Music For A Mystical Journey

David Gilmour (formerly of Pink Floyd) performs on the album.

Conventional wisdom grants the Who's Tommy (1969) the honor of

first rock opera. Serious students of the subject, though, have long

pointed to an equally ambitious and alarmingly similar story of one

person's physical and spiritual transformation released a full year

earlier.

SF Sorrow by the Pretty Things (1968) sold poorly at the time

and has been out of print for almost 30 years since. Finally reissued

on CD, its availability helps answer some persistent questions. Was

SF Sorrow really the first rock opera? To what extent did it

influence Tommy? And is it any good?

The answer to the first question is an emphatic no. SF Sorrow

followed an ambitious, tragically operatic story line but otherwise was

more a collection of psychedelic songs of varying lengths and formats,

a concept album and nothing more. The extent to which SF Sorrow

influenced Tommy merits greater scrutiny. Both albums were named

after their protagonists, whose births were announced in song. Each of

these heroes became traumatized by a war-related event, each lost his

eyesight, each went on a mystical journey and eventually broke free of

his afflictions by confronting himself in the mirror. Add in the

similarity between the opening chords of the Pretty Things' "Old Man

Going" to the Who's subsequent "Pinball Wizard" and it adds up to some

apparently incriminating circumstances. But there are documents showing

that Pete Townshend started serious work on Tommy back in '67.

The Who had even recorded a mini-opera called "A Quick One While He's

Away" back in '66, which must surely have encouraged the Pretty Things

to develop their own lengthy story line. Besides, rock 'n' roll/ dance

music/ folk/ the blues have all been built upon the borrowing, stealing

(or "sampling") of one idea with the intention of improving it,

reinventing it and remarketing it as one's own. (Disclaimer: I recently

wrote a biography of the Who's drummer, Keith Moon.)

So, finally, is SF Sorrow actually any good? And if so, why was

it ignored? The album was recorded in mid-1967 at Abbey Road, alongside

the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's and Pink Floyd's seminal debut,

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. All acts shared the same label,

EMI, which placed the Pretty Things lowest on the priority list.

Tragically, the four songs EMI withheld from the original album to

release as singles (included on the CD reissue) are revealed as the best;

both "Talking About The Good Times" and "Walking Through My Dreams"

would have done much to bolster the original album.

The 13-song, unappended SF Sorrow still exhibits the occasional

flash of inspiration. "She Says Good Morning" is archetypal, mid-'60s

psych-punk; "Baron Saturday" is a perfect example of the era's quirky

songwriting; "Trust" is a harmonious, acoustic, psychedelic singalong

that echoes both the Beatles and Pink Floyd. Yet "Old Man Going" turns

into an awkward forerunner of heavy metal, while songs like "Balloon

Burning" struggle to match their storytelling aspirations. And oddly,

considering the circumstances, the recording quality of SF Sorrow

sounds muffled and dated, struggling for clarity on the modern digital

CD.

Recently reforming for the umpteenth time, the Pretty Things will soon

be back with a new album. Again. They will never record another album as

ambitious and arguably influential as SF Sorrow, but at least

now people will know that they once did.