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 centre, 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 arrive 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.
—The narrative introduction to S. F. Sorrow.
The boy born in Number 3 turns out to be one Sebastian F. Sorrow. “Nobody knew what the ‘F’ stood for and nobody really cared,” reads the narrative. This is how things go with Sebastian throughout his miserable existence, a life that is covered from cradle to grave in S. F. Sorrow. What we learn about this appropriately-named character after thirteen songs is that he is the doppelgänger of Forrest Gump, an imaginative fellow with no discernible talents whose life occasionally intersects with various events of historical significance, but only the tragic ones. Sorrow is ultimately the victim of a combination of the dehumanizing effects of the capitalist system, neglectful parenting and an uncanny ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
S. F. Sorrow has begun to receive belated recognition as the first rock opera, a designation of questionable value that people normally associate with Tommy. There is ample reason to believe Townsend was strongly influenced by S. F. Sorrow, which makes for titillating gossip but ignores the more salient point that operas had been around for centuries, and it was only natural that as rock began to explore subjects demanding extended musical forms that someone would say, “Hey, what was that thing that Italian guy did? You know, Vermicelli—no, Verdi. What was that called?” It didn’t take a fucking genius to figure it out. However, it must be pointed out that neither S. F. Sorrow nor Tommy can compete with any of the great classical operas in terms of musical ideas, narrative development or character construction, so when people use the term “rock opera,” they’re imbuing these works with far more comparative significance than they deserve. “Concept album with a story line” is a more or less accurate descriptor for both.
Having panned the shit out of Tommy for its loathsome main character, improbable psychology, ridiculous plot and even more absurd conclusion, and now having listened to S. F. Sorrow with and without the lyrics in front of me, I would say that Tommy does a better job of restating the musical themes with its overture, underture and repetition of the emotion-laden hook, “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me.” In every other aspect, S. F. Sorrow is the better work. Based on a short story by front man and main lyricist Phil May, the narrative has a discernible flow and makes psychological sense, even with a few bizarre turns. The main character is more of an Everyman character, while only sociopaths can relate to Tommy. Musically, S. F. Sorrow has stronger and more diverse melodies, and in keeping with the norms of the psychedelic era, more creative use of effects. Better still, the effects generally work, thanks to Norman Smith’s superb production. Most importantly, S. F. Sorrow was built on a human scale— it lacks the overweening pretentiousness of Tommy, where Townshend’s flair for the dramatic masks its underlying emptiness.
S. F. Sorrow does have its flaws. The most noticeable is that it’s impossible to follow the story without the narrative passages inserted between the lyrics in the liner notes. Why they didn’t simply include the narration in the recording is puzzling indeed (thirty years later they would correct the omission and hire Arthur Brown to handle the task in a live netcast performance). The second defect is that the origin of one of the key characters, Baron Saturday, is so obscure that you have to infer his motives from the relatively opaque lyrics that paint his portrait. The third is a jump-ball flaw, depending on your perspective: S. F. Sorrow is relentlessly bleak. The reasons for the bleakness are undeniably valid, but the cumulative effect is a downer. The result of all these imperfections is that the story fails to generate much empathy for Sebastian F. Sorrow; in the end, he’s rather like the annoying person in your life who never tires of reciting his tales of woe but chooses to wallow in his misery instead of trying to do anything to change things. You don’t actively despise Sorrow like you do Tommy, but you sure as shit don’t want to invite him to your next party.
Ironically, the music is often exuberant and performed with energy and commitment. The Pretty Things began life as the alt-Rolling Stones, steeped in R&B and bad-boy vibes. Over time they became more melodically-oriented and embraced psychedelic values, and the combination of singable melodies with tangible groove is a definite strength of this record. Unfortunately, by the time S. F. Sorrow was released, psychedelia was on its way out and the record seemed somewhat dated in comparison to where the market was headed. It hit the record stores at about the same time as The White Album and Beggar’s Banquet, both of which represented significant rejections of psychedelic values. That timing also helps explain why the album remains largely invisible to the public: competing against The Beatles and The Stones in their heyday was a pretty tall order for anyone, and EMI didn’t put any energy into promoting S. F. Sorrow. It wasn’t even released in the States until months later, on a Motown (!) sub-label. But while it might be nice to imagine a more happy outcome for the album had it been released during the Summer of Love, the depressing theme of S. F. Sorrow was completely out of touch with an audience desperate for sweetness and light. This is an orphan of an album, timeless in its themes but belonging to no specific era.
Despite the black and smoky description of Sorrow’s birthplace described above, the opening song, “S. F. Sorrow Is Born,” is a toe-tapping melodic delight. Opening with an energetic acoustic guitar duet, the intro dissolves into an uptempo, steady, bass-driven rhythm that expresses confidence and command. The guitars are pushed to the back of the soundscape through a sensitive application of reverb while the lead vocal comes into clear focus. The harmonies are very pleasing to the ear, giving an almost celebratory feel to the line “S. F. Sorrow is born.” A splash of Beatle-esque french horn-like sound opens the instrumental passage, where the Mellotron provides background in the center channel, nicely contrasted by acoustic and electric guitar. However, even in this upbeat number, there is a sense of foreboding:
The sunlight of his days
Was spent in the grey of his mind
As he stole love with a tongue of lies
The world is shrinking in size.
Those curious lines are explained more fully in the next song, “Bracelets of Fingers,” where we learn that young Sorrow is definitely an introvert who likes to withdraw into his private world of the imagination, with a particular fascination with the Moon. The Moon has served poets as a symbol for both the feminine and the inevitable passing of time, and in S. F. Sorrow, both interpretations are active. On a personal level, Sorrow’s imaginative fancies and lunar obsession are ways to shut out the ugliness of the world around him. This is where the tension of the story lies: Sorrow’s imagination is in constant battle with the omnipresent materialistic ugliness of his environment:
Fly to the Moon and I’ll get there quite soon if I wait awhile.
Daylight arrives with a turn of the skies I must wait awhile.
Clouds building castles, the wind comes and blows them away,
Tears in the water makes circles for me as I play.
The music contrasts an a cappella harmonic passage where the word “love” is repeated in an almost sleepy, indifferent tone with the jaunty, melodic verses. The instrumental segment features one of the most effective uses of the sitar in all psychedelia, reinforcing the magical universe that young Sorrow is determined to create for himself. “Bracelets of Fingers” may refer to the shapes children make with their fingers while playing; it may also refer to masturbation. Either way, Sorrow finds his natural impulses denied by the world he inhabits.
When he became old enough he joined his father working at the factory of misery, but the work was being cut and the older men were stood off.
Now young Sorrow loses valuable daydreaming time while taking on responsibility for supporting his family. Nonetheless, Sorrow continues to search for a distraction or a way out—and he finds it in the figure of the girl next door, his moon personified. “She Says Good Morning” describes this budding relationship with Beatle-flavored flair. The opening passage is dominated by an electric guitar solo panned slowly from right to left and back again, all dissolving in a backbeat-accented rhythm that provides solid support for the harmony-infused vocal. That vocal has a slight bite to it, expressing Sorrow’s bitterness that he can’t spend more time with his lady. The song kicks into double time in both the instrumental passage and in the fade; both transitions are flawless. The fade also features small talk between the young couple that provides a human touch in a context of human denial.
They dreamt of escaping from the small town, getting married and living somewhere else. Sebastian still dreamt of the moon. The factory closes down, war had been declared. Young Sebastian felt the call of duty and joined some very light infantry. He left the small town, he was now Private Sorrow. The war, like most wars, lasted many years, misery in the form of a large black bird flew above the dark trenches.
The war is World War I, a monstrously tragic affair for the main combatants, who lost millions of young men in the pointless war to end wars. Because the high commands regularly ordered the slaughter at the rate of thousands per day, they were desperate for human fodder, which is the only way you can explain how such a delicate creature as Sebastian F. Sorrow wound up on the front lines. In “Private Sorrow,” we learn that his survival strategy remains the same: try to escape the ugliness via the imagination. Unfortunately, this is not quite as easy as it was in the mean streets of home:
Heaven’s rain falls upon
Faces of the children who look skyward
Twisting metal through the air,
Scars and screams
So you might know his fury.
See shells whistle
Let your mind drift away
See shells whistle
Let your mind hide away
The music on this piece is simply outstanding. A folk guitar plays a lovely run of arpeggiated chords before the sound of a military snare enters the picture. A combination of fiddle and recorder with a splash of penny-whistle supply the main support for the verses, driven by a syncopated rhythm strongly influenced by traditional British folk. The instrumental passage features dreamy falsetto harmonies over synthesized sounds somewhere between and celeste and a harpsichord. That passage begins to repeat itself towards the end, fading into the background while a funereal organ takes its place and we hear a British male voice recite the names on the casualty list. “Private Sorrow” is probably the high point of the album, for while there’s plenty of interesting and even delightful music ahead, none of them move the plot forward quite as effectively.
When peace was finally announced, he found himself in a strange land called Amerik. Many bright new and bigger factories of misery were being built, there was plenty of work for everyone. Having decided to make this his home, Sebastian sent his childhood sweetheart a balloon ticket and waited for her to join him. The small town turned out to wave her goodbye as she sailed away on the Windenburg. Goodbye small town. Goodbye. By late evening the balloon arrived, Sorrow saw her just for a brief second as she stood there smiling before she was swallowed by the bright orange flames.
I’m not sure why they called the United States “Amerik,” since the Americans of the time were too busy with the Vietnam War to launch a defamation-of-character lawsuit. More to the point, there’s a problem with the timeline. World War I ended in 1918, and the first transatlantic dirigible flights did not occur until 1932. The Hindenburg Disaster came five years after that. Are we to believe that Sorrow’s lady waited 18-23 years, to join him in Great Depression America? Hmm. Putting that discrepancy aside for a moment, “Balloon Burning” certainly captures a feeling of tragedy and terror with its siren-like guitar, insistent fast-paced rhythm and dominant minor key. After watching the love of his life literally go up in flames, the narration makes one brief comment: “In sadness, she was buried by the spade of his grief.”
The next song is unsurprisingly called “Death,” a dirge of a song with very effective use of the Mellotron, which seems to moan in sympathetic grief. The song would have been much more powerful had Phil May developed the relationship between Sorrow and his intended more fully before her death; as it is, we only have Sorrow’s word for it that he is in grief. We don’t feel what he feels because to us, she was just a girl who said “good morning” to him on his way to work. While the narrative outline still makes sense, there are not enough details to complete the picture.
Sorrow grew lonely as he wandered throughout the tall concrete trees of New York. His name was licked on the wind of a thousand tongues, the factories of misery were very busy. One evening as he sat listening to this wind in Central Clearing he was approached by a distinguished gentleman wearing a tall silk hat. Like the night he was wrapped in a cloak of black.
What happens next is certainly imaginative, but you have to wonder if there wasn’t a more accessible way to describe Sorrow’s descent into depression. The “distinguished gentleman” is Baron Saturday, the anglicized name for a voodoo god known in Haiti as Baron Samedi. I can understand Phil May using this character in the context of the story, as Baron Samedi is both the master of the dead and the giver of life. Sorrow is entering the symbolic death of depression, and who better to have as a guide than someone with experience in resurrection? After reading a bit about Baron Samedi, he’s certainly more charming than the bore we imagine God to be: instead of asking for your first-born in exchange for service, he usually requests cigars and rum. My kind of guy! Still, the vast majority of the audience who would have been exposed to S. F. Sorrow had nevah hoid of da bum, so The Pretty Things certainly weren’t making it easy for people to embrace this record.
From a musical perspective, though, “Baron Saturday” is a fascinating mix of melodic pop progressions and drums that shift from Ringo-style bashes to dark Haitian nights. It’s followed by “The Journey,” where Baron Saturday magically lifts Sorrow from the streets of New York and into the skies. Despite the sudden change of scene, “Sorrow grew tired. He wanted to rest. He HAD to rest.” The progression is mirrored in “The Journey,” which shifts from pretty, harmonic verses strengthened by Wally Waller’s counterpoint bass into a stream of effects that mirror Sorrow’s descent into the unconscious.
Baron Saturday’s destination is the core of Sorrow’s true personality, embodied in The Moon . . . or what Sorrow believes is The Moon.
As they drew nearer to what S. F. had thought to be the moon, he soon realized that it was not the moon at all. It was a twisted face of a man in tortured sleep. It was his own face. They alighted on parted lips. Baron Saturday dragged the frightened Sorrow through the arch of the mouth, then in pink fleshy heat they coursed their way down the throat. Sorrow strapped to his fear resisted still. Baron Saturday flung wide two large oaken doors beyond which lay a long hall of mirrors. Dark. From each of these mirrors fragments of his life starred out at him. “Study it well,” whispered the Baron. His life like a jigsaw hung from the walls of the hall. Voice from his youth called his name. “Sorrow.” “Sorrow.” He covered his face with his hands but his eyes burnt in his fingers. At the end of the hall they mounted the thousand steps of spiral staircase up and up. When they reached the top he saw, thought two immense opaque windows, the most painful sight yet. Sorrow turned away.
The painful sight is apparently his dead fiancée (“The waves break and part for me/As my mind slips into sand/The water returns with the warmth of your hand).” This is captured in the moody piece, “I See You,” where the heavily processed vocals reflect the fun-house mirror aspect of this journey into the self. Following this is the brief instrumental passage, “The Well of Destiny,” where Sorrow allegedly “begins to search for new values.” I’ll take their word for it, but this is the place where the narrative thread in the music becomes very thin and having to consult the liner notes for direction is a serious distraction.
Let’s stop here and relate Sorrow’s journey so far. Sebastian F. Sorrow was born in a grimy turn-of-the-century factory town. He is a child with an active imagination that he struggles to protect against the ugly reality that surrounds him, a task that becomes much harder when he is sent to work at the factory. He finds renewed hope when he connects with the girl next door, but their dreams of escape are put on hold when Sorrow enters The Great War. After the war, he escapes to America and eventually sends for his bride-to-be, who is killed in a dirigible explosion. This leads to depression and, with the assistance of a voodoo spirit, a reexamination of self and his most strongly-held values: hope, imagination, beauty.
Instead of deciding to continue the fight, Sorrow gives up: the powers behind the overwhelming ugliness in the world are irrevocably set against hope, imagination and beauty. This surrender is expressed in the bleak lyrics of “Trust”:
Excuse me please as I wipe a tear
Away from an eye that sees there’s nothing left to trust
Finding that their minds are grey
And there’s no sorrow in the world that’s left to trust.
That’s a curious and insightful line: “And there’s no sorrow in the world that’s left to trust.” What I think it means is that Sorrow is resigned to facing a world dominated by resignation, where people have purged their souls of any emotional attachment to a belief that things could be better. Instead of at least feeling human sorrow about the decline of human values, our sorrowfully-named anti-hero finds a world full of empty shells masquerading as human beings. In ironic contrast, the music is anything but indifferent: the beat is mid-tempo and the harmonies here are the best on an album of very strong harmonies. It is as if Sorrow is allowing himself one last look at imaginative possibility before letting it go. The way the song ends—with the full arrangement vanishing into a series of descending acoustic guitar notes—reflects the feeling that Sorrow has simply run out of gas and given up.
He traced his thoughts through the wet streets, blank faces lined the pavements. They would not be saved. His mind turned cartwheels in an effort to understand. The factories of misery grew larger as Sorrow grew older.
“Old Man Going” follows and hey, wait a minute! Isn’t that the opening guitar rhythm of “Pinball Wizard?” No wonder Phil May was pissed off at Townshend’s denial that S. F. Sorrow influenced Tommy. The song is much darker than its offspring, with a vocal that foreshadows the sneering tone of Johnny Rotten. Sorrow is now totally consumed by bitterness:
Hopscotch of life will lead you to the grave
Wet faces line the street, they will not be saved
Black house you’ve built it soon will disappear
Another Corporation dig this year.
Sebastian’s madness built up like a surrounding wall shutting of the light until there was just darkness.
The album ends with the intensely melancholy “Loneliest Person,” where only an acoustic guitar comps the solo vocal. Though Sebastian sings, “You might be the loneliest person in the world/You’ll never be as lonely as me,” the delivery here is anything but maudlin, but sensitive and in character. Sorrow has realized the destiny implied by his name, accepts that life is indeed a vale of tears, but has no false hopes of resurrection. S. F. Sorrow ends with the main character believing that the fix is in from birth, that fighting fate or the authorities is senseless and that the human race has completely surrendered its essential humanity and any hope of a better future to the fight for survival.
That is not what people wanted to hear in 1968! They wanted to hear love, peace, happiness! They wanted to change the world through activism! They wanted to facilitate humanity’s ascent to a higher level of consciousness! They didn’t want to hear about a society that traumatizes its children from birth, that values profit over beauty and that is completely and irrevocably committed to a philosophy of materialism. So uncool, such a bummer, what a downer . . . and the absolute truth.
It’s too bad that the dogma of the psychedelic era led people to close their ears to alternative views, as I think an unfiltered look at reality might have led to more effective activism. It took a lot of guts for The Pretty Things to make a record so out of sync with the times, and the collective imagination that went into its creation would have absolutely delighted young Sorrow. S. F. Sorrow may be bleak and at times obscure, but it’s hard to deny the validity of its message and the strength of its music.