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[MUSIC] 50 Years of Concept Albums

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  • madchinaman
    50 years of concept albums The format has efforts noteworthy – and not so – by artists from Sinatra to Marilyn Manson. By BEN WENER The Orange County
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 18, 2006
      50 years of concept albums
      The format has efforts noteworthy – and not so – by artists from
      Sinatra to Marilyn Manson.
      By BEN WENER
      The Orange County Register

      There's really no way to pinpoint the exact origin of the concept
      album. Does the focus of Woody Guthrie's 1940 debut, "Dust Bowl
      Ballads," give it the nod as first-ever? What about thematic sets of
      78s before that? Consider this merely a half-century of signposts.

      THE '50s

      Whatever might be argued as an earlier precedent, most agree that the
      first successful attempt at concept albums came from Frank Sinatra,
      beginning with 1954's "In the Wee Small Hours." The remarkable run of
      Capitol Records releases that followed – from the buoyant ("Songs for
      Swingin' Lovers!," the travel-themed "Come Fly With Me") to the
      despairing (1958's wrenching "Only the Lonely") – established him as
      a conceptual master.

      But as the decade came to a close, greats in other genres began
      adding conceptual twists – chiefly country star Marty Robbins, via
      1959's "Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs," and Ray Charles,
      whose "The Genius Hits the Road" consisted entirely of geographical
      songs (like "Georgia on My Mind").

      THE '60s

      The earliest rock example? Not "Sgt. Pepper." Not "Tommy" or anything
      else by the Who. Some might argue that the distinction belongs to the
      Beach Boys' 1963 release "Little Deuce Coupe," whose tunes all
      centered on cars.

      The first albums to elevate such a conceit, however, are "Face to
      Face," a 1966 collection of character studies from the Kinks; the
      Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds," which has musical if not conceptual
      continuity; the Mothers of Invention's aptly titled "Freak Out!";
      and "The Who Sell Out," the band's 1967 piece that plays like a
      transmission from an underground radio station. (The band also
      unveiled the first rock opera the previous year with the nine-minute
      dramedy "A Quick One While He's Away.")

      The summer of '67 brought "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,"
      more an assortment with a persona attached than a genuine concept
      album. (The Rolling Stones clumsily responded with "Their Satanic
      Majesties Request.") In '68, the Pretty Things' little-known (over
      here) "S.F. Sorrow" emerged as the first full-length album with an
      overriding story line.

      Pete Townshend's first magnum opus, "Tommy," to this day one of few
      concept albums with a distinct narrative, came to life a year later,
      leading the Who to perform it live for more than a year.

      Ray Davies also continued to explore thematic terrain during this
      time with "The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society"
      and "Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)." And
      still more dabbled with the format: Simon & Garfunkel on Side 2
      of "Bookends," the Small Faces with "Ogden's Nut Gone Flake."

      THE '70s

      The concept album's heyday, capped by the flowering of Pink Floyd
      with "Dark Side of the Moon" and the Syd Barrett homage "Wish You
      Were Here." David Bowie and his band arrived in '72 in the guise
      of "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars" and carried the conceit
      through "Diamond Dogs" two years later.

      The Who kept at it, with "Who's Next" rising from the rubble of
      Towshend's "Lifehouse" project and "Quadrophenia" nearly
      trumping "Tommy." But the Kinks became a veritable cottage industry
      of concept, issuing "Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part
      One," "Preservation Act I and II," "Soap Opera" and "Schoolboys in

      Country stars got in on the act: Willie Nelson with "Yesterday's
      Wine," "The Red-Headed Stranger" and "Phases & Stages"; Kenny Rogers
      with "The Ballad of Calico" and, in the next decade, "The Gambler."

      Marvin Gaye assembled his fluid song cycle "What's Going On," while,
      as the decade closed, Stevie Wonder took a "Journey Through the
      Secret Life of Plants." George Clinton also started exploring
      conceptual space on his records with Parliament and Funkadelic.

      Prog-rock reached its zenith – and then its nadir – as Yes
      told "Tales From Topographic Oceans," Genesis sacrificed "The Lamb
      Lies Down on Broadway," Rush zoomed into "2112" and Jethro Tull
      got "Thick as a Brick" and so on.

      Other conceptual pieces: Randy Newman's "Good Old Boys," Lou
      Reed's "The Bells," Queen's "A Night at the Opera" and "A Day at the
      Races," Elton John's "Tumbleweed Connection" and "Captain Fantastic
      and the Brown Dirt Cowboy."

      THE '80s

      Pink Floyd closed the previous decade with "The Wall," then three
      years later revealed "The Final Cut." Styx got in on the act, first
      with "Paradise Theater," then the more futuristic bomb "Kilroy Was

      Queensryche committed the first of its two "Operation: Mindcrime"
      works to vinyl, while Iron Maiden flirted with concept on "Seventh
      Son of a Seventh Son."

      On the punk and proto-indie side, the Dead Kennedys dissected modern
      society with "Plastic Surgery Disasters," while Hüsker Dü related the
      saga of an impressionable young lad being hurled through its "Zen

      Prince struck platinum via persona in "Purple Rain" and "Parade." Tom
      Waits recounted "Frank's Wild Years." XTC went "Skylarking." And,
      though no one was really listening, Townshend offered two more
      epics, "White City" and "The Iron Man."

      THE '90s

      Hip-hop finally joined the fray, with the Fugees' "The Score" setting
      a new standard for conceptualizing, and Prince Paul, who earlier had
      worked wonders with De La Soul, penning his "ghetto opera" "A Prince
      Among Thieves." Kool Keith rose as a master of conceit, adopting
      poses on records as Dr. Octagon and on the out-there classic "Deltron

      "Dream Theater" picked up where Queensryche left off. Radiohead
      seemed to be mining Pink Floyd's veins, but protested any concept-
      album tag for "OK Computer." Industrial rock giants Nine Inch Nails
      and Marilyn Manson got aggressively ugly with, respectively, "The
      Downward Spiral" and "Antichrist Superstar."

      And Townshend persisted at presenting big ideas, baffling people with
      the little-heard "Psychoderelict."
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