Educated alongside The Rolling Stones (guitarist Dick Taylor attended Sidcup College with Keith Richards), and covered by Bowie (Rosalyn on Pin-Ups), The Pretty Things were better than beat-era also-rans, but their looks counted against them (think the England rugby squad with bouffant coiffs), despite their tough sound, needling guitars and Phil May’s sex-starved yelp.
Boasting a widescreen production from EMI staff producer Norman ‘Hurricane’ Smith (fresh from his work with The Beatles and Pink Floyd), their 1967 single Defecting Grey skillfully incorporated a fragile harpsichord waltz with swathes of fuzz guitar and backwards sitar to create one of the definitive examples of the British studio psych sound.
Dick Taylor later expanded on the band’s modus operandi during arguably the most creative phase of their existence: “Our basic principle was that if it made a noise, we would bring it into the studio and our producer, Norman Smith, would find a way to incorporate it into a track”.
Defecting Grey reinvigorated the band’s career after the unconvincing Emotions, but ultimately it failed to reverse their commercial fortunes, which had been in steady decline for a year or two. By the time the single appeared in the shops, the band were at Abbey Road to record their next 45, Talkin’ About The Good Times – another glorious lysergic flop.
A brief recording hiatus ensued before The Pretty Things spent the bulk of 1968 desultorily recording the equally epic S.F. Sorrow, one of the finest albums to emerge from the period and a significant influence on Pete Townshend‘s magnum opus, Tommy.
By 1969 the group was on its knees and drummer Viv Prince embarked on a brief solo career before an unhappy association with the Hell’s Angels. Though the band’s most experienced musician, his dedicated unreliability sweetened the pill of his passing.
Dick Taylor threw in the towel in 1969 but the group soldiered on until, after a US tour supporting The Kinks in 1976, there was a three-year lay-off until a reformation for a solitary Dutch concert sponsored by a fan. The gig was stimulating enough that the band decided to give it another go.
The early 1990s were taken up with a battle against EMI over unpaid royalties stemming back to a deal EMI set up with Motown subsidiary Rare Earth in 1968.
The band never received any royalties from Rare Earth nor had received any monies from EMI for many years.
The band won the legal case, the result being that in 1993 EMI gave them back all their master tapes, copyrights and an undisclosed sum of money as settlement.
In recent years, The Pretty Things have performed live supporting the likes of The White Stripes, Kasabian and Bruce Springsteen. They released a live album, Live at The 100 Club, in 2014 to mark their 50th anniversary.
Original guitarist Brian Pendleton died of lung cancer on 16 May 2001 in Maidstone. Keyboard player Gordon Edwards died of a drug overdose in 2002.
Phil May passed away on 15 May 2020 from complications following hip surgery after a cycling accident. He was 75.