Frank SInatra

The Concept Album: A Brief History

Two weeks ago on June 12, 2012, the nerd within me awoke with the release of Rush’s Clockwork Angels. While musically current, the collection of songs lyrically tells the maturation of a boy, who through a series of adventures (some tragic), questions his faith and the universe run by a rigid watchmaker, all the while, evolving from a boy into a man. Listening to it, I tend to think of the whole concept of the album as an allegory telling the life story of drummer Neil Peart. After a few brief spins, I was transported back in time to 30+ years ago when the concept album was once standard practice for the band.

The concept album is not new, but in today’s disposable music industry, it is quite a risk for band to release a concept album. In a music world driven by the single on iTunes, I find it refreshing for Rush to take a chance like this. One could easily argue that this is their first full length concept album. While 2112 and Hemispheres are both considered concept albums, only one side of the records is conceptual.

For history, the original concept album dates back to Woody Guthrie’s Dustbowl Ballads. While somewhat conceptual by today’s standards, it was unique for it’s time. All the songs were about one topic although the record does not have a main character or storyline that was in every song. Released in 1940, the record was highly influential on future folk songwriters Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan as well as Bruce Springsteen. The album contained the now classic, “Do Re Mi.”

But it was not folk or popular music that turned the concept album into an art form, it was Jazz. Beginning in the late 1940s, Jazz artists began experimenting with sounds and styles. These concepts became the theme of the record. Whether it was rhythms, chord progressions, or scales, jazz was at the forefront of the movement. Two of the biggest innovators were Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis. Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers and the Wee Small Hours were ahead of their time. Davis, on the other hand, tended to reinvent himself several times throughout the fifties and sixties with Birth of the New Cool, A Kind of Blue, Porgy and Bess, and Skteches of Spain. John Coltrane would also join in with Giant Steps.

The 1950s also saw the rise of Rock and Roll. Rock did not initially lend itself to the concept album. However, some tried liked the Ventures. But the album that started the hey day of concept albums actually was not a concept album. The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds in 1966. The sounds on the record would heavily influence the Beatles. Ironically, Pet Sounds had been heavily influences by the Beatles Rubber Soul. What Pet Sounds did was to sonically challenge the Beatles to come up with unique sounds for what would become Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Depending on which you Beatle you ask, you could have gotten four different responses what Sgt. Pepper was all about. But one thing most people can agree on was that rock and roll could be art. Ideally, the record was a headphone record as it was one of the first records to use an 8 track versus a four track recording. The experimentation with sound became the defining mark of the album culminating in the epic song, “A Day in the Life.”

Soon after, most bands tried to make their own concept album. A plethora of bands joined in. A whole new movement emerged in the late 1960s. Most of the classic rock and roll bands began at art schools throughout England. The style of rock was changing. Pete Townshend of The Who went a step further and created the Rock Opera, Tommy. Art rock was fully born. Bands such as Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Genesis, and others sprang up and made some great music.

Throughout the early 197s, each of the aforementioned bands recorded long form songs and made concept album after concept album. They knew no other way. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon came to epitomize a new high in concept album history. Unfortunately, Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes signaled a death knell for the art rock movement. A double album, Tales contained four songs – one for each album side. In response, punk music rebelled against the nature of the art rock movement. But the art rock movement did not stop.

The concept album reached its high water mark with Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The Wall was meant to symbolize walls put up between people, The Wall came to symbolize walls put up by authority and dualistically fit with the Cold War Berlin Wall.

Throughout the 1980s, the concept album began to wane as the influence of MTV began. From time to time, the occasional concept album emerged but few captured the public’s interest. Marilyn Manson, Green Day, Dream Theater, Jay Z, and other bands have tried their hands at the concept album.

For me, most of my spare time in the 1970s and early 1980s was spent listening to concept albums. My favorites will most likely differ from yours.

For example, I love two concept albums by Genesis. One is The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and the other is Duke. For me, Duke is hugely important as we just moved from the only home I had known after my freshman year of high school to western Illinois, three hours away. In the coming years, these two records were two of my best friends. I adore these records because of where I was in my life and what they did for me.

I always liked the concept album. Whether the album had a lyric that told the story throughout the record, or whether it was a stylistic sonic choice, I associate those type of records as the best. I can still picture myself sitting around Stuart Jackson’s dining room table, smoking cigars, listening to Rush, and playing Dungeons and Dragons. Maybe it was all just the late 70s, early 80s teen lifestyle, but it was enjoyable. It was art, creative, and fun.

Now, for me, Clockwork Angels is easy to listen to. The music is great, the songs are great, but the story is even greater. It takes me back to many memories of my young adulthood…As the song’s opus, “The Garden,” concludes

The future disappears into memory
With only a moment between
Forever dwells in that moment
Hope is what remains to be seen
(c) 2012 Anthem Records
Lyric by Neil Peart