Saturday, September 29, 2012

Kim Hill's fascination with tired old rock musicians

When she’s not fawning over fashionably left-wing writers and academics whose views she accepts unquestioningly, the other people Kim Hill loves to interview are faded rock musicians. And what appears to enthrall her most about them are their tales of drugs, debauchery and outrageous behaviour, which – judging by the way she eggs them on – she finds admirable.
One of her guests this morning was Dick Taylor, once moderately well known as the lead guitarist for 1960s band the Pretty Things, and still dining out on that group’s reputation for wickedness. But let’s be clear: their reputation for wickedness was about all the Pretty Things had going for them. Without it, they would have been just another among the dozens of British rhythm and blues groups, mostly consisting of middle-class art students plagiarising working-class American blacks, that briefly flourished during the British beat boom. Musically the Pretty Things were always second-tier, attracting attention mainly because their hair was even longer than that of the Rolling Stones and their general appearance more unkempt. It was the proud boast of their singer, Phil May, that he had the longest hair of any man in Britain, which generated interest from a British press still getting to grips with pop stars who didn’t look like Cliff Richard and the Shadows. It also amounted to an admission that his hair was the most noteworthy thing about him. The Pretty Things had two top 10 hits in the UK, which were probably as much attributable to their wild reputation as to their talent, and their popularity soon waned (although in fairness, I should acknowledge that they issued a single in 1974 that made it to No 104 on the US chart).

In New Zealand the Pretty Things are remembered mainly for a 1965 tour that shocked a deeply conservative press unaccustomed to attention-seeking publicity stunts by pop groups.  But the reports at the time were almost certainly exaggerated (much to the band’s delight, no doubt) and have become even more so with time. And here’s a tip for Hill: when she asks Taylor about an outrageous act supposedly perpetrated on that tour and he pauses as if taken aback before saying he’d rather not comment, that could mean the incident was just too appalling to discuss; but more likely, he just doesn’t want to admit that it never happened. The myths must be preserved.
Taylor today sounds like a pleasant enough but rather dull, ageing Englishman who’s probably thrilled and flattered to have an opportunity to recall his brief moment in the spotlight 47 years ago. But what puzzles me is that Hill, who would have been 10 years old at the time of the Pretty Things tour, seems endlessly fascinated by tired old stories about the excesses (which actually were remarkably mild by today’s standards) of has-been rock musicians, even to the point of sounding awe-struck. Very weird.


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