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Concept Albums That Defined Their Eras and Inspired Generations

The Moody Blues Created Many Concept Albums - Chris Lester
The concept/themed musical collection has been around for decades. Some of them are known classics; many still have profound musical and cultural impacts.

A concept album is broadly a collection of musical and/or narrative material which is unified by some theme. There is debate over whether the genre subdivides into ‘theme’ and concept’, but that may be merely semantics.

In commercial and artistic justification, the concept becomes a major part of the culture of the band or artiste. Many albums have defined an era, for commentators, music buyers and performers themselves, living on in music collections, frequently adopted by children of the original fans.

Early Claimants to the Title

In Feb 2011 radio station WNYC raised one of its weekly music debates, started with two people from prog-rock band Porcupine Tree, asking: ‘are concept albums ingenious or just indulgent?’ It was claimed that Frank Sinatra’s early records of The Voice of Frank Sinatra (1946), four 78 rpm records (8 songs) in a single package, and In The Wee Small Hours (1955) was a collection of themed torch songs, late-night introspection: “when I’m gloomy, you gotta listen to me’.

About the same time, WCVE public radio’s The Electric Croude programme nominated two for ‘all-time great concepts’. Miles Davis’ 1969 In a Silent Way marked his fusion and electronic period incorporating jazz and guitar with classical sonata form in two extended tracks. It was heavily reliant on editing and arranging by Teo Macero.

Use of such producing techniques was a hallmark of not just albums, but most pop-rock from the late 60s on. They also highlighted Jethro Tull’s 1973, Thick As A Brick, as a classic ‘concept’, different in musical style from Davis, a continuous track, divided in two only to fit both sides of the record itself.

Group leader Ian Anderson created early experimental progressive-rock with elements of folk, classical and jazz, on the tail end of the hippie 60s. Other Tull concept albums included Aqualung (1971), with character sketches, autobiographical songs and religious references. Anderson denied this was ‘a concept’, though A Passion Play (1973), about a man’s journey in the afterlife, definitely was.

Big Names, Big Albums

The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) is most often rated the top concept creation for originality of music and lyrics, for being a crucial turning point in the Beatles’ evolution and for being a flagship work for the hippie 60s. George Martin’s production called in orchestra, music hall, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, classical and Indian music.

High selling, chart topping, it was much admired; even the album cover was an original collage. They used modular effects such as the fuzzbox, wah-wah pedal and automatic double tracking in recording. The concept that bound all the different stylistic contrasts was a show performed to a live audience, except it was all studio made.

Released before it, in 1966, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, was another fusion of styles. The feature of this one, among all the praise, was the ‘influential‘ nature of the work. Elaborate layers of vocal harmonies, bells, organs, many expected/unexpected instruments and strange things like cans and dogs.

It heralded the psychedelic era, and George Martin felt that without it, Sgt Pepper’s would not have happened. The Beach Boys’ follow up, Smile, was started in 1966/67 but unreleased. The project was revisited in 2003 and re-recorded and released the next year. Even so many years on, it met the concept/great/influential album criteria.

Original Narratives

The first ‘rock opera’ album was Tommy, by The Who (1969). It told the story of a ‘deaf, dumb and blind kid’ who survived abuse and handicap to become a ‘pinball wizard’ and eventually a cult leader of a quasi-religious movement. Fellow Brits The Moody Blues were also credited with making the concept idea their own.

Days of Future Past (1967), a ‘song cycle’ occurring in a single day mixed orchestral arrangements with rock instrumentation and poems, relied on complex, talented arranging. Poetry linked to the songs was the concept repeated for In Search of the Lost Chord (1968), less in On the Threshold of a Dream (1969) while the American moon landing inspired 1969’s To Our Children’s Children’s Children.

Scott Thill wrote on Wired Magazine that Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (1973) ‘eclipses concept album classics, hop-scotching themes of life, death, violence and mental illness’. He thought it beat both Sgt Pepper’s and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s double Freak Out (1966), the first rock concept album.

He also included Floyd’s Wish You Were Here (1975), philosophical meditations on mental illness and capitalism; Animals (1977) about politics, media and conformity, and The Wall, ‘interrogation of stardom, solitude and fascism’. The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974) was a concept by Genesis, about a juvenile delinquent who went underground to face nightmares searching for his brother.

The Kinks produced a brace: Arthur, Or Decline and Fall of the British Empire (1969) and The Village Green Preservation Society (1968). Clearly, the concept is here to stay. More than just a collection of linked songs and marketing ploy, it is an artistic statement, the musical equivalent of the novel or collection of poems or short stories.

First published on Suite 101, 4 March 2011.

Photo: The Moody Blues Created Many Concept Albums – Chris Lester

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