Anyone who has listened to rock music very long is probably familiar with concept albums. Perhaps the simplest definition of concept album is that it is an album based around a single concept. Concept albums roughly fall into two categories. The first are those that are based around a single theme or idea (examples of this are Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles and Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd). The second are those that tell a story (examples of these are The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spdiers from Mars by David Bowie and Operation: Mindcrime by Queensryche). The latter sort of concept album could accurately be described as rock operas, particularly when performed on stage. I would add that to truly be a concept, I think the majority of songs should have been written specifically for the album (a collection of songs around a single theme not written specifically for an album does not qualify as a concept album in my opinion).
Given the fact that the idea of the concept album is a vague one, it can sometimes be difficult to determine whether an album is a concept album or not. It is not unusual for albums to feature several songs with a certain mood, particularly if the artist is going through something significant to his life at the time. I suppose that two things must be then also be considered in determining if an album is a concept album or not. First, one must take into account the intent of the artist. If a band set out to write a concept album and says that it is a concept album, then for all extents and purposes it must be. Second, one must consider whether the album can be considered a unified whole and not simply a collection of songs. If an album does not meet these criteria, then it is not a concept album.
Of course, the idea of the concept album did not originate with rock music. Indeed, the general idea of music grouped together under a unified theme existed even before the invention of the phonograph. In classical music programme music has existed since the Baroque Period (roughly between 1600 and 1750). Programme music is generally meant to evoke a specific mood, certain imagery, or a single scene in the mind of the listener. It is often based around a single concept. Perhaps the most famous example of programme music is probably Vivaldi's The Four Seasons.
As I said in the previous paragraph, concept albums did not originate with rock music. That having been said, there is some debate as to precisely what the first concept album was. In the Thirties singer Lee Wiley would release albums that featured songs by a single composer, such as Arlen, Gershwin, or Porter. That having been said, the songs were not written specifically for the albums and thus I would not consider them concept albums. I think a much more likely candidate for the first concept album, and the one that I would choose is Dust Bowl Ballads by Wood Guthrie. It was released on April 26, 1940 (the first set) and May 3, 1940 (the second set). The album was two sets consisting of three discs each. The songs are semi-autobiographical and deal with Guthrie's experience during the Dust Bowl of the Thirties. Given that the songs all deal with a specific theme (the problems and economic difficulties people faced during the Dust Bowl) and were written specifically for the album, I would say that this qualifies it as a concept album.
While Dust Bowl Ballads was successful, it did not create a rush of artists releasing concept albums. The next major artist to release a concept album would be Frank Sinatra. From his first album, The Voice of Frank Sinatra, Sinatra based his albums around a specific idea or theme. That having been said, the songs were not written specifically for the album. All of this would change with Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours, released in 1955. The majority of the songs were written specifically for the album (one of the exceptions being the classic Duke Ellington song "Mood Indigo"). Regardless, all of the songs dealt with the themes of late night loneliness and lost love. Even the album cover, featuring Sinatra standing on a city street late at night, was even consistent with the album's general theme.
Beyond Sinatra, not many artists would release concept albums in the Fifties. Indeed, the first significant concept album of the Rock Era was not by a rock artist, but by an artist formerly labelled "Hillbilly." Songs of Billy Yank and Johnny Reb was by country artist Jimmie Driftwood. As the title indicates, it centred around the War Between States. All of the songs were written by Driftwood specifically for the album. It was released in 1961.
The second significant concept album of the Rock Era and the first by a rock artist was Little Deuce Coupe by The Beach Boys. Curiously, it came about quite by accident. Capitol Records released a compilation of car songs, including "Shut Down" and "409" in the summer of 1963. Worse yet, the compilation even used the title of The Beach Boys song--Shut Down. This did not sit well with Brian Wilson, who tended to see the compilation as stealing their thunder. Wilson and The Beach Boys then hastily put together their own album about car culture. Four of the songs--"Little Deuce Coupe," "Our Car Club," "Shut Down," and "409" had all appeared on other albums--but the other eight songs of Little Deuce Coupe were written specifically for the album. As hastily put together as it was, Little Deuce Coupe was the first rock concept album.
The second rock concept album was a bit more ambitious and was planned from the beginning as a concept album. With or without The Mothers of Invention, arguably Frank Zappa built his career on concept albums. And his first concept album was also his first album. Freak Out by The Mothers of Invention was a double album. It was also a sardonic attack on both America and the industry of rock music. Release June 27, 1966, the experimental nature of Zappa's music meant that it was almost certainly destined to flop. In the end it did prove to be influential, significantly on four musicians in England who performed under the name The Beatles. Freak Out was almost certainly an influence on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
That having been said, The Beach Boys, who had released the first rock concept album, could have beaten The Beatles to the punch. Following Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson hit upon the idea of writing "a teenage symphony to God." The new album, to be titled Smile, would take the innovations The Beach Boys made with Pet Sounds to whole new levels. Smile would be a cohesive album produced entirely in the same style. Recording began in May 1966, and several songs were written for the album (including the classic "Heroes and Villains" ). Unfortunately, Brian Wilson's mental state began to deteriorate. Eventually Wilson's mental condition reached the point to which he was nearly useless. Smile was then abandoned. The project would later be resurrected and finished by Brian Wilson, who released the album on September 28, 2004.
One will never know if Wilson had not had his breakdown if The Beach Boys would have beaten The Beatles to releasing a concept album or not. While The Beatles began recording Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in December 1966, a full seven months after The Beach Boys started recording Smile, Smile was still unfinished as of May 1967 (Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band was completed that April). Perhaps if Brian Wilson's mental condition had not deteriorated, the album would have been finished sooner. It is perhaps a moot point. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released June 1, 1967 in the United Kingdom and the next day in the United States.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band emerged from an amazingly simple idea. Paul McCartney suggested that The Beatles record the album as if they were another band entirely. To this end The Beatles grew their hair out, grew facial hair, and donned costumes for the album's cover (which featured a drumset with the fictitious "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" logo on it). And while not every single Beatle followed the concept to its end (John Lennon has stated that the songs he wrote for the album had nothing to do with the "Sgt. Pepper" concept), the album still comes off as a unified whole. Indeed, the entire album has a carnival feel to it, particularly in the song "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite." Furthermore, psychedelia plays a large role in the album, most notably "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (whose title one persistent rumour has it is an acronym for LSD)" and "A Day in the Life." The packaging arguably adds to the album's central concept. Not only did the cover feature Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in their uniforms and amidst a cast of thousands, it also featured cardboard cut outs complete with a moustache, badges, and sergeant stripes.
The album was largely experimental. Automatic double tracking (which The Beatles had previously used on Revolver) was used extensively on the album. Varispeeding, in which various tracks on a multi-track recorder are recorded at different speeds, was also used extensively on the album. The album also utitlised reverberation, echo, and reverse tape effects. Snippets of sounds appear throughout the album.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band would prove to be a milestone in rock music history. It won the Grammy for Best Album of the Year, the first rock album to ever do so. It would also be one of The Beatles' biggest selling records of all time. It has largely been considered by many to be the greatest rock album of all time (a position for which it competes with Revolver). The United States Library of Congress included it in the National Recording Registry in 2004. It is no surprise it would prove to be very influential. Many artists would follow The Beatles' lead into psychedelia (including rivals The Rolling Stones) and in the years that followed there would hardly be one without a concept album or more released. Although it wasn't the first concept album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is arguably the one that started it all....