The Pretty Things: “S.F. Sorrow Is Born”
Of all the major British Invasion bands of the ’60s, the Pretty Things remain one of the least well-known in America. Although quite popular in England, something about them never quite jibed with American listeners. They started out in 1965 as a blues-influenced band in the vein of the Rolling Stones, but with an even rawer sound. Around 1967, however, they transformed into a more psychedelic, experimental band (not unlike many other band transformations around 1967 related to the intake of hallucinogenic drugs — the Pretty Things’ 1966 song “L.S.D.” is an obvious sign pointing the way).
In 1968, this transformation resulted in the album that the Pretty Things would become best known for, S.F. Sorrow. Credited as being the first rock opera, it tells the sad story of a character named Sebastian F. Sorrow (with a name like that, you expected a happy tale?) during the World War I era. As both the Pretty Things and the Who were part of the same music scene, it was almost certainly an influence on Pete Townshend’s writing of Tommy — although while Townshend acknowledged that influence for years, he inexplicably later started claiming not to have been influenced by it, nor to have even heard it prior to Tommy. Odd.
In any case, it’s a great album, and one that has held up well over the years, still sounding great today. It occasionally ventures into early Pink Floyd territory, where the song structures loosen up slightly and the psychedelia begins to date it a bit, but otherwise it’s got many excellent songs that stand up well on their own, rock opera or not. But the one that is arguably the best is the lead track, “S.F. Sorrow Is Born,” the song that heralds the arrival of the lead character (the counterpart to the more simplified “It’s a Boy,” from Tommy). The song is intense and dramatic, featuring great acoustic guitar interplay with the rhythm section; the acoustic solo feels like it was heavily influenced by Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird,” released the year before. Singer Phil May’s vocals fit the scene perfectly. It’s a song that on its own, even ignoring the rest of the album, makes a very good case for the Pretty Things being one of the most underrated bands of the ’60s.