For ten weeks now number three stood empty.
Nobody thought there would be
Family laughter behind the windows
Or a Christmas tree.
Then a couple from up north
Sorrow and his wife arrived.
Before the sun had left the streets
They were living inside.
Then before too long
The street it rang with the sound--
From number three there came a cry
S. F. Sorrow is born.
S.F. Sorrow is born. (3x)
The sunlight of his days
Was spent in the grey of his mind
As he stole love with a tongue of lies
The world it shrank in size.
[Coda: S.F. Sorrow (10x)]
The album SF Sorrow was the fourth album by a British group called the Pretty Things, known in England for being even more “satanic” than the Rolling Stones. Indeed, one of its founding members, Dick Taylor, had been a bass player for the Rolling Stones, but was replaced by Bill Wyman just as the group’s fame began to take off. Another member of the Pretty Things, named “Twink” was rather a British celebrity and had been part of the early psychedelic group called Tomorrow. Tomorrow’s single My White Bicycle was celebrated during the Summer of Love in London, and the song lent its title to Joe Boyd’s book about the scene at the time. The Pretty Things enjoyed moderate success in England, Northern Europe, Australia and New Zealand, but the group never made an impression on the United States in the 1960s.
SF Sorrow was recorded in Abbey Road Studios while Pink Floyd was working on Saucerful of Secrets. Norman “Hurricane” Smith was on the Abbey Road staff and worked to produce both Pink Floyd and the Pretty Things at the time. He fully supported SF Sorrow and believed it to be a “concept album” with an important difference from such albums as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, the Doors’ Strange Days or the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed, in that it told a story. Rock historians have frequently (but not always) cited SF Sorrow as the precursor of the first “rock opera”, The Who’s Tommy. Unlike Tommy, however, SF Sorrow uses written program notes to fill in the gaps in the tale rather than tell the entire story through its lyrics.
For my purposes, the album SF Sorrow is important not so much for its relation to Tommy as because it is in my estimation the last truly psychedelic album to come out of England in the 1960s. The story it tells is a cynical and sad affair, which probably affected its sales. Despite the fact that the story is set around World War I, with the explosion of the Hindenburg zeppelin figuring prominently in the action of the tale, I can’t help but think that the character SF Sorrow is meant to characterize the demise of the Summer of Love, when the capitol and focal point of psychedelia was San Francisco. Perhaps because of the length of time, nearly a year, that it took to record the album, it sounds like a flashback to 1967. There’s even some sitar playing!
George Starostin, in his pop music blog Only Solitaire, calls SF Sorrow the “Great Lost Psychedelic Album of the Sixties”, while Bruce Eder & Richie Unterberger of allmusic claim that the album creates a bridge between Satanic Majesties Request and Beggar’s Banquet that the Rolling Stones skipped over. The Stones were probably right to skip over such a troubled stream of consciousness; the lyrics on SF Sorrow resemble most closely the disillusionment George Harrison expressed in While My Guitar Gently Weeps.
To my ear, the song SF Sorrow is Born has more resemblance in sound to the Kinks’ Victoria on their 1969 album Arthur than to the Who’s announcement of birth on Tommy, titled It’s a Boy! But in any case, it serves as a good beginning to the tale. Like Tommy in his childhood, Sebastian F Sorrow spends most of his early days in introspection: The sunlight of his days / Was spent in the grey of his mind. But whereas Tommy sees a marvelous universe within when he looks inside; Sorrow sees depression and alienation. He steals love with lies, thinking that the truth of himself would be unlovable. Self-centered, the world outside diminishes in importance. Based on an acoustic guitar Chuck Berry-like riff and a rolling electric bass guitar, and unfolding through simple quatrains, the song gains texture by adding a mellotron to the break, through which the acoustic lead is allowed to ramble before returning the rock ‘n roll structure that carries the song through to its end. A rousing “SF Sorrow is born!” repeatedly sung in harmony against this rock ‘n roll backdrop is similar to the closing chorus call of “Victoria!” in the opening song of the Kink’s Arthur album.