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The Pretty Things

The Pretty Things

Interviewed by
Nick Bollinger
Thursday 6th December, 2012 6:30PM

When The Pretty Things last visited New Zealand - 47 years ago - they left a country thrilled and scandalised. The year was 1965. The Rolling Stones had toured a few months earlier, but they were tame compared to the shoulder-length hair of singer Phil May, primal guitar licks of Dick Taylor or wildman escapades of drummer Viv Prince. An early influence on the Who’s Keith Moon, Prince dominated newspaper headlines throughout the fortnight-long tour. He carried a rotting crayfish around with him, cavorted in the streets carrying a lightbulb and dressed only in a hotel bedspread, and caused all kinds of mayhem onstage. When it was time to depart, airline officials barred him from the plane for being drunk.

Nearly five decades on, The Pretty Things are still arguably the hottest garage R&B band in the world, still fronted by founder members May and Taylor. I caught up with Taylor – who had been a founding member of the Rolling Stones before leaving to start the Pretty Things – on the phone from London.

So the Pretty Things are finally returning to New Zealand, after 47 years?

Yes. I hope they let us in, because there were questions asked in Parliament about us last time, and we were told never to darken your shores again!

You had the notorious Viv Prince with you last time, of course. Was he really as much trouble as his legend would have one believe?

Well he was in quite a weird spot at that time, you know, in his brain. And he was behaving outrageously. I think he had also cottoned onto the fact that when you looked at the pre-publicity you had for our tour in New Zealand it kind of missed the point about the band. Because we wore Cuban-heeled boots we were reported as wearing high-heels!

But it did cause quite a stir and Viv’s behaviour was quite eccentric at times. One of the things that happened that was really very funny was that, for the very first time ever, Viv was drinking a large glass of water at one of the gigs, in the dressing room, rather than his usual ration of Scotch. A reporter asked him what he was drinking and he just said, “Meths”. And it was reported “Drummer drinks meths in dressing room”. And you know how you make those paper flower things where you roll up a newspaper? He made a couple of those and took them onstage alight and someone threw a bucket of water over him. I remember looking round and seeing Viv with the flaming brand in his hand, the bucket of water suspended in mid-air above his head. I just have this image in my mind of that. And that got turned into “Drummer tries to set fire to theatre curtains!”

Viv wasn’t with the group for much longer after that tour, but the Pretty Things subsequently went through many incarnations and made some extraordinary music. The 1967 album SF Sorrow was arguably the first rock opera. You must have been listening to a lot of other music besides rhythm and blues?

We always did. Phil and I were art students together, and people at art school listened to all sorts of music. I was one of those people who listened to modern jazz, traditional jazz, blues, folk, rock. Anything, apart from too much classical music. When we did SF Sorrow we changed our line-up and John Povey was with us. He was into Indian music and musique concrete and I liked Indian music myself, so there was a load of stuff out there. It was a bit like today when you have access to use anything you like. Right now I really quite like Balkan music, I don’t know why, but with all of those funny scales and everything it appeals to me a lot. But our music wasn’t restricted to rhythm and blues, although that was what influenced the early band and was what we loved to play. We were developing in that way even before the line-up changed. We used to improvise a lot on stage and numbers would last for quite a long time, and we’d go off on complete tangents.

We had this hiatus between (the end of our contract with) Fontana and (signing with) EMI and we recorded one song, “Defecting Grey”, and that in itself was a sort of mini-rock-opera. It has like four themes in the course of one single, and we had been thinking for a while once we made a new album we’d like it to have a theme to it. We’d written a couple of songs and then Phil started writing a story and the story developed, the songs developed, sometimes the songs predated the story and sometimes the story went first before the songs.

Did you realise you were inventing the concept album?

I’m very happy for our band take a load of credit for it, but it was also what was happening altogether. EMI was great because people were allowed to experiment. (Pink Floyd’s) Saucerful Of Secrets was recorded there, and of course people were taking LSD and things liked that and going off in every different direction. And just being given the chance to record at Abbey Road with producer Norman Smith, who was very much into trying out new things. It all kind of gelled.

Going back even earlier, it strikes me that when you were starting up the Rolling Stones with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and after that when you formed the Pretty Things, the whole idea of the ‘rock band’ hadn’t really been formalised yet. You guys were actually inventing it. Did you feel like pioneers?

I don’t know about pioneers. The Rolling Stones are a rock band, I guess that’s the only way to describe them. But when the Stones were starting out we were trying first of all to play rhythm and blues a la Chuck Berry and blues a la Muddy Waters, and that format was reasonably established in the R&B world. And it grew - as the music became maybe more accessible to the white audience or whatever - into the ‘rock band’. But I don’t think anybody went one day “Hey, let’s start a rock band”.

It was an organic process then?

Yeah, very much so. As all music develops. Look at how ska developed into bluebeat into reggae into dancehall. It’s the same process.


The Pretty Things
Tuesday 11th December, The Powerstation, Auckland

Tickets on sale now from Ticketmaster.

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