Frank Gutch Jr: Redefining (Or Maybe Taking a Closer Look at) Concept Albums… and Notes (as few as there are)!

FrankJr2Over forty years in the record business and I’m still agog at the conception of the industry from the outside.  People think musicians are rich (or if not rich, well off, because otherwise they would not be able to support themselves, right?).  People think stars are talented without demanding that it be proven (I hate to use the guy as an example, but the Bieber’s music will last no longer than the lives of his current fans because, and we all know this, his music is contrived crap).

People think music awards shows mean something beyond the entertainment industry’s unending search for revenue.  People think Gangnam will last longer than the Macarena (but don’t listen to me because I’m still doing The Bartman).  People think that there is no good music out there anymore while cramming Led Zeppelin and Beatles and Lady Gaga music into the thirteen hours a week they have allotted.

Michelle Shocked in 2005People think.  I cannot even begin to tell you the number of times I have wished that people would stop.  Thinking is not knowing.  Thinking these days, in fact, is little more than a repost.  When I wrote about Michelle Shocked‘s little sidestep into career suicide, the only response I got was from a lady who blasted me for supporting her shiny new anti-gay stance.  I assume that she was so incensed that I would even mention Shocked in other than derogatory terms that she forgot to read the column.  I was neither for nor against Ms. Shocked (she does have her right to an opinion, I assume) but worried that making judgment before the real results were in was dangerous to the cause of truth.  Didn’t matter to her.  She spanked me good.  Didn’t change my mind, but it stung a little.  Because she missed my point completely.  Maybe I’m not as good a writer as I once thought I was.  Maybe making a point is harder than it seems.

Just the other day, I was thinking about concept albums and typed those words into the ol’ search engine and guess what?  People think concept albums are a lot different than I do.  Well, let’s put it this way.  Their accepted definitions are a bit more vague than mine.  Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, for instance, defines “concept” (the first part of the equation) as “something conceived in the mind:  thought, idea, notion.”  Slap “album” on the end of that and you have just defined every album release.  Ever.  No music, sports fans, is created in a vacuum.  All music started as a thought, idea or notion.   Wikipedia stretches it out a but further (or someone who wrote and posted onto the Wiki pages):  “A concept album is a studio album where all musical or lyrical ideas contribute to a single overall theme or unified story.  In contrast, typical studio albums consist of a number of unconnected songs (lyrically and otherwise) performed by the hamblenyukonartist.”  Aha.  I get it.  So my Little Golden Records EP of Old McDonald Had a Farm was a concept album.  It had, after all, “a single overall theme.”  And that Sons of the Pioneers album, Songs of the Old West?  The same.   Stuart Hamblen’s The Spell of the Yukon?  Considering that Hamblen put the poems of Robert Service to music?  Yeah, that would fit.

When you have worked in the music business as many years as I have, you begin to modify definitions when it comes to music.  I mean, by definition, soundtracks and many classical titles would have to be included, but that doesn’t fit within the realm of rock.  Lots of albums might fit within your definition, but not mine.  I see that on Wiki’s “List of Concept Albums” page, they start right off with ABC‘s Lexicon of Love.  In my world, that is quite a stretch.  So are Camel‘s Nude, Ray CharlesModern Sounds in Country & Western Music, Alice Cooper‘s School’s Out, any Moody Blues albums post-Days of Future Passed, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band‘s Will the Circle Be Unbroken, or any Billy Joel album (though I will admit an aversion to Mr. Joel’s music from the outset which could have affected my judgment).  I am, in fact, stunned by at least half of the titles included.  A rock personage recording Country & Western tunes does not a concept album make, people!  At least, not if that was the only thread.

I am going to stick my neck out here and many who I have argued with over the years are going to slit my metaphorical throat, but a real example of a concept album is EaglesDesperado.  I know, I know.  For years I have ranted against that band on any number of levels, but I can deny neither the concept nor the execution of that concept on this album.  Critics raved when the album was released, fascinated by the idea if not the songs (for myself, it is the only Eagles album I own or will ever listen to again).  The thing is, it had been done before.

wilderness roadThat’s right.  Back in 1971, Chicago’s Wilderness Road scooped the Eagles‘ and put out an album which was based the same concept.  Not as Country as Eagles, WR took the road less obvious, preferring rock rather than twang.  It is a ride through the Old West, following The Rider as he rides through Hell to the obvious result.  You want the West?  This album has everything— revival meeting, bounty hunter, morphine— everything you might expect from spaghetti-western-as-rock-opera.  Unfortunately, it failed miserably (thanks to radio, which was reluctant to play anything not okayed by the “consultants”).  By the time Eagles hit with Tequila Sunrise, Wilderness Road had gone futuristic, their next album titled Sold For the Prevention of Disease Only, the cover a shot of the band in either lab suits or space suits depending upon who you ask (actually, they look like a white man’s version of Parliament).  That album, by the way, is being reissued the end of the month and can be ordered through Real Gone Music, in case you’ve been looking for it.  Here is a link.

Mike-Nesmith-The-Prison-40972Of all the concept albums in my collection, the one I value most is Michael Nesmith’s The Prison.  Initially released as a box “set” (one album and a 12-inch book and marketed as “a book with a soundtrack”), after the first pressing, it was repackaged.  I have never been in love with the music, though it is definitive Nesmith, yet I do not dislike it.  Same with the book, a short story which could mean anything to anyone (I accept it on an unconscious level).  It is the idea I love.  It is multi-media, utilizing song, paintings and story in a way I had neither heard nor seen nor read until then.  I suppose it is about the prison within us all or maybe perception or maybe the compartments which we all build as we grow.  Nesmith, when he put it together, developed it to be listened to/appreciated/read all at the same time and realized that for most of us, it would not be easy.  My first few listens, it was not unlike patting the head while rubbing the belly.  But slowly I began to get it and today I don’t even need the book, the story and paintings etched semi-forever into my memory (I say semi because I know how tentative memory can be).  The more I think about this album, the more I think it may even be a concept within a concept album.  Yep.  Nesmith is much more than a Monkee.

camelsnowgooseI was as surprised as anyone when Camel stepped outside its rock band boundaries and put together Music Inspired by The Snow Goose.  True, they had a slight lean toward classical here and there in earlier efforts but only for short bursts (The White Rider on the band’s previous album Mirage being one)The fact that they made it completely instrumental fried my head until I found out that they had actually intended to use lyrics based loosely upon author Paul Gallico‘s text but Gallico objected.  No doubt, it changed the music more than a bit and what the band came up with is, to me, astonishing.  Whereas Camel mostly came off as a British rock band, on this album they took on characteristics which melded that with the classical leaning feel and sound of Gryphon, whose Midnight Mushrumps album stands as one of the best classical-rock albums ever recorded (I state that as a  matter of opinion but believe it to my very core).  This album could easily have failed from the get-go.  Instrumental albums were and are not that easy to sell.  Whereas it did not set sales records, Snow Goose did well enough to become a cult favorite.

homethealchemistSpeaking of books inspiring music, another British band, Home, took a book called The Dawn of Magic and created The Alchemist.  The band had had two previous albums— Pause For a Hoarse Horse and the self-titled Home, but evidently wanted something more meaty on the next platter.  Here is the story as it appears in the liner notes:  “The original thoughts and ideas, when creating the story of The Alchemist, started far deeper than this album can show.  Mick Stubbs had read a book called The Dawn of Magic and had been deeply moved by the spiritual learnings into the art of Alchemy.  I received a phone call from Micky who excitedly told me of his idea to do an album about Alchemy.  We got together and discussed it in great detail.  It became evident that he wanted to highlight the spiritual findings of an Alchemist rather than his endless search into science.  At this time, no music had been written and it was sometime after this that we finally started.  From this was born the story of The Alchemist!  The year is 1900.  The location is a small town in Cornwall.  There, two young boys are planning their futures together, aware only of what surrounds them.  The story is a testimony to The Alchemist, told by his loyal friend with whom he grew up.  He tells the story as a childhood memory, looking back fifty years to when it all took place.”  Each song is a chapter and moves the story forward.  Each song is pure Home.  I know the names of the players well— Mick Stubbs, Cliff Williams, Mick Cook— but the only one who ever gained any real attention was guitarist Laurie Wisefield who worked his way into the mid-period Wishbone Ash.  Color this album rare.

magmahamtaahkOne of the strangest concept albums— well, back in the seventies at least— is not one album but three and if you heard them you might wonder how they made it to vinyl in the first place.  They were the product of a band known as Magma put together by a musical “genius” (according to fans) named Christian Vander.  I first became aware of them when a promo copy of Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh was placed into my hands, probably because no one else wanted it.  It was on A&M Records and I thought, how cool, and took it home.  From the first pounding rhythms I was hooked.  And by all rights, I should never have heard of them.

The way it was reported to me, A&M in the US was hot to sign Cat Stevens and Stevens’ managing company wanted an American contract for another act they represented:  Magma.  Supposedly, there was a bit of wrangling back and forth before A&M buckled, trading a certain loss (Magma‘s Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh) for what they believed was a sure thing (Cat StevensMona Bone Jakon).  If they thought it was a gamble, the gamble paid off in spades.  Mona Bone Jakon paved the trail for two of A&M’s best-selling albums, Tea For the Tillerman and Teaser & The FirecatMagma‘s fate, however, was to be dropped from the label, probably as soon as the company could make it happen.  It wasn’t that the album was bad.  It was because Magma was so far out musically, A&M had no clue what to do with them.

Neither did the listening public.  The few who ever heard them mostly ran for the hills, but the band had built a base.  They had already released two albums in Europe— Theusz Hamtaahk and Wurdah Itah— and prog fans slowly found them.  As soon as prog fans in the States realized Mekanik was a concept album (or albums), they found them too.

The music might be a bit hard for the average fan to wrap their ears around, but the concept was cool as hell.  It is a sci-fi story of sorts.  Earth is headed toward oblivion, having ignored warnings of an ecological disaster (sound familiar?), and the people who see it coming prepare space ships to escape.  They eventually find and inhabit a planet they call Kobaia and live in harmony until they are threatened by others from Earth who have found them.  Madness ensues until, at a certain point, a state of grace is attained.

There are numerous things to love about the albums:  Number One— When they were recorded, we had an inkling of what the future might hold.  Now we know.  We are on the brink, in spite of what the conservatives think or say.  Number Two— Vander and his band threw themselves headlong into the project, even to the point of creating their own language.  Yep.  The whole thing is sung in Kobaian.  How cool is that?  Number three—  Whereas it starts out very sci-fi, it ends on a very spiritual plane.  From my experience, when things are done right and turn spiritual, you get the real goods.

Years ago, I wrote a review of Mekanik which Barry Glovsky at Fusion Magazine was kind enough to print.  In it, I said that if A&M was smart, they would buy the rights to the trilogy, hire the illustrator who did Conan The Barbarian to do a libretto and put it out as a box set.  I thought that was a hell of an idea.  I still do.  Damn!  Another great idea gone to waste!

I know that a few of you who actually read the header expected a rundown of concept albums as you know them— The Who‘s Tommy, The BeatlesSergeant Pepper, Pink Floyd‘s The Wall.  I apologize if you’re disappointed, but truth be told, I don’t know enough about them to tell you anything.  You probably know it already, though.  When I worked at Licorice Pizza in Los Angeles, I used to chuckle at the Deadheads who would come in and ask to hear the latest Dead album (which at the time was Mars Hotel).  After wandering around the store listening to a side, they would sidle up to me and ask what I thought. Without a blink, I always said, “It sucks.” at which point they would get flustered and yell, “It does not!”  People who love Tommy, Sergeant Pepper, and The Wall would more than likely get flustered too.  Although I would never tell you they sucked.  It’s just that after ten million listens, music has a tendency to wear out its welcome.  With me, at least.

Music Notes smallNotes…..  Thank the gods musicians have each others’ backs.  Otherwise I probably would not have heard Georgia Sound‘s outstanding self-titled five-song EP.  There is just enough Hem and Amelia Jay in them to keep my interest and the songwriting is topnotch.  This is good, good stuff.  Many thanks to Chicago chanteuse Jennifer Hall for having their backs and turning me onto them.  If you have a moment sometime, I heartily suggest checking out Ms. Hall’s music as well.  Hear the Georgia Sound here…..  Ah, the seventies!  I remember parties and music and music and parties, most of which featured the Brit folk bands of the day.  One of the most popular was Steeleye Span, a UK group featuring the voice of Maddy Prior.  After Steeleye, Maddy spent a few years working with Tim Hart, did some solo work and has been involved with music on all sorts of fronts.  She has a new album set for release.  Here is a video sample of what she’s doing these days.  Click here…..  Whew!  Laurie Biagini and Vinnie Zummo have teamed up for a beauty of a song.  Titled Sunset, it layers harmonies over a floating instrumental background.  This is the kind of track the disc jockeys of radio used to love because not only is it beautiful, the vocals are as much for musical effect as lyrical.  DJs used such songs to lead in to the news because the fadeouts did not ruin the flow.  Click here to listen (and I heartily recommend that you do)…..  Cleveland’s Dan Miraldi is back with some more of his outstanding tunes.  His Sugar & Adrenaline album, if you miraldifreewheelinremember, made my Top Ten list of last year.  The new EP, The Freewheelin’ Dan Miraldi, is yet another step in the right direction.  Highly recommended.  You can stream it here, though I am not sure for how long…..

=FGJ=

Frank’s column appears every Wednesday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS_ButtonFrank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”

2 Responses to “Frank Gutch Jr: Redefining (Or Maybe Taking a Closer Look at) Concept Albums… and Notes (as few as there are)!”

  1. Jeff Naumann Says:

    Blue and Gray by Poco. Civil War concept album that almost sank the country rock pioneers for the 6th time. Great music

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