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A beginner's guide to the thrilling, topsy-turvy world of the concept album

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(Image credit: Future)

Who said rock music was disposable nonsense? Who said rock songs should be over and done with in three-minute bursts?

Whoever did, had clearly never invested time with a concept album. These aren’t just any old albums with a rag bag collection of a dozen songs. These are albums with A Big Idea – the more portentous (and pretentious), the more grandiose, the more incomprehensible the better.

But it wasn’t just prog bands who got in on this act – The Who, everyone’s favourite mods, started to expanded their horizons with both Tommy in ’69 and Quadrophenia in ’73. But the daddies of the genre were clearly the proggressive rockers – the bands borne from English public schools, the ones with the high-falutin' ideals, the ones with, dare we say it, an inflated sense of their own intelligence.

Investing time in a concept album proved you were serious about your music – you pored over the lyrics (which were often indecipherable, or at the very least ambiguous). You had to spend time in a concept album – there was no just listening to the singles (because there were none). You had to inhale the thing whole. Dropping the needle on individual tracks of a concept piece was for lightweights. It was forbidden. It was downright disrespectful.

No, for these records, time was set aside, lights were dimmed, headphones were placed on ears. Double gatefold sleeves were closely examined. The best carried not just the lyrics, but a supporting short story perhaps, or some explanatory text from the creators. Or, even, hidden clues to decipher the music within the artwork. The subsequent hour(s) were then spent in reverent introspection. 

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So what are concept albums about? Are there themes that are revisited and revisited?

In a word, yes. Science fiction is a fertile ground for the progressive concept album and rock opera. Visions of a dystopian future (or even present) whether on Earth or otherwise is often used as a catalyst for musical discussion – please stand up Genesis, Pink Floyd, Rush, even Queensryche.

Often though, the humble novel can be brought to life through song. One of the most famous of these is Jeff Wayne’s musical version of HG Wells’ War Of The Worlds. Based upon the 1898 tome, the seemingly simple tale of a Martian invasion of England was thrillingly brought to life on vinyl by Wayne in 1978.

Progressive rock and classical orchestration collided to give the listener an epic rollercoaster ride. The piece was afforded extra gravitas from the ‘theatrical’ audience with narration provided by respected Welsh actor (and Hollywood star) Richard Burton.

The recorded version also starred some of rock’s biggest names including David Essex, The Moody Blues’ Justin Hayward, Thin Lizzy’s Philip Lynott, and even musical theatre star Julie Covington (who provided the original voice of Eva Peron in Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice’s Evita).

Stunningly, concept albums seem to have an enduring appeal – and not only with prog rock fans, but the general listening public – and once they hit the charts, often seem reluctant to leave. Upon its original release, The War Of The Worlds spent over 260 consecutive weeks in the UK album chart – just think about that for a second, that’s five years – and to date has shifted more than 15 million records.

Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon remains far and away the most successful concept album ever made. Its estimated 45 million sales dwarf all other contenders as well as later Pink Floyd albums like Wish You Were Here, Animals and The Wall – which many fans might argue are better concept albums. But the rest of the world does not agree.

So what’s the secret? Why is its appeal so broad, so timeless? It’s a question even the band have trouble answering. 

“I don’t think we ever really understood,” drummer Nick Mason confessed. “There are elements that you would never have perceived at the time. It was partly about timing and partly about the songs being relevant to people at that time, and that sort of gave it a lift that then brought it on to the attention of another bunch of people, and so on.” 

Roger Waters, who was the dominant – though not yet dominating – force in the band when they recorded The Dark Side Of The Moon, has his own theory. “The music’s quite compelling but I think there’s something more. Maybe it’s the simplicity of the ideas that appeal to a generation going though puberty and trying to make sense of it all.” 

There’s certainly something in Roger’s theory, particularly if you accept (as most women do) that most men never get far beyond puberty. And like porn, men can go back to The Dark Side Of The Moon over and over again and still get a thrill from it. 

“The concept grew out of group discussions about the pressures of real life, like travel or money, but then Roger broadened it into a meditation on the causes of insanity,” recalled Nick Mason. 

Pink Floyd had spent the beginning of the 70s groping for a new direction following the loss of their creative spirit Syd Barrett to drugs and a mental breakdown. They lacked the instrumental prowess of fellow progressive rockers ELP, the wondrous stories of Yes, the androgyny of David Bowie or the art school pose of Roxy Music

Roger’s decision to write all the lyrics for The Dark Side Of The Moon gave the music a focus. The recording was long – they spent six months in the studio in between tours of Europe, America and Japan – but it wasn’t laborious. 

David Gilmour reckons that playing the songs live beforehand made a big difference. “You couldn’t do that now of course. You’d be bootlegged out of existence. But when we went into the studio we all knew the material. The playing was very good. It had a natural feel. And it was a bloody good package – the music, the concept and the cover all came together. And it was the first time we’d had great lyrics.” 

Therein Gilmour has just alluded to part of the key to the appeal of concept albums – they can be performed live, in their entirety, in sequence. And they make sense. While Floyd used a massive light show to highlight their magnum opus, other bands have used theatrical conceits like staging, props, guest singers and instrumentalists, and sometimes a whole bloody orchestra to reinforce the concept.

Despite Dark Side’s ubiquity, for many die-hard progressive rock fans, Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway represents the pinnacle of the genre: a dense concept spread across a double album, laden with symbolism and a musical soundtrack that adds spice and atmosphere without resorting to needless effects or gimmicks. 

Even by Genesis’s own standards the album, released in late 1974, was a bold move. The most quintessentially English prog rock band, renowned for its esoteric, mythical tales of giant hogweeds and moonlit knights, suddenly relocated across the Atlantic with the surreal tale of a New York punk whose journey through the mean streets was guaranteed to stretch your sense of reality. 

The fact that the meaning of this complex saga has never really been explained has left scope for endless speculation and interpretation. The lengthy essay on the album’s inner sleeve offers a few clues but little practical insight unto unraveling the multiple layers of the story. 

The Lamb… was also a watershed for Genesis. It was the last album they made with singer Peter Gabriel who was responsible for the concept. “In some ways it was quite a traditional concept album,” Peter explained later. “It was a type of Pilgrim’s Progress but with this character in leather jacket and jeans. He would have been called a punk at that time without all the post ’76 connotations. The Lamb was more looking towards West Side Story as a starting point.” 

Gabriel also assumed the role of the album’s protagonist, smearing on the greasepaint and shrugging on the leather jacket and jeans, when they took the show on the road. It wasn’t Gabriel you were witnessing, it was street punk Rael. While Gabriel here acknowledged that the album looked to the stage for inspiration, recent years have seen the reverse. 

The concept behind Rush’s 1976 album 2112 is obliquely echoed in the plotline of Queen’s theatrical extravaganza We Will Rock You. 2112’s storyline is simplicity itself: man finds guitar, powers-that-be don’t like guitar, man gets all upset, has funny dream, tops himself. It’s set in the year, er, 2112 and the Overture can’t resist quoting from Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture in its final headlong sprint. 

And while this isn’t the story of We Will Rock You, its dystopian vision of a future bereft of loud guitars and rock music is certainly familiar. Not all concept albums have a discernible linear story – and perhaps that’s where we need to draw the line between the concept album and the rock opera. 

Rock operas have a beginning, a middle and an end – and that holds true for everything from The Who’s Tommy (a piece not only immortalised in film, but also on stage both with and without the band), through The War Of The Worlds to even Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell (which the big man has acted out in its entirety on stage, backed by an orchestra, and was more recently turned into a fully-fledged, award-winning musical by writer Jim Steinman) right up to more traditional rock operas that were conceived specifically for theatrical consumption – Lloyd Webber/Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar, Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Picture Show or even Jonathan Larson’s Rent – the high-voltage rock opera that reinvigorated the Broadway musical more than two decades ago. 

In terms of sheer ‘concept’ albums, no one record has raised more controversy than Tales From Topographic Oceans. Not just among progressive rock fans but among Yes fans as well. Avid Yes fans at that. 

There’s no sitting on the fence. It’s a double album with just four side-long tracks exploring different aspects of eastern culture and religion, you either love it or hate it. Not many albums have been simultaneously touted as the best and worst albums ever made – Tales From Topographic Oceans has appeared in the Top 10 and the Bottom 10.

There is no compromise either. The qualities that devotees of Tales From Topographic Oceans swoon over – the lengthy, developed themes, the lyrical inner messages, the long indulgent solos – are the very same qualities that make people hate it so vehemently. 

Even the band are divided. Singer Jon Anderson, who came up with the concept and worked on the music themes with guitarist Steve Howe, now believes it was a “meeting point of high ideals and low energy”. But Steve remains a true believer: “We had so much space on that album that we were able to explore things, which I think was tremendously good for us.” 

Bassist Chris Squire is enigmatically downbeat, calling it, “a difficult album for me”. And Rick Wakeman, who left the group soon afterwards, has memorably compared it to a padded bra: “The cover looks good, but when you peel off the padding there’s not a lot there.” 

But then again, this was the chap who would go on to record more rock operas (and perform them with ever increasing casts of characters and musicians) in quick succession in the mid-70s with The Six Wives of Henry VIII in 1973, Journey To The Centre Of The Earth in 1974 and The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table the following year. 

Ultimately, though, the concept album or rock opera hasn’t remained the preserve of prog bands. Metal bands have made them. AOR bands have made them. Even Kiss and WASP have made them. Rick Wakeman put one on ice. Radiohead made one and then claimed it wasn’t, despite many clues to the contrary. 

That denial merely pointed out that the concept album has become a discredited form (although, in more recent times brave bands such as Muse, Coheed & Cambria and prog revivalists Big Big Train have done their best to champion the format). It’s our loss though, as the concept album or rock opera has given us some of most brilliant, thrilling, mad, funny, demented, shameful, pretentious and inspired rock music ever made.

Long may it reign.