Graham Reid | | 8 min read
Dick Taylor of the Pretty Things says he can clearly remember when they cut a wide and notorious swathe of mayhem, drunkenness and shock-horror headlines through New Zealand in late 1965. At the time they had the longest hair, a raw garageband blues rock sound which made the Stones seem tame, and their name alone was perfect for headline writers.
Yes, Taylor -- now 69 and coming back as a Pretty Thing with founder member/singer Phil May and a young(er) band for a Powerstation show (see review below) -- remembers it well.
Well . . .
“I can remember playing Auckland definitely and it was quite surreal the whole thing and [chief rabble rouser, drummer] Viv Prince was on a very odd planet at the time. He was the reason we got into as much trouble as we did.
“I remember it very fondly. It was brilliant to come to New Zealand although obviously some bits are a bit hazy. I know I liked the place and got cheesed off that we could only use homegrown amplifiers. I don't know if it was any good musically at all. I kept blowing speakers and didn't know what the PA was like.”
New Zealand in 1965 was of course probably like Britain in 1958 to the Pretty Things who had formed when guitarist Taylor left the fledgling Rolling Stones – for whom he was playing bass and was replaced by Bill Wyman – and hooked up with May and others.
“Oh, I think it was more like Britain in 1946. I know I saw cars with wooden wheels and even in the Sixties it seemed extraordinarily quaint having pubs which closed at six o'clock. I remember going into a pub and I thought I'd walked into the Wild West.”
In conservative New Zealand, the appearance of the band, their exceptionally raw sound on singles like Rosalyn and Don't Bring Me Down -- and their manic behaviour -- made whatever they did seem more extreme.
And appearances weren't deceiving. They were extreme.
As the 2006 book Don't Bring Me Down . . . Under which documents that extraordinary tour notes, “To a generation of young New Zealand males looking to rebel, the Rolling Stones had flung the door open but the Pretty Things kicked it off its hinges”.
They were like the Sex Pistols of the Sixties.
“But when you looked at the publicity put out before we appeared it was pretty strange. We'd been wearing Cuban heeled boots but according to them we wore high-heel shoes, and I had a pink beard apparently.
“The publicity was a mistranslation of who were were, but the people who had bought the records knew what they wanted to hear. There were a lot of screaming girls which was good in a way, but made it hard to play.”
And does Taylor regret many people didn't get they were schooled in roughhouse rock'n'roll r'n'b but were more concerned about the length of their hair?
“Yes,” he laughs, “but I don't know about being 'schooled' musicians. It was two-edged sword which pissed me off quite a lot. We wanted to play fast and hard and get people to enjoy themselves but for people to come expecting a freak show must have disappointed them . . although maybe we didn't disappoint.”
They certainly didn't, although their subsequent career seemed filled with opportunities lost or innovation overlooked. Most famously was their ambitious but dark SF Sorrow album of late '68, the first rock opera beating the Who's Tommy by six months.
It went all but ignored at the time because of a number of factors. In record shops it was up against the Beatles' double (White Album), the Stones' Beggar's Banquet and the Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society. It also wasn't released in the States until later when they were signed to Rare Earth, an imprint of Tamla Motown for white rock acts like Stoney and Meatloaf, R. Dean Taylor, Toe Fat and Rare Earth themselves.
But even there, Taylor says things were shonky.
“It needed to do well in America but by the time it came out it was through a dodgy dealing between EMI and Tamla Motown – the details of which I'm not legally allowed to talk about. But basically they had an inside deal with one another and it got released on Rare Earth which was a good attempt at Tamla to break into white rock . . . but they didn't market it properly.
“Apart from everything else they put it in a circular record cover and so you couldn't see it on the shelves, stupid little things like that.”
Taylor is philosophical about the album's lack of success at the time (“it almost did us a favour because for quite a while now it's been selling well and people are enjoying discovering it”) but a year later he quit the band and wasn't there for the excellent but also overlooked Parachute, not for when they signed to Led Zeppelin's label Swan Song for the album Silk Torpedo, which also didn't get its due and lead to the break-up of the group.
“I wasn't in the band from the end of '69 to 1978 when we did our first revival but I don't regret that in the least. I know they had a great time and Zeppelin was wonderful, but the whole big record company excesses with limousines and jets everywhere was not my scene quite honestly. So I was pretty pleased to have missed that.”
Taylor went into production (notably Hawkwind's debut) and in the Eighties playing guitar with the Mekons.
“I just felt like I wanted to go do other thing and there was no great rift with the Pretty Things, I wanted to produce and I went to see Hawkwind and thought it was like being at one of our gigs because it was very lively. They were not the most accomplished musicians but they put a lot of passion into their music and that was like where we were were at the beginning, albeit completely different music.
“In a way they were kindred spirits . . . but different from anybody,” he laughs.
Regular Pretty Things reformations continued and today the band is a working entity and he has noted, particularly in Spain and Italy, a much younger audience is turning out.
“And that's not because we're getting older. We seem to be doing quite a lot of gigs for a sort of Mod revival and we are one of their favourite bands which is very nice.
“Maybe it's because we're the last lot left. The internet has an enormous amount do with it because you can see so many of our shows on You Tube. The music is exposed and consequently the news gets round that this lot is one of the bands to go and see.”
They play music from all parts of their career – including their classics Rosalyn and Don't Bring Me Down which uber-fan David Bowie loved so much he covered on his Pin Ups album in '73 – and having a young rhythm section makes a difference.
“We deliver what people want to hear from our heyday and the young rhythm section means we are not a pale shadow of ourselves and do a lively performance. It has a lot of balls.”
Although not drawn to looking back, Taylor says back in the Sixties “we were having a great time and we worked a helluva lot. I remember distinctly doing three gigs in one night, so it was eight days a week. You know [British nightclub owner] Pete Stringfellow?It was us who deafened him!
“We played at his club called Mojo in Sheffield and it was absolutely heaving. Apparently he got wedged up against our PA and we seriously damaged his hearing.
“We kind of made money too, for quite a long while although we didn't make enough to retire on. More than a road sweeper but less than a doctor.”
These days Taylor lives on the Isle of Wight where he plays in a local band called the Hillmans (“because our singer is Tony Minx”), teaches guitar a bit, is in The Guitar Club which has an open-mike night for other performers once a month, and is currently in the middle of major house renovation which includes putting on a veranda.
“My wife's was born in Melbourne and she said 'I want a verandah' so that was that”.
He's a voracious reader – history, more recently back into sci-fi – and much to his surprise an album by the High Voltage Band he has with American singer Stephen Dale Petit was just accorded 10 out of 10 by Classic Rock Magazine saying it was “better than [the Who's] Live At Leeds”.
And he, May and the Pretty Things still tour regularly.
“We play better than we've ever done and there's no reason why you shouldn't until your fingers stop working. And Phil is in great voice. I still find it enjoyable to still be playing.”
And no, he doesn't really look back and wonder how things might have been if stayed in that young band called the Rolling Stones with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones, or speculate on what life might be like if SF Sorrow had reached Tommy-like proportions.
“Not really. I think I lack imagination but it's not something that exercises my mind at all. I like my life and not at all unhappy with where I am at now ,so why would I wish myself a different life.
“There could be an alternative universe where I'm the one face down in the swimming pool or have the misfortune to become Bill Wyman.”
REVIEW: THE PRETTY THINGS
Powerstation, Auckland, New Zealand. December 11, 2012
Anyone reading about the notorious booze-fueled Pretty Things tour in 1965 might think we had been invaded by guerilla fighters rather musicians, but on this belated return bout it could only be about the music, their rhythm and blues grounded in the 60s, because original members Dick Taylor and Phil May are 69 and 68 respectively.
After courageously getting a few early classics out of the way (Roadrunner, Mama Shut Your Big Fat Mouth and Honey I Need, all a little perfunctory) they settled in for lengthy set which was remarkable for its confident diversity.
From the acoustic interlude with guitarist Taylor playing sublime bottleneck on I Just Can't Be Satisfied and Robert Johnson's Come On in My Kitchen to an utterly tripped-out version of the single-entendre LSD, and with pitstops from their ambitious SF Sorrow and a room-shaking medley bookended by Mona, the Pretty Things – Taylor, May and an excellent band – delivered with an energy which belied their age.
Yes, there were flat spots (a drum solo is rarely essential, Baron Saturday hasn't aged well and didn't sit right, May not the most distinctive of singers) and the show was disappointingly undersubscribed, mostly graybeards and a smattering of younger people nostalgic for, or curious about, something they never knew.
But over the night as the band worked some familiar chord changes, blew bluesy harmonica, shook maracas and pulled out classic songs (Cry To Me was number one in New Zealand according to May, did we have charts back then?) this was nostalgia mixed with unabashed enthusiasm.
In 2012 who would have thought to hear the still great Don't Bring Me Down, Buzz the Jerk and Rosalyn in their own hometown by these infamous creators?
And the Pretty Things may just revive the role of the maracas and
tambourine in rock.