The Pretty Things: “We tried every sweetie in the shop”

Ahead of their first ever Australian tour the Straight Arrows’ OWEN PENGLIS talks to Dick Taylor and Phil May from legendary ‘60s band The Pretty Things about concept albums, leaving an early incarnation of the Stones, LSD and getting banned from New Zealand.

From their formation in 1963 The Pretty Things were renowned as the hardest, toughest, and most outrageous British R&B group on the London scene. Releasing a handful of albums, a string of irrepressible (and often banned) singles, and one of the first ever concept albums – 1968’s psychedelic masterpiece SF Sorrow – The Pretty Things have maintained a ferocious following throughout their long and esteemed career.

Their 1966 Down Under tour saw them deported and banned from New Zealand, before they had even made it to our shores. Forty-six years later the group are finally returning to make their Australian debut, and guitarist Dick Taylor and singer Phil May couldn’t be more excited.

When was the last time you visited Australia, have you been back since the tour of ‘65?

Dick Taylor: We never actually did visit Australia. We were in New Zealand. I’m not sure if we were scheduled to come to Australia or not but we got in a bit of trouble in New Zealand. I mean the shows went great in New Zealand [laughs], don’t get me wrong. We were apparently behaving outrageously and there were questions asked in parliament about us, and we were told never to darken their shores again. And consequently there never was an Australian tour, so this’ll be the first time we’ve trodden your shores.

I see you’re going back to New Zealand – are they letting you back in?

DT: We don’t know yet. It would almost be worth not being let in for the publicity.

Can you tell me a bit more about what happened on the tour?

DT: Well, there was a very small instance which the press blew up into things far beyond what actually might’ve occurred. I think they’ll probably let us back in but you never know.

What I’ve read is that [drummer] Viv Prince was behind a lot of the trouble in New Zealand.

DT: Yeah, I think that just about sums it up. He was behaving in quite an eccentric manner and I think the press took up on that and blew it up into something more than it was. But having said that I think New Zealand at that time was a bit like England in 1945, so we actually were a bit shocking to them.

The band started out of love for American R&B and blues and then turned and went very much in it’s own direction.

DT: Quite honestly when we started off we were obviously very young, and when I started off in The [Rolling] Stones, well the pre-Stones band – Little Boy Blue and the Blues Boys – we were even younger, and probably our biggest ambition would be to play at the local youth club. When The Pretty Things started there was a bit of activity bubbling up around The Stones but again it was still on a reasonably low level. And you never do know; unless you’re going to be a doctor or something, you never can map out your career. All we wanted to do, and what we still want to do, is play music and get enough money out of that to survive. If there’s more rewards or more accolades from various people, so be it.

“All we ever wanted to do is play music and get enough money out of that to survive.”

It’d be nice to see John Stax [original Pretty Things bassist]. He lives in Australia. Hopefully we’re going to drag him onstage for about five numbers, whether he likes it or not. He’s quite up for the idea, quite honestly; that’ll be the Melbourne gigs that we’ll rope him in and it’ll just be very nice to do because he hasn’t played with us since about ‘66 I think.

Has he picked up a bass since then?

DT: He makes guitars, these three-string cigar box guitars. I haven’t ever actually tried one. In fact I’m going to try to wrangle one out of him when I see him, with any luck.

Your early records are with Fontana [Records] – did they have much of an input into what you were doing or did they let you run wild?

DT: Well what happened was, when we first got to Fontana the guy who’s the head of the A&R department, I think he tried to produce one track and very soon thought, “Hang on, I know the person who is good for this”, which was Bobby Graham, the drummer. He was a very good drummer, a session drummer, not that we needed a session drummer ‘cause we had Viv Prince, who was an incredible drummer. So he got Bobby Graham in to produce us and Bobby was great because he had quite a light touch – he basically wanted us to be who we were rather than try and mould us into something else.

Later on we had a guy called Steve Rowland who wanted to maybe mould the record in a different direction. Basically it was a collaborative thing rather than it being the boss/producer sort of thing, which was a brilliant way of doing things. And also, when we went to EMI and we were working with Norman Smith [recording SF Sorrow, the same thing really applies. It was far more of collaboration with Norman, which was brilliant [and] is probably the way we work best. With particularly the first and second albums on Fontana [Records] you are really getting what we were, rather than what the record company wanted us to be. So right up until ‘House in the Country’ [the Steve Rowland-produced, Ray Davies-written single] or ‘Progress’, those were the two records that were more to do with the producer rather than us.

After Emotions, SF Sorrow [one of the first ever “concept” records] was born. What led you to start experimenting like that?

Phil May: Well, basically we were looking for another way of making music. Well, putting music onto a disc or whatever you want to call it, and we got fed up with the five A-sides, five B-sides format. And also making two or three minute songs when we felt that the whole music experience could last 40 minutes – 20 minutes a side – and it kind of distilled itself from that. It evolved as we did it, really.

DT: Before we started at all we wanted a themed album, because we kind of tried to do that with Emotions, and when we did Defecting Grey it was like five songs in one six-minute single. We thought, “Well, we’d like to do something which had a theme.” When we came to work on Sorrow we recorded a couple of tracks and then Phil came up with a story, and the story developed.

PM: We had to write songs for particular characters, they had to have something to say and be coloured, so that’s how the songs evolved.

DT: When it came to ‘Baron Saturday’ I was reading a Dennis Wheatley book about black magic, it was the only book I could find when I was staying with my mum. He wrote dreadful, dreadful black magic books and it was the only book I had in my bedside table where we were staying – but I discovered in it this character called Baron Samedi, and we needed a character who was a bit evil and dodgy so that’s how ‘Baron Saturday’ got conceived.

PM: He was the Haitian version of the devil.

DT: He’s the guardian of the underworld.

Were you experimenting with substances at the time to get to this point?

PM: We tried every sweetie in the shop I think. We were looking for inspiration and we weren’t the first group of people who try to create something and go in search of that. Whatever takes you into some world to give you another perspective. It was certainly something else; it was extraordinary.

Some people have very bad trips and I was lucky. I must’ve taken it [LSD] about 14 or 15 times but I had fantastic trips every time. But there are loads of people who got really in trouble with it; it’s a bit like playing with snakes, you can get bit. But I was lucky, I came away. And when I stopped I had no particular need to do it ever again. Because it’s been such a great experience it’s like, why go back to the place. But I’m really happy to have done it and not do it anymore.

I guess that answers my next question: I was going to ask if ‘£SD’ was an innocent song about money.

DT: You didn’t have to be a genius to realise, “Hey! LSD stands for the British monetary system and also for lysergic acid…!” We didn’t really want to get the record banned so we hoped with a little bit of subterfuge … we wanted to get our record played but unfortunately it was banned everywhere. We thought we’d get away with it on the record label having a pound sign, so it’d be pounds, shillings, and pence, as in money.

“We wanted to get our record played but unfortunately it was banned everywhere.”

Do you reckon you’ll perform much of SF Sorrow when you are here, has that made it’s way into the set?

PM: We do about five or six things from it. We have a little segue in the middle of the set: ‘Baron Saturday’, ‘I See You’, ‘She Says Good Morning’, ‘SF Sorrow (Is Born)’. We do others as well but we try to see what the audience is into. It’s not easy, it tends to specifically be psychedelic hits and the R&B years, that seems to be where our cards are.

Pulling it off live would be quite a feat. Did you play it much in the ‘60s?

DT: No, we did it as a mime. Because, again, it was almost impossible.

PM: We did a mime of it but a lot of us took acid during it so it was a bit chaotic … because somebody had to press the tape recorder, and the guy who did the lights put them on upside down. But apparently a lot of people still talk about it, saying it was one of the highlights of their careers. And I remember leaving the Roundhouse, it was 8 o’clock in the morning and someone walked past me with Dick Taylor’s head under their arm. I’d made huge cardboard figures of the band, and somebody went past with Dick’s head under their arm. It was really bizarre.

DT: They probably took it home to stamp on it!

Can you tell me a bit about the Electric Banana stuff [a series of music library recordings the band recorded under a different name that found their way into a few movies and softcore porn films]?

PM: The Electric Banana stuff was really our way of keeping ourselves afloat, while to some extent it overlapped the SF Sorrow thing because the EMI deal had absolutely no money involved in it. We were kind of marooned. We had to go away and work to keep ourselves together and earn some money while we were recording SF Sorrow because our manager told us on the day we signed to EMI that there was a paltry £2500 a part [of which we were] in debt. So thanks to that we signed to EMI for nothing. We knew we’d get to use Abbey Road studios, which is really why we signed to EMI in the first place. I can’t think of any other reason why we’d want to.

Is ‘Bracelets’ [from the album SF Sorrow ] about wanking?

PM: Yes![Laughs] I thought, “We’re not gonna get this past anyone.” Nobody ever came up to me and said anything. I thought maybe I’d been a bit blatant. I think the whole of Britain must’ve been asleep. Anyway, that’s what it was about, yeah, “A bracelet of fingers.”

Got any good ‘60s tour stories to give me before they kick us off the line?

PM: Well, there’s so many … in 50 years! “The flying drummer” – that’s a bit of a long tortuous journey.

DT: “The flying drummer” [refers to] when Skip Alan [drumming replacement for Viv Prince] grabbed onto a cable that was across the back of the stage, thinking he was just going to stand on his drum stool and wave his arms about. But instead he got catapulted about 25 feet into the air and landed with a huge crash on his drums. And we had to take him off to hospital. And that’s burned pretty solidly into my brain.

The Pretty Things Australian tour dates:

Tuesday, December 2 – The Corner Hotel, Melbourne

Wednesday, December 5 – Lizotte’s, Sydney

Friday, December 7 – The Factory Theatre, Sydney

Saturday, December 8 – Good God Small Club, Sydney

Thursday, December 13 – Caravan Club, Melbourne

Friday, December 14 – Caravan Club, Melbourne

Tickets on sale now.