The last time The Pretty Things toured New Zealand, their behaviour caused such controversy that Parliament was forced to address the issue of them ever being allowed back in the country. That was in 1965 when the band shared a bill with Sandie Shaw. Most of the trouble was caused by wayward drummer Viv Prince, but all five band members did their fair share to make the headlines. Now, 47 years later, The Pretty Things plan to assault the New Zealand shores once more. Guitarist Dick Taylor was there in ’65 and he plans to be here in 2012. That is if the authorities let him in.
“We were told never to darken your shores again, so we shall see,” states the now 69 year old musician from London.
“I’m sure we’ll be fine. At least this time we can come and actually play our music and people can judge us on that.”
A lot has changed in 47 years. But even now Taylor remembers that New Zealand seemed backward even by 1965 standards.
“…strange things like the pubs closing at 6PM. It was a bit like going back in England twenty years before the sixties. It was lovely, it was an absolutely fantastic place and we really did enjoy being there.”
In 1965 The Pretty Things were one of the grittiest British r&b outfits on the scene and could easily hold their own up against contemporaries like The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones. In fact, Dick Taylor was an original member of The Stones and played bass for them on their first gig, 50 years ago. Taylor was in a band with Jagger and Richards before Brian Jones came along and turned them all into Rolling Stones.
Watch The Pretty Things perform in Holland in 1965.
“We used to gather round at my house and in the end we called ourselves Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys. I often wonder what the name should have been when we joined up with Brian Jones. If someone said, “No, we have to be Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys”, can you imagine the world instead of The Rolling Stones it’s, “Little Boy Blue!” It doesn’t seem to work, does it?”
With all the hype around The Stones’ 50th anniversary, Taylor has spent more time talking about The Stones than his own band.
“Which is all to the good, really, because it puts a bit more spotlight on Pretty Things, obviously. Not that we seem need it at the moment, we seem to be doing very well. We’re doing quite a lot of gigs. When we do gigs in London we seem to get people from all over the place coming to see us, some specifically coming a long way. The last gig I did in London, I was talking to some people from New Zealand, they were there already, but people who came specifically from the north of Norway to see us. We’ve had a bloke come from India oh, and Japan. There was a young woman from Japan. I kept seeing this woman at gigs and in the end I said to her, ah, why are you here?” She said, “Oh, I fly over specially for your gigs.” I thought, “Wow, that’s extraordinary”.
Taylor left The Stones to return to art school and to go back to playing guitar, rather than bass. It was there that he met Phil May.
“At art school we all used to bring records in and play them. There was quite a broad sweep of music which was brought in and played and among all this stuff was the Bo Diddleys and Howlin’ Wolfs and what have you and Phil and I realized we liked the same music. Then when I left The Stones, he kept agitating for me to start another band. I said, “all right, but you’ve better be in it”. He couldn’t play an instrument so he’d better be the singer. That’s kind of slightly how it worked.”
Click here to listen to The Pretty Things’ 1st single, Rosalyn:
The band began recording in 1964 and came up with two classic singles right out of the box, Rosalyn and Don’t Bring Me Down. They gained a reputation for their raucous live shows and May’s outrageously long hair. When they touring New Zealand in 1965, the country didn’t know what hit it. The tour was so infamous, a book has been written about it…Don’t Bring Me Down Under…in 2006. In the forward Dick Taylor writes, “The whole trip for me was like waking up in a Dali painting with no exit to reality. If I was ever to have a nervous breakdown it would have been there.”
Sadly, drummer Viv Prince did become a rock & roll casualty, but the band soldiered on. By 1968 they had been psychedelisized and they release, what is often cited as the first rock opera, S.F. Sorrow. They beat The Who’s Tommy by a matter of months. So, how did The Pretty Things come to write the first rock opera?
“Phil decided to write a story that kind of went along with the songs so we can sort of say, maybe it’s his idea. To a certain extent it was almost a communal idea because prior to that we’d done Defecting Grey (1967 single) which was kind of a rock opera in the space of a long single. And the idea of a theme…when you think of A Love Supreme, you know, Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, that was like a whole album devoted, or one side of an album. Although it was kind of one long track in a way, it was also kind of a themed album, in a way. Do you know what I mean? The idea of doing something other than just a collection of singles thrown together on an album was attractive. And that’s kind of how it happened, really.”
Click here to listen to The Pretty Things’ 1967 single Defecting Grey:
Unfortunately S.F. Sorrow did not receive the success it deserved and Taylor left the band in 1969.
“I just wanted to do something else. Now it might seem odd, but I felt like, this is the only thing I’ve really done since I left art school and I just wanted to sort of explore other avenues…just see what the world was like outside of being in this one band. Also, the other thing was, I was very happy with S.F. Sorrow and I thought well, we’ve really made a good album here, and I don’t know if we could ever surpass that, so let me see what else I can do.”
One of the first things he did was produce Hawkwind’s debut album in 1970, which in turn, led him to Lemmy.
“I actually played guitar with him for a couple of weeks. It was literally a few weeks. We had some extraordinary scrapes and during that time we managed to turn a van over which I was in with Mick Turner and I also managed to back the van into this pair of huge glass doors at Guildford University. They shattered. God knows what happened about that. Yes, it was fun, though.”
The Pretty Things continued on without Taylor, signing to Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song label and finally getting some recognition in the US. Bowie’s inclusion of two Pretty Things songs on his 1973 Pinups album helped matters as well. Even though he was no longer in the band, Taylor was glad to see his old band get some attention, even if it came a bit late.
Click here to listen to David Bowie’s version of Don’t Bring Me Down:
“I was delighted. I would have been more delighted if they had been two tracks that we had actually written! But I was really pleased to see that he did so. I know that he did like us so…maybe it’s been more important almost subsequently. With the revival that seems to be going on at the moment, it’s more important now than it was at the time.”
The Pretty Things finally called it a day in the late 70s, but by 1980 they were back with a new album and Dick Taylor was with them once more.
“I was quite exposed to the punk scene, or whatever you would like to call it, because I had some friends that were in bands so I worked with a band called Auntie and the Men From Uncle. We were going around doing basically what were punk gigs. So, the next album we did, which I didn’t really do any writing on, was Cross Talk. But Pete Tolson who was the other guitarist did the lead guitar work on that. Actually he was very much into the idea of sort of the new wave idea, which I went along with very happily because it was something I was kind of involved in anyway.”
Dick Taylor has been a Pretty Thing ever since, although along the way he did manage to sit in with English post-punk band The Mekons. Was he a band member or simply a guest musician?
“I think I was (a member). When you’re with bands you don’t actually sign a form on blood, do you? “I AM NOW A MEKON”. They had a party where everybody who ever played in The Mekons was invited and I think there were 100 people there. And that was only 20 years after their inception. I enjoyed very much playing with them and if I get the opportunity again, I shall play with them again.”
When The Pretty Things play The Powerstation in December, they have almost 50 years of material to draw from. What can we expect to hear?
“We do lots of stuff from the early repertoire. Then we also do stuff from S.F. Sorrow and some of the other psychedelic stuff which we did and also some new songs. So we try to do what we feel are the really relevant sections of our catalogue, and, whenever we can, throw in a couple of new things. I think you have to acknowledge why people are there. A lot of them are there to hear Midnight To Six and such and you can’t escape that. You can’t say, “well, we’re not going to do that because we’ve got our latest album out”. You can put new stuff in but you’ve got to play things which people are basically there for.”
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of The Pretty Things. Are there any plans to celebrate?
“Yes, surviving the 50th year! I’m looking forward to seeing how long we can stretch things out before we have to admit that we can’t do it anymore. I hope we keep playing as long as we can, but in all seriousness, I don’t see any reason to stop playing. Elderly appearance doesn’t stop you from playing music. I believe.”
Perhaps they could tour with The Rolling Stones.
“Yeah, well I thought when they do their 50th anniversary thing they should have Little Boy Blue as the support band!”
Click here to listen to the 13th Floor interview with Dick Taylor: