There is a lot of magic and mystery surrounding SF Sorrow
SF Sorrow, God, what a record. I suppose that'll have to do as an introduction because I've tried every other opening gambit for this review and scratched them out because they all sounded too trite and weedy. So just think. It's taken me an hour to get this far, purely because every attempt at hyperbole on my part couldn't really describe how good this album is.
There is also a lot of magic and mystery surrounding SF Sorrow. Claims that it was the first full concept album, substantiated by rumours that Townshend used it as a blue print for Tommy, are oft repeated. (I suppose I must point out here that Sgt. Peppers can't really be seen as a concept album; the Lonely Hearts Club Band stopped after three tracks in, and even the Beatles themselves dismissed the idea). Sorrow is certainly the first rock album to have a cohesive story line running right the way through. Other legends surround its commercial flop. Sorrow was released in autumn 1968, too late for the dreamy '67 and too early for the gathering prog-pomp of the seventies. You could say it slipped right through the floorboards, with only a corner peeping stubbornly out, waiting for a curious audience to investigate its genius.
The music certainly harkens back to the hippy dream, with plenty of fashionable nostalgia for and parody of the early years of the twentieth century. For instance there is the usual somber First War reflection on Private Sorrow, reminiscent of Oh What A Lovely War. Then you have the mysterious psychedelic dream sequences, such as The Journey, the appearance of a sinister older man in Baron Saturday... Yep it's all there.
Then there are the lyrics. Actually pretty brilliant in places, they are written very much in the hippy refrain, but somehow escape being ironic, or, worse, mawkish. A great deal of credit for the fact that they don't is that Phil May retains a straight face throughout, Sorrow is never played for laughs. At times it becomes dreamy, and fragile. And of course (just in case you were wondering), the fabled Pretty Things menace is just around the corner. There's certainly a lot more emotional light and shade on Sorrow than on any contemporary work, maybe only Piper at the Gates of Dawn comes close. The Pretty Things created a genuine work out of the psychedelic underground. At this point it would be prudent to give you an example. Else you won't believe me...
'City it leaves without traces
Blind sparrows carry me
Resting my head on a rainbow
High in a tree...
In mirrors of tears I'm reflected
White naked figures twist the key
Turning my thoughts into shadows
Playing on the walls of me'
There, I can safely say that's psychedelic.
Then, of course, there's the music. I always find it surprisingly varied, stark and hard at times. Baron Saturday is a rumbling misshaped Come Together sung by Caliban. SF Sorrow is Born on the other hand, is classic peace and love, reminiscent of Traffic and Love, but with a soaring elegiac quality all of its own. Stuff like The Journey pre-dates the Floyd in their Dark Side period (only, of course it's a million times better). Old Man Going and Balloon Burning are hints at the Pretties' R&B past and their sub-Zep future, but with spoonfuls of psychedelic sound effects. The mix is not at all poppy, its actually quite hard and mysterious. There is none of that terrible gaucheness that you'd get on the Stones' Satanic Majesty; no chip shop poppiness that the Beatles commandeered. Some songs, such as Private Sorrow and The Loneliest Man are downright sad. There is no hippy dippy optimism here, which allows Sorrow to stand up and be counted long after other albums have been box filed as period pieces.
A postscript to the album was Resurrection, (a 1998 live performance over the internet if my memory serves me correctly). This CD has the added advantage of special guest Arthur Brown narrating the story between songs, giving an extra sparkle to the tracks. An immaculate live performance, worth tracking down. Oh, and Dave Gilmore's on it too.