Artist: The Pretty Things
Album: S.F. Sorrow
Genre: Psychedelic Pop / Rock Opera
“For ten weeks now number three stood empty
Nobody thought there would be
Family laughter behind the windows
Or a Christmas tree.
Then a couple from up north
Sorrow and his wife arrived
Before the sun had left the streets
They were living inside.
Then before too long
The street it rang with the sound
From number three there came a cry
S. F. Sorrow is born.”
I’m frustrated. Very Frustrated. I would even say extremely frustrated. Ever have one of those situations where you have a lot to say but have no idea how to say it? The words for whatever reason just aren’t coming out, you’re sentences make no sense, you try to string together thoughts and ideas into a cohesive structure but only nonsense comes out. You want to sound smart but instead you sound dumb. You try your best to understand something but no matter how many times you try, you look, you listen, you just can’t grasp what’s happening.
I’ve listened to this album 4 times. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every single time I’ve listened to it. Actually, every time I’ve listened to it it got better and better to my ears. Actually, I’m starting to love it so much I actually want to actively look for it and buy a copy for myself. It was definitely a pleasant surprise and I am willing to even call it a secret gem of the 60s (I’ll get into that a little later). But I had one issue. No matter how many times I listened to it I couldn’t remember the details of what I listened to. No matter how many times I heard each song, I couldn’t hold onto to any lyrics. It seems to be a problem I’ve been facing a lot these days and I’m not sure why. It’s frustrating to say the least. I love music, always have and always will and I love digging deep into what I’m listening to, understanding it and breaking down why it’s good. This is something I pursue to do and felt starting this blog would help me do that. But as each album goes by I find myself struggling more and more to say things in new ways. My vocabulary isn’t as rich as I’d hope it to be and my knowledge isn’t as vast as I wish it was. I found this album great in so many ways, but can’t seem to find the words to describe it.
Thankfully, google exists and I can do enough research on the album to talk a decent sized amount about it (Plus a reminder that I started this blog to chronicle my experience listening to the 1001 albums and wasn’t supposed to be reviews and analysis. But being who I am I couldn’t stop myself from doing that, maybe I should go back to how I started this blog). But until that happens, which will take me a lot to just separate myself from trying my hardest to break these albums down, let’s talk about S.F. Sorrow.
What makes this album so important is that it’s one of the first Rock Operas ever. The Sweet Things have even stated that this album was a huge influence on The Who’s Tommy, but The Who have gone on the record to say that is completely false and S.F. Sorrow played no role in influencing them at all. What’s the truth? Who knows, no one ever will at this point, but it’s clear to see they made their mark in history. Or did they?
If it was this important… why does no one talk about this band? I’ve never heard of it, no one I know has ever heard of it, this didn’t even appear in my famous rock n roll and psychedelic music class. So what gives? Why wasn’t this album more successful than it was? I mean, it’s fantastic from start to finish. I won’t go into details of the story of this rock opera (I’m not here to summarize), but it essentially tells the story of a boy named Sebastian F. Sorrow, born in a nameless town to normal parents, and the trials and tribulations of his life, from joyful adolescence to lonely old age. Side A has an upbeat and joyful feel as we hear Sebastian growing up and falling in love and getting married and going to war, but the album takes a sudden shift at Balloon Burning (an oddly macabre song that sounds super fun and happy but is about the protagonist’s wife dying in a Hindenburg type accident). Side B takes the listener on a completely different journey, going on an acid trip into Sebastian’s mind as he deals with depression and introspection, especially after he meets Baron Saturday who becomes the guide to this spirit quest. Where Side A takes on a Folk Rock approach with joyous undertones, the second half goes full on psychedelic, bringing you down with the protagonist. The shift is done so wonderfully and seamlessly and despite it being risky, the band managed to pull off a story that is incredibly engaging, that makes you feel what the protagonist is feeling and takes you on his journey with him. Unlike most Rock Operas though, the story wasn’t told through the lyrics of the song and instead was told through liner notes in between the songs lyrics on the vinyl and CD. In live performances they even had Arthur Brown perform the paragraphs in between songs.
This album had everything going for it, so why did it fall in the cracks? There seems to be many reasons. Firstly, it was released the same week as two monster albums, The Beatles’ White Album (which needs no introduction) and The Kinks’ The Village Green Preservation Society (which I have already talked about in a previous post). It was easily eclipsed by the incredibly large shadows these two albums created and there was no way it could overcome them unless for some miracle. Secondly, there was very little promotion done for the album causing it to go a little unnoticed until MoTown Records decided to pick it up to give it a boost, but Tommy had been out for months at that point and S.F Sorrow looked disappointing in comparison with critics giving it negative reviews for being pretentious and one critic even went as far as to say they “should be shot for what they’ve done to English rock lyrics”. A little harsh. It seems people also didn’t like the fact that the album told a story that was incredibly sad. They weren’t to thrilled about the fact that they left it feeling worse than when they started and that turned most listeners off to it.
I think in terms of storytelling it may have been a little ahead of it’s time. It may not have struck a chord when it first came out but I think in retrospect definitely can be hailed as a much more deserving piece of work than when it originally came out. Hopefully more and more people will discover this hidden gem and be as thoroughly entertained as I was listening to it every time.
Song of Choice: Balloon Burning