|I'm sorry, Cyborg Hunter fans, but this game is not all that.|
Today, however, I want to present some evidence for a theory I posted earlier: that the release of a "rock opera" signals the creative and/or artistic demise of a musical act.
First, some parameters. It's not always clear whether an album should be classified as a rock opera or a concept album. The two genres are somewhat blurred together, but I would say that a proper rock opera has a few distinguishing features. It should have some consistent narrative and at least one well-defined character. Songs should make some attempt to progress the narrative or define the character. Often, songs will be sung in the voice of one the characters. In theory, you should be able to listen to a rock opera and understand the story. Concept albums, such as Sgt Peppers or Ziggy Stardust, might show some thematic unity, but it's pretty difficult to find a story in them. Can anyone out there tell me anything about "Weird and Gilley" and why exactly they wanted to crush Ziggy's "sweet hand?" Or why the world was ending in five years? It didn't help that Bowie stuck some older, unrelated songs on that album (e.g.,"Moonage Daydream.") And don't even get me started on Diamond Dogs (What the hell is a "diamond dog?" They are "poachers and they hide behind trees." WTF?)
Our first piece of evidence:
The granddaddy of the rock opera is usually considered to be The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow. This established the "life of the male protagonist" format that later examples all followed. A great record, which followed several earlier great records from The Pretties. Immediately after the album was released, the band's founder and guitarist, Dick Taylor quit, followed by its drummer, Twink. The band released one more good album then slid into mediocrity.
At the time of Tommy's release, Pete Townshend apparently cited S.F. Sorrow as a major influence. Nowadays he claims to have never heard the album. Either way, Tommy follows the Sorrow pattern very closely in its structure. You might think that Tommy disproves my theory, since The Who's next album was also their best (Who's Next). But this is simply because The Who were too powerful to be destroyed by one rock opera; it took two. After Quadrophenia, there was a precipitous drop in the quality of The Who albums. Only a few years later, they would be putting out crap like Face Dancing.
|Back then, it was legally required for pants to be painfully tight in the crotch|
The Kinks were another fine British band slain by the rock opera. Their entry into the genre, Arthur was yet another LP in the "album named after the protagonist" mode. They made two good records after Arthur, and then, tempting fate, switched into an all rock opera career mode (Schoolboys in Disgrace, Soap Opera, etc.)! This folly wiped The Kinks off the map for the rest of the 70s.
Genesis and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Now, this is not my favorite Genesis album (that would be Foxtrot,) but it was a substantial commercial and critical success. It's release was followed by the most interesting guy in the band leaving. After that Genesis released two pretty-good records, and then the guitarist split. At this point the band was basically just a rhythm section, and began its slow, steady decline from one of the most influential bands of the 70s to purveyors of utter crap in the 80s. A terrible toll was also taken on Phil Collins, who quickly underwent an astonishing transition from a great prog/fusion drummer to this guy:
To this day, complete strangers come up to Phil Collins and punch him in the face because of this video.
I'd say PF's decline began well before The Wall, but the fact is they only released one album worse than The Wall. That was its successor, The Final Cut, which is sort of the musical equivalent of being kicked in the nuts. I understand The Wall was a huge success and many people like it, but compare video footage from The Wall tour with earlier stuff like Live at Pompeii. You'll see a band that is a shadow of its former self, and has seemingly lost the will to live.
The Small Faces
Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake was a half great/half goofy rock opera-ish thing with wacky narration by Professor Stanley Unwin. The Small Faces celebrated its success by breaking up a few months after its release.
Blows Against the Empire was not quite a "real" Airplane album, but it was a silly sci-fi rock opera that spelled the end for the classic period of the band. It was followed by personnel shake ups, and a few years later, a name change to Jefferson Starship. I think you all know what happened then.
More like Knee Deep in the POOPla!
Okay, Green Day was always sort of lame and derivative. Trust me, I know. I remember them from 'back in the day.' But they clearly became even more annoying with American Idiot.
Now obviously there are exceptions to every rule -- the rock opera rule included. Some of you might be itching to shout, "But Dr Sparkle, what about [some boring piece of crap] by [terrible progressive metal band]? Yes, I'm sure that Dream Theater or Queensrÿche or whoever has released a whole bunch of really amazing sci-fi/dystopia/religious allegory themed records. But since most people stop listening that kind of music once they lose their virginity, I really don't see any point in investigating this further.
And hey, there are still cool band putting out rock operas, like Fucked Up's David Comes to Life. Still, I strongly suspect the next Fucked Up record will be not quite as good as David. So unless anyone has some strongly compelling counter-examples, I'm going to consider this case to be closed.