'm pretty certain they did hear it is because our roadie, H, we had at the time, also snuck around with or even might have been working with them as well. He took a copy of it to a party, and it was played a lot. And I have no reason to suppose that H would make that story up. H actually said it to me, and he said it to Phil. It definitely was heard. Now maybe, Pete Townshend at that party was so pissed he can't remember it, or ever. But this is story which was told to us. If it isn't so, it's not so, but if it's not, I'd be rather surprised. It just seems a bit odd that someone should go, "Hey, I took your album along and Kit Lambert and Pete Townshend really loved it, blah blah blah"--why would they say that? It seems a bit peculiar to me.
Why did you leave the band at the end of the 1960s?
I'd been doing it for a long time. We'd done S.F. Sorrow, and I felt quite happy with the album. Maybe, almost, having done that, that's kind of a rich thing, the end of that little phase, "now we've done that"--well, let's see what else I could do. And also, since I'd left art school, I hadn't done anything else apart from being in the Pretty Things--"maybe I should try and see what else there is to do in the world."
Did you do any producing besides the first Hawkwind album?
Cochise and Skin Alley. I did some graphicy stuff, including painting murals and what have you. Then in the seventies I worked for a jean company for ages, which was quite interesting. Finished up being the transport manager, of all things, which was bizarre. But it was more like rock'n'roll than rock'n'roll was at that point. Pretty wild, actually.
I don't know, I really don't know. There was something going on in the rock business at that point which I kind of didn't particularly savor. Everybody seemed to be after advances and money and deals, and deals became more important, in a way, than the music. I think the whole thing became huge and vastly commercial. I think the music business did become healthier again at the end of the seventies. A lot of nonsense went on too, especially with the real pomp rock-y thing.
How did you end up rejoining?
In 1978, there was a reunion, because the band at that point had kind of broken up for two years. So really, I was out, really, in a way, for just about six years. There was a reunion gig which someone offered us to do in Holland. And we all trooped over to Holland to played, and it was great fun. Since then, I've done every gig the Pretty Things have done. Around that time, I got interested in playing guitar again. I was doing various other musical things, so it seemed rather natural to start working again. And then work started coming in as well.
We are the Pretty Things, above all else. So if you've got a job or something, it goes by the wayside. Like if there's a four-week tour, for me, if there's a four-week tour...I've lost a job through this, several times (laughs) because of that. As it should be. Other things are coincidental. Professionally, this is what we do. That's why it's easy for other things to fit in, because they have to fit in with this.
You did a performance of S.F. Sorrow that was simulcast on the Internet in 1998.
In a way it's a shame we did it before a lot of the technology was really in place. I think if we'd done it in about six months time from now, there'd be a lot more people who'd be, with the MP3 stuff. Then it would be properly streaming, and people wouldn't be going, "oh, we saw two minutes of it, and then it disappeared."
How do you feel about the revival of interest in the band, particularly in America, where you're probably more popular than you ever were?
It's worked out quite well. Our view is that it's good. Maybe we can go and exploit the good old American public and make some dough and go and play. The thing I like doing is playing music. I love it. And if people pay you to do it, it even's better. We probably have got the cult status because of our obscurity to America, because we weren't obscure in Europe. I think people are intrigued by that. You go and see a movie and there's some sort of weird bit of ancient rock on it or something. "Wow--that's really something. I never heard that at the time. That's what's so fascinating. It must be great, if you're young." But obviously there's some things which are just rammed down your threat all the while. But there are other things which, when you hear 'em, for the first time, it's brilliant, isn't it?
It was a long period of gestation, so
got pretty used to it. I like playing the S.F. Sorrow
One of the great advantages I've got is I've got very bad musical
Solos and stuff, I have to reinvent all the while (laughs).
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