Brenna Sarantides Social Media Coordinator and Poetry and Translations Panelist
Years ago, I started collecting my first vinyl albums. Spinning them on the record player, something clicked deep inside. These albums encompassed stories. They were cohesive units of art that carried me throughout each song. I held each album in my hands, flipping through the art, reading each lyric plastered on the page, with songs floating through the air. I was a girl hungry for stories, and I had finally found my fuel.
Humans are hungry for stories in all forms. It’s what, quite frankly, makes us human. Music encompasses so many other art forms. Lyrics symbolize the stories we are desperate to tell and to hear. Melodies sound like poetry. Cover art takes these stories and creates their own physical embodiment.
Concept albums are the epitome of musical storytelling. A concept album contains tracks that combine to give more meaning collectively than they do individually. The songs are not separate units, rather they are pieces to a greater whole.
Concepts albums began to have a deep impact on me. I felt the same fullness after listening to an album that I’d felt when finishing a book I couldn’t put down.
The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) is often credited as the first concept album. The band, looking for an avenue to create more experimental music, decided to take on a new persona of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They created the entire album based upon this fictional band. In doing so, they could toy lyrically, graphically and with production like never before.
“Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly, a girl with kaleidoscope eyes.” (Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band)
Even Sgt. Pepper’s album cover continues to encompass this overarching theme of fiction meeting reality. The four Beatles are dressed as the alter-ego members of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles created a list of people throughout history that they wanted surrounding them on the cover including Edgar Allan Poe and Marilyn Monroe. The result is still regarded as one of, if not the most, iconic covers of all time.
This Beatles album paved the way for more artists to experiment with concept albums. The music industry began seeing the potential that cohesive songs and art could have. Concept albums thrived in the 70s and 80s. The Who’s Tommy was created through the perspective of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy. According to band member Pete Townshend, “the deaf, dumb and blind boy is played by The Who, the musical entity…But what it’s really all about is the fact that because the boy is ‘D, D & B,’ he’s seeing things basically as vibrations which we translate as music.” The music is truly embody this imaginary boy’s experiences.
“Listening to you, I get the music. Gazing at you, I get the heat. Following you, I climb the mountain. I get excitement at your feet” (We’re Not Gonna Take It, Tommy)
Pink Floyd also created a fictional narrator for their 1979 album The Wall. The album recounts the the life of the character Pink. Each song represents a brick which all build up to create an emotional wall around Pink. It starts with abuses in his early life, then misfortunes in adolescence, all the way to his breakdown of this “wall” in adulthood. The building blocks of songs is one of the most innovative metaphors in music.
“I don’t need no arms around me. And I don’t need no drugs to calm me. I have seen the writing on the wall. Don’t think I’ll need anything at all” (Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 3, The Wall)
Artists took these risks in both big and small ways. While some bands, like The Who and Pink Floyd, created extensive personas with backstories, others kept their concepts simple. Take Bruce Springsteen for example, his breakout album Born to Run uses subtle, yet effective storytelling devices. He wrote this album to follow the span of a day. While it’s less experimental than The Who’s endeavor, it still encompasses a narrative arc of 24 hours.
“You can hide ‘neath your covers and study your pain. Make crosses from your lovers, throw roses in the rain. Waste your summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets” (Thunder Road, Born to Run).
Springsteen’s initial tracks create the sensation of sun just peaking through the blinds in the early dawn of morning. Springsteen decided to have“Thunder Road” as the first song because, “There is something about the melody of ‘Thunder Road’ that just suggests ‘new day.’ It suggests morning; it suggests something opening up.” His tracks that follow in the middle create a transition period. Springsteen finishes with a wild closing number, “Jungleland.” As he belts out “But they wind up wounded, not even dead, tonight in Jungleland,” there is an immediate feeling of an ending. The following instrumental section of the song creates an intense, yet dreamlike finale to the eight songs. But more than that, it promised a new beginning.
Other artists have gone for more daring concepts to center their music around. Styx mastered a fictional setting. In their tenth album Paradise Theater, they chronicle a fictional lifetime of the Chicago Paradise Theater.
“I do believe it’s true when people lock their doors and hide inside. Rumor has it, it’s the end of paradise” (The Best of Times, Paradise Theater)
Released in 1980, the story relies on the double-sided nature of the record. On the first side, the songs emulate the triumphant opening of the theater. It’s songs are filled with optimism from the lyrics to the chord sequences. Flipping the record over, the B Side sheds light on a different note. It represents the closing, and ultimate abandonment, of the theatre. The first side ends with “The Best of Times” and picks up with the second side’s “Lonely People,” which are clear dichotomies. Even the front and back covers of the record depict the two opposing sides.
Concept albums dominated the music scene decades ago. Artists began working on experimental forms of telling stories throughout their albums as a whole. Even in the 90s and 00s, artists continued to draw upon the story experimentation. Radiohead’s 1997 album OK Computer depicts a dystopian, technology-driven society. One that, twenty years later, is jarringly similar to our current state. Green Day’s 2004 release of American Idiot touched upon politics of current times through their fictional “Jesus of Suburbia” and many of the album’s morals still hold true today. Even Beyonce’s 2016 album Lemonade is divided into chapters of the healing process, and she transformed her concept album visually by releasing a film to coincide with her music.
These albums have transcended time for a reason. People crave stories. It’s what makes us human. We want to be understood; we feel solidarity when our art mirrors that. Concept albums engulf us in these gigantic, extravagant stories. Each song building on one another and each piece of art puzzling together. Music is just an all-encompassing form of storytelling. As I held onto my first vinyl records, this hunger to be understood, to hear stories, to feel full was satisfied, spinning under the needle.