In a recent interview in the elegantly appointed webzine The Nice Rooms, Gunboat Smith mentioned that our “song shop” model of musical production consisted of releasing individual songs that can stand alone as singles while thematically fitting into the collection of songs on the particular album they belong to. Essentially, he was making the pretentious claim that all of GBD’s projects are concept albums…which is almost inconceivable. But it got us thinking about the concept of concept albums.
According to us, concept albums come in several nutritious flavors: themes, moods, narratives and gimmicks. A lot of records have a general cohesiveness in terms of subject, style, or mood without crossing over the subjective line into being an outright concept album. For instance, a Christmas record is not ordinarily considered a full-fledged concept album, even though its comprised of carols that share a central holiday theme…and even then the subject matter is split between sacred hymns, songs about fun in the snow, and tunes about elves and flying reindeer. (However, a Christmas album containing only songs about twelve lords a-leaping might be categorized as a true concept album…not an interesting or edifying concept, but a unifying concept nonetheless.) One can make a good argument that most Bruce Springsteen records, filled with colorful street characters yearning to bust loose from the rundown streets of their little world, have a loosely shared theme, but that’s stretching it. “Nebraska,” with its barren tracks steeped in the dark psyche of criminal losers, is probably the Springsteen record that actually edges into bona fide concept album territory. Alas, it’s not necessarily The Boss’s most inspirational offering…but if he placed the entire milieu of violent predators into a snow-blanketed holiday landscape, THEN he would have a very depressing but original “Christmas In Nebraska” concept record. Okay, that bizarre, unsettling example sets the general parameters of what we mean by “concept album,” so what say we run through some records you’re undoubtedly familiar with and a coupe that you’ve never heard of.
The most prevalent type of concept album is the song cycle with a central theme, as just described. There’s not necessarily a discernible story with a definitive beginning and end, although sometimes the song order can hint at the outlines of a narrative arc. For instance, there’s Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side Of The Moon,” which touches on some of life’s major challenges like time, conflict, and greed…although the unifying motif is actually figuring out what the hell the guy in the hall is giggling about. It’s one of the most famous and biggest selling example of a theme album, known for its iconic singles, the intriguing stereo headphone listening experience it offered, and its cult status as an alternate soundtrack to “The Wizard of Oz.” The semi-autobiographical “The Wall” was their other high-concept record, and their soon-to-be-released “Dark Side Of The Wall” promises to freely flow with flagrant Floydian flourishes. Believe it or not, Frank Sinatra cut a lot themed albums, beginning with “In The Wee Small Hours,” which revolved around lost love, loneliness and depression, while the later “September of My Years” looked back on the bittersweet memories of triumph and failure from the perspective of middle age. Sinatra started out as a satin-voiced heartthrob for bobby-soxers, but by the time he was cutting concept albums, his music was aimed straight at adults, as opposed to immature teeny-boppers. Despite winning eleven Grammys during his career, his grown-up musical choices kept the coveted MTV Choice award forever out of his grasp. Well, you can’t have it all. The previous examples depict songs that share general themes, but “Days Of Future Passed” by The Moody Blues is a prime example of a true song cycle with its progressive orchestral exploration of the mundane and the sublime through an entire day, from a pastoral sunrise to a dramatic nightfall. So there’s an actual sequence of events to follow. It’s like listening to Vivaldi’s seasonal oeuvre, if he was really stoned.
A subset of the themed album is the social/political commentary record. Many consider Woody Guthrie’s 1940 2-disc 78rpm record “Dust Bowl Ballads,” a chronicle of the hardships endured by migrant workers, to be the first concept album. Woody took his protesting seriously. During WWII, his guitar had a small sign on the front that said, “This machine kills fascists.” It’s a patriotic sentiment, although the musical instrument’s total number of confirmed kills is believed to be zero. Another iconic record of socially and politically relevant songs is Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which follows a disenchanted Vietnam vet who returns home only to witness enough suffering and injustice to make him wanna holler, “Mercy, mercy me!” Of course, with political message songs, you have to strike the proper balance between making your artistic point and wallowing in self-righteous preachiness. GBD’s entry in this category would be a rebellious political statement album that seeks to change the world by proving that songs cannot actually change the world. But until the time comes that we actually work our polemical rhetoric into musical form, here’s a compelling protest song from “A Bit Of Fry And Laurie.”
The next category we’ll look at is mood albums, which are really just a stylistic concept. And we’re not just referring to the relaxing new age/world music you hear when you get a massage, which always involves an ambience of low lights, potpourri and soothing, ethereal flutes, as if you’re getting a deep-muscle rubdown in the hut of an Amazonian shaman or an exfoliating mudpack treatment within a sacred Buddhist temple in the misty mountains of Shangrila…as we do from time to time. Mood music is designed to elicit a particular atmosphere, aura and attitude. The 90s revival of kitschy 1950s/60s cocktail lounge music, which included the smooth multilingual repertoire of Pink Martini and the surf-pop-exotica sound of The Blue Hawaiians is an example. Examples of satin smooth mood concept albums include “The Exotic Moods Of Les Baxter” (a cosmopolitan sonic cruise through many exotic lands), “The Soulful Moods Of Marvin Gaye” (which is actually the RnB crooner’s rendition of jazz classics and standards by composers such as Rodgers & Hart and Irving Berlin), “The Romantic Moods Of Jackie Gleason” (on which the comedian produced easy listening music specifically for consumption in elevators), and “The Many Moods Of Tony” (twelve lushly orchestrated songs designed to showcase Tony Bennett’s voice in its prime). In fact, Tony’s record started a little cottage industry of “The Many Moods Of (Insert Artist’s Name Here)” greatest hits records, including “The Many Moods Of Bobby Vinton” and “The Many Moods Of Wanda Jackson”…which is not to be confused with “The Moods Of Millie Jackson.” However, this category will not reach its full potential until there is a diva album called “The Many Mood Swings Of Madonna.” Truth be told, GBD once thought about making a very diverse concept album called “The Many Modes Of The Gunboat Diplomats,” with songs composed in a variety of scales. Alas, every experimental jazz artist on the planet has already beaten us to the punch on the multi-modality concept, including Miles Davis’s mode-altering “Kind Of Blue,” an iconic recording that will make the musical scales fall from your ears.
Okay, on with the show. The next concept album sub-category is albums that are actually populated by characters in a story. Of course, by that criteria any cast album of an opera or Broadway show would technically make the cut. But we’ll limit our discussion to albums that are not from works that originated on the stage or screen. First up is a perverse, dystopian tale of stifling authoritarianism. With “Joe’s Garage,” a sweeping three-part tragedy about censorship, religion, and deviant sexuality, Frank Zappa told the story of a young garage rocker who is targeted by the government, imprisoned, and ultimately goes mad. Although it addressed serious subjects, it was chock full of juvenile, profane, sniggering numbers like “Catholic Girls,” “Crew Slut,” “Wet T-Shirt Nite,” and “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?” because, despite his immense technical talents, producing dirty songs for horny teenage boys was Zappa’s stock in trade. The Who’s “Tommy,” on the other hand, was a serious attempt to conduct a tragic opera about a traumatized boy in rock form. The group outdid themselves several years later with a follow-up rock opera called “Quadrophenia,” about the trials and tribulations of a young Who fan. The follow-up to the follow-up should be a rock opera about a fan of The Who, traumatized by the number of rock operas they produce, called “Tommy-phenia.”
We turn now to the much-beloved gimmick concept album. These records don’t have a dominant central theme and they don’t lay out a sequential storyline. However, the songs all revolve around a particular device. For instance, as Gunboat Smith pointed out in the aforementioned interview in The Nice Rooms, The Turtles released an album in which the songs aren’t actually tied together thematically or stylistically, except for the gimmick that each tune was recorded by a different group in a Battle of the Bands. Similarly, Queens of the Stone Age released “Songs For The Deaf,” in which the only tenuous connection between the cuts is that the listener is tuned to the radio on a long drive through the California desert, changing stations between each song. The songs aren’t actually interrelated, but the gimmick is consistently utilized throughout the project. David Bowie employed the glittery gimmick of his androgynous space-alien alter ego on “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars,” which is a glam rock journey through drugs, sex, and the end of the world…although not necessarily in that order. Finally, Jethro Tull’s “Thick As A Brick” may have gotten the last word on the subject. It basically spoofs the self-indulgent progressive art-rock concept albums of the mid-70s, almost like an anti-concept album…and trying to comprehend something as enigmatic and nebulous as an anti-concept may be the most mind-blowing concept of them all.
By the way, if you plan on calling your magnum opus a concept album, then commit to the idea and go full bore. Otherwise, you end up with a half-baked concept, and that’s no good. After all, nine out of ten dentists agree that a half-baked concept is the least artistically nutritious for their patients who chew gum. “Do you have any well-known examples,” you ask? Well, I’m glad you hypothetically asked that question, my dear notional reader. There are two brilliant, groundbreaking works that are widely considered to be concept albums, but they really don’t fit the bill. “Pet Sounds” by The Beach Boys is sometimes considered a concept album because it was ahead of its time as a technically sophisticated avant-garde departure from the pop sounds of the day. But it has no unifying theme, and even the “pet” gimmick is only briefly entertained by the dogs barking at trains at the end of “Caroline, No.” Fittingly, The Beach Boys’ faux/concept album inspired the Beatles to produce their own innovative quasi-concept album. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is ostensibly about a musical act set to entertain the audience with a series of songs. But after the opening number segues into the second song with some crowd reactions, the entire conceit is dropped and never heard from again. The rest of the songs have no real relation to each other or The Lonely Hearts Club motif. Of course, if those two magnificent records are examples of gimmicks that are only half-baked, we’ll take a half-baked concept album every time.
And speaking of half-baked concept albums, here’s a few more entries from our diplomatic house of ideas whose times have not yet come.
“Where The Girls Are”
The title is a cheap play on an old Connie Francis theme song to a teen beach movie, but the theme is a bunch of songs named after female characters from motion pictures. The titles would be Hollywood references like “Nurse Ratched Makes Her Rounds” and “Ilsa’s Back.” Well, come to think of it, that gimmick is too banal and hackneyed. Besides, we include a girl song on every GBD project, so we’ve already got this half of this half-baked concept covered.
“Around The World In Eighteen Songs”
This globetrotting album would feature songs styled after eighteen different locations from the Jules Verne novel, “Around The World In Eighty Days.” (We would prefer David Niven to sing the opening song, “Fogg In London,” but we’re already thirty-five years too late.) And, of course, our innovative and original idea is actually a derivative re-hash of Sinatra’s swingin’ 1958 jaunt around the planet, “Come Fly With Me,” which bounces from London to Vermont and from Paris to Mandalay. Hmmm. Instead of zinging around the planet in Verne’s hot air balloon, perhaps we should plunge 20,000 leagues under the sea” into a wondrous animated world of strange creatures and pop songs. Nobody’s ever done that before.
Hey, you know what else nobody else has done? A concept album called “UnCaged,” with ten different versions of John Cage’s three-movement song of Zen-like, introspective silence called “4’33.” Each cover version of the song would de-construct it to its fundamental elements. Rehearsals for this mind-blowing concept album begin immediately, so turn your speakers up to 11.
As usual, whether you vociferously support or vehemently disagree with our pertinent points and preposterous positions, your http://www.gunboatdiplomats.com/contact/comments are always welcome. Now, let’s finish this cabaret of conceptual coalescence with the gargantuan grandeur of Spinal Tap’s “Stonehenge.” Boom Mind blown.