The Story Albums of the Sixties – Part One

The development of concept recordings and story-telling through songs in the 1960s, starting with the album ‘S.F. Sorrow’ by The Pretty Things.

During the 1960s, rock groups took a step into the realm of storytelling. When certain composers saw the direction that pop/rock recording was taking (especially in light of the new predominance of the long-player album over the three minute single), they realized that stories could be told in song form, adapting the concept (if not the actual format) from the operas of yester-century. Though this trend continues all the way up to the present time, the story-albums of the sixties were the first step into this new form and are interesting in how they tell their stories. Five albums draw specific interest:

  • S.F. Sorrow – The Pretty Things (1968)
  • Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake – The Small Faces (1968)
  • Arthur, or the Decline And Fall of the British Empire – The Kinks (1969)
  • Tommy – The Who (1969)
  • Jesus Christ, Superstar – Various Artists (1970)

These five albums, all released within a three-year period, offer an interesting perspective in story-telling through music and sound imagery. Unlike other concept albums of the era (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Days of Future PassedThe Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society or Parachute) these albums all feature characters and story arcs.

S.F. Sorrow – The Pretty Things (1968)

  • Story by Phil May.
  • Songs by Phil May, Allan Waller, Dick Taylor, John Povey, Skip Allen, Norman Smith and John Adler.
  • Characters: Sebastian F. Sorrow, Mr. & Mrs. Sorrow, The Girl Next Door, Baron Saturday
  • Songs: S.F. Sorrow Is Born; Bracelets Of Fingers; She Says Good Morning; Private Sorrow; Balloon Burning; Death; Baron Saturday; The Journey; I See You; Well Of Destiny; Trust; Old Man Walking; Loneliest Person

Often given the distinction as the world’s first rock opera (to be known as ‘Story Album’ from this point onward), S.F. Sorrow’s achievement is overshadowed by its failure in the pop charts and the placement of subsequent story albums in music history. It’s amazing that a group such as The Pretty Things – known mostly for R’n’B, bad behavior and lineup changes – should be one of the first groups to try their hand at story-telling. (The Who wouldn’t release Tommy for another year but they did experiment with telling a story over a series of songs on the albums A Quick One and The Who Sell Out.)

The P-Things’ album was both simple and complex: on the surface it was a life-to-death tale of a simple man who becomes disillusioned with life when his fiancé is killed in an accident. In fact, it would be a generally mundane tale if not for the four songs that comprise the “Dream” section of Sebastian Sorrow’s tale (“Baron Saturday”, “The Journey”, “I See You”, “Well of Destiny”). Just what Sebastian learns on his psychedelic sharabang to the stars is left vague and uncertain, but the experience eventually leads to his downfall. His failure to connect with any other humans throughout the rest of his life leads only to old age and his proclamation of being the loneliest person in the world. But it is this section that gives a chance for Sorrow to gain insight into himself and the universe around him. That he can not change his life for the better may point to either his own failures or possibly at the perceived malevolence of Baron Saturday, who maybe showing Sorrow a vision that can not possibly do him any good.

Psychedelic zeppelin disasters

The P-Things were not wholly concerned with the prospect of telling their story through the medium of song alone, and therefore included a libretto with narration that was not spoken on the album that filled in the gaps in Sorrow’s story. They spell the tragic tale of a young man who dreamed of the moon as a child, fell in love, went to war, lost his girlfriend in the “Windenberg” tragedy and lost everything else in a dream state that showed him the universe and the depths of his own soul. Indeed, the album can be split into four distinct sections: Sorrow’s back-story, his loss, the Dream-Journey, and the rest of his life. Sorrow’s early life is rushed through in four songs and the narrative slows down only when his fiancé, the Girl-Next-Door, is engulfed in the flames of the zeppelin disaster that sends Sorrow into a spiral that lives up to his unfortunate name. Two songs are dedicated to Sorrow’s tragedy, emphasizing his loss and confusion with life. It is when the Dream-Journey section of the album begins (with Dick Taylor’s nasal rendering of the surprise appearance of Baron Saturday) that the album begins to breath with the psychedelic fumes of late-sixties excess.

It is interesting to note that of the five albums under discussion, three of them mention a “journey”: Sorrow’s journey forms the centerpiece of his tale, The Small Faces also have a song called “The Journey” which details Happiness Stan’s flight on the back of an enormous fly, and The Who use the “Amazing Journey” as Tommy’s centerpiece. During the era of grass and L.S.D., the idea of the journey (or the “trip”) reigned supreme: to grow, to learn and to achieve, you had to leave your comfort zone and embrace the unknown. In the case of Happiness Stan and (arguably) Tommy Walker, the journey leads them to enlightenment. As for Sebastian F…

S.F. Sorrow as a precursor to Tommy

Sorrow’s eyes, clutched firmly in Baron Saturday’s claws, travel through the universe and eventually through a mirrored hallway where his life’s experiences are replayed for him. Eventually, Sorrow looks into the Well of Destiny, but neither the song (a psychedelic sound-collage) nor the narration tells us precisely what Sorrow sees. Was May leaving the final puzzle of Sorrow’s life open to interpretation to his listening audience, or was he simply unable to envision what might be at the pit of Sorrow’s own being? Whatever the explanation, Sorrow is left initially hopeful to find new values but the narration explains his failure to connect with anyone back on Earth. He spends the rest of his life failing to find anyone else to see what he has seen and he becomes lonely in death. In many ways, Sorrow is a precursor to Tommy Walker, who has his own point of view that he tries to impress upon the world, only to be rejected by his followers. The finale of Tommy falls short of showing us Tommy’s later life as a disillusioned raving maniac, whereas S.F. Sorrow does not spare us the image of Sorrow’s wasted life. His journey into himself has led nowhere and he is no happier than on the day when he saw the flaming zeppelin crash to the ground.

S.F. Sorrow is a psychedelic album by a band that was, at its heart, an R’n’B unit: it entertained the possibility of wisdom through psychedelic experience, but ultimately concluded that such flights of fancy were worthless and empty. One could spend one’s life chasing the dream, but all that mattered was the girl who burned to death and wasn’t coming back. S.F. Sorrow is the man who dreams and wakes up, only to find that his life is over.

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