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Phil May, British rocker of unbridled energy, is dead at 75
An announcement on the band’s website said he died in a hospital from complications following hip surgery.

by Steven Kurutz

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Phil May, the lead singer of the Pretty Things, a 1960s British rock band whose members played faster, louder and with more unbridled energy than their contemporaries, died on May 15 in Norfolk, England. He was 75.

An announcement on the band’s website said he died in a hospital from complications following hip surgery.

The Pretty Things took their name from a Bo Diddley song, but they were far less in thrall to their influences than most of the elders of the English rhythm and blues scene. They didn’t go for faithful re-creation; they roughed up the music, playing with a speed and rawness that foreshadowed punk rock. Joey Ramone called the Pretty Things “the biggest influence” on the Ramones and said they “invented garage bands.”

The band’s debut single, “Rosalyn,” released in 1964, contained the main ingredients: spiky guitars, manic drumming and May’s hoarse vocals, snarlingly delivered. Other early singles included “Don’t Bring Me Down,” a Top 10 hit in Britain, and “Midnight to Six Man,” a celebration of night prowling.

Speaking to rock historian Richie Unterberger for his book “Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators and Eccentric Visionaries of ’60s Rock” (2000), May summed up the band’s approach to rock ’n’ roll: “We just took what we wanted and made it our own.”

May’s rebelliousness was evident onstage and off. He performed in a style that Unterberger, in an interview, described as “almost prowling the stage like a wild man.” And May, who was bisexual, wore his brown hair down to his shoulders, longer even than other rock musicians at the time, even though such androgyny could — and did — provoke public abuse and fistfights.

May also co-wrote one of rock’s most blatant odes to acid, “£.s.d,” and, along with his bandmates, boasted of the group’s many arrests for offenses like assault with a deadly weapon and setting fire to an airplane. (That stunt was said to have gotten the group banned for life from New Zealand.)

Throughout their career, the Pretty Things drew inevitable comparisons to the Rolling Stones (they were often described as a raunchier version). Dick Taylor, the band’s guitarist and May’s songwriting partner, was an early member of the Stones, and May had attended Sidcup Art College in greater London with Taylor and future Stones guitarist Keith Richards.

But while the Stones went on to have worldwide hits and play to sold-out stadiums, the Pretty Things remained largely a cult band. They influenced other musicians — David Bowie covered two Pretty Things songs on his 1973 album “Pin-Ups — but they were not widely known to casual listeners, especially in the United States. Perhaps because they were one of the few British groups not to tour America in the ’60s, the Pretty Things never had a hit or received much airplay in the U.S., and their recordings were hard to find.

In 1968, the Pretty Things, who by then had transitioned from hard blues to folky psychedelia, released the album “S.F. Sorrow.” Based on a short story by May about a tragic figure named Sebastian F. Sorrow, it is widely regarded as the first full-length rock opera; the Who’s “Tommy” was released the next year.

Writing in The New York Times in 1998, Neil Strauss called “S.F. Sorrow” “among the most interesting and ambitious albums of the ’60s,” but lamented that it had “remained unjustly obscure,” one of those albums passed down by in-the-know record store clerks and music geeks. Decades later, it remains so.

But from the start, May valued musical and personal expression over commercial success, and he wasn’t inclined to look back on the band’s career with any regrets. As he told Mojo magazine in 2018, “All our defeats were victories.”

Philip Dennis Arthur Wadey was born on Nov. 9, 1944, in Dartford, Kent, near London. For much of his childhood, he was raised by his mother’s half sister and her husband, Flo and Charlie May, and lived under the assumption that they were his parents — an illusion he said was shattered in his early teens when his biological mother and stepfather came to collect him. (Another British rock star, Eric Clapton, had a similar story.) Years later, May said the experience made him an isolated youth living in a world of his own imagination.

May went to art school in the early ’60s and intended to be a painter, but he soon met Taylor and Richards and began singing along with their blues guitar playing. The Pretty Things were formed in 1963.

“I didn’t think I was God’s gift as a singer, but I felt I was pretty sexy in an androgynous way and I enjoyed it very much,” he said in the Mojo interview.

The original phase of the Pretty Things ended with the ’60s, when Taylor left the band. But May continued to record and tour as the Pretty Things with other musicians, and sometimes with Taylor back in the fold, well into the 2000s. During those years, he also painted and sold artwork.

May is survived by his son, Paris; his daughter, Sorrel May; and his partner, Colin Graham.

In 2014, May learned that he had chronic emphysema and took a break from performing. He stopped altogether in 2018, though he continued to record. According to the band’s website, the final Pretty Things album, “Bare as Bone, Bright as Blood,” will be released this year.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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