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A Short Review of the relationship between the Album format and the Rock Opera

By Jonathan Skufca | 8/3/18 5:38pm

I’ve written extensively about how much I love concept records and rock operas. I’ve also lamented how the album as an art form has not been as appreciated by the general public as it has in the past (although that is slowly changing—we’ll discuss later). And I was inspired to write this week’s column by a discussion that happened during last week’s session of my Musical Cultures & Industries class. Or, I guess, to be more precise, it happened in our class hashtag #socmusic18. Check it out on Wednesdays between 2:30 and 5:20pm. But a few of us were discussing rock operas in comparison to traditional operas and it got me thinking about how closely related rock operas and the album as a format truly are. And while this may get spun out to a full-length research paper later, I’m going to do a quick look at the relationship between the two right here.

So there’s not really a good consensus on what the first “rock opera” truly was—just like there’s not really a good consensus on what the first “concept album” was. While many cite The Who’s Tommy, as the first, and while it was likely the first album marketed as such, there were records that tell stories released before 1969, such as S.F. Sorrow by The Pretty Things—a fantastic record that more people should listen to. That notwithstanding, Pete Townshend was experimenting with mini-operas and suites back in 1966 when he wrote ”I’m A Boy” for an eventually cancelled project called Quads. He also included the 9-minute ”A Quick One, While He’s Away” suite on their second record A Quick One.

So while it’s a pointless exercise to try to determine who truly came up with the idea first, the important thing to note is now this is also around the time that many pop and rock bands were moving away from a singles-based format towards the album-based format. Rock albums, which used to contain primarily a band’s singles and some filler tracks, had, by the mid 1960’s, slowly began to be seen as something else. It is also hard to pinpoint who exactly started this transition, but both The Beatles and The Beach Boys are frequently cited, and many also mention The Who for Townshend’s previously mentioned works.

As the 60s turned to the 70s, 80’s, and 90’s, rock operas and concept albums became increasingly prevalent, especially with progressive rock acts. All the while the shift to an album-oriented format became relatively complete. While singles were still important for radio and more pop-oriented artists, increasing numbers of bands looked to the album as what they are producing. The 1970’s also saw Jesus Christ Superstara rock opera that started as a concept album but eventually was staged and produced on Broadway (well before this happened to Tommy).

However, in the early 2000s, a little thing called the Internet entered the cultural zeitgeist and with it came a sudden shift in the way we listen to music. You no longer had to buy an entire album to get the one song that you heard on the radio (often ripped from the context of the album). Rock operas all of a sudden were not en vogue anymore, and it was very rare that they entered the mainstream—The Drive-by Truckers’ Southern Rock Opera is an example of one of the few that had some success. Despite this, in 2004, a little pop-punk band called Green Day released their American Idiot, and, as I’m sure you’re all aware, it was a HUGE deal. The title track and “Holiday” were all over Top 40 radio, and it eventually became a fully staged Broadway production.

While American Idiot may have been the latest rock opera to achieve such a mainstream success as Tommy did, there has been somewhat of a revival occurring lately. Albums like David Comes to Life by Fucked Up and The Most Lamentable Tragedy take the art form to new heights with unreliable narrators, past-life regressions, and meta-narratives. I can’t wait to see where the art form goes in the future.