When the Pretty Things’ 50th anniversary was marked with Bouquets From A Cloudy Sky – a huge boxed set containing 11 CDs and other goodies – the cover of the 100-page, 12×12 hardcover book pictured lead singer Phil May and lead guitarist Dick Taylor. Of course, there were other band members, and May and Taylor split at different times, but the pair not only formed but truly defined the Pretty Things’ sound – or sounds.
The English group’s “thrash R&B” (to quote May) and later psychedelic explorations influenced such diverse artists as Keith Moon, the Ramones, and Oasis, and among their biggest fans were, and are, Van Morrison, Ron Wood, and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, who said, “The Pretty Things always made the Stones look tame.”
Ironically, the Pretty Things, named for a Bo Diddley song, began as an offshoot of the Stones. Taylor discovered that fellow art-school student Mick Jagger shared a love of American blues. At 16, he met fellow guitarist Keith Richards, also in art school, and they started going to see Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated at the Ealing Club. The three called themselves Little Boy Blues and the Blue Boys. About a year later, they merged with Brian Jones, calling himself Elmo Lewis, whose young band, the Rolling Stones, was imploding. For the handful of gigs he played with the nascent Stones, Taylor handled bass duties, pre-Bill Wyman.
In the fall of ’63, 20-year-old Taylor returned to lead guitar and formed an R&B band with May, who was young and charismatic. Eventually finding rhythm guitarist Brian Penderton and bassist John Stax, while going through a succession of animated drummers, the band morphed from doing blues covers to writing original rock material to getting, as the Chambers Brothers famously sang, “psychedelicized,” along with the Beatles and everybody else. The culmination of their early period was 1968’s S.F. Sorrow, recorded at Abbey Road Studios. Whether concept album or rock opera, it was definitely adventurous and groundbreaking – and pre-dated the Who’s Tommy, incidentally (though the chronology of their American releases was reversed).
When recording was done, Taylor left the band, not to return until a reunion in ’78. The Pretties stopped and started, undergoing personnel changes, for the next 30 years, with Taylor always onboard. They gelled into more of an ongoing concern in 2008.
“I was the only real lead player until we finished S.F. Sorrow and I left the band,” he explains. “Frank Holland has been in the band for 25 years. We both play lead, and he’s got more of a rock sound than me. I’m going for more of the psychedelic and bluesy sounds.”
In 2015, the Pretty Things proved they still had it, with an album of strong new originals, The Sweet Pretty Things (Are In Bed Now Of Course).
The British beat bands, and especially R&B bands, seemed to spring out of art college.
Yes. I think art college in those days was the one kind of further education place you could go which had a liberal enough regime where you could carry on doing music as well. It is interesting, because there was myself and Keith (Richards), and Phil was down the road at another art school.
I think Ray Davies went to art school; I know that Dave Davies did. It was a real sort of breeding ground for music. I went from one art school to the Central School of Art in London, and there was Viv Stanshall out of the Bonzo Dog Blues Band and “Legs” Larry Smith. There were people popping up everywhere. I think it was the mindset of people who wanted to do art but also were pretty passionately interested in music – particularly R&B music.
There’s always been debate as to who was the real leader and visionary of the Rolling Stones. Can you shed any light on that?
(Laughs) That’s a very interesting thing, because I think the tension between the three of them came from how the Stones were formed. Brian had a band. Mick and Keith and myself had a band. Brian invited Mick to sing with him. Mick took Keith along. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know exactly what went on, but suddenly they needed a bass player. Brian Knight, who’d been singing with Brian as well, and Jeff Bradford up and left, so effectively, Brian was looking for new people, and I was invited to play bass – which I did, although I’d never done it before.
When I was with them, I must say, all our decisions were really group decisions. Yes, Brian would go out and steal the money to get some equipment and stuff – actually true – but it became pretty apparent that in terms of real leadership, quite honestly, at that time it was just a bunch of guys who got together. I only did a few gigs with them, but it became obvious that Mick and Keith were kind of in the ascendance.
In a very little space in time, in a way, Brian was kind of a leader, but it didn’t take very long for it to shift. When we’d rehearse, there wasn’t any thought of any leader of the band. I know that one of the big points of friction was that they found out for some of the gigs in the early days, Brian actually took more money. Five pounds more or something for a gig.
Was not sounding like the Stones or any other band a conscious decision with the Pretty Things?
No. It was obvious that we couldn’t be the Stones, related to personality and ability. Ostensibly, on the surface, although Phil moved around a lot, he was a different singer from Jagger. Phil was very instinctive, whereas Jagger was more conscious and in control of what he did. Phil always sang from the heart. Jagger might think, “Oh, I want to sound like Chuck Berry on this song,” and was a very good mimic. Phil, on the other hand, had this sort of built-in style all his own, and still does. Phil is not someone you can point in a particular direction. He does what he wants to do. A lot comes out of the subconscious almost – even today.
When you formed the Pretty Things, how long had you been playing guitar?
I think I had a guitar from age 13. I’d played other people’s guitars before, and my friends and I got these plastic ukuleles – that was the first thing. Then I got a guitar for a Christmas present, and I looked at it and thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Wasn’t expensive, just a nice acoustic. It was almost like a parlor guitar, with a small body. I can’t remember what the make was.
Amazingly, I got it given back to me 10 years ago, and I took it to a school where I was teaching, and it just vaporized. A shame.
Who were your early guitar influences?
Well, where do we start? Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Hubert Sumlin definitely – I thought he was fantastic – Muddy Waters. All the blues guys, really. Then I remember the first time I heard Steve Cropper, I thought, “Oh yeah.” All the usual suspects. But I was particularly fond of Hubert Sumlin’s playing. I had a Howlin’ Wolf album, and he was absolutely magnificent on it. Buddy Guy is another of my favorite guitarists.
In an early picture of the Pretty Things, you’re playing a Harmony Stratotone.
Exactly. I probably used it three or four months, maybe six. Then I got a Gibson 330. After that I got a 345 – stereo, with the Varitone switch. On the day we were going to New Zealand, all of our gear was in a car parked outside a club, stupidly. I wasn’t there. When they went back to the van, they’d all disappeared. So I had to borrow a guitar, a 335, from a guy in the (Pink) Fairies. And when we came back from New Zealand, I got my own 335. That was the order of things, but the 345 was absolutely fantastic. I loved it. And actually, the 330 was very good.
When we were in New Zealand, the people who’d stolen our guitars got onto our management, and our manager’s father was there. The crooks said, “You can have the whole lot back for £100.” He called the cops and arranged to do the exchange, and when it was going to take place, the police sounded their sirens, making them drop all the guitars and run. But the only one they kept hold of was my 345.
How expensive was a Gibson ES-335 in England back then?
The 330 was £125. The 345 was £225 – roughly $400. The 335 would have been somewhere in-between, I guess. Mine was probably a ’65.
When I left the band in ’69, they presumed I had the 335; I absolutely knew I didn’t have it, because it was the first guitar bought by the band rather than me, personally. So, somewhere between the band and the road manager or whatever, it kind of disappeared.
I’m afraid I haven’t got many vintage guitars around anymore. I’ve got one very interesting thing, which is actually my wife’s; she bought a guitar from a dealer on the Isle of Wight before I knew her. She doesn’t actually play, but she fancied owning a couple of guitars. She bought an Encore Strat, but the really interesting one was an acoustic – a Grammer. I played it on the live S.F. Sorrow broadcast at Abbey Road in ’98. It’s so nice, that guitar. And it’s rosewood. The same dealer went back to America and talked to the guy he got it from, and it was actually made for Dolly Parton. It’s got a very narrow neck. I researched Grammer guitars, and they did make a woman’s model, so I guess this is one of those. It’s so nice, I often joke that I married my wife for her guitar (laughs).
The other guitar I played in those days was a 12-string Gibson Jumbo. Superb. It’s on all the S.F. Sorrow stuff. It’s right from “Honey I Need,” on so many things. We’d take six of the strings off, so it had a monster wide neck. Anything with an acoustic up until I left was played on that.
Do you remember your chronology of amps?
Yes, I do. In the very, very early days, we would use literally anything we could get hold of. Interestingly, I’ve got a little Truvoice Mighty Midget I found after many years, which may be one Keith used to play.
First, I had a Linear amp, which I think was a tube hi-fi amp, and I’d use a speaker cabinet of some sort. When we started to get a bit more serious, we bought a couple of Harmony amplifiers from the Stones – one of which is still around. From there, we graduated to Vox AC30s. We had a bit of a deal with Vox, and I know the first one I had didn’t have the treble boost; I bought a little pedal which had the same effect. We went on to treble-boosted AC30s for some time. Brian Penderton had a Selmer with the little magic eye in the front. (Ed. Note: Some early Selmer amps, like the Thunderbird Twin 30, had a cut-out in the grille, behind which was a small tube that blinked, or “winked,” at the set speed of the tremolo circuit.) John Stax had the same Vox bass amp that the Beatles had, with the chrome stand (Ed. Note: probably an AC100).
Everybody was starting to buy Marshalls, so I got a Marshall 100-watt with two 4x12s. I thought, “Ah, this is going to be so much louder than the Vox,” and I was quite surprised when it actually wasn’t. I think the Vox put out at least as much noise as the Marshall. What I used to find with the Marshalls, when you did the “up to 10” bit, it started kind of compressing when you really pushed it. So it actually sounded less loud than if you just backed it off a bit; then you got more out of it.
You guys were so influenced by Bo Diddley. Did you have an amp with tremolo?
Oh, absolutely. Although I had an amp with tremolo, I didn’t use it all the while by any means. We’d use it as a rhythm sound, as well. The first amp without tremolo was the Marshall.
Recently, the people who make the Tone Bender, Macaris Music in London, gave me one – which I used to use a lot for soloing. I was quite into fuzz boxes early on.
Did you ever use solidstate amps?
At that time, no, I didn’t. I never had a transistor amp until about ’79, when I had a solidstate Marshall combo. It sounded really, really good.
Now, I’ve reverted back to Selmer. I’ve got a Selmer Zodiac, which is 50 watts, and a head which someone took out of a combo and boxed up; it’s a Zodiac 100-watt. What I do is stack one on top of the other, and for lots of gigs the 50-watt is fine, but if we’re doing a festival, I use the 100. They both have very distinctive sounds, and the 100 really sounds good when you wind it up. In a smaller gig, it’d take people’s heads off.
Since some circles consider the Pretty Things the fathers of punk, when punk rock came along, did you listen to it? If so, what was your reaction?
To be honest, my reaction was, “This is a bit of fresh air.” I went very early to a Clash concert, which I must say was really brilliant. And I worked in a band called Auntie and the Men From U.N.C.L.E., and I guested a lot with the Mekons.
I think not so much the musical format, but the atmosphere. I think the one thing we had was that kind of rough and ready and roar thing. There was a connection. If you think of how punk rock was a reaction to prog rock and all the music of the ’70s, and go back to bands that had more energy, you’d probably go back to bands like us. Johnny Rotten used to come along and watch us with his mum.
In terms of the rough-and-ready aspect you mentioned, Phil obviously had that in spades, and you had a succession of crazy drummers. But onstage and in interviews, you seem a bit more reserved. Is that fair?
Yeah, yeah. I think it is fair. You can’t help who you are, and admit to who you are; on the other hand, I’ve associated myself with a load of quite out-there characters. If you ever witnessed Auntie and the Men From U.N.C.L.E. and the Mekons and the Pretty Things – certainly in the early days, but also now I think. The way I play now belies my character maybe.
What’s your main guitar today?
About six years ago, I was going to buy a big, fat-body jazz guitar. I just fancied owning something like that. I went into my local shop and saw this thing that has three pickups and a Bigsby and is a semi-solid, and I loved it. It’s called a Hutchins. It’s a copy of a Harmony H78. That was my main guitar for ages, and still is largely. And when I was in Germany in 2014, the people at Höfner gave me a Verithin. Between them, those are my electric guitars now.
I’d quite like to get hold of a proper H78, in addition to the Hutchins. One of the reasons I use the Hutchins is, while it’s a really nice guitar and I’d hate for anything to happen to it, but if it did, I could just get another one. Whereas if it was an old vintage guitar, I’d weep.
What is a Pretty Things show like today?
It’s quite long. We do a lot of the R&B stuff, a bunch of S.F. Sorrow and other psychedelic stuff, including an extended “L.S.D.,” and some songs from our latest album. It’s very energetic. Our drummer and bass player are really young, and it’s good to have a young rhythm section. Actually, I really enjoy playing with the band now. To be honest, I think it’s one of the best incarnations of the Pretty Things.
© 2016 Dan Forte; all rights reserved by the author.
This article originally appeared in VG April 2016 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.