Tuesday, 25 December 2012

The Pretty Things - S.F. Sorrow (classic album review)

RetRotation #3 - December 1968

It's splitting hairs trying to decide who did the first what in music.  What does it matter that The Beatles weren't the first band to use the sitar as a lead instrument in rock music when they were certainly the ones to popularize it?  The Pretty Things' 'S.F. Sorrow' is considered by many to be the first true concept album, an opinion which is wrong on many levels.  However, it was one of the first, and just may have been the the first full-length album recorded with a single narrative thrust tying each song together in a single cohesive story, therefore making it, perhaps, the first ever 'rock opera', a claim which may also be wrong, but let's not split hairs.  By the time of the album's release, in late 1968, there had been many concept albums and the psychedelic music thing had largely come and gone, discarded like any other fashion trend once folks sobered up a little and caught a glimpse of themselves passing by a mirror.  The tale of S.F. Sorrow is another of those, 'lost classic' stories you hear so much about from that late great psychedelic epoch of rock music.

The Pretty Things started out as the raunchiest rock and roll band in the UK.  They were to the Stones what the Stones were to the Beatles.  Their first two albums are some of the finest blues inspired raw rock and roll one will hope to find from mid to early sixties Britain and the band had enjoyed a string of successful singles including "Midnight to 6" and "Rosalyn" to name a couple.  In fact the band's first seven singles all charted in the UK.  On their third album, 'Emotions', the band tried for a horn infused, poppier sound to less than stellar results.  Before long, it was time to record a follow-up, a return to the hard rock sound they were known for, but it wasn't time to forget all the lessons learned from the 'Emotions' album.

Dateline: Abbey Road studios, London, England, November 1967.  Work is in progress on the follow up to The Beatles  'Sgt. Pepper' album.  There's tension in the formerly Four Fabs camp and the quartet can be seen recording each of their parts separately when not squabbling among each other and no one seems to be impressed with John Lennon's new girlfriend.  Down the hall a newer band called The Pink Floyd, a handful of singles and a single full-length album into their young career, are busy recording tunes for their sophomore full-length effort.  The recklessness of madcap frontman Syd Barrett means the band face an uncertain future.  They've had to pen a clutch of new material without their resident tunesmith and have drafted a new guitarist into their camp in the form of David Gilmour, but their colorful light shows and wild live performances have built quite a reputation for the band.  Further down into the building we come across a group of has beens, former hitmakers who just don't seem to have it anymore, recording the follow up to their disappointing third album 'Emotions'.  It's a record that will see the band part ways with drummer Skip Alan.  Ultimately no one will hear it and it will go on to produce no hit singles.

Three classic albums all recorded at the same studio, at the same time, 'The Beatles (White Album)', 'A Saucerful of Secrets' and 'S.F. Sorrow'.  It's like the division of time, past (Pretty Things), present (The Beatles) and future (Pink Floyd).  The record buying public only had room on their shelves for two of them it seems.  At least that's how the band's label appeared to approach things with little in the way of promotion for S.F. Sorrow.

As for the music itself, The Pretty Things had completely outdone themselves and had proven, albeit too late by the time the album arrived in record shops across the country, that they had outdistanced the competition in terms of breadth, depth, scope, tone (heaviness) and vision.  Let's take a look at each of the tracks of 'S.F. Sorrow'.

"S.F. Sorrow Is Born" has a nice descending riff and though played on acoustic guitar still comes across quite heavy.  As an introduction to the story, they keep the song brief but still full enough to stand on its own as a full song, rather than it being a throw away micro-song.  One of the major criticisms of The Who's 'Tommy' is that the musical ideas seem rather sketchy to some, that the abundance of short songs gives the album the feeling of not being properly fleshed out and having been cobbled together in a roughshod fashion.  The Pretty Things don't do that.  Each song on this album is a part of a whole, but is its own musical statement which conforms to the structural standards of the day.  "S.F. Sorrow Is Born" features many of the production cliches of its time: backwards guitars, high harmonies and wailing horns for the chorus and coda.  The album is full of these little production touches that were so in vogue in late 1967.  By late 1968 however, they were tired, relics of a bygone era.  That's how fast the trends in rock music moved in the 1960s, especially in England, where there's a discernible difference between songs released from year to year, if not season to season.

"Bracelets of Fingers" continues the trend of backwards guitars and psychedelic ambiance.  Throughout the album and on this song in particular, the backwards effects aren't gratuitous but flash and slash by, as do a great deal of unnameable effects and noises, the backwards slashes usually lead the listener to a change in the song as a way of focusing the attention.  It's a technique that's used tastefully and effectively.

"She Says Good Morning" is a perfect example of how the band and producer Norman Smith used stereo to focus the listener's attention.  Guitars, vocals and even drums drift in on purple clouds from out of nowhere.  From the ether, man.  This song however, is one of the more grounded and sober efforts on the album.  The kind of song the band would have had little difficulty in recreating live (although it's said the band couldn't play the album live, there's no way to tell without records whether or not they played any songs from the album live).  The song's charms lie in its terrific bass line, and vocal / guitar melodies and the changes of pace and tempo from the drums.

The next two tracks were released as a single in advance of the album's release.  It wasn't too common for a UK record label in the 1960s to release album cuts as a single, as there was a policy not to 're-release' singles on an album and vice versa, presumably this policy was conceived as an attempt to keep the sale of 7" singles high.  "Private Sorrow", the a-side of the single, is a flute driven military march, and a killer song.  The b-side "Balloon Burning" is a very heavy song with progressive rhythms and a very memorable and dreamy high harmony for the chorus.  It's the kind of song that was more in step with the climate and the progressive leanings of the time that would soon take over rock music for the next several years until the birth of punk.  The label might have done well to flip the single but the marketing of this album was an afterthought and is full of potential second guesses.

"Death" is a bass driven slow waltz dirge with a very memorable bassline.  "Baron Saturday" has an almost afro-funk beat, double tracked for a mid-song breakdown / freakout.  The band uses shakers and tambourines with slices of mellotron (nipped from The Beatles while on break) to memorable effect.  "The Journey" begins as an acoustic guitar and bongo driven high harmony showcase but soon breaks down into a wall of sound with samples and snippets from the rest of the record.  The Pretties didn't bother to build songs up slowly, they would stop and turn on a dime, a technique used on their earlier "Defecting Grey" single, which was the first song these recording sessions for 'S.F. Sorrow' had yielded.  The transition to "I See You" is flawless.  A delicately plucked melody is played on acoustic guitar and is cut through by chainsaw strains of electric guitar.  At this point in the record it's clear that The Pretty Things had mastered their craft, each of their choruses are terrific and memorable, the flow of ideas is masterful.  Slowed down and distorted vocals which speed up close out the song on a coda of "taking the steps, the steps to see".  "Well of Destiny" is a short sound painting, the only instrumental on the album and is very reminiscent of some of the more adventurous flights of fancy from Pink Floyd's 'Piper at the Gates of Dawn' album.

"Trust" is a mellotron infused slice of progressive pop with a very memorable monotonous and extended vocal line during the verse.  Jangling piano and harmonies that float in and out of the background with crashing cymbals and shakers make for a very psychedelic atmosphere.  "Old Man Going" is a standout track, the heaviest thing one is likely to hear from the 60s.  I've mentioned the song before in my Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell review.  The album is capped off with a short mournful acoustic track, "The Loneliest Person".

Thus concludes the story of S.F. Sorrow from birth to death.

Eventually, the album found a smallish audience of psychedelic rock enthusiasts in the 90s and is now firmly established as one of the great albums of the original psychedelic era and a true classic, once lost and now found.  I would rank 'S.F. Sorrow' near the top of my favorite albums of all time and I know that I'm not alone.

The Pretty Things are still very much an ongoing concern and they will be appearing at Jus Osborn's Electric Acid Orgy at Roadburn this April.  Doubtlessly, they will be performing some cuts from this album.  There's more than enough classic material to chose from.  Either way, it'll be a great event and I envy those that are attending.  For those of us that aren't going, there's always a great album or two to curl up with and my suggestion for listening material is The Pretty Things' 'S.F. Sorrow'.

Highlights Include: "Old Man Going" and "Balloon Burning"

My Rating: 5/5

1). S.F. Sorrow Is Born (3:08)
2). Bracelets of Fingers (3:39)
3). She Says Good Morning (3:19)
4). Private Sorrow (3:51)
5). Balloon Burning (3:48)
6). Death (3:06)
7). Baron Saturday (3:59)
8). The Journey (2:46)
9). I See You (3:56)
10). Well of Destiny (1:46)
11). Trust (2:46)
12). Old Man Going (3:08)
13). Loneliest Person (1:27)
Total Run Time: 40:32

From: London, England

Genre: Psychedelic Rock, Progressive

Reminds me of: Pink Floyd, Small Faces, Tomorrow

Released: December 1968

Suggested Listening Activity for fellow non-stoners: An electric acid orgy sounds like a good idea.

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