Text by Julia Masi
Interview © 1980 by FFanzeen
Images from the Internet
The following article and interview of British musician Phil May, leader of the band the Pretty Things, was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #6, in 1980. It was conducted by Julia Masi.
Phil May, lead singer of the Pretty Things, looks more like a Wall Street banker than a British rock’n’roll star. Lately, he’s taken to wearing a three-piece pin-striped suit and a tie, “because I’m very anti-jeans these days.” He’s also cut his brown hair short so that the looks nothing like the “hippie” figure in the publicity photo that accompanies the group’s ninth album, Cross Talk. But then, one should learn to expect change from a band that has always been more concerned with innovation that commercialism.
[l-r: Skip Allen, Pete Tolsen, Phil May, John Povey, Dick Taylor, Wally Waller]
They’ve changed their line-up frequently since they began in 1964. Presently, the Pretty Things is Pete Tolsen and Dick Taylor playing guitars, bass player Wally Waller, and Skip Allan beats the drums while John Povey mans the keyboards. May still fronts and writes most of the band’s material. Over the years, they have experimented with new concepts (in 1967, they wrote S.F. Sorrow, the first rock opera) and embraced various trends. Cross Talk is receiving praise and flack from the critics because it has a sort of New Wave sound. “It’s written for the ‘80s, and if it didn’t sound like that I would be terribly disappointed,” May says. In the past 16 years, the band has been through dozens of evolutions, “some little and some big; some that I hardly noticed happened.”
He recalls that in the beginning, “We were a straight R&B band. Why we evolved from that was because you can’t play the standard numbers over and over again and still give them any kind of freshness once you’ve explored them. You know, you just start going through the motions. So, I felt that it was very important to us that we start to write and create new material which would continue to stimulate our own interest. It’s the writing that changes the direction of the band. If you write a certain kind of song this year, next year you’re gonna write a whole bunch of things that have become slightly different. It’s because of the time you were writing the songs – giving you the reason for making the songs – has become slightly different.
May thinks Cross Talk has “a lot of continuity. But we never really work the songs out in any kind of preplanned way. It comes out in the way it comes out. When you’re working on each song, you’re working with a particular kind of song and a particular kind of atmosphere that fits the songs. Take a song like ‘Edge of Night,’ which has a slight uneasiness about it. It works out that way. And, of course, when all the other tracks are banded together – we don’t even hear the album until then – you can’t really control it.” May’s primary concern seems to be in making music with “enough different things to keep you interested. I don’t like bands that just make one kind of song, slightly faster or slower on each track.”
Describing himself as “an observer,” May confesses, “I write things down. I always carry a pen with me. And other things I just retain. I think, ‘That’s interesting for a song.’ Maybe I’ll only use part of it; maybe I won’t use any of it. We’ve got a few songs that just might have been good for another kind of band. When we wrote them, we could hear the way they were meant to be done. And we could almost say what band could have done them, because it wasn’t our kind of music. We thought we couldn't get into (it). Rather than change the sound and make it playable for us, (the band decided to drop the song because) it wasn’t real. You lose the spirit of it.”
Pretty Things seems more concerned with following their musical spirit than on the bandwagon. During their 16-year history, they’ve taken a lot of risks that haven’t exactly paid off in dollars and cents. But the fact that they’ve still managed to survive and gather a following has let them to be labeled a “cult band.” May laughs at this: “Someone feels that we deserve a label. And I can’t really, without asking what he or she means by that. Cult band,” he repeats, glancing up at the ceiling. “I can think of all the surrounding things that go with that. Yes, we do have people who write mad letters and have houses that are like museums. They’ve bought all the records, have collected every video, every movie clip, even every photograph or whatever what was ever for sale, and approach you about things that you don’t remember saying. Sometimes I find them at my house, knocking on the door. They want to come in and sit and talk with you, and tape it! They’re not doing interviews. And they want to get someone to take a picture of the two of you standing together, or they want to get a picture of the two of you standing outside the house. It’s alright, you know, that’s fun, but I guess that’s one of the ways that we got to be called a cult band.” He speculates that it is not an unusual situation. “Bands from the ‘60s seemed to have created a cult situation – like the Velvet Underground were a cult (band), but I can’t quite own up to it, because I don’t know all that it entails.”
Another reason the group has been tagged as a cult band is because of S.F. Sorrow. “I set out to put a story to music. That seems everyday today. People have been doing that for years. It’s just that I did it to rock’n’roll and we were the first people to do it. It just seemed like the natural thing to do because at that time, people wanted more from music than just to dance. We thought, ‘How about if we give them music and a story content and a literary context?’” He attributes its distressing lack of success to the fact that it wasn’t promoted correctly. “The record company just released it as any other record. People said it was too early. And it was. People listened to it and were shocked. Nobody [radio stations] played it. People didn’t know it was out. People talk about it now as if it were common knowledge. But it’s only been in the last 5 or 6 years that they’re aware of it.” He also seemed amused by the idea that S.F. Sorrow may be selling better now than it did originally, “though I don’t think it’s selling millions,” he quips.
The band is hoping that this new album will break them out of the cult mold, but they acknowledge that they’ve little chance of being considered New Wave: “I think we’ve got too much history that people would probably stumble over. It wouldn’t be very long before people would be aware that we’ve made about 9 albums.” May refuses to comment on whether or not Cross Talk is commercial enough to make Pretty Things a household word. “You want to break new ground, but then you’re not talking about doing something in 8 month’s time when it actually gets on to the street and is wrapped in its cover,” he pauses. “Who’s to say that that’s not to be a really commercial thing?”
His only prophesies on music in general are that “it’ll go back to somewhere we’ve been before, again and again. But each time it comes around again, it might be the ‘50s or whatever it’ll be; it might have a new content or new circumstances, and it’ll be different from the music (before). Music is really melody, rhythm, and, in some cases, lyrical content. So you have a certain amount or degree in which you can’t do too much with it or then it ceases to be a melody. If you just played any note you felt like – somebody beats the drum and somebody sings nonsense – sure you might have a record. Somebody might say, ‘Yeah. Far-out, man,’ but I don’t think it lasts. So it’s all the extreme experiments that push the boundary a little bit further, but I don’t think it’s a direction. It’s kind of off-shoots. This is plugged into a circular vein. You just go ‘round and ‘round, going in its orbit into the phase of the moon. Softer, things come back and the old, heavy head-music will be back in. I don’t find that depressing.”
He cites that retrospection can bring a new freshness to much. “Freshness. That’s like in not hearing a Buddy Holly track for a long time. Then you hear it and it kind of gets you off. It has a quality to it, you know, it’s a spirit. Now you don’t particularly wish to redo all the old Buddy Holly numbers; what you do is get somebody who writes in that vein, which sounds fresh. Because they’ve managed to pick up what’s made Buddy Holly’s things sound so different. And it won’t just be Buddy Holly. It’ll be a lot of things.”
[Magritte’s Hunters at the Edge of Night]
May admits to being influenced by many different things. “I have other interests. Whether or not I could earn a living off of them or whether or not they’d just be my interests forever, I don’t know. I still paint. I did 4 years at the College of Art. I don’t know whether, (a) I could earn my living at it, or (b) whether I’d want to. It’s always something I’ve done. I think music is very akin to the visuals. Visual arts/audio arts –it’s very close. There’s a very thin dividing line. And most of the painters I know, the very good painters, (say) music plays an important part in their lives and a lot of the things they do.” May is reluctant to say that the reverse is true in his career. “Maybe. I just don’t see it. I think that’s something that someone else would have to say.” But his “Edge of Night” was inspired by a paining. “I think it’s a Magritte. I wanted the music to be like the painting. There’s this painting that’s very sinister. You know how Magritte sees things. It’s kind of a collection of objects. I’m trying to think of what the Magritte paining is called. I don’t think it’s called At the Edge of the Night. I think it’s called…” He hesitates, squints his blue-gray eyes, “It’s something like At the Very Corner of the World. Or something. But, I mean, I got the kind of vision of things, of the night being like a black wall and you can really get right close to the edge.” He tries to picture the painting in his mind again. “It’s just some circular things. Just full of odd objects placed (so) that it has sinister overtones. It wasn’t even figurative. It wasn’t even a face. It was an abstract statement. And suddenly I wanted one of the songs to have that quality of uneasiness about it. That’s why that song may be different from another song on the album. I believe that’s our job, to go to the next sort of musical stage. Not to diversify too much. I just hope it’s good up-front rock’n’roll with some humor to it. I haven’t written with humor in music. But this time, it’s quite nice to get turned on musically by something that’s slightly funny. It’s not a downer album.”