The curse of the concept album (or the reason I skipped Roger Waters)

The curse of the concept album (or the reason I skipped Roger Waters)

 Afriend sent me a message. Roger Waters was in Mumbai. He planned to perform all of The Dark Side of the Moon in concert. Would I like to attend the show? Ah. Pause for embarrassment. I don’t have anything against Roger Waters personally (unlike the rest of Pink Floyd, who broke up the band’s most famous line-up because, despite his undoubted talent, he was such a jerk that they could not bear to share a studio or a stage with him), but no, my idea of fun does not extend to seeing one of the world’s most uncharismatic former rock stars playing one of the world’s most overrated albums in front of an overcharged audience.

All right. I suppose I’d better explain. The concept album is a 1960s construct emerging out of the notion that rock stars were too good for the pretty little three-minute singles on which their reputations were based. The more the stars thought about it—and the more stoned they got—they decided that they needed to create something that was, like really major, man! And so, the concept album was born.

The Pretty Things (don’t worry if you’ve never heard of them) usually get the credit for recording the first concept album, but the one most of us remember is Days of Future Passed by the Moody Blues, which came out, if memory serves me right, in the winter of 1967.

Days of Future Passed was a concept album whose conceit was that it recorded a day in the life of a city from morning to night, complete with silly little poems written by the band’s semi-literate drummer. As concept albums go, it was crap, but it did include two great songs (Tuesday Afternoon and the classic smoocher, Nights in White Satin), so it established the Moodies as an important musical force.

Other musicians, however, took the Moody Blues less seriously. Pink Floyd, a Cambridge pop band with two great songs to their credit (See Emily Play and Arnold Layne) were crippled when founder Syd Barrett went on an everlasting LSD trip and re-invented themselves as an avant-garde album band.

I never liked most of their post-Syd stuff, but in 1973, they came up with the concept album to beat all concepts. I still don’t know what The Dark Side of the Moon is about (does Roger Waters, I wonder?) but its cover, with a beam of light being refracted through a prism appealed to kids who wanted to believe that rock was really meaningful (the album sleeve had no pictures of the band, on aesthetic grounds, perhaps) and so serious.

By then, the curse of the concept album was truly upon us. The Beatles were credited with pioneering the genre with Sgt Pepper’s, but, despite two versions of the title song, nothing about the album struck me as being particularly conceptual. The Rolling Stones followed with the execrable Their Satanic Majesties’ Request… and soon, nothing was mere pop any longer.

The Pretty Things’ concept album had been a rock opera, an idea The Who followed through with the supremely childish Tommy. The band then took lots of drugs to produce a follow-up (to be called Lighthouse) before scrapping the project (the songs turned up on Who’s Next). But by then, even song and dance men, such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, had announced that they were not writing musicals, but rock operas. Such trash as Jesus Christ Superstar followed and even Evita, a typical old-style musical, dispensed with dialogue for the opera format.

I had no time for the rock opera. I had contempt for the concept album. (You know you are in trouble when Deep Purple record with a symphony orchestra.) As far as I was concerned, rock music was about songs. It wasn’t about librettos or high concept.

Time has been kind to my view. Nobody remembers any of the songs on Dark Side (all right, I’ll grant you Money). The Wall, another crap Floyd album, is of note only for Another Brick (which was a hit single recorded separately from the album). Nobody who likes Nights in White Satin remembers the album it came from. You can enjoy Pinball Wizard without getting into the story of Tommy. The best song on Pepper—A Day In The Life was outside of the so-called concept.

The great album bands are dead and thank God for that! Do you remember Emerson, Lake and Palmer? I thought not. What about Yes? Surely, the answer is a resounding ‘no’. The Alan Parsons Project is reduced to selling itself to punters in Andheri. Even Keith Richard concedes that their Satanic Majesties…. was the Stones’ darkest hour.

Rock and roll has always been about great songs, not about stoned old farts and their 40-minute concepts. At no time has this been more obvious than in the age of the Internet.

Now, fewer and fewer people buy complete albums with their few good songs and 10 bits of useless filler. Instead, people just download the songs they want to hear from the Internet and burn their own CDs. Album sales are in terminal decline. Record companies have begun to lose money—God’s revenge on them for ripping us off in the age of the CD.

Last year, a British TV poll of the 100 greatest albums of all time threw up Pepper at number one. The Rolling Stones did not even make the top 100. The press said this was a disgrace.

Rubbish. That’s how it should be. The album is dead. Long live therock song.


Write to Vir Sanghvi at