Thursday, 27 November 2008

News, Views and Music (Top Five): Totally Bonkers Concept Albums

♫ And finally, the latest in our series of top fives, in homage to those Moody Blues re-issues I’ve been enjoying all week: five totally bonkers concept albums!

5) Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake (Small Faces/ 1968 – specifically side two). We know it’s meant as a spoof of other similar concept albums now of course, but that fact wasn’t widely known in 1968 when this tale of a man called Stan looking for the other-half-of-the-moon-and-dangley-in-the-heavenly-bode first came out. Of course, the fact that master of gibberish Stanbley Unwin narrated the whole 20-minute piece should have been a give-away, as should the fact that Stan was helped on his travels by a madman called John and an un-named talking fly. Even so, the whole piece somehow works amazingly well and is just the thing to brighten up your day when life is just a bowl of all-bran (you wake up every morning…and it’s there). 

4) A Soap Opera (The Kinks/ 1974). There are oodles of Kinks concept albums from the 1970s that could have made the list, but this one is perhaps the strangest of all. The starmaker, a well known celebrity, decides that his art has no link with the common man anymore and sets out to find one. He soon sets his sights on Norman, as in Normal, and is soon living in his family home and doing his menial job for him while Norman spends a spell as the ‘starmaker’ he only knows from the TV. However, the line between fact and fiction soon becomes blurred and the starmaker realises he isn’t really a star but was only Norman all along. A typical Kinks blend of fantasy escapism and an expression of anger at the pointlessness of life, the nadir of this album is the sequence of three or four songs about drinking down the pub, with nothing else to say in the lyrics (which is kind of the point given this album is working up to a rant about the repetition and pointlessness of life, but it still doesn’t make for enjoyable listening). There’s a great finale though!

3) Thick As A Brick (Jethro Tull/ 1973). Strange how all these concept albums seem to date from a similar time period. Anyway, the story behind this little epic (featuring one whole track for 42 minutes that actually continued between two sides in the days of vinyl) is that Jethro Tull were accused of being ‘concept writers’ when their album ‘Aqualung’ came out (1971). Frontman Ian Anderson took umbridge at the idea, despite the fact that yes most songs on ‘Aqualung’ do fit a rough outline about homelessness and all the songs feature characters with difficulties adjusting to society, and decided to create the mother of all concept albums in protest. ‘Brick’ is about a precocious 11-year-old called Gerald Bostock who wins a poetry competition with a very explicit piece that subsequently gets banned and replaced with something really average by one of his numbskull peers. Ian Anderson later revealed that the main inspiration for Gerald was himself, a lad so out of kilter with his peers and society that he was never quite sure if he was a genius or ‘thick as a brick’. Flawed as this sprawling piece is, we’ll happily settle for ‘genius’ after hearing this album – although the packaging is even better than the music, with a fold-out mock newspaper featuring several articles made-up by the band.

2) ‘Numbers’ (Cat Stevens/ 1975). There’s a world where numbers 2-9 live, all happily doing their delegated jobs for leader number 1 until, shock horror, number 0 (aka Jzer-o) comes to stay and takes all the numbers to a ‘higher level’ (ie 1 becomes 10 and 2 becomes 20, etc). If you can get through the accompanying head-hurting booklet and the off-ball opening and closing tracks (I can’t be the only Cat Stevens fan who went ‘what the….’ when I heard both of those for the first time) then this is actually as fair concept album about a humble stranger offering to do anything he can for the citizens of a town and getting soundly rejected, despite the fact that he can teach everybody so much more if only they opened their minds to him. Album centrepiece ‘Majik of Majiks’ is one of Cat’s best ever songs to boot. I still haven’t got a clue what ‘banapple gas’ is though.

1) Tommy (The Who/ 1969). One of the most famous concept albums of all, let’s just think this plot through for a minute. Hmm, so a child named Tommy sees his dad killed by his mother’s lover, becomes deaf dumb and blind but ends up a cured pinball champion running a holiday camp for people who want to hear all the things he saw while he was incarcerated in his own thoughts. How Pete Townshend and company made this story work I’ll never know, but they did – in live performance if not always on the original, sometimes rushed, LP. Come to his house and be one of the beautiful people – if only for the ultimate Who instrumental work-out on Amazing Journey > Sparks.

Oh and p.s. I know we try to restrict our witty banter on the AAA site to records, but I couldn’t resist pointing out the satirical news story of the week that surprisingly everyone else seems to have missed so far: yes that’s right, both Prince Charles and Noddy turned 60 this last week! (Who mentioned Big Ears?!)

That’s all for now – see you next week AAA fans!     

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