Born: November 9, 1944;

Died: May 15, 2020.

PHIL May, the frontman of the outrageous, anarchic Sixties pop band the Pretty Things, has died at the age of 75 after suffering from complications following hip surgery after a cycling accident.

Initially an energetic R&B outfit, they had a string of hits in the mid-1960s, including Rosalyn and Don’t Bring Me Down (which reached number 10 in 1964). But their sound became more experimental and their 1968 ‘rock opera’ album, S.F. Sorrow, reflected their involvement in the psychedelic underground scene.

They influenced David Bowie, who references them in his song, Oh You Pretty Things, and covered Rosalyn and Don’t Bring Me Down on his 1973 album, Pin Ups. The likes of Jimi Hendrix, Aerosmith and Van Morrison were acolytes of the wild boys of pop, who enjoyed not only chart success but a phenomenal 55-year-long career.

This longevity was very much down to the controversial, enigmatic May. In many ways he proved to be the stereotypical pop star, but also a performer who came to define counterculture itself.

He was bisexual and was also a keen practitioner, by his own accounts, of debauchery, inspiring a habit for rock excess that was to be followed assiduously by young bands across the world. Classic Rock magazine once wrote: “Before Led Zeppelin, The Who, or even the Rolling Stones arrived on the scene ... the Pretty Things were the acknowledged perpetrators of mayhem, outrage and general carnage. Musically and visually they were well ahead of their time.”

Philip Dennis Arthur Wadey was raised by his aunt and uncle, the Mays, in Dartford in Kent. Although later (legally) sent back to live with his parents, as an adult he chose the May surname.

Life really began for him at Sidcup Art College in 1963. He became friends with guitarist Dick Taylor, who had recently left an unknown local band, the Rolling Stones. May and Taylor formed the Pretty Things, but the Stones played a major part in their lives, as sometime friends – and full-time rivals – on the blues-rock scene. Keith Richards had also gone to Sidcup College and May, Taylor and the Stones’ then leader Brian Jones all shared a house.

Phil May recalled the rivalry in an interview: “At the time the big thing in school playgrounds was that you either had to be into the Rolling Stones or the Pretty Things, you couldn’t like both. Their original manager, Andrew Oldham, played on the rivalry, as he couldn’t handle the fact that we got the publicity for being uglier, noisier and more unruly. So Brian was literally sleeping with the enemy.”

The “enemy” and the Stones, were wild boys indeed. “One night, Brian came back from a gig and we were playing the [Stones EP] Five By Five and really enjoying it; everybody’s really stoned and laughing”, May recalled. “As Brian walked in, he thought we were taking the ---- out of the record. For some reason he had this ukulele, and he ran over and smashed it over Viv’s head. Of course, Viv didn’t really notice as he was semi-unconscious anyway.”

As success grew, so too did May’s hair – “the longest in Britain” said a newspaper report – and his reputation for being loud and demonstrative made him a target for abuse. “By the time the Pretty Things hit the TV screens, I was used to being abused and spat at and getting into punch-ups, because it had happened when we were art students”, he said. “We’d done our apprenticeship at being outsiders.”

Alongside the highly enthusiastic drink and drug taking, the Pretty Things confirmed a real talent for making great music. The band released two albums, The Pretty Things and Get The Picture, and had two more chart hits with Honey I Need You and Cry To Me.

May claimed that drugs, LSD in particular, played a hugely important part in his writing of the album S.F. Sorrow. “It was like a sharpening of the imagination for me,” he recalled. “I don’t think S.F. Sorrow would have been impossible without it, but there’s a lot of acid in the imagery.”

May loved the rock n’roll lifestyle and revelled in friendships with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, with whom he shared a bill on the Parisian student circuit, as well as girlfriends.

When chart success waned in the mid-Seventies, the band continued to tour, having joined Led Zeppelin’s Swansong label. “During our Led Zeppelin years, the Pretty Things played at an infamous LA venue called the Roxy and Iggy Pop came along,” May recalled. “The Stooges were massive fans of The Pretties and we used to hang out together. We thought he was going to sing. But he didn’t, he just ran from one side of the stage to the other and head-butted the wall.”

The Pretties sold fewer records but still packed venues. May continued to have immense fun. “Viv Prince, in his madness, once said to me, ‘We’re going out on a double date, you and me.’ I said, ‘Oh right. Who is it?’ He said, ‘Judy Garland, and she’s bringing somebody for you.’

“So we go down to a club called the Ad Lib, and we’re sitting around and the lift doors open and there’s Judy – a bit gone on the sauce already – and she’s got Rudy Nureyev on her arm. So I say, ‘Thanks, Viv. Is that what you call a double date?’ Everybody wanted to know who slept with whom, but I honestly can’t remember. Wish I could.”

Phil May had a son, Paris, and a daughter, Sorrel, from his marriage to Electra Nemon, which ended in divorce. He is survived by his long-term partner, Colin Graham.