Whether a concept album or a “rock opera”, the Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow is by all accounts the first mainstream album of its kind. While Sgt. Pepper and The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn–recorded concurrently in the same Abbey Road Studios as S.F. Sorrow–bested the album and stand apart even today as the preeminent examples of British psychedelia they all embody, it was the Pretty Things’ album that presented a unifying thematic story interlaced within its songs. Released in late 1968, it slipped onto the charts half a year before the Who’s Tommy, damning it to a lifetime of footnote status compared to Pete Townsend’s colossus. The Pretty Things would return to their original, raunchy R&B style (a la the Yardbirds and the Stones) for their next album, but S.F. Sorrow seems to have punctured their balloon, career-wise. (Dig that album-oriented jokery.)
It’s not a very promising start to the burgeoning rock opera genre. Oh, it starts off quite well, really, and it’s a phenomenally entertaining album, but content-wise it’s a bummer. Sebastian F. Sorrow is born on some grey street somewhere in urban Britain. He grows up, falls in love, and so on, goes off to war (the First World War, I assume), comes home, and loses his mind as everything goes horribly, horribly awry. It seems almost obligatory when you remember the album was almost certainly fueled by LSD (and of course his last name isn’t exactly Gigglepants). It’s a rollicking ride, though, and I believe there’s a voodoo doctor at one point.
I’m attaching the first track from S.F. Sorrow, a terrific bluesy bolt that starts off the album very well. It’s the most expository track on the album, though not the sweetest (that would be “She Says Good Morning”). The remainder of the album relies on an interplay between the songs and text originally printed in the LP’s liner notes. You can muddle through decently without the notes, but it definitely helps toward the end. This is where S.F. Sorrow departs considerably from, say, Tommy: whereas the deaf, dumb, blind kid’s story speaks for itself (literally), the Pretty Things’ tale is more…multimedia.
Oh, and there’s a DVD floating around of the band’s reunion to record a live version of S.F. Sorrow. Recorded in 1998, it was pressed on CD seven years before the 2005 DVD release. Best thing, though: Arthur Brown reads the inter-song narratives!!