Listen to this track from former London R&B purveyors turned rock opera pioneers The Pretty Things. It’s ‘S.F Sorrow Is Born’ as taken from the 1968 LP S.F Sorrow , bona fide rock opera-style concept album released when Tommy was just a gleam in Pete Townshend’s eye.
The Pretty Things were somewhat lost in the shuffle during the British Invasion period as far as trans-Atlantic success went, overshadowed by the Rolling Stones, a band which arguably helped to give birth to them. Original pre-recordings Rolling Stones bassist-turned-lead-guitarist Dick Taylor led the charge in this new group once he’d left the Stones, along with singer Phil May. In some ways, the Pretties were the rawer band, seeing as the Stones took something of a pop turn once they began making records. But the The Pretty Things were disciples of Bo Diddley (after who’s song “Pretty Thing” they are named), if the Stones were more akin to the comparatively more refined Chuck Berry as their base ingredient.
The band produced a number of hits in an R&B based rock n’ roll style, scoring only fair results on the British charts (“Down Bring Me Down“, “Rosalyn”), but didn’t trouble North American charts despite their obvious quality. Yet like many R&B bands in Britain, when the stakes in the pop music game were raised by Sgt. Pepper and psychedelic music in general, they rose to the occasion in the style of a first tier rock band with what many consider to be their definitive statement – S.F Sorrow.
The album was conceived as a whole statement, with each song contributing to a story about an everyman, the titular S.F Sorrow, from his birth (as outlined in this song) to his grave. It was the first of its kind in this respect, made during a time when both Sgt. Pepper, and Pink Floyd’s Piper At the Gates of Dawn were also being recorded as single entities, and not as vehicles for singles.
The album also follows in a tradition of the Kinks’ Arthur, and of course the aforementioned Tommy, over which this earlier record had tremendous influence. This is despite Townshend’s statement to the contrary as far as I’m concerned. You can hear on this track alone that a lot of the timbres are similar, particularly with the bare acoustic guitar leads.
Arguably, Townshend’s handle on storytelling within the context of a concept album is greater. This may or may not be the reason why Tommy succeeded and S.F Sorrow is, for the most part, an undiscovered treasure by comparison. But, what this song, and the album does well is blend blues, folk, and Eastern flavours together into a tasty stew of their own without the listener necessarily being able to identify those ingredients on first listen.
Despite the innovative approach, the record and the band never cracked america the way that their contemporaries did. By the time the 1960s turned into 1970s, they recorded another of their best albums Parachutes. When admirers Led Zeppelin rose to fame, the Pretty Things found themselves on Zep’s record label Swan Song, only to dissolve soon afterwards. Yet, their place in history was assured with S.F Sorrow, an album that created a template that would be followed for years after its creation by other bands.