Pretty Things: S.F. Sorrow
Recorded from November 1967 to September 1968 in Abbey Road Studios, The Pretty Thing’s S.F. Sorrow, initially largely ignored but now generally considered a classic, was released in the UK in December 1968, and then not released in the U.S. until the middle of 1969. Panned by the Rolling Stone’s Lester Bangs as an “ultra-pretentious” concept album, the album received limited attention for years. Its poor reception and lack of sales precipitated founder and lead guitarist into leaving the band for a period of nearly a decade.
There seems to be many contributing factors to the album’s commercial failure: the lack of promotion, the late release of the album in the States (coming out after, rather than before, The Who’s superior, more opera-like concept album, Tommy), bad reviews, and the dark, despondent subject matter, allegorical and tragic, with its primary character named Sebastian Sorrow. Also, heavily influenced by the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers and “Fool on the Hill”, its musical language is that of the psychedelic rock of late 1967 and 1968, now losing much of its mass popularity. By the time of the album’s release, the major proponents, adherents, and imitators of psychedelic rock were moving on to hard rock, progressive rock, or heavy metal. These and other reasons caused the album to be pretty much ignored until reissued by Edsel records in the late 1980s on vinyl and then on CD in the early 1990s.
I purchased a S.F. Sorrow CD around 1992 and set it aside for some time, coming back to it recently, taking the time to appreciate what it had to offer and its historical significance — not so important as an early concept album — remember Nirvana’s 1967 album as well as other concept albums, including Sgt. Peppers, Days of Future Passed, and The Who Sell Out preceding it — but as one of the last carefully-crafted psychedelic albums of the sixties — and one that looks forward towards hard rock, progressive rock, and heavy metal — three of the most prevailing, and commercially viable, offshoots of the psychedelic rock era.
The Beatles’ influence, particularly from Sgt Peppers and singles like “Fool on the Hill”, is strong — the second track borrows elements from “Norwegian Wood” through “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, and the third track, “I am the Walrus” and “Good Morning” — yet, this is an album that incorporates and absorbs those influences more than mimics.
More to the point, is the quality of the album which starts out strong and builds to the end without weakness or filler; even the somewhat musique-concrete “Well of Destiny” (possibly influenced by the transitional section of “Day in the Life” ) serving its purpose in the musical narrative. The arrangements, variety, and appropriateness of instrumentation further elevates the quality of the album, and in fact are usually of greater interest than the melodic/harmonic content of the songs themselves. (Perhaps the best song on the album, is the most simply arranged one, the poignant, “Loneliest Person”)
Though this album is very much a product of 1967 and 1968 sensibilities and styles, there are passages and techniques that anticipate other works of 1969 and the early seventies. One can hear hints at later music from the Beatles-influenced Electric Light Orchestra (especially in “Trust”) and Badfinger to Benefit-era Jethro Tull (“Private Sorrow”) to the Who’s Tommy (“The Journey” and the intro to “Old Man Going”) to Queen. The most remarkable similarity is to the heavy metal, bass-dominated style of Black Sabbath in “Old Man Going” which also includes a short hard-rock electric guitar.
The CD release includes some notable bonus tracks, including “Defecting Grey” , a commercially unsuccessful single from this time period.
Track listing [from Wikipedia]
1. “S.F. Sorrow Is Born” Phil May, Dick Taylor, Wally Waller 3:12
2. “Bracelets of Fingers” May, Taylor, Waller 3:41
3. “She Says Good Morning” May, Taylor, Waller, Twink 3:23
4. “Private Sorrow” May, Taylor, Waller, Jon Povey 3:51
5. “Balloon Burning” May, Taylor, Waller, Povey 3:51
6. “Death” May, Taylor, Waller, Povey, Twink 3:05
7. “Baron Saturday” May, Taylor, Waller 4:01
8. “The Journey” May, Taylor, Waller, Twink 2:46
9. “I See You” May, Taylor, Waller 3:56
10. “Well of Destiny” May, Taylor, Waller, Povey, Twink, Norman Smith 1:46
11. “Trust” May, Taylor, Waller 2:49
12. “Old Man Going” May, Taylor, Waller, Povey, Twink 3:09
13. “Loneliest Person” May, Taylor, Waller, Twink 1:29
14. “Defecting Grey” May, Taylor, Waller 4:27
15. “Mr. Evasion” May, Taylor, Waller, Twink 3:26
16. “Talkin’ About the Good Times” May, Taylor, Waller 3:41
17. “Walking Through My Dreams” May, Taylor, Waller, Povey 3:35
18. “Private Sorrow” (Single version) May, Taylor, Waller, Povey 3:50
19. “Balloon Burning” (Single version) May, Taylor, Waller, Povey 3:45
20. “Defecting Grey” (Acetate recording) May, Taylor, Waller 5:10
The Pretty Things
- Phil May – vocals
- Dick Taylor – lead guitar, vocals
- Wally Waller – bass, guitar, vocals, wind instruments, piano
- Jon Povey – organ, sitar, Mellotron, percussion, vocals
- Skip Alan – drums (on some tracks, quit during recording)
- Twink – drums (on some tracks, replaced Alan), vocals
Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin
With the semantic essence of heavy metal captured in the group’s name, its hard to dispute that Led Zeppelin forged a new path down the nascent arena of hard rock and heavy metal. With a name remarkably similar to Iron Butterfly, and a similar, but more promising, blues-based musical DNA, we have the beginnings of what would soon be the quintessential hard rock group influencing predecessors like Free to countless successors like Aerosmith, Metallica, Queen, Alice Kooper, Guns N’ Roses and countless emulators that never landed a major recording contract.
From the opening guitar and drums in the opening track, “Good Times, Bad Times”, there is a focus, crispness and intensity not present in many of the blues-based rock albums immediately preceding this one. My first experience with this album was when my next door neighbor brought it over for me to capture on my reel-to-reel tape deck for my own, limited music library. Based on my friend’s direction, I recorded the tracks he thought worth putting on tape, securing the more accessible tracks, like”Good Times, Bad Times”, “Babe I’m Going to Leave You” and “Communication Breakdown” but leaving out a couple I would not listen to again for decades — the last two tracks of side two. Fortunately, since my friend had fairly good taste, we recorded all of side one, including the mysteriously dark and heavy, “Dazed and Confused”, a well-written composition, starting with, and repeating, a chromatically-descending chord sequence. Though credited to Jimmy Page on the album, the work is mostly based on a song by the same name on a 1967 album by Jake Holmes, which the Yardbirds (a group that included Jimmy Page for a while) had originally “borrowed.” If you haven’t heard the Jake Holmes version, do yourself a favor and take the time to listen to it below.
Side Two of Led Zeppelin starts with a majestic organ solo by John Paul Jones as part of the captivating beginning of “Your Time Is Gonna Time.” Unfortunately, the verse is much stronger than a weak, almost annoying, chorus that detracts from the rest of the work.
The next track, one which we also recorded for my repeated listening pleasure was “Black Mountain Side” based on an arrangement of the Irish folk song “Down by Blackwaterside” taught to Jimmy Page by Al Stewart. This is followed by “Communication Breakdown”, later to become an AM radio hit. For me, this title always brings to mind that famous phase in Cool Hand Luke — “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
The last two tracks are probably what my friend would have referred to as the band just jamming, but listening to these again, I appreciate the quality musicianship and the overall mood. That said, I can’t particularly bemoan not having grown up with these two tracks as part of the musical soundtrack of my high school years (1969-1973.)
Though I have mixed feelings about this album, which has many strong points, but is certainly guilty of not properly crediting others, a common enough practice in the Renaissance and Baroque days of music, but not so acceptable in the late 1960s, I would pick this in an instant over contemporary albums by Steppenwolf and Iron Butterfly. Do I regularly, or, on average, once-a-decade listen to this? Not really; I find the later Led Zeppelin albums more appealing — and I pretty much don’t listen to those due to all the more interesting jazz, rock and classical music that contends for my limited listening time. However, that said, prior to posting this Fifty Year Friday entry, I did truly enjoy listening to this first “L-Zep” (modern transformation of their name) once again (and then a second time), forty-nine and a half years later after first hearing all of it, and making a copy of it for my own use, just as Jimmy Page had made a copy of both “Dazed and Confused” and “Down by Blackwaterside” for Led Zeppelin’s own use on their very first album.