Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Rock Operas: Case Closed

Now that the epically delayed Chrontendo 43 is finally behind us, we can move on to other things. Chronsega 7 is looming on the horizon, and I can assure you it will be arriving in the near future. Spanning late 1988 to winter/spring 1989, it will cover one of the darker moments in Sega's history. They ended up sitting out the 1988 holiday season almost entirely. As Famicom games flooded the market, and as the PC Engine was picking up steam, Sega released a scant two games in December 1988: one Master System title and one Mega Drive title. One final Master System game was released in early 1989, and then... the console was dead in its home country. Eventually, the Genesis began to find success in the US, bolstered by games from several popular western publishers. Then the Master System would unexpectedly return to life in Europe and Brazil, outselling Nintendo consoles and even the Mega Drive for years in those territories. For the moment, though, we'll be seeing the Master System at its lowest ebb, with a steady trickle of low-quality games hitting the shelves.

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.

Other examples:

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.

Pink Floyd

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.

Jefferson Airplane

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!

Green Day

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.


Chris Sobieniak said...

I once met the members of Starship as their van was once parked outside a Kmart plaza near my town. Got their signatures too on a piece of yellow memo paper!

Zaygne Torkmar said...

I'm generally in agreement about the rock opera thing. Although, I think the albums between "Arthur" and their full descent into musical-theater insanity are some of the Kinks' more interesting works. In fact I'd only rather listen to "Village Green Preservation Society" (a tried an true concept album) than "Lola Vs. Powerman..." or "Muswell Hillbillies".

Although... now that I think about it, that's probably just because the particular idiom of straight-up rock-and-roll that made the Kink's famous always left a bad taste in my mouth. I like them best when they're trying and failing to be literary quasi-reactionaries.

Dave said...

Dude, Zen Arcade.

qaylIS aka Nicolas Deußer said...

How do you people know all that shit? And I thought I was a freak for listening to Yes (occasionally).

Canageek said...

You forgot the important exception: If the musician only does Rock Opera then they are immune. For example: Meatloaf.

On the other hand, I think we are using Rock Opera to mean different things.

Doctor Sparkle said...

Weird, I had just recently pulled out my copy of Zen Arcade for the first time in quite a while. Come to think of it, I do the recall hearing that Zen Arcade was supposed to tell a story of a guy whose girlfriend died and he went on some sort of metaphysical journey. Maybe there was some videogame theme? Hence "Zen Arcade." But I've listened to that record a zillion times and could never figure out what the story was supposed to be.

Bat Out of Hell, first of all, has about the most deceptive album cover ever. It looks like it ought to sound like Motorhead based on the cover art. And then the music turns out to be this mix of soft rock and musical theater.

But I think Bat Out of Hell does demonstrate the rock opera curse. After releasing it, Meatloaf ruined his voice, disappeared from the public eye, and when returned to music, released a whole string of flop records that no one remembers nowadays. The only way he can convince anyone to buy his records nowadays is by slapping the "Bat Out of Hell" name on it.

I'll agree that Village Green is absolutely the best Kinks album (with Something Else and Face to Face not far behind), but all those 70s records are dismal yet ambitious failures.

GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. said...

The only "curse" Meat Loaf suffered came from deluding himself into imagining he didn't need Jim Steinman. Sure, he's a helluva singer, but without Steinman's songwriting chops, he seems unable to parlay that into anything.

Kamiboy said...

By deuce, I hope MUSE never considers making a rock opera. They do have a marked affection for semi concept albums.

But then their concept has always been rampant paranoia brought on by doing too many mushrooms and other psychotropic agents.

Reuben said...

I was going to bring up The Need and their rock opera, The Transfused, but then I remembered that it was their last album. Damn it, I think you are right.

GarrettCRW said...

You can add Styx to the mix, as well. Kilroy Was Here killed that band dead.

Chris Bruce said...


I just wanted to thank you for all of your work on Chrontendo, sega and turbo. I just discovered them a few weeks ago, and they are incredibly enjoyable. I'm sure it is a lot of work to put them together, but they bring be a lot of enjoyment.
My favorite of the series are the Chronturbo series because they are the ones I know the least about going in. I hope to see more in the future.

Thanks for your hard work.

Kamiboy said...

There exists a somewhat parallel phenomenon which relates to videogames, or at least those from Japanese developers.

Long going Japanese franchises have their ups and downs. They usually go through the cycle of a great, if not a little unpolished start, a sequel that refines the clumsiness out of the innovations of the original, and then a string of safe sequels that slowly sap the magic out of the series through the time worm practice of conservative rehash.

This long string is usually followed up by the one entry that reinvents the series and thus reinvigorates it for continued survival albeit few franchises are so prolific to even make it that far.

This happened for an example to Resident Evil with RE4 basically putting the tired mechanics of old to pasture and giving the series some much needed vigor. Mega Man has been around so long that it has completed this cycle twice and is waiting now for its second revival.

But there is one event that signals a series' entry into an irreversible cycle of decline. That video game rock opera is when a game goes the overseas outsourcing route.

This move is usually done at the point where traditionally a revival event were to take place, and it is indeed a move motivated by economic concerns over the golden cow having run out of sustenance to milk any further.

Alas traditionally all this usually accomplishes is to turn the franchise into a soulless undead entity.

To confirm this hypothesis I submit the perfect specimen for review, that of the new overseas outsourced Devil May Cry, or DmC as they choose to call it.

This is a series that has already managed to survive the blemish of a disappointing sequel by way of a much loved third redeeming entry, and followed that up by a solid, if not a bit tired fourth game.

That series is now up for its revival event which its makers chose to go the overseas outsourcing route for.

Now, if I am not mistaken then from here forth the third entry will always be remembered as the only peak in that series such as the second will always be for Silent Hill which suffered from a similar dark fate.

Another interesting specimen is Dead Rising, which has the record breaking honour of being the only series I can think of that went overseas outsourced as soon as with the first sequel. Thus I do believe the original game will ever remain the most fondly remembered one in that series going forth.

Xyzzy said...

I believe I know of one exception that also isn't a prog metal band, though they came close to fulfilling your theory. Jethro Tull's most popular period began with a pair of 'concept' albums, but the two good concept albums were immediately followed by the worst record in their thus far 44-year career.

As a side note, yes, most people's tastes do change after high school -- but most also stop (openly) judging others' musical tastes & assuming that a band or genre must suck if they don't like it. ;)

killias2 said...

The Mars Volta - Deloused in the Comatorium.

Still, it's not exactly a clear-cut narrative. Cedric loves to write lyrics that don't make any God damn sense. As a result, it doesn't feel like Jesus Christ Superstar or Tommy or something.

In any case.. awesome album.

killias2 said...
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