The Pretty Things started as blues-rock band in the early 1960s, and they’re often described as being “meaner, louder, uglier and with longer hair” than the Rolling Stones. (Pretty Things guitarist Dick Taylor originally played bass in the fledgling Stones). Their gritty, primitive R&B sound was heavily influenced by Bo Diddley’s beat.
With their fourth album, S.F. Sorrow, the Pretty Things decided to shake it up a bit and create a psychedelic rock opera that some regard as a “lost”—or at least unfairly underappreciated—mini masterpiece (I am one of them). It’s held in the same high regard as another “lost” 60s classic, Odessey and Oracle by the Zombies. In fact, S.F. Sorrow was the actually the very first rock opera, not Tommy. Although Pete Townshend has pointedly denied that S.F. Sorrow was an influence on Tommy, this seems unlikely to me at best: They were of the same small London scene, The Who and the Pretty Things, so the notion that Townshend was unaware of S.F. Sorrow sounds like total bullshit. It almost has to be.
S.F. Sorrow was recorded between December 1967 and September 1968 at Abbey Road Studios. The sound incorporates the sitar, Mellotron, flute, dulcimer and several tripped out sound effects. At the same time as the sessions for S.F. Sorrow, the album’s producer, Norman Smith was also working with Pink Floyd on their A Saucerful Of Secrets album and The Beatles were recording their White Album there as well. (S.F. Sorrow came out the same week as the White Album and Beggars Banquet. What a week for music.)
The opera’s libretto came in the form of liner notes that told the story of one Sebastian F. Sorrow, an ordinary fellow who works at the “Misery Factory” and is drafted into World War I. His life descends into meaninglessness after he witnesses a hot-air balloon carrying his fiance crash and burn. Along the way he has an encounter with a mysterious whip-cracking character called “Baron Saturday” who is based on the voodoo deity Baron Samedi.
Saturday “borrows his eyes” and takes Sorrow on a trippy trip through the Underworld (something that seems to mirror the Acid Queen’s unorthodox therapy to that deaf, dumb and blind kid, don’t cha think?). The opera ends on a sad note as the desolate Sorrow realizes that he can trust no one and that he will die alone.
“Death” and “Baron Saturday” on French TV, 1968
More after the jump…