‘We were reprobates’: the Pretty Things on being loved by Bowie – and smoking a spliff with Norman Wisdom

The Pretty Things were known for wild 60s singles and the album SF Sorrow. From starring in a sex comedy to a lifetime ban from New Zealand, they share 50 years of anecdotes

Phil May and Dick Taylor are telling me about the time they smoked marijuana with Norman Wisdom. It was 1968 and their band, the Pretty Things, had somehow ended up with a role in What’s Good for the Goose, a sex comedy that disastrously attempted to reboot the diminutive 50s funnyman’s image for a new decade. It was a trying experience for all concerned. Britain’s toughest R&B band had turned into keen psychedelic experimentalists – authors of the wildest UK singles of the early 60s and the groundbreaking 1968 concept album SF Sorrow – and were now trapped in a Southport hotel for two weeks with the slapstick star. “He couldn’t leave a room without pretending to trip over, doing one of his pratfalls,” sighs Taylor. “God, he was a pain in the arse.”

One night, however, Wisdom stumbled in on the band sharing a joint: “He had a toke with us and asked to read our copy of The Hobbit,” says May. “He was really getting into it, completely caught up in the story. By the end of the night, he’s telling us that his next film is going to be The Hobbit, with him starring as Bilbo Baggins. An idea,” he notes, “that could have ended his career.”

Norman Wisdom with the Pretty Things in the 1969 film What’s Good for the Goose.
 Norman Wisdom with the Pretty Things in the 1969 film What’s Good for the Goose. Photograph: Ronald Grant

May and Taylor have a lot of stories like this. They have spent 55 years, on and off, as frontman and guitarist of the Pretty Things, with no end in sight to their career, although their current tour will be their last as an electric band. May has emphysema, which makes touring tough, although they plan to continue performing acoustically.

They were revered by David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, and they were the first people to hear Sgt Pepper when the Beatles recorded next door to them at Abbey Road. Guest stars for their final gig include Van MorrisonDavid Gilmour and Bill Nighy.

It is a life that has left them with an apparently bottomless fund of anecdotes about everything from the snobbery of the south London blues scene from which they and the Rolling Stones (for whom Taylor briefly played bass) emerged – “they kind of dismissed me and Keith Richards as punks; they wouldn’t allow us onstage,” says May – to microdosing LSD, a practice May thinks may have been invented by a keyboard player who performed with the band in the 70s. “He used to have a little lick of acid every morning while standing on his head, doing his yoga exercises.” And did it help him psychologically, as latterday devotees of microdosing claim it can? “Well, no, not really,” sighs May. “He went pretty loony, to be honest.”

Phil May (left) and Dick Taylor.
 Phil May (left) and Dick Taylor. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

But the story about Wisdom in particular seems telling. The Pretty Things found themselves working in a tatty sex comedy because their career had gone haywire. SF Sorrow had vanished without trace on release; a deal to become the first British rock band signed by Motown had turned into such a disaster that, 50 years on, May and Taylor are still bound by a non-disclosure agreement and unable to discuss it; their manager had despaired of them (“He said: ‘If you keep smoking that crazy stuff, you’re going to end up writing shit,’” recalls May) and they were making ends meet by recording library music for films, under the name Electric Banana, which led to the Wisdom film.

Certainly, they seem to have existed in a state of chaos from the moment they began. They were a genuinely groundbreaking band. At a time when most British R&B artists treated their US source material reverentially – “as if it were written in stone and you can’t fuck with the Bible”, says May – the Pretty Things tended to charge at old Willie Dixon and Jimmy Reed songs head on, with thrillingly explosive results. “We were incompetent reprobates,” chuckles Taylor. “It was thrash R&B.”

They signed to Fontana and released a string of hit singles: Rosalyn, Don’t Bring Me Down, Midnight to Six Man, the latter a paean to the life of a jobbing musician so evocative you can almost smell the sweat, cigarette smoke and chip fat in the Blue Boar service station as it plays.

But they also attracted trouble: May and Taylor are full of tales about touring that begin with the band gamely setting off in their van “with some sandwiches Dick’s mum made us” and end with them causing a riot, or being run out of town by the police, or discovering that a guitarist has vanished without trace, unable to cope with the bedlam, only to reappear years later, having opted for a quieter life selling insurance.

Should anyone think these stories are exaggerated, there is some footage on YouTube of them performing in the Netherlands in 1965: they don’t seem to be playing a gig so much as providing the soundtrack to a public disturbance, the music getting more and more chaotic as the crowd fights.

Playing in the Netherlands in 1965.

“The Blokker festival,” nods May. “It turned into a riot. The security were hitting the crowd with truncheons. I always think that was the first time the kids kicked off, instead of being knocked about and told to behave. They picked up the fucking crash barriers and charged the security. You could see the looks on the security guards’ faces: this shouldn’t be happening, I’ve just hit you with a truncheon and now you’re fucking smashing me over the head with a barrier.”

Then there was their drummer Viv Prince, a typical anecdote about whom begins: “He was drinking a bottle of whisky a day and there were a number of incidents with a tear-gas gun he’d got hold of in Germany.” A 1965 tour of New Zealand would have gone badly anyway – the press were upset by the band’s appearance, the chaotic nature of their performances and May’s loud questioning of the country’s treatment of its Maori population – but it was Prince who managed to cause so much trouble that the band were deported and the New Zealand parliament barred them from the country for life.

The Pretty Things on TV in 1964, with (from left)Dick Taylor, Viv Prince, Phil May and Brian Pendleton.
 The Pretty Things on TV in 1964, with (from left)
Dick Taylor, Viv Prince, Phil May and Brian Pendleton. Photograph: Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns

There was also their penchant for what Taylor calls “musical anarchy” on stage – their performances degenerating into improvised noise – and their fondness for drugs. They obviously were not the only mid-60s rock band who fell under the influence of acid, but they may have been the most blatant. Other artists wrote subtly coded songs, wreathed in metaphor, that tipped the wink to listeners in the know: White Rabbit, I Can See for Miles, Tomorrow Never Knows. The Pretty Things wrote songs called LSD and Tripping. “I don’t think we were trying to be surreptitious about anything at that time,” shrugs May.

SF Sorrow was a masterpiece – you can hear the seeds of everything from heavy metal to krautrock within its teeming songs – but it took decades to be recognised as such. Lauded today by everyone from Gilmour to Kasabian’s Serge Pizzorno, it “died at birth” on release, its failure compounded by the fact that the band were incapable of performing its complex studio-born songs live. At one juncture, they came up with the idea of miming the entire album to a backing tape, an idea that might have proved less of a disaster had everyone involved not elected to take acid before going on stage. A clip exists of them performing Private Sorrow on French TV that gives you a flavour of what it might have been like: drummer John “Twink” Alder does a mime in white face and Napoleon hat, while May shoots him a succession of furious glares. He looks as if he wants to kill him. “Oh God, yeah,” nods May. “We all did. He got completely carried away. It was like: what are you fucking doing? It was his Marcel Marceau period.”

Disheartened, Taylor quit the music business. May carried on, releasing a string of acclaimed albums and enjoying the patronage of Led Zeppelin, but wider success still eluded him. “I think,” he says evenly, “you have to be careful of believing a band’s cursed, because if you believe it, you’re going to have one.”

Performing Private Sorrow on French TV.

No one is certain when their fortunes turned around, although Taylor says he had an inkling the world was coming around to the Pretty Things’ way of thinking when a friend took him to see the Clash in 1977. They reformed in the 80s and once more gained a reputation for ferocious live performances, their fire apparently undimmed by the passing years. By 1998, they were performing SF Sorrow in full, live at Abbey Road, with a star-studded selection of special guests.

 The Pretty Things play Indigo at the O2, London, on 13 December. A 50th anniversary box set edition of SF Sorrow is out now on Madfish.

From Alex Petridis at The Guardian


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