The Concept Album Concept

  • A tangential discussion of the concept of concept albums started up here in the King Crimson thread. I don't think we've had a thread on concept albums (apologies if we have) and given the musical leanings of members it might be of some interest.


    The above discussion landed on the idea that Frank Sinatra is often cited as originating the concept album concept. From what I've read, his 1946 album The Voice Of Frank Sinatra is the one usually credited as the father of concept albums in that it specifically aimed to create a single consistent mood across its tracks and was sequenced so as to have a sustained lyrical flow from one song to the next.


    However, others have pointed to Woody Guthrie's 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads as claiming the title of first ever concept album, being a thematic collection of songs all specifically about the Dust Bowl and its impact on people's lives. Certainly many of the track titles feature the word 'dust' including Dusty Old Dust (the dustiest song title ever?) and, when not mentioning dust, often referencing wind and blowiness. But even the wikipedia entry for that album describes it as "the first concept album, or one of the first" - suggesting there may be other candidates!


    Aside from the origins of concept albums, what about the albums themselves, both obvious and less obvious, prog and non-prog? Albums labelled as 'concept' but it's arguable, or those not labelled as such but could/should be?

    Abandon all reason

  • If we define a concept album as being based around a specific theme or mood, then yes they go back before the rock era. And there are many concept albums since that are in musical genres quite distant from prog (e.g., Beyonce's Lemonade, Roseanne Cash's The List). Tribute albums are essentially concept albums, paying homage to a particular artist. So in this broader category, there are a great many albums that I really like. Peter Gabriel's third album is one example, where all the songs seem to focus on themes of fear, anxiety, and violence. The album also has a very consistent sound, with the gated drums, lack of cymbals, David Rhodes's guitar.


    Of the rock concept albums that follow a specific story, there are very few in which I feel the story holds together, even though the music may be wonderful. The music on TLLDOB is great but the story is a mess. Pete Townshend has written some of his best music around a narrative structure, but the story itself has never worked for me: Tommy, Quadrophenia, Lifehouse, White City, Psychoderelict. I'm not sure I can think of a concept album in which the story and music work equally well for me.

  • I can think of several rock & associated concept albums that work for me. TLLDOB is fine by me, musically, it mostly works, though it sags towards the end, and the story IMO is fine IF you accept that it's in an alternative reality.


    Smallcreep's Day and Defector, both half concept albums, are good, and Nick Magnus's Children of Another God, a story of a cloning experiment gone wrong, is superb. Tony Paterson & Brendan Eyre's Northlands, about a man returning to the North-East of England to lay some ghosts to rest is another very good album.


    The Moody Blues excelled, with Days of Future Passed, the story of a day in the life of everyman, In Search of the Lost Chord, a search for enlightenment, and Seventh Sojourn, loosely based on the Canterbury Tales, where the songs are the bandmembers stories of their lives and experiences. But their best, and THE best concept album IMO, is 1969's To Our Children's Children's Children, inspired by the Apollo moon landing, it starts with lift off, and ends with the colonisation of another planet. OR is it Earth in the past, due to the effects of time dilation?

    Ian


    There is a church bell

    That rings on the hour

    Filling the streets

    Stopping the world awhile

  • Almost forgot Enya's outstanding Watermark album, a tale of separation across the water. One of the most moving albums ever.

    Ian


    There is a church bell

    That rings on the hour

    Filling the streets

    Stopping the world awhile

  • Peter Gabriel's third album is one example, where all the songs seem to focus on themes of fear, anxiety, and violence.

    Has he claimed it to be a concept album? Sometimes these terms are foisted upon the artist with little or no consideration to the artist's intent. I read a review somewhere of Phil Collins's Testify album, claiming it to be a concept album, going through each and every song to prove the claim. Although I'm not as familiar with Testify as I am his other albums, my guess is that a concept album was the furthest thing from his mind when he made that record.



    The music on TLLDOB is great but the story is a mess

    And this is simply fighting talk lol.

  • Aside from the origins of concept albums, what about the albums themselves, both obvious and less obvious, prog and non-prog? Albums labelled as 'concept' but it's arguable, or those not labelled as such but could/should be?

    I've always considered Bitches Brew, the 1970 album by Miles Davis, to be a concept album, simply in terms of how various takes were spliced together to create longer pieces of music. The method of using the studio as a musical instrument builds on the work of George Martin's work with The Beatles, taking it to a whole new level.


    As an aside, Bitches Brew is my all-time favourite album by any artist, of any era, in any genre.


    If you'll permit me, music writer Paul Tingen describes the album thus:


    Bitches Brew also pioneered the application of the studio as a musical instrument, featuring stacks of edits and studio effects that were an integral part of the music. Miles and his producer, Teo Macero, used the recording studio in radical new ways, especially in the title track and the opening track, "Pharaoh's Dance". There were many special effects, like tape loops, tape delays, reverb chambers and echo effects. Through intensive tape editing, Macero concocted many totally new musical structures that were later imitated by the band in live concerts. Macero, who has a classical education and was most likely inspired by '50s and '60s French musique concrète experiments, used tape editing as a form of arranging and composition. "Pharaoh's Dance" contains 19 edits – its famous stop-start opening is entirely constructed in the studio, using repeat loops of certain sections. Later on in the track there are several micro-edits: for example, a one-second-long fragment that first appears at 8:39 is repeated five times between 8:54 and 8:59. The title track contains 15 edits, again with several short tape loops of, in this case, five seconds (at 3:01, 3:07 and 3:12). Therefore, Bitches Brew not only became a controversial classic of musical innovation, it also became renowned for its pioneering use of studio technology.

  • Has he claimed it to be a concept album? Sometimes these terms are foisted upon the artist with little or no consideration to the artist's intent. I read a review somewhere of Phil Collins's Testify album, claiming it to be a concept album, going through each and every song to prove the claim. Although I'm not as familiar with Testify as I am his other albums, my guess is that a concept album was the furthest thing from his mind when he made that record.

    Fair, I don't think he claimed it was a concept album per se. He does talk about it the theme or themes that run through it, but doesn't say that he conceived of it from the beginning as a concept album.

  • Fair, I don't think he claimed it was a concept album per se. He does talk about it the theme or themes that run through it, but doesn't say that he conceived of it from the beginning as a concept album.

    I guess there is one concept on Peter's third album, that of banishing all cymbals from the music! Was the aim to create a claustrophobic effect? Well, whether it's a concept album or not, I think everyone can agree on this forum that it's one of Peter's best efforts and it still stands up well today as a flagship for intelligent lyricism in pop and also for being one of the best sounding productions of the eighties.

  • There's a programme about concept albums on BBC4 tonight, hosted by Rick Wakeman. It MAY be a repeat, since it sounds familiar, but I'll record it anyway.

    Ian


    There is a church bell

    That rings on the hour

    Filling the streets

    Stopping the world awhile

  • Fair, I don't think he claimed it was a concept album per se. He does talk about it the theme or themes that run through it, but doesn't say that he conceived of it from the beginning as a concept album.

    Some class a number of Rush albums as concept albums due to their having a fairly consistent lyrical theme. I suppose it ultimately comes down to individual opinion. Others think the term applies specifically when the whole album is setting out to tell a start-to-finish story. I think I'd probably go with the notion that the artist intentionally has a linking device such as theme or structure, in which case I'd agree that the Guthrie and Sinatra albums probably can be considered as concept albums.


    That said, I'm not sure about the Rush ones. I think I'm right in saying that not all the songs on each album necessarily follow the overaching theme.

    I guess there is one concept on Peter's third album, that of banishing all cymbals from the music! Was the aim to create a claustrophobic effect?

    Kind of. I remember him saying he was aiming for a very stark, sparse sort of sound with the no-cymbals.


    A school friend of mine at the time was already a very accomplished drummer. I told him about the absence of cymbals on that album. He considered this for a few moments, then shook his head and confidently said "Nah" and refused to believe there was not even one single tsh of hi-hat. He had to listen to the album more than once to assure himself it was in fact so.

    Abandon all reason

  • I think a lot of albums are labeled concept because they have a consistent atmosphere and have recurring themes. I'm thinking particularly of work like Pornography by The Cure. It's all bleak and desolate with references to disease and sickness. It even seems to flow in an organized way. But is it a concept album? Depends how strictly you want to define the term but I would say no. Maybe I'm wrong but I think of the term as being defined by albums with a narrative of some sort. The Wall and The Lamb to name two obvious ones.


    There's an unfinished concept album I'd like to hear if the artist ever gets around to it. Machina by the smashing pumpkins was conceived as a double concept album but because of pressure from the record company not to release a behemoth, songs were cut and the remaining ones were reordered to make a single album. In protest the band released the remaining songs as a double album for free (which was very unusual back then. Remember when Radiohead did it years later and it was a big deal). Anyway, so the songs are all out there and the story is mostly known, but no one knows what order the tracks are "supposed" to be in. There are many fan attempts at ordering them to fit the story. Billy Corgan has been talking for years about releasing it in the way it was intended but as yet it hasn't happened.

  • Maybe I'm wrong but I think of the term as being defined by albums with a narrative of some sort

    I think that's a very narrow interpretation and leaves out a great many legitimate concept albums that aren't narrative-based, a few of them being by Pink Floyd!

  • If you use the term , concept, it should be useful enough to describe something distinctive. I think a concept album has to be about something. When an artist makes an album they frequently have a style or feel to it. They may want to experiment with certain sounds, develop new musical ideas which will be present throughout. Also tracks are often ordered to give an introduction and ending. It's a complete work. Is that enough to make it a concept album? I'm not sure ,as you would end up with most albums being called "concept" .There will never be a definitive definition. Graceland has a musical theme throughout but is not a concept album. Sgt Pepper and Ziggy Stardust both have the idea of fictional bands and are often called concept with some recurring themes but remain collections of mostly unrelated songs. Hunky Dory is probably more of a concept , every song has a different subject, but they are all about 60s/70s counter culture. As with all art there are cross overs and no clear cut boundaries.

  • Sounds fascinating!

    Well, you are posting in this thread, so you should find it similarly interesting, many of the albums discussed here are featured, inc. Pink Floyd and Woody Guthrie. Or there's always the OFF button. :)

    Ian


    There is a church bell

    That rings on the hour

    Filling the streets

    Stopping the world awhile

  • If I were to list a few of my favourite concept albums (and why not? It's Father's Day so I can do what I want!) then I would choose the following:


    Songs For Swingin' Lovers by Frank Sinatra. Released in 1956, this is one of Sinatra's most popular albums, featuring such classic cuts as I've Got You Under My Skin and You Make Me Feel So Young. Longtime collaborator Nelson Riddle arranged the charts for the songs which are a buoyant, finger-snapping celebration of being in love.


    Joe's Garage by Frank Zappa. Released in 1979, the album is based around "a stupid little story in which the government is going to do away with music". Zappa at his most musical and irreverent.


    Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd. The Floyd's 1975 album deals with absence and the breakdown of communication with a few sly digs at the music industry along the way.


    I only mention those three records to illustrate just how broad the idea of a concept album is.

  • That song he sings about bringing up his boy (is it Kooks? I'm not a Bowie fan but the wife is and she used to listen to Hunky Dory a lot when we were younger) isn't.

    That's right. I've gone through the album in my head and the only ones that could in any way fit the suggested narrative are Andy Warhol (that's War-hol, War-hol), Song For Bob Dylan and Queen Bitch. So no I don't believe it can count as a concept album.


    Interesting, thefarmer had you heard it referred to as one for the reason you gave?


    I'm a huge Bowie fan and absolutely love Hunky Dory, it's one of my top 10 albums. I get the impression Bowie fans are in short supply on this board.

    Abandon all reason