Publication date: January 2014
S.F. Sorrow Is Born
The small town was just under eight miles from everywhere, the grey brickwork soaked up the white sun. The factory of misery lay in the centre, it had been a boom year. From its tall chimneys the factory puffed out large black clouds of its importance that floated above the town. The boom continued. Each morning the workers were sucked from their houses that stood like rows of decaying teeth in long necklaces that were hung around the throats of nearby hills, a new day…
It’s with these words that S.F. Sorrow, the brilliant 1968 album by The Pretty Things introduces itself to the world. Printed alongside the lyrics, it’s the start of a grimly picaresque story that follows the character of Sebastian F. Sorrow from ill-starred birth through to the disillusionment of old age. While the following years were to see a plethora of albums released that used the device of an over-arching storyline or concept to link songs together into something more than just a collection of singles and B-sides, S.F. Sorrow has the distinction of being one of the first albums to do this. The fact that it was both critically and commercially over-looked on its release, and subsequently over-shadowed by The Who’s Tommy (which came out a few months later), has seen it become something of a cause célèbre among music fans.
But S.F. Sorrow has a lot more to offer than merely being a bone of contention between 60s aficionados. Constantly pushing at the limitations of contemporary recording technology and sowing the seeds of various musical genres along the way, S.F. Sorrow is an extraordinarily cohesive and visionary record and a definitive statement in British psychedelia. When I first heard this album, I was struck by how modern much of it sounded, testament perhaps to the enduring influence that the first epoch of rock continues to have on many of today’s bands. But what I was actually hearing was music that felt strangely timeless, still vital and exciting despite the intervening years and its undeserved obscurity.
S.F. Sorrow came at a pivotal point for The Pretty Things. Emerging in the early 60s from the same south London art school milieu as The Rolling Stones (in fact, guitarist Dick Taylor had originally played bass with the Stones), The Pretty Things initially mined a similar seam of raucous R’n’B, and scored big hits with singles such as ‘Rosalyn’ and ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’. Notoriously hairier and ‘dirtier’ than the Stones, and with a reputation for serious rabble-rousing, their label Fontana nevertheless decided that the band needed to change their sound in line with the more sophisticated chart music emerging at the time. Paired with the distinctly unhip Reg Tilsley and his middle-aged session men, the result was the orchestral pop and theatrical whimsy of 1967’s Emotions, an album which the band dislike even to this day.
With The Beatles’ daring and innovative Sgt. Pepper album released just a month after their latest effort, The Pretty Things knew they needed to take radical action if they were to remain relevant to the fast-evolving UK music scene. While regarded as an artistic failure, Emotions had nevertheless seen the band start to move away from the straight forward rave-ups of their early tracks to a more narrative form of songwriting. Leaving Fontana and signing to the more progressive EMI, singer and lyricist Phil May suggested that the new material they were producing should be thematically linked to a short story he had written – as he says in the sleeve notes to the CD re-issue of S.F. Sorrow, “they’d been doing it in classical music for years, so why not us?”
Why not indeed? While the concept album would eventually come to be derided by the critical community as the last gasp of bloated prog rock dinosaurs, in 1968 it was still a new and exciting idea, and one that clearly caught the imagination of The Pretty Things, galvanising them into making an album that was musically adventurous while being packed full of great songs. Whether or not it was the first ‘rock opera’ remains a moot point though. It certainly wasn’t the first album with a storyline – for example, released in 1967, Nirvana’s The Story of Simon Simopath even has a superficially similar plot to S.F. Sorrow. And Sgt. Pepper itself was referred to as a concept album of sorts, albeit in the loosest possible sense.
I would argue that S.F. Sorrow occupies a unique position in rock history. While it’s definitely a serious piece of work, it doesn’t self-consciously aspire to be anything other than a series of songs telling a story. From Tommy onwards, one of the key problems with many concept albums is their apparent need to legitimise popular music as an art form by referring to already established and accepted cultural norms. In other words, there’s a sense that the music isn’t sufficient in itself to be taken seriously – even the term ‘rock opera’ has always struck me as being ingratiating verging on comical. In contrast, Phil May was simply inspired by the move away from the single to the album as the band’s primary delivery mechanism for its music: with 40 minutes available to you, why wouldn’t you explore the possibilities of this long-form medium?
Before we get onto the music, there’s one more observation to make about S.F. Sorrow that sets it apart from the great majority of concept albums that followed it. As the introduction to Sebastian F’s story makes clear, this is a narrative that’s rooted in the bleak realities of the early 20th century as experienced by the common man. While it develops along fantastical lines, it never shies away from depicting the modern world as a harsh and difficult place to live in, with a happy ending far from guaranteed – in short, life’s a bitch and then you die. (Tommy and later on Pink Floyd’s The Wall explore similar territory, but they lack the Everyman character that Sebastian represents).
In fact, it could be argued that S.F Sorrow sees the late flowering in pop/rock of the ‘angry young man’ tendency prevalent in British literature, theatre and film from the mid-50s onwards. Writers including John Osborne and Alan Sillitoe, and film makers such as Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson, channelled the working class frustrations of post-war Britain and kicked against the status quo of what to many of its citizens still felt like a feudal society. Consistent with The Pretty Things’ own working class upbringing, S.F. Sorrow reflects this anger with its references to “factories of misery” and the twin engines of ‘progress’ in the 20th century: capitalism and war.
For many commentators, the flower children’s dream of peace, love and understanding came to a definitive end with the brutal events of The Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert in December 1969. But in musical terms at least, The Pretty Things had already called time on the Aquarian Age a year before with S.F. Sorrow’s incendiary blend of kitchen sink realism, dark psychedelic visions and proto-hard rock.
The album starts appropriately enough with ‘S.F. Sorrow is Born’, which in contrast to its lyrical theme is joyous and uplifting. An opening flourish of guitar leads into the vaguely Eastern-accented chord sequence of the main song and a marvellous cascading bassline from multi-instrumentalist Wally Waller, the band’s other main songwriter alongside Phil May and Dick Taylor. May sings the title over and over in uneasy celebration, before a woozy duel commences between acoustic guitar and Mellotron, that eerie mechanical signifier of the experimental music of this era.
Moving to EMI had meant access to the company’s legendary studios in Abbey Road, where S.F. Sorrow was recorded. This gave the group free reign over any exotic instrument that happened to be plugged in or lying around, which partially explains the album’s lushness and variety of sound. Another major factor was the production skills of Norman Smith, the sonic boffin who had engineered every Beatles album up to and including Rubber Soul, and had previously produced Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and A Saucerful of Secrets. Effectively, he was the go-to man for state-of-the-art psychedelic recordings, and The Pretty Things certainly regarded him as an additional band member during the sessions for both S.F. Sorrow and their next album Parachute.
‘Bracelets of Fingers’ follows, and with its almost parodically blissed out chant of “Love, love, love…” and lyrics about flying “to the moon on the curve of a spoon”, it’s easy to hear it as merely a period curio. But there’s an unusual tension created by the distortion on May’s ringmaster-like voice and the bubbling guitar that simmers beneath it, which is only heightened by the stinging sound of a sitar (on unwitting loan from George Harrison apparently!) in the middle eight. The prismatic trippiness of this and many of the other songs on the album isn’t surprising coming from a group that put out a track baldly titled ‘L.S.D.’ in 1965 (a long time before ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’) – as Phil May said in a recent interview, “S.F. Sorrow was fuelled by LSD and a cocktail of substances”.
After boyhood dreams comes first love with ‘She Says Good Morning’, an upbeat rock song with piercing double-tracked guitars and a thumping rhythm section over which May snarls out a vocal that’s heavy with both longing and lust. But the conversation at the garden gate is cut cruelly short by ‘Private Sorrow’, as Sebastian gets called up to fight in a war. A bucolically folky intro gives way to a steady martial beat and an incongruously cheerful pipe organ motif as the troops advance into battle. May delivers some of his most poetic lyrics during this song: “Heaven's army falls upon the skirts of Mother Earth and then flies skywards. Twisting wings through the air, lift the souls, so you might know his fury”.
‘Private Sorrow’ ends with a roll-call of soldiers’ names listed missing or killed in action, but Sebastian has survived and now finds himself in “a strange land called Amerik”. He sends a ticket back to his childhood sweetheart at home so that she can join him, but tragedy strikes – he watches helplessly as the airship she’s travelling on bursts into flames and crashes to the ground. Inspired by the Hindenburg disaster (soon to be immortalised on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s debut album), ‘Balloon Burning’ is perhaps S.F. Sorrow’s most thrilling track, its explosive opening and insistent sliding two note riff gripping the listener’s attention as May slurs out the stark words in nightmarish slow motion. Just as the locked groove of the verses threatens to become oppressive, there’s a brilliantly dynamic step change which lifts the chorus into the night sky, while making Sebastian’s despair horribly real. Dick Taylor’s furious guitar solo even anticipates the tone and attack of Robert Fripp, with the track as a whole suggesting a strong influence on the heavier music that was to follow in the years to come.
With Sebastian consumed by grief, side one (as was) ends with ‘Death’, which sounds like a blueprint for an entire generation of gloomy troubadours to come, and aspires to Jacques Brel-esque levels of lyrical intensity. Interestingly, there’s also more than a hint of the evocative widescreen film music that Ennio Morricone composed for the violent and surreal ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ of Sergio Leone, which were enjoying their first wave of popularity in Britain at the time.
The second half of the record details Sebastian’s descent into madness following the death of his beloved and the spiritual journey he takes to try and come out the other side. It kicks off in groovily pugnacious style with ‘Baron Saturday’, a top-hatted corpse-like spirit from Haitian Voodoo who the unravelling Sebastian encounters in New York’s Central Park. Over a shaker-led rhythm that conjures images of some ghoulish ceremony, May plays the role of the mocking, tempting Baron, offering to “take your eyes out for a ride”, before the technicolour chorus crashes the party with Mellotron string stabs and rolling piano. While recognisably of its time, this chorus sounds remarkably similar to the 60s-referencing sampledelia of DJ Shadow and big beat producers such as Fatboy Slim. There’s a heavy percussion breakdown reminiscent of the Stones’ contemporaneous ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, before a dream-like passage of chiming guitars leads back into the chorus.
Borne aloft by the Baron, ‘The Journey’ begins Sebastian’s hallucinogenic voyage of self-discovery, pushing to the fore the high vocal harmonies that sometimes has the band sounding like an English version of the Beach Boys – the kaleidoscopic pop psychedelia of Pet Sounds would almost certainly have been an influence on S.F. Sorrow. As the track picks up momentum, ghostly snatches of some of the album’s previous songs bleed out of the mix, as Sebastian’s memories continue to haunt him.
‘I See You’ is another of the album’s many highlights, a magnificently moody ballad originally recorded by The Pretty Things’ library music alter ego Electric Banana (see BOX-OUT) that sounds not unlike a bombed-out version of The Who’s similarly titled ‘I Can See For Miles’. The track’s lulling rise and fall is rudely curtailed by a chanting vari-speeded voice that leads into ‘Well of Destiny’, a short sound collage of echoing piano and guitar.
Searching for “new values”, ‘Trust’ is a melodically dense piece of songwriting, Sebastian’s words tumbling over one another in his urgent desire to communicate afresh with the world, but ultimately finding that there’s nobody and nothing for him to connect with. There’s a Beatles-like buoyancy to this track, with its swelling backing vocals and piano-driven under-carriage, which belies its unhappy subject matter.
S.F. Sorrow’s penultimate track is also its most controversial, certainly for those parties still slugging it out over who made the first serious concept album. ‘Old Man Going’ starts with a frantically strummed acoustic guitar riff which many people – The Pretty Things included – have claimed was a direct influence on Tommy’s ‘Pinball Wizard’. Whatever the truth of the matter – and Pete Townshend himself has strenuously denied the rumour – ‘Old Man Going’ is a viscerally exciting rock song, its crunching verses and May’s sneering vocals almost punkish in attitude, while its chorus soars into the stratosphere.
But the sentiment at the close of S.F Sorrow is markedly pessimistic. ‘Old Man Going’ concludes with the lines, “Streets filled with bouquets from a cloudy sky, they'll soon forget the field in which you lie”, while the final melancholy song on the album is simply called ‘Loneliest Person’, which voices Sebastian’s complete alienation from the world over a plaintive acoustic backing.
Exactly 45 years old this month, S.F. Sorrow stands as one of rock music’s earliest major statements, regardless of its reception at the time or its subsequent haggling for position in the great concept album debate. The band themselves have blamed a lack of promotion as one of the reasons why it didn’t make a bigger impact on its release, though coming out within a few days of such heavyweight records as The Beatles’ White Album and the Stones’ Beggars Banquet couldn’t have helped. Also, its overall theme of enslavement of the human spirit may not have been to everyone’s taste, while the band’s attempts to replicate the sound of S.F. Sorrow onstage using backing tapes ended in disaster when not only the band but also their soundman ingested way too much LSD.
While some critics have used those simultaneously released albums to suggest that S.F. Sorrow must have seemed out of step with what was happening in the wider music scene, with psychedelia already being superseded by a return to more blues-based roots rock, I would argue that history has ultimately come down on the side of The Pretty Things. It’s the pioneering and inventive urge to do something new, as boldly embraced on S.F. Sorrow, which has continued to push pop, rock and alternative music forward over the years. Rather than just a set of sonic tropes and poses, psychedelia is here revealed as a way of doing things that encourages curiosity and exploration, and sometimes leads to albums as exceptional as this one.
Unpeeling the Electric Banana
Constantly short of cash, The Pretty Things supplemented their income during the Emotions/S.F. Sorrow period by recording a series of short library music records for the De Wolfe company under the nom de plume of Electric Banana. While many of the tracks were destined for use on the soundtracks of various forgettable ‘swinging 60s’ exploitation movies, these records contain some of The Pretty Things’ finest songs. As well as ‘I See You’, highlights also include the stomping garage psych of ‘Alexander’ and the awesome hard prog of ‘Eagle’s Son’, an anti-war diatribe that contains one of Phil May’s best lyrics: “We’re not trying to kill you, we’re just asking you to die”.