Phil May obituaryWild and hairy frontman of the Pretty Things who was considered a rival by Mick Jagger and was ‘stalked’ by the teenage David Bowie
There is apparently a good obituary in the Times, which I am unable to post because it's behind their paywall. Any Times readers out there?
Phil May, centre, with the Pretty Things performing on TV in 1964/MARK AND COLLEEN HAYWARD/REDFERNS
Friday May 22 2020, 12.01am BST, The Times
In the days when anxious parents were locking up their daughters whenever Mick Jagger and his group of long-haired libertines hit town, there was only one band that was shaggier, wilder, lewder and more degenerate than the Rolling Stones.
That band was the Pretty Things, led by Phil May, who rivalled Jagger as a lascivious, hip-wiggling lead singer and was dubbed “the longest-haired man in Britain”.
The marketing campaign behind May and his band was crude but effective and could simply be paraphrased as, “If you thought the Stones were a bunch of scruffy yobs, wait until you see this lot.”
For a while the carefully promoted sense of outrage worked well and the Pretty Things’ first two rambunctious singles, Rosalyn and Don’t Bring Me Down, featuring May’s yowling vocals, were as ferociously potent as anything recorded during the 1960s British beat boom.
“He’s just too f***ing pretty . . . He’s dangerous,” Jagger was reported to have said after May had made a spectacular TV debut with the Pretty Things on Ready Steady Go! in 1964. Andrew Loog Oldham, the Stones’ manager, was dispatched to tell the show’s producer, Vicki Wickham, that if she put May and his reprobates on again, Ready Steady Go! should forget about getting the Stones back.
The rivalry was given an added piquancy by the fact that the guitarist in May’s group was Dick Taylor, who had been at Dartford Grammar School with Jagger and had briefly played in the Stones’ pre-fame line-up.
The Pretty Things’ most enthusiastic uber fan was a teenager named David Jones, who hung around the stage door at so many of the band’s gigs that they took to calling him “the Stalker”. When he got to know May he entered his number in his phone book under the name “GOD”. Jones later changed his name to David Bowie, and recorded deferential versions of Rosalyn and Don’t Bring Me Down on his 1973 album Pin Ups.
Bowie also namechecked the band in the song Oh! You Pretty Things and borrowed aspects of May’s androgynous appeal. From the outset May had hinted at bisexuality in songs in which he interchanged the pronouns “he” and “she”. May claimed on one occasion to have ended up with Brian Jones, Judy Garland and Rudolf Nureyev in the same bed at the Dorchester hotel.
He was married for 30 years to Electra Nemon, the sister-in-law of the former Conservative MP Sir George Young and daughter of the sculptor Oscar Nemon, whose bronze statue of Churchill stands in the members’ lobby in the House of Commons. He divorced her in the 1990s and entered a long-term relationship with Colin Graham, with whom he lived in Norfolk. Graham survives him, along with two children from his marriage: a son, Paris, and daughter, Sorrel, a TV producer.
Phil May was born Philip Dennis Arthur Wadey in Dartford, Kent, in 1944 and was brought up in his early years by his mother Daphne’s sister, Flo, and her husband, Charlie May, whom he considered to be his real parents and whose name he took. When he was ten he returned to live with his mother and stepfather.
On leaving school he studied graphic design at Sidcup Art College, where Keith Richards was a student in the year above him. He formed the Pretty Things with Taylor, another fellow art student, in 1963.
The Pretty things on tour. From left: Brian Pendleton, John Stax, Dick Taylor, Phil May and Viv Prince/JOOP VAN BILSEN/ANEFO
After the Pretty Things’ early flush of success the group was bedevilled by poor decision-making, bad luck and a reputation that preceded them.
In 1965, at the height of their British success, they were invited to tour by Sid Bernstein, the New York-based promoter who had introduced the Beatles to the United States. As one of the most exciting acts to emerge from the British beat boom, they should have been more or less guaranteed to follow the Beatles and the Stones in the “British invasion” of the American charts but Bryan Morrison, the Pretty Things’ manager, turned down the invitation on the grounds that the fee was too low and sent the band to New Zealand instead. The quiet country wasn’t ready for the Pretty Things and the tour was a disaster. May and his bandmates provoked so much outrage, including starting a fire on an aircraft at 30,000ft, that their antics were debated by the New Zealand parliament and there were calls for them to be banned from the country for life.
Like the Sex Pistols a decade later, everywhere the Pretty Things went there were drug busts, fights and riots. It was claimed that members of the group made 27 court appearances in 1965 alone.
Even the indefatigably transgressive May grew tired of the chaos and considered a return to art school. “We’d had the screaming girls, we’d be chased down the streets and locked in hotel rooms. We couldn’t get out because of the screamers. So I went back to my tutor and said, ‘Look, I want to come back and paint’,” he recalled.
“Why sit in a life class in London when you can travel the world?” came the sage reply. “Fill your life up with experiences, go back on the road, carry on playing and see in three or four years’ time.”
May carried on, although one by one his bandmates dropped by the wayside. Viv Prince, the drummer, who was so wild that he made Keith Moon appear sane and sober, was fired because it was impossible to know if he was going to turn up.
Brian Pendleton, the guitarist, disappeared in 1966 on the way to a gig in Leeds by train. “When we got to the other end, he wasn’t on the train any more. We never saw him again for a year and a half,” May said. He was later found working in a bank. Over the years the band went through 33 members with May as the only constant.
After switching his drug of choice from Purple Hearts to LSD, May reinvented the Pretty Things in the 1967 “summer of love” as psychedelic rock pioneers. He deserved the credit for writing the first “rock opera” with SF Sorrow in 1968, a story chronicling a life from birth through childhood, love and old age.
Today the album is regarded as a landmark but at the time the group’s record company, EMI, was unimpressed and failed to promote it. Six months later the Who released Tommy and Pete Townshend got the plaudits.
When May suggested that the Who’s rock opera had been influenced by SF Sorrow, Townshend wrote him a letter instructing him to desist with his claim and implying legal action could follow if he did not. May was deeply hurt and described the letter as “a kick in the bollocks”.
After SF Sorrow had flopped, the remains of the Pretty Things were reduced to recording low-budget film soundtracks with an embarrassed May hiding the group’s identity under the name Electric Banana. They appeared as such in the 1969 Norman Wisdom comedy What’s Good for the Goose. Needless to say, one night May managed to get Wisdom stoned for the first and probably only time in the comedian’s life.
With a new line-up, the Pretty Things’ next album, Parachute (1970) was voted record of the year by Rolling Stone. Typically, for the band, it became the only album of the year in the magazine’s history not to sell a million copies.
There was one further tilt at super-stardom in the mid-1970s when Led Zeppelin signed May and the Pretty Things to their label, Swan Song. According to Zeppelin’s manager, Peter Grant, within three months May and his colleagues had spent their entire advance of $150,000 on cocaine. The two albums that they recorded for the label flopped.
May carried on regardless until lung disease caused by years of heavy drinking and smoking forced him to retire from the stage. He played his final concert with the Pretty Things in 2018, when he was joined onstage by his old friends David Gilmour and Van Morrison.
“You could have surfed on the warmth that was coming out of that audience,” May said after the show. “The power of people expressing their gratitude for the music you made was quite thrilling.”
Phil May, rock singer, was born on November 9, 1944. He died of complications following hip surgery on May 15, 2020, aged 75