It was an exciting time at Abbey Road Studio at the end of 1967. Psychedelia was at its peak and the weird sounds coming out of the recording sessions were the perfect soundtrack to trips induced by mind expanding substances. The Beatles were working on their Magical Mystery Tour project including songs such as I Am the Walrus and Blue
The band’s career started five years earlier in 1962, and for five years they were a rhythm and blues and blues-rock band with a number of minor hits in the UK. This is not the topic of this article, but for those interested in the band’s early years I recommend reading the book Blues-Rock Explosion (Sixties Rock Series), a precise chronicle of all the great bands of that genre in the 1960s.
The Pretty Things were signed to the Fontana record label and their last album with that label, Emotions, left a sour taste in their mouths. The label forced a producer and orchestral arrangements on them that took the album into territories far from what they had in mind. I personally think some of the songs on that album benefit nicely from these orchestrations, as in The Sun, but Singer Phil May told Louder Than War: “I couldn’t believe what they were doing. We were hi-jacked basically. It was time to get out and unless we finished that album, we wouldn’t have been free. It was almost like paying off a debt before you can move on but in the meantime we were evolving in the stuff we were doing, more experimental stuff, just waiting for a deal to come through.”
The deal came from EMI, who signed the band to a less than lucrative contract to say the least. But the band was not looking for a financial gain at the time and was more interested in artistic freedom in the studio, which they got plenty of. And to top it they got a producer who was into studio tinkering, with a pedigree of no less than the Beatles and their master producer George Martin. And if Martin was the fifth Beatle, Norman Smith became the sixth Pretty Thing.
The first output from the collaboration between The Pretty Things and Norman Smith is in my opinion one of the best singles of 1967, not a slight compliment in a year that produced hundreds of excellent songs. It has all the flavors of the period – fuzz, backward tapes, fairground organ, and of course – a sitar, borrowed from George Harrison when the Beatles were not in the studio. The result was Defecting Grey, originally 8 minutes of music that sound like three songs pieced together.
Phil May recalls the moment the band played the results to manager Bryan Morrison: “I mean, Bryan, when he heard Defecting Grey, thought we’d gone fuckin’ mad. To him it was like career suicide. I mean an eight-minute single? I think he thought we’d gone completely potty. Norman got it, Norman bought it.” The song was shortened to fit the airwaves format, but was still much longer than the typical radio-friendly 3 minute song. Phil May also revealed the song’s subject matter: “Defecting Grey is about somebody who does the job. Grey suit, really. Somebody who suddenly realized that everything they’d lived for, and were brought up to believe in, wasn’t right.”
For most of 1968 the band recorded the song cycle that would become S.F. Sorrow. In need of money to continue the recording process, the band had to disrupt and finance the sessions with live performances, single releases that were planned for the album (none of them charted), and even acting in a silly and forgotten movie, What’s Good for the Goose, with Norman Wisdom. In addition the band used the moniker The Electric Banana to write and perform music for the DeWolfe music library to be used in film productions. Various pieces of that music surfaced over the years on porn and horror B-movies. Years later collections of this music appeared on albums that identified the Electric Banana as The Pretty Things. Eagle’s Son is a fine take from that period, recorded for What’s Good for the Goose.
Halfway through the recording of the album the band experienced a lineup change, when drummer Skip’ Alan left temporarily and was replaced by ‘Twink’ (John Adler), drummer with the recently disbanded Tomorrow.
In an interview with Richie Unterberger, Phil May explained the origin of S.F. Sorrow: “I thought it was a great idea to have a story. There seemed no reason that the music we were writing was not for a whole 40-minute piece. That was, to me, the difference in the five A-side, five B-side album. My only influence in terms of where I was looking for comparisons was in opera, where it starts off and they fall in love and she dies. I thought, great. All the bits and pieces in that song, that they can all be about one person’s life.” Distinct from all other albums up to that point, the album had a narrative that was printed as part of the album cover. This is how it starts:
“The small town was just under eight miles from everywhere, the grey brickwork soaked up the white sun. The factory of misery lay in the center, it had been a boom year. From its tall chimneys the factory puffed out large black clouds of its importance that floated above the town. The boom continued. Each morning the workers were sucked from their houses that stood like rows of decaying teeth in long necklaces that were hung around the throats of nearby hills, a new day. It was such a day that a young couple arrived from up North, they moved into Number Three. The Sorrows, for that was their name, soon settled to the ways of the town, meanwhile the boom continued. Sometime later, during a night when there wasn’t a star to be seen, Mrs. Sorrow gave birth to a boy.”
Lead Guitarist Dick Taylor told Perfect Sound Forever: “I think it was an extremely novel idea and I think it was also an idea a lot like the jet engine; someone would have invented it. The way it actually happened was Phil had written a story independent of any concept of a concept album. And Wally (Wally Waller – guitarist and vocalist) had listened to some of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album. Wally had been told that Sgt. Pepper was a story and listened to the record thinking it was story. When he realized that it wasn’t a story after all he made the suggestion that we should do a record that was. And since Phil had already written a story that’s how it happened. It was an idea that bubbled up despite itself.”
The album opener, S.F. Sorrow Is Born, introduces the character of S.F. Sorrow and sets the tone for what’s to come musically, with mellotron, trumpets and eastern scales. Phil May: “I’d written this short story called Cutting Up Sergeant Time, which was all based loosely about somebody in the First World War, in trenches. I started from where he was born and what would have happened to him on the way. It set us up to the next song, and the whole thing developed.”
The next track, Bracelets of Fingers, was the first track to be written for the album, before the concept was thought of. The song is about one of the joys of growing up, otherwise known as masturbation. One of the best aspects of this album is how the instrumental passages are integrated within the songs, and a good example is at 1:40 into this song.
The song has been covered by Norwegian band Ulver in their excellent 2012 album Childhood’s End, their tribute to psychedelic music that influenced them.
In the studio Norman Smith went full steam with everything that the studio had to offer, assisted by chief technician Ken Townsend. Dick Taylor: “We were bouncing down all these different sounds from one machine to the next, sometimes hundreds of overdubs and tracks. And Norman would be sitting there and making these tiny little adjustments, or calling Ken to make him something extra. ‘How about another special little box, Ken?’ and Ken would come back an hour or two later, with some amazing gizmo that made a kazoo sound like a VC10!” The band challenged Abbey Road’s engineers, who were more than accommodating in their pursuit to comply with the technical demand for sonic oddness. Phil May’s memories: “We’d go through to six o’clock the next day. I mean, till the engineers, till the technical people couldn’t stand up anymore. That’s the only reason it stopped. Because we had drugs, we could have gone, we’d do three days on what we were on. So we had no problem. But the guys who did nine-to-five, they stayed with us all night. They should have gone at like seven, eight o’clock at night, and they stayed, because they were building some machine for Dick’s guitar. They became tightly involved in it. It was wonderful. It was a whole group of boffins, we called them, who had the workshop upstairs. They were always wheeling in these converted tea trolleys with sort of early synthesizers, valves sticking out, bits of wire”
Phil May also recalled Smith’s active work with the band in the studio: “He would work with us, and he’d be doing the fourth harmony, or he’d have this idea for a drum motif. And he’d get up a boy’s brigade drum and be playing that.” The boy’s brigade drum appears on Private Sorrow, one of the key songs on the album that tells the story of Sorrow as a soldier in World War I. I love how the band combines the recorder with a marching drum.
Another important figure in realizing many of the amazing sounds in this album was sound engineer Peter Mew, who has a number of fantastic albums to his credit, including Shirley Collins & Dolly Collins – Anthems In Eden, Kevin Ayers – Joy Of A Toy and Syd Barrett – The Madcap Laughs.
Balloon Burning showcases some of the many styles that influenced the band at that time. Lead guitarist Dick Taylor was listening to the Doors, Sun Ra, John Coltrane, the Fifth Dimension and Love. He admitted to borrowing part of the riff on Balloon Burning from Love’s A House Is Not a Motel from Love’s Forever Changes album.
Private Sorrow and Balloon Burning were released as a single in November 1968, what must have been one of the strongest A/B sides that year. Alas, it met the fate of the band’s previous attempts that year and flopped royally.
Lots had been said about The Who’s Tommy stealing the thunder from S.F. Sorrow as the first recognized rock opera. Due to lack of record label attention to The Pretty Things and a complete snafu with the American distribution of the album by the unlikely Tamla Motown subsidiary Rare Earth label, S.F. Sorrow came out in the US after Tommy, although The Who started recording their milestone rock opera only after the Pretty Things completed recording S.F. Sorrow at the end of 1968. This unfortunate turn of events forever labeled S.F. Sorrow as a ‘me too’ album and killed any chance of success for it. In reality both albums may not qualify to be considered the first rock opera, as the band Nirvana released The Story of Simon Simopath in October of 1967, around the same time The Pretty Things started recording materials for S.F. Sorrow. Nirvana’s excellent psychedelic album tells a life story of a man starting at his early childhood, maybe the first to do so. A fine song from it is Lonely Boy.
The battle between The Pretty Things and The Who on whether one influenced the other is a moot point, but listen to Old Man Going, one of the great songs on S.F. Sorrow. The opening energetic acoustic guitar riff sounds familiar? Perhaps a prototype of a much better-known song from Tommy?
The album concludes with the short melancholic song Loneliest Person, a fine way to finish the album. In its mood it reminds me of the end of the first LP in another grandiose rock opera telling the gloomy life story of a disenchanted English lad, Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
Yes you might be the loneliest person in the world
You’ll never be as lonely as me
Yes you might be the loneliest person in the world
Your name it would have to be me.
The album’s fate was as glum as the story it told. The typically clueless Rolling Stone magazine, unable to hear greatness when knocked on the head with it, summarized it as: “Some grossly puerile cross between the Bee-Gees, Tommy and the Moody Blues.” Ok, The Who, Moody Blues. But the Bee-Gees? Facing the same challenge The Beatles would have if they were asked to stage Sgt. Pepper, The Pretty Things with their minuscule budget could not find a way to transfer a year’s worth of studio trickery into a live setting. Instead they attempted a mime show with the LP running as a playback. As expected, the audience wanted more than that, as in a band playing live. Like a few other timeless albums released in 1968, such as The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle, the following years were not kind to the album. However the music it captured is still groundbreaking even 50 years after its original release. As Mark St John concluded his write up in the booklet to the 1998 re-release of the album on CD, “For all of you coming to this fresh and for the first time – you are in for a rare treat.”
For farther reading I strongly recommend the excellent Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators and Eccentric Visionaries of ’60s Rock, by Richie Unterberger
If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like these about psychedelic albums from the 1960s: