Turn Off Shuffle:
Concept Albums Explained

by Paul-Newell Reaves

The First Concept Albums
Gustav Holst, Woody Guthrie, Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis

What are the first concept albums? And what is a concept album, anyway?  To decide that, let’s define our term  through some early examples.

The simplest part is album.  An album of music relates specifically to recorded music– and the history of recorded music is very short.  This narrows the scope of our project down to something manageable.  Although Mozart’s “Don Giovani” has been recorded dozens of times in the last two-and-a-half centuries, because Wolfgang wasn’t directly involved in any of those productions, we must rule out his masterwork.  We have arrived at our first parameter: the person or persons involved in originally creating the work must be directly involved in the recording of the album.

Let’s also differentiate an album that has a concept from those that tell a fully fleshed-out narrative.  “Follies” by Stephen Sondheim is one of the great Postmodernist texts in the English language, but– for no other reason than to narrow our scope– we will consider musical theatre and opera something different from the concept album.

Sorry, “Quadrophenia” by the Who and “undun” by the Roots, that means that rock operas and hip-hopras are out, too.

Such an exclusion doesn’t mean that a concept album cannot include storytelling elements, such as characters, dialogue and narrative voices.  Frequently cited as the first concept album, Woody Guthrie’s 1940 recording, “Dust Bowl Ballads” has all of these.

The album contains 12 songs in the original release, all telling character-based stories, however, the narratives are not combined. The characters from different songs never meet each other, and there is no unifying narrative voice, only the overarching concept of Guthrie’s album brings these stories together.  Every song on the album is a story of the Midwestern United States during the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s.   

In the first verse of the first track, the American Dream is painted, “back in 1927 I had a little farm and I called that heaven… got the money.  Bought clothes and groceries, fed the kids and raised a family”.  However, the dust storm hits. The fella who’s narrating has to sell the farm, and the family hits the road for the California Peachbowl.  That dream is over, it’s time for a new dream of upward mobility.  Yet the story never resolves, and political commentary is all there is to conclude the first song– in Guthrie’s tongue-in-cheek talking blues– “if it [that stew] had been just a little bit thinner, some of these here politicians could’a seen through it.”

“Tom Joad part I” and “Tom Joad part II” – referencing “the Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck– become a textual suite, and the centerpiece in the middle of Guthrie’s album.  As the family enters the Californian land of promise, Part I ends with “there was work for every single hand, they thought”.  However, by the second verse of Part II, a deputy has shot a woman in the back, and soon after there are “a deputy and a preacher lying dead”.  The dead Preacher Casey has told Tom Joad a unionizing message, “us working folks, all get together, ‘cause we ain’t got a chance anymore”.  Joad avenges Casey, and promises us, “wherever men are fighting for their rights, that’s where I’mma gonna be, Ma”.

Every track of the album abounds with concrete images and narrative examples expounding on its themes– its themes of poverty, resilience, travel and desire for a better life– as well as the omnipresent motif of “dusty ol’ dust”.  We have arrived at another perimeter to narrow our scope.  For us to include an album as a concept album, every track must relate to that concept.

In 1955, Frank Sinatra releases “In the Wee Small Hours”, establishing the trope of the breakup concept album. All the songs are sad love songs– nothing new in recorded music– however, by the end of the album, Ol’ Blue Eyes has lyrically processed his lost love affair with Ava Gardner.

The first track is the only original song.  “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning” creates a setting for the entire album.  Sinatra, post-breakup, cannot sleep, and roams the streets of the album cover– thinking about his lost love.  On track eight of the 16 songs, “When Your Lover Has Gone”, One-Take Frank reportedly broke down into tears after finishing his vocal take.  By track 11, the emotions are changing, “I’ll Be Around” becomes a more passive statement of waiting for Gardner to return.  The next song, “It Never Entered My Mind” reverts to memories of his lost love.  Third to last comes “Dancing On The Ceiling”, in which Franky Boy wistfully imagines the two of them dancing above him.  And penultimately, “I’ll Never Be The Same” leaves us with a potent emotional statement about the power of love.

The one original song on the release, although written by D. Mann and B. Hilliard, and not Ol’ Blue Eyes, himself, establishes another perimeter for our consideration.  Without any fresh material previously unrecorded, a concept album will not be considered.

1960 brings concept albums to the attention of jazz artists, with Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain”.  Does a concept album need lyrics to be considered?

How can one even consider a collection of music– recorded or otherwise– to have a concept without words to convey the message?  Well, Beethoven’s “Third Symphony” clearly does.  His “Third” is a clear statement away from the Age of Reason and the architecture of Mozart symphonies, into the raw flood of emotion relevant in Romanticism.  

Tchaikovsky’s “Sixth Symphony” makes an equally profound statement, premiered but nine days before his apparent suicide.  The first movement is a creeping anxiety of depression, while the second creates the prancing glee of a mood swing.  The third movement is a triumphant, vaguely Imperialist conquest– which only is defeated by the ragged despair of the final movement.

With “Sketches of Spain”, Davis creates an early recording, non-lyrically, that meets all of our perimeters.  Every song relates to that nation and its people.  The first two tracks are written by Spanish composers, the next two are traditional music from that region, and the third is an original Flamenco composition– Flamenco being a Spanish style of rhythm-driven music.

However, I argue that when Gustav Holst conducts his classical composition “The Planets” on a 1922 recording, that is the first time an album-length concept is accomplished.  

Also non-lyrical, each movement of the suite is named after one of the seven planets of our solar system, not including Earth.  Because that silly trans-Neptunian iceball named Pluto is not a planet.

So, our definition of concept album has become: a recording, with every track relating to a thematic concept, made with the original creators, including at least one original composition.  It does not need lyrics, but it does need some differentiation from a straight narrative, some kind of abstraction or disjointedness to separate it from opera and musical theatre.

Something to work with.

more Concept Albums Explained
ready for the real thing? T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” Explained

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