Melody Behind the Madness — Dissecting Concept Albums
As you close your eyes, the thoughts and memories buzzing in your head start humming a little melody, a voice that no one but you can hear. To hear someone with the same conceptions forms the invisible thread that binds individuals together. Certain narratives need to be thrust into the limelight, whether it is through a simple blog post or a massively sized rally. However, the messages and stories that have stayed with generations resonate with a certain euphony.
When was the last time you listened to an old album from start to finish? In the daily hustle, songs shuffle off our ears to make way for the next one-hit-wonder. Over the years, listeners have needed more than just a catchy tune to get them in a good vibe—meaningful lyrics and well-detailed concepts are what captivate audiences and draw them in like moths to a flame.
The need for a common theme to be expressed through music led to the birth of the ‘concept album’. A concept album consists of a group of songs unified by a theme or a specific narrative. One might think, “Why do I buy the entire collection when I can purchase only the songs I like?” But as evidenced by numerous 21st-century examples, such as American Idiot by Green Day and The Black Parade by My Chemical Romance, the idea of writing an album’s worth of material based on a central idea is the driving factor for many music artists. Listening to three random tracks from a concept album is similar to watching three out of context scenes from a movie, or reading a few random chapters of a novel. Although separate tracks can be a listen independently, taken as a whole, they provide a complete narrative in which different songs relate to each other and the overall themes of the album.
Over time, each album has stylized itself to represent the mindset of today’s society. From gender equality and LGBTQ+ upliftment to oppression by those in power, concept albums have provided invaluable commentary on socio-political issues—all of which critics and fans alike consider as uniquely iconic to their respective generations.
The Beatles-Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has received much acclaim for being the first ‘concept album’. Pepper is regarded by musicologists as an early concept album that advanced the use of extended form in popular music while continuing the artistic maturation seen on the Beatles’ preceding releases. A critical work of British psychedelia, the album incorporates a range of stylistic influences, including theatre, circus, music hall, avant-garde, as well as Western and Indian classical music.
According to producer George Martin, this is how the concept materialized—
Sergeant Pepper was Paul’s song, just an ordinary rock number … but when The Beatles had finished it, Paul said, “Why don’t we make the album as though the Pepper band really existed, as though Sgt. Pepper was making the record? We’ll dub in effects and things.” I loved the idea, and from that moment on, it was as though Pepper had a life of its own.
The tracks help with that flow, and this is evident with the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (opening title song) followed seamlessly by With a Little Help From My Friends. Again at the end of the album, the stampede of animals that closes Good Morning leads directly into the reprise of the title track. The guitar lick starting the latter attempting to sound like the chicken cluck ending the former, with the reprise, in turn, segueing into the epic A Day in the Life.
This whimsical concept is embedded in the album title, in the way the record begins (“So may I introduce to you / The act you’ve known for all these years!”). This includes the iconic album art, which showcases the Beatles in colourful, military-style costumes of their alter egos.
David Bowie – ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’ (1972)
The album because of which David Bowie became a fully-fledged star, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, was released on June 16, 1972. It was a loose concept album about a bisexual, androgynous rocker who became a conduit for alien beings in a dystopian alternate reality—the story of the fictional rockstar, Ziggy Stardust.
Reflecting on the period from ’72-’76, Bowie later said, “Until that time, the attitude was ‘what you see is what you get.’ It seemed interesting to try to devise something different, like a musical where the artist onstage plays a part.” Bowie draws on the rich history of metatheatre to accomplish this kind of meta rock. Bowie performing as Ziggy Stardust, the British glam rockstar assuming the role of a prophetic alien rockstar, draws close attention to Bowie’s commentary on the part of a rock ‘n’ roll star.
Bowie had launched Ziggy with a Melody Maker interview, in which he announced, “I’m gay, and always have been,” which – wife and child notwithstanding – was another insanely brave venture given the political and social climate around homosexuality at the time. Nevertheless, implicit in Ziggy’s androgynous revolution was the notion that gay boys and girls would be free. Bowie later muddied the waters (he was bi, he wasn’t bi, it was part of Ziggy’s character, he was again bi, but non-practising, etc.) but the seed had been sown. Without Bowie, it’s impossible to imagine how gay rights, and freedom, would have accelerated as quickly as it did.
Pink Floyd—‘The Wall’ (1979)
Roger Waters was already starting to live the life of an isolated rock star by the time he began working on Pink Floyd’s The Wall in 1978. The premise behind Pink Floyd’s conceptual album, The Wall (1979) talks about an individual who decided to hide behind the wall he built by the abandonment of his father, the overbearing nature of his mother, the dark state of society, human nature, fame, and war. In the end, though, like the wall Waters’ character—Pink, built brick by brick, The Wall constructed a divide between Waters and his bandmates. It effectively put an end to one of rock’s most adventurous bands.
Green Day—American Idiot’ (2004)
It’s a concept album dubbed a punk rock opera by the band members. American Idiot follows the story of Jesus of Suburbia, a lower-middle-class American adolescent anti-hero. From the lyrical depth to the overarching coming-of-age story mapped out on the album, American Idiot was Green Day’s first album that was pure rock ‘n’ roll. One of two explicitly political songs on the record—the other being their 2005 single, Holiday—American Idiot deals with themes of fear and xenophobia and accuses the mass media of using propaganda to stir up paranoia and hysteria.
A small snippet follows:
“Don’t wanna be an American idiot.
Don’t want a nation under the new media.
And can you hear the sound of hysteria?
The subliminal mind-f*** America”.
Despite the song taking place during Bush’s reign, Armstrong says it wasn’t just about the 43rd President, telling The Spin, “It’s about the confusion of where we’re at right now.”
The album “draws a causal connection between contemporary American social dysfunction and the Bush ascendancy”, as stated by singer Billie Joe Armstrong. With the band themselves revealing the song was written out of anger about not being represented by the world’s leaders, it’s understandable to see its relevance even today. Armstrong, however, hoped it would spread a broader message, one that would remain timeless and become more of an overarching statement on confusion.
Kendrick Lamar—‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D City’ (2012)
Billed as a ‘short film by Kendrick Lamar’ on the album cover, the concept album follows the story of Lamar’s teenage experiences in the drug-infested streets and gang lifestyle of his native—Compton. Good kid, m.A.A.d city is a coming-of-age story of a youthful teen in Compton battling maturation and gang violence, as he transitions into the man we know today as Kendrick Lamar—the iteration of the emcee who has come to embody the uplifting voice we know today. The story isn’t wholly chronological, and a few Kendrick tracks appear which interrupt the narrative as mentioned earlier. However, there is a definitive cohesiveness to the entire project which Lamar echoed in the press following the October 2012 release.
The album begins with the recitation of a prayer by a group of young men—”Lord God, I come to you a sinner, and I humbly repent for my sins.” This sets up a religious motif that will recur throughout the album. However, the reference to a higher power seems ironic when the subject matter of the song becomes more apparent. It propelled an accessible, conscientious P.O.V. that helps bridge current rifts within hip-hop. Kendrick’s success is due to many factors, not the least of which is his ability to appeal to a wide breadth of hip-hop fans.
He tackles subjects that have widespread appeal—drinking, macho bravado—but complicates his relationship with these attitudes, giving them a real dimension. He creates a world on Good Kid in which actions have consequences, a realistic response to a genre that often plays with exaggerated, intoxicated fantasies. With this album, he bridged a divide between the streets and the fully-emerged middle-class hip-hop fanbase. He managed to please ‘lyrical’ heads—all the time remaining accessible and creating good songs. In essence, he managed to pull together a lot of impulses within hip-hop that seemed at odds and made them fit naturally on his debut album.
In 2014, it was reported that Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was being studied as a text in the freshman composition class of Georgia Regents University professor Adam Diehl, alongside other coming of age works such as the James Joyce novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Gwendolyn Brooks’ Selected Poems, James Baldwin’s short story “Going to Meet the Man”, and the John Singleton film Boyz n the Hood. The theme of the class was meant to “inspire students to find an outlet to bring some sanity to our mad city–Augusta”, Diehl told HipHopDX. “Lamar is the James Joyce of hip-hop”, he said, “in the complexity of his storytelling, in his knowledge of the canon, and his continuing focus on the city of his upbringing—Compton.
Janelle Monáe—Dirty Computer(2018)
With the revelation that Monae came out as pansexual in her recent Rolling Stone interview—”Being a queer black woman in America, someone who has been in relationships with both men and women – I consider myself to be a free-ass mother******.”, it’s impossible not to view Dirty Computer as the artists emotional, feminist updating of the dystopian concerns that have always swirled through science fiction. From pansexual proclamations and Afro-futuristic looks—to paying homage to Prince and eloquently purging political statements through rose-tinted lenses, Dirty Computer—both the album and what she calls an “emotion picture”—is a heroine’s journey set to a symphony.
Throughout history, music has always entertained, and also healed us. Over the years, different issues have always been thrust into the limelight; however, not everyone is able to bring themselves to come head-on with these problems. These concept albums disregard all biases set by modern society and are able to propel a progressive mindset through various creative elements. With the people who garner millions in following being able to put out essential messages in a stylized narrative, it can influence audiences positively. This is the social impact our modern world needs.
Featured Image Credits: DevianArt