When they first formed a band while at art school in 1963, Phil May and Dick Taylor had no plans to make music professionally. But over half a century later they’re still on the road and working on their 13th studio album.
The Pretty Things have taken a number of different forms over the decades, having seen dozens of musicians come and go, but Phil and Dick are still present. The band’s current line-up was completed when bassist George Woosey joined in 2008. Guitarist Frank Holland has been with them since 1988 and drummer Jack Greenwood since 2007.
Despite a busy touring schedule, they have found time to work on some material for a new record, which they are releasing next year. Their latest LP, ‘The Sweet Pretty Things (Are in Bed Now, of Course…)’ came out in 2015. A new compilation album, ‘The Pretty Things – Greatest Hits’ is being released on 13th October and is now available for pre-order on vinyl and CD, as well as in a digital format.
60s Today sat down with Phil and Dick before their Derby gig on Saturday 16th September. Although it was still early, some fans had already been waiting at the venue for some time, hoping for autographs: the three of them had travelled all the way from Argentina to see the show.
When you first started out, you had a reputation for being the wildest rock ‘n’ roll band out there. Was this something that came naturally or did you decide that’s who you wanted to be?
Phil: We never thought about it. We thought we were quite normal. We were art students, and what we did and what we looked like was how we always were. And when they started writing this stuff about being the wildest and making the Stones look like choir boys – well, people have to write something. But we never said: “Let’s be the wildest band in the world!” It just evolved and came out like that.
So were you true rebels at heart?
Phil: We just did things differently, that’s all. You know, we had trouble in television studios because it was like being at school. They told you things like “be quiet”, “don’t move”, “step off that mark”, and it seemed like bullshit… When we were on one of the TV shows, they called our manager up to come and keep us in order, and they said they were going to throw us off the programme unless we started behaving.
It seems that nowadays it’s just not possible for artists to shock people anymore.
Phil: No, I don’t think it’s possible. Nowadays, even if you walked down Oxford Street bollock naked, nobody would really care, you’d just get arrested for indecent exposure…
But 50 years ago, you could shock people just by thinking of something new that no one had previously thought of. When looking at the world nowadays, I wonder if everything’s already been done before.
Phil: It does seem like we’re living on a jaded planet. In some ways, there’s a kind of a business in going retro and coming back with something else that maybe got missed. Some of the young bands have listened to a lot of the old stuff and made their own thing out of it. And that’s in some ways what we did. We listened to all the early blues guys, and some of the people we were listening to, we didn’t even realize they were dead. We thought they were sort of 25…
Dick: The thing about music is that in order to go forward, very often people look slightly to the past. These days, if you listen to music made 50 years ago, the recordings in those days were absolutely beautiful. You can even listen to recordings made in the 40s and 50s, and they still sound wonderful. But in the 60s, if we listened to music from 1910, it wasn’t very good quality, which makes a difference. And it’s not like classical music that’s always written down.
When you were learning to play those blues songs, how serious were you about the band?
Phil: We used to learn the songs in Dick’s front room. We didn’t really set out to be a band. We wanted to play for art students. I didn’t even think we were going to go public and play to anybody else but the people we knew liked the music like we did. We played at the art school to start with. We didn’t venture out into the big, bad world for quite a while.
Dick: I hate to raise the subject of the Stones, but the same thing applied to Mick, Keith, Brian Jones and myself: we wanted literally just to play the music. That was our only aim. It wasn’t to do it professionally, although that would be very good, but we had no idea that would happen. But then, quite early on, we actually did get kind of catapulted when someone told us: “We can get you a recording contract, blah blah blah…” And we did go professional really-really quickly.
How did that happen? Did someone just come up to you after a gig?
Phil: Yes, exactly that. They fell up the stairs towards the dressing room, they were so drunk… We said: “Go and have another drink!” And the guy said: “I can help you get signed to Fontana Records.” And we said: “Yeah, yeah, go away…”
Dick: We played at lots of art colleges in London and around London. We were doing one of those gigs one night, at the Royal College of Art, and that’s when this guy came up and said he could get us a contract, and it happened.
Phil: We were in the studio within about a week.
Dick: And a lot of the bands in those days, like the Beatles, they’d sort of done their apprenticeship. We did our apprenticeship once were playing kind of professionally.
Phil: And we had dates in very small places, and once we’d been on television, we’d get to the place and there’d be three, four, five hundred people outside, and we thought we couldn’t be at the right place because we were expecting to play to only 80-90 people.
If you were teenagers today, do you think you’d be interested in being in a band?
Phil: I think it would be really tough. I don’t envy kids at all, it’s so bloody difficult. I know so many good young musicians and I hear their stuff and two years later you realize that nothing’s happened to them. And the way people seem to make it nowadays, with people like Simon Cowell, it’s almost like a blessing from some corrupt dictator that gets you a record deal. But that’s the man that can press a button.
Dick: On the other hand, there is a whole music scene that has nothing to do with that.
Phil: But it doesn’t get exposure.
Dick: But there are so many different scenes now. There’s a reasonably vibrant 60s revival and mod and psychedelic scene, there’s ska bands, there’s all sorts of things going on. So that’s the good side, and then there’s the whole talent show thing… Mind you, there’s always been crappy music or music not to our taste.
Phil: I just think it’s very hard for someone today to come in with a revolutionary take on music and make a statement. It’s very difficult these days.
Let’s go back to when you were at art school for a moment. What did you want to do originally, did you want to be painters?
Phil: Yes, I wanted to be a painter. When we spoke to some of our tutors, they said: “Go and enjoy the music for a couple of years, and if you want to come back, there’s an open door, you can come back and paint again.”
But you never fully gave up making art, did you?
Phil: No, I never gave up. I did the cover for the last album. But I kind of vicariously lived that life through painters I’ve known, people like David Hockney and Alan Jones. Spending time with them and in their studio gives me a kind of a fix, because I love painting.
How about you, Dick? Do you still do any art yourself?
Dick: No, I don’t. I painted a couple of murals in the 70s, but not anymore.
Phil, most of your lyrics are very visual, which makes me wonder if you still see the world as a painter.
Phil: Yeah. I once did a programme for a Danish television and the premise was whether the way we made music was in parallel with the way you make a painting. And for me, that’s exactly it. I don’t think I’ve ever written a lyric without making a drawing first. Whenever we were doing a new album, when I look at the books, it’s like the song is drawn and the lyrics are beside it. It’s a sort of a visualization, especially on ‘S.F. Sorrow’.
That must also have had something to do with acid trips.
Phil: Well, yeah. A lot of my life’s been to do with drugs, because, you know, I’ve lived in that era when that stuff had a lot of influence on music.
Have you ever been inspired by the work of a specific painter?
Phil: Oh, yes. Francis Bacon is my favourite painter. There was one song we never got to record on ‘S.F. Sorrow’: it was called ‘The Cardinal of Regrets’. It’s a song I was working on and I’ve found some of my notes on it, but we’d run out of time with ‘S.F. Sorrow’. In those days, you could only have so much a side, and we just couldn’t have fitted another character on it. But he was meant to be the apologist for all the damage the Church had done, which would have preceded what’s going on now. It would’ve been exactly what came out of the Church; not just the wars, but all the sexual abuse cases.
‘S.F. Sorrow’ is going to be 50 years old next year. How are you planning to celebrate his birthday? Are you going to play the album from start to finish?
Phil: It’s being worked on, our manager is trying to find a venue at the moment. We did it at the Royal Festival Hall and we did it at Abbey Road, but we don’t yet know where it will be next year.
Dick, you took a break from the band for nearly ten years after ‘S.F. Sorrow’ came out. What was your reason for leaving?
Dick: After we did ‘S.F. Sorrow’, quite honestly, I thought we’d done a really good record. But I hadn’t actually done anything outside the Pretty Things for quite a few years, so I just wanted to see what else I could do. I also saw the music business turning into something different, which I didn’t particularly like.
What did you do during those years?
Dick: I produced some records [the debut albums of progressive rock bands Hawkwind (1970) and Skin Alley (1969), and country rock band Cochise (1970)], painted some murals, and I worked with a jeans company as a transport manager. I also did the sound mixing at some Pretty Things gigs during that time.
What was it like to be reunited after several years?
Phil: The thing is, the band would’ve always gone on despite people leaving. Initially, the driving force was Dick and I, and we recruited John Stax and [Brian] Pendleton and Viv Prince. But then the band became sort of self-perpetuating. At that time, Wally [Waller] and I were living together, and somehow we ended up writing all of ‘Parachute’, because we had rooms next door to each other. We’d be up all night and work on that album. After Dick left, I was going to make another album anyway, and it’s just something that couldn’t have stopped there.
Dick: Also, we’ve almost without exception remained friends with the people who’d been in the band, and a lot of them would leave and then come back again.
You’re having a greatest hits album released soon. Were you involved in the selection of the songs?
Phil: Yes, Dick and I put it together. It took ages… God, it was really difficult.
Dick: Particularly because it was going to be on vinyl as well.
Phil: It’s 21 minutes per side and we have four sides, so we had a real tussle about what was going to be on and off.
One last question: are you going to release another record?
Phil: Yes, we’re halfway through it. We’ve had to stop because we’re touring but we’ll get back to it once we’ve come back from Japan.
Dick: It will be out in the new year.
Visit the Pretty Things’ website to find out where you can see them live next.