Every song comes with some kind of story. Sometimes it’s just the story of a feeling (good for bad) or just a way of getting a point of view across. Other songs are actual stories, complete with a narrative, characters, and drama that unfolds through a beginning, middle and end. It’s like a short story that’s sung instead of written down in a book.
But what if you’re a composer and you have a story that’s too long and complex to fit inside a standard four-minute song? Then you have to start thinking about breaking up the story into its constituent parts and maybe spreading things out over multiple songs.
Do this enough times and you’ve created a concept album, a record where the story (or perhaps a series of themes) link everything together from front to back. Your four-minute musical short story has grown into basically an hour-long musical novel.
Concept albums were big business in the late 60s and through the 1970s. Pro-rock bands were all over them and the more complex, the better. I still get lost in the first side of Rush’s 2112 with its Ayn Rand inspiration, the Red Star of the Solar Federation, the priests who run the Temples of Syrinx and command over their existence, and the rebel guitar player who discovers music, rises up and then commits suicide. All that in about 22 minutes.
Heavy sh*t. Too heavy, actually.
When punk rock came along with its two-minute two-chord songs of burning hate, the concept album fell out of favour for a long, long time.
But then a funny thing happened in the 1990s. The concept album was slowly and carefully resurrected. And by the time we got to the first years of the 21st century BAM! We got tons of them–and most from alt-rock bands, the spiritual descendants of the punks who killed the concept album in the 70s.
This is part two of the history of the concept album.
Songs heard on this show:
Everclear, AM Radio
Smashing Pumpkins, Stand Inside Your Love
Streets, Fit But You Know It
Green Day, Boulevard of Broken Dreams
My Chemical Romance, Welcome to the Black Parade
Nine Inch Nails, Capital G
The Antlers, Kettering
As usual, Eric Wilhite has created a playlist for us.
Don’t forget that you can get the podcast version of this podcast through iTunes or wherever you get your on-demand audio.
The Ongoing History of New Music can be heard on the following stations:
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