This story originally appeared in the The Orange County Register.
Thing is, most albums worth hearing are conceptual to some degree.
That’s really the whole point of putting songs together as albums—to give the illusion of cohesion, enhance a batch of tunes with artifice and sequencing. By that measure, even greatest-hits discs have concept.
But then there are those bold stabs at metaphor or operatic story lines or at the very least a change of persona that arrive oozing meticulous detail, thematic unity—and usually some level of pretension.
These are no mere singles-spawning sets. Tommy, The Wall, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, What’s Going On, most recently American Idiot—these are true concept albums. Grandiose bursts of imagination filled with sketchy narratives or compelling antiheroes or puzzles to decipher, they are works designed to be heard in their entirety.
Once they held sway over FM radio like titans, totems of a generation whose mention alone still gives off the stench of bong hits and musty record sleeves. Then the notion fell from popularity for many years, overtaken by image-brokering videos that, in many cases, were simply variations of the same play-acting concept that albums put into motion.
“It’s not like the concept album ever totally disappeared at any point,” says Geoff Mayfield, director of charts for record-biz bible Billboard. “From time to time, someone throws that ball up in the air again.”
But suddenly the idea has returned in a big way, earning both critical acclaim and impressive sales. After a long dry spell, there are as many concept albums hovering in the pop culture ether as beach balls at an outdoor festival.
Credit Green Day for launching the revival.
The band’s 2004 opus, American Idiot, wasn’t the first conceptual effort this decade; the 2001 debut from animated outfit Gorillaz, Jay-Z’s past few albums and even Beck’s heartbroken Sea Change from 2003 qualify as concept albums in some sense.
But Idiot, with its lengthy suites of songs and hard-to-follow (perhaps nonexistent) narrative, was certainly the first in years to follow the blueprint established in the late `60s via seminal works from the Who and the Kinks.
More crucially, the album’s multiplatinum success and Grammy wins have reopened the door for others to follow suit—notably the Killers and My Chemical Romance.
Neither the former’s Sam’s Town (which hyperstylizes the `80s look and sound of Springsteen, U2 and Bowie) or the latter’s The Black Parade (also in thrall to Bowie, and more so Queen) reaches for the relative complexity of Green Day’s masterstroke. And neither really attempts to tell a story.
Yet both works share a sense of continuity—of songs segueing one to the next, carrying forth mounting emotions. And both shroud their creators in radically altered personas: My Chem, like the Beatles posing as “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” before it, has gone so far as to refer to itself as the Black Parade on its Web site.
A very “Ziggy Stardust” thing to do.
“Or maybe a very Garth Brooks thing to do,” says “Uncle Joe” Benson, veteran disc jockey at Los Angeles radio station KLOS-FM, referring to the country star’s 1999 alter-ego flop, In the Life of Chris Gaines.
“But it is a chance for these bands to reinvent themselves, come up with a persona where perhaps they didn’t have one before. At the very least, they’re paying tribute to their heroes and learning a different form of artistic expression. Instead of saying, `Here’s the next hit,’ this is a way of saying, `We’ve established this conceit, this conceptual drive. Please pay attention to the whole thing.’”
Those three modern-rock attractions are far from the only ones venturing into this lofty territory, however. The current list seems to swell monthly.
New works from acts like the Decemberists (The Crane Wife) and Nevada singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom (Ys) utilize centuries-old texts as launching pads into prog-folk flights of fancy—not unlike (though sounding nothing like) Yes’ Tales From Topographic Oceans three decades ago.
Coping with psychological trauma in song cycle (somewhat the basis for Pink Floyd’s The Wall and the Who’s Quadrophenia) has come back into vogue as well.
This year the Texas group Blue October issued Foiled, in which singer Justin Furstenfeld overcomes a rough romance through a protracted tale of substance abuse and insanity. And Everything in Transit, Andrew McMahon’s scarred song cycle under the pseudonym Jack’s Mannequin, can be heard as strangely prescient about the O.C.-spawned songwriter’s bout with leukemia, diagnosed just after he completed the record.
There are fringe characters who have been dabbling in this format for some time, like Sufjan Stevens (whose intention of doing an album devoted to each of the 50 states has so far yielded Michigan and Illinois) and neo-prog-rock outfit Coheed and Cambria, which for three albums has dwelled in a dark fantasy realm few have entered since Peter Gabriel left Genesis.
To top it off, some dinosaurs are back at it: Meat Loaf just put out his third Bat Out of Hell installment, and Pete Townshend, the unparalleled maestro of concept albums, concluded Endless Wire, the first proper Who album in nearly a quarter-century, the same way he ended proto-concept albums like A Quick One and The Who Sell Out 40 years ago: with a mini-opera, “Wire & Glass.”
All of which prompts the question: Why now?
At a time when we’re led to believe iTunes and file swapping will eventually bring about the death of the album, why is it that more and more artists seem to be bucking that system by releasing lengthy works that demand prolonged attention?
“Clearly a lot of listeners now, particularly younger ones, are consuming music in bite-size pieces as opposed to a whole meal,” Billboard‘s Mayfield reminds. “We’ve never had so many a la carte choices before. But the reason that has worked is because people demand variety, and you don’t get variety by offering only singles. When they’re done right, with creativity and authenticity, full-length albums like these still have an audience.”
Besides, acts like Green Day and the Killers and My Chem are having it both ways, issuing sit-with-`em-awhile thinkers that also spawn omnipresent radio smashes, something achieved in the past only by more commercially geared concept albums (like What’s Going On and Purple Rain).
Yet Mayfield rejects the notion that the success of American Idiot spurred other major labels to concoct their own monster concept albums.
“It isn’t a marketing ploy,” he insists, “like when every label wanted to have a grunge band in the `90s. These albums wouldn’t stand up if it was like that. The motivation to even execute something like this has to be sincere, or it just won’t work. It becomes a gimmick, and everyone can see through that.”
Drawing inspiration from a conceit might also have been beneficial for young bands like the Killers and My Chemical Romance, groups that spent the better part of this year brewing up audacious follow-ups to mammoth breakthroughs.
“For most bands, that first record is the album of your lifetime,” Mayfield says. “Every great song you’ve ever written turns up there. But when it comes time for your second album, it often becomes a case of `Well, what do we have to say now?’ With the Killers, perhaps `concept’ became the impetus toward creating something progressive that would avoid any sophomore slump.”
Benson, the DJ, sees it a little differently: “I think it’s simply a case of everyone always looking for something different to do. And it was just kind of time for this idea to roll around again.
“Yeah, maybe some artists saw how well Green Day did and thought, `Hey, that’s an idea!’ But you might remember back when rock bands started playing with orchestras—that seemed like such a great idea, but maybe one or two of `em pulled it off, and the rest stunk. Same thing tends to happen with concept albums.”
Yet the fact that any popular band is creating something grander—music that isn’t meant to be cherry-picked, but savored in full—is “one of the greatest things to happen to music in the past five or six years,” Benson adds.
“It’s so heartening that artists and fans are bringing back that emphasis. God knows the record companies won’t do that. Their attitude is `one song sells, or it’s over.’ But here is a whole new breed of bands, emulating their heroes and saying, `No, we want to challenge that. It doesn’t have to be like that. We want to do something more.’”
50 years of concept albums
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 (in the U.S.) 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 Townshend’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 Disgrace.
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 Here.
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 Husker Du related the saga of an impressionable young lad being hurled through its Zen Arcade.
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 3030.
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.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.