Turn your headphones up, tune the world out and lose yourself in a universe contained entirely in a cycle of songs - we're exploring the history of the concept album.
I remember a formative moment in my musical identity came when I was around eleven or twelve years old and I first listened to Pink Floyd’s 1979 classic, The Wall. I didn’t know at the time, but my fascination with and appreciation of this masterpiece of progressive rock n’ roll would lead me to discover a form of musical storytelling known as the Concept Album.
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These albums can be defined as a cycle of songs expressing a particular theme or idea in the form of a narrative through line, throughout an extended or long play. These are often performed through the perspective of a particular character, with the music repeating progressions and lyrics often returning to the same thematic journey throughout.
Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads (1940) is often considered the first by music historians. Sinatra, Frank Zappa and Miles Davis all embraced the idea of a concept album, even if their records were not defined as such at the time. It was the late 1960’s when both The Beach Boys and The Beatles saw their progressive rock masterpieces Pet Sounds (1966) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) take the idea to the mainstream. Both bands inhabit two different types of concept album, the former looking to create a uniform production over the course of the record and the latter being the idea of the band members inhabiting the role of the titular fictional band in order to craft a new sound. David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) similarly had Bowie inhabit a fictional character and made Bowie a household name.
Enter The Pinball Wizard
It is Tommy, The Who’s 1969 studio album, that is often considered the first to have both fully embraced and popularised the concept album. Guitarist Pete Townshend and bandmates created a true ‘Rock Opera’, following the story of the “deaf, dumb and blind kid” Tommy, and his journey from life as a traumatised child, to a local pinball hero and eventually, a messianic figure. Troubled protagonists are often a feature of the concept album, and arguably this is where the trope first started.
The album features classic hard-rock stylings, with the band intending for every song to be enjoyed on its own, without the narrative through line, but due to the strength of the story, a film adaptation of Tommy directed by Ken Russell was released in 1975 with frontman Roger Daltrey playing the titular role. Tommy has gone on to influence countless other concept albums since and has even been adapted for the stage. Many other concept albums have also followed this pattern of cross-media adaptation.
Is There Anybody Out There?
Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, founding member, bassist and lyricist returned from their 1977 US tour with an idea, to build a wall between the band members and audience on stage. So after a period of writing that produced at some points autobiographical lyrics, Waters presented the beginnings of The Wall (1979).
The story follows Pink, a drug-addicted, chain-smoking, rock star who has figuratively and literally shut himself away from the world, his tumultuous lifestyle leading to a mental breakdown, and finally to “tearing down the wall” and accepting life beyond.
Themes of Isolation, abandonment, childhood trauma and relationship breakdowns come up throughout the lyrics. Throughout recording Waters also worked with the album’s music producer Bob Ezrin, to write a ‘script’ for the album, and Gerald Scarfe to make cartoons and animations to use for the album’s promotional material, including the subsequent tour. The usual Pink Floyd production was ramped up to larger, more aggressive “walls of sound” but also featured disco influence, particularly in the number 1 US single Another Brick in the Wall Part 2.
The Wall went on to sell 1 million copies within its first two months of release and led to an Alan Parker-directed film staring Bob Geldof from the Boomtown Rats as Pink. Waters has also toured The Wall as a live concert/production hybrid since leaving the band, to great success.
The Son of Rage and Love
Green Day’s American Idiot (2004) follows the coming-of-age story of the Jesus of Suburbia, a young man fed up with his hometown upbringing, who escapes to the city in pursuit of something more, only to find himself in a battle of ideals between “rage and love.”
The album confronts themes including disenfranchisement, paranoia, mass-media consumption and the anti-government sentiment that was prevalent in the US at the time due to the country having just witnessed the beginnings of the Iraq War. The band also threw away the traditional pop music structure, offering up sweeping multi-part punk rock suites such as in tracks Jesus of Suburbia and Homecoming with the help of producer, Rob Cavallo. The themes explored in the album also extended to the extensive promo work and music videos, with the iconic “heart like a hand-grenade” album art and music videos depicting the characters of Jesus, St. Jimmy and Whatshername. A hit Broadway Musical adaptation premiered in 2009 and a film adaptation has been touted for years since. It remains not only Green Day’s most successful work critically and commercially to date, but also one that has gone on to influence a generation of songsmiths.
The Concept Album Today
The concept album is still prominent today, with popular artists including The Weekend, having released two back to back with After Hours (2020) and Dawn FM (2022), Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016) and Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012) all becoming hugely successful both commercially and critically.
The Concept Album continues to champion multi-media storytelling, with accompanying music videos and even red-carpet appearances having tied into these albums. The approach of producing music in this format is certainly one that has proven successful when fully embraced, and is sure to continue to delight listeners and viewers well into the future.
In the mood for more music history? Check out our feature on the history of feedback on rock records here.