A WEEK BEFORE his death on May 15, Phil May spoke to MOJO’s Ian Harrison from his home in Norfolk about his forthcoming album with the Pretty Things. Now that final album, Bare As Bone, Bright As Blood, is released on September 25, we present Phil’s last interview…
Eternal delinquents the Pretty Things and their magnetic frontman Phil May, who died on May 15 following hip surgery after a cycling accident, were never short on influential admirers. Dylan included them in Tombstone Blues in 1965, while fan David Bowie covered their songs and allegedly listed May as ‘God’ in a sixties address book.
When May’s chronic emphysema obliged the Pretties to retire their electric formation in December 2018 at London’s O2 Arena, Van Morrison and David Gilmour were there to pay homage. Yet this outsider group could never be fully rehabilitated.
Born in 1944 in Dartford, and raised between his mother and her half-sister, May’s was a complicated childhood. A student at Sidcup Arts College, he formed the Pretty Things in 1963 with guitarist Dick Taylor, who’d not long left a local group called the Rolling Stones. Combining thuggery and Dionysian androgyny, long-haired howler May was the perfect conduit for wild, teen-thrilling R&B such as 1964’s top ten hit Don’t Bring Me Down, so much so that Stones pressman Tony Calder reputedly warned Ready Steady Go! off booking them, presumably in case they made his clients look bad.
Abundant dirty deeds heightened the frisson: riotous footage from the Dutch Teener Festival in Blokker in April 1965, for example, shows a group actively invoking destruction. After 1966’s brazen single b-side L.S.D, 1968’s psychedelic cradle-to-grave concept LP S.F Sorrow would later be hailed as their masterpiece. Taylor departed soon after, leaving May to cut two seventies Pretties LPs for Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song label. With Taylor back from 1978, the group resumed touring and made albums including 2007’s Balboa Island and 2015’s The Sweet Pretty Things (Are in Bed Now, of Course…).
On May 7 at 2pm, MOJO called May at his Norfolk home. As we discussed upcoming stripped-down covers album Bare As Bone, Bright As Blood, he was affable and animated, aware of his group’s special position and, poignantly, looking to the future. “I’ve always said, who needs another Pretty Things record?” he said, amused. “I said that after record four of five… it seems to me that it really should be bloody worth it. Otherwise, why inflict it on other people?”
After the 02 goodbye, should we be surprised to hear from you again?
Why? We said farewell to that kind of touring, with a two hour, beat-your-bollocks-up show. I used to moan about it - six days a week, thousands of miles all over the bloody place, and play at the end? Bugger that! Now I miss it so much. It’s really funny. There’s an irony there, I think – being nailed to your own cross!
Can you go back to playing live and amplified?
I remember thinking when the curtain closed at the O2, I’m mad, I can fucking do this for years, what am I talking about? And then I got the pneumonia. I came out of hospital, and thought oh, OK, that tap on the shoulder was a tap on the shoulder… one of the saddest things was, it was one of the best line ups I’ve ever played with, and those kinds of things, you don’t throw them away. But it wasn’t really a choice. Who knows, one day… but you can’t really go back. None of us would want to be less than we were, in our pomp. And at the O2, we were on fire! So I’m going to hang up those spurs, I guess.
What did you do next?
We sat scratching our heads. When it was physically possible, we had to think artistically. With the electric band, we’d recorded five or six songs, some more finished than others, not enough for an album. After going through it, realising it wouldn’t be with the bass/ drum/ two guitar format, it was, God, that was then. I suppose, maybe, we were being told that our electric album days were over. This was a new blank canvas, which is fine. But when it’s three weeks later and it’s still bloody blank, it becomes worrying.
How did you find a new way forward?
Dick and I had done our writing for the album that didn’t happen, and in some ways, I felt that I was written out. Having decided, OK, we’re not gonna write, it was coming up with things we could identify ourselves with. We went back to the little blues section we’ve done in the set (which included songs by Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters) and once we’d put that down, it was like opening a door. One song I thought, fuck, what gives me the right to do this? But it spoke to me because I thought, I can sing this about my kids. Bit by bit we started to get a shape to the album, and what it was about.
So what is Bare As Bone, Bright As Blood about?
The past, present, future. Everything, in terms of where we’ve been in terms of time and space. It’s what you’ve got – the stickers on your bumper, the places you’ve been. It’s quite dark, it’s got blood in its veins and its very raw. There’s blues, folk, Cajun… some of it’s electric, there’s some slide overdubs, banjo. There’s one drum in one song, as a beat. When you’re working with so few colours in the palette it sharpens the mind… any musician who’s been around for 55 years carries a lot of baggage with them, and that baggage in some ways can be a pain the arse if you trade on it too long.
In what ways?
You get stuck in this rut. A lot of our contemporaries… there’s a book being done on the Pretty Things, too, and one of the things it talks about is, after we'd done our singles, the pop bit, a lot of our contemporaries and our mates, to some extent, couldn’t find a new direction. We went on to do S.F. Sorrow, and that kept the band going, whereas some of them kept going with the same format – even the Stones to some extent – they didn’t make the jump. But then, (the Stones) made so many good fucking records. Others got stuck with a good money-making formula, which is a very good life raft you’re hanging onto, but you’re not prepared really to let go and start swimming.
Do you talk much to Dick about living dangerously with the Pretties, and the theoretical life of security with the Stones?
Dick always had that question put to him. I genuinely think, in his case, he wouldn’t have survived that kind of life, not that we’ve talked about it much. I went to see him when we were at art school, when he did the last couple of gigs before he left the Stones, and I understand why he left, in some ways. A lot of people would have thought, that’s a really stupid move, but mind you, as Mark (St. John, manager and producer) says, the Pretty Things have never made any moves that aren’t stupid, and every career move’s been a bad one!
You sound quite happy with that.
Because of that we had nothing to lose. We weren’t burning any bridges; we didn’t have them! So for us to step into a completely new psychedelic swimming pool (with S.F.Sorrow) that was full of sharks was not a problem. We didn’t have any-fucking-where else to go! I don’t think we've ever been safe financially or anything. It’s always been very close to the edge. Mark and I, were talking this morning about the album cover – should we, shouldn’t we? And Mark said, fuck it, you can do anything you want. And we can. We're not gonna give up our huge fortune to do this! Ha ha! I’m not gonna have to sell one of my chateaus if it fucks up!
Do you feel among the last men standing?
There’s longevity, and there’s the last man standing stuff… but if the last man standing’s a bit of a wanker, it’s not much good! He’s the last wanker standing! We can’t admire him for that. I’m not sure I want ‘He Stuck At It’ on my gravestone. I think it’s about why people did it.
How do you see the future?
We’ve put together an album that we think I could tour with, that won’t mean a ball-breaking schedule and me singing flat out for two hours. There’s a future out there. Now, I’m as well as I’ll ever be. Basically, you fight to keep whatever lung capacity you’ve got. Here (in Norfolk), we’re bring very active, we’re almost rebuilding where we are, up ladders, chopping logs, driving tractors. It’s quite physical, which is good.
I was thinking the other day, I’ve never been out of work this fucking long since I left school. But I guess I’m as happy as I can be, after making a record. I’m good, mate, hanging in on the old lockdown. I’m sort of with my whole family, three generations, and we’re lucky we have space. It’s nice to spend time with the kids. I’m enjoying it.