S.F. Sorrow

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S.F. Sorrow
Sf sorrow (gold ltd edition.jpg
Studio album by
ReleasedDecember 1968 (1968-12)
Studio Abbey Road Studios, London
Genre Psychedelic rock, psychedelic pop
Label Columbia
Producer Norman Smith
The Pretty Things chronology
S.F. Sorrow
Singles from Pretty Things
  1. "Defecting Grey"
    Released: 1967
  2. "Talkin' About the Good Times"
    Released: 1968
  3. "Private Sorrow"
    Released: 1968
  4. "Baron Saturday"
    Released: 1969
Professional ratings
Review scores
Allmusic Star full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svgStar empty.svg [1]
The Guardian Star full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svg [2]
Pop Matters Star full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svgStar full.svgStar empty.svg [3]
Rolling Stone (unfavourable) [4]

S.F. Sorrow is the fourth album by the English rock group The Pretty Things. Released in 1968, it is one of the first rock concept albums.

Concept album album with a theme

A concept album is an album in which its tracks hold a larger purpose or meaning collectively than they do individually. This is typically achieved through a single central narrative or theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, or lyrical. Sometimes the term is applied to albums considered to be of "uniform excellence" rather than an LP with an explicit musical or lyrical motif. There is no consensus among music critics as to the specific criteria for what a "concept album" is.


Based on a short story by singer Phil May, the album is structured as a song cycle, telling the story of the main character, Sebastian F. Sorrow, from birth through love, war, tragedy, madness, and the disillusionment of old age.

Phil May (singer) British singer

Phil May is an English vocalist. He gained fame in the 1960s as the lead singer of The Pretty Things, of which he was a founding member.

Although the album is a rock opera, it has been stated by members of The Who that the record had no major influence on Pete Townshend and his writing of Tommy (1969). The Pretty Things, however, have suggested otherwise, [5] as have some critics. [6]

A rock opera is a collection of rock music songs with lyrics that relate to a common story. Rock operas are typically released as concept albums and are not scripted for acting, which distinguishes them from operas, although several have been adapted as rock musicals. The use of various character roles within the song lyrics is a common storytelling device. The success of the rock opera genre has inspired similar works in other musical styles, such as rap opera.

The Who English rock band

The Who are an English rock band formed in London in 1964. Their classic line-up consisted of lead singer Roger Daltrey, guitarist and singer Pete Townshend, bass guitarist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon. They are considered one of the most influential rock bands of the 20th century, selling over 100 million records worldwide.

Pete Townshend English rock guitarist of The Who, vocalist, songwriter and author

Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend is an English multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter best known as the guitarist, backing and secondary lead vocalist, principal songwriter, co-founder and leader of the rock band the Who. His career with the Who spans over 50 years, during which time the band grew to be one of the most important and influential rock bands of the 20th century.

Story concept

S.F. Sorrow's narrative is different from others in the rock opera/concept album genre: while Tommy and Pink Floyd's The Wall relay their concept through the lyrics of their songs, The Pretty Things tell the bulk of the story through small paragraph-like chapters which were printed between each song's lyrics in the liner notes of the LP and the CD. These explanatory notes were read aloud between song performances by Arthur Brown during The Pretty Things' first of two known live performances of the opera.

<i>The Wall</i> 1979 studio album by Pink Floyd

The Wall is the eleventh studio album by English rock band Pink Floyd, released 30 November 1979 on Harvest and Columbia Records. A rock opera, its story explores Pink, a jaded rockstar whose eventual self-imposed isolation from society is symbolised by a wall. The record was a commercial success, charting at number one in the US for 15 weeks, and number three in the UK. In 1982, the album was adapted into a feature film of the same name, directed by Alan Parker.

Arthur Brown (musician) British musician

Arthur Wilton Brown is an English rock singer and songwriter best known for his flamboyant theatrical performances, eclectic work and his powerful, wide-ranging operatic voice.

Like Tommy, S.F. Sorrow opens with the birth of the story's protagonist at the turn of the 20th century. Sebastian F. Sorrow is born in a small nameless town to ordinary parents in a house called "Number Three." The town is supported by a factory of some sort, referred to as the "Misery Factory." ("S.F. Sorrow Is Born") Sorrow, an imaginative boy, has a relatively normal childhood until it ends abruptly when he needs to get a job. He goes to work with his father at the Misery Factory, from which many men have been laid off. This might make S.F. the object of hate in a sense that he might be a scab in the story, or perhaps the young boy who is taking some older man's job, and he comes into his sexual adolescence during this period ("Bracelets of Fingers"). Sorrow's life is not yet over, though. Joy still exists for him in the form of a pretty girl across the street. She says 'Good morning' to him every day, and he thinks about her constantly. This is the factor that keeps him going despite his childhood's abrupt ending. The two fall in love and become engaged, but their marriage plans are cut short when Sorrow is drafted ("She Says Good Morning").

Sorrow joins a light infantry ("Private Sorrow") and goes off to fight in a war, possibly World War I. Sorrow sinks into a daze, living out the entire war in a funk. Soon the sounds of gunfire and artillery become the rhythm to his life in a daydream. He survives the war and settles down in a land called "Amerik" (obviously referring to the country America, because the first words of the song "Balloon Burning" are "New York"). Sorrow's fiancée travels by a balloon, the Windenberg (Hindenburg) to join him, but it bursts into flame at arrival ("Balloon Burning"), killing all aboard. Sorrow is left alone, his beloved fiancée dead ("Death").

World War I 1914–1918 global war originating in Europe

World War I, also known as the First World War or the Great War, was a global war originating in Europe that lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. Contemporaneously described as, "the war to end all wars," it led to the mobilisation of more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, making it one of the largest wars in history. It is also one of the deadliest conflicts in history, with an estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilian deaths as a direct result of the war, while resulting genocides and the resulting 1918 influenza pandemic caused another 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide.

United States Federal republic in North America

The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or America, is a country comprising 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million sq mi (9.8 million km2), the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe's 3.93 million sq mi (10.2 million km2). With a population of more than 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. Most of the country is located contiguously in North America between Canada and Mexico. The extremely diverse geography, climate, and wildlife of the United States make it one of the world's 17 megadiverse countries.

LZ 129 Hindenburg German airship in service 1936-1937

LZ 129 Hindenburg was a large German commercial passenger-carrying rigid airship, the lead ship of the Hindenburg class, the longest class of flying machine and the largest airship by envelope volume. It was designed and built by the Zeppelin Company on the shores of Lake Constance in Friedrichshafen and was operated by the German Zeppelin Airline Company. The airship flew from March 1936 until it was destroyed by fire 14 months later on May 6, 1937 while attempting to land at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Manchester Township, New Jersey, at the end of the first North American transatlantic journey of its second season of service with the loss of 36 lives. This was the last of the great airship disasters; it was preceded by the crashes of the British R38 in 1921, the US airship Roma in 1922, the French Dixmude in 1923, the British R101 in 1930, and the USS Akron in 1933.

Sorrow drifts into a state of depression that leads him on an epic journey to the center of his subconscious. When wandering the streets, he encounters the mysterious Baron Saturday (a character intended to represent Baron Samedi, a deity in Haitian Voodoo religion). The black-cloaked Saturday invites Sorrow to take a journey and then, without waiting for a response, "borrows his eyes" and initiates a trip through the Underworld ("Baron Saturday").

Baron Samedi loa of Haitian Vodou

Baron Samedi also written Baron Samdi, Bawon Samedi, or Bawon Sanmdi, is one of the loa of Haitian Vodou. Samedi is a loa of the dead, along with Baron's numerous other incarnations Baron Cimetière, Baron La Croix, and Baron Kriminel. He is syncretized with Saint Martin de Porres.

The trippish quest begins by taking flight into the air, where Sorrow is driven by a whip-cracking Baron Saturday. Sorrow thinks he is flying toward the moon, which would have been lovely as he always had a fascination with it, but instead he sees that it is his own face. The Baron pushes him through the mouth of the face and then down the throat, where they find a set of oak doors. Saturday throws them open and prompts S.F. Sorrow inside, where he finds a room full of mirrors ("The Journey"). Each mirror shows a memory from his childhood, which Baron Saturday suggests that he studies well. After the hall of mirrors comes a long winding staircase which brings him to two opaque mirrors that show him the horrible truths and revelations from his life ("I See You").

Sorrow is destroyed by his journey; it leads him to understand that no one can be trusted any longer, and that society will only do away with you when you become old and serve it no longer ("Trust"). He is driven into a dark mental seclusion where he suffers from eternal loneliness. Much like The Wall, S.F. Sorrow is the tale of a man who has endured hardships which he uses to build into a mental wall that cuts him off from the rest of the waking world, and leaves them without light ("Old Man Going"). At the end of the album he identifies himself as "the loneliest person in the world" ("Loneliest Person").

Recording and production

After the end of their contract with Fontana Records, the Pretty Things signed with EMI in September 1967. Their first release on their new label was the single "Defecting Grey" in November, a psychedelic experiment which served as the maquette for S.F. Sorrow.

Recording of S.F. Sorrow began at Abbey Road Studios in November 1967 with work on "Bracelets of Fingers". Two tracks that had been earmarked for the album, "Talking About the Good Times" and "Walking Through My Dreams", were instead released as a single in February 1968. In March 1968, drummer Skip Alan suddenly quit the band to marry his French girlfriend, and Twink (born John Charles Alder), whose band Tomorrow had recently split up, took his place.

Working with noted EMI staff producer Norman "Hurricane" Smith (who had engineered the earlier Beatles recordings and produced Pink Floyd's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn ) and house engineer Peter Mew, the group experimented with the latest sound technology, including the Mellotron and early electronic tone generators, often employing gadgets and techniques devised on the spot by Abbey Road's technicians.

Phil May has emphatically stated that Smith was the only person at EMI who was fully supportive of the project, and that his technical expertise was invaluable to the ambitious, experimental sound of the album; May once even referred to Smith as a "sixth member" of the band. This attitude was in marked contrast to Pink Floyd's unhappiness with Smith.


Work on the album concluded in September 1968 with the recording of what would be its closing track, "Loneliest Person". "Private Sorrow" and "Balloon Burning" were extracted for an October 1968 single, and the album was released the following month, in the same week as The Beatles' White Album , and The Kinks' The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society . Due to budget constraints, the band members had to take care of the sleeve design themselves: the cover art featured a drawing by Phil May, while Dick Taylor took the photograph for the back sleeve. EMI did little to promote the album, and it was not released in the US by any EMI affiliate at that time.

Over six months later, Motown picked up the album as one of the first releases for their newly created Rare Earth label, meant for rock music. By that time, however, Tommy had already been out for months, and S.F. Sorrow was considered as an inferior copy. In Rolling Stone , Lester Bangs called it "an ultra-pretentious concept album, complete with strained 'story' (A Man's Life from rural birth to Prodigal's Oliver Twist freakout), like some grossly puerile cross between the Bee Gees, Tommy, and the Moody Blues, who should be shot for what they've done to English rock lyrics." [7] The American version of the album was also badly mastered (with a one channel volume drop on "Baron Saturday" running over 30 seconds) and badly promoted by Motown. The redesigned album sleeve also hurt sales: the artwork was entirely different, and on early copies the jacket had a rounded top (like the label's other initial releases), which meant that potential buyers browsing through the album racks could miss it.

S.F. Sorrow was released in mono and stereo; both have been re-released on CD by Snapper Records. The band's members have expressed a strong preference for the mono mix.[ citation needed ]

Live performances

Shortly after the album's release in 1968, the band attempted to perform the album onstage at Middle Earth Club in London. It was by all accounts a strange show which featured the band miming to the EMI backing tracks. Each member also played various characters and in the role of Sorrow was Twink, wearing a leotard, white face make up and indulging in his penchant for mime. After that, a handful of songs from the album became part of their typical live set notably "She Says Good Morning", "Balloon Burning" and "Old Man Going".

On 6 September 1998, the line up who recorded the original album – excepting Twink – returned to Abbey Road Studio 2 to perform a fully live version of the album for one of the first netcasts. Joining them were Arthur Brown who provided the narration, David Gilmour who added lead guitar parts on a handful of songs, Skip Alan's son Dov on percussion, Frank Holland on guitar and vocals and manager Mark St. John on percussion. The ensemble performed to a specially invited audience of friends and family. The netcast server was quickly overloaded so barely anyone got to see it live as intended. The show was recorded on tape and video. Resurrection was released months later featuring the soundtrack, and a DVD of the show was finally released in 2003.

The same ensemble performed the show again this time to a paying public at The Royal Festival Hall in London on 19 October 2001. Plans to perform the show in Paris and America never came to fruition and neither did a short 40th anniversary tour slated for venues in the UK in January 2009. However, the 2009 incarnation of The Pretty Things featuring May, Taylor, Frank Holland, George Perez, Jack Greenwood and Mark St. John did perform the album onstage on 10 April 2009 at the 5th annual Le Beat Bespoke Weekender sponsored by Mojo magazine. [8] Arthur Brown was absent and Phil May chose to abbreviate the narration between the songs.

To this day, "SF Sorrow Is Born", "Balloon Burning", "Baron Saturday" and "Old Man Going" regularly appear in the band's set list.

Track listing

Side one
1."S.F. Sorrow Is Born" Phil May, Dick Taylor, Wally Waller 3:12
2."Bracelets of Fingers"May, Taylor, Waller3:41
3."She Says Good Morning"May, Taylor, Waller, Twink 3:23
4."Private Sorrow"May, Taylor, Waller, Jon Povey3:51
5."Balloon Burning"May, Taylor, Waller, Povey3:51
6."Death"May, Taylor, Waller, Povey, Twink3:05
Side two
7."Baron Saturday"May, Taylor, Waller4:01
8."The Journey"May, Taylor, Waller, Twink2:46
9."I See You"May, Taylor, Waller3:56
10."Well of Destiny"May, Taylor, Waller, Povey, Twink, Norman Smith 1:46
11."Trust"May, Taylor, Waller2:49
12."Old Man Going"May, Taylor, Waller, Povey, Twink3:09
13."Loneliest Person"May, Taylor, Waller, Twink1:29
Bonus tracks
14."Defecting Grey"May, Taylor, Waller4:27
15."Mr. Evasion"May, Taylor, Waller, Twink3:26
16."Talkin' About the Good Times"May, Taylor, Waller3:41
17."Walking Through My Dreams"May, Taylor, Waller, Povey3:35
18."Private Sorrow" (Single version)May, Taylor, Waller, Povey3:50
19."Balloon Burning" (Single version)May, Taylor, Waller, Povey3:45
20."Defecting Grey" (Acetate recording)May, Taylor, Waller5:10


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  1. Allmusic review
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/may/06/pretty-things-sf-sorrow-cd-review
  3. http://www.popmatters.com/review/prettythings-sf/
  4. Bangs, Lester (7 February 1970). "Records". Rolling Stone . San Francisco: Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. (51): 40. Retrieved 21 May 2017.
  5. THE POP LIFE; The First Rock Opera (No, Not 'Tommy')
  6. Logan, Nick; Woffinden, Bob (1977). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock (First Edition). New York: Harmony Books.
  7. Bangs, Lester (7 February 1970). "S.F. Sorrow". Rolling Stone. No. 51.
  8. Le Beat Bespoke Weekender Is Here! 3:49 PM GMT 09/04/2009. "Le Beat Bespoke Weekender Is Here! – News – Mojo". Mojo4music.com. Archived from the original on 13 April 2009. Retrieved 8 September 2012.