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Friars Interviews

dick taylor and phil may
Pretty Things

friars appearances 09/06/69  20/01/73  01/06/09

What can you say about The Pretty Things? They played the second ever Friars gig in 1969, played again in 1973 and 36 years later they are back for the Friars 40th anniversary concert. Contemporaries of the Rolling Stones (of which Dick Taylor was an original member), they are still playing today. They are well known for their classic S F Sorrow which came out before Tommy and is considered the original 'rock opera' or 'concept' album. They will be playing tracks from this at the Friars gig on June 1st. Last year, the band commemorated the 41st anniversary of the release of S F Sorrow by returning to Abbey Road for a special gig where they had recorded their masterpiece.

The Pretty Things had a great effect on a young David Bowie who recorded two Pretty Things tracks on his 'Pin Ups' album and was inspired to write 'Oh You Pretty Things'

By playing on June 1st, The Pretty Things join a very select band of artists who will have played all three Friars phases.

Our grateful thanks to Dick and Phil for taking the time to talk to us - they were two tremendously enjoyable conversations.

Pretty Things publicity shot 2009

Friars Aylesbury Website: I imagine it must be an honour headlining the first Friars concert in 25 years? You must be quite pleased about it!

Dick Taylor: Well...it's an honour for us, don't know if it is for you lot!

Phil May:  Yes, we've played so many venues over the forty years, it's nice to celebrate something that has been going...there's other celebratory concerts we've done too. When you play places that became temples (of the R&B movement) like the 100 Club or The Marquee, it's great to play places that were part of the explosion in the first place

It is an honour! It's an interesting line up, as you know we have three great bands from that first year of Friars, yourselves, The Groundhogs and the Edgar Broughton Band, you all know each other, it's going to be a great feeling..

It should be fun, yes

Also it depends what people like from the Pretty Things, the R&B stuff, the psychedelic stuff. So many people have come in and found out about us halfway through (our career) or have just heard the last album...and turn up and find out about us.

I was talking to some of the original Friars members who turned up in their hordes a couple of weeks back for tickets, and the feeling is that it's going to be a great buzz...it also went out on BBC News

Oh really?

Yes, they picked up on the vibe and interviewed people.

I hope it's full!

On to the Pretty Things Friars history, you played the second ever gig in June 1969, so it's very apt that you're playing the 40th anniversary concert.....

I would have played that one, I left the band after that.

It was a chemical year! The gigs do tend to blur and people come up to you and ask if you remember a particular gig but we played so many...I guess we were there! We were doing so many gigs at that time? We were doing five or six gigs a week and recording Parachute at the time so we were always on the road.

The other one was in 1973....

I'd like to say I remember it well...It's unusual for me because I do usually remember these.

Even so, I remember doing my last gig (at that point) with the band around that time, but yes I would have done Friars without doubt (in 1969) but not the 1973 one.

Yes I would have been there, I'm the only constant in the band, although Dick in the intervening years did some lights for us. We never lost contact, we were just like a big family and we went off and did other things. Other members like Skip came back.

And 36 years later, you're back! and so is Friars!

Will this be a regular occurrence?

Probably not. Aside the one June 1st, there may be one or two other gigs in 2009 to celebrate the 40th anniversary.

We've been doing things recently that have been very well attended and there's a lot of enthusiasm. We just did the Le Beat Bespoke thing in Great Portland Street, part of the University of London, but it was a 'moddy' gig and it was crammed. The last time we did the 100 Club, they turned away a lot of people. Despite the current doom and gloom, people were still getting off their arses to see us! (laughs). I would have thought the same would have applied to other (bands) of that era.

I must ask, it's Friars 40th this year, why did you do S F Sorrow last year (at Abbey Road) on its 41st anniversary?!

(laughs) The 40th didn't quite work out despite us intending to do it. It just didn't work out. There were various constraints with conception, rehearsal, availability of Abbey Road etc. When it came to rehearsing to do it, we thought it was going to be difficult but when we started playing, it was quite easy really.

It was circumstances. We wanted to do it at the Roundhouse, but there were issues with Camden Council. But we did end up doing it there and the Festival Hall in the end

When you did the 41st anniversary gig at Abbey Road, you had a certain David Gilmour guesting with you. Are you going to bring him with you to Aylesbury?

Er..no (laughs), but ask Phil as David is Phil's son's godfather.

It was great that he joined us at Abbey Road. The reason for that was when we recorded S F Sorrow, they (Pink Floyd) were the other side of us (recording Piper At The Gates Of Dawn) and the Beatles on the other side (recording Sgt Pepper) and we were sharing the same management and agency. We did a lot of shows with Pink Floyd in the UFO club and the Oxford and Cambridge balls which were a bit mad. A lot of experimental bands played at Cambridge and places like UFO. It was very underground having been overground and commercial (prior to S F Sorrow). Venues had to be invented to cope with the style and staying up all night...it was totally against convention. It spawned its own thing. People like Joe Boyd came over from America and was captured by what he saw. That kind of vision. There was a whole film made of the Imogen Festival where we amongst other bands like Pink Floyd and Soft Machine played. The musical director every night was Frank Zappa and he would jam at the end every night with all the band and he jammed on Cries From The Midnight Circus. This was all filmed, but unfortunately they went underground tried to release the film without anyone's agreement or contracts. It was tracked down to Australia where it was a kind of bootleg and it was stopped. It was a pity as it was fantastic. A copy must exist somewhere and it would be great to see it. Us playing with Zappa and Victor Unitt from the Edgar Broughton Band

I was hoping to get the exclusive angle on this!

Actually Phil and I used to do a pub gig and David regularly played the pub gig with us in the 1980s. Extraordinary, thinking that members of Pink Floyd were on stage with us in a pub in Little Venice. We used to do this every week and this led to the revival of the Pretty Things. David was quite happy to do this.

In terms of your career you go way back to working with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in the early Rolling Stones..and then at one point in the sixties you and the Stones were as big as each other weren't you?

Well....we were kind of rivals. I think they had a more powerful machine and they had hit records. I'll be the first to admit we didn't write Satisfaction which makes a difference.

The rivalry was stoked up by the press. We had Brian Jones living in our house, which made a mockery of the rivalry but put some pressure on Brian in some ways. The press coloured him as sleeping with the enemy so he got a bit paranoid, so we'd come home sometimes and found he'd trashed something! (laughs). One night we got home before him and were listening to some music....Brian got stoned and thought we were taking the mickey out of the music and wrapped a guitar round Viv Prince's head! We thought the Stones were great. They sung with us in Manchester. Definitely rivalry and not animosity. It pushed us to make a great record. Stimulation.

Dick, any pangs of regret about leaving the Stones?

The only pangs of regret I have are that I am always asked that question!

I appreciate it's not the most original question(!)

No offence! It is a very asked question and I have two replies...one is I could have ended up face down in a swimming pool and second is I could have been Bill Wyman which is probably worse!

But you made the choices you are happy with....

Absolutely! It's also one of those questions that's a bit like regretting not doing (the right numbers) on the lottery. Life is what it is. I've no problem being asked the question, but I just don't think about it! I saw Keith (Richards) at the Isle of Wight Festival last year and had a chat with him and it was so nice to see him, a really pleasant meeting. But I do not regret...I wouldn't swap places. He's a really nice guy and in a good place. But having that amount of glare around you, it's an inescapable thing particularly for Keith as he is not the most outgoing personality. For both Mick and Keith really. Keith is a really shy guy. Back in the very early days he was too shy to ask to rehearse with Mick and myself and some friends when I was at art school (with Mick). It was years later when I found out from Keith's mum that he had been too shy back then to ask and sit in and rehearse. When you think of him on stage, it's remarkable.

I remember seeing Keith on the Whistle Test interviewed by Bob Harris in the 70s and he is kicking the table because he was so nervous.

So back to The Pretty Things and 'Rosalyn' - this is where it all started to take off, that must have been a great time back in 1964/1965?

Your feet didn't touch the ground most of the time. We were doing loads and loads of gigs and often not just one a night! We were all over the place. A very good time.

It was a rollercoaster! In that period, we played a thousand gigs, sometimes two or three a day. I well remember going past Blue Boars (motorway service stations) at 2am after gigs and you'd end up with five or six bands all in there having egg and chips and you ended up chatting about the gigs you played. I remember Roger Daltrey chatting for a while. People talked! Very much mutual respect as we were all in the same boat. Dodgy press with planted press stories and pressure from the establishment.

It's not surprising some of this is a blur - so many gigs, singles and an album in 12 months and twenty different countries. We couldn't have kept with that work rate, so that's where the drugs came in. It would have killed you, that work rate along with the drug intake.

In today's terms, that three to four years! So this pushed each act to raise it's own game...

Yes, it was competition to push the envelope. But whatever club you went to you met everyone. Hendrix would be there, it was this cross fertilisation....a lot of jamming and often we'd go back to people's flats. There would be three cars going on to the next gig and each car had members of different bands. A couple of Tremeloes, a couple of others.

Well, June 1st is like going back to the sixties as you are playing two gigs that night as well! You're playing the Childline concert at London's O2 and then you've got to get to Aylesbury! All I will say is...good luck!

We could get motorbikes!

We'll need a very fast car!

So it was all starting to take off....

I remember, like Phil said, one week we played the Cavern (in Manchester not Liverpool) and Mick and Keith came and sat in with us as they were playing nearby Belle Vue. We all ended up on the same circuit, the Animals as well. It was good.

Throughout the sixties you were embracing different types of music, then you came up with S F Sorrow, the first rock opera of its time predating Tommy. A concept album?

In a way. Without sounding pretentious, if anything we got the idea from the likes of (John Coltrane's) A Love Supreme where he played over a whole side. I didn't think of the idea for the story, Phil did.

There was a lot of R&B in S F Sorrow. When we made an album we had to keep ourselves interested by broadening our horizons taking on board things we had heard or had influenced us. We used harmonies for the first time on S F Sorrow. It was more paint on the palette we hadn't used. It was why we got John Walley in. The idea of making S F Sorrow, we needed as many colours (as possible).

This idea of the Sebastian F Sorrow character...

We had written a couple of the songs and then the idea of the themed album came up and Phil then wrote the story and then kind of wrote the songs round, but a couple of the songs like Bracelets of Fingers and I See You. Also at that time we were kind of pirates - we wrote film soundtracks under the name of the Electric Banana and some of that got incorporated into S F Sorrow

We had done 5 A sides and 5 B sides, in other words a complete album. Why did an album have to be a collection of A and B sides? Why couldn't it be a thing on its own that was a big single? We looked at classical music and it was a life cycle on a record. I had written a story at the time about the Zeppelin crash but not in a specific time frame...this was about stimulation. If we were going to spend a year of making this, it had to get the juices going and stimulate us. I took that story and introduced characters and it became S F Sorrow. It was a self stimulation album. We'd gone past the three or four minute song. The first track we did was Defecting Grey - a narrative thing of someone's life. It was about the people who wore suits and were called 'greys' at the time and defecting from life. It lasted about nine and half minutes with about eight different musical ideas in it. When we took this to Norman Smith and explained (the concept of) S F Sorrow, he jumped on it as he understood what we were trying to do. Then we went to EMI for a very bad advance, it was really just to get into Abbey Road. So we signed for Abbey Road rather than EMI. Norman Smith championed it, but EMI weren't ready for it and were very confused and even more confused when we did Parachute saying it was different. Yes it was, one side was about urban living and also about the musician escaping to the countryside and the parachute as a safety net.

You did a few Electric Banana albums...

About five altogether I think, I was involved in three of them.

That was spread over about ten years wasn't it?

Yes, one track was used in an ITV series No More Heroes.

It was good for us as we really enjoyed being in the studio. Once you had done your album which may have taken 12-14 months, there was another two year period where we could make another one as the one we just did had yet to come out and be promoted. We were still writing..we did it as a money making exercise. We were getting cash in hand and were like session musicians. The music ended up in films and television. We had to call ourselves something else as we were not allowed to record for anybody else. These records were not meant to come out. They were only sent to directors, advertising agencies etc and you would get paid for a track used. But some found their way to record shops and it started a cult movement for the first couple of albums which meant pressing more.

S F Sorrow didn't sell that well at the time?

It's probably sold more now than it did then, but we don't know exactly how many because of America

No, it sold nothing, because EMI just put it out as just another album. They didn't know what they had I don't think. They asked to remove the story off of the cover because of the printing costs, so we knew they definitely didn't get the idea and charged us out of royalties to print the story which didn't exist anyway (the royalties). So we paid for the story to be printed!

So what happened with S F Sorrow in America?

It was released in America by Motown on their Rare Earth label. We never did know how many it actually did sell. They made a cover which was semi circular which made it almost invisible in the record shop racks. It wasn't a success for Rare Earth, or at least we don't think it was. This led to a row later on with EMI and agreements being reached (which for legal reasons cannot be published here)

No, they never produced any figures which did lead to a big row with EMI. There was never any figures revealed about sales. And they were putting us in lots of Tamla Motown record shops which was no good for a white English psychedelic rock band. They (EMI) were using us as a guinea pig for Rare Earth and they got a lot of things wrong with Rare Earth which screwed the albums up in America. The contracts were very imbalanced. Ten pages about the management and one about the artist. It has to have balance.

S F Sorrow seems to be an album that's been fully appreciated when reviewed retrospectively?

Yes, I think so. Over the years, it became highly prized, but now it's all re-released and the sales have been good. It does seem much more well regarded. It got good reviews at the time but there was so many things going on. If it had done well in America.....The Who said to us, very kindly that we should get S F Sorrow out before Tommy in America but that didn't happen and Tommy got the plaudits and sales. If S F Sorrow had been on the right label, promoted properly and come out before Tommy, it would have sold well. But Pete Townshend can't remember the album now which is a bit odd.

Yes, everyone you meet and you speak to or are interviewed by in America and Canada 'got' it the day it came out.

The Pretty Things seem to have had a big influence on a certain D Jones of Brixton?

Yes, probably more Bromley than Brixton. He was a nice young lad. I thought he was a stalker first of all, he behaved in a very strange way, but he was sponge with music and was no ordinary fan and he would ask you loads of questions. He was more than a fan.

Consequently he covered two Pretty Things tracks on his Pin Ups (1973) album

Yes, Rosalyn and Don't Bring Me Down.

Having a Bowie track called Oh You The Pretty Things must have been nice!

Yes, he wrote about us and driving your mamas and papas insane. He would turn up to all these gigs in Bromley and Sidcup and art school gigs we did and even then there was something about him that set him apart. It's alright saying that in hindsight, but he did. Then he played as David Jones and the Lower Third. He was on the same agency as us. Then he changed his name to David Bowie. He was erudite and shy, but he asked the right questions, not the normal what's your favourite questions...he was after stuff.

Phil, I heard somewhere that Bowie had you in his address book under G for God...

(laughs)...yes that's true. Very embarrassing. It was embarrassing for him. I asked him for the book - as I wasn't going to give out my number when we were surrounded by fans - so I could put my number in and he handed it over without saying anything. I saw the entry and thought 'oh shit!' and didn't say anything back. I just added my new number in and crossed the old one out. I think it was embarrassing for both of us as it was like looking in someone's diary.

Dick, you played Aylesbury in 1969 and then you left the Pretty Things....

Yes, I went into production - Hawkwind, Skin Alley and others. I only did one album with Hawkwind, that was enough for anybody! (laughs). I really liked the Hawkwind guys. When I saw them (live) at that time, I thought they made an interesting noise. They were raw, rough and ready like we were when we started out. Just as The Clash were. I remember seeing them, that gave me a kick up the arse musically....it reminded us of our early days in the 100 Club. The attitude.

The Pretty Things played again in due course, what did you do in the meantime?

I had a bit of a gap and was involved with The Mekons. They were an interesting bunch of people. Before that, I had a brief career in a band called Auntie and The Men from Uncle which was great fun! We did gigs with The Dammed and Splodgenessabounds and the outer edges of the punk circuit. By this point (just after the punk explosion) the Pretty Things had parted company and someone suggested we did a reunion gig in Holland with most of those involved in 1966. So apart from a small gap in the 1970s, I've always been involved with the Pretty Things.

There were a few periods where we stopped gigging and people were working on other things like producing and getting involved in studios. Then the phone calls started up, from people like Bill Sheppard, having heard Parachute and not understanding why we weren't playing, and the band came back together and then we made Freeway Madness. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant came calling as well as they were interested so it was new impetus. We got Norman Smith back as well and made Silk Torpedo on Swan Song (Led Zeppelin's record label)

So enjoying being back in the limelight with the Pretty Things? I mean it's amazing that all the bands playing on June 1st at Friars are still playing. What can we expect from you on the night - Rosalyn, S F Sorrow...?

Tony (McPhee) and I looked very cloned at one point, we really looked interchangeable!

Yes there will be Rosalyn and S F Sorrow and hopefully a couple of things from Balboa Island too (most recent album from 2007)

You've enjoyed your whole career by the sounds of it!

Oh God, yes! Enjoyment. I think if you did music just for money, you'd be terminally stupid. If you make money, great. Even the Stones at the outset thought 'money, what's that' but Brian Jones did like money but was into music for the pure love of it. I remember Phil and I discovering that the Stones had been paid 25 for a gig and we thought 'hang on, we could do that!' That's a whole fiver each!

Dick and Phil, thanks very much for your time.

This interview and its content are 2009 Mike O'Connor/www.aylesburyfriars.co.uk and may not be used in whole or in part without permission.

 
 
 

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