The Concept Album As a Performative Genre

by Romina Cucchiara

10 November 2014

Pink Floyd’s concept album The Wall is a key example of an artwork that the studies of the musical theatre are missing out.
 

When people talk about musical theatre, this term usually refers to either the genre of the opera or the musical (Balme 147). Case in point is the chapter on “Music Theatre” that can be found in the methodological work of reference ‘The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Studies’ by Christopher B. Balme. While a methodological set of tools is given to aptly analyse and understand these genres of music theatre, there is a certain musical genre that could have been included in this chapter.

The concept album is an album that consists of a group of songs that are unified by a theme or by a certain narrative. In most cases, this unison can be found at the level of narrative cohesion, which means that there is a certain story or plot development that can be followed throughout the different songs on the album (Shuker 7-8).

The concept album is a format that is closely linked to pop and rock music, but that can also be found in other musical genres. A forefather of this type of album can be found in the 19th century, with the popular genre of the song cycle or Liederkreiss. Song cycles were mostly written for piano and one voice and more often than not consisted of (mostly German) Romantic poems set to music. The different songs of one such cycle therefore formed a chronological succession in which the storyline was being outlined.

In the 20th century, the need to tell a story through a series of songs can be seen within the sphere of folk music, with Woodie Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads (1940) as one of the first examples (Shute 10). During the ‘60s and ‘70s, the genre of the concept album boomed as a conventional album format. The Beatles, David Bowie, the Who, Pink Floyd, and Alice Cooper all released records that form the basis of what is generally understood as a concept album.

With the emergence of online music stores such as iTunes in the 21st century, this format at first seemed to become superfluous. To some, the possibility to buy separate songs with a single mouse click might have destroyed the need to release full albums that deserve to be listened to as a whole. However, the opposite thing appears to have occurred. A revival of the concept album turned out to be the ideal reaction against the “one track” culture of online music stores. Two good examples of bands in the present day that employ the legacy of the great concept albums are Arcade Fire and Radiohead.

With artists such as these in mind, I would propose the term “conceptual album” to describe this new generation of concept albums, for one key reasons. This is because the unison between the songs on a particular album has now been expanded into a broader field of visual and artistic design and marketing strategies that play into the themes and stories that form the album.

cover art

Arcade Fire

Neon Bible

(Merge)
US: 6 Mar 2007
UK: 5 Mar 2007

Review [1.Mar.2007]

An example of this broadening of the conceptual theme of specific album can be found in Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible (2007). The album mainly focuses on religion and belief in a modern age that is being led by mass media like television. The artistic output surrounding the release of the album itself is a good example as to what I refer to as ‘conceptual’. There was a special hotline fans which fans could use to leave a message for the band, fragments of which have been used in the 2008 Neon Bible tour documentary. During this tour, the band played several in churches, another element of the conceptual net that has been spun around this particular concept album.

This example makes quite clear that the legacy of the concept album is still very much present in the pop and rock scene today. Furthermore, Neon Bible is a case where an album developed and expanded the concept album format, bringing in even more ways to support the specific concept or idea that is the basis of an album. To further elaborate on how the concept album is a forgotten performative genre within the field of music theatre, I will return to its pinnacle in the ‘70s.

In November 1979, Pink Floyd’s double LP The Wall was released. This concept album, also referred to as a “rock opera”, forms an ideal case study to support my plead for the re-evaluation of the concept album as a performative genre. In addition to the original The Wall tour in 1980-1981, its 1982 movie adaption, and the one-night-only benefit show in 1990, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters toured the world with a re-imagined spectacle from 2010 until 2013. This makes the live performance of The Wall a historic as well as a still contemporary work of performance. It is exactly this ongoing re-imagining and re-staging of the same story that offers the chance to perform an in-depth analysis of the concept album as versatile performative script.

cover art

Pink Floyd

The Wall (Immersion Edition)

(EMI)
US: 28 Feb 2012
UK: 15 Feb 2012

Review [1.Mar.2012]

The most important thing about these four different ‘performances’ of The Wall is the fact that even though they all stem from the same story, every one of them has a different outlook on and approach to the album’s fundamental concept.

The Wall tells us the story of Pink, a rock star who has become estranged from his surroundings. Due to a troubled childhood, Pink seems to have constructed a mental wall around himself that separates him from the rest of the world. The songs on The Wall explain why Pink came to be this way, how he evolves into a delusional, power craving man and how his wall eventually crumbles down under the pressure of his own insecurities.

Firstly, this story seems to be an autobiography Roger Waters wrote to cope with his own feelings of estrangement towards his position as a rock star and his fans. This autobiographical aspect seemed to be the most important element during the first The Wall-tour in 1980 and 1981. By playing on aspects of the spectacle of a rock performance, this tour could be seen as meditation about its own essence, and therefore as a meta-performance or, as Philip Auslander calls it in his book Musical Personae (2006), a meta-concert. This tour alternates between what is real (the presence of musicians on stage, the safety policy of the concert venue) and what is being performed (the songs themselves, characters from the story).

One of the best examples of this switching of realities can be found at the very start of the show, when someone that seems to work for the concert venue announces which rules should be respected during the show. This man actually already starts the show itself, since he is part of the Pink Floyd performance. Nick Mason, at that time the drummer of the band, puts it this way:

“As the show began, it would be introduced by a compère, a combination of MC and radio DJ designed to heighten the unreality of the performance and to unhinge the audience’s expectations.”

This quotation makes quite clear that the band was intentionally playing with the unreality of a musical performance, in the process emphasizing the feelings of estrangement that are inherently part of the story told by The Wall.

This staging of the ‘unreal’ continues when only after the first song the actual Pink Floyd appear on stage, revealing that the opening number had been lip synced by a bunch of crewmembers wearing masks that strongly resembled the faces of the members of the band. This points out how, in a concert performance, the real people that are performing the show can become obsolete. Once a person becomes a performer, he becomes estranged from his self as well as from his environment. This self-estrangement was the primary message that was being conveyed during this initial tour.


When looking to the movie that was released in 1982, it becomes clear that a new medium asked for a new approach to the content of this concept album. At first, the movie was supposed to become a documentary-style film that would mainly consist of live footage from the tour. This proposed format changed, however, resulting in a fictitious live action movie interspersed with animated sequences. These animations form the visual link between the live show of The Wall and its movie adaptation, since they were all drawn by Gerald Scarfe.

The live action scenes, on the contrary, were totally new additions to the story of The Wall. Real actors and realistic scenery were bound to fundamentally change the visual outlook of the story. Through the seemingly more “realistic” medium of a full length movie, the emphasis of the story shifted from a reflection on theatricality and estrangement to an inquiry into the disillusionment caused by war and power. The influence of Roger Waters’ biography seems to play an even bigger part in this version of The Wall, thanks to the addition of an opening song that isn’t on the album itself. In “When the Tigers Broke Free” we discover how and where Pink’s father lost his life: “And the Anzio bridgehead was held for the price of a few hundred ordinary lives.”

The initial trauma that Pink suffered (losing his dad during the second world war) is one he shares with his creator. The element of the war is thus introduced as the start of Pink’s mental downfall, and the link between losing one’s mind and the destructive forces of the war constantly appear throughout the movie by means of associative montage. The element of the World War II in particular is very prominent in the film. When Pink turns into an authoritarian dictator himself, the audience is presented with a scene depicting a rally that bears strong resemblances to the images of Hitler at Nazi gatherings.

Looking at the film of The Wall from the perspective of writer Roger Waters in juxtaposition to the tour that preceded it, a key comparison arises. While the 1980-1981 concert tour largely focused on a fairly recent trauma of his (the feeling estrangement in his position as a rock star), the movie covers much more deeply rooted feelings of the loss of his father due to organised violence. Upon juxtaposing The Wall in these two different performances, it already becomes quite evident that the initial story that lies at the core of the concept album can function as a multi-layered script that can be brought to life in very different ways.

This became apparent once more in 1990, when Roger Waters, at that point operating without the band, restaged The Wall to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall. Here, all songs are being portrayed by Waters himself as well as by different stars, ranging from Sinead O’Connor to Brian Adams. This benefit concert adapted The Wall to a very recent example of the estrangement of people that is being caused by governmental decisions. By applying the story of a symbolic wall that has been build up and broken down again to a situation where a wall was really ‘torn down’ to free innocent people, the concept album now functioned as a sort of parable, adding once more to versatility in performative terms.

To conclude this short overview of the history of staging The Wall, I turn to the most ambitious representative of its versatility. From September 2010 to September 2013, Roger Waters toured with The Wall Live. This tour can be seen as the ultimate merging of The Wall’s being a personal story about insecurities as well as a critique of broader global concerns such as nationalism, war, and capitalism.

Some 30 years after the release of The Wall, the fears and doubts that lie at the core of the story have become more applicable than ever before, due to its new context in a world of growing paranoia and distrust. By upsizing the tour in both the quantity of shows and the technical aspects of the performance, it now tells a story about the whole world, for the whole world.

While the original tour in 1980-1981 only consisted of eleven show in three different countries, the 21st century version covered 219 shows in 32 countries. And although Roger Waters in some way is still is the center of The Wall, with these updates to the tour, the attention has totally shifted from a personal story to a political statement. The emphasis on theatrical reality by using a masks and actors has been replaced by conveying a revolutionary and anti-war message to the viewers via visual spectacle.

One of the best examples of the usage of strong visual imagery to transmit this message can be seen during the performance of the song “Run Like Hell”. Here, black silhouettes are projected onto the giant wall that functions as a screen. These shadowy figures strongly resemble the dancing silhouettes that Apple used during their iPod/iTunes campaign from 2003 until 2008. Just like in these advertisements, the black figures are all wearing the iconic white iPod-wires. During the show these similar silhouettes are being projected accompanied by a suitable slogan in iPod-style. The figures here are revolting people (iProtest), Hitler (iPaint), George W. Bush (iBelieve), wolves (iProtect), and sheep (iFollow).

Another element that shows that this tour is an accumulation of a personal story and a global message is the memorial wall that is incorporated into the show. On the official site of Roger Waters, there is a segment called “Fallen Loved Ones”. Here, people from around the world can contribute a photo and a story about those who have lost their lives due to warfare. During the intermission of the show, all these pictures are projected onto the wall. By giving everyone the chance to contribute his or her own brick to the wall, the story originally released in 1971 becomes a much broader global statement.

It is clear to see that a concept album like The Wall is performative in different ways, through different media, carrying out different ideas towards the public. This specific case study is an ideal starting point for a further inquiry into the world of the concept album. From a point of view that is rooted in theatre and performance studies, it is obvious that a concept album can be a seen as a blueprint for a very diverse array of stagings. I hope that by initializing this way of looking at the concept album will be the beginning of a raised awareness for a multitude of new genres that can be called music theatre.

At 22 years old Romina Cucchiara graduated as a Master of Arts in Theatre Studies at the University of Ghent, Belgium. With an equally great passion for music as for theatre, she decided to write her bachelor paper as well as her master thesis on the subject of theatricality in pop and rock concerts. By focussing on this specific topic, she hopes to point out that an academic way of analyzing performances of all kinds is as much needed in popular culture as in so-called “high culture”. As of now, she is applying to become a doctoral student at the University of Ghent in this subject.

Works Cited

Balme Christopher B. The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Mason, Nick. Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd. London: Orion Books, 2004.

Shuker, Roy. Popular Music: The Key Concepts. Second Edition. London: Routledge, 2005.

Shute, Gareth. Concept Albums. California: Investigations Publishing, 2013.

Squires, Nick. “Roger Waters Memorialises his Fallen WW2 Father.” The Telegraph, 18 February 2014.

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