By Dave Thompson
‘‘When I left the band after S.F. Sorrow, I thought we had made a really good album,” says guitarist Dick Taylor. “But it wasn’t about disappointment over the sales, which is what people think. ‘Oh did you leave because it should have been a hit?’ In fact, I left before it hadn’t started not selling, when it could still have been a hit.
“I left because I’d made an album I was really proud of, and I didn’t think we’d ever improve on it. And that’s how I feel about the new one. I’m happy about Bare as Bone, Bright as Blood being our last one, because I’m very pleased with this one, as well.”
It’s been almost a year since Phil May, founder member and vocalist with The Pretty Things, passed away (on May 15), and Taylor still finds it difficult to keep the emotion out of his voice as he recalls his fallen friend. Because they were friends, had been since they met at Sidcup Art School, in 1961 or so.
Taylor was already in a band, a little outfit called the Rollin’ Stones (the “g” came later); he quit around the same time he and May moved up to the Central School of Design and Art, and decided to form their own band. They called it The Pretty Things because… they weren’t.
We don’t have time to discuss every legend that ever grew up around the Pretties. How they were the ugliest, hairiest, lewdest, loudest, rudest and rowdiest band that the London scene had ever seen — or ever would, until the advent of punk and The Sex Pistols 15 years later. In fact, it was punk that drew Taylor back to music, and back to the Pretties, close to a decade after he put it all behind him.
“I went to see The Clash and I thought it was much more like when we started than what the whole scene had become, with people chasing advances, out of touch with reality and people, and the fact that musicians had to be absolutely staggering virtuosos when really, the sort of music which they should be playing, and which we’d been playing, was far more related to real people.”
Between 1964 and 1969, when Taylor left the band, the Pretties released four albums. Four more followed before he returned, and four more between then and the day he and Taylor sat down to discuss making one more record.
They’d already played their final live show, at London’s O2 Arena, in December 2018, a decision brought on by May’s increasingly frail health.
“He’d been ill for the last few years,” says Taylor. “It must be six or seven years ago he was diagnosed with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), and then fully-fledged emphysema. I saw him when he was first diagnosed, and I thought ‘He’s not going to survive this.’ We were on tour in Spain, and I went to see him in the hospital in Zaragoza, lying there with a face mask on, unconscious, and I wondered then, ‘Am I ever going to see him again?’ So, in the end, he had some good borrowed years.”
Very good. There was a new album, the wonderfully titled and brilliantly schemed The Sweet Pretty Things (Are in Bed Now, of Course…) in 2015, and right up until that last show, it was impossible to believe that May had a single care in the world, even as Taylor recalls, “he was finding it increasingly difficult to tour. Not so much the actual gigs, but the traveling and all the stuff that went with it.
“He always produced a really good performance, even though 10 minutes before he was ‘I don’t know if I can go on,’ and in a bit of a state. And then he’d go onstage and — well, hang on, the power of adrenalin.
“But that explains why the electric band came to a halt. It had run its course, in the sense that Phil just couldn’t do it anymore.”
You cannot keep a good Pretty down, though. Late last year, Taylor and May turned their attention to one last album. The final show had already been released as a CD/DVD package, and the Pretties’ entire career was long ago (well, 2015) boxed as the utterly stunning Bouquets from a Cloudy Sky — 11 studio albums (Sweet Pretty Things was, at the time, unreleased) and a copious serving of rarities and documentation. But they needed to go out with something special.
“We did start an album with the electric band,” Taylor says,“but it became obvious that it wasn’t going to happen. It wasn’t making progress. We knew when we were doing the final show at the O2 that that was kind of the end of the band.
“But one of the things we were constantly being asked was, whether we would do some form of recording that featured the acoustic part of the show that Phil and I used to do in the middle., So that’s when Mark (St. John), our manager and producer, said, ‘Well, why don’t we do an acoustic album?’
“It started with a couple of numbers from the middle part of the set; we did that, but we knew we needed repertoire that really went with that, and that’s what we looked for. Using that as a starting point, and knowing we wanted it to have far more variety.”
A handful of outside players were convened — guitarists Henry Padovani and Sam Brothers were around for the majority of the sessions; another guitarist, George Woosey, and violinist Jon Wigg for some. Manager St. John added percussion.
“We just worked away at it. Quite a lot of it, Phil would do a rough vocal and we’d have a backing track we would then work on. We did some of it where Phil wasn’t even in the studio; he would come in afterwards and do his final vocal. Some of what we used are the live vocals we initially started with, but also, he would come in and spend a couple of days doing the vocals.”
It wasn’t all plain sailing. “We did have issues, days when Phil was not feeling well, but we kind of got round that, I would pick Phil up at the station and drive to the studio and he’d either be OK or, some days, you’d think ‘maybe we’re not going to get too much.’ But he always contributed when he was there. A lot of time was spent talking about what numbers we wanted to do, how to approach them.”
It is difficult to fault the finished selection, a meandering path that takes the duo from the traditional blues that harken back to The Pretty Things’ own beginnings on the early ’60s London blues circuit — “Can’t Be Satisfied,” Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” Willie Dixon’s “I’m Ready,” a startling “Come Into My Kitchen”… and on to more contemporary pieces — Gillian Welch’s “The Devil Had a Hold on Me” and Sheryl Crow’s “Redemption Day.” And even as Taylor talks of the actual process of recording the record, the album itself feels as though it was laid down in one take, just the two of them plus friends, sitting in a darkened room, playing the songs that would bring the curtain down on The Pretty Things.
“It was a combination of trying to get it as live as possible, and trying to see how to make it sound as live as possible when it wasn’t.”
And it still wasn’t the end. “We fully intended to gig,” says Taylor. “We had a few bands ask us to do it, and we’d also done a couple of things where, apart from playing, we also talked, took questions from the audience. Which struck me as a really smart thing to do, a real way forward, because it would have given Phil a breather between songs and also because he was such a good raconteur. He would just charm people into submission.
“We did this gig with a couple of friends of mine. I was offered this gig in a guy’s house; he paid us proper money, and we went and did a gig. Phil didn’t do the whole night, maybe 50%. But at the end, he started talking and telling stories, and the people were absolutely bewitched by it.
“Phil was so good at doing that, and it really was what I wanted to do because, although it’s quite hard to actually sit in front of people and talk by yourself, if you have somebody to bounce off, and there’s an interviewer, it becomes quite interesting.
“Also, we had started a collaborative book with a guy called Anthony Keats, which may still happen, where the two of us just talked — an oral history of The Pretty Things. And also Phil, unbeknownst to me, kept a diary, although whether his family will think it’s suitable to be used is another thing. When lockdown started, Phil, Anthony and I were having regular Zoom meetings discussing the book, just getting more and more material together.”
May decided to spend lockdown with his son and daughter in Norfolk, on England’s eastern shore, “and he was looking great,” Taylor reflects. “He was a lot better than he had been when we were working. He was actually in good form. He used to get chest infections quite regularly, and he hadn’t had one since the start of lockdown.
“Then he got one and, one day, his partner said, ‘Do you want to go for a walk?’ Phil wasn’t feeling up to it, and said, ‘I think I’ll get on this bike,’ and it was only a few hundred yards, but that’s when he attempted to turn the thing and came off.
“He hurt his hip and they discovered it was a fracture, but of course he didn’t want to go into the hospital, because there were suspected coronavirus cases in the ward. In the end he did go in, a day later, and they discovered the fracture, so they gave him a single room and they operated.
“And the operation itself was fine. But while he was under, his oxygen levels just went down and down….” And that was it. It was 7 a.m. on May 15, and Phil May had gone to bed.
The new album… the final album… Bare as Bone, Bright as Blood, of course is dedicated to him, a sticker on the cover and a four page insert inside.
But it’s when you play the album that you remember just what a towering presence over the last 50 years Phil May really was. He wasn’t a superstar; he wasn’t really a pop star, beyond a couple of years and two hit singles at the dawn of the band’s career.
But The Pretty Things were always there, sometimes still competing for chart glory; other times content to simply thunder in the background, the timpani behind the tinny triangles and cowbells that every other band seems content to tinkle.
Certainly The Pretty Things’ near-60-year catalog — albums, singles, offcuts and all — represents one of the key achievements of the rock and roll era, and S.F. Sorrow is there-or-thereabouts whenever sensible people gather to discuss the greatest LPs of the age.
It’s too early to predict that Bare as Bone, Bright as Blood will be remembered with the same near-sanctity as that most illustrious of predecessors. But Dick Taylor has no doubts as to its worth.
“It has a kind of benedictory feel. It’s a good final fling for The Pretty Things, it fits in with the circumstances, and the fact that you cannot change things, you cannot pluck Phil back from the dead.
“But I’m not gnashing my teeth at the thought there’s never going to be another Pretty Things album because it brought us back full circle, four kids in a room banging out songs. And it’s a beautiful circle.
“If we hadn’t done it, then I think I might have thought there’s all this stuff we should have done. But the fact that we completed it before he died, and got it out there; we completed it before the lockdown, we’re incredibly lucky.
“It really is a gift, this album, in lots of ways. Phil could have died before we finished it; the lockdown could have started, we might have all been throwing our toys out of the pram saying ‘I don’t want to do this song,’ and none of that happened. We plowed on. Phil did all the vocals, and it was in the bag right on time.
“I’m so pleased for his memory that we managed to do it, and there’s something out there that’s a really amazing last thing for him to have done.”
SELECTED ALBUM DISCOGRAPHY
❑ WIK-24 [STEREO, SOME MONO] Live at Heartbreak Hotel 1985 $15
❑ MGF-27544 [MONO] The Pretty Things 1965 $100
❑ SRF-67544 [PARTIAL STEREO] The Pretty Things 1965 $100
❑ TED-1001 [10-INCH] Defecting Grey 2000 $30
❑ 283 Get the Picture? 2000 $15
❑ 284 Midnight to Six 2000 $15
❑ 282 The Pretty Things 2000 $15
❑ RS515 Parachute 1970 $25
❑ R549R2 Real Pretty 1976 $18
— The two prior Rare Earth albums in one package
❑ RS506 [STEREO, SOME MONO] S.F. Sorrow 1969 $75
— Original covers are rounded at top
❑ RS506 S.F. Sorrow 1969 $30
— Later copies are standard in shape
❑ SASH-3713 [STEREO, SOME MONO] The Vintage Years 1976 $30
❑ SS8414 [STEREO, SOME MONO] Savage Eye 1976 $18
❑ SS8411 [STEREO, SOME MONO] Silk Torpedo 1975 $18
❑ BSK3466 [STEREO, SOME MONO] Cross Talk 1980 $18
❑ BS2680 [STEREO, SOME MONO] Freeway Madness 1973 $15