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


Yes: A Winter Band

I have always listened to certain music during certain times of the year. In the wet and dampness of fall, I like to listen to early U2.
In the spring, I gravitate towards more Rush, Pearl Jam, and Crowded House. In the summer, the anthems come out with the Beatles, Stones, Springsteen, and the Allman Brothers. But for the winter, I have to listen to Yes. It usually starts in December when the temperature first drops below 40° F and ends sometime in early March. For four months every year, like clockwork, I eat, drive, exercise, and listen to the band in the heart of winter.

The odd thing about my affinity for Yes is I cannot recall quite when I became a fan. It seems like I have always had “The Yes Album.” “Fragile” has never been far away either. Long before most of my generation became familiar with them because of “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” I was listening. I thought that maybe my older brother had listened to them, but I never remember seeing them in his collection of folk albums.

Yes, as a band, has had a tumultuous history. 16 members have come and gone in their 40+ year history. The only constant has been bassist Chris Squire. Along with drummer Alan White, the rhythm section has remained the same since 1972 and the 1973 album “Tales from Topographic Oceans.” There have been three main guitarists, Peter Banks, Steve Howe, and Trevor Rabin. Several Keyboardists have played in the band including Tony Kaye, Rick Wakeman, his son Oliver Wakeman, Patrick Moraz, and Geoff Downes to name a few. A part of the progressive rock scene in the early 70s, the band embodies the best and worst of the movement. For me, it would be hard to detail the entire history of dysfunction and virtuosity that is Yes. The band has had its hits and fair share of misses as a band. Their music is filled with compassion while at the same time an equal share of hubris. When it works, it is magical. When it doesn’t, it is unbearable. Sometimes, years later, I will give an album a second chance and it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

My Favorite Albums 
1. The Yes Album
2. Fragile
3. 90125
4. Going for the One
5. Magnification
6. Drama

Sometimes, it is hard to put into words why you like some albums more than others. For me, it is even harder when it comes to Yes. “The Yes Album” has a classic mixture of great songs, great musicianship. There is not one throwaway song on the record, they are all classic. From ‘Starship Trooper’ to ‘Yours is No Disgrace’ to ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’ and ‘Perpetual Change,’ every second of the record breathes, expands, and emanates great sounds. I feel the same about “Going for the One”. From the majesty of ‘Parallels’ to the quiet sounds of ‘Wonderous Stories’ and the majestic ‘Awaken’, every song to me is a classic.

The same can be said of “Fragile,” “90125,” “Magnification,” and “Drama.” “Drama,” for some Yes fans would not make the list because it did not have the vocals of Jon Anderson but instead had Trevor Horn and former Buggles and future Asia keyboardist Geoff Downes. However, those songs, for me, thunder out of the stereo and speakers still. There is not a bad song, in my opinion on that record. Squire, White, and Howe remained at the core of the band and their prowess was never more evident. However, that lineup only lasted one record in 1980. It appeared Yes was dead.

White and Squire tried to make a go of a band with Jimmy Page (XYZ – ex Yes and Zeppelin) and then Squire and White got in contact with original keyboardist Tony Kaye and a young South African guitarist, Trevor Rabin. The band took the moniker Cinema. When they played Jon Anderson some of the tracks, he was enthused and wound up singing on some and Yes was reborn in 1983. The resulting album, 90125 changed the fortunes of the band. The music sounded fresh, modern, but it still sounded like Yes. Even with Rabin’s guitar and the sleek production of Trevor Horn, the music and songs were great and I consider the album a classic.

By the mid 1980s, I was out of college and my interest in Yes waned a bit as I focused on other interests in my life. I would buy the albums and listen to some, not listen to others. The 80s saw the high gloss production make its way into Yes. I initially did not care for a Yes album for many years until the late 1990s. My re acquaintance to Yes happened coincidentally with Napster and other file sharing programs. And for the past 15 years, I have listened to Yes every winter. Along the way, I have found some cool stuff. Magnification to me is a classic Yes album. After reuniting and breaking up constantly in the 1990s, Anderson, Howe, Squire, and White recorded an album with an orchestra just like they did thirty years earlier for “Time and a Word.” The result to me was a classic mixture of the personalities of each band member being subservient to the music. And the orchestra doesn’t hurt either.

The Unbearable
1. Tales from Topographic Oceans – I would have liked to been a fly on the wall for the discussion of the concept of this album. “OK. We are going to make an album of 4 songs. Each song will be 20 minutes. And our new drummer, the rock guy, will play drums.” No wonder Rick Wakeman left after this.
2. Tormato – I tried to listen to this over Christmas break. I got through 3 songs before I had to turn it off. However, my step-son downloaded some of the reissue. The tracks left off are far better than most of what was put on. Again, no wonder Wakeman left again and this time Anderson went with him.
3. Union – 8 members??? Really? What a cluster!

In the past few weeks, I have found myself listening to some of the baffling lineup albums from the 1990s – “Talk,” and “The Keys to Ascension 1 and 2.” And much to surprise, I found myself really enjoying the “Keys to Ascension 2” studio tracks. One particular track that has my attention the past few days is ‘Mind Drive.’

Recently, Yes released a new studio album, their first in ten years, called “Fly From Here.” Produced by Trevor Horn, Canadian singer Benoit David handles the vocals and Geoff Downes has returned to play the keyboards. I haven’t really made up my mind on the record yet. I downloaded it but I need to listen to it a few more times.

I really don’t know what it is about Yes that I have remained a fan for 35+ years. Maybe it was the artwork that grabbed me initially, maybe it was the songs. Maybe it was the virtuosity, the dynamics of sound, I do not know. I just know winter would not be the same without them.

A little documentary on the band – Part 1 has no sound, so on to Part 2

Roger Dean: Other Wordly Art

Roger Dean was way ahead of his time. As an artist, he said he drew what he saw. Well, he must have seen some crazy stuff because his art has always been out of this world. I was a fan of the rock group Yes growing up and Dean’s artwork was front and center on their album covers. To get a Yes album, was not only to get the record, but to get the Roger Dean artwork. However, something has been haunting me the last few months. It had to do with the movie Avatar.

I have to be upfront about this, I did not go gaga over the movie. Visually stunning…yes. The story….no. I felt as if I had just watched Ferngully 3 or The Smurfs Updated. But there was something familiar about the visuals. I just couldn’t place it at the time.

Roger Dean was a designer at first. He designed chairs. Eventually, he made his way into art and his first album cover was The Gun’s Gun in 1968. He gained fame in the 1970s for two reasons. First he designed the famous chair in “A Clockwork Orange” and then he began designing Yes albums beginning with Fragile in 1971. It would lead to a long-enduring relationship between Dean and members of the band that exists even to this day. Dean would go on to design album art for Uriah Heep, Greenslade, and Asia. But it is Yes for which he has achieved the greatest acclaim. I remember coming home with the Relayer album and unfolding it. Staring at the exotic landscapes and rich detail of his art from what appeared to be other worlds.

This was only the beginning for me.

In the 1980s, Dean designed video game art as well. In addition, he continued his work and created more and more landscapes with organic architecture. One of his most famous works from the period is called “Floating Islands”. Dean said he was inspired by looking down from a mountain and seeing other bits of land in the clouds. It was if those bits were floating in the sky. Dean describes his process:

Yeah, as much as any of these things are intentional. It’s like when I’m working, I try to do as little conscious manipulating and thinking about what I’m doing as I can and have it work as intuitively as possible, so I’d say that the DRAMA work was very much an intuitive approach to how to do that cover. I was very interested in having a very stormy sky; that was something I was really interested in. I was very interested in the light playing across the landscape, so there were some bits that jumped out and very stark and bright, and other bits that are very dark–black on dark grey. Yeah, there was a lot going on for me in that, and it was like cooking I guess; I put in the ingredients and stirred it up, and they came out in a way I guess that training and good luck worked together.

And then this image came to me the other day as I was going through some files…

It looks eerily similar to this….

And this…..

Looks a lot like this…
And there are many more images which share commonalities.

After doing some digging last night, my mind is not working as fast as many other people have made the connection before me including Roger Dean. I have read there is a lawsuit in the works. It appears that the world of Avatar was basically James Cameron doing his best Roger Dean impersonation. I would have preferred for him to try this landscape…

Roger Dean’s Website