Thursday, April 29, 2010

From The Archives: Concept Albums

The Secret Museum

November 02, 2008

"This world is big and wild and half insane
Take me where real animals are playing
Just a dirty old shack
Where the hound dogs bark
That we called our home
I want to be back there
Among the cats and dogs
And the pigs and the goats
On animal farm
My animal home
On animal farm
My animal home

While I lay my head upon my pillow
Little girl, come play beneath my window
Though she’s far from home
She is free from harm
And she need not fear
She is by my side
And the sky is wide
So let the sun shine bright
On animal farm
My animal home
On animal farm
My animal home

Girl, its a hard, hard world, if it gets you down
Dreams often fade and die in a bad, bad world
I’ll take you where real animals are playing
And people are real people not just playing
It’s a quiet, quiet life
By a dirty old shack
That we called our home
I want to be back there
Among the cats and dogs
And the pigs and the goats
On animal farm
My animal home
On animal farm
My animal home
On animal farm"

-Jim Webb

Hey! That's where I live! It's also a song from one of my Top Ten Concept Albums of all-time (yours, too, I'll bet.)
-Michael Mooney

The Top Ten Concept LP’S of All Time

1.) Jesus Christ Superstar / 1970
Music – Andre Lloyd Webber
Lyrics – Tim Rice
A Rock Opera that has Jesus of Nazareth, Judas Iscariot, and King Herod, among others, brought into the 20th Century medium of Rock and Roll. Controversial in it’s approach that Jesus was “just a man.” Tim Rice’s lyrics bind this narrative together with such clarity and force that you’d think he’d located a Lost Scroll as a guide to chronicle the true story of Jesus’ last days. What’s the Buzz and Yvonne Elliman singing I Don’t Know How to Love Him are just two of the many standout tracks on what was originally a double LP release. Great songs, coherent story line, well recorded: a masterpiece in concept and execution (no pun intended.)
“ One thing to say for him, Jesus is cool.” – Caiaphus the High Priest

2.) The Who – Quadrophenia / 1973
A turbulent look at a week in the life of Jimmy the Mod, a U.K. teen circa 1964. While we Yankees may not totally understand the Mod vs. Rocker battles in mid 60’s England, the themes of despair, loneliness, and redemption are universal to any time period. Love Reign O’er Me is arguably Townshend and Daltrey’s finest effort ever. The Punk Meets the Godfather, The Real Me, and 5:15 are songs that show The Who flexing their muscles in the streets of Brighton, ready to take on all Rockers. Is Quadrophenia better than Tommy? I think it’s coming of age adolescent story is one which I can relate to more. The great thing about Quadrophenia is that the music will move you, even if the story line doesn’t. Don’t miss the film version, either.

3.) The Who – Tommy / 1969
Rightly praised as an instant classic, Pete Townshend reaches high and (mostly) delivers on the amazing journey of a deaf, dumb and blind boy “Tommy” Walker. The Beatles had taken small steps in turning Pop Music into certifiable Art with Rubber Soul and Revolver. Sgt. Pepper was a big advance, using recording technology to enhance the listening experience, and The LP suddenly was no longer a couple of hit singles with a lot of filler. Tommy was a giant leap forward in taking a complex story line and weaving a musical tale around it. Pete seemed to expound on and slightly alter what the story really meant through the years, but the spiritual essence never changed. This is Townshend’s baby as much as Mrs. Walker’s.

4.) The Pretty Things – S.F. Sorrow / 1969
Recording started in the summer of 1967 and was finished the following year. The delay in actually releasing the LP until 1969 was a huge factor in it’s getting lost in Tommy’s supernova explosion. The story of Sebastian Sorrow was (supposedly) heard by Pete Townshend. He in turn was influenced by the idea of using a conceptual theme for an entire album. Phil May and band deserve high praise for some excellent tunes like S.F. Sorrow is Born, She Says Good Morning and Balloon Burning. The overall song quality is high, but there are no classics to propel it into the stratosphere. FM radio didn’t grab onto it and make S.F. Sorrow a listening staple, unlike its more famous cousin Tommy. Maybe this should be number one for it’s importance as the first Rock story album. Sebastian will forgive me for putting this in the number four slot.

5.) The Kinks – Arthur / 1969
Ray Davies is a great songwriter who almost seemed destined to meld his keen eye for the workingman with his love of traditional Britain into themed stories. A tale about his sister and brother-in-law’s move to Australia, the poignant songs, celebrating the lost British Empire and its people’s simple lives, are extraordinary. Victoria and Shangri-la are two of Davies’ finest tunes in a career that has literally scores of them to choose from. Hard rocking tracks (like Brainwashed) compete with emotional remembrances of personal sacrifice (Some Mother’s Son) to create a varied and rich narrative that will have you brewing a pot of tea while wishing you had a Union Jack wrapped around your shoulders, as you listen to this beautiful creation.

6.) The Kinks – Village Green Preservation Society / 1968
A collection of songs whose central theme is loosely based on the life and people of a small English village, meanwhile showing how quickly the world has changed (mostly for the worse): this is possibly the best collection of songs of any concept LP in my top ten. Tracks like Animal Farm, Picture Book, Big Sky and The Village Green Preservation Society are all gems in their own right. The only thing holding back this effort from a higher position is that there is not a hard connecting story to these songs- some were written independently of each other, and later grouped together due to their neighborly connection to Old England and the everyday people who made it great- a small quibble about a wonderful basket of tunes that never grows old.

7.) Jethro Tull – Thick As A Brick / 1972
One song (43 minutes long) that was written as a send up of all concept albums: Ian Anderson was exasperated by all the critics who bashed Tull’s previous release Aqualung for being too highbrow and conceptual for a rock band. He vowed to give them a pompous themed concept LP that they would really dislike. Somehow, Thick As A Brick found its way to number 1 in the U.S. charts. The most prog-rock sounding of all Tull albums up to that time, the centerpiece of the story is a poem written by a fictional 13 year-old. The biting and sarcastic lyrics and humor of Ian Anderson became a top selling response to the charges of “Jethro Dull.”

8.) David Bowie – Outside / 1995
Based on Bowie’s short story The Nathan Adler Diaries, this is a futuristic, Bladerunner-meets-Nine Inch Nails concept that is startling in it’s originality. Nathan Adler has a Government job to decide what is Art and what’s trash. Throw in a good murder mystery, coupled with a surreal Dali- Enoesque production, and you wind up with an unqualified success. No one on this list took a bigger chance than Bowie with this release. If the Tin Machine project turned off the Ziggy Stardust/Thin White Duke crowd, Outside absolutely buried Bowie’s past. The musical risk-taking alone should have pushed this much higher in the rankings, but some of Townshend’s and Davies’ songs are just too strong to overcome. Jagger, Page & Plant, and all the other groups stuck dishing out the same meal should take note. But they won’t. This is my favorite concept release of the last 30 years; the future is for those who can hear it.

9.) Lou Reed – Berlin / 1973
Lester Bangs called this the most depressing record ever made. I don’t disagree, but personally think it’s more dark and heavy than depressing. Lou Reed takes a detour from his walk on the wild side and writes about a relationship that breaks down due to drugs and suicidal tendencies. This record has great sound and arrangements from Alice Cooper producer Bob Ezrin. Berlin is a concept LP that I can’t play very often, but when I do, the beauty of it is unrivaled by anything that Lou Reed has ever written. I wouldn’t argue if someone called this their favorite record ever, but its black hole gravity makes me hesitate to put it higher on my list. I’m afraid that somehow while listening to it, I’ll enter into the same downward spiral with no escape possible.

10.) The Kinks – Soap Opera / 1975
Is there a Kinks bias on this list? Yes, because Raymond Douglas Davies is the greatest rock conceptual songwriter of all time. I could easily have put in the number ten position Muswell Hillbillies, Lola Vs Powerman And The Money-go-round, Preservation Act 1 and 2, or Schoolboys In Disgrace. I chose Soap Opera because of its simple tale that resonates so well with today’s celebrity-fixated culture. The story revolves around Norman, a common man who wants to be rock star in order to escape his mundane world. Ray Davies has always been in tune with everyday feelings and emotions. Is there a more real story than the idea that we all want to be famous? Soap Opera accurately foreshadows the beginning of the modern celebrity cult that we find so fascinating today. I envision a slightly revised Broadway show with Norman now playing Guitar Hero or Rock Band 2 on his play station as he rules the universe. With Ray Davies as the writer, everybody’s a star.

Honorable Mention:

You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown
Gong- Radio Gnome Trilogy
Pink Floyd- The Wall
Frank Zappa- Joe’s Garage
Spock’s Beard- Snow
Genesis- The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
-Jim Webb

Some might argue that a few of my titles don't meet the minimum requirements of 'concept album.' I conclude that a concept can be dictated by the overall mood of the recording, particularly one that is not reflected elsewhere in the artist's body of work. Peculiarly, a good many of these records have an autumnal flavor, including the "rock opera" selections. Here's my list:

1. Forever Changes- Love (1967)
"We're all normal and we want our freedom"- Arthur Lee's eulogy to Los Angeles. Also his self-requiem: "When I did that album, I thought I was going to die at that particular time, so those were my last words."

2. Muswell Hillbillies- The Kinks (1971)
Life in the welfare state, North London (and Stereo Review's Album Of The Year- 1972): "Gotta stand and face it- life is so complicated."

3. The Who Sell Out (1967)
LP as pirate radio broadcast, but they drop the concept at the beginning of side two. Perfect!

4. Geek The Girl- Lisa Germano (1994)
Need to clear the room? Put this on. You'll probably leave, too. Lisa Germano: "Hi. This is the story of geek the girl, a girl who is confused about how to be sexual and cool in the world but finds out she isn't cool and gets constantly taken advantage of sexually, gets kind of sick and enjoys giving up but at the end still tries to believe in something beautiful and dreams of still loving a man in hopes that he can save her from her shit life.........ha ha ha, what a geek!"

5. Pet Sounds- The Beach Boys (1966)
Mike Love didn't 'get’ it': what better endorsement do you need??

6. Histoire de Melody Nelson- Serge Gainsbourg (1971)
Melody's riding a bicycle when Serge hits her with his Rolls. Age-gap romance ensues, only to end tragically when the cargo plane goes down over New Guinea. Don't ask.

7. Pink Flag- Wire (1977)
Media-informed Art Punk tour de force: 21 songs in 35 minutes 37 seconds that work best when experienced as a whole.

8. It Falleth Like The Gentle Rain From Heaven-The Mekons Story (1982)
A collection of outtakes, live tracks, b-sides, etc.: what ties it all together is David Spencer's (who?) drunken - on cider, to be precise- narration. Mine's another!

9. Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake- The Small Faces (1968)
"Are you all seated comfortable, too square on your botty? Then I'll begin..." Here the 'concept' starts on side two (see Sell Out), being the story of Happiness Stan's 'trip' to find the missing half of the moon. Hmm.

10. Odessey and Oracle- The Zombies (1968)
An Invasion-era beat group on the brink of disbandment give it one more try, and create a pop marvel. The theme, whether intended or not, alternates between desire/longing and resignation/acceptance. Seems to summarize The Zombies own career, sadly.


David Bowie- Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars
The Flaming Lips- The Soft Bulletin, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots
Horslips- The Man Who Built America
The Jam- Setting Sons
The Kinks- VGPS*, Face To Face, Arthur
The Pretty Things- SF Sorrow
Lou Reed- Berlin
Spirit- Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus
The Who- Quadrophenia, Tommy

(*Village Green Preservation Society is truly my number one, but since it made your list, I left it off.)
-Michael Mooney

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