Biff Bang Pow!
By J.R. Jones
Rock historian Pete Frame created a cottage industry for himself in the early 80s by drawing fanatically detailed rock ‘n’ roll “family trees,” most of which were collected into a book in 1993. Printed in his neat little hand, charts like “Kinks Stones Pretties” and “Beck Page and the Yardbirds” lead a reader through the aesthetic and historical connections between bands, including the obscure artists inevitably clustered around the popular ones. In fact, I’d never heard of the Creation or the Pretty Things until I saw them on a similar chart, actually drawn to look like a tree, of the whole of British pop.
But the music business is less like a tree than an ocean full of fish, the big ones gobbling up the small, some innovators languishing while others consolidate their gains and move on. Neither the Creation nor the Pretty Things scored very big in England, much less the States, and for years their releases have been difficult to find on CD. But late last year both bands were sprung from the where-are-they-now file when independent labels reissued their early records en masse. Retroactive’s exhaustive Making Time and Biff Bang Pow! collect everything the Creation recorded with producer Shel Talmy between 1966 and ’68, plus a few live TV performances. And the British label Snapper has reissued, with numerous bonus tracks, the Pretty Things’ first four albums–including S.F. Sorrow, the narrative concept album they recorded in 1967.
The reissues are excellent in their own right, but they also fill in the gaps as even Frame’s dense handwriting can’t: The Pretty Things vaulted from grimy R & B to sophisticated acoustic pop to driving psychedelia in the space of two years, discarding the hit-single formula to craft the Summer of Love’s most cohesive album. The Creation never made that essential leap, remaining a singles band until their bitter end, but their fusion of mod melody and psychedelic sheets of sound would prove a key influence on the Britpop of the 90s. (Creation Records, the UK label named after the band, brought us Ride, Oasis, and the best work of My Bloody Valentine.) From 1964 to ’68, both bands were trading sounds, gimmicks, and sometimes personnel with the Stones, the Kinks, the Who, the Faces, and the Yardbirds. But factors other than talent conspired to determine who would go off to play stadiums and who would while away the years down at the pub.
Contacted by telephone and E-mail last month, members of the Creation and the Pretty Things disagreed about the much-remarked-upon musical fertility of Swinging London. Dick Taylor, lead guitarist for the Pretties, says he was less interested in what other pop artists were doing than in soul, Sun Ra, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus; lead singer Phil May says he spent his off-hours listening to jazz and classical. Eddie Phillips, lead guitarist for the Creation, says most bands tried hard to find their own sound but were bombarded with one another’s music. May agrees: “Most nights you were playing with a couple of contemporary bands. Doing radio or TV, you’d be working and hearing what seven other bands in the charts were playing–I mean, you couldn’t get away from it. You went into any clothes shop in Carnaby Street, and it was very music orientated.”
In 1964, while the Who were gigging as the High Numbers, the Creation was known as the Mark Four. That fall the Kinks left both peers behind as their nasty guitar-rock anthem “You Really Got Me” climbed to number seven in the U.S., airlifting them into the British Invasion. Like the Kinks and the High Numbers, the Mark Four blasted out high-energy R & B for pilled-up mods, trying to come up with sensational stage gimmicks that would draw press. And like the High Numbers, the Mark Four featured a brooding, charismatic lead singer–Kenny Pickett–and a fiery, inventive lead guitarist (Phillips) who could barely tolerate each other. In a 1996 interview for the zine Ugly Things, Shel Talmy, who produced all three bands, was asked whether the Creation was influenced by the Who. “No, they preceded the Who!” Talmy insisted. “The Who were influenced by them!…[Pete] Townshend’s admitted that on several occasions. Eddie Phillips is possibly the best unknown guitarist in the whole world.”
In his new book Unknown Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Richie Unterberger also notes that Phillips reportedly “declined an invitation to join the Who as a second guitarist.” But Phillips, who says he met Townshend during the Mark Four days, says it’s not true. He doesn’t know how the story got started, but Mike Stax, editor of Ugly Things, thinks it was probably planted in a fan magazine by the Creation’s management. Townshend didn’t respond to an interview request. And Talmy is hardly an unbiased source. In January 1966 the Who broke its contract with him. He sued, winning a 5 percent royalty on all the band’s albums through 1971, and as recently as 1997 he was withholding the original master tapes for The Who Sings My Generation from MCA’s series of Who reissues. After the Kinks ditched him too, Talmy moved on to the Creation, but he never got a genuine hit out of them.
Yet Phillips clearly was an audacious and original talent: along with Townshend and Jeff Beck, he pioneered the use of controlled guitar feedback. In 1964 Phillips bought a cherry-red Gibson ES-335, “which was semiacoustic, and through my gear it just used to howl, this thing. And I thought, wow, this is a strange thing, but if I could control it, that would be a bit of a laugh, you know. And make it make sense.”
Interviewed in Playboy in 1980, John Lennon claimed that the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine,” released in December 1964, was the first pop record with guitar feedback. Five months later Townshend used feedback to create the Morse-code effect on the Who’s second single, “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” and three months after that Phillips incorporated feedback into a guitar solo on “I’m Leaving,” a Mark Four B side. Interviewed in Ugly Things, Phillips is more modest than Talmy about his rivalry with Townshend: “It came as a bit of a disappointment when we were doing the feedback stuff and all that and someone told us there was a band in West London doing that kind of stuff and that they were called the High Numbers….So really who was first on the scene with all that I don’t know to this day.”
The Who didn’t need Phillips: by spring 1966 they’d scored four British top tens, including the anthemic “My Generation” and the witty “Substitute,” and they’d hit on the extremely effective, if expensive, publicity stunt of smashing their instruments at the end of nearly every show. Around that time the Mark Four signed with manager Tony Stratton-Smith, a London sportswriter skilled at manipulating the press. “The Mark Four” was beginning to sound too mod, so the band was rechristened the Creation, after a Russian poem Pickett had read. (Stratton-Smith called the Catholic and Anglican churches, asked if the band’s name seemed offensive, and turned the differing responses he got into an item for the tabloids.) He found Bob Garner to replace “dumpy” bassist Tony Cooke (who’d replaced John Dalton, who’d joined the Kinks). But most important, Stratton-Smith connected the band with Talmy.
Talmy was born in Chicago and worked as an engineer at Capitol until Nik Venet, the A and R man who’d signed the Beach Boys, helped him land a job at Decca in the UK. By 1966 Talmy had his own label, Planet Records, and he was immediately taken by Phillips’s guitar work and Pickett’s aggressive attitude. His first single with the Creation, “Making Time,” has the same raw guitar sound and overdriven bass as the earlier Who and Kinks records. It also explodes with a psychedelic guitar solo in which Phillips saws at his Gibson with a violin bow, drawing out ominous bass drones, skittering sixteenth notes, and weird backward-tape sounds on the signature riff. Phillips had been playing with a bow since 1964, using it to create organlike effects on R & B numbers like Bo Diddley’s “Mona” and “House of the Rising Sun.” Another of Talmy’s proteges, session guitarist Jimmy Page, stole the trick from Phillips when he was playing with the Yardbirds and later used it with Led Zeppelin. “[Page] had a much more casual touch to it,” Pickett observes in the liner notes to the new CDs. “Eddie used it more as a saw. He’d really dig into it. He’d go through several bows a night.”
The Creation’s next single, “Painter Man”–the tale of an art-school grad who gives up his lofty ideals to make a bundle drawing dirty postcards–was an awkward stab at Kinks-style social satire. But the stereo mix included on Biff Bang Pow! reveals more fine psychedelic guitar scraping from Phillips, and similar staccato rhythms, falsetto backup singing, and subject matter showed up in the Who single “Pictures of Lily” six months later. “Painter Man” also yielded one of the Creation’s best stage gimmicks: Pickett would spray paint a backdrop and set it aflame at the climax of the show, after Phillips had taken a few swipes at it with his bow. In Germany the song was a number two hit, though the band was banned from Munich after performing it at a circus. “They made us play in the ring,” Phillips recalls, “and they put a carpet on the floor. We set our pop-art painting alight, and it caught the mat alight as well, what we were standing on.”
The Creation was also experimenting with strobe lights, projected gels, smoke, and tape loops. “They had all the right chops going,” Talmy says in the liner notes. “They had volume, they had attitude–not a word anybody used back then–and they had the songs, and it seemed to me this was a very commercial band.” Yet “Painter Man,” the group’s biggest single, peaked at 36 on the British charts. The Creation lacked a power source like Who drummer Keith Moon–drummer Jack Jones muddles his way through the “My Generation” groove of the song “Biff Bang Pow”–and while Townshend and Roger Daltrey struck sparks with their internecine feud, the Creation squabbled itself to death. In August 1966, Pickett tried to bring in a new drummer, but his candidate didn’t last long, and after Jones was asked to rejoin the band, Pickett found himself the odd man out. By February 1967 the Birds’ Kim Gardner was playing bass and Bob Garner was the new front man.
Planet Records folded around this time, and the Creation moved to Polydor. Shel Talmy thought the band severely compromised without Pickett: “My clear memories are that I’d just made a huge deal for them in America that would’ve made them superstars–probably, as it now turns out, for the next 30 years, because they were certainly as good as the Who or the Kinks or maybe even the Stones,” he told Ugly Things. “And when Kenny and Eddie came to the point where they almost could no longer be in the same country anymore, I kind of lost interest. Bob was never much of a vocalist.”
Nonetheless, Talmy continued to produce the band’s singles. “Night-mares,” the B side of the band’s first Polydor release, is a spooky reverie driven by Phillips’s icy guitar feedback and the insistent piano of session man Nicky Hopkins, who a few months later would join the Jeff Beck Group. “Can I Join Your Band?,” another mid-’67 recording, is a guitar-heavy march about the son of a military bandsman who tries to infiltrate a rock combo. And Phillips gives one of his greatest performances on the throbbing, feedback-laced, Bob Dylan-inspired “How Does It Feel to Feel,” from February 1968. He still marvels at the sound Talmy was able to capture on the song’s drum intro, “which I’ve heard on so many songs since. Queen used it on one of their songs: boom-boom-whack. It’s a lot of noise on a record, you know?… He did make the guitars of the bands he worked with distinctive. And that, I suppose, was the important thing of the day.”
In October 1967, just after the band released the single “Life Is Just Beginning,” Phillips quit. His marriage was falling apart, and after the Creation’s last three singles had failed to chart in England he’d decided to throw in the towel. Kenny Pickett returned from exile and with Gardner, Jones, and future Rolling Stone Ron Wood milked the name in Europe until April 1968, coughing up one last killer song, the Zombies-esque “For All That I Am.”
To this day the Creation remains one of Talmy’s biggest disappointments. “They couldn’t put aside their personal enmities for the good of the band,” he told Ugly Things. “So instead of becoming extremely rich superstars, they’ve all become very working/middle class nobodies…. Eddie, unfortunately, was a bus driver for years, which is like ‘What a waste!'” By the time the Creation breathed its last, Talmy’s old clients the Who were hatching Tommy, the rock opera that would make them international icons.
Unlike the Creation, the Pretty Things maintained a fairly stable lineup for over a decade, releasing eight albums between 1965 and 1976, and they’ve reunited for many projects since then. Most recently the band members settled a prolonged court case that granted them rights to all of their original albums, and in September they celebrated with a live performance, heard worldwide on the Web, of S.F. Sorrow. But their persistence has never paid off in sales or popular recognition: they haven’t scored a top-ten single in the UK since “Don’t Bring Me Down” in 1964, and in the U.S. they’ve never charted at all. The band emerged from the same blues-obsessed art-school scene that spawned the Rolling Stones–in fact, guitarist Dick Taylor was the Stones’ first bassist–but their crudely recorded debut album, The Pretty Things, sounds more like the basement blues of the Stooges than the manicured R & B of those future superstars.
And like the Stooges, the Pretties were better known for mayhem than music early on. Phil May was pilloried by the London tabloids for having the longest hair in Britain, and while the Beatles and the Stones were dispensing veiled drug references like “Day Tripper” and “Get off of My Cloud,” the Pretty Things were doing a tune called “L.S.D.” They led their peers in antisocial behavior, trashing hotel rooms and getting busted for drugs and weapons; they’re still banned from Australia and New Zealand. Their lunatic drummer, Viv Prince, liked to rattle people by slashing his nose with a knife and walking around with blood pouring down his face. “He made Keith Moon look like a pussycat,” May told Mojo a couple years ago. “Keith studied him, stood in front of his drumkit for about three months before he got his gig with the High Numbers.” Footage of Prince included on the enhanced CD reissue of The Pretty Things shows him tapping at his cymbals from above as Moon did. But Eddie Phillips, who was friendly with Prince, dismisses the idea that Moon copied him. “He might have studied him; he might’ve looked at his style and thought, I can do that, but I’ll do it my own way. There might have been a bit of that. But Keith Moon!”
The Pretty Things were signed to Fontana, the same English label that had snapped up the Mark Four and the High Numbers, but sales dipped after the first album, and with “Cry to Me” in July 1965 the Pretty Things and the Top 40 parted company forever. Their third and last album for Fontana, Emotions, featured strong songs by May, Taylor, and bassist Wally Allen, but the label commandeered the masters and gussied them up with corny string and brass arrangements. By the time it was released the band had signed to EMI and was diving headlong into psychedelia. Taylor remembers listening to a lot of the music coming out of Los Angeles–the Doors, Love, Buffalo Springfield, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart–as well as musique concrete and other experiments. Working with the Beatles’ second engineer, Norman Smith, and recording at Abbey Road while the Fab Four were working on Sgt. Pepper’s and Pink Floyd was making Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the Pretty Things cut “Defecting Grey,” a five-minute opus, even as Phil May was revising the fable that connected the songs of S.F. Sorrow.
The press materials for Snapper’s reissue of the record argue vehemently that S.F. Sorrow (released in December 1968 in the UK) predates Tommy (May 1969) as the first rock opera. Recorded in the summer of 1967, it has more of a narrative than Sgt. Pepper’s or any concept album released that year. It follows a protagonist, Sebastian F. Sorrow, as he falls in love with the girl next door, moves to New York, loses the girl in a zeppelin disaster, and embarks on a psychic journey that spirals into madness. The previous December the Who had released “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” a nine-minute narrative of connected song segments, but May says he never considered it: “The only thing we looked at, really, was opera. I could never understand why a rock album had to be six or seven A sides and B sides mixed in, how it couldn’t be just a continual piece of music, thematically, narratively, whatever way. Everyone said, you’ll never get away with it because the DJs won’t be able to find where one song ends and another begins, and it seemed a very weak argument when you’ve got Wagner’s Ring cycle and everything. For so many years people have been writing pieces of music that did last for 45 minutes, in fact longer.”
Tommy is much closer to an actual opera. Its songs advance the plot, melodic motifs repeat throughout, and an overture previews them all. The songs on S.F. Sorrow are linked mainly by May’s written text, which is interpolated with the actual lyrics. The closest thing it has to an overture is track eight, “The Journey,” in which a mysterious character called Baron Saturday shows Sorrow down a hall of mirrors into his past: the song evolves into an extended guitar freak-out as echoing fragments of the earlier songs drift in and out. On the other hand, S.F. Sorrow was in the can before Pete Townshend even began writing Tommy, and the similarities between the two stories are too great to be coincidental. Tommy, reeling from a murder he witnessed as a child, follows the mysterious Acid Queen on a voyage within, staring blindly at himself in a mirror. According to Dave Marsh’s book Before I Get Old: The Story of the Who, the band’s manager, Kit Lambert, pressured Townshend to write a rock opera, citing S.F. Sorrow as a model. The liner notes to the reissue claim Townshend is “on record” admitting that it was a “key influence” on Tommy, but don’t cite a specific source.
S.F. Sorrow was cursed by delays. Drummer Skip Alan quit the band during the recording and had to be replaced. EMI didn’t understand the record and fought to put it out without the text, and earlier in ’68 the Kinks and the Small Faces both released their own concept albums. By the time S.F. Sorrow was finally released, advance copies had been circulating for a year. “We had a road manager who was then working for the Who,” May recalls. “He was still very friendly with the band, and he got an early copy and took it along to the Who Christmas party. And he played it endlessly.” (Dick Taylor confirms this story, noting that the road manager has since passed on.) “Peter since, apparently, is saying that he never heard S.F. Sorrow, which I don’t think is particularly relevant one way or the other,” says May. “All I can say is, if you listen to S.F. Sorrow and know that it came out 14 months before Tommy was released–I mean, you must pick your own bones out of it.”
Rock opera or not, S.F. Sorrow is an innovative, hard-rocking record that holds together surprisingly well 30 years later. The opening song, “S.F. Sorrow Is Born,” which mixes languid strings with Dick Taylor’s urgent acoustic blues solo, sounds very much like Love (Taylor even admits to copping a phrase from Love’s Da Capo for the jazzy “Balloon Burning”). “Private Sorrow” follows the title character into World War II, driven by a martial beat and Taylor’s snaky electric. “Baron Saturday” is a florid nightmare with creepy double-tracked guitar and hand claps, the singer declaring, “‘Neath a sky of milk you’re drinking silk / You’ve lost the runcible spoon / On satin plates / Young maidens wait / To be devoured by the glare of the moon.” The second half of the record drifts into sub-Floyd wankery, but it’s rescued by “Old Man Going.” The song begins with an acoustic guitar frantically strumming, then a distorted electric guitar stabs at a low note; Townshend used the same idea in “Pinball Wizard,” the Who’s hit single from Tommy.
And if Tommy was ultimately crowned the first rock opera, chronology probably mattered less than financial success. The album reached number two in the UK, and in the States, where the Who had been little more than a cult band, it peaked at number four. They performed it at Woodstock, they performed it at the Metropolitan Opera House; within a year it had made them millionaires and turned a struggling singles band into a rock juggernaut that sustained stadium tours, solo albums, and film projects. But S.F. Sorrow never even charted in England. In America the Pretty Things were on Motown’s Tamla label, which sat on the record until February 1970–nearly three years after it was recorded. “Townshend and Daltrey used to say to me, ‘For Christ’s sake, come out in America, because we’ve got a release date in two months,'” May told Mojo. When S.F. Sorrow was finally released in the U.S., it didn’t chart. Many considered it a rip-off of Tommy.
“It’s almost the same with novelists or filmmakers,” says May. “There’s so many reasons that if you don’t play the game exactly to the rules you can get marginalized. They’re gonna put all their money into Elton John or Rod Stewart, because they think they’re gonna sell 250,000 more of him.” But the inexhaustible market for 60s music, coupled with the relative cheapness of reissuing old material, has floated the Creation and the Pretty Things back to the surface. These are probably the best, most comprehensive releases they’ve ever had, allowing us to see how both bands were of their time but in some ways strikingly original. “I don’t think anybody was actually listening consciously to what anybody else was doing,” insists Eddie Phillips. “Although if you read Pete Townshend’s version of Hendrix, he would say that Jimi used to copy their act. I don’t know how true that was, but there was always a bit of that going on. I mean, you couldn’t not be influenced by what someone was doing if it was good.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Pretty Things, Creation and various album covers.