Dick Taylor, the forgotten guitar of the British Invasion
By Sergio Ariza
Let's start with the easy stuff and get it out of the way quickly: Dick Taylor was Mick Jagger's schoolmate and Keith Richards' friend at art school, and his first band was with the two of them. The band was called Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys and soon after him leaving it they changed their name to The Rolling Stones and the rest is history. But let the anecdote, however juicy it may be, not overshadow a career that made Joey Ramone call his band, the Pretty Things, "the inventor of garage rock", that made David Bowie do two covers of their work on his Pin Ups or that David Gilmour and Van Morrison did not hesitate to get on stage to play with them in 2018. All that does not mention that their best album, S.F. Sorrow can be seen as the first Rock Opera in history, ahead of the Who's Tommy.
Richard Clifford Taylor was born on January 28, 1943 in Dartford. Taylor’s passion for rock & roll, blues and R&B caught the attention of another schoolmate with the same hobby, Mick Jagger, so Taylor got an acoustic guitar for Christmas and thought it was the coolest thing in the world. But it wasn't until he started art school, at the age of 16, that he began to play assiduously with another classmate, Keith Richards, with whom he learned all the licks of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Hubert Sumlin'. Soon after they played with Jagger in a band called Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys, and their singer caught the attention of the British guitarist who was more in touch with the zeitgeist - Brian Jones, who also had a band. Jagger took Keith with him and soon after, when they were without a bass player, they called Taylor to fill the position. In a few months the drummer’s position would be filled by Charlie Watts but Taylor did not want to play bass and wanted to continue with his studies, so he left the vacancy free in 1962. His definitive replacement would be Bill Wyman, the Rolling Stones were born.
Taylor says that he has never regretted that decision and we will have to believe him, because Taylor is not just any Pete Best, but the following year he would create, together with his friend and partner at art school, Phil May, the Pretty Things, one of the best, and most forgotten, British bands of the 60s. Maybe it was because of Taylor's common past, but from the beginning they were showered with comparisons to the Stones. It was understandable, the influences were the same and, many times, so were the songs. Of course, if the Stones were named after a song by Muddy Waters and had Chuck Berry as a beacon and guide, the Pretty Things were named after a song by Bo Diddley and he was their main inspiration, along with Jimmy Reed.
Of course, if the Stones knew how to capitalize on their bad boy image compared to the Beatles, the Pretty Things also passed them by. As David Gilmour would later declare, "the Pretty Things made the Stones look tame". The group was not noted for its musical refinement but for its energy and rawness, with May wearing the longest hair of all British musicians (other bands would not reach that length until 1968) and Viv Prince, their crazy drummer, serving as a model for a beardless Keith Moon. The first line-up was completed by bassist John Stax and rhythm guitarist Brian Pendleton.
The band eventually signed to Fontana and in May 1964 their first single, Rosalyn, appeared, a song in which the 'Bo Diddley beat' became punk, with Taylor's Harmony Stratone and Taylor's bellowing in the foreground. The single nearly cracked the Top 40 and gave them their first fans, including a young David Bowie, and their first money. With that Taylor would buy his first Gibson 330, and throughout the 60's he would complete the collection, with a 335 and a 345 that he thought were fantastic.
A few months later Don't Bring Me Down appeared and the Pretty Things were in the Top Ten of the British charts at a time when the British Invasion was taking the charts by storm all over the world. The logical step was to go to the USA and join the Beatles, Stones, Animals and other groups that were topping the Billboard charts, but their manager turned down an offer from Dick Clark and preferred to take them to New Zealand. The doors of the country where rock was born would not open for them again…
However, in their native country (and in New Zealand) things were going well: Honey, I Need, their third single climbed to number 13 in the British charts at the beginning of '65, and for the first time it was a song composed by themselves. Taylor composed the riff that opened the song on one of the fundamental guitars of his career, a Gibson Jumbo 12-string. The single was included on the band's first album, which was named after them, which climbed to number six in the charts. The album opened with a dirty, gritty version of Bo Diddley's Roadrunner, but it wasn't the only cover of their idol they included, they also did Mama, Keep Your Big Mouth Shut, She's Fine, She's Mine and the song that gave them their name, written by Willie Dixon for Diddley.
It was a rough and raw album with which the Pretty Things lived up to their image as feral savages. It was their commercial, if not artistic, peak. Like the Stones the Pretty Things were veering towards soul in their influences, as can be seen on their next EP, with Rainin' In My Heart as the title track, and when later in the year Get The Picture appeared, Taylor, like Richards, had discovered the fuzz pedal, and made much use of it, with remarkable results as on the title track. It was quite a blast that would not be out of place on any Nuggets compilation.
The band's second album opened with a song in which the influence of the Byrds was noticeable and in which the signature of the leading session guitarist of that time, Jimmy Page, appears. The future member of Led Zeppelin did not play on the song but he did help the band to compose it, besides lending his Les Paul to Taylor so that he could make good use of it in that homage to Elvis - We'll Play House. By the time they recorded it however the problems with Viv Prince, their drummer, had reached the point of no return and he had to be replaced by a series of drummers.
In spite of the fact that the album did not lower the quality and excitement of the first one, it did not enter the charts. From this moment on, the band would fall into commercial oblivion as they reached their artistic peak. Two of their best singles appeared in 1966. First came Midnight To Six in January, a composition by Taylor, with an excellent riff and good solo work, as well as a great piano work by Nicky Hopkins and several spectacular tempo changes. Incredibly, the song only achieved a disappointing 46th place in the UK charts. In April came Come See Me, a song in which his passion for soul and the fuzz sound was again evident. As a B-side it had a composition by Taylor and May that already made it clear where the band was heading, it was called LSD and in its solo one could already glimpse psychedelic effluvia.
In July the last single of the band to chart, it was a cover of A House In The Country by the Kinks. Their label was not happy with them and they were not happy with the commercial impositions of their label. After the commercial failure of the decaffeinated Progress in December, Pendleton and Stax left the band, and their replacements were Wally Waller on bass and John Povey on keyboards. Both had good voices and were Beach Boys fans, and their harmonies were noticed right away.
May and Taylor were the only two original members left and following the sign of the times, and Fontana's pressures, they forgot the dirty R&B of their beginnings and looked to the work of Ray Davies, Emotions can be seen as their pop record, the equivalent of the Stones' Between The Buttons. It is the least accomplished album of the first four albums but still has some notable songs such as Death Of A Socialite, Children and the album's gem, The Sun.
The album did nothing to improve their financial situation however and the band left Fontana and signed to EMI in September 1967. It was a perfect move, the band was getting deeper and deeper into the psychedelic world and Abbey Road was the studio where Sgt. Pepper's and The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn had just been recorded. It was the ideal place for their sound universe to expand. First came the single with Deffecting Grey and Mr. Evasion. The former combined a part that was an acid waltz with hard and distorted guitars, and it was a great appetizer for what was to come.
In November, at the same time the single was released, the band went into Abbey Road to begin recording S.F. Sorrow, a collection of songs spun through a story by Phil May. The first thing they recorded was Bracelets Of Fingers. In those same sessions they also recorded one of the best singles of the era, a pair of songs that are among the best of the psychedelic period, Talking About the Good Times and Walking Through My Dreams, featuring some of Taylor's finest moments as a guitarist. By that time in the drum chair already sat another totally lunatic character, the likeable Twink, hailing from another seminal British psychedelic band, Tomorrow.
With Norman Smith as producer, the band threw in everything (and did it well), from Mellotron to whatever gadgets were around Abbey Road, including George Harrison's sitar that the Pretty Things borrowed without permission. The songs were also among the best they had done, from the opening track, S.F. Sorrow Is Born, with a great acoustic riff on Taylor's Jumbo, (a guitar that is all over the album, including the masterful Private Sorrow) to the devastating Loneliest Person that closed it; not forgetting bursts of electricity like She Says Good Morning, Balloon Burning or Baron Saturday, sung by Taylor.
The work was meant to be listened to as a whole, telling the story of Sebastian Sorrow from his birth to his sad mental seclusion. The plot was a downer and many saw it as one of the reasons for its poor commercial impact. But it is evident that the circumstances did not help either, despite having started recording it in 1967 the album was not released until November 1968, even before the Who's Tommy, but it was not released in the US until a year later where it was seen as a caricature of Townshend's album, despite being earlier.
The fact is that after recording his masterpiece Taylor retired from the band. He thought he had reached the zenith and besides the future did not seem very promising. The band was getting some extra money recording as The Electric Banana for a film company that would end up using some of that material in a couple of softcore porn movies.
It was a pity because the band was at its best moment, playing in the summer of '68 in the second free concert in Hyde Park together with Traffic and The Nice (their performance ended when Twink decided to throw himself into the audience) and at the first Isle of Wight festival, together with Jefferson Airplane and Tyranosaurus Rex.
Time would eventually prove them right and punk would vindicate them as one of their influences; while Taylor recognized that he felt the flame of rock & roll again after seeing the Clash live. In 1978 he returned to the Pretty Things, who had continued successfully with May at the front and who recorded an album influenced by the New Wave. Among the highlights of his late career was his collaboration with the Mekons on such notable albums as Fear and Whiskey and The Mekons Rock 'n Roll.
That said, until Phil May's death last year, his main task was to defend the repertoire of the Pretty Things to several new generations, having become a cult band and with S.F. Sorrow vindicated as the masterpiece that it is. Yes, Dick Taylor may have been a Rolling Stone, but he was a Pretty Thing, which is not bad either...