The Pretty Things
he Pretty Things have been a magnet for controversy since their inception. At a time when the Rolling Stones were seen as the ultimate nonconformists, the Pretty Things made them look tame by comparison. The band members' hair was longer, their lifestyles wilder, and their music louder and more extreme. Although their commercial success was limited, the Pretty Things were able not only to survive, but to evolve from R&B punks to psychedelic vanguards to 1970s hard rockers and beyond. Born survivors, they continue to command a loyal following without ever compromising their ideals or "bad boy" image.
The roots of the band can be traced to the late 1950s when Dick Taylor (b. January 28, 1943; Dartford, Kent, U.K.), Michael ("Mick") Jagger and various school friends would meet for after-school jam sessions at Taylor's parents' house in Dartford. By 1961, the small group had adopted a blues approach and dubbed themselves Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys. Taylor was by now attending Sidcup Art School, where he and fellow student Keith Richards, sharing a passion for blues and R&B, got together to play guitar. As it turned out, Richards was a childhood friend of Jagger, and after the pair renewed their acquaintance, Jagger invited him to join the Blue Boys. By mid-1962, they had hooked up with guitarist Brian Jones-necessitating Taylor's switch from guitar to bass-and had renamed themselves the Rollin' Stones.
The Stones' decision to go professional in late 1962 coincided with Taylor's acceptance at the London Central School of Art. At the time, rather than continuing to play a secondary instrument in a background role, he chose to bow out of the group to concentrate on his studies. "I had to start concentrating on my exams," Taylor later explained to Rave magazine in 1964. "We didn't have a row or anything like that. I still see the boys sometimes and get on well with them."
Taylor still had the itch to play, though, and in 1963 he teamed up with another Sidcup art student, vocalist and harmonica player Phil May (b. November 9, 1944; Dartford, Kent, U.K.) and put together a group. They brought in May's friend John Stax (born John Fullegar, April 6, 1944; Crayford, Kent, U.K.) on bass, along with rhythm guitarist Brian Pendleton (b. April 13, 1944, Wolverhampton, Warks, U.K.; d. May 16, 2001) and a succession of drummers, including Pete Kitley and Viv Andrews. The name Pretty Things was chosen with a certain sarcastic glee, in homage to Bo Diddley and as a challenge to those who would deride the musicians' long-haired appearance. The group started playing at the Dartford Station Hotel before moving on to some college dates in the city. Around this time, Jimmy Duncan spotted them playing at the Royal College of Art and decided to become their comanager along with Bryan Morrison, who had attended the Central School of Art with Taylor. Their new management team found them gigs on the art school circuit and at the Railway Station Hotel. By May 1964, the band started playing the 100 Club, located at 100 Oxford Street, London, where they quickly "built up a reputation as one of the hottest new acts on the London scene," according to Record Mirror.
In early 1964, the group signed with Fontana Records. The label proposed that they add Viv Prince (b. August 9, 1944; Loughborough, Leicestershire, U.K.) on drums. Although only 19, Prince was already something of a music business veteran, having played with the Dauphin Street Six and Carter Lewis and the Southerners. Reportedly, he had also once been an income tax officer in Loughborough, Leicestershire. Higher-ups at Fontana believed that Prince would bring a degree of stability and professionalism to the Pretty Things' rather undisciplined sound. Their utter misread of Prince would emerge later, but in the meantime, Prince fit perfectly into the group-his skillful, energetic drumming giving their music a powerful new engine.
For their first single, the group recorded a track penned by Jimmy Duncan. "It was very tiring at first," Dick Taylor told Beat Instrumental, "but it could have been worse. We tried the number out at Regent Sound originally, then did the final takes at Philips' Studios." "Rosalyn" (backed with "Big Boss Man") was released in June, and the screaming, hard-pounding A-side received encouraging reviews. "Not a great deal of melody," wrote New Music Express, "but ample enthusiasm, sparkle and drive." Likewise, Record Mirror described it as a "Bo Diddley beat, wild vocal, good song, but maybe a little too confused for the charts." An appearance on the TV show Ready, Steady Go! followed, and the group's long hair, frilly shirts and animalistic sound sparked sufficient press furor to propel the single into the lower regions of the charts. An American agent who had seen them on Ready, Steady Go! offered the group an American tour and an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, an opportunity their management failed to take advantage of.
Although together for less than a year, the Pretty Things were now touring extensively throughout Great Britain, creating mayhem both on and off stage. Such media headlines as "Adults Hate Us More Than the Stones" and "Would You Take the Pretty Things into Your Local?" became commonplace. Early articles dwelled incessantly on their appearance, particularly their long hair, with one newspaper observing, "Phil May must have the longest hair on the long-haired current pop scene."
"We simply don't care," Phil May responded to Beat Instrumental. "All right, people say we are copying certain other groups. We're not. We're US. We know people don't like our hair, the way we behave or the way we dress. But we've got a big fan club and our money has gone up a lot for one-nighters and that's good enough for us."
May later admitted that "the touring was dodgy," but pointed out, "At least we had the knowledge that we were always being re-booked and that our money was going up . . . but fast. We had the scenes where even the ballroom staff didn't want to help us-again because of the way we look-but the fans went wild."
Finding a suitable follow-up single was not easy. "Lots of work, not enough good material," Prince commented at the time. "And we just didn't want to come out with a load of rubbish for the sake of having a release." May reiterated, "Eventually we'll get a lot more way-out on stage. And we'll probably work more to a folksy sort of field. But first we need a really big hit record. Must have one out for the first week in October," he joked. They considered several numbers, including a slow Jimmy Reed song called "The Moon Is Rising." Finally, they started composing their own material. "We reckon this is the best thing to do," Taylor told Beat Instrumental. "After all, the old authentic R&B numbers were always written from personal experience, and if we ever complete this number, it's going to be called 'Closed Restaurant Blues.'" Phil May thought he had a better title. "The 'Long Haired Blues' would be better, because it's our mops that cause all the trouble. One look at us and taxi drivers stick the hired sign up, and, as Dick says, restaurants always close down as soon as we walk in; it's a pity because we need food to keep our hair growing!"
The group found the perfect number penned for them by Johnnie Dee, former lead singer of the Bulldogs. Dee traveled with the band to "soak up the atmosphere." "Don't Bring Me Down" backed with "We'll Be Together" was issued at the end of October 1964. The A-side's crashing, wailing tempo changes and leering, sexually provocative vocals combined to ignite more controversy-and more sales. The single smashed into the Top Ten in November, and Fontana capitalized on the group's success, recycling their first two singles on an EP by year's end. To promote the single, the group embarked on an eight-day Scottish tour on October 12, followed by TV appearances on Ready, Steady Go! and Thank Your Lucky Stars.
With the success of their first two singles, they made plans for an LP and a film, with offers coming in for an American tour. "It now looks fairly certain that they will visit the States early in the New Year, possibly for the last two weeks of January," comanager Bryan Morrison told Record Mirror. But again, the plans fell through and the group didn't tour the States. Looking back, May felt that their not touring the U.S. until the 1970s was a mistake. He told Ugly Things, "The management-which was foolish really on their part-felt they were making money in Europe, and they wanted to wait for a really serious offer. Also, to some extent, our record company in America never worked very well with the singles."
"Honey, I Need" backed with "I Can Never Say" was issued in February 1965. The A-side, a raucous yet somewhat folksy number cowritten by Taylor, was another U.K. hit, peaking at #13. The Pretty Things' eponymous debut album followed in March, capturing the ferocious R&B sound of their live show on tracks like "Roadrunner" (one of four Bo Diddley covers on the LP), "Judgement Day" and "Oh Baby Doll." Meanwhile, original compositions like "13 Chester Street" and "Unknown Blues" showed the group using R&B as a form of personal expression, effectively grafting autobiographical lyrics onto traditional blues structures. Record Mirror aptly described The Pretty Things as "a lively album which although it is rough at the edges proves the Things to have a great deal to offer." The album was a strong seller, climbing to #6 in the U.K. that spring.
In March, the Midland Beat reported that the "unkempt look" of the Pretty Things was going out of style and contrasted their appearance unfavorably to local band Pete Tierney and the Nighthawks. "The 'smart look' is on the way back. There is no doubt that the public are getting fed up [with] groups with unruly, unkempt hair and disheveled dress," the newspaper's readers were informed. "Take a look at our photograph of the Pretty Things. Then study Jim Simpson's picture of the popular Birmingham group, Pete Tierney and the Nighthawks. The Brum boys' 'uniforms' give them a much more professional appearance than the Pretty Things."
Ironically, while the group was being bashed for their fashion sense, they were making plans to open a woman's boutique called the "Penny Halfpenny" near London's Portobello Road. Said May, "Designing for girls will be especially interesting when we get round to it. I think girls should dress to suit their personality-not the terrible fad of following fashion. I would design with a particular girl in mind. I think you've got to. Actually the most marvelous thing I ever saw was Anita Ekberg wearing a wet dress."
In April 1965, the Pretty Things made their first visit to Holland, where they had amassed a fanatical fan base. A riotous concert in Blokker was shown live on Dutch TV, but the broadcast was terminated midway through the band's third song after outraged viewers called the television station to complain.
While the press reported that their next single might be a Donovan composition, the Pretty Things instead decided to use "Cry to Me," a track found on a Solomon Burke LP. Said Taylor at the time, "This has been something of an eye-opener for us. We weren't at all sure we could do it without the results turning out sounding like somebody copying a Solomon Burke record. But I think it is identifiable [as] us." Released in July 1965, the soulful ballad offered a change in direction. The B-side, "Get a Buzz," was a fuzz guitar-driven studio jam recorded in just one take. In an interview in Disc Weekly, May explained, "Even though our new record is much quieter than our image would suggest, we merely thought we'd prove that it was something we could do." The single was a minor U.K. hit, peaking at #28.
Based on their last single, any illusions fans might have had that the Pretty Things had mellowed were shattered that August when the group toured New Zealand. "Pretty Things' Shock Exhibition" screamed the headlines of the New Zealand Truth. "Shocked police found long-haired, drunken members of English pop group the Pretty Things swigging whiskey only minutes before their performance in New Plymouth last week. In scenes unprecedented in the 50-year-old history of the city's opera house, the long haired 'musicians' broke chairs, lit fires backstage and abused officials." The article went on to report, "Unshaven drummer Vivian Prince ruined heart-throb singer Eden Kane's act" by laying down shreds of carpet at Kane's feet and shouting at Kane to step on them, crawling around the stage with a lighted newspaper, setting fire to props, breaking furniture, interrupting headliner Sandie Shaw's act with various pranks, and swigging whiskey from his shoe, which Prince joked was "meths" (i.e. methylated spirits).
A Christchurch newspaper reported, "The Pretty Things' performance was anarchic. With their shabby clothing and their shaggy coiffures, they looked like five delegates at a nihilists' conference. This impression was reinforced by their stage antics. The drummer, Vivian Prince, jumped on balloons, terrorized the others with swipes from his king-size sword, and finally went berserk with a plastic machine gun which he eventually smashed on the edge of the stage and flung at his screaming audience."
Offstage, Prince insisted on carrying around a dead crayfish for several days. John Stax recalled his behavior to Ugly Things: "We'd been giving Viv a bit of a hard time because of his drinking. He was really bad news. We'd locked the dressing room and he tried to break into it with an axe. You could see the axe, just like you see in the movies! Anyway, he got over that, and that night he tried to set fire to the bloody stage. He was just rushing across stage with these firebrands, like lighted torches made of newspapers! The fire brigade were called out and they kept squirting him with all this stuff, chasing him across the stage!"
The orgy of tabloid headlines and lurid details shocked the conservative nation and earned the Pretty Things a lifetime ban on playing in New Zealand. At the end of the tour, Prince was kicked off the plane heading home-prior to takeoff, fortunately-after an altercation with the pilot. Prince defended himself to Melody Maker, telling the newspaper, "The reports about us being incapably drunk and ruining the shows are false. Five papers printed stories which completely contradicted these reports. They said we went down great and the audiences were raving with us." His comments were corroborated by an article in the New Plymouth Daily News, which reported, "The Pretty Things brought the house down. They did everything but provide for a lover of beautiful music-and there were none of those in the audience. Theirs was R&B at its raving best. Electric excitement, and an original stage style, plus good R&B drumming. Viv Prince's brandishing a flaming newspaper was in short a very original twist to their act."
Even with the quintet's acknowledged penchant for outrageousness, it was apparent that Prince was becoming a liability. Increasingly, Skip Alan, Mitch Mitchell or Twink (a.k.a. John Alder) had to substitute when the drummer was incapacitated or failed to show up for gigs. However, Prince stayed around long enough to complete most of the group's second album, Get the Picture?, released in December 1965. Ranging from the jangling pop of "You Don't Believe Me" to the folkishness of "London Town" to the savage R&B of "Gonna Find Me a Substitute," the album showed incredible diversity and marked the continuing emergence of May and Taylor as songwriters on the tracks "Buzz the Jerk," "Get the Picture" and the atmospheric "Can't Stand the Pain." Record Mirror gave the LP an enthusiastic review, noting that it "could shake up a few folk who think of the Things as being a bit of a musical joke."
By the time of the album's release, Viv Prince had officially left the band. As Phil May explained to Disc Weekly, "We all like Viv but we had a disagreement over group policy." Prince responded to the official explanation by saying, "I agree it was a policy disagreement. Among other things they seemed to think that the personal publicity that I was getting was bad for the group." His replacement was 17-year-old Skip Alan (born Alan Skipper, June 11, 1948; Westminster, London, U.K.), who had previously played on sessions with Donovan and had fronted his own Skip Alan Trio. His first recording with the Pretty Things was "Midnight to Six Man," a single released at the end of the year right after the LP.
"We spent months trying to find something to record but there wasn't anything good enough about," Taylor told Record Mirror at the time. "We didn't want to push anything out, so we waited. Then we had to go to the studio and do mething, so Phil and I sat down and wrote 'Midnight to Six Man' in half an hour. We got the idea from all these people who you never see during the day. Then spend all their lives down [at] clubs at night and that's the only sort of place they ever go." The group reportedly spent 16 hours in the studio recording this composition, which they felt certain would return them to the upper regions of the charts. Though propelled in part by recommendations from Melody Maker ("a hard swinging modern R&B record") and New Musical Express ("the general atmosphere is exciting and tingling"), the single barely scraped into the U.K. Top 50, spending one week at #46.