Phil May was one of the originators of the British rock sound of the 1960s: equal parts R&B, psychedelia and hard-driving rock & roll. He fronted The Pretty Things, a band that, with a break here or there, could have been as big as the Stones and Animals. Despite traveling just below the level of superstardom for 55 years, they never slowed down. Last year, they announced they’d reached the end of the road. And on May 15, Phil May left us for good.
Some not so pretty news just arrived: Phil May, frontman of The Pretty Things, died on May 15, while recuperating from surgery after a bicycle accident.
The Pretty Things were one of the first of the great British R & B-influenced rock bands, contemporaries and rivals of the Rolling Stones and the Animals, and the frenetic May was one of the main reasons. He would go on to influence the Who, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, and David Bowie (who reportedly listed him as ‘God’ in his address book). May was infamous for having the longest hair in the U.K., for his bisexuality, and for his later influence on Bowie, who was said to study his stage presence and who would record covers of two Pretty Things’ songs on his Pin Ups album.
The Pretty Things were one of the best British groups of the ‘60s that didn’t make it in the United States. Their 1968 album S.F. Sorrow is hailed as one of the first concept albums, supposedly inspiring the Who’s Tommy. In the Sixties, The Pretty Things’ performance on the British television show Ready Steady Go! was so phenomenal that (according to then co-manager Tony Calder) Mick Jagger didn’t want the band to return. “He’s just too fucking pretty…” Jagger said of May “…he’s dangerous.”
“We were incompetent reprobates,” chuckled Taylor. “It was thrash R&B.”
Phil May, born Philip Arthur Dennis Kattner, was raised by his aunt and uncle in Dartford, Kent. The surname ‘May’ was adopted from his aunt and uncle who raised him. May attended Sidcup Art College in London, where he met Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Dick Taylor, who was playing lead guitar for Little Boy Blue and The Blue Boys, Jagger and Richard’s group. After being demoted to playing bass, Taylor left the group and in 1963 joined with Phil May to form a band of their own. Devoted fans of rhythm and blues, they christened themselves The Pretty Things after a Willie Dixon single that was recorded by Bo Diddley.
The group consisted of rhythm guitarist Brian Pendleton, bassist John Stax, and Pete Kitley on drums. Kitley was soon replaced by Viv Andrews, and Viv, at the suggestion of co-manager Jimmy Duncan was replaced by Vivian Prince, the maniacal drummer who Keith Moon modeled his style after. Shortly after the group formed, with the help of their manager Bryan Morrison, things began to take off. In 1964, their single “Rosalyn” reached number 41 on the UK charts, and “Don’t Bring Me Down” climbed the charts to number 10.
Quite a few musicians strived to emulate their favorite bluesmen, but it was clear that The Pretty Things were doing the opposite. May recalled to The Guardian’s Alex Petridis, it was “as if it were written in stone and you can’t fuck with the Bible. We were incompetent reprobates,” chuckled Taylor. “It was thrash R&B.”
While I’m a huge fan of the Rolling Stones, journalist Chris Morris is right on the money when he says that The Pretty Things had “A noise that made the early Stones sound like tea-sippers.” Apparently their ‘noise’ was so offensive that “Don’t Bring Me Down” was censored, and eventually banned from all U.K. radio stations within three weeks – but that didn’t stop people from buying their albums. While the group was popular in the United Kingdom, they were not destined for international fame. Their first two albums hadn’t been released in the U.S., and were not being played on the air, so a tour was out of the question. May believed that their lack of exposure in the United States was probably a blessing.
He once said, “If we’d had gotten to America, and had the same effect in America that we were having in Europe, I think we’d be dead, we would have been finished. It would have been too much to take on board.”
The band was already partway down the road toward self-destruction. All of the members were indulging in booze and drugs, and the recalcitrant Viv Prince made touring difficult, given his unpredictable and destructive behavior on the road. On April 19, 1965, The Pretty Things played the Blokker Festival in Holland, and it was a disaster.
According to May, “…it was absolute mayhem. Battle charges with the police. They blacked out the second half of it on television, because the church complained about us being immoral. When we drove back from Blokker, we got into Amsterdam at night, and people were coming up to the car and shaking our hand. They’d seen the first half on television.” That same year, the group embarked on an Australian tour which didn’t end well. It had gotten to the point where Viv Prince was drinking a bottle of whiskey a day, and had made quite a scene after using a teargas gun that he had somehow acquired in Germany.
In a 1999 interview with Richie Unterberger, May said, “We were sort of novice lunatics. But then suddenly they hand us, like, the high priest of lunacy. And we all caught on very fast. In fact, we had to sack him [Viv Prince] because he was so bad in the end. We couldn’t finish a concert. When we sacked him, it was because he refused to play because he’d been in the pub over the road from the gig. The gig’s packed out. They wouldn’t serve him a beer. And all the people who were drinking were from the gig. They could drink and he couldn’t, [so] he wasn’t going to play for them. It’s not the kids’ fault.”
The press and the concert promoters were appalled when May made a political statement concerning the treatment of the country’s Maori population. Eventually, the group was banned from New Zealand after setting fire to a bag of rotting crayfish on the plane. Perhaps due to the tear gas gun incident, Prince was fired by the time they cut their second album Get the Picture in December, and replaced by Skip Alan.
Much like the Stones, The Pretty Things attempted to pen some new material, rather than solely focus on cover songs. Following the release of Get the Picture, their single “Honey I Need” peaked at number 13, while “Cry to Me” reached number 28. In a contrast to their chart topping hits, their song “L.S.D.” was banned by the BBC. The band thought this was absurd, and claimed the song was called “£.S.D.” in a reference to the currency used in the U.K.
Over the next two years, the band lineup changed drastically. Brian Pendleton left in December of 1966 and was replaced by Billy Harrison from the group ‘Them’ and John Stax left the following year. Soon after, Jon Povey and Wally Waller (of Bern Elliott and the Fenmen) joined the group. After their third album, Emotions was released in 1967, The Pretty Things signed to Colombia Records, most likely because the executives at Fontana Records were pushing them in a musical direction where they never intended to go.
In late 1967, the band began to work on their fourth studio album, S.F. Sorrow. The album was recorded at Abbey Road Studios and engineered by Norman Smith, who had worked with The Beatles and Pink Floyd. In an interview with Richie Unterberger, May recalled “We wanted to work at Abbey Road. When we met Norman and went up to Abbey Road, it was like a fait accompli. We just felt we’d found home. It was our home for the next…quite a while. We practically lived there. We had unlimited studio time. Which for us, at the time, was better than money. We’d go through to six o’clock the next day. I mean, till the engineers, till the technical people couldn’t stand up anymore. That’s the only reason why it stopped. Because we had drugs, we could have gone, we’d do three days on what we were on. So we had no problem.”
At the time, May had been taking acid, which explains why the band’s sound bordered on the psychedelic. “Acid changed my life,” said May “I saw things in a completely different way. The actual visual experience of being on a trip was stimulating. I found I could control what was going on at a certain point…” During the recording of their album, the band employed a plethora of instruments, from the sitar, to a Mellotron that belonged to The Beatles. The lineup for this production included Phil May on vocals, Dick Taylor on lead guitar and vocals, Wally Waller on bass, guitar, vocals, wind instruments and piano, Jon Povey on organ, sitar, Mellotron, percussion and vocals, and drummer Skip Alan, who was later replaced by Twink.
May was influenced by classical opera, and wanted their latest album to have a story, thus creating a fictional character called Sebastian F. Sorrow. The album documented his journey, fixating on the themes of birth, love and death. Does this sound familiar? A rock opera? S.F. Sorrow had a major impact Peter Townshend of The Who, who released Tommy a year later. Unlike The Pretty Things’ earlier albums, S.F. Sorrow was released in the States, oddly enough, on Rare Earth, a division of Motown Records. Talk about an album being poorly marketed.
Upon the album’s completion, Dick Taylor announced that he was leaving the group. “I left at the very final note of SF Sorrow.” says Taylor. “In the interim I left to see what else was out there. It was no big blob with the band, I just wanted to see what else I could do. And to be honest, I got bored. After I left I didn’t play for a few years. Then one day I went to see the Clash, for a laugh. And I thought, “yeah, I like this.” With or without Taylor, The Pretty Things trudged onward. Taylor was replaced by Vic Unitt of the Edgar Broughton Band, and the group’s next album, Parachute, became the Rolling Stone Album of the Year in 1970.
“If we’d had gotten to America, and had the same effect in America that we were having in Europe, I think we’d be dead, we would have been finished. It would have been too much to take on board.”
By 1974, The Pretty Things were financially strapped. They wanted to record another album, but it seemed unlikely that Abbey Road Studios would be supplying them with more free studio time. The Pretty Things were all for creating a new sound, and upon hearing that the group was planning to record a hard rock album, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, who now had an imprint called Swan Song, decided that the band should be signed to their label. Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant, on the other hand, deemed the band unmanageable. According to May, “Peter said to me: ‘Fuck off. Your ex-manager’s already said you’re unmanageable and I’ve got Led Zeppelin. I need you like a fucking hole in the head.’”
Despite Grant’s protests, The Pretty Things were signed to Swan Song. They were officially the second act (after Bad Company) to be signed to the label, and their album Silk Torpedo, came out before Zeppelin’s first release on their own label, Physical Graffiti. While there were no hit singles on Silk Torpedo, it ranked number 104 on the U.S. charts, making it their highest chart position in the States. The release of the band’s next album, Savage Eye, led to another tour, but it was evident that May had reached his breaking point. At a show at Wembley Stadium supporting Uriah Heep in 1976, he decided to quit the group. That same year, May formed Phil May and the Fallen Angels, led by guitarist Mickey Finn, Greg Ridley (Spooky Tooth), Twink Adler (The Pretty Things) and Bob Weston (Fleetwood Mac). The finished self-titled album, was released in the Netherlands, and did not enjoy any commercial success.
The 80s and 90s are often referred to as The Pretty Things’ ‘Wilderness Years’, as the band lineup, and the producers were constantly changing. In 1994, The Pretty Things hired a new manager, Mark St. John, who sued EMI and Phonogram for unpaid royalties and rights to the band’s back catalogue. With Mark St. John serving as their producer, the group was soon able to release a new album, entitled …Rage Before Beauty, in 1999. Returning to their blues roots, the album featured David Gilmour and Ronnie Spector.
In 2008, Mike Stax, founder and editor of the music magazine Ugly Things came across some acetates that the Pretty Things had recorded for wealthy Frenchman Philippe DeBarge in 1969. According to Stax, “A collector in Finland, Jorma Saarikangas, contacted me in 2008 to tell me he’d found an acetate of the Philippe DeBarge album. Prior to that, the only copy known to exist was Phil’s, which he’d given away to a fan back in the ’70s. Copies of that one had circulated on cassette tape among fans, and later on a bootleg CD, but the quality was poor. It was in mono, and there were a couple of skips. Jorma’s copy was in stereo and in excellent condition. I approached Phil May and Wally Waller from the band about doing an official vinyl and CD release on Ugly Things Records. They agreed. Jorma kindly supplied a professional transfer, and Mike Kamoo did the sound restoration at his Earthling Studios.”
The Pretty Things / Philippe DeBarge was released in 2009.
Despite the hardships that the band incurred, and their ever-changing lineup, The Pretty Things continued to tour. In 2014, May was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and emphysema. During this time, Mike Stax, a friend and fan of May’s, released a statement on the Ugly Things website encouraging fans to send May letters of encouragement.
Stax recalled, “Phil told me on several occasions how much those letters helped him get through his illness. Doctors had told him that he would die within a few months if he didn’t change his lifestyle, especially giving up a 2-pack a day smoking habit that he’d had since he was a teenager. Lots of fans rallied to write letters, and Phil was really surprised and moved by the response. He told me some of the letters were tender and personal, while others were quite strident, telling him that he’d better not die on them or else.”
Luckily, May did recover, and in 2015, he was on tour with the Pretty Things and recording a new album. Their final studio album The Sweet Pretty Things (Are in Bed Now of Course), features May and Dick Taylor, and includes a new version of Turn My Head, a previously unreleased track that was recorded for a John Peel Session in 1967.
In 2018, 55 years after their first live performance, the Pretty Things announced their farewell tour. According to their manager Mark St. John, Phil’s health was declining, and the grueling tour schedules and long travel days proved to be too taxing on him. “After a lot of soul-searching, they have called “Time” on a phenomenal roller coaster of a career and a mythological life of music, mayhem, and magnificence…” reflected St. John.
On December 13, 2018, The Pretty Things played their last show, The Final Bow at London’s Indigo at the O2. They were joined on stage by Dave Gilmour who played on five songs, including “Baron Saturday” (from the SF Sorrow album) and “L.S.D.”, and Van Morrison, who played a few Bo Diddley numbers.
The Pretty Things – Rosalyn (Live in Copenhagen, May 2nd, 2018)
Despite his efforts to turn his lifestyle around, Phil May died on May 15 at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Kings Lynn, Norfolk. According to a statement from the band’s management, “He had been locked down in Norfolk with his family and, during the week, Phil had suffered a fall from his bike and had undergone emergency hip surgery, after which complications set in.” He was 75 years old. May is survived by his son, Paris May, his daughter, Sorrel May, and his partner, Colin Graham.
May is no longer with us, but he will be remembered for his groundbreaking work, and creating one of the first concept albums. Through the years, The Pretty Things’ songs have been covered by Bowie, and musicians from Dave Gilmour to Joey Ramone have cited him as a major influence on their music. They may have been deemed ‘unmanageable’ from the start, but without their sense of disorder, psychedelia and chaos, S.F. Sorrow would never have been released, and the term ‘rock opera’ may never have become a concept.
“I find bucket lists laughable. But I’ve had an interesting life. I’ve travelled a lot. If someone said, ‘You’re doing Glastonbury next week, I’d probably reply, ‘Okay.’” – Phil May (in an interview with Classic Rock magazine, 2015)
The Pretty Things setlist, December 13, 2018 (their final show at indigo at The O2, London, England:
The Pretty Things (with special guests Arthur Brown and David Gilmour) perform their 1968 psychedelic masterpiece ‘S.F. Sorrow’ at Abbey Road in September 1998.