[MUSIC] 50 Years of Concept Albums
- 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.
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 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 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."
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."
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."