#1 The Who - Tommy, The Who Sell Out & Quadrophenia
The Who wins the Concept Album game…with three albums that appear to all have something to do with one another according to Pete Townsend’s song writing. From Ultimate Classic Rock:
When the idea of a “rock opera” was just a glimmer in Pete’s eye, he had the idea of a larger musical piece called Quads that was set in a future when parents could select the genders of their children. The main conflict of the story (and the one at the heart of “I’m a Boy”) is that one couple gets a boy instead of the girl they ordered, but make do the best they can with the unwelcome child. The bigger project was never completed – and may not have been really attempted – but it did result in a great slice of power pop for the Who and a No. 2 U.K. hit in 1966.
Townshend continued to think about musical stories that could expand beyond a quick-hit radio single. When extra material was needed for his band’s sophomore LP in ’66, he wrote the six-part, nine-minute “A Quick One, While He’s Away” – the most significant precursor to the album-length story of Tommy. A year later, the Who released arguably the decade’s best concept album.
“The Who Sell Out didn’t link songs by subject matter, but by the idea of a pirate radio broadcast complete with goofy fake ads.”
As the Who were creating a larger global presence for themselves with the American breakthrough of “I Can See for Miles” and the band’s electrifying performance at the Monterey International Pop Festival, Townshend’s ambitions continued to grow. In his autobiography, Who I Am, Pete discussed the perfect storm that led to the creation of the rock opera Tommy, which was released on May 23, 1969.
“For one, the album was becoming more important than the single in rock and roll (thanks to bands like the Beatles, the Beach Boys and, yes, the Who).”
Townshend wanted to do something to fully capitalize on the album as a continuous art form… even more so than Sell Out. He also wanted to reach new audiences, ones who had not been particularly interested in the Who’s blasts of “Maximum R&B,” and people he felt would be interested in a longer musical piece.
He endeavored to address themes of spirituality in pop music. As someone who had recently become a follower of the teachings of Indian spiritual leader Meher Baba, Townshend was looking for an outlet to explore what he was learning. He felt that rock fans would be out to find the same answers he was seeking. Tommy would be dedicated to Baba, who had died months before the album’s release.
Townshend has joked that, in the run-up to Tommy, he would talk about the notion of a rock opera to anyone who would listen. That included Rolling Stone magazine founder Jann Wenner, who spoke with the guitarist at length in the summer of 1968 about the Who’s next project.
“The package I hope is going to be called Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy, he said. “It’s a story about a kid that’s born deaf, dumb and blind and what happens to him throughout his life. The deaf, dumb and blind boy is played by the Who, the musical entity…But what it’s really all about is the fact that because the boy is ‘D, D & B,’ he’s seeing things basically as vibrations which we translate as music. That’s really what we want to do: create this feeling that when you listen to the music you can actually become aware of the boy, and aware of what he is all about, because we are creating him as we play.”
As Townshend explored his newfound spirituality and toured extensively with the Who, he began to piece together bits of the Tommy story. “Sensation” was based on a sexual attraction he had to a fellow Baba follower in Australia. “Sally Simpson” came from an ugly experience on the road. Other songs came from deeply personal places in Townshend’s memory. He farmed out a couple of songs to bassist John Entwistle, both of which involved the violent and sexual abuse of the album’s protagonist. Pete later said that he had been abused as a boy. Because he didn’t want to deal with this aspect of his past at the time, he subconsciously left those tunes for John to write, who penned “Cousin Kevin” and “Fiddle About” in a darkly humorous manner.
As the Who began recording Tommy in late-’68, the story came together. A boy who witnessed a tragic death as a child goes catatonic and becomes deaf, dumb and blind. We hear about his trials and tribulations growing up, before Tommy becomes cured with the smashing of his image in a mirror. He turns into a messianic celebrity who is adored by hordes of followers until he starts to preach about simple living. They reject Tommy, who recedes back into his inner world.
Feeling that he had captured most of what was happening in his head, Townshend played a rough version of the album for critic Nik Cohn, who was not as impressed with the scope of Tommy as Pete was. The two discussed Cohn’s reaction and concluded that the serious tragedies of the story could be lightened by the presence of a breezier tune. Knowing that Cohn was a pinball buff, Pete suggested that Tommy could be a mystical master of pinball. Townshend hastily wrote “Pinball Wizard” and the Who recorded it in the winter of 1969. They slapped it in the middle of side three and Cohn now called Tommy “a masterpiece.”
Other critics were similarly taken with Tommy, lavishing praise on the double-LP as a breakthrough for the Who and as one of the most daring albums in rock and roll. With “Pinball Wizard” as a hit single and the Who hitting the road for marathon performances of (most of) Tommy along with other live staples, the album introduced the band to a new level of superstardom. As the lead vocalist, Roger Daltrey became Tommy for the audience – especially in the band’s widely seen, and heavily fringed, Woodstock appearance. The singer discovered a new, more powerful voice in the Tommy performances (listen to him on Live at the Isle of Wight or Live at Leeds). He stopped trying to sing like the high-voiced Townshend and found a lower, fuller sound that would be his calling card for the rest of his time as a frontman.
In 1972 Tommy was recorded with an orchestra and in 1975, it became a movie featuring Roger Daltrey and the band, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton and Elton John. By 1993 it was an award-winning broadway musical.
Oh…and Pete wasn’t done with concept albums yet.
#2 Green Day - American Idiot
American Idiot deals with characters like Jesus of Suburbia, St. Jimmy and Whatsername, young ‘rebels’ with a cause. Billie Joe Armstrong’s writing takes us through his views of the George W. Bush era.
#3 David Bowie - Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars
From Rolling Stone’s 1972 Review:
Upon the release of David Bowie’s most thematically ambitious, musically coherent album to date, the record in which he unites the major strengths of his previous work and comfortably reconciles himself to some apparently inevitable problems, we should all say a brief prayer that his fortunes are not made to rise and fall with the fate of the “drag-rock” syndrome — that thing that’s manifesting itself in the self-conscious quest for decadence which is all the rage at the moment in trendy Hollywood, in the more contrived area of Alice Cooper’s presentation, and, way down in the pits, in such grotesqueries as Queen, Nick St. Nicholas’ trio of feathered, sequined Barbie dolls. And which is bound to get worse.
For although Lady Stardust himself has probably had more to do with androgony’s current fashionableness in rock than any other individual, he has never made his sexuality anything more than a completely natural and integral part of his public self, refusing to lower it to the level of gimmick but never excluding it from his image and craft. To do either would involve an artistically fatal degree of compromise.
Which is not to say that he hasn’t had a great time with it. Flamboyance and outrageousness are inseparable from that campy image of his, both in the Bacall and Garbo stages and in his new butch, street-crawler appearance that has him looking like something out of the darker pages of City of Night. It’s all tied up with the one aspect of David Bowie that sets him apart from both the exploiters of transvestitism and writer/performers of comparable tallent — his theatricality.
#4 Pink Floyd - The Wall
From Rolling Stone:
The Wall is a stunning synthesis of Waters’ by now familiar thematic obsessions: the brutal misanthropy of Pink Floyd’s last LP, Animals; Dark Side of the Moon’s sour, middle-aged tristesse; the surprisingly shrewd perception that the music business is a microcosm of institutional oppression (Wish You Were Here); and the dread of impending psychoses that runs through all these records — plus a strongly felt antiwar animus that dates way back to 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets. But where Animals, for instance, suffered from self-centered smugness, the even more abject The Wall leaps to life with a relentless lyrical rage that’s clearly genuine and, in its painstaking particularity, ultimately horrifying.
Fashioned as a kind of circular maze (the last words on side four begin a sentence completed by the first words on side one), The Wall offers no exit except madness from a world malevolently bent on crippling its citizens at every level of endeavor. The process — for those of Waters’ generation, at least — begins at birth with the smothering distortions of mother love. Then there are some vaguely remembered upheavals from the wartime Blitz:
Did you ever wonder
Why we had to run for shelter
When the promise of a brave new world
Unfurled beneath a clear blue sky?
In government-run schools, children are methodically tormented and humiliated by teachers whose comeuppance occurs when they go home at night and “their fat and/Psychopathic wives would thrash them/Within inches of their lives.”
#5 Radiohead - OK Computer
An album about losing oneself in modern society…