Saturday, May 26, 2007


It Was Twenty Years Ago Today (That Nothing in Particular Happened)

In just a few days, thanks to the fortieth anniversary of the release of a certain rock album that supposedly defined the "Summer of Love," (and the twentieth anniversary of its Compact Disc release) we'll see a lot of blah, blah, blah in the media about how the Beatles "invented the concept album." First of all, other than the title, opening medley, reprise and cover, what was so "conceptual" about Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band? What makes Sgt. Pepper any more of a musical "concept" than say, Hendrix' Are You Experienced?, The Doors first album, Love's Da Capo, The Velvet Underground and Nico (sorry, Peter Blake has nothing on Warhol as a cover designer), or Miles Davis' Nefertiti, all released that same year?Now, I'm not a Beatles hater. My favorite album cover of all time is their Revolver album, which is also my favorite Fab Four record. I really tire of music critics, however, that give the Beatles too much credit for inventions which were generally done by artists that preceded them. Maybe I'm amazed at how much pop music writers will fall all over themselves to praise the Beatles while ignoring whole decades of pop music innovation and history, particularly American, from Louis Jordan and Hank Williams, Sr., up to Bo Diddley and the studio technology innovations of Buddy Holly.

In that vein, I present a very disjointed Small Sampling of Concept Albums before the First So-Called Concept Album (feel free to add any I've overlooked in the comment section).

Pet Sounds
Whenever I hear Fox News-types talk about latent anti-Americanism in mainstream media, I always think of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds album. Never mind that it was a classic, or their greatest album. Never mind that it was a thematic concept album released in 1966, as opposed to the so-called "Summer of Love." Never mind, that it was the main inspiration behind the so-called first "concept album" by Paul McCartney's own admission. American rock music critics are so contemptuous of any domestic brand, Pet Sounds is almost always placed behind Pepper, as we are supposed to worship at the Cult of the Fab Four. And like, we all know groups like the Ramones, the MC5, and Iggy Pop and the Stooges didn't exist until the Brits invented punk rock for us Yanks, right?

Freak Out!
It's hard to find an album in Frank Zappa's oeuvre that isn't a concept album (Joe's Garage, anyone?). One of his earliest was Freak Out!, a sarcastic musical look at America in the mid-60s, touching on riots, the welfare state, and Vietnam. Like the Beach Boys, Zappa released his album the year before Sgt. Pepper.

Peter and the Wolf
Sergei Prokofiev is my second favorite "classical" composer, Igor Stravinsky being tops. Considering that Prokofiev specifically wrote Peter and Wolf to introduce children to the joys and wonders of orchestral music, and wrote it well after the dawn of the modern media age (1936), I think the first phonograph edition of his work released specifically for English-speaking audiences counts as a "concept album." And this version, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky, was released thirty years before Sgt. Pepper.

Just about ANY Capitol or early Reprise label album by Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra was recording "concept albums" like nobody's business in the 1950s while Lennon and McCartney were still trying to learn to tune their guitars and complete their HSCs. One of the more beloved of Sinatra's lot being In the Wee Small Hours. My personal favorite is Come Fly With Me. Almost a decade before Sgt. Pepper, The Chairman put together one swinging album of tunes that take the listener on a musical travelogue. The final cut, "It's Nice to go Trav'ling," is particularly poignant after one returns from an OIF deployment in one piece ("It's very nice to just wander / The camel route to Iraq / It's oh so nice to just wander / But it's so much nicer / yes it's oh so nice / to wander back"). Just to show that Sinatra had the whole "concept album" thing down before the Beatles, his September of My Years album, a mature and beautiful reflection on growing older, won the 1965 Grammy Album of the Year two years before Sgt. Pepper. I'm still looking for a (cheap) copy of his post-Pepper concept album Watertown.

Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music

Musicians of one genre have always admired the works of other artists and composers in different genres. It's amazing how revolutionary Ray Charles' Modern Sounds in Country and Western M
usic was considered when it was first released five years before Sgt. Pepper, just because an African-American R&B artist actually saw the latent beauty in C&W. Apparently, these pop critics didn't know about Hank Williams, Sr. and Rufus Payne. For anyone that looks past the simple-minded historical stylings and histrionics of pop culture writing and journalism, the connection between country-western and rhythm and blues has been as intertwined as the fates of Huck Finn and Joe, since the late 1800s and into the early 20th Century.

The United States of America, Volume One
Frankly, comedian and television/radio innovator Stan Freberg was a non-classical or jazz musician that had a great ear for acoustics and modern recording long before George Martin mixed up "A Day in the Life." Take a listen, for example, to Freberg's parody of Harry Belafonte's "Banana Boat" while wearing a good pair of headphones. The talents of Freberg and his partn
er-in-comedy-crime Daws Butler (the voice of Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound) came to a stereophonic head with the release of the comedy concept album Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America, Volume One: The Early Years, six years before Sgt. Pepper. ("Ugh, what's that?" "French Horns!").

Coltane Plays the Blues
Finally, like Sinatra, jazz artists churned out "concept albums" long before the Beatles learned to plod out chords on a Mellotron. One my favorite thematic albums being Coltrane Plays the Blues, cited mainly because the last cut, "Mr. Knight," was the first jazz bass line I learned to play. The album was released five years before Sgt. Pepper. However, you could substitute any number of Miles Davis albums in place of this one. Or, Eric Dolphy. Or, Dave Brubeck. Or, Charles Mingus. Or ...

Side Note:
Unlike RT regular, Bill Barker, I tuned out most of what Richardson said on Meet the Press this morning. However, I did notice a passing resemblance between the governor and another famous politico ...

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