Anarchy In The UK 1st Time Around - Rock & Roll's Dirtiest Secret - "The Pretty Things"
For the last thirty-five years, The Pretty Things have been pissing people off. They started harmlessly enough - formed in 1964 by singer Phil May and guitarist Dick Taylor (straight after he left The Rolling Stones), they should have conformed to the suburban, white boy, proto-R& B ethic - but they didn't. They weren't middle-class, they were real working class with genuine street savvy. They invested imported black R & B with serious English council house attitude and while all the other contenders were suitably respectful in their treatment of this hallowed genre, the fledgling Pretty Things already didn't give a shit. With a line-up completed by the certifiably insane drummer, Viv Prince - they were ready for action.
Predictable early '60's R & B success followed. Big hits with "Rosalyn", "Don't Bring Me Down" and "Honey, I Need" "set them up as the "next big thing…" This was reinforced by their vicious garage punk image, some genuinely disturbing behaviour and the most extreme live show in the world at the time. The young David Bowie (then Jones) would slavishly follow them from gig to gig, intently watching Phil May's every androgynous camp move win over bother sexes in his outrageous and extreme stage performances. In the young Bowie's address book, Phil May's no. was listed under "God"! Listen to the early live takes of the hit "Don't Bring Me Down" - May is singing "I laid him on the ground" - waaaay out there in early '64.
The way that Tony Calder (manager of The Stones, with Andrew Oldham) tells it, Jagger would never let The Pretty Things back on to "Ready Steady Go" after their first appearances - Calder recalls it verbatim: "He's just too fucking pretty…He's dangerous" Jagger's views on May. So Oldham and Calder were despatched to speak to Vicki Wickham and RSG never called "The Pretties" again……
By 1965 The Pretty Things weren't just a threat to The Stones - they were a threat to society, too. While outrage "Stones" style was limited to tame schollboy stuff - the press had a feeding frenzy when they took a piss against a garage wall - out there on the backstreets, The Pretty Things were busted for pulling out a sawn-off 12 bore shotgun to deal with some violent mob after a gig.
Significantly, they were the first to experiment with drugs and later, in 1965, they were deported and banned from Australia and New Zealand for setting fire to a commercial airliner in flight. This was all really heavy shit. Somehow, they never learned the trick of "the sizzle, not the steak" that was always Oldham and The Stones forte.
They looked totally different, too. As early as 1964, May's hair was really, really long - "just like a girl's" screamed The News of The World, (years before they the Mars bar was an issue)…and their long-haired look kept them in big trouble daily. The press was awash with stories of their hair, their filth and their dirty habits - most of it not so far from the truth…
The insane Viv Prince (ten times the lunatic that Keith Moon, who idolised him, would later aspire to be) was a real problem and was seen by the powers that be as a true threat to society. (They fucked him up, of course, as only power and money can and he lives in a nightmare world now, drifting in and out of lucidity, but that's another story).
"Too pretty" May, rudderless without parents and living with an elderly couple (ring any Lennon bells?) was billeted in working class Erith. Late back from gigs and rehearsals, he was in fights nightly and propped up the Magistrate's Court rails most mornings. No, there was never a celluloid goss on "The Pretties" image - in those days that kind of shit stuck fast and inevitably the band was slowly driven down by the press and the establishment.
But with their peers and the critics, they could do no wrong - May and Taylor, alongside Brian Jones, Eric Burdon and the young Van Morrison would regularly hold court in the Ad Lib, surrounded by all the Young Turks. And when rock royalty in the form of Bob Dylan arrived in Britain for his fateful 1966 tour (immortalised in the movie, "Don't look Back"), it was The Pretty Things that he wanted to meet. Their meeting is documented on "Tombsone Blues" recorded immediately he returned to New York, and appears on the first big electric Dylan album - "Highway 61" - they're still the only band to have that honour.
As the '60's developed, they were living in a kind of decayed grandeur in on of The Duke of Westminster's properties in Chester street. And, in the way that doomed characters stick together, they adopted The Stones' Brian Jones, who was an old friend. He lived with them, on and off, until his excommunication from The Stones was all but complete - "the blind leading the fucking blind" Phil politely suggests. Along the way Brian and Phil had some rare old times, blocked out of their minds, flying around Hyde Park in Jones' Bentley with Judy Garland and "that woodentop Rudy" Nuryev (as Phil calls him) in tow - they all ended up tin the same bed in The Dorchester.
They pretty much invented "Swinging London", but notoriety always followed them around. They landed the first UK rock & roll drug scandal, when Viv was busted in Soho in '65, loaded with weed and pills after some Diplomatic party. He was prosecuted and the others in the band duly followed suit, not long after. The ever-present violence took its toll, too, with guns, fistfights and fan riots pursuing them everywhere, they made more than 27 court appearances in '65 alone. In '66 they recorded their European drug anthem "L.S.D." - a not too subtle reference to the preference chemical drug of the moment - a full year before The Beatles and Stones caught on.
Somehow it was inevitable that they would be chosen as Society's scapegoats for this dangerous new long-haired rebellion, and they were… God, but they made great music, though - their first two albums are the best art school R & B that any white kid ever made, Rough, edgy, totally out of control, distorted, and completely honest, they are the gems from the '60's R&B boom - and that was just the beginning….
Prince was thrown out in late '65 - always drunk or pilled-up, he became a liability. He couldn't play any more and they spent more time baling him out of trouble than working. On a Scandinavian tour early in that year he had been beaten half to death by the World heavyweight contender Ingomar Johansenn - Viv couldn't get in a nice fight with a local, he had to pick someone who had fought Ali. They replaced him briefly, with Mitch Mitchell, but he was "too fucking straight" grunts May. Salvation came in the form of the angelic looking 17 year old Skip Allan, and then they were off for round two.
Further R & B recording success followed, but that phase was over for them, really - they were always looking for "something else" and after Stax & Pendleton left they found it. When two more Dartford Delta drop-outs - John Povey and Wally Waller - joined in early '66 they started their third album with more than an ear to the future and have never looked back. To this day, they all hate that album - "Emotions" - but it's actually great,. "Swinging London" caught in the vivid flashbulb of pops unflinching gaze, like The Kinks with attitude. But The Pretty Things were still moving on, and by 1966 the "Swinging Sixties" were over. Of the first British R&B wave, only The Pretty Things realised this. Abbey Road, 1967 - a new record deal with EMI and the band were ensconced in the studio alongside The Beatles (working on "Sgt. Pepper's") and Pink Floyd (working on "Piper at The Gatest of Dawn").
All of them united by the single thread of Norman "Hurricane" Smith - Beatles engineer since the start and now producer for the "Floyd" and the "Pretties" as well.
Rising to the challenge, The Pretty Things and yet another "first" under their belts - this time for the first 5 minute plus 7" single, "Defecting Grey" - an astonishing barrage of sounds and ideas, which was, as Phil May always says, "the Marquette" for their next album, the fabled, long-lost masterpiece "S.F.Sorrow". With acid, LSD 20-hour studio days and the long, hot, "summer of Love" well under way. In Abbey Road's Studio 2, The great, lost album of this "summer of love" was under way. They started it with drummer Skip Allan in place and half the recording was completed, until he disappeared to Paris for a weekend and sent a message to the studio on Monday that he had got married to a French girl and wasn't coming back. "Twink" from "Tommorrow" was hastily called in to complete the remaining handful of songs, but he didn't last long. Bass player Waller took a violent dislike to him and knocked him out during a Roundhouse gig. One and a haf years after his "French marriage" Skip Allan was back in place as if not
hing had happened.
So "S.F. Sorrow" - un-disputably the world's first "rock opera" - was finally nearing completion and The Pretty Things had taken to psychedelia like a duck to water. With their shoulder to shoulder feud with The Stones now history, they were about to start another. This time with The Who whose razor sharp manager - Kit Lambert - was trying to find a way to revive their flagging career. Enter "the rock opera" courtesy of The Pretty Things and "S.F. Sorrow". Lambert saw the main chance, "Tommy " was released ahead of "S.F. Sorrow" in the states and the race was over. Still, it was only to be expected, "The Pretty Things" manager was the guy who sent them to New Zealand in '65 when The States was SCREAMING for them - small call, Huh?
The Pretty Things were as fundamental to the psychedelic and progressive "first wave" as they had been to the R&B "first wave" - only The Beatles were so relevant throughout the period. The Stones slipped, The Who faltered, but The Pretties were right there with "S.F.Sorrow" - a record as important as "Sgt. Pepper" and "Piper At The Gates of Dawn" - it's just a pity that EMI didn't realise it. Somehow, this great record was released without any promotion in the UK and so late in the USA (where they were the first ever "white-boy" rock group to be signed to Tamla Motown) that it sank without trace! Exhausted , disheartened and totally embittered, guitarist Dick Taylor left in 1969.
Without missing a beat, the band pressed on, recruiting guitarist Viv Unirr, from The Edgar Broughton Band and with continued support from Beatles stalwart, producer Norman Smith. May and Wally Waller locked themselves away in May's Notting Hill flat and , three months later, they were back in Abbey Road, recording the follow-up to "S.F. Sorrow" - "Parachute". Another astounding album. "Parachute" was voted Rolling Stone record of the year for 1970, beating some MAJOR opposition, typically, it is still the only Rolling Stone record of the year NOT to sell a million copies.
EMI just didn't get it. Extricating themselves from their unhappy EMI contact, they were immediately signed by Warner Bros, but on the way they lost bass player Wally Waller, who had started a love affair with the recording studio and was been retained by EMI as a house producer.
With new boy Stuart Brooks on bass they set about their first Warner's album. Family ties with Waller were still strong though - even though he was forbidden (by EMI) to work with them, he produced the new album, under the alias Asa Jones, and was involved in the writing and playing too. The new album, "Freeway Madness" led them to the States and, after adding guitarist/keyboard player Gordon Edwards to augment the line- up, they finally undertook their first American tour (7 years too late), playing to rave reviews everywhere.
The new record and the US shows caught the attention of some very old friends and a big change was on the way for The Pretty things - courtesy of the biggest band in the world, Led Zeppelin. Old friends, Jimmy Page (who had played on one or two cuts on the first album) and Peter Grant (whom they had know since Club Noreek days, in Tottenham, '63, wanted them for the new Zeppelin label - Swansong. The Pretty Things had their bags packed and ready before the 'phone went down. Now with a new line-up featuring old faithfuls May, Alan and Povey, wunderkind Tolson on guitar, and (recently added) Gordon Edward alongside new boy Jack Green taking over from the departed Stuart Brooks, they were ready for part 3.
They recorded two albums for Swansong - "Silk Torpedo" and "Savage Eye", both of which charted in the US. They also toured extensively in the States, always to rave reviews, but they were still the masters of the "self-destruct" button.
Even Peter Grant, who dealt daily with the excesses of Led Zeppelin remembered them as totally impossible to deal with and lacking any business sense whatsoever - "they couldn't half get through the gear, though" he said fondly in 1995, just before he died - "they spent all of their advance on Coke within three months…..and it was more than $100,000, a lot of money in 1974."
Their US shows in the mid 1970's re-defined cock-rock for the band, drinking, drugging, fucking and fighting their way across the USA alongside Zeppelin, they were always going to either soar above the crowd or burn-out. Predictably, they burned out. By 1976 they were in disarray, May had finally left, and the remainder (after unceremoniously dumping Povey, the worst cokehead of the all) tried to move on with "Metropolis". It went nowhere - without May and the essential Pretty Things spirit - that was no surprise.
They disappeared to lick their wounds. May made an aborted "solo" album with the Fallen Angels, featuring Mickey Finn and others, Jack Green went on to AOR success in Canada, Edwards and Tolson continued to improve on their massive drug intake, which quickly degenerated into smack addiction. Povey followed the sun to build surfboards and Skip Allan joined up in his father's "Tin Leg" factory (they made artificial limbs).
The divorce didn't hold for long. Fuelled by punk and the burning desire to "fuck everybody up some more", they re-grouped for another last try. Warner Brothers had put up a small advance for another album encouraged by Phil May, and so a classic re-visit to the "S.F.Sorrow" line-up with Tolson added for good measure was assembled. They went to work in a flooded Soho basement studio on what was to be their last studio album for 19 years - "Crosstalk". This brilliant piece of de-constructed post-punk was released in 1980. Immediately Warner Bros. were charged with payola in the USA and all their products were pulled off the shelves. When a copy could be found, "Crosstalk" had been pressed with the same songs on both sides. The next attempt saw the right songs on both sides, but with side 1's label in place on both sides.
Skip left in disgust, to be replaced by Simon Fox (ex Be Bop De-Luxe) that line-up toured for a year or so, and tried some more recording (with current manager, Mark St. John), but the drugs, the attitude and the poverty bit too deep. Povey, Tolson, Waller and fox left, not to be seen for some time. May and Taylor picked up the pieces and set about creating a classic, pure R & B set that would tour Europe for the next few years with a variety of musicians.
They made two, rootsy, organic, black R & B records in Chicago over that period and re-discovered their roots. Around 1988 they started to record again, back with (new manager), Mark St. John in the chair and new guitarist (and long time associate of St. John's), Frank Holland on guitar. Slowly, the songs, the feeling and the history came back together. During the early 1990's they were unique in fighting (and winning) a class action court case with two major labels to gain control of their original albums. Driven on by St. John, the original band re-united to take on the majors, and the "oldest gunslingers in town" wore down the big corporations and became the full owners of the early Phillips and EMI recordings - unprecedented at that time.
In 1995, having their catalogue under their belts, the band prepared and released a milestone two CD box set - "Unrepentant" the anthology, featuring a horrific, hospital records picture of Viv Prince on the cover. The set received rave reviews and sold out in three months. Later that year, they made a full on comeback sold out gig at London's 100 club. Members of the new Britpop young were much in evidence, Blur, Oasis et al rubbing shoulders with 60's anoraks and "The Godfather" - Peter Grant, who had spent the day recording the video for "Rosalyn" with the band. Sadly, it was Peter's last ever gig and his last photographs were taken alongside the band he had always loved best (after Zeppelin!); he died three weeks later and he is greatly missed.
A new record deal with Snapper Music followed, and the band's whole catalogue was re-mastered and slowly re-issued. 1998 was a busy year. Still at the cutting edge, the band, with friends David Gilmour and Arthur Brown performed "SF Sorrow" live from Abbey Road Studio 2, where it had been recorded over thirty years earlier, alongside "Sgt. Pepper" and "Piper at the Gates of Dawn". The performance was the world' first location Global internet broadcast, and 100,000 "hits" on the site took out the ISP three minutes into the performance.
Two weeks later the band went to New York for one gig, headlining the cult garage-rock Festival - "CaveStomp". With 1100 people in a 565 capacity room, it was pretty crowded. The New York Times dubbed it the best gig of the year - after twenty-five years away, the pretty Things were back in the USA. At Christmas that year the band were support to old friend, Van Morrison, at the Rockpalast Christmas special, broadcast across Germany and Europe to more than 20 million people. 1999 saw SF Sorrow finally established as the "lost album of the summer of love" with catalogue sales topping 25,000 in the UK alone (making it the most successful Indie catalogue album of the year).
And finally, after nineteen years in the making, the band's new album - "Rage Before Beauty" was released, showcasing the new Pretty things writing team of May, Holland and St. John, with John Povey riding shotgun. Predictably, it received rave reviews everywhere. If you could spend reviews, The Pretty Things would be the richest band on earth…. In September 1999 the band finally went back to The States, undertaking a full-on tour taking in the whole country. Covering the same venues as The Who, Yes and Robbie Williams, it was a massive success with the band selling out pretty much everywhere and out-drawing Robbie at the three dates they both played. In L.A. Guns & Roses, Kiss, Molly Ringwald, Iggy and anyone else who was in town saw the band beat the place up….."Just Monstrous…" said the L.A. Times.
Skip was arrested in San Francisco after breaking up a restaurant, and he missed the last gig because he had to be smuggled out of New York following a violent altercation with a security guard at New York's Bowert Ballroom - pretty much business as usual, then. Before leaving, they had recorded their new drug anthem "All Light Up", the pro - dope song of all time. Although still un-released, the band was immediately in deep shit because they used the voices of young school children who were playing in the playground next to the studio, on the song's chorus. The national press was (predictably) outraged - The Independent featuring a well mannetted piece on Hagger's divorce, alongside a shrieking headline rant against The Pretty Things. The school, council and local press went mad, too - it's good to know the old boys can still piss everyone off without even trying. Hypocrisy- it's till the politicians friend….
In the year 2000 the band is preparing for its first major European Tour for 21 years. They are working on a new album and will be releasing "All Light Up" throughout Europe later in the year, after a single CD best of entitled "Latest Writs - Greatest Hits". Later there are plans to perform "S.F. Sorrow" alongside excerpts from "Parachute" and writing for a brand new album, is already underway. In the summer the band will be recording this new album, with a very big global surprise in store for everyone. New year major Festival appearances at Brighton, Edinburgh, and Glastonbury are planned, together with European Festivals and selected US dates….watch this space.