S.F. Sorrow is the fourth LP by the British rock group The Pretty Things, released in 1968.
One of the first rock concept albums, S.F. Sorrow was based on a short story by singer Phil May. The album is structured as a song cycle, telling the story of the main character, Sebastian F. Sorrow, from birth through love, war, tragedy, madness, and the disillusionment of old age.
Although the album is a rock opera, it has been stated by members of The Who that the record had no major influence on Pete Townshend and his writing of Tommy (1969). The Pretty Things, however, have suggested otherwise, as have some critics over the years.
Recording began at Abbey Road Studios in November 1967 with work on “Bracelets of Fingers”. Two tracks that had been earmarked for the album, “Talking About the Good Times” and “Walking Through My Dreams”, were instead released as a single in February 1968. In March 1968, drummer Skip Alan suddenly quit the band thanks to a whirlwind romance, and Twink (born John Charles Alder), whose band Tomorrow had recently split up, took his place.
Working with noted EMI staff producer Norman “Hurricane” Smith (who had engineered the earlier Beatles recordings and produced Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn) and house engineer Peter Mew, the group experimented with the latest sound technology, including the Mellotron and early electronic tone generators, often employing gadgets and techniques devised on the spot by Abbey Road’s technicians.
Phil May has emphatically stated that Smith was the only person at EMI who was fully supportive of the project, and that his technical expertise was invaluable to the ambitious, experimental sound of the album; May once even referred to Smith as a “sixth member” of the band. This attitude was in marked contrast to Pink Floyd’s unhappiness with Smith.
Work on the album concluded in September 1968 with the recording of what would be its closing track, “Loneliest Person”. “Private Sorrow” and “Balloon Burning” were extracted for an October 1968 single, and the album was released the following month, in the same week as The Beatles’ White Album, and The Kinks’ The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. EMI did little to promote the album, and it was not released in the US by any EMI affiliate. Over six months later, Motown, of all labels, picked up the album for the US and issued it as part of the first batch of album on their newly created Rare Earth label, a label meant for rock music. The album was poorly mastered (with a one channel volume drop on “Baron Saturday” running over 30 seconds), coupled with no promotion, and Motown’s complete redesign of the album artwork guaranteed the album to sell very poorly.
S.F. Sorrow was released in mono and stereo; both have been rereleased on CD by Snapper Records. The band’s members have expressed a strong preference for the mono mix.
S.F. Sorrow’s narrative is different from others in the rock opera/concept album genre: while Tommy and Pink Floyd’s The Wall relay their concept through the lyrics of their songs, The Pretty Things tell the bulk of the story through small paragraph-like chapters which were printed between each song’s lyrics in the liner notes of the LP and the CD. These explanatory notes were read aloud between song performances by Arthur Brown during The Pretty Things’ first of two known live performances of the opera. The second occurred on 10 April 2009 at the 5th annual Le Beat Bespoke Weekender sponsored by Mojo magazine.
Like Tommy, S.F. Sorrow opens with the birth of the story’s protagonist at the turn of the 20th century. Sebastian F. Sorrow is born in a small nameless town to ordinary parents in a house called “Number Three”. The town is supported by a factory of some sort, referred to as the “Misery Factory”. (“S.F. Sorrow Is Born”) Sorrow, an imaginative boy, has a relatively normal childhood until it ends abruptly when he needs to get a job. He goes to work with his father at the Misery Factory, from which many men have been laid off. This might make S.F. the object of hate in a sense that he might be a scab in the story, or perhaps the young boy who is taking some older man’s job, and he comes into his sexual adolescence during this period (“Bracelets of Fingers”).
Sorrow’s life is not yet over, though. Joy still exists for him in the form of a pretty girl across the street. She says ‘Good morning’ to him every day, and he thinks about her constantly. This is the factor that keeps him going despite his childhood’s abrupt ending. The two fall in love and become engaged, but their marriage plans are cut short when Sorrow is drafted (“She Says Good Morning”).
John Charles Alder (aka Twink) of The Pretty Things performs on stage in 1968 in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Sorrow joins a light infantry (“Private Sorrow”) and goes off to fight in a war, possibly World War I. Sorrow sinks into a daze, living out the entire war in a funk. Soon the sounds of gunfire and artillery become the rhythm to his life in a daydream. He survives the war and settles down in a land called “Amerik” (obviously referring to the country America, because the first words of the song “Balloon Burning” are “New York”). Sorrow’s fiancée travels by a balloon, the Windenberg (Hindenburg) to join him, but it bursts into flame at arrival (“Balloon Burning”), killing all aboard. Sorrow is left alone, his beloved fiancée dead (“Death”).
Sorrow drifts into a state of depression that leads him on an epic journey to the centre of his subconscious. When wandering the streets, he encounters the mysterious Baron Saturday. (A character intended to represent Baron Samedi, a deity in Haitian Voodoo religion.) The black-cloaked Saturday invites Sorrow to take a journey and then, without waiting for a response, “borrows his eyes” and initiates a trip through the Underworld (“Baron Saturday”).
The trippish quest begins by taking flight into the air, where Sorrow is driven by a whip-cracking Baron Saturday. Sorrow thinks he is flying toward the moon, which would have been lovely as he always had a fascination with it, but instead he sees that it is instead his own face. The Baron pushes him through the mouth of the face and then down the throat where they find a set of oak doors. Saturday throws them open and prompts S.F. Sorrow inside where he finds a room full of mirrors (“The Journey”). Each one of them shows a memory from his childhood, which Baron Saturday suggests that he studies well. After the hall of mirrors comes a long winding staircase which brings him to two opaque mirrors that show him the horrible truths and revelations from his life (“I See You”).
Alternate US front + back cover
Sorrow is destroyed by his journey; it leads him to understand that no one can be trusted any longer, and that society will only do away with you when you become old and serve it no longer (“Trust”). He is driven into a dark mental seclusion where he suffers from eternal loneliness. Much like The Wall, S.F. Sorrow is the tale of a man who has endured hardships which he uses to build into a mental wall that cuts him off from the rest of the waking world, and leaves them without light (“Old Man Going”). At the end of the album he identifies himself as “the loneliest person in the world” (“Loneliest Person”).
A number of critics over the years have suggested that one reason for the album’s lack of success was the album’s very negative and sad storyline.
Shortly after the album’s release in 1968, the band attempted to perform the album onstage at Middle Earth Club in London. It was by all accounts a strange show which featured the band miming to the EMI backing tracks. Each member also played various characters and in the role of Sorrow was Twink, wearing a leotard, white face make up and indulging in his penchant for mime. After that, a handful of songs from the album became part of their typical live set notably “She Says Good Morning”, “Balloon Burning” and “Old Man Going”.
On 6 September 1998, the line up who recorded the original album – excepting Twink – returned to Abbey Road Studio 2 to perform a fully live version of the album for one of the first netcasts. Joining them were Arthur Brown who provided the narration, David Gilmour who added lead guitar parts on a handful of songs, Skip Alan’s son Dov on percussion, Frank Holland on guitar and vocals and manager Mark St. John on percussion. The ensemble performed to a specially invited audience of friends and family. The netcast server was quickly overloaded so barely anyone got to see it live as intended. The show was recorded on tape and video. Resurrection was released months later featuring the soundtrack, and a DVD of the show was finally released in 2003.
The same ensemble performed the show again this time to a paying public at The Royal Festival Hall in London on 19 October 2001. Plans to perform the show in Paris and America never came to fruition and neither did a short 40th anniversary tour slated for venues in the UK in January 2009. However, the 2009 incarnation of The Pretty Things featuring May, Taylor, Frank Holland, George Perez, Jack Greenwood and Mark St. John did perform the album onstage at Le Beat Bespoke, a weekend festival at The Venue in London on 10 April 2009. Arthur Brown was absent and Phil May chose to abbreviate the narration between the songs.
To this day, “SF Sorrow Is Born”, “Balloon Burning”, “Baron Saturday” and “Old Man Going” regularly appear in the band’s set list. (by wikipedia)
Who could ever have thought, going back to the Pretty Things’ first recording session in 1965 — which started out so disastrously that their original producer quit in frustration — that it would come to this? The Pretty Things’ early history in the studio featured the band with its amps seemingly turned up to 11, but for much of S.F. Sorrow the band is turned down to seven or four, or even two, or not amplified at all (except for Wally Allen’s bass — natch), and they’re doing all kinds of folkish things here that are still bluesy enough so you never forget who they are, amid weird little digressions on percussion and chorus; harmony vocals that are spooky, trippy, strange, and delightful; sitars included in the array of stringed instruments; and an organ trying hard to sound like a Mellotron. Sometimes one gets an echo of Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn or A Saucerful of Secrets, and it all straddles the worlds of British blues and British psychedelia better than almost any record you can name. The album, for those unfamiliar, tells the story of “S.F. Sorrow,” a sort of British Everyman — think of a working-class, luckless equivalent to the Kinks’ Arthur, from cradle to grave. The tale and the songs are a bit downbeat and no amount of scrutiny can disguise the fact that the rock opera S.F. Sorrow is ultimately a bit of a confusing effort — these boys were musicians, not authors or dramatists. Although it may have helped inspire Tommy, it is, simply, not nearly as good. That said, it was first and has quite a few nifty ideas and production touches. And it does show a pathway between blues and psychedelia that the Rolling Stones, somewhere between Satanic Majesties, “We Love You,” “Child of the Moon,” and Beggars Banquet, missed entirely. [This CD reissue on Snapper adds four valuable songs from their 1967-1968 singles (“Defecting Grey,” “Mr. Evasion,” “Talkin’ About the Good Times,” and “Walking Through My Dreams”). This version of “Defecting Grey” is the original, long, uncut five-minute rendition, and not of trivial importance; it’s superior to the shorter one used on the official single.] (by Bruce Eder)
Skip Alan (drums)
Phil May (vocals)
Jon Povey (organ, sitar, mellotron, percussion, vocals)
Dick Taylor (guitar, vocals)
Wally Waller (bass, guitar, vocals, wind instruments, piano)
01, S.F. Sorrow Is Born (May/Taylor/Waller) 3.12
02. Bracelets of Fingers (May/Taylor/Waller) 3.41
03. She Says Good Morning (May/Taylor/Waller/Twink) 3.23
04. Private Sorrow (May/Taylor/Waller/Povey) 3.51
05. Balloon Burning (May/Taylor/Waller/Povey) 3.51
06. Death (May/Taylor/Waller/Povey/Twink) 3.05
07. Baron Saturday (May/Taylor/Waller) 4.01
08. The Journey (May/Taylor/Waller/Twink) 2.46
09. I See You (May/Taylor/Waller) 3.56
10. Well Of Destiny (Smith/May/Taylor/Waller/Povey/Twink/Smith) 1.46
11. Trust (May/Taylor/Waller) 2.49
12. Old Man Going (May/Taylor/Waller/Povey/Twink) 3.09
13. Loneliest Person (May/Taylor/Waller/Twink) 1.29
14. Defecting Grey (May/Taylor/Waller) 4.31
15. Mr. Evasion (May/Taylor/Waller) 3.31
16. Talkin’ About The Good Times (May/Taylor/Waller) 3.46
17. Walking Through My Dreams (May/Taylor/Waller/Povey) 3.47