Concept Album

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Concept Album

The concept album, initially defined as an LP (long-playing record) recording wherein the songs were unified by a dramatic idea instead of being disparate entities with no common theme, became a form of expression in popular music in the mid-1960s, thanks to The Beatles. Their 1967 release of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is generally recognized as the first concept album, although ex-Beatle Paul McCartney has cited Freak Out!, an album released in 1966 by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, as a major influence on the conceptual nature of Sergeant Pepper. During the rest of the decade, the concept album remained the province of British artists. The Rolling Stones made an attempt—half-hearted, according to many critics—at aping the Beatles' artistic achievement with Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967). Other British rock bands, notably The Kinks and The Who, were able to bring new insights into the possible roles of the concept album in popular music, and it is at this point that the hard and fast definition of the concept album came to be slightly more subjective.

The Kinks, in a series of albums released in the late 1960s, mythologized the perceived decline of British working class values. The songs on these albums told the stories of representative characters and gave the albums on which they appeared conceptual continuity. If the lyrics were conceptually driven, the music was still straightforward rock 'n' roll. The Who, however, experimented with the form of the music as well as the lyrics, creating a conceptual structure unlike anything that had come before in rock music. Songwriter Pete Townshend was largely responsible for the band's best known work, Tommy (1969), also popularly known as the first "rock opera." This allegorical story of the title character, a "deaf, dumb and blind kid" who finds spiritual salvation in rock music and leads others towards the same end, was communicated as much through the lyrics as by the complex and classically-derived musical themes and motifs that appeared throughout the album's four sides.

Tommy was The Who's most ambitious and successful conceptual effort, but it was not the last. Quadrophenia, recorded in 1973, used the same style of recurring themes and motifs, but the characterization and storytelling in the lyrics was considerably more opaque than its predecessor. Both these works were adapted into films, and Tommy became a musical stage production in the early 1990s. Largely due to Tommy's popularity, the concept album became synonymous with rock operas and rock and roll musical productions. The recordings of late 1960s and early 1970s works such as Hair, Godspell, and Jesus Christ Superstar are commonly referred to as concept albums, further broadening the scope of their definition.

The burgeoning faction of popular music known as progressive rock, which gained momentum in the late 1960s and early 1970s, embraced the form of the concept album and used it as a means to explore ever more high-flown and ambitious topics. Although the classical portion of the album did not necessarily tie into the concept, The Moody Blues nevertheless used the London Symphony Orchestra to aid in the recording of Days of Future Passed (1967), an album consisting entirely of songs that dealt with the philosophical nature of time. This work marked the concept album's transition from simply telling a story to actually being able to examine topics that were heretofore considered too lofty to be approached through the medium of rock music. The excesses to which critics accused progressive rock groups of going also tainted the image of the concept album, making it synonymous with pretentiousness in the minds of most contemporary music fans. With such records as Jethro Tull's send-up of organized religion in Aqualung (1971) and A Passion Play (1973), Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974), an allegory of existential alienation, and Yes' Tales from Topographic Oceans (1974), a sprawling, overblown musical rendering of Autobiography of a Yogi, the concept album reached an absurd level of pomposity. When progressive rock became déclassé in the punk era of the late 1970s, the concept album was recognized as the symbol of its cultural and artistic excesses.

The concept album did not die out completely with the demise of progressive rock, just as it never was solely the province of that genre despite common misconceptions. Ambitious and brave, singer-songwriters periodically returned to this form throughout the late 1970s and the following decades. Notable among post-progressive rock concept albums were Dan Fogelberg's The Innocent Age (1981), Kate Bush's Hounds of Love (1985), Elvis Costello's The Juliet Letters (1993), and Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville (1993), a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street. A curious attribute of these latter day concept albums were their ability to produce popular songs that could be enjoyed on their own terms, apart from the overall conceptual nature of the albums to which they belonged.

Concept albums can be seen to embody two similar but separate camps: the epic, grandiose albums conceived by progressive rock groups, and the more subtle conceptually-based albums created by singer-songwriters who tended to veer away from what was considered to be the mainstream. These singer-songwriters took the baton proffered by The Beatles and The Who in a slightly different direction. Albums like Laura Nyro's Christmas and the Beads of Sweat (1970), Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle (1968), and Lou Reed's Berlin (1973) directly influenced most of the post-progressive rock albums that were produced from the mid-1970s on.

Other genres of popular music were also infiltrated by the concept album phenomenon. Soul music in the 1970s was one example, evidenced by works such as Marvin Gaye's What's Going On (1971) and Here, My Dear (1978), Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On (1971), and the outrageous science fiction storylines of several Funkadelic albums. Curtis Mayfield's soundtrack to the movie Superfly (1972) also deserves mention, having achieved an artistic success far beyond that of the film. Country and Western was another genre of popular music with its share of concept albums. It could be argued, according to author Robert W. Butts, that some Country and Western artists were attempting to make concept albums long before The Beatles came along; these artists displayed a desire to make their albums more meaningful than "a simple collection of tunes which would hopefully provide a hit or two." It was in the 1970s, however, with "the conscious and successful exploitation of the concept of a concept," according to Butts, that artists like Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and Johnny Cash fully realized the potential of the concept album within the Country and Western genre.

While the concept album in all these genres may have served to raise the level of the respective art forms, the concept album in the cultural consciousness of the late twentieth century exists mainly as a symbol of excess and pseudo-intellectualism in popular music, forever branded by its association with progressive rock. The concept album did not cease to exist as a form of musical expression, but never again did it enjoy the hold it had on the imagination of record buyers, who viewed the phenomenon in the late 1960s and 1970s with excitement, and who eventually became disenchanted with its further developments.

—Dan Coffey

Further Reading:

Butts, Robert W. "More than a Collection of Songs: The Concept Album in Country Music." Mid-America Folklore. Vol. 16, No. 2, 1988, 90-99.

Covach, John, and Graeme M. Boone, editors. Understanding Rock: Essays in Musical Analysis. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.

Schafer, William J. Rock Music: Where it's Been, What it Means, Where it's Going. Minneapolis, Augsburg Publishing House, 1972.

Stump, Paul. The Music's All That Matters: A History of Progressive Rock. London, Quartet Books, 1997.

Whiteley, Sheila. The Space Between the Notes. New York, Routledge, 1992.