The concept album is one of the key stalwarts of 20th Century popular culture. It represents the height of the idea that rock and roll could become art, by allowing the songwriters to express their full artistic vision. The general definition of a concept album is “an album where all musical or lyrical ideas contribute to a single overall theme or unified story”, with the typical unified story becoming a ‘rock opera’.
However, whilst the concept album has become synonymous with rock music, the first concept album was released over a decade before rock and roll hit the mainstream. Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads was released in 1940, and the album consisted of songs written exclusively in a semi-autobiographical style about the hardship of American migrant labourers during the 1930s, alongside Merle Travis’s 1947 Folk Songs of the Hills.
The trend became more prevalent in the 1950s, with singers such as Frank Sinatra releasing albums based upon single themes, such as 1955’s ‘Come Fly With Me’ and ‘In the Wee Small Hours’. Nat King Cole and Johnny Cash also released several early concept albums, in order to stand out from the crowd.
“it was the late 1960s and early 1970s that brought the concept album to the forefront of popular music”
Nevertheless, it was the late 1960s and early 1970s that brought the concept album to the forefront of popular music. The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, although not a concept album itself, incorporated conceptual music within its experimental nature, thus encouraging a whole new generation to take up the challenge. Alongside this, the Moody Blues’ 1967 Days of Future Passed further cemented the concept album’s new ambitions.
However, perhaps the most notable concept albums were the rock operas. These albums combined complex stories with evocative imagery and perhaps the most challenging material written by the respective artists. The first album to fall under this title was perhaps Nirvana’s The Story of Simon Simopath, which was released in 1967. This was quickly followed by The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow in 1968, and The Who’s Tommy, perhaps the most well-known rock opera to date, being released in 1969.
However, more was to come in the 1970s. During this decade, the Rock Opera saw arguably its finest moments, arriving in the style of The Who’s 1973 Quadrophoneia, and Genesis’ 1974 The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, an album that serves as such a mind-screw that entire websites have been created to work out what on earth was going on inside Peter Gabriel’s head.
Indeed, the concept album became almost a necessity of early 1970s rock artists. Everybody from David Bowie with his Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, to Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans, were writing concept albums in order to fully express their musical scope. Unfortunately, however, it was not to last.
The birth of punk saw high conceptual material and instrumental noodling be confined to the backburner. The three-minute stabs at the establishment had no need for a continuing storyline or theme, and so, with the exception of Pink Floyd’s 1979 release The Wall, an album composed by a band who were, at the time, a bit like Lloyds Bank, and far too big to fail. However, a resurgence arrived in the mid 1980s through the rise of Neo-Progressive Rock and other forms of New Wave, with 1985s Misplaced Childhood by Marillion reaching No.1 on in the charts. Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage and Queensychre’s Operation: Mindcrime also became notorious examples of the trend.
Throughout the 1990s, the concept album continued to remain a slight figure, occasionally appearing as the result of efforts by the more experimental, progressive and/or alternative rock bands, but it was rarely seen in volume. However, a revival began to occur in the early 2000s. Green Day’s American Idiot sold millions of copies worldwide, and, with the slow decline of album sales, artists are now looking for new ways of keeping the album alive, with many turning to making conceptual records. Indeed, 2015 has already seen a plethora of conceptual records put to vinyl, ranging from Steven Wilson’s acclaimed Hand. Cannot. Erase., to Public Service Broadcasting’s The Race for Space, to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, to Muse’s lacklustre Drones.
Indeed, if the album wishes to survive, unity is perhaps the best place to start looking.