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A tribute to one of the greatest “cult” bands of all time, which featured lead singer and songwriter Phil May, Rock and Roll’s first true bisexual frontman. #bivisibilityday #britishinvasion #garagerock #psychedelic #guitarrock
I found out about the amazing history of The Pretty Things in a very roundabout way, as I am certain many others do who weren’t around during their initial Swinging London period of brief commercial success. I was at the library, and reading a book about Led Zeppelin. Guitar legend Jimmy Page was quoted about how amazing The Pretty Things were, a group he had signed to his Swan Song label, and was disappointed their albums weren’t selling well.
The library didn’t have any recordings in their collection of the band. Undaunted, I went to the one place I thought would have some: the radio station I interned at. I asked one of the male DJ’s there about the band. He looked at me strangely, and then said, “Oh yeah, that band with the queer lead singer. Won’t play that shit. It’s bad enough I gotta play that faggot Bowie.”
Mind you, this was a rock radio station that once described itself as “progressive” and “underground”. Like the British heavy rock band UFO once sang, “Oh my, how the times have changed.”
That singer was Phil May. He fronted The Pretty Things, a band whom, at the time, were reported to have the longest hair of any male act in England in the early 1960’s. Dick Taylor, the original guitarist, was a founding member of The Rolling Stones.
They weren’t Beatles pin-ups, were raunchier and dirtier sounding than The Stones, no ultra-flash guitar playing like the Yardbirds, not as loud as The Who, no English stylistic musings like The Kinks and no Pop sensibility like The Dave Clark Five. What they did have was an amazing group bond, ultra-freak energy and a sound that would come to define what is now labeled garage rock; what they lacked in virtuosity, they more than made up for in heart and soul.
The Pretty Things would go on to have a 55 year career as a recording and touring outfit. Unlike their initial contemporaries, their legend, and fan base, grew as the years went by, even crashing the servers of a reunion gig live-streamed on the internet several years ago due to overwhelming demand.
They would break-up and reform often, with May being the sole member in all line-ups. May conceived of the very first Rock opera, S.F. Sorrow, released six months before Tommy by The Who in the U.K. In hindsight, it sounds more Pink Floyd than even The Wall did. An American pressing, released by Motown (yes, THAT Motown), was riddled with a strange cutout cover and truly poor mixing.
During the late-1960’s, just to make some extra money, the group would record under the name Electric Banana, providing the music to several low budget films, which ran the gamut from horror flicks to soft-corn porn.
How important were the band to the London music scene of the mid-1960’s? David Bowie recorded TWO, count ’em, TWO Pretty Things covers for his album Pin Ups, and named checked the group in two other songs. Part of the mystery of the band is that they didn’t even tour the U.S. until the 1970’s.
Many people weren’t aware or even cared that the lead singer was openly bisexual, with May often changing pronouns during live performances of their catalogue. Did this cause the band to not get covered by either the mainstream press or even queer media? Possibly.
Researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health stated in a recent survey that most bisexuals will not come out for fear of stigma, even in today’s so-called more liberal climate. It is a reflection of deeply held misconceptions and myths about bisexuals, and sadly, HIV stigma also comes into play.
What sets apart May, who left us on the 15th of May earlier this year, and the rest of The Pretty Things, was attitude: they were able to record garage rock, British R&B, psychedelia, hard rock, glam rock and even New Wave with a cohesiveness and diversity that could only be rivaled by another legendary British band, King Crimson. As the liner notes of the German reissue of Cross Talk in 1980 stated, “they literally had nothing to lose and nothing to prove”.
So, how did I first hear the band? One of the other DJ’s, who knew I was queer myself, gave me the copy of the Silk Torpedo LP out the archive the station had. Phil May, I didn’t even know you, but after listening to that record, and knowing only a small part of who you were from the spiteful and negative comments of a hater, you changed my life forever.
And of course, thank you DJ “C”, for reminding me not everyone in the world is a douchebag. This tribute to the music of May and The Pretty Things from 1964 to 1980 is as much a tribute to you as it is him.
- Midnight to Six Man, 1965, Get The Picture?
- Singapore Silk Torpedo, 1974, Singapore Silk Torpedo
- Cries From The Midnight Circus, 1970, Parachute
- Rosalyn, 1964, U.K. single A-side/U.S. version of The Pretty Things
- Defecting Grey, 1967, U.K. single A-side
- Remember That Boy, 1976, Savage Eye
- It’ll Never Be Me (live), 1967, What’s Good For The Goose film (Electric Banana)
- Office Love, 1980, Cross Talk
- I’m A Roadrunner, 1964, The Pretty Things
- Death of a Socialite, 1967, Emotions
- Havana Bound, 1972, Freeway Madness
- Baron Saturday, 1968, S.F. Sorrow
- Get A Buzz, 1965, U.K. single B-side
- Maybe You Tried, 1974, Singapore Silk Torpedo
Love to you all.
Ben “Daddy Ben Bear” Brown Jr.
Host, Show Producer, Webmaster, Audio Engineer, Researcher, Video Promo Producer and Writer
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