I’m really sad to report that Phil May lead singer of the legendary Pretty Things has died. Phil passed away at 7.05am on Friday 15 May at the Queen Elizabeth hospital, Kings Lynn, Norfolk. He was 75. 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.
Phil had been in poor health for some time when the Pretty Things played their last live concert, ‘The Final Bow’, on 13 December 2018 at the Indigo, O2 where they were joined onstage by old friends David Gilmour and Van Morrison.
He leaves behind his son, Paris May, his daughter, Sorrel May and his partner, Colin Graham.
A number of people have asked for an obituary, but I would find it hard to put into words the life of a man, who along with his partner in crime Dick Taylor had been part of my musical life, part of my soundtrack since the early sixties. They were always the bad boys of rock, Indeed when I filmed an interview with Dick Taylor, my wife Vivien was my mic operator and she told Dick that her first act of teenage rebellion had been bunking off to see them perform at Alexandra Palace, it made his day as it so fitted with their image.
The best person to tell you about Phil is Phil. In 2007 I heard that the Pretty Things, who apparently never stopped gigging, had a new album out – Balboa Island. I was commissioned to photograph and interview them for the Sunday Express, with a colleague of mine, Tony Bushby. This is that interview, and it’s worth adding that it was scheduled to last for 30 minutes, but we were there, shooting the breeze, for over three hours.
Left out the tube station, two minutes down the road and on the opposite side a small cafe. Explicit instructions from an intermediary for a midday rendezvous with two legendary rockers.
There are those who, ditching their bus passes in the dressing room pull in the crowds purely on the strength of having been a hit parader of the 60’s and 70’s. But this pair are different, awarded star status for their music,as opposed to their commercial success, by the critics who really matter, their contemporaries and musical successors.
Having CV’s that to-day merit at least a lifetime’s ASBO it was just a touch disappointing on peering down the long straight L shaped eatery not to spot anyone behaving badly. “Looking for someone” enquired a pony tailed middle aged man in shorts , gestured towards a figure, tucking into his late breakfast.
With open necked shirt, black leather coat, collar length hair, casual, but far from unkempt, surely this egg and bacon man couldn’t be….At which point one of the greatest Rock singers of all time–David Bowie listed him under the name God in his address book– half rose from the bench seat. Arm outstretched for a handshake he quietly announced “Phil May, nice to meet you.”. Moments later, right on cue in strolled guitarist Dick Taylor ..
What a moment for the memory bank. The two founding members of Britain’s most notorious group, ‘The Pretty Things’…and looking at them who would ever believe it. Once acclaimed as having the longest hair in the land May – he used to iron and sit on it -now sports the looks of what he is, an accomplished middle aged artist.
Whereas Taylor, one of the original Rolling Stones, as a schoolboy Mick Jagger used pop round to ‘jam ‘ at Taylor’s parents’ Dartford, Kent home, could pass as a retired and most genial science or classics master from one of the better schools.
Yet within months of Dick deciding to form his own group, with Phil as his first recruit back in 1964 ,they were creating a reputation for ground breaking sound and being second to none for illegal and outlandish behaviour both off and on stage.
It wasn’t just their looks, or Phil’s ‘camp’ like stage performances but the drug taking, drinking, womanising and subsequent court appearances that gave them the name of the real bad boys of rock.. Predictably the Establishment and the nation’s parents of teenage children screamed the house down for them to be banned and then the virtually impossible happened ……Mick Jagger agreed they were right. After hearing Phil sing when the group’s first appeared on 60’s TV’s ‘Ready ,Steady Go, Jagger, in a backhanded compliment declared:”He’s just too f…..ing pretty. He’s dangerous.!”
Allegedly he promptly dispatched his managers to pressurise the show’s bosses into never inviting the Pretty Things back.. and they never did. Being barred like this would have been a major set-back for any other group but for these rebels from the Dagenham Delta, it became a battle honour to be worn with pride.
“Yes, great days and we enjoyed life. We were into everything and we did it before anyone else.We had great “trips” other drugs, drinking, women and we got up to a few other things which got us into trouble”,recalled Phil. “We were the bad boys, the really bad boys but we didn’t care.We had working class backgrounds, not middle class like the Stones,” he added.
With their art student backgrounds Dick and Phil adopted the mantle of being more outrageous than any other group, especially the Stones with a degree of ease and pleasure. But though their music won plaudits–they were to produce the first rock opera– the public criticism began to take effect and record sales dipped.
“We didn’t worry. Record companies and all that didn’t matter.We were playing our music, and having a great time,that was all we cared about ” said Dick. Was it true that he had roared around central London with Brian Jones ,both “high” in his Bentley with Judy Garland and ballet dancer Rudi Nuryev..and all ended up sharing a bed in the Dorchester Hotel. “Yes” says Phil it was “the blind leading the f….ing blind.” As the empty coffee cups stacked up the group’s other misfortunes came back to life. Their record of 27 shows standing in the dock in courts in one year. Fights and rioting fans,more brushes with the law and public outrage. Their entire advance payment being blown in a matter of days after arriving in the US on tour. And being given a lifetime ban–still in force — from New Zealand after one of the group set fire to a rotting crayfish in a paper bag while they were on an internal flight. Bob Dylon coming over in ’66’ , desperate to see,hear and talk with them.A meeting he later immortalised later on ‘Tombstone Blues’
Over the years one or other of the band has left for a spell, done other things and then been welcomed back. “We have all drifted off at various times for one reason or another but never over a row”, explained Phil as Dick nods in agreement. The line up to-day is the same as it was 41 years ago with the exception of new boy guitarist Frank Holland who joined in 1992
An informal continuity enabling them to adapt their music for new audiences whilst never dismissing R and B ,their original inspiration. Just returned from successful shows in Paris and Germany they are soon off on a major US tour promoting their latest analogue recorded CD, Balboa Island, after playing one of their rare British gigs (Clarendon Hall,Twickenham Nov. 30). But has it all been worthwhile?Where are the trappings normally associated with Rock Stars, the millionaire lifestyle, luxury cars and a portfolio of homes around the globe.
Dick,64, whose settled down on the Isle of Wight is quick to reply:”Look you can always say’If only I or we had …but it gets you nowhere because if we’had’ who knows how things would have turned out.” Phil still an unrepentant rebel at 62 fighting the anti smoking law with his own”All Light Up” website agrees. Slipping outside to a pavement table for a smoke he reveals how, despite their turbulent and potentially mental and physically punishing lifestyles, they are all still going strong.
“Right from the beginning we have given 80 per cent to music and all that goes with it and kept 20 per cent for ourselves to do other things out of the spotlight. “That is the . the secret of our survival and don’t forget, Mick Jagger was right to say we were dangerous… we still are.”
©Paul Stewart ab=nd Tony Bushby 2007