Phil May. A man who in 1965 was hailed as “God” by a then unknown singer called David Bowie. The lead singer of The Pretty Things, for my money one of the greatest rock bands ever. No denying his passing today following complications from falling off a bike (NOT that damn “virus”) will not be noticed or heralded much on the odious world of social media, but being a renegade hero of mine, he well and truly deserves a tribute on this blog.
The Pretty Things were a band that ran from 1963 to 2018 with a handful of sabbaticals. They hit big in 1964 with “Don’t Bring Me Down” followed by a handful of smaller hits before disappearing completely from the singles charts in 1966. Phil May was an art student at the same college as Mick Jagger and he paired up with guitarist Dick Taylor, forever doomed to be remembered as being the man who quit The Rolling Stones before they became famous. Ever the rebel, May grew his hair longer than everybody else and along with Taylor, Brian Pendleton, John Stax and Vivian Andrews formed his own band citing Bo Diddley as their biggest influence hence their name. They set out to be louder, cruder and more outrageous than The Rolling Stones and when Andrews quit to be replaced by Vivian Prince as drummer just in time for their first recording session, The Pretty Things became viewed as the Anti-Christ. The Stones were provoking much outrage so when this lot was foisted upon an unsuspecting public, all hell broke loose.
Their debut single “Rosalyn” is thought by some to be the first garage rock single. I’m doubtful about that but no denying it is one of the most ferocious rockers of the 1960’s R+B era. There isn’t a wasted moment, a manic rush of energy with May screaming and pleading for all he was worth atop the crazed roar. Over the next two years, they were rarely out of the newspapers as the band got up to no good, living up to their image. Phil was bisexual, loved his booze and smoking funny substances and long before most he was dropping trips of LSD in 1965. It was symptomatic of May as once the 60’s ended, he switched his allegiance to Cocaine for a great many years. He got into trouble with the law on many occasions yet remained bloody minded and unrepentant.
Phil was gifted with a genuinely unique voice. Instantly recognisable on everything he ever sang. He could be the snarly angry bitter rock God and warm and tender on ballads but you always knew it was Phil May.
The first two Pretty Things albums are fine blasts of noisy R+B climaxing in 1966 with the heavily fuzz bassed single “Come See Me” and then, the band began changing direction and with a major line up change in 1967 which brought in Wally Waller and Jon Povey, The Pretty Things reinvented themselves as a psychedelic rock band. November 1967 had them making their debut with EMI with “Defecting Grey” – the most important record of my life.
It’s 1987. I was familiar with much of the 1964-1966 work, and owned some of those singles. I didn’t have much by way of pocket money and in a small indie record shop around the corner from me, I spotted a tape entitled “The Pretty Things 1967-1971” which collected together the 6 singles they released during their EMI era. I decided to give it a chance, took it home, popped on my headphones and hit PLAY. After 4 and a half minutes, I hit STOP and rewinded. What the FUCK was that I just heard? “Defecting Grey” was unlike any song I’d ever heard in my life up to that point. Started all droney, moody and dirgey, backward tapes enter then POW – an explosive riff and a crazed frenzied rock out which then dissolved back into the moodier stuff… this thing chopped and changed. It was like 4 songs chopped into one and done in a genuinely original manner. I fucking LOVED it. It proved to me that music could GO PLACES. By then the shit that was in the charts was slick, robotic monotonous crap and here was a record from 20 years earlier that had dared to rip up the rule book. It gave me many ideas and set the seeds for my own musical adventures that were just starting. Phil May was staunchly proud of that song and claimed it was “the first gay song” as it touched upon his own sexuality, chronicling some businessman flirting with homosexuality… not that lyrical content meant much to me as it would be another 20 years before I found out what the lyrics were, but fuck… I couldn’t and still can’t believe a band had the nerve and audacity to release a single like that.
It wouldn’t be till 29 years later that I managed to acquire my own copy of that single via eBay for just £17, a bargain, trust me and my most prized piece of 7 inch vinyl.
“Defecting Grey” alone is enough reason for Phil and The Pretty Things to forever be Gods in my books, but things grew ever more interesting. The follow up single “Talking About The Good Times” was a stunning weird piece of prime British psychedelia and the band were holed up in Abbey Road Studios hard at work on their next album. Released in November 1968, “S.F. Sorrow” was completely ignored. Phil May had only gone and written a short story which the band turned into the first true “rock opera” album. Oh, did I mention that all along they were continually ripped off by bad managers, agents and dealings? Commercially, the band meant fuck all but artistically, they were churning out work that was truly inventive as would be proved by their next album in 1970 – “Parachute” which was and remains their finest and maturest piece of work. Nobody was buying, let alone listening and 1971 saw the band split up for the first time, fed up by the apathy from everyone around them and lack of sales.
They reformed a few months later and went off in a more solid rock based direction which resulted in three albums before they split once again in 1976. My least fave period during which they finally appeared to gain some momentum in America but typical of their luck and the band’s cocaine habits, they blew it and it all collapsed in disarray when May refused to play a major gig at Wembley Arena which led to the rest of the band firing him. By then their manager was Peter Grant who made his allegiance known by siding with Phil and ditching the rest of the band who struggled on for half a year whilst Grant underfunded them out of existence.
In 1979 Warner Brothers gave Phil May £250,000 for a solo album. He swiftly blew the lot on Coke and with pitiful funds left over ended up recruiting his former band mates and knocked off an album on the cheap. Released in 1980 under The Pretty Things’ name “Cross Talk” was a real bolt out the blue as they turned in a full fledged – and convincing – New Wave album which stands up very well. Unsurprisingly, all wents tits up in classic Pretties style as Warners pressed up 100,000 copies of the album all of which were mispressed containing side one on both sides… momentum was lost during the chaos of recalling all stock and having to repress which was unfortunate as the lead single “I’m Calling” was gaining radio play. Another year, another fuck up and it led to yet another dissolution of the band.
For most of the 1980’s, Phil drifted around with Dick Taylor playing with pick up musicians as “The Pretty Things”. They were approached by a producer called Mark St John who had grand ideas. Proclaiming himself to be their biggest fan, he wanted them to reform with their “classic” line up and start kicking ass again. It took a lot longer than he expected and St John took it upon himself to act on the band’s behalf on legal proceedings against EMI and Phonogram who owned – and continued to exploit – their classic 60’s works. The early 90’s were spent in litigation and remarkably in 1994, St John and The Pretty Things won the legal battles which not only led to them reforming with their late 60’s line up but also won back their masters and copyrights.
From then on, The Pretty Things remained an ongoing concern, forever gigging, occasionally hooking up with celebrity pals for odd gigs and slowly reminding many of how bloody great they were. Into his 60’s in spite of health issues and his drug laced past, Phil May managed to sound as good as he did in his heyday. Unfortunately, time was catching up with him and in 2014 was hospitalised with a bad case of emphysemia. He recovered but his voice and energy fell into slow decline. In 2018 with his health not improving, it was decided to bring The Pretty Things saga to an end and they bowed out at the end of the year with a glorious farewell gig for which they were joined by David Gilmour and Van Morrison… not exactly stars who guest with anybody.
The plan was Phil would perform occasional acoustic shows with Dick Taylor and in March or April this year there was to be an event premiering the film of their farewell gig. Yeah, it got cancelled due to some idiot virus scare…
Funny… just crossed my mind. Phil died of complications after breaking his hip thanks to falling off a bike. One other star I can recall who also died following falling off a bike was Nico, another musician/singer I hugely admire who also did things “her way” and was doomed to live in a bizarre obscure existence… Phil May should had been a household name. There is actually evidence that he was his own worst enemy and deliberately fucked up his own career by refusing to do certain gigs or deals which potentially would have given him wider exposure, but when all was said and done, he didn’t care. He lived life at his own speed under his own rules… not a recipe recommended for others to emulate, but the guy leaves behind a fascinating legacy I will always treasure and in “Defecting Grey” gave me a template for music I follow to this day.