Dick Taylor, still rocking

Dick Taylor still plays with his ‘60s band, Pretty Things. That wasn’t his first group, but, as he tells Roz Whistance, he has no regrets

So he looks like he’s lived a bit, but Dick Taylor isn’t what you expect a rock n roller from the 60s to be. His preferred drink is coffee, he’s articulate and he’s gentle – so that debunks instantly the preconceptions about booze, drug-fuzzy brains and showyness. But the biggest surprise is the lack of arrogance – that he is as interested to hear about you as he is willing to talk about himself.  One definition of a gentleman, surely.

Dick Taylor wasn’t with the Rolling Stones when they found fame and fortune: we’ll come back to that. He was and is guitarist with the Pretty Things, a rhythm and blues band which had a string of hits in the 1960s, and which is now enjoying a resurgence of popularity.

It is a little daunting to meet a mature rock n roller, especially when you read his was the first British band to be busted for drugs, and that when they perform they are always in sinister black mafia garb:  so, almost re-enacting the scene in Love Actually when the new girl at No 10 is so determined not to swear in front of the Prime Minister that the inevitable words slip out, I inadvertently call his band the Pretty Faces. Dick bursts out laughing – I’m not the first, apparently. “It’s just as well we didn’t call ourselves the Small Things,” he says generously.

We meet at the Spyglass Inn in Ventnor, where in a little while fellow guitarists will start to gather for the weekly guitar club. Not famous people, they haven’t so much as touched the hem of the likes of Bowie or Jagger, but enthusiasts with talent. “It’s highly successful,” says Dick. “What’s really good is that quite a few form little groups from it. We do an “open mike” night every month, and trios, little bands which have formed as a result of the club perform.” He adds, more regretfully: “It would be good to be pulling young people in – it tends to be people not in the first flush of youth.”

Again the conventional idea of a rock ’n’  roller is battered. Dick has the egalitarianism of a musician who is interested in others: – invited to criticise today’s music scene he is keen to express admiration, saying there are lots of good bands on the Island. “There was crap music in the ‘50s, there was crap music in the ‘60s. But in every decade there’s good music about.” But if music today isn’t barren, bereft of ideas, what explains the increasing popularity and revived interest in vintage bands such as his own?

On June 11th, the band will receive an award from MOJO magazine which acknowledges the debt of other musicians to the Pretty Things. “It’s called a Heroes Award, because we were the inspiration for a lot of people who went on to be quite famous,” says Dick. “David Bowie used to come and see us: in fact on his Pinups album he included a cover of Rosalyn [Pretty Things’ first hit from 1964]. And John Lydon (Johny Rotten from the Sex Pistols) came to see us play at the 100 Club on Oxford Street. He came with his mum!”

Dick found music very early in life. He was at school with Mick Jagger, and the two of them shared an interest in the blues, and in rhythm and blues. “Mick was really good at getting the latest imports of records from the States, and he’d come in with say, the latest Bo Diddley record.”  With another friend they used to get together in Dick’s house – “this was from quite a young age, before the 11-Plus” – and Mick would sing while others played guitar. Dick played drums sometimes, though he says he can hardly hold a stick these days.

Leaving school at 16 for Sidcup Art School, he met Keith Richards. “He knew Mick and I were rehearsing, but was too shy to join in. But he’d known Mick from a young age, and eventually started coming along.” The band went to see Buddy Holly – Mick and Dick both loved Not Fade Away, later covered by the Stones – and also started frequenting the Ealing Club where record producer Alexis Corner started Blues Incorporated. It was a turning point for the band:

“The first couple of weeks we were saying: ‘This is fantastic’. Then after that we were saying: ‘We could do that!’ – with all the bravado of teenagers.”

Calling themselves Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys they made a few tapes for Alexis Corner , and met Brian Jones who also had a band. “Eventually the two bands combined and became the Rolling Stones.”

Dick played bass, and they did a lot of rehearsing and some gigs, but he wasn’t keen on bass guitar, and besides, his ambition was to get to the Royal College of Art. Eventually he got into the Central College of Art, left the Rolling Stones, and got together with a student he’d known from Sidcup Art School, Phil May. “We started this band called Pretty Things.” It was 1963.

At this point I hold off asking the obvious question about regrets. The Pretty Things acquired a manager – Brian Morrison, who was managing the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band. “We made some records, got into the charts, and we’re still doing it,” is how Dick sums up the 60s and beyond.

Their first hit, Rosalyn, brings us back to today, for while rehearsing their set for the MOJO Honours show on June 11 at HMV Oxford Street the band met the lead singer from Kasabian, Sergio Pizzorno, who told Dick and Phil that he’d been introduced to Rosalyn by his father, who had it in his record collection. Sergio had gone on to find SF Sorrow in a second-hand record shop, and the album “blew my mind”. “It was the blueprint for the imagination of rock & roll,” he said. “It made me think I’d got to start again.”

Mention of SF Sorrow opens a crack into the world of music that I expected to find, of machinations and intrigue. This was an album which followed Pretty Things’ string of 60s hits, and it marked a change from rhythm and blues into the world of psychadelia. It was an early ‘concept’ album, a rock opera which had a running story linking all the tracks.

“It pre-dated Tommy [The Who’s album in the 70s]. We were told that The Who listened to it and decided that doing something similar would be a really good idea. But although we’d heard that Pete Townsend said this, he has since written to us saying he couldn’t remember ever hearing it. And it’s so odd, because we’ve read things in the past saying it was an inspiration for The Who. Very odd. So we won’t be getting him to give us our MOJO Award!”

“Whatever the truth,” Dick adds, “it seems strange they started doing a rock opera so soon after we did. We definitely did SF Sorrow prior to Tommy, because they actually contacted us and suggested we got it out in America quickly or Tommy would bury it. Which is in fact what happened.”

Here is another aspect of the fabled world of rock – dodgy dealings with record labels. Dick is candidly cagey – “I’m not supposed to talk about it” – but suffice it to say that by the time their album had been handled by one or other offshoot of a given record label, the Pretty Things did not receive one penny from US sales.

After a while Dick left Pretty Things, and turned to producing: he was responsible for Hawkwind’s first album, among other things. He played with “some unusual punky -type people”, for the 70s was seeing the rise of punk Rrock. And no, he wasn’t damning of that genre’s rawness compared with his own discipline of rhythm and blues. “We were raw ourselves when we first started.”

But then he slipped away from music completely, working for Jean Machine, that chain where the stable door to the changing room failed to hide the contortions necessary to squeeze into a pair of skin-tight denims in the pre-lycra days. Didn’t he miss the camaraderie, being part of a group? “Actually it was that I felt I was in a bit of a bubble, always being with the same people, that made me want to get out.”

Pretty Things fizzled out around 1976, but then in 1978 it was suggested they do a reunion gig in Holland – for the originals like Dick and the “new boys” who had joined in 1966. “I was back in the fold, and have been doing everything with them ever since,” he smiles.

“There are five of us in the band at the moment. We were six but our keyboard player’s wife got breast cancer, so he stayed with her in Spain. We’ve got a strange arrangement, we ‘ve got a very young rhythm section, with an 18 year old bass player and 18 year old drummer. It’s great, really good, so generally that’s who we work with, but we haven’t parted from our original drummer and bass player – they’re just not working with us at the moment.”

Their manager, Mark St John, also produces them “and comes on stage with us to sing the high bits and play percussion.”

It’s a remarkable story of survival, especially given that the generally accepted adjuncts of a rock career, sex and drugs , were very much part of their lives. “But I’ve still got a reasonable number of brain cells,” grins Dick. He goes on more seriously, and his passion for what he does is suddenly obvious. “I actually think playing music is very good for your general mental state, it keeps it in pretty good order. There’s a certain degree of improvisation in rocking blues type stuff that requires you to have your wits about you. And I’m still learning, I learn from the people I teach.”

I finally offer up my question – that question. Does he regret that he left the Rolling Stones? “The only thing I regret is being asked the question,” he smiles, adding “If I’d stayed I could have been another one dead in a swimming pool – or turned into Bill Wyman!”

“The serious truth is that that amount of publicity and fame and attention has got to put you in a position that is not comfortable. I don’t envy them the goldfish bowl. Having said that I saw Keith when they did the IoW Festival and he’s still very much the same person, just as he was way back when. And I talk quite often to the woman who is part of their management. She says people always expect them to be not like other people. And they’re of course ordinary common or garden people, like anyone else.

“I‘m not sure I’d want to be part of the circus that surrounds them.”

So here he is, in Ventnor, where he has lived for nearly 20 years. “I like it very much,” he says, as he describes the various musical connections and contacts he still works with. “It’s good fun and healthy to do different sorts of music. Charlie Watts of the Stones does this jazz thing. Well actually he was always jazz first and foremost, I think he found his way into the Rolling Stones by serendipity.”

Veteran though he is, stepping out of his musical comfort zone means he has to up his game a bit.  “I can do blues and rock with the Pretty Things quite easily, but I have to think when I do other things.”

He celebrates the fact that nowadays musicians can so easily create a good home studio, thanks to technology – “whereas we started with one tape recorder and a microphone.”

And despite everything, rankles with record companies, not getting recognition for rock operas, he shows no sign of bitterness. “People say to me ‘You’ve had such bad luck. Think what might have been! But I think we’ve had a lot of good luck. We’re still around. There’s a lot going on for us now. Every time we do a gig we get lots of people coming, they give us a fantastic reception. It’s great.”