I am shocked and devastated today to receive news that Phil May has left us, at the age of 75. It seems he suffered complications after hip surgery due to having taken a fall with his bike.
His anti-authoritarian way of life is more relevant now than ever. In honour of his memory, I am posting an interview I did with him back in 2015. It was originally published in Japanese music magazine Strange Days #186, pages 55-62, May (of course!) 2015.
The English text is the originally submitted manuscript, and the images display the somewhat edited Japanese article.
Interview and article: Michael Bjorn
The Pretty Things seem to always have been slightly out of step with everything: musical tastes, image fashions, audiences, and record companies. Their history is one of near misses and lost opportunities. Yet, with records like “SF Sorrow” and “Parachute” they must be counted among the true greats. Now they are back with a massive box set with all albums, 45 hitherto unreleased rarities and a DVD with rare live performances and videos, which in true Pretty Things style misses their 50th anniversary and instead celebrates their 51st!
We talk to Phil May who is the only member who has been with the band for all those years to understand more.
It must be kind of shocking to see your whole lifetime in a box like this?
Phil: It is quite shocking. My young granddaughters saw one of the videos on it, and said: “Grandpa, why are you behaving so crazily?” Ha ha! There are things on the box that probably not even my kids are aware of – it will probably be quite a shock to them too!
People like Joey Ramone have credited you as the first garage band. Ending up with a big expensive box set like this is a bit of an irony, I suppose?
Phil: You are the first person that’s drawn attention to that fact! I am also writing a book at the moment, and there is a lot of sleaze in there – you can’t really wrap that up in cellophane!
People thought that the Beatles had long hair – but looking at some of the videos in the box, you were in a different league.
Phil: Yeah – and even the Rolling Stones got worried because we had taken their ground. Apparently Mick Jagger and Andrew Loog Oldham – as businessmen – could see the pitch they had made being undermined. Therefore they pulled rank and got us taken off “Ready Steady Go”.
As I understood it, they managed to get you thrown out of everything at BBC radio?
Phil: Obviously, they left no stone unturned. Vicky Wickham, the producer, Oldham and Jagger, they were all pals. Whether they had influence in other places, or if it was just the threat of not giving them first choice of playing a Stones single, I don’t know. But there was a lot of blackmail and stuff going on in the record industry.
The “£.s.d.“ track that was on the “Pretty Things on Film” EP and also as B-side to “Come See Me” was banned of course.
Phil: Yes. The Pharmaceutical Society of Britain said we were promoting the use of a dangerous drug, and the BBC immediately banned it. We put the pounds, shillings and pence sign on it – but it was only tongue-in-cheek, we had no illusions that it would fool anybody. But I think it is like sex – it is more dangerous if you don’t talk about it.
Drugs were beginning to be part of life. I was one of the people who was incredibly lucky and had fantastic trips; I have never had a bad one. You know, I really wrote “SF Sorrow” on it and for me it was a fantastic tool for my writing.
But for a lot of people it was devastating. We had a guy who did the light show, but some nights he couldn’t even tell us apart from the other bands that were playing. Poor Mike the Light, I am sure he went through the rest of his life several sandwiches short of a picnic.
“£.s.d.” was funnier than the Kinks – but ironically you were then forced to do a Kinks song.
Phil: Through Mick Avery or Ray or David, I had heard some really nice Kinks songs and doing a Kinks song was discussed between us. But then the record company took over. They got some of Ray’s demos from the publisher, and even though I said “No, fuck it, these aren’t the songs I listened to” they thought “House in the Country” was good.
The whole thing was bullshit to us. As you say, it was ironic! You get hoisted on your own petard!
Recording “SF Sorrow” at Abbey Road at the same time as the Pink Floyd and the Beatles must have been quite an experience.
Phil: Because of the Beatles being in the building, we were trapped in for about 14 hours at a time by about 200 screaming school girls, who surrounded the building every day.
Abbey Road had this dreadful canteen, where you put half a crown in so you could open a little window, and it would be a sausage or a meal even. It was so disgusting that there were loads of food fights. It got to a kind of anarchy about the food situation.
But it wasn’t all about the food: Lennon would always stick his head round the door every time he came in, and have a little listen. And, you know, we walked down the corridor and the door would open and it would be “Bungalow Bill”; or you would bump into Eric Clapton in the canteen who had this strange triad relationship with Patty and George.
Speaking of relationships, in the middle of recording “SF Sorrow”, your drummer Skip Alan went off to marry a French woman who had just been divorced.
Phil: Unbelievable, ha ha! She was very nice, Christine, a kind of femme fatale, more than twice his age probably. He had to try it – and I certainly wasn’t going to stop him, even though we were in the middle of recording. At the time we didn’t know it would be one of the most important musical statements we would make.
And this happened because you were not in the studio all the time.
Phil: We had no money. EMI had given us a £ 3.500 advance for the album, which was a joke. According to our manager Bryan Morrison, we owed more than that, so the advance disappeared. To feed ourselves and keep our families together, we had to go to work. We would do five days in the studio, and go off to Germany to do a couple of festivals. Then we’d come back on so on.
After Dick Taylor had left, in the summer of -69, you recorded the Philippe DeBarge sessions.
Phil: Philippe came along somewhere to a gig and introduced himself, he was the son of a millionaire. And he said: “I want to make a record”. First, we didn’t want to be bothered just for some rich person’s ego. But, when we got to know him, we realised he wanted music really badly. He was a very nice guy and he had a kind of naivety about him and a sophistication, it was kind of an odd cocktail. He ended up becoming a very good friend and my daughter’s godfather, and therefore it was a pleasurable thing.
The sessions were recorded at Nova Studios in London. Did you ever go to France with DeBarge?
Phil: We went to his parents’ wonderful place in St. Tropez, before the sessions. We would hang out by the pool, getting stoned and talking about the album; Wally and I were starting to write things and get a feel for what Philippe was and what he could portray.
One evening, all the family would go in to St. Tropez for dinner. And this garage opens – there’s a Rolls Royce 1837 with quilted seats; a Mercedes, a Ferrari, there’s a Lamborghini. The old man, he was 65, went in black leather on this Harley Davidson; we went in the 1850 Genevieve or whatever it was, an extraordinary thing.
When we got to the quay in St. Tropez, there was no car parking, but we just got out of the car and left it. When we were halfway through our meal the police came – but they said “Oh, monsieur DeBarge, no problem.” Then the meal finishes, and we get up and walk out – nothing as disgusting as having a bill disturb the meal. It was just sent on later.
Quite funny – and when you are stoned, a lot of those things become even more humorous.
How did you record the songs?
Phil: We would do the track, and vocally I would sing it. Philippe, who was staying at the Hilton in London, would take a little cassette of my vocal, and the next day, he would come in and do it verbatim. We made the record like we were the Pretty Things. Serious stuff – it wasn’t a playboy’s toy. There was a need to make another record, so I wouldn’t say it was the finest bit of writing – but there are some really nice songs on it. And they were songs that in some ways had to suit Philippe.
A couple of the Philippe DeBarge tracks came from the Electric Banana records you had made.
Phil: Yeah, we had another source of income, which was very important to us, to keep us going. We made the dreadful Norman Wisdom film “What’s Good For the Goose” while we were writing “SF Sorrow”. While we were waiting to go on the film set, luckily, we used the time to write.
Some of the Electric Banana stuff is pretty good. How come it is not on the box set?
Phil: The Electric Banana discs were meant to be sent out to directors at TV companies who might be looking for source material for film. But some young kids started nicking them in De Wolfe’s stock room and sold them to record buyers. The recordings started to get a reputation, which was a bit worrying as we were signed up at the time and were working illegally. That’s why we had to use a pseudonym.
Then De Wolfe started putting it out as the Pretty Things, and we stopped them. They weren’t very nice people to deal with all the way along the line, and they paid us peanuts. We’ve had a quite torrid legal time with them. I think it’s been sour grapes, really.
You then lived communally at Westbourne Terrace, where you recorded demos both before and after “Parachute” that are included on the box.
Phil: Yeah, I was living with Gaia Mitchell who was a top model, she got me in there. Then a room became available and I got Wally in there because it was very useful when we were working on “Parachute”. We’d be writing and at around 1 o’clock I’d go and get into bed. But Wally stayed on and would be screaming at the top of his voice at 4 o’clock in the morning – and the whole house would go “What the fuck is going on!?!” We were working with a Teac reel-to-reel tape machine and had headphones when we were doing the vocals, so others didn’t hear the music. It was hilarious because you were only hearing these abruptly screamed vocals!
When you quit the Pretty Things in 1976, in the summer you went and stayed with your wife and Daughter on Philippe DeBarge’s houseboat on the Seine.
Phil: I was there for about 8 or 9 days, that’s all. And then I was in constant contact with Jimmy Page and Peter Grant and Robert Plant, who said they wanted the band back together. I went to see the band and they said they preferred to carry on as Metropolis without me.
I think the wound was very deep and what also really contributed was the kind of drug abuse that was going on through those American years and the years with the launch of Swan Song. A lot of stuff was done that wasn’t good for relationships at all. It is no surprise under all those pressures that the band broke up.
It seems you are picking up quite young audiences these days.
Phil: Yeah, we are, it is fantastic. God knows where they picked up on the music and how they got there. But it’s great because we have moved on, we are not like the Animals or even the Yardbirds who haven’t moved on.
Are you working on something now?
Phil: We’ve got a new studio album being mastered as we speak and is coming out this spring. I’ve done the artwork for the cover, and it is called “The Sweet Pretty Things (Are In Bed Now, Of Course…)” which is from Bob Dylan’s Tombstone Blues. We once spent a day together with Dylan and then forever after when he came to London, we were always away. So we kept getting these messages from him but we never saw him again.