How the tough guys of British R&B missed the magic bus
By the time the Pretty Things psychedelic rock opera S.F. Sorrow limped its way into the new release racks in December 1968, the Small Faces Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake – also featuring a lengthy parable about a boy obsessed with the moon – had been gently blowing the minds of flipped-out mods for six months. By the time S.F. Sorrow was picked up by Motown’s rock subsidiary Rare Earth and released in the United States, complete with ludicrous tombstone-shaped sleeve, the Pretty Things were being mocked for having ripped off The Who’s 1969 magnum opus Tommy, which also features a wronged man’s quest for spiritual enlightenment. Rolling Stone’s Lester Bangs shredded the Pretty Things’ labour of love memorably. “One looked forward to this one because they are a thrillingly ragged blues band with none of the usual snobbery,” he wrote in early 1970. “What a surprise, then, to find an ultra-pretentious concept album, complete with strained ‘story’ (a man’s life from rural birth to prodigal’s Oliver Twist freakout), like some grossly puerile cross between the Bee Gees, Tommy, and the Moody Blues.”
Too much too late, S.F. Sorrow might have been more than a quintessential period piece had circumstances been more favourable. The Pretty Things started recording their fourth album in late 1967, and had they not been compelled to hack it together in fits and starts, snatching time in EMI’s Abbey Road studio in-between club dates and money-spinning library music work, it could have been a contender. As it is, this eight-disc, 50th-anniversary vinyl collection – featuring mono and stereo mixes, a 1998 live set and copies of the Pretty Things four contemporary singles – is the final word on the most thrilling near miss of a career strewn with wrong turns. The first of those was arguably guitarist Dick Taylor’s decision to leave one Sidcup Art College band, the Rolling Stones, to join Phil May in another.
The singer’s shoulder-length hair and the snarling delivery of 1964 hits “Rosalyn” and “Honey I Need” earned the Pretty Things a certain Neanderthal kudos in British R&B circles, but underwhelming LPs and eccentric management calls (they were sent to break Australia and New Zealand rather than America in 1965) kept them firmly underground. Having composed proto-rave epic “Midnight To Six Man” and provocatively titled 1966 B-side “£. S. D.”, the art-school boppers looked well placed to flourish in more far-out times, but started the thousand-trip summer of 1967 acceding to Fontana’s demand to swamp their third album, Emotions, with queasy orchestral arrangements in order to run out their contract.
Released that April, it sounds like an out-of-whack melding of Ray Davies from the Kinks and Ray Davies and the Button-Down Brass. More ambitious plans were brewing, though. Disappointed to discover that the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper wasn’t actually a story in song, bassist Wally Waller urged his bandmates to make an album that genuinely was. May provided the narrative based on the story of a disaffected World War I soldier, and with Parlophone offering studio time and the services of Piper At The Gates Of Dawn producer Norman Smith, S.F. Sorrow was (slowly) born. HG Wells steam punk with a heavy slab of Mervyn Peake gothic thrown in, the album follows moonstruck Sebastian F Sorrow from cradle to decrepitude. Morphing from factory fodder into cannon fodder, Sorrow survives the Great War only to experience more grief as his childhood sweetheart dies in an airship disaster. Offered redemption by the charismatic Baron Saturday, Sorrow goes on a metaphysical voyage of discovery only to find that his misery is infinite and that there is no hope of salvation. Later critics would ask – not without good reason – whether S.F. Sorrow’s poor sales were down to it being something of a bummer.
However, if the heaviness was a buzz-kill in 1968, it is integral to S.F. Sorrow’s abiding appeal. While other British psychedelic records tend towards the fey and the foppish, there is no Alice-In-Wonderland wibbling here. S.F. Sorrow takes itself ludicrously seriously, but it’s melange of slate-grey proto-metal and vogueish flashes of backward guitar, sitar, mellotron and studio whizz-bangery make it sound – at its best – like the Nuggets compilation album remixed by Jackson Pollock. There are shades of the Pretty Things’ R&B past on the album’s leathery love theme “She Says Good Morning”, Taylor’s jagged twin-guitar line slicing through what sounds like a hastily butchered take on the Beatles’ “Taxman”, while “Baron Saturday” has a similar mod-friendly crunch, stabs of mellotron updating its silhouette for less sartorially rigid times. However, both sound tame compared to the melodramatic “Balloon Burning”, Taylor accompanying S.F. Sorrow’s own Hindenburg Disaster with a fuzzed-out guitar solo cribbed from the Are You Experienced? songbook. “Old Man Going” is an even more metallic KO, stand-in drummer Twink hammering out a rhythm amid a cacophony of air-raid siren noise, the Pretty Things discordantly shrill backing vocals prefiguring the angsty wailing of Deep Purple’s “Child In Time”.
For all that, S.F. Sorrow does not utterly lack a gentle touch. “Private Sorrow” – a martial trudge with ominous recorder accompaniment – mirrors some of the jazz-folk meanderings of Traffic and Family’s Music In A Doll’s House. May’s lyrics border on the hysterical throughout, but his lysergic Wilfred Owen schtick bites hard: “Heaven’s rain falls upon faces of the children who look skyward, twisting metal through the air, scars and screams, so you might know His fury.”
“Death” has a similar elfin gloominess (as well as a stately solo on a sitar allegedly furtively borrowed from George Harrison) while the Pretty Things essay something like West Coast mellow on “The Journey”, though their taste for shrill, Greek chorus style harmony vocals and blitzkrieg percussion ensure it has a brutal heft too. The jingle-jangle mourning of “Trust”, meanwhile, features subtly-deployed pub piano, and carefully buried doo-wop chorus, its despair at a world where “minds are grey” marking a staging post between the impotent little-Englander fury of the Kinks and the more animated first-shaking of the mid-70s Pink Floyd.
Had everything gone well, that’s a little corner of pop history that the Pretty Things might have made their own. As it was, they were fated to a career of what-ifs. The first signings to Led Zeppelin’s Swansong label, David Bowie covered two of their songs on his Pin-Ups collection, but the Pretty Things never made a major commercial breakthrough, or another record as dense or extreme as S.F. Sorrow. All the effort that went into it may have ruined its commercial prospects, but makes it a riveting curio. Still very much in a time and space of its own.
EXTRAS: No previously unreleased material, but plenty of fun oddities, including notes from May, Taylor, Waller and keyboard player Jon Povey. A 1998 live version of the album – featuring Dave Gilmour and god of hellfire Arthur Brown – makes its vinyl debut, while the two non-album singles as compelling as S.F. Sorrow itself. November 1967’s creepy pop operetta “Defecting Grey” – about a ‘straight’ man mooning over a potential gay lover on a park bench, according to May – is Keith West’s “Excerpt From A Teenage Opera” gone rogue, while the woozy “Talking About The Good Times”, which followed three months later, is the Dave Clark Five melted like a Salvador Dali clock.
What were you doing at the start of 1967?
We were trying to finish Emotions and Fontana were really fucking about with it. We could have dug our heels in but we would have had to stay and finish it. They stuck brass all over it. We just cut and run because the idea for S.F. Sorrow was germinating and we had no illusion that we would be able to make it for Fontana.
Pink Floyd producer Norman Smith was very important in creating S.F. Sorrow, yes?
When our manager Bryan Morrison heard some of the demos – things like “Defecting Grey” – he said: “I told you if you kept smoking that fucking stuff you’d go divvy.” Norman got it straight away. We didn’t sign to EMI: we signed to Abbey Road and Norman. We felt Abbey Road was the only place we’d have a chance to stretch and experiment. With Norman, every time you gave him a challenge he was up for it.
S.F. Sorrow took a long time to make: why was that?
EMI gave us a paltry £2,500 signing on fee and we owed £3,000 in debt, so we were £500 down when we started the record. That meant we had to work all the way through it – we’d do five or six days in the studio and then we’d have to go to Germany to do a festival, or Switzerland or Sweden. But that was a good thing because things had time to evolve. It was like having a plant that got bigger and bigger and went different ways to what you expected.
What was the basis for the S.F. Sorrow story?
I’d written this story called Sergeant Sorrow and it was the maquette for the whole thing. It’s sort of semi-autobiographical: a lot of it was my experience even if I’m projecting myself into a situation and wondering how I would react. We started out with the cradle-to-almost grave scenario because most classical records are like that, and Shakespeare and Dickens. It was storyline driven, lyrically driven and musically driven, so it had three powers dragging the engine down the track. Some things would just come of a riff Dick had, some things would come off a lyric line that somebody came and put some music to, so it was very exciting times.
Is S.F. Sorrow a ‘drug’ record?
I don’t think I could have written it without taking acid. I was very lucky: I had quite a few trips – 12, 15, 20 – and I never had a bad one. Drugs were very much part of my life. I started out on Purple Hearts and once you took to many of them to work you moved on to something else. I’ve always said that there’s a lot of R&B in Sorrow too. We hadn’t kicked our roots completely. It was in our palette. The purists said we did thrash R&B. Our mates wanted to dance they didn’t want to smooch. It was to do with the speed as well – everything got a bit more frantic.
The release of the record was a bit of an anti-climax. True?
We had this reading where Norman read the story and we played it to a whole bunch of suits in the boardroom and it was very obvious what the thing was about. The very next morning we got this phone call from the accountant saying: ‘To actually print the story on this album, is it important? Because it’s going to cost another £780 [to print a gatefold sleeve].’ And I said: ‘We played it to you. Of course, it’s important.’ So he said: ‘Well you’ll have to pay for that out of your royalties.’ So almost before it came out we knew we were fucked. For some reason Tamla Motown insisted that EMI gave them the Pretty Things in the US. They were doing this crossover label, Rare Earth, and they had so many fuck-ups with the launch that SF Sorrow came out in the States a year later, after Tommy, and got slaughtered. If we hadn’t been half way into Parachute, I might have cut my throat and given up!
You never broke America in the 1960s: why not?
Bryan Morrison turned down Dick Clark; the guy who brought the Beatles over really wanted us but Bryan said: ‘Fuck off, not enough money – we’re going to New Zealand.’ If we had gone to America and had enormous success I don’t know whether [sybaritic drummer] Viv Prince and I would have been able to survive it. Too much fun. You couldn’t play SF Sorrow live at the time? Oh god no. There were so many things on it: flutes, horns, a penny whistle I think. Each person played about four instruments on every song. We did a mime of it at the Roundhouse! Gala [Mitchell – Ossie Clark model and Taylor’s girlfriend] played S.F. Sorrow’s mum, Twink played S.F. Sorrow. Everybody had parts. I read the story from a dais. We were all flying. People remember it. I don’t. It was talked about. Very bizarre. Is S.F. Sorrow your Jackson Pollock masterpiece? I’ve always been a figurative painter so it would be more like a Francis Bacon – he was my favourite. I can enjoy it but I can also see where it could have been better. Nothing’s perfect, but because of the recording situation in those days, there are limits. I think this is possibly when we were pushing the envelope the most, when we were right out there, and possibly it was a year too early for everyone but us.
INTERVIEW: JIM WIRTH
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