S F Sorrow and all that: Phil May of The Pretty Things
Any regular reader of these musings that’s out there (and I know there is at least one, for whom I am very grateful) will know that my pal Macman and I regularly trade items of rock trivia with each of us trying to outdo the other in matters of the arcane.
About three weeks ago my weekly Spotify Discover Playlist included the song The Good Mr Square by the Pretty Things. I hadn’t listened to the Pretties for a good while and so I SMSed Macman to let him know of this great event and to observe that I thought that the Pretties were first to the party with a rock opera; in 1968 to be precise, a year ahead of the Who’s Tommy in 1969. I should never under-estimate Macman as he came back immediately with information that I did not know, namely that there were two bands called Nirvana. One of these was the American band, the Kurt Cobain band we all know about. But the other was a British London-based psychedelic band formed in 1965. The British Nirvana broke up in 1971 but reformed in 1985 and took the American band to court over the name and won a settlement. In 1975 they released their first album The Story of Simon Simopath. The 10 songs trace the life-to-death journey of its titular hero and may, in fact, be the first rock opera.
As consequence of our exchange, Macman included Nirvana’s Lonely Boy on his 2EARFM show. You can find an extended version of the album on Spotify. I noticed that Nirvana’s second album is called The Existence of Chance Is Everything and Nothing Whilst the Greatest Achievement Is the Living of Life and So Say ALL OF US which may be the longest rock album title. I am quite sure that Macman, when he reads this, will let me know if I am right. I listened to The Story of Simon Simopath for as long as I could; the songs are products of their time with strong pop melodies. But as a song sequence, or a rock opera, it pales by comparison with, in my opinion (which is anything but humble), The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow.
The songs on S.F.Sorrow were based on a short story by the lead singer, Phil May, who died on 15 May 2020 from complications following hip surgery after a cycling accident. The Pretty Things were formed in 1963 and they took their name from the song Pretty Thing written by WIllie Dixon but first performed by Bo Diddley. The Pretties covered it on their eponymous 1965 debut. May’s co-founder was Dick Taylor who had just left the Rolling Stones (he was their bassist for a while). Indeed, the link between the Pretty Things and the Rolling Stones went deeper. The Pretty Things were preceded by a band called Little Boy Blue whose members included Keith Richard and Mick Jagger. Like the Rolling Stones, the Pretties started out as an R&B band but embraced other genres, notably the psychedelic rock of S.F.Sorrow. They were managed by Bryan Morrison (he also managed Pink Floyd) who was persuaded that he would be better off managing them than the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. They were a band that never received their due. They rarely made an impression on either side of the Atlantic or down under. Their first single Rosalyn charted at 41 in the UK and 67 in Australia (and Macman played it recently on his 2EARFM show). The follow-ups Don't Bring Me Down and Honey I Need made the top twenty in the UK but did little in Australia.
I remember that in the 60s the Beatles were the well-presented nice boys while the Stones were the bad boys. Your mother was comfortable with the Beatles but not the Stones. The Pretty Things were further along the spectrum; they were intentionally ugly with hair longer than their contemporaries. It’s been alleged that Jagger wanted to prevent their appearance on the UK’s Ready Steady Go! because they were the band that could challenge the Stones’ bad boy image. The critics loved them, but critical acclaim doesn’t sell records. Their early history in the studio saw the band with its amps seemingly turned up to 11 but for S.F.Sorrow they changed; they turned off the gain on the amps, cut the reverb and even removed the amplification completely.
But they survived. Perhaps only the Stones have the same longevity. Phil May will not see the release of the Pretties’ forthcoming album Bare As Bone, Bright As Blood which is due for release later this year. Alexis Petrides (he ghost-wrote Elton John’s autobiography) has described May as an “agent of chaos who fought the laws of pop”. He was anarchic which is perhaps why the Pretties never made it. Whatever else you can say about their competition, the Stones are pretty disciplined. May made a blues album in 1976 with members of Fleetwood Mac and Humble Pie but his anarchic approach was too much for them and they quit. May completed the album with other musicians under the name Phil May & The Fallen Angels. Like the angels, the record fell out of sight. There’s no trace of it now.
He was one of rock’s great icons. I am fond of referring to Jack Black in School of Rock; Phil May was someone who stuck it to the Man in a big way. He should have been better known and he should have been better appreciated. The Pretties last album The Pretty Things (are in bed now, of course) (2015), with four of its ten tracks co-written by May, represents 50 years of experience. The title comes from the first line of Dylan’s Tombstone Blues:
The sweet pretty things are in bed now, of course
The city fathers, they're trying to endorse
The reincarnation of Paul Revere's horse
But the town has no need to be nervous
I’m looking forward to the forthcoming Bare As Bone, Bright As Blood. Unlike Nirvana’s The Story of Simon Simopath, although there’s no doubt it’s not as strong as Tommy, I think S.F.Sorrow has stood the test of time .
RIP Phil May, anarchic rebel to the core.
Notes: Macman would be horrified if I did not note that the Kinks’ 1969 Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) can claim to be an early rock opera but post-dates S.F.Sorrow. Another claimant to being an early rock opera is the Moody Blues’ 1967 game-changing Days of Future Passed which pre-dates S.F.Sorrow.
A 1967 single by Keith West called Excerpt from 'A Teenage Opera’ was a huge hit in the UK reaching number 2. It was supposed to be part of a bigger teenage opera project, but that project never materialised.
If you subscribe to Spotify, then your Discover Weekly playlist is a source of inspiration. There’s always something there you have never heard.