Concept Album

In the Wee Small Hours

The Genius Hits the Road

In music, a concept album is an album that is unified by a theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, narrative, or lyrical. Commonly, concept albums tend to incorporate preconceived musical or lyrical ideas rather than being improvised or composed in the studio, with all songs contributing to a single overall theme or unified story.

This is in contrast to the practice of an artist or group releasing an album consisting of a number of unconnected (lyrically or otherwise) songs performed by the artist.

What could very loosely be considered the first concept albums were released in the late 1930s by singer Lee Wiley on the Liberty Records label, featuring eight songs on four 78s by showtune composers of the day, such as Harold Arlen and Cole Porter, anticipating more comprehensive efforts by Verve Records impresario Norman Granz with Ella Fitzgerald by almost two decades.

In folk music, early examples included Woody Guthrie’s 1940 debut album ‘Dust Bowl Ballads’ and Merle Travis’s 1947 box set ‘Folk Songs of the Hills,’ in which each song is introduced by a short narrative.

Frank Sinatra released many thematically programmed albums of the 1950s for Capitol Records starting with ‘Songs for Young Lovers’ and ‘Swing Easy.’ Perhaps the first full Sinatra concept album example is ‘In the Wee Small Hours’ from 1955, where the songs – all ballads – were specifically recorded for the album, and organized around a central mood of late-night isolation and aching lost love, with the album cover strikingly reinforcing that theme.

In 1960, Ray Charles’s released a concept album ‘The Genius Hits the Road,’ where each song references one of the United States (‘Georgia on My Mind,’ ‘Mississippi Mud,’ etc.). Also released that year, Johnny Cash’s ‘Ride This Train’ chronicled tales of Americana, woven together with narrative by Cash and train sounds. Each track begins with ‘Ride this train to …’ and tells the story of that city.

Perhaps the first examples from rock were the albums of The Ventures. Starting from 1961’s ‘Colorful Ventures’ (each song had a color in the title), the group became known for issuing records throughout the 1960s whose tracks revolved around central themes, including surf music, country, outer space, TV themes, and psychedelics.

In 1966, several rock releases were arguably concept albums in the sense that they presented a set of thematically-linked songs – and they also instigated other rock artists to consider using the album format in a similar fashion: The Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ was a musical portrayal of Brian Wilson’s state of mind at the time (and a major inspiration to Paul McCartney).

The Mothers of Invention’s sardonic farce about rock music and America as a whole, ‘Freak Out!’ by Frank Zappa and ‘Face to Face’ by The Kinks, the first collection of Ray Davies’s idiosyncratic character studies of ordinary people are conceptually oriented albums.

This all changed with The Beatles’ most celebrated album ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ in 1967. With the release of Sgt. Pepper, the notion of the concept album came to the forefront of the popular and critical mind.

In fact, as pointed out by many critics since its original reception, Sgt. Pepper is a concept album only by some definitions of the term. There was, at some stage during the making of the album an attempt to relate the material to firstly the idea of aging, then as an obscure radio play about the life of an ex-army bandsman and his shortcomings. These concepts were lost in the final production.

‘Days of Future Passed,’ released the same year as Sgt. Pepper’s, was fellow UK musicians The Moody Blues’ first foray into the concept album. Originally presented with an opportunity to rock out Dvořák’s 9th Symphony (From the New World) by their new stereophonic label, the band instead forged ahead to unify their own orchestral-based threads of a day in the life of a common man.

‘The Who Sell Out’ by The Who followed with its concept of a pirate radio broadcast. Within the record, joke commercials recorded by the band and actual jingles from recently outlawed pirate radio station Radio London were interspersed between the songs, ranging from pop songs to hard rock and psychedelic rock, culminating with a mini-opera titled ‘Rael.’

The rock opera ‘Tommy’  Released in 1969,composed by Pete Townshend and performed by The Who. This acclaimed work was presented over two discs (still unusual in those days) and it took the idea of thematically based albums to a much higher appreciation by both critics and the public.

Concept albums are considered de rigueur in the progressive rock genre of the 1970s. Pink Floyd recast itself from its 1960s guise as a psychedelic band into a commercial success with its series of concept albums, most famously with ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ and later with the double album rock opera ‘The Wall.’


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