Friday, July 4, 2014

The Concept Album Part One: The 1960s and '70s

The idea of a Concept Album was started when the LP, long-playing record albums started to become more popular in the 60s. Basically the 'concept' could not have come before
the technology/medium, but more importantly, the wide acceptance of the LP as a viable and buyable work of art. It was as important a development as the proliferation of paperback novels. As the album rose in both sales and popularity, musicians and artists found that their record companies allowed much more creative freedom on an album than it did for singles.
  The idea that a story could be told through music is, of course, a very old idea. Even the ancient Greek plays had choruses to sing in between acts of the story taking place on the stage. Opera was/is considered the epitome of art for hundreds of years. Similarly, the concept of a song being 'about someone' like a fictional character is also centuries old. But the idea that rock & rollers and so-called hippie-bands were capable of such sophistication and nuance that they could successfully pull off such a thing on an album was something very new in the world of recorded music of the 1960s and 70s. Such praise and grandeur was the exclusive work of those educated by the best teachers and employed by the noble lords of whatever land they inhabited.
  Spoiler: If you haven't listened to any of these albums, and you don't want to know the ending, then don't read too far into the description. We've made descriptions reasonably, but not entirely vague. Also, there is an understanding that some concept albums are only one-side concept, while others are whole albums and even double albums. This is not a blog about rating concept albums from best to worst or vice versa, nor is it a listing of all concept albums ever made. Basically this is intended to list some of the essential concept albums that exist and the albums that this blog feels that everyone should check-out if they haven't already. At the same time, the purpose is not only to glorify such work, but discuss some of the problems inherent with the idea and to address the fact that the glory days of the concept album may be behind us. Some view Concept albums as only those that are considered to be RockOperas, while others view Concept albums as telling a tale or giving a message, but without being constrained by the limits of a traditional story as might be written in a book.
  With all due respect to the progressive rock side-long musical dreamscapes and to those small-c concept albums, ie: those albums with an underlying theme, but without characters or any kind of narrative or story, this blog is about those concept albums that either tell a story, or have some identifiable fictional characters that the album is based on.  Basically they have to have some kind of 'Concept' that is more substantial than just a 'theme' if not a specific plot, with one exception, and that's our first subject:

The Beatles - Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band: The Beatles created what is generally considered to be the first concept album in 1968 when they concocted a fictional band called Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But this band wasn't a rock band, it was a post-world war II British Veteran's marching band, replete with horn-section and uniforms. The Beatles themselves take on the persona of this band and introduce the album, hoping you will enjoy the show. The rest of the album, i.e. 'the show' is a mish-mash of songs that is reminiscent of some sort of British theatre/vaudeville show of twenty years prior. Simple songs of friendship, love, relationships and courting intertwined all the time with the psychedelic buzz of 1960s drug-culture. While several concept albums use sound effects to audio-illustrate their ideas, this album strangely comes with it's own laugh track. The fictional band plays the intro and the exit of 'the show' and the album ends with A Day in the Life, suggesting that the band is now returning the listener to where they found you.
   While the 'story' of Sgt. Pepper's is somewhat lacking compared to concept albums that would come later, the influence of the album is somewhat incredible. The Beatles made a work of art and put it in album format that made it more than just a collection of songs. This is a masterwork by a band that, four years prior, were just four mop-tops that appealed to teenage girls and sang songs about holding hands and telling friends that you should be glad because she loves you. Simply put, the Beatles, and their fans, had grown up, and the music shows more meaning and sophistication, expecting the listener to use his or her imagination.

The Who - Tommy A traumatic childhood event leaves Tommy deaf, mute and blind. His parents take him to numerous 'doctors' for treatment and although his ailments are deemed 'psychosomatic', there appears to be no cure. Tommy has one undeniable talent, however. He's a pinball champion. The hit song Pinball Wizard gives some of the ideas that flow from this tale.
    The double-album Tommy was dubbed by the media and even the band as the first Rock-Opera, for going beyond the concept of creating fictional characters and trying to tell a story through music.
   Of course, telling the story of a 'deaf, dumb and blind' person through music seems odd and inappropriate until you hear Roger Daltry singing the songs so well and begin to hear the emotion and artistry of the music. In their live performances, Roger Daltry 'became' Tommy, much like an actor in a stage-play or the lead in a musical. Indeed, The Who probably played almost every song live several times over before they put it all onto disc form and decided it should be a double-album release.
   By now, everyone knows that there was a movie made of this album that did well in theatres and is still sometimes re-played on late night television.  Whether you want to call it a Rock-Opera or Concept Album, Tommy has to be one of the very best and most successful. It has sold over 20 million copies worldwide and in 1998 was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for having "historical, artistic and significant value."
 The Who would go on to write a second one called Quadrophenia, which is also highly-rated by fans of the The Who, but wasn't as commercially successful as Tommy.

Jethro Tull - Thick As a Brick: From 1971 until now, Ian Anderson, lead singer, songwriter and flautist for Jethro Tull, has repeatedly stated that 'Aqualung' was not a concept album. However, in a response to all the progressive music and concept album hype that had occurred in the late sixties and early seventies, Jethro Tull produced the Album Thick As a Brick. Rather than write a song over 12 minutes long, or even take up one whole album side like Yes or Genesis, they decided to just use the whole f**king album!  A full album of over forty minutes of music with just one song called "Thick as a Brick". The story of Gerald Bostock, the winner of a poetry contest in a small town called St. Cleve the album was sold in what appeared to be a makeshift cover made out of a folded over 12-page small-town newspaper.
 You'd think that Jethro Tull deserved an award just for the sheer audacity of it all, but... of course, Thick As a Brick, was a work of parody; a tongue in cheek version of progressive and jam-rock albums and long-lasting songs of rock n' roll excess. The joke was subtle enough, and the music good enough, that you could easily think that they were serious, and nothing on the cover of the album or the fake newspaper therein, suggested they weren't. Even the main character 'Gerald Bostock' was listed in the credits as the lyric writer, but is just a pseudonym for Ian Anderson himself, who wrote all the lyrics. 

David Bowie - The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars:
    If the Beatles could invent a fictional band, then David Bowie invented one that was out of this world! A messianic figure, a rock n' roll star, possibly an alien from another planet, who forms a band and becomes a rock and roll star to bring a message of hope to a dying Earth.
   The album begins with the announcement of the end of world in five years. Ziggy then sends messages from outer space that reach kids listening to rock and roll through the radio. In order to have his message broadcast throughout the world, Ziggy decides it would be best to become a Rock and Roll star to spread his message of hope through music. He would find his own success would be his undoing. His star rose too fast and too bright. He took too many drugs and his fame inflated his ego, made him lose hold of his own identity. In the end, the band is broken up and Ziggy is left alone contemplating suicide, his fans pleading for him not to do it. This is, of course, a simplistic version of sequence of events depicted in the loosely-written 'story' of Ziggy Stardust.
    In reality, before either of them had any sort of fame, David Bowie met the lead singer for The Stooges in a bar on his first trip to New York: a guy named James Neil Osterburg Jr; AKA: Iggy Pop. And Iggy may well have become Ziggy just because he had a cool name. Ziggy Stardust is also derived from the real-life British rocker Vince Taylor, who had a drug-induced mental breakdown and believed himself to be both God and an alien. Ziggy's androgenous appearance onstage, (essentially David Bowie wearing some 'unearthly' looking and very feminine gowns), was likely derived from Andy Warhol, who was, at the time, casting trans-gendered actresses for the lead roles in his films.
    For concert performances, David Bowie dressed and acted out the part of Ziggy Stardust onstage and his band played their part as 'the Spiders' as well. Both Bowie and his Ziggy Stardust alter-ego were so successful, and his subsequent tour so hyped and critically acclaimed that the artist felt a little too closely associated with the character that he'd created. In an attempt to seperate the two once and for all, David Bowie ended his Ziggy Stardust persona with flourish in a final concert in 1974, ditching the costumes and breaking up the band. Unfortunately for fans, this meant that Bowie also let go of guitarist Mick Ronson, who is credited for helping to create the albums overall sound and whose onstage presence, backing vocals and guitar showmanship gave the Ziggy Stardust shows that added flash.  Anyone still alive that was actually able to see the original tour of Ziggy Stardust has to consider him or herself very lucky indeed.

Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway: 'The Lamb' is about Rael, a young, half Puerto-Rican gang member with a criminal history and a spray-can, who is met on the streets of New York by a Lamb, meant to be a harbinger of some kind. Rael runs away and finds himself going on a dream-like journey, not through the streets or subways of New York City, but in some strange ethereal world where he is searching for his brother, who he believes he must save.

   Previous to the Lamb, Genesis had written lengthy songs telling the fables and stories of Knights and Crusades and battles, of strange places and people and magical music boxes. After four previous albums, The Lamb was the culmination of years of work by five equally creative and skilled musicians who all happened to be in the same band.
    In its time, The Lamb was only modestly successful. It was the last tour of Genesis with Peter Gabriel as their lead singer and when the tour ended, they actually had to cancel the last show because of poor ticket sales. In fact, the story of The Lamb was originally thought to be the weakness of the album. It seemed too gloomy and strange to be widely popular, and the plot seemed to go in a different direction with every song, winding all the way to the end. However, the Lamb is probably the only one of these concept albums listed in this blog entry that actually has a sort of narrative within the lyrics, describing hallways and carpets and cages, forcing the listener to imagine these surroundings and the dreamscape of Rael's journey. And perhaps the story is so full of twists that Peter Gabriel felt the need to write some explanation on the inside sleeve of the original album cover. However, despite its' strangeness, it has only gained credibility over the years. Other than the title track, there are no top-forty hits from this album, and unlike Tommy or The Wall, there is no movie to watch, and there are no plans for one any time soon. There are no full-length or live videos of the Lamb as performed by Genesis (other than those pieced together by fans using several different source recordings). This album has gained popularity and fans solely through listening and recommendation and the re-discovery of the album by several generations of listeners. This is one concept album that, over time, has only grown in popularity and stature purely on its musical prowess and artistic merit as an album.

Rush - 2112: Taking place in a future world established after some kind of apocalypse and governed by a ruling cabal which guarantees equality by controlling everything from the written word to the pictures that are painted, 2112 tells the story of a boy who discovers a guitar and learns to play. The boy shows his discovery to the rulers of the world and his artisty and instrument are wholly rejected. The boy then retreats to a cave where he becomes despondent and commits suicide. The story ends in some kind of mass invasion or civil war whereupon the world is usurped by 'the Solar Federation'. Its unclear whether the Solar Federation are good guys (The Cavalry) or bad guys (The Empire)
   Perhaps the most surprising thing about Rush is that they did not start out as a progressive band writing stories to go with their music. Their first songs, and their entire first album suggest their early roots as a hard-rocking bar band. Their first 2 albums were based mostly in the blues and hard rock, displaying the influence of British bands like Led Zeppelin or Cream. But when they produced Caress of Steel, Rush proclaimed they had been also been listening to Yes and Genesis, however Caress of Steel did not have the wide-ranging appeal that Rush had hoped for and was comercially less successful.
   It is now well-known that Rush released 2112 at the same point when their record label was threatening to release them, and perhaps the dark ending of the story suggests that they were willing to accept those consequences in order to put the album out there. The combination of both Heavy & Progressive sounds seems natural today, but in 1976 it seemed counter-intuitive. The contrast between classically-influenced cascading arpeggios and twelve-string guitars and power chords and thundering drums all within the same song... appeared to be a guaranteed commercial flop. Instead it proved to be Rush's breakthrough album, leading to only more side-long concept albums/songs like Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres.

Pink Floyd - The Wall:  Fascism, Indoctrination, institutions, ignorance, hatred, drugs and isolation are all elements that help build The Wall. When his dad dies in the WWII, Pink grows up fatherless, with an overprotective mother. He is taught, trained and raised in a school where discipline and structure is far more important than individuality, learning or socializing, and at every point he finds himself distanced, blocked-out. Later in life, he becomes a successful rockstar, touring from strange town to strange town, isolated and alone in hotel rooms, having short-term relationships or feeling removed from real friendships, and he is slowly going crazy.
   Pink lashes out in absolutely terrible ways, insulting and beating-up his girlfriend/groupie within an inch of her life and then staging a racist concert filled with horrible hate-speech.
   At the end, Pink is finally brought to trial for his behaviour, and he has to face his mother, his teacher, his peers and finally his Judge and Jury who proclaim him guilty of showing 'feelings' and proceed to banish him... to the other side of the wall.
    The Wall is believed to have been inspired by Roger Waters view of the world and its inherent distant coldness. The character of Pink himself is based on Waters, but may have been partly inspired by former Pink Floyd member Sid Barrett, whose challenges with mental illness had forced him out of the band to be replaced by David Gilmour.
   Perhaps the Wall was out-sold by Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon album, but this humble blog believes that The Wall is the masterpiece of the band, and if you like concept albums, this one has to be in your collection.
In Part Two we discuss the concept album from the 1980s until present....Click Here to go to The Concept Album Part Two: The 1980s until Today

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