Review Summary: The first rock opera ever. Misunderstood and underrated classic.
After releasing their third album “Emotions” as a final contractual obligation to their label Fontana, The Pretty Things, who’d only had minor commercial success with their “rough-around-the-edges” R&B up till then, were approached by EMI producer/engineer Norman Smith. Under his supervision they started recording sessions for “S.F. Sorrow” at Abbey Road studio’s. Smith was well known for engineering earlier Beatles albums as well as producing Pink Floyd’s debut album “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”. Coincidentally the Floyd was recording at Abbey Road at the same time for their second album “A Saucerful of Secrets” which Smith also produced and in yet another part of the studio complex, The Beatles were working on “The Beatles (White Album)”.
Looking back it’s safe to say that there must have been quite an inspirational atmosphere at Abbey Road at that time, and looking at the results of each band’s work there, probably also a drug-infused one…
The Pretty Things had taken a turn from the R&B path with the release of the psychedelic single “Defecting Grey” in ’67. With “Sorrow” they stuck with this choice and experimented with new studio techniques, aided by the Abbey Road engineers, as well as with newer instruments like the Mellotron and orchestral instruments.
With it’s complete storyline and cohesive musical development, the album was later on acknowledged as being the first ever “rock opera” to be released, a year before The Who released “Tommy”.
Opener “S.F. Sorrow is Born” is carried by an infectious acoustic guitar riff and sets the tone quite well for what’s to follow; basically sixties pop/rock with lots of psychedelic overtones. “Bracelets of Fingers” starts with a beautiful, almost a-cappella choral part sparsely backed by some orchestral drums and inverted reverb effects. It then continues as a more conventional 60’s pop song but with a slightly processed vocal sound, reminiscent of early Floyd. “She Says Good Morning” rocks a bit harder with great drums and double vocals. “Private Sorrow” is again lead by an acoustic guitar and processed vocals. Progressive string parts in the bridge lend this track an eerie feel. Next is one of my favourites; “Balloon Burning” is a hard rocking track driven by a great guitar riff and a sort of monotonous vocal that has a hypnotizing quality, only to be broken by the more pointy bridge part that ends in a moment of silence before the overwhelming chorus devours the listener. A frantic guitar solo completes this amazing track. “Death” ends side one; a dark, depressing track with a middle eastern feel through the (subtle) use of sitar.
We start side two with “Baron Saturday”, again a personal favourite and probably the most straightforward pop song on the album, aside from the drum solo part in the middle. It always reminds me of Bowie somehow…”The Journey” starts as a lighter, up tempo song with nice, strummed acoustic guitars and an light vocal melody. Added drums and bass make this track rock pretty hard at the end. “Well of Destiny” is an interesting, instrumental, very psychedelic track featuring all kinds of distorted and processed guitar sounds; lots of tremolo and delay effects. Nice! “Trust” is a very good track too; Here the main instruments are piano and guitar. The easy drumbeat and beautiful vocal melody make this track very reminiscent of McCartney style Beatles. “Old Man Going” starts with fast strummed acoustic guitar very much like “Pinball Wizard” of the afore mentioned album “Tommy”. Later on fuzz guitar and edgy vocals dominate this hard rocker. The album ends with a short fingerpicked acoustic song “Loneliest Person”. A distinguished ending to a grandiose album.
This album never had any commercial success. The dark and depressing lyrics and progressive musical style have been held accountable for this. Listen to this with an open mind and you won’t be able to come to any other conclusion then that this is one of the most underrated albums ever.