The Archive

In­clud­ing: Pretty Things, David Axelrod, The Fiery Fur­naces, Pete Shelley

UNCUT - - Contents - IN­TER­VIEW: JIM WIRTH

By the time the Pretty Things’ psychedelic rock opera SF Sor­row limped its way into the new-re­lease racks in De­cem­ber 1968, the Small Faces’ Og­dens’ Nut Gone Flake – also fea­tur­ing a lengthy para­ble about a boy ob­sessed with the moon – had been gently blow­ing the minds of flipped-out mods for six months.

By the time SF Sor­row was picked up by Mo­town’s rock sub­sidiary Rare Earth and re­leased in the United States, com­plete with lu­di­crous tomb­stone-shaped sleeve, the Pretty Things were be­ing mocked for hav­ing ripped off The Who’s 1969 mag­num opus Tommy, which also fea­tures a wronged man’s quest for spir­i­tual en­light­en­ment. Rolling Stone’s Lester Bangs shred­ded the Pretty Things’ labour of love mem­o­rably. “One looked for­ward to this one be­cause they are a thrillingly ragged blues band with none of the usual snob­bery,” he wrote in early 1970. “What a sur­prise, then, to find an ul­tra-pre­ten­tious con­cept al­bum, com­plete with strained ‘story’ (a man’s life from ru­ral birth to prodi­gal’s Oliver Twist freak­out), like some grossly puerile cross be­tween The BeeGees, Tommy, and The Moody Blues.”

Too much too late, SF Sor­row might have been more than a quin­tes­sen­tial pe­riod piece had cir­cum­stances been more favourable. The Pretty Things started record­ing their fourth al­bum in late 1967, and had they not been com­pelled to hack it to­gether in fits and starts, snatch­ing time in EMI’s Abbey Road stu­dio be­tween club dates and money-spinning li­brary mu­sic work, it could have been a con­tender. As it is, this eight-disc, 50th-an­niver­sary vinyl col­lec­tion – fea­tur­ing mono and stereo mixes, a 1998 live set and copies of the Pretty Things’ four con­tem­po­rary sin­gles – is the fi­nal word on the most thrilling near-miss of a ca­reer strewn with wrong turns.

The first of those was ar­guably gui­tarist Dick Tay­lor’s de­ci­sion to leave one Sid­cup Art Col­lege band, The Rolling Stones, to join Phil May in another. The singer’s shoul­der-length hair and the snarling de­liv­ery of 1964 hits “Ros­alyn” and “Honey I Need” earned the Pretty Things a cer­tain Ne­an­derthal ku­dos in Bri­tish R&B circles, but un­der­whelm­ing LPs and ec­cen­tric man­age­ment calls (they were sent to break Aus­tralia and New Zealand rather than Amer­ica in 1965) kept them firmly un­der­ground.

Hav­ing com­posed proto-rave epic “Mid­night To Six Man” and provoca­tively ti­tled 1966 B-side “£SD”, the art-school

bop­pers looked well placed to flour­ish in more far-out times, but started the thou­sand-trip sum­mer of 1967 ac­ced­ing to Fon­tana’s de­mand to swamp their third al­bum, Emo­tions, with queasy or­ches­tral ar­range­ments in or­der to run out their con­tract. Re­leased that April, it sounds like an out-of-whack meld­ing of Ray Davies from The Kinks, and Ray Davies and the But­ton-Down Brass.

More am­bi­tious plans were brew­ing, though. Dis­ap­pointed to dis­cover that The Bea­tles’ Sgt Pep­per wasn’t ac­tu­ally a story in song, bassist Wally Waller urged his band­mates to make an LP that gen­uinely was. May pro­vided the nar­ra­tive based on the story of a dis­af­fected World War I sol­dier, and with Par­lophone of­fer­ing stu­dio time and the ser­vices of Piper At

The Gates Of Dawn pro­ducer Nor­man Smith, SF Sor­row was (slowly) born.

HG Wells steam punk with a heavy slab of Mervyn Peake gothic thrown in, the al­bum fol­lows moon­struck Se­bas­tian F Sor­row from cra­dle to de­crepi­tude. Mor­ph­ing from fac­tory fod­der into can­non fod­der, Sor­row sur­vives the Great War only to ex­pe­ri­ence more grief as his child­hood sweet­heart dies in an air­ship dis­as­ter. Of­fered re­demp­tion by the charis­matic Baron Satur­day, Sor­row goes on a meta­phys­i­cal voy­age of dis­cov­ery only to find that his mis­ery is in­fi­nite and that there is no hope of sal­va­tion. Later crit­ics would ask – not with­out good rea­son – whether SF Sor­row’s poor sales were down to it be­ing some­thing of a bum­mer. How­ever, if the heav­i­ness was a buz­zkill in 1968, it is in­te­gral to SF Sor­row’s abid­ing ap­peal. While other Bri­tish psychedelic records tend to­wards the fey and the fop­pish, there is no Alice In Won­der­land wib­bling here. SF Sor­row takes it­self lu­di­crously se­ri­ously, but it’s mélange of slate-grey proto-metal and vogueish flashes of back­ward gui­tar, sitar, Mel­lotron and stu­dio whizz-bangery make it sound – at its best – like the Nuggets com­pi­la­tion al­bum remixed by Jack­son Pol­lock. There are shades of the Pretty Things’ R&B past on the al­bum’s leath­ery love theme “She Says Good Morn­ing”, Tay­lor’s jagged twin-gui­tar line slic­ing through what sounds like a hastily butchered take on The Bea­tles’ “Tax­man”, while “Baron Satur­day” has a sim­i­lar mod-friendly crunch, stabs of Mel­lotron up­dat­ing its sil­hou­ette for less sar­to­ri­ally rigid times. How­ever, both sound tame com­pared with the melo­dra­matic “Bal­loon Burn­ing”, Tay­lor ac­com­pa­ny­ing SF Sor­row’s own Hin­den­burg Dis­as­ter with a fuzzed-out gui­tar solo cribbed from the Are You

Ex­pe­ri­enced? song­book. “Old Man Go­ing” is an even more metal­lic KO, stand-in drum­mer Twink ham­mer­ing out a rhythm amid a ca­coph­ony of air-raid siren noise, the Pretty Things’ dis­cor­dantly shrill back­ing vo­cals pre­fig­ur­ing the angsty wail­ing of Deep Pur­ple’s “Child In Time”.

For all that, SF Sor­row does not ut­terly lack a gen­tle touch. “Pri­vate Sor­row” – a mar­tial trudge with omi­nous recorder ac­com­pa­ni­ment – mir­rors some of the jazz-folk me­an­der­ings of Traf­fic and Fam­ily’s Mu­sic In A Doll’s House. May’s lyrics bor­der on the hys­ter­i­cal through­out, but his ly­ser­gic Wil­fred Owen shtick bites hard: “Heaven’s rain falls upon faces of the chil­dren who look sky­ward, twist­ing metal through the air, scars and screams, so you might know His fury.”

“Death” has a sim­i­lar elfin gloomi­ness (as well as a stately solo on a sitar al­legedly furtively bor­rowed from Ge­orge Har­ri­son), while the Pretty Things es­say some­thing like West Coast mel­low on “The Jour­ney”, though their taste for shrill, Greek cho­russtyle har­mony vo­cals and blitzkrieg per­cus­sion en­sure it has a bru­tal heft too.

The jin­gle-jan­gle mourn­ing of “Trust”, mean­while, fea­tures sub­tly de­ployed pub pi­ano, and care­fully buried doowop cho­rus, its de­spair at a world where

“minds are grey” mark­ing a stag­ing post be­tween the im­po­tent lit­tle-Eng­lan­der fury of The Kinks and the more an­i­mated first-shak­ing of the mid-’70s Pink Floyd.

Had ev­ery­thing gone well, that’s a lit­tle cor­ner of pop his­tory that the Pretty Things might have made their own. As it was, they were fated to a ca­reer of what­ifs. The first sign­ings to Led Zep­pelin’s Swan­song la­bel, David Bowie cov­ered two of their songs on his Pin Ups col­lec­tion, but the Pretty Things never made a ma­jor com­mer­cial break­through, or another record as dense or ex­treme as SF Sor­row. All the ef­fort that went into it may have ru­ined its com­mer­cial prospects, but that makes it a riv­et­ing cu­rio. Still very much in a time and space of its own.

Ex­tras: 8/10. No pre­vi­ously un­re­leased ma­te­rial, but plenty of fun odd­i­ties, in­clud­ing notes from May, Tay­lor, Waller and key­board player Jon Povey. A 1998 live ver­sion of the al­bum – fea­tur­ing Dave Gil­mour and god of hell­fire Arthur Brown – makes its vinyl de­but, while the two non-al­bum sin­gles are as com­pelling as

SF Sor­row it­self. Novem­ber 1967’s creepy pop op­eretta “De­fect­ing Grey” – about a ‘straight’ man moon­ing over a po­ten­tial gay lover on a park bench, ac­cord­ing to May – is Keith West’s “Ex­cerpt From A Teenage Opera” gone rogue, while the woozy “Talk­ing About The Good Times”, out three months later, is The Dave Clark Five melted like a Sal­vador Dalí clock.

W

hat were you do­ing at the start of 1967?

We were try­ing to fin­ish Emo­tions and Fon­tana were re­ally fuck­ing about with it. We could have dug our heels in, but we would have had to stay and fin­ish it. They stuck brass all over it. We just cut and run be­cause the idea for SF Sor­row was ger­mi­nat­ing and we had no il­lu­sion that we would be able to make it for Fon­tana.

Pink Floyd pro­ducer Nor­man Smith was very im­por­tant in the cre­ation of SF Sor­row, yes?

When our man­ager Bryan Mor­ri­son heard some of the demos – things like “De­fect­ing Grey” – he said: “I told you if you kept smok­ing that fuck­ing stuff you’d go divvy.” Nor­man got it straight away. We didn’t sign to EMI; we signed to Abbey Road and Nor­man. We felt Abbey Road was the only place we’d have a chance to stretch and ex­per­i­ment. With Nor­man, ev­ery time you gave him a chal­lenge he was up for it.

SF Sor­row took a long time to make – why was that?

EMI gave us a pal­try £2,500 sign­ing-on fee and we owed £3,000 in debt, so we were £500 down when we started the record. That meant we had to work all the way through it – we’d do five or six days in the stu­dio and then we’d have to go to Germany to do a fes­ti­val, or Switzer­land or Sweden. But that was a good thing be­cause things had time to evolve. It was like hav­ing a plant that got big­ger and big­ger and went dif­fer­ent ways to what you ex­pected.

What was the ba­sis for the SF Sor­row story?

I’d writ­ten this story called Sergeant Sor­row and it was the ma­que­tte for the whole thing. It’s sort of semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal: a lot of it was my ex­pe­ri­ence even if I’m pro­ject­ing my­self into a sit­u­a­tion and won­der­ing how I would re­act. We started out with the ‘cra­dle to al­most grave’ sce­nario be­cause most clas­si­cal records are like that, and Shake­speare and Dick­ens. It was sto­ry­line driven, lyri­cally driven and mu­si­cally driven, so it had three pow­ers drag­ging the en­gine down the track. Some things would just come of a riff Dick had, some things would come off a lyric line that some­body came and put some mu­sic to, so it was very ex­cit­ing times.

Is SF Sor­row a ‘drug’ record?

I don’t think I could have writ­ten it with­out tak­ing acid. I was very lucky, I had quite a few trips – 12, 15, 20 – and I never had a bad one. Drugs were very much part of my life. I started out on pur­ple hearts, and once you took too many of them to work you moved on to some­thing else. I’ve al­ways said that there’s a lot of R&B in Sor­row, too. We hadn’t kicked our roots com­pletely. It was in our pal­ette. The purists said we did thrash R&B. Our mates wanted to dance, they didn’t want to smooch. It was to do with the speed as well – ev­ery­thing got a bit more fran­tic.

The re­lease of the record was a bit of an an­ti­cli­max. True?

We had this read­ing where Nor­man read the story and we played it to a whole bunch of suits in the board­room and it was very ob­vi­ous what the thing was about. The very next morn­ing we got this phone call from the ac­coun­tant say­ing: “To ac­tu­ally print the story on this al­bum, is it im­por­tant? Be­cause it’s go­ing to cost another £780 [to print a gate­fold

sleeve].” And I said: “We played it to you. Of course it’s im­por­tant.” So he said: “Well, you’ll have to pay for that out of your roy­al­ties.” So al­most be­fore it came out we knew we were fucked. For some rea­son Tamla Mo­town in­sisted that EMI gave them the Pretty Things in the US. They were do­ing this cross­over la­bel, Rare Earth, and they had so many fuck-ups with the launch that SF Sor­row came out in the States a year later, af­ter Tommy, and got slaugh­tered. If we hadn’t been half­way into

Parachute, I might have cut my throat and given up!

You never broke Amer­ica in the 1960s – why not?

Bryan Mor­ri­son turned down Dick Clark. The guy who brought The Bea­tles over re­ally wanted us, but Bryan said: “Fuck off, not enough money – we’re go­ing to New Zealand.” If we had gone to Amer­ica and had enor­mous suc­cess, I don’t know whether

[sybaritic drum­mer] Viv Prince and I would have been able to sur­vive it. Too much fun.

You couldn’t play SF Sor­row live at the time?

Oh God, no. There were so many things on it: flutes, horns, a penny whis­tle, I think. Each per­son played about four in­stru­ments on ev­ery song. We did a mime of it at the Round­house! Gala [Mitchell – Ossie

Clark model and Tay­lor’s girl­friend] played SF Sor­row’s mum, Twink played SF Sor­row. Ev­ery­body had parts. I read the story from a dais. We were all fly­ing. Peo­ple re­mem­ber it. I don’t. It was talked about. Very bizarre.

Is SF Sor­row your Jack­son Pol­lock mas­ter­piece?

I’ve al­ways been a fig­u­ra­tive painter, so it would be more like a Fran­cis Ba­con – he was my favourite. I can en­joy it, but I can also see where it could have been bet­ter. Noth­ing’s per­fect, but be­cause of the record­ing sit­u­a­tion in those days, there are lim­its. I think this is pos­si­bly when we were push­ing the en­ve­lope the most, when we were right out there, and pos­si­bly it was a year too early for ev­ery­one but us.

“I don’t think I could have writ­ten it with­out tak­ing acid” Pretty things singer Phil May speaks to Uncut At its best it’s like Nuggets remixed by Jack­son Pol­lock

Earn­ing ku­dos on the R&B cir­cuit: Dick Tay­lor (left) and Phil May

The late-’60s Pretty Things: (l–r) Wally Waller, Skip Alan, Phil May, Jon Povey and Dick Tay­lor

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