I never see the people that I know, in the bright light of day

When I started writing this last week, it would have been half-relevant, but having quiveringly submitted it to the sub-editors savage pen, little of it survived the criss-cross of angry red slashes that ranged unchallenged across the page. (I know, there’ll be more than a few quizzical eyebrows raised at the concept of any sort of review and editing going on in this Blog, but believe me, my reputation would have been in tatters if all of the old bollocks that flowed from this mushy pen had been allowed to pass unchallenged…)

In truth, I’ve never been especially prolific, but right now my muse has not exactly disappeared – with the exception of government advisors, we know exactly where everyone is these days – but I suspect it too has not ventured from its front room sofa, no doubt binge-watching old Friends episodes, surrounded by empty packets of Haribo and cold mugs of hot chocolate with marshmallows.

Someone’s got to do it, though.

Phil May passed away last weekend, seemingly just another one in a gruesome procession of Hall of Fame deaths over the last few weeks.

The Pretty Things

It’s hard to write about bands that everyone’s heard of, particularly when you’ve been fond of them for years and have lost any sense of proportion; and any case there’s been loads of good writing about the Pretties in the last week or so (look for it yourself, what do you think this is?).

I suppose the first image we all have of the Pretty Things will be some of those mid-sixties, black and white clips, dominated by the Bo Diddley beat, the loose guitar of Dick Taylor and unfeasibly long hair of Phil May. People say that in post-war Britain a man singing and howling like May did and looking like one of the Ramones would’ve been considered something of a curio if it were not for the genuine threat to society that was appearing in the shape of the Rolling Stones. I’m guessing that in the only analogy that I can think of, the Stones and their like carried a threat and sparked a moral outrage that was only really comparable to that of the Pistols a little more than ten years later.

I don’t think the Pretty Things were taken as seriously as the others, though and, largely because of May’s looks and Taylor’s association with Jagger and Richard’s first band, have often been labelled as a poor man Stones – cartoonish and over the top. If the Stones are the Pistols, the Pretties are X Ray Specs.

You’ll be aware that I’m teeing this up to be smashed down with a triumphant flourish of my (mushy) pen, but much as I’ve always loved them, there’s an element of truth to this, particularly in the early days.

That doesn’t mean, though, that they didn’t produce some wonderful Nuggets-style thrashes. Witness this:

(And yes, that is a woman with a pet goat. No, not a clue…)


In modern parlance, a proper “banger”… and if you’re not blown away by it, you need to leave now. We can never be friends…

That’s as rough and, dare I say it, as punky as anything the Kinks or the Who did, and the Stones were nowhere near this at the time. Dick Taylor’s fuzz-tone is a thing of gruff splendour.

Once you’ve marvelled at the fuzz-tone, ogled May’s jacket and checked out the goat, the other highpoint of the show is drummer, Skip Alan’s… erm… eccentric and highly individual performance. The Pretties already had something of a tradition of wild man drummers, Alan being the second one, presumably having proved himself to be less erratic than his predecessor, Viv Prince. The going into the audience brandishing cymbal and stick mularkey was apparently a Viv Prince thing too, you can see it on the clip of the band in Holland at the notorious Blokker festival which also features some proper argy-bargy in the audience.

(Prince eventually left the band after a series of incidents with tear gas grenades which resulted in a life time ban from appearing in New Zealand – he was later a candidate for the Lord Such’s Monster Raving Loony Party and was reputedly ejected from a Hells Angels drinking party…)

May was known for his standout appearance and for his squealing, snarling vocal style, but here he tucks in behind Alan and the very underrated Dick Taylor. Taylor always looked a generation older than the rest of the spotty faced oiks about him, more like a trad jazz fan or a member of the Springfields, but at the time of this clip was an old-looking 22.

The first couple of albums are patchy but have moments of harsh brilliance and there was some real success for the band. The transition into psychedelia, however, was to be the end of all that, as for many bands of the time.

Which is actually strange. It’s all barkingly good…

The Pretty Things jumped gleefully into the counter-culture and I think you could say they “embraced” the alternative lifestyle. Some of their late sixties true psyche records are genuinely ambitious and mostly brilliant, certainly as good as any of their beat group chums and better than anything the Satanic Majesties-era Stones produced.

The other thing people know about the Pretty Things is that they were responsible for the first, pre-Tommy “Rock Opera” – SF Sorrow. The song-cycle is in truth a pretty ropey old device that hasn’t produced many moments to savour. I can’t be arsed with it most of the time, but SF Sorrow stands up reasonably well still with some great songs.

Here’s a couple of clips from that era, the first being “Private Sorrow”:


The character that May is looking at with ill-concealed contempt throughout this performance (and who presumably had to make his own way home after this) is none other than Twink.

Nominally the third Pretty Things drummer, John “Twink” Alder shows that the band had still not really bought into a Charlie Watts-type model of backseat efficiency. In fact, it’s clear that Twink was testing the bonds of his day-job, exploring the medium of “interpretative dance” and channelling his own Leo Sayer. It was the late-sixties, people barely batted an eyelid.

Here’s a clip of another track from the record, “Baron Saturday”, with Twink actually drumming (although still looning around and tellingly, front and centre):


Another cracking clip, again from a French TV show (always a bit of a give-away, a Top of the Pops slot clearly not forthcoming).

The use of tape loop and fading in and out of electronic “FX” was pretty unusual for the time, but it works well. The clip’s also pretty remarkable for the lead vocalist handing over vocals on this track to the guitarist, and not in a Carl Wayne “I’ll be off soon” sort of a way (May was still the chief lyricist). I’m also very keen on Taylor’s increasing geography-teacher-who’s-still-down-with-the-kids look.

Also at about this time, there was some sort of record label dispute which resulted in a series of recordings under an assumed name – the Electric Banana, (again, it’s the late sixties). These are also a patchy but occasionally brilliant bunch of songs. Again, there’s no British footage that I can find and with continental spots also drying up, it was left to a late-period Norman Wisdom to provide a turn for the Banana. There’s a good clip of them singing “Alexander” here, but I think I prefer the whole clip, as Wisdom ventures tentatively into the Screaming Apple discotheque:


Wisdom is a bank manager going through his own down-with-the-kids moment, following around a nubile Sally Geeson in a midlife-crisis, not at all creepy way. Spoiler alert: he does have a degree of improbable success with the girl, (and not just in a Strictly sense). In a similarly unlikely, life-reflecting-art-reflecting-life moment, May and Taylor recounted in a Guardian article how Wisdom and the band shared a joint in the dressing rooms after this scene. Mind-blowing…

The Pretty Things became increasingly a critics’ favourite sort of band, with a high-profile fans like Jimmy Page and Bowie helping them to continue releasing records. Eventually, they became drinking buddies of Hawkwind and the Pink Fairies, and disappeared into their own long dark tunnel of motorcycle gangs and West London squats. A decade long party you don’t return from unscathed, I’ll warrant.

There was however still time for one more cracking record, Parachute – a Rolling Stone record of the year, I believe, and one that was enthusiastically ignored by all and sundry. It didn’t sell well at all, and is still not well-known, which is a shame. It’s a record I’ve listened to a lot this last week or so, and it stands next to SF Sorrow as the peak of their career.

The fuzz-tone and Jerome Green maracas are, of course, long gone. The interpretative dance too has disappeared by then (Twink having disappeared to form a band with Steve Peregrine Took and Syd Barrett – just imagine…) and the Pretties have settled into their denim. But there are still strong songs and an increasing confidence in harmony and melody. It only became obvious as the band moved into their SF Sorrow phase that some of them could actually sing, produce harmonies and write accomplished songs.

There are a few clips of this era, although they’re all pretty hard rocking and don’t give us a full taste of the light and shade of this record. You’ll also notice that by this point Taylor had moved on (he rejoined later) and that again May had no problem sharing lead vocals. It’s another great song, uncluttered by whimsy, late-sixties foppery or, I suspect, any ambitions of returning to the Big Time.


Phil May – a lifetime, ogled and overlooked at the same time.

You can tell a good drummer because we… have four limbs… and they are… playing different things…

It feels like the irksome manacles of these weeks of Lockdown are beginning to rust and crumble and I wonder whether we’re really ready to venture out from our bunkers – pale, squinty-eyed, carrying a few extra pounds…

It has of course been a truly horrible, desperate time for many, many people, but over here we’ve been very lucky that it’s been nothing much more than an awkward, difficult period of enforced house arrest, interspersed with periods of taking my turn in the skeleton staff at school and sitting in the garden. So, rather than dwell on the greater tragedies and controversies of the age, (which in truth I’m ill-suited to write about – there’s no colloquial whimsy in 37,000 deaths…), there are a couple of things I’ll turn to.

There’s been quite a grim procession of losses to the world of music in these months, one of whom I’d been hoping to see a couple of weeks ago at the (long-since cancelled) Cheltenham Jazz Festival. At the age of age of 79, Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen has passed.

Tony Allen

As is often the case, I was only just cottoning on to the tentacle genius of the man, and was very much looking forward to seeing him in all his multi-limbed glory. I do like a drummer who takes his job seriously:



He really was as cool as fuck.

I was hoping to find some decent footage of Zombie-era Africa ’70 with Fela, but in most of the clips Allen is lost in the bewildering crowd of musicians onstage. You can hear his clipped, probing rhythms but you can’t see a lot of the man. So I’ve gone for something more recent – you’ll have to forgive the grinning white boys in pork pie hats (who can blame them? They’re playing with Tony Fuckin’ Allen…), because front and centre you can see the languid genius of a proper cornerstone legend. There’d have been no Afrobeat without him.

You can only applaud drummers in hats who barely break a sweat… (and the shirt /hat combo – oof!)

There’s another little tribute I need to pay too – I’ll be back, ooh, very soon….