1968, 1969: The Pretty Things and The Who - S.F. Sorrow V. Tommy

The impression may be one that’s influenced by a contemporary tendency to champion brave, neglected little albums of the 60s, but S.F. Sorrow (1968) comes across as a heroic effort for its good intentions and its neglected status as the first rock opera, predating The Who’s Tommy by a year.

The Pretty Thing’s everyman character S.F. Sorrow endures the stereotypical hardships of a minor character of the twentieth century. As a boy he follows his father to work at the local “Misery Factory.” He is whisked away from his sweetheart after a brief courtship. He survives the first war. He emigrates, loses his sweetheart in an airship crash and is eventually left emotionally and physically destitute, far from home. He never recovers.

The album is widely considered to be the The Pretty Thing’s masterpiece, but it also seems to have represented the death knell of their career. The disappointment it wrought on its unsuccessful release was a catalyst for original member Dick Taylor to leave the band.

Musically Tommy was more groundbreaking than S.F. Sorrow – it was an air punching, spiraling vortex of rock instrumentation that seemed to show a new way of making loud and intense music without leaning too heavily the blues. The Pretty Things had been a rhythm and blues band in their early days and had turned to psychedelia to make S.F. Sorrow, as if they’d sheepishly conceded that it was a better tool than the blues to tackle songs that were psychologically complex. Though less original, their experiments were more melodious and less grandiose than The Who’s, and the song structures were broken up into a series of distinct formal movements – Beatlesque and, unfortunately for them, released in the same year as White Album.

Neither Tommy nor S.F. Sorrow is much like an opera, but both are braced against the spine of a narrative, more similar in this regard to musical theatre than the Single driven LP. The differences between Tommy and S.F. Sorrow’s stories are all the more striking considering the importance of the narrative. Tommy is beset with adversity at the beginning of his life. He is blind and deaf as a result of trauma, and his family life is a mess; he is passed around between family members and a pedophile uncle before being rescued by good fortune. Sorrow is a more universal, featureless character, whose life and troubles are typical of the common 20th century man, ending up the victim of impersonal, utilitarian systems. Both are affected by war: Tommy’s father is absent because of war, and Sorrow is drafted to fight in WWI.

The Who’s Tommy is almost like the child of The Pretty Thing’s S.F. Sorrow, as if two renaissance playwrights writing at the same time had attacked generational themes using family hierarchies in the best way Tragedians knew how: by exploring the social hierarchies that crush us from without — starting from within. It would appear that 60s rockers understood the value of this public approach to family tragedy too; taking their cue from Freudian psychologists who had resurrected family drama in the public mindset. As the child born in the baby boom, Tommy is the natural celebrity on whom attention is focused. As the bereaved former soldier, Sorrow is the adult whose crushing responsibility makes him an obscure minor character. It is ironic that one is bullied and blessed for his unique disability, while the other is cursed for being willing, able and ordinary enough to be used as canon fodder. The families of Sorrow and Tommy are both doomed, but the child Tommy eventually leaves home and escapes the carnage, while the adult Sorrow has to stay in the ring and fight to the bitter end.

Just as Sorrow’s war is fated, The Pretty Things’s attempt to articulate the woes of the generation that kept sorrow bottled up was probably too close to the bone to be appreciated in their own time. The sorrow The Pretty Things’ parents’ generation experienced was fundamentally a “Private Sorrow”, as the title of the military marching song suggested.

From a commercial point of view, S.F. Sorrow’s plot was as suicidal as going over the top in the Somme. The album dwelled depressingly on past war wounds that could not be healed, and made a psychedelic Voodoo guide called Baron Saturday responsible for destroying the hero’s mind instead of opening it. By facing his fears, Sorrow loses his trust in everything, defying the gospel of psychoanalysis, which cured Tommy of his psychosomatic blindness and deafness. The album concludes pessimistically that some sorrows are too great to face. “Trust” is the track that really confronts the reality of this broken existence, and oddly it is notable for its breezy harmonies and happy-go-lucky psychedelic gait.

With their everyman heroes, who are tempted and molded by characters that are painted simply as vices and virtues, S.F. Sorrow and Tommy are more like medieval morality plays than rock operas. Audiences who attended these plays were deliberately enticed into the struggles of the protagonists by being persuaded to identify with them, to uncomfortably savor the immoral choices they could have made themselves in similar situations. Devilish characters in the role of tempters went around collecting money from the audience on behalf of the players, thus forcing audiences to pay the ‘devil’ for his performance. At performances of S.F. Sorrow, the devilish Arthur Brown, of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (Brown was known to start fires deliberately onstage) read out the narrative of the album between songs, Twink as an inept mime acted out the story, and live performances of the album went off in shambolic, carnivalesque fashion.

But all of this did not do justice to the bleakness of the tribute paid to a generation whose sacrifices could not be recouped. Anticipating Pink Floyd’s The Wall, S.F. Sorrow mined the fragility behind the psychedelic experience, which was lodged in the desire to escape the oppressiveness of previous generations’ burdens. It may not have been commercially smart in the 1960s to suggest that self knowledge could actually shrink the soul, rather than expand it, but it was certainly brave. The Pretty Things were not credited with inventing the rock opera, but credit is due to them for willingly and even naively opening their psyches to a troubling past, not a dazzlingly optimistic future. This openness is perhaps what has made them seem more like guinea pigs than innovators, but it also brought them closer to their protagonist, and made their tribute more profound than if they’d just puckishly picked over the ruins of their parents’ generation without making a sacrifice. As clownish rockers who used their outsider status to influence punters who were ‘paying for the devil’ when they witnessed a story of despair for entertainment’s sake, The Pretty Things put themselves on the line to express the sorrows of a generation who would never have publicly expressed it without the help of their privileged offspring.


There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

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