On the 4th of March 2018, on a very cold and snowy English Saturday morning, I was delighted to speak to Dick Taylor, guitarist and founding member of the Pretty Things. I wanted to specifically ask him questions about the period of 1967/68 and the band’s psychedelic masterpiece album – S.F. Sorrow. I was keen to know more about the circumstances around it, and its making. You listen to it now and while embedded in the musical culture of the time it was clearly decades ahead of its time.
S.F. Sorrow unfortunately, at the time it was released – did not receive the full attention and credit it deserved, due to various record label machinations. It has been progressively rediscovered over the last 20 years or so as new generations discover it, and marvel over its inventiveness, spirit, and innate sense of adventure/experimentalism. It is a record that helped define the period and broke new ground in its musical forms and structures, utilising the best studio in the world at the time, Abbey Road, and made while the Pink Floyd and the Beatles were also making classic albums – A Saucerful Of Secrets and The White Album at the same time at Abbey Road.
For some background of my interest in the Pretty Things work – I first read about their name as a youngster in New Zealand circa 1980/81 via David Bowie’s 1973 album Pinups, which features some stonking covers of the Prettie’s tunes ‘Rosalyn’ and ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’. Bowie’s liner notes on the back cover explaining his song choices for that album expressed his obvious love and enthusiasm of the London R’n’B music scene he shared with the Pretty Things circa 1964. However it wasn’t until the mid 80’s as a teenager I actually heard the Pretty Things for the first time via a cassette of their 1960’s BBC sessions. This tape came from a well informed 60’s music aficionado based in Hamilton in the Waikato. The same guy who turned me onto the Charles Lloyd Quartet, The Creation, and the Misunderstood. Cheers Jim!
I played the cassette wondering what to expect and was verily blown away by the attitude/vibe, melodies, rhythms, and sheer power in their songs. It was timeless music with that instant transcendent mojo – that indefinable loveliness that all great music has – that can that lift one out of one’s immediate experience and consciousness – and take you someplace else instantly. And in the conservative and generally dull, intellectually hostile, conformist, and spirit-less suburban existence of Auckland in the 1980’s that kind of musical revelation was a heaven-send.
However in those days as a teenager investigating lots of new things I was moving into my own odyssey to discover the NZ music of the time a la Fetus Productions, the Doublehappys, the Bats et al. Alongside figuring out how to coax feedback out of my guitar and making my first excursions into recording my own work. It wasn’t until many years later that I finally got a copy of SF Sorrow and discovered a record that instantly astonished and moved me – much like the first time I heard Ege Bamyasi by Can, Funhouse by the Stooges, or White Light White Heat by the Velvet Underground. S.F. Sorrow was part of the real deal.
The Pretties were the leaders of the bunch in their time yet for reasons that have been covered in detail by several other writers the Pretties never became as commercially successful as other important bands of their era like the Kinks, Small Faces, Who, and the Stones. Nevertheless their influence is massive and the explosion of punk rock with its many off-shoots would have been very different had the Pretty Things never existed.
The sessions for S.F. Sorrow started in late 1967 and the album was released in December 1968. And what a year that was – revolution was in the air and a palpable atmosphere of dissent was about, especially amongst many young people around the world. The Viet Nam war was raging and the Nice were banned from the Albert Hall for burning an American flag. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and a string of incidents of state repression reverberated around the world from Ireland, France, Mexico, the USA and elsewhere.
My conversation with Dick included: current recording activity of the Pretty Things; Life and renting in London in late 1967; Playing with David Bowie, borrowing his band’s van and sawing legs off a piano; In Paris with Jimi Hendrix 4th March ’67; Leaning a guitar on the wall and beautiful drones emerging; The lost great Pretties song ‘Reincarnation’; Arab and North African music; The guitars used, drum production, and the art of sub mixes during the recording of S.F. Sorrow at Abbey Road; Staying in tune on stage in the 60’s without tuning pedals; The wider effects of WWII, and an anti-war theme; The effect of LSD on 1960’s culture amongst all else that was going on; DT’s memories of producing Hawkwind’s debut album; The fragmentation of the modern music scene – and an observation of the current socio-economic milieu.
The tracks in the podcast are firstly the original uncut ‘Defecting Grey’ from the CD reissue of S.F. Sorrow, and secondly ‘Private Sorrow’ from the same 2009 reissue.
I’d like to say a big thanks to Dick for his time, and also to Lally McBride for providing extra research material for the interview.