The term ‘concept album’ refers to a music album with songs that are related to each other through their content. The rock opera ‘Tommy’ by The Who and Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ are well-known examples.
‘Dust Bowl Ballads’ by Woody Guthrie is considered as the (almost) very first concept album. This album, released in 1940, deals with the Dust Bowl. This was the name given to the Southern Great Plains in the United States, after this area was hit, in the 1930s, by great droughts and sand storms, which destroyed people, cattle and crops. This forced the local farmers to leave for California on a massive scale. Guthrie himself wrote about this album:
“I've lived in these duststorms just about all my life. (I mean, I tried to live). I met millions of good folks trying to hang on and to stay alive with the dust cutting down every hope. I am made out of this dust and out of this fast wind and I know that I'm going to win out on top of both of them if only my government and my office holder will help me. I wrote up these eight songs here to try to show you how it is to live under the wild and windy actions of the great duststorms that ride in and out and up and down.”
The album ‘L’homme a tête de chou’ (‘The Man with the Cabbage Head’) by Serge Gainsbourg, released in 1976, tells the story of a 40-year-old man who strikes up a relationship with the liberated Marilou. The inspiration for the album came from a sculpture that Gainsbourg had bought from artist Claude Lalanne. This sculpture also appears on the album cover and represents a male figure with a cabbage as a head.
The storyteller enters into an erotic relationship with the seductive Marilou but murders her after finding her in bed with two rockers. The protagonist eventually ends up in the madhouse. In 2011 the equally legendary French singer Alain Bashung made an integral cover version of this album but he died before it was released.
Sometimes concept albums bring about the end of a group. The ambitious set-up of the album ‘666’ by Aphrodite’s Child caused a lot of tension, not only between band members Demis Roussos and Vangelis, but also with the record company. Vangelis wanted to explore new grounds with the album, while the rest of the band preferred to stick closer to the psych-pop that had brought them so much success. When the album was finally released in 1972 (Salvador Dali compared it to the Sagrada Familia), the group – very popular in Europe – had split. The album itself is an interpretation of the book ‘Revelation’. 666 is the number of ‘the Beast’ and refers to the devil. From a kabbalistic viewpoint, this number could be a gematria for ‘Nron Qsr’ or else ‘Nero Caesar’. (Do also check out the Numberphile video about the number 666 on Youtube.)
‘Joe’s Garage’ by Frank Zappa tells the story of protagonist Joe’s career in the music industry. The sexual and sometimes female-unfriendly tone of the album, which among other things parodies a wet T-shirt contest, could nowadays well be a sensitive matter, but Zappa was a great defender of free speech. Hilarious are the descriptions of the interrogation of Frank Zappa during the senate hearing about ‘Porn Rock’. A hearing that was requested by a.o. Tipper Gore (wife of Al) and that was later to lead to the childish ‘Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics’-stickers on albums.
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