“There is no argument by which one can defend a poem.
It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible.”–George Orwell*
Stephen Green of VodkaPundit recently posted his list of his favorite concept albums. I’ll argue in a moment with only one of those choices, but naturally, I got to thinking what mine would be, and so, off the top of my head, and, as they say on C-Span, with the request that I be allowed to revise and extend my remarks should these opinions change, here goes, in no particular order:
Miles Davis, Porgy & Bess: What happens when you combine the writing of George Gershwin, the arranging of Gil Evans, and the musicianship of Miles Davis? You get one of the great jazz concept albums of the 1950s, an era, as Ashley Kahn wrote in Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, that Miles truly mastered the LP form. And of course, it didn’t hurt that he had the best arranger in instrumental jazz writing his charts. The end result? If heaven has a soundtrack, this is what it sounds like: rich, liquid, and swinging.
Derek & The Dominos, Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs: Arguably, this was Eric Clapton’s apogee. As is fairly well known, in the late ’60s or early ’70s, he had fallen in deeply in love with Patti Harrison, wife of George Harrison. George of the Beatles, the kings of popular music. “And this just was not done”, I think Clapton later said, with enormous understatement.
When Patti rejected his offers, he took his then band, the Dominoes into Florida’s Criteria Studio and recorded a cri de Coeur to her. Shortly into the recording process, he was joined by Duane Allman, veteran session guitarist and founder of the Allman Brothers. While the title cut has become a rock anthem, and quite rightly so, between Duane and Eric pushing each other to new heights, the whole album just shimmers with guitar pyrotechnics and the emotion of a man obsessed with what looked to be permanently unrequited love.
It had an ending that appeared happy, but sadly, not permanently so: Clapton and Patti did eventually marry, but ultimately divorced, less than a decade later. And time was even more cruel to the several of the members of the Dominos: Duane Allman was killed in 1971 in a motorcycle crash, bassist Carl Radle died in 1980 of alcohol and narcotics abuse. Perhaps most tragic of all, drummer Jim Gordon (another veteran session musician, he wrote “Layla’s” stunning piano-oriented instrumental coda) has been institutionalized since 1983 for murdering his mother after being previously diagnosed as a suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.
The Who, Quadrophenia: Several of Steve’s commenters recommended this album, and quite rightly so. More musically complex, and infinitely better recorded than the better known Tommy, Quadrophenia’s coming of age story is also much more accessible as well.
Townshend recently called this the last Who album he was really proud of, and I can certainly understand why. It’s the last Who album where all of the original members of the band were at their peak musically, although its introspective follow-up, The Who By Numbers is a fine album, it lacks Quadrophenia’s fire and complex arrangements. The film version of Quadrophenia is also worth checking out, and one of the great “midnight movies”–back when there were midnight movies, before the DVD and 600 channels of cable and DBS killed that genre.
The Beatles, Abbey Road: As great as Sgt. Pepper was, Abbey Road’s production is even better, and doesn’t seem as stiff and forced as parts of Sgt. Pepper now sound in retrospect. Its concept is simple enough: it’s the Beatles’ swan song. (And it was actually recorded after Let It Be, when it was obvious that that album was not the Beatles’ finest hour.) Unlike Let It Be, where George Martin saw his role as producer usurped by first Glynn Johns, and then ultimately Phil Spector, the Beatles asked Martin to produce one last album for them. He agreed to do it, with one condition: The Beatles give him control in the studio. He was not about to make Let It Be Part II.
Even then, there was a caveat: Martin and Paul McCartney had wanted to make an album where the songs flowed from one into another, where themes introduced in earlier songs would be repeated in later songs, a sort of pop symphonic album. John refused to go along. As a compromise, the first side of Abbey Road contained individual songs (Including John’s “Come Together” George’s “Something”-written for Patti Harrison, who has the privilege of having two of rock’s greatest songs written for her; Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden” and Paul’s “Oh Darling”. Thus all four Beatles had a hand in writing the album.) Side two begins with George’s beautiful “Here Comes The Sun” before McCartney’s suite of songs begins.
In this case, the sum is greater than the parts. Unlike “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road”, the individual songs in McCartney’s suite aren’t necessarily his finest hour as a composer. It’s the decision to run them together, link them together, and John’s “songlets” as counterpoint, and then the brilliant instrumental shoot-out, followed by the false ending and the ironic “Her Majesty” that make side two of Abbey Road work.
Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon: Steve had said that his favorite concept album was The Wall, and for some reason, I’ve never fully been able to get into that one. I think it’s the subplot: Waters’ anger over the death of his father in World War II. My father also served in WWII, and I’m very, very happy he didn’t become a casualty. But–and this is more obvious in the film version perhaps than on the album–Waters apparently would have preferred that England not have engaged in World War II at all. Couple his isolationism with his anger towards Israel (or pro-Palestinian viewpoint, depending upon how you want to look at it), and you have rock & roll’s answer to Pat Buchanan: an anti-Israeli isolationist who apparently wouldn’t have lost much sleep if the Nazis had won World War II. (So much for peace, love and sunshine.)
Additionally, while The Wall has a handful of great songs (in my old college-era band, we used to do kick-ass versions of “In The Flesh Part I” and “Run Like Hell”, and “Comfortably Numb” is also a terrific song), there’s a lot of expository filler. Like most double albums, it could have easily have been tightened up into one first class single album.
But even then, it wouldn’t have matched Dark Side of the Moon, which blended peerless craftsmanship, avant garde production techniques, superb engineering (which would eventually lead to Alan Parsons becoming a celebrity in his own right, on the way to becoming riff fodder for Austin Powers), and great songwriting. On its recent Making Of DVD, a critic said that on Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd was giving us a glimpse into the music of the future, with its extensive use of tape loops, synthesizers and advanced production techniques, and that sounds exactly right to me. And “Us And Them” is arguably one of the Floyd’s best songs.
Honorable Mention: Pete Townshend’s All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes: I’m listing this an honorable mention, because I know this album isn’t for all tastes. It doesn’t help matters that it’s also lumbered with one Townshend’s most pretentious titles, which refers to the cowboys of Hollywood westerns who would squint into the sun and do whatever it took to get their people to safety.
In Townshend’s case, it was he who needed to get to safety. The concept of Chinese Eyes was his overcoming addiction to alcohol, heroin and cocaine, nasty habits that built up as Townshend sought refuge after the 1978 death of Keith Moon, and the deaths of 11 of the Who’s fans in the tragic Cincinnati “festival seating” the following year.
On Chinese Eyes, Townshend uses a variety of song forms, including poetry recited over rhythm tracks (“Stop Hurting People”), Dylanesque folk (“North Country Girl”), moving Who-like rock (“The Sea Refuses No River”) before ending with “Slit Skirts”. Behind him is a crack team of London session musicians, many of whom continue to tour with Townshend, as well as The Who, to this day.
On “Slit Skirts”, Townshend attempts to bring T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” into the 1980s, with its intertwined imagery of clothes and aging. Townshend had long admired Eliot–“Baba O’Riley’s” refrain of “teenage wasteland” was the most obvious prior homage, and there are numerous examples of Eliot’s influence on Chinese Eyes, in addition to “Slit Skirts”.
Chinese Eyes was arguably Townshend’s last great solo album, and lyrically far more interesting than It’s Hard, The Who’s farewell studio album, also released that year. But then, by 1983, the concept album’s time had clearly passed as well. Twenty years later, Nick Gillespie wrote that the iPod and file sharing have killed it permanently. That’s a mixed blessing, I suppose–there’s a lot of great music on mine and Steve’s lists. More than it seems is being made today.
*I know–that’s mega-pretentious use of an Orwell quote. I had only stumbled across it earlier today in a John Lukacs book, and figured this would be a good place to work it in. Hey, if you can’t be pretentious and arch in a post about concept albums…when can you be pretentious and arch?!