By Peter Lindblad
A gifted drummer for the blues-oriented, ‘60s British Invasion brawlers The Pretty Things, Prince’s onstage antics reportedly included brandishing a sword, slithering on the floor with a flaming newspaper, busting up furniture and burning props.
And yet, it was his replacement, Skip Alan, who brought the house down one night in Scheveningen, Holland, with his temporary insanity. Guitarist Dick Taylor has never forgotten the incident.
“Some of the things were totally, totally insane that (Prince) used to get up to,” recalls Taylor. “He’d be off into the audience, he’d be scurrying around the place, burning torches and things. But also, when Skip joined, he kind of kept up the tradition.”
Taylor remembers it being the third or fourth gig at that particular club, “… and the guy running it knew the antics Viv used to get up to, and although it wasn’t Viv, it was Skip, he said, ‘Whatever happens, the drummer has to stay on his drums,’ because Viv used to, particularly in this place, climb. There was a balcony around it, and he used to climb up on this balcony and start drumming on everything and everybody in sight, and they said, ‘You will not get paid if the drummer leaves his drums.’”
Skip almost lived up to his end of the bargain.
“Across the back of the stage there was a huge banner that was held up by a metal cable,” continues Taylor, “and we did the gig and Skip stayed on the drums, but he kept looking up at this thing, and in the end, he couldn’t resist it anymore. And he stood on his drum stool, and he grabs hold of this thing with the intention of sort of swinging on it but staying on his drums. Well, kind of above his drums. And he grabbed the thing, but the trouble was, it being metal, as he grabbed it — you had to stand on your tippy toes to grab it — of course, he pulled it down, and it acted as a huge bow, and so what happened was, the cable — tight you know … he pulled down, it pulls him up, and he flew into the air, and he flew a hell of a long way into the air.”
The stunt didn’t end well.
“It was quite extraordinary,” says Taylor. “He was a human cannonball, and he went straight up in the air with a look of horror on his face, and he was like, ‘Whoa, hang on. I’m 30 feet up,’ and then the next thing, he lands back on his drums in a huge crash, laying there bleeding. Amazingly, we did get paid.”
No attempt is made on the part of The Pretty Things to distance themselves from their raucous past. In fact, they embrace it, and their dark, sinister new album, Balboa Island, reflects the grit and danger that’s always given their music a hard edge.
For his part, lead singer Phil May is angry about a lot of things these days.
The whole idea of the car on the front, you know, I guess it’s a take on the world,” says May. “I mean, the world is not dead, but it’s very crashed up, and there’s a lot of stuff going on, and at the end of the album, you go back to the front cover, to the crashed car itself.”
May’s biggest beef is with apathy, consumer culture and what he feels is a restriction of human rights going on in his home country of England — he wrote a piece in the British tabloid The Sun that slammed plans for a countrywide smoking ban. But, the war in Iraq is another sore subject, and those raw emotions bubble up to the surface of Balboa Island. Recording came in fits and starts.
“We started off in the way you do, where everybody was writing, and we came together and started kicking around a collection of songs,” says May. “And we actually put down about five or six things, and we suddenly had the realization that what we were doing was, we were kind of making a very self-indulgent musical … ach, you know what I mean? It was wrong anyway. So we shelved the album, and that caused quite a bit of consternation, because when people write and the stuff’s rejected, it’s very difficult to take. We just didn’t feel it was right, and we didn’t feel the direction was right.”
Scrapping the project, the band members went their separate ways.
“So, there was a lot of soul searching and a lot of hurt egos,” says May, “and people didn’t really phone each other for a while, and it could have … I think with some bands, that would have been it.”
Around the same time, May was exploring an archive of blues music. “I started digging into that with Dick and playing it with (keyboardist) John Povey, and to some extent, Wally and Skip, but it was more a kind of, without realizing it, a writing exercise, in terms of listening to what we’d been turned onto in the ‘60s but trying to make it work in a modern way.”
Holed up in a church, they recorded some of that blues material, “ … where it’s sort of using the pulpit as the sort of drum beat, by mic-ing up the pulpit and clapping and just getting interesting sounds,” says May. “And we brought in a lot of very nice ‘50s amps and guitars and mics, which we used in a sort of almost uncontrolled studio situation, because, obviously, in a studio, you can get a really dead sound, and this was very lively.”
Out of those sessions came the genesis for Balboa Island. “Parallel to that, we started writing, and, of course, all this stuff came through a filter of new material, but it was very much, I suppose, us going back to our roots,” says May.
That meant revisiting the blues artists who inspired them in the first place, like Robert Johnson. A starkly acoustic homage to Johnson, titled “(Blues For) Robert Johnson,” is included on Balboa Island, and it was the song, inspired by a few seconds of a Leadbelly riff, that sparked The Pretty Things to finish the album.
A Taylor-penned tune, the beat-happy shakedown “Mimi,” followed “Robert Johnson” in the recording process. Along with a sparse acoustic reading of Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” Balboa Island contains the shuffling, piano-driven lament “Freedom Song,” the Beatlesque pop stylings of “Dearly Beloved,” the stinging blues of “Livin’ In My Skin” and the mod-pop euphoria of “Pretty Beat.”
“It was kind of odd the way it all fell into place, from different directions, but they were different directions that seemed to have a common thing,” says Taylor. “It all seemed to lock together in a peculiar sort of way, even though the tracks are quite diverse.”
As is the history of The Pretty Things. It all began in the late ‘50s, with Taylor and the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who, collectively, started out as Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys.
“What I remember most about playing with those guys is being in the backroom of my mum and dad’s house, and my mum turning up with Jaffa Cakes and feeding us at work, and then, while we rehearsed, with amplifiers powered by wires coming from adapters out of the light fitting in the ceiling, which were chiefly like old radios and tape recorders,” says Taylor.
Later, Brian Jones joined the group, and Taylor switched from guitar to bass. Then, Taylor left, and eventually, Little Boy Blue became the Rolling Stones.
“The reason I left was — it’s really sort of simple, but complicated, as they say — absolutely no personal fallouts or anything, absolutely none,” explains Taylor.
“I was very happy to play with everybody there. I was trying to get into the Royal College of Art, and in the end, I got into another one, the Sidcup Art College, which was one of the factors, that I sort of had to think, ‘Well, I’m spending a lot of time doing this, so I shouldn’t be [playing in the band]. I should be concentrating … blah, blah, blah.”
At the same time, Taylor felt guitar was his forte, but with Richards and Jones, there wasn’t room for another guitarist.
While at art school, as the Stones were starting to take off, Taylor was being prodded by May to start a band. From the start, despite the obvious comparisons to the Stones, The Pretty Things marked their own territory with a wilder strain of old blues than the Stones could muster.
With Taylor’s snarling, hot-wired guitar, May’s gutteral howl and roughed-up harmonica, and the rhythmic dynamo of Prince on drums, Brian Pendleton on rhythm guitar and John Stax on bass, the Pretties’ reckless sound was pure garage-rock mayhem. As May sees it, that toughness was a product of the Pretties’ street savvy.
“People don’t understand it, because you see all sorts of people walking around the streets [today], and we always say you’d have to be bollock naked walking down Oxford Street for anybody to notice you,” says May. “You can have pink hair, you can have a dress on, you can have a Templar beard, you know? But in those days, being an art student … I mean, we used to have to go home from art school in groups, because if you got caught at the bus stop on your own, you’d get the shit kicked out of you.”
In England, The Pretty Things’ early sex-soaked singles, like “Rosalyn,” “Don’t Bring Me Down” and “Honey I Need” smacked the charts with a bluesy, bloody-knuckled fist between 1964 and 1965, with “Don’t Bring Me Down” peaking at #10 and later appearing with “Rosalyn” on David Bowie’s covers album, Pin-Ups.
“We were inspired by the blues, but it was played by a different age group to a different audience, so we had to take it, and we had to make it our own,” says May. “A lot of people said the Stones were a bit too clean and too tidy, almost respectful, and that when we came along, we had a kind of slightly irreverent punk attitude that gave it a bit more edge. And I think ‘Rosalyn’ is probably much more dirty than anything the Stones did in their early things, because they had a … general wanting [for] general consumption.”
Overseas in America, The Pretty Things never managed to have a hit single; however, in time, their snotty, punk attitude and loud, violent R&B would influence U.S. garage bands like the MC5 and The Stooges.
Though they couldn’t get arrested in the U.S., the Pretties didn’t have that problem elsewhere. Named after a Bo Diddley song, The Pretty Things started out playing rowdy art-school dances, but before long, their music, their shaggy appearance and tales of excess garnered a great deal of attention inside and outside of the U.K.
Much of the craziness was caused by Prince, who joined the group on a tip from a Fontana Records executive, Jimmy Duncan. It was Duncan who signed the group to the label and penned “Rosalyn.”
As for Prince, “What you see is what you get with Viv,” says Taylor, who added that Prince saw himself as a “sophisticated lunatic.” “He was every bit of outrageousness as his image was — difficult to work with at times, because you didn’t know what was going to happen.”
But, he was also a professional and just what the Pretties needed musically. With Prince onboard, the Pretties caused a sensation, even outside of Britain. In Holland, a particularly anarchic concert of theirs was being shown live on TV when it was cut short three songs in due to complaints from viewers.
That was nothing compared with what happened in New Zealand. On tour, the band generated scandalous headlines, with Prince interrupting shows by headlining acts like Eden Kane and Sandie Shaw with a variety of pranks. The Pretties were caught drinking and carousing backstage, starting fires and breaking things.
Their exploits earned the Pretties a lifetime ban from New Zealand. Prince was often at the center of the storm. As his drinking increased, even his bandmates grew wary of his behavior.
Though Prince kept it together long enough to help record the band’s second album, Get The Picture?, he left after it was released and was replaced by Alan. More lineup changes were in the offing as Pendleton departed. Following him out the door was Stax. They were replaced by Povey and Wally Waller.
As the songwriting chops of May and Taylor evolved, as evidenced by “Midnight to Six Man” and “Buzz the Jerk,” the Pretties began branching out into more pop-oriented territory on 1967’s Emotions, which housed the string-laden beauty “The Sun.” Then came a dalliance with psychedelia that resulted in the Pretties’ most ambitious project, S.F. Sorrow, which features the kaleidoscopic “Defecting Grey” and “Walking Through My Dreams.”
Generally acknowledged as one of the first rock operas and a record that influenced the Who’s Tommy, S.F. Sorrow was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in the months following The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper and Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. “To walk into Abbey Road every day, it was like some humming, giant sort of generator,” says May.
The sonic experimentation going on around them pushed the Pretties to try new things. Trapped inside Abbey Road for long hours, the Pretties were free to do so.
“Once you got in there, you were locked in, because there about 500 to 600 screaming Japanese girls and Swedish girls, so you couldn’t get your car out again,” says May. “So, we were all locked in there, and you’d leave at about four or five in the morning, when they’d all gone away.”
Signing with EMI gave the Pretties unlimited access to Abbey Road.
“I can’t describe to you the sensation,” says May. “Things like [John] Lennon would always put his head in around the door. They’d come in a bit later. They’d roll in about 2 or 3 p.m., and he’d always stick his head in and make some comment like (mumbling in a thick British accent), ‘Go on, keep on, crazy stuff … I f**king love it,’ and, because we all had to eat in house in this terrible cafeteria place, there were lots of food fights.”
Fighting was something the Pretties were used to, but usually, it wasn’t for respect. Members of Led Zeppelin thought so highly of the Pretties that they made them the initial signing of their Swan Song label. Negotiations did hit a snag.
“I have a lot of respect for Robert [Plant] and Jimmy [Page], and Jimmy played on our second album,” says May. “The only sticking point was, when they offered it to us, we had our own management, and I spoke to [Zeppelin manager] Peter [Grant], and I said, ‘Pete, as much as I love you, I couldn’t get a manager who’d be able to take you on,’ because we needed a manager and I said, ‘If you are the head of the record company [as Grant was], the only possible person who could be our manager would be you.’”
With some reluctance, Grant agreed.
The years since then have been fraught with change. In 1970, the band went its seperate ways, but in 1971, May, Povey, Peter Tolson and Stuart Brooks reconvened the Pretties. Their material leaned more toward an amalgam of blues, hard rock and even heavy metal. They took on a new manager, Mark St. John, and kept performing into the ’80s, but by the end of the decade, the Pretties had disappeared.
In late 1990, May and Taylor reformed the band. Early albums were reissued by the band’s label, Snapper Music, and a DVD of a re-recording of S.F. Sorrow was made. Through legal issues with EMI, a live album, the deaths of Pendleton and former keyboardist Gordon Edwards, a biography titled “Growing Old Disgracefully,” a 2004 greatest-hits collection from Shout! Factory called Come See Me: The Very Best of the Pretty Things, inclusion on Rhino’s Nuggets II compilation and the studio album Rage Before Beauty, the Pretties have persevered.
And now comes Balboa Island, proof that the Pretties’ plan of growing old disgracefully is right on track.