Saturday, May 5, 2007

Spider-Man 3

If you are expecting Spider-Man 3 to be the best so far of the franchise, I have to warn you that you will be disappointed. Of the three movies, it is the least of them all. That having been said, if you go in simply expecting a superhero movie with some good action scenes, some great special effects, and some humourous moments, then you might well get what you paid for.

To a large degree the problems that prevent Spider-Man 3 from being as good as either Spider-Man or Spider-Man 2 were simply bad choices made from the very beginning. One of these was the decision that Spider-Man 3 would feature three villains. Originally, Sam Raimi wanted to use Harry Osborn (as The New Goblin), Sandman, and The Lizard (who is Dr. Connors transformed into a bipdedal lizard, for those who haven't read the comic books). Avi Arad, then president of Marvel Comics claimed that he needed to use Venom because "The fans love Venom. He is the fan-favorite. All Spider-Man readers love Venom...(which only tells me that Arad was really out of touch with his fans)," so Venom was in and The Lizard was out. Either way, I think three villains is bit too much for any one superhero movie. Ultimately, one of the villains is going to be given far little screen time and is going to come off as more of a caricature than a character. This was a problem that plagued the later entries in the Nineties Batman franchise. While Spider-Man 3 does not suffer quite as much as the later Batman films, it does suffer. While The New Goblin and Sandman are well developed characters, Venom is little more than a cardboard cutout--a comic book monster for our hero to defeat.

Of course, this brings me to another bad choice, namely the use of Venom. If they had to use a third villain, The Lizard would have been a better choice. Contrary to Avi Arad, most Spider-Man fans I know actively hate Venom. Quite simply, he is a product of the Eighties fad in comic books towards "dark" characters. And Venom still displays the traits of such characters. He has no personality of which to speak. He has no complex motivations for his crimes. To sum it up, he is just a cardboard monster created for our hero to fight. While part of the reason Venom appears to be such a simple character in the movie is that it dedicates only a little screen time to him (preferring to devote it to Flint Marko, AKA The Sandman, Harry Osborn, and Peter and Mary Jane), that is only part of the reason. The other (and perhaps more important) part is that the comic books gave screen writers, Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi, and Alvin Sargent, very little to work with. Even in the comic books, Venom is not much of a character. Even in the comic books he is a walking cliche.

Another bad choice to me was the inclusion of Gwen Stacy. No, I am wrong. Actually, the bad choice as utilising Mary Jane as Peter's love interest from the first movie onwards instead of Gwen Stacy. Let me make something perfectly clear, in the comic books at least, Gwen Stacy has always been Peter's one true love. The only reason that he ever wound up with Mary Jane was that Gwen was brutally murdered by the original Green Goblin (that's right, Norman Osborn) in a historic issue from which the first film took its climax (Amazing Spider-Man #121, June-July 1973, if you afford to buy it...). Including Gwen in this film, especially as mere eye candy and a paper rival for Mary Jane seems to me an insult to all of us fans who had hoped Gwen would be featured as his true love in the first movie. Let's face it, would the average person had been happy with the classic Christopher Reeves Superman if Lana Lang instead of Lois Lane had been his one true love in that film?

Of course, this brings me to another bad choice on the part of the screenwriters. Quite simply, that was to add unneeded complications to Peter's romance with Mary Jane. Indeed, at one point Spider-Man 3 simply descends into soap opera. Personally, I could feel the rest of the audience getting restless for the next action scene. And, quite frankly, I found Mary Jane to be a very unsympathetic character in the earlier part of the movie. Instead of being happy that Peter is finally being appreciated for saving lives and risking his own life as Spider-Man, she expresses frustration that he isn't paying enough attention to her because of her failing acting career (never mind, that he showed up to her debut performance in a Broadway musical, has always told her she has talent, and expressed plenty of sympathy for her when things started going bad for her where acting is concerned...). At one point Peter even apologises to her for being selfish; from where I sat, Mary Jane was the one who needed to apologise.... Maybe it was poor writing, but Mary Jane just came off as self-centred, clingy, and selfish in the first half of the movie to me.

Here I should state that, despite my rants above, I did not hate Spider-Man 3. Although it has its flaws and it isn't as good as the first two movies, it is worth seeing. In fact, I dare say that Thomas Haden Church's performance as Flint Marko is worth the price of admission. Flint Marko is ultimately a tragic figure, a man forced into a life of crime by the economic realities of his world. Worse yet, he finds himself transformed into The Sandman. Church, whose talent I've admired since the late, great Ned and Stacey, easily gives the best performance in the film. Also worth seeing is J. K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jamesson, who, as in the first two films, is easily the funniest character in the movie. And Stan Lee has his best cameo yet!

And while the film has no fight scenes that match the battles royale between Doc Ock and Spidey from the second film, it has some impressive fight scenes nonetheless. There is an early struggle between Peter and The New Goblin which is very good (I must say, I have to admire what Harry did with his father's technology). As impressive as the fight scenes with The New Goblin are, however, they pale compared to the fights between Spidey and The Sandman. Sam Raimi certainly makes the most of the character, utilising his power to change himself into mouldable sand to its full advantage. While the climax to the film does not match that of the second film, it is still impressive, with Spidey facing both The Sandman and Venom. Worse still, The Sandman apparently has more sand at his disposal...

Here I must point out that the special effects in Spider-Man 3 are perhaps the best of any of the films. The Sandman is realised as a realstic looking character--at no point when he changes into sand does it look like CGI. And the extraterrestrial goo that becomes Spidey's new suit (and later something else entirely...) is wonderfully made real. Indeed, here I must point out one of the film's charms is that Sam Raimi has not lost his touch when it comes to pop culture references. The sequence in which a meteor delivers the goo to Earth is a great homage to that classic bit of schlock, The Blob. And like the other movies, the film features yet another great cameo by Bruce Campbell (whom I would love to see appear as Kraven the Hunter in one of the movies to come). Yet another great sequence is when of Jameson's advisors tells him which papers in New York are doing better than the Bugle (even the Daily News!).

Over all, Spider-Man 3 is worth seeing. But I have to warn you that you should not expect a film as good as the first two. And I must also warn you that you will have to sit through some long sequences in which there is little to no action. Ultimately, however, I would say that the movie does have its rewards.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Wither the CW?

The TV season is almost over, the first such season for the new network created by the merger of UPN and the WB. And I have to wonder now if the UPN and the WB would have been better off remaining separate networks. What is worse, CW seems to be intent on killing what few reasons anyone has to watch the network.

It was just this week that it was announced that this would be the final season for The Gilmore Girls. I must confess that I never watched the show regularly. It was the last show that my mother ever watched, and for a long time I could not watch because it would bring up memories of her death. But I liked it very much when I did watch it. It was a smart, witty show that deserved a bigger audience than it had. And now it's gone.

I also never watched 7th Heaven regularly, but I always admired it as one of the few family dramas in the history of television I could watch without gagging. It was well written, well acted, and sincere, without being overly sentimental. Sadly, this is also its last season.

The fate of Veronica Mars is up in the air at the moment. If the show does return, it is possible that it might do so with a change in format. The show, which took teen detective Mars from high school to college, would jump four years into the future, where Veronica would be an FBI agent. I cannot say the idea appeals to me. I fear it would take away much of the show's charm. But then I suppose it might be better than seeing the show cancelled.

Fortunately, I have heard nothing about Everybody Hates Chris being cancelled or even in danger of cancellation. It is easily one of the best sitcoms on television and I am shocked that is on the CW rather than one of the Big Four.

Of course, with Gilmore Girls and 7th Heaven gone, and Veronica Mars possibly going, it begs the question as to what will be left to watch on the CW beyond Everybody Hates Chris? If you ask me, not a Hell of a lot. I know that Smallville has a loyal following, but I have always had a strong dislike for that show. Beyond being poorly written, I don't have much respect for anything that plays that fast and loose with the Superman mythos (hello...Lana Lang was a redhead). As to America's Top Model, I think I would rather watch professional wrestling... Not that I am going to be watching Friday Night Smackdown any time soon.

All of this wouldn't be so sad if it weren't for the fact that the WB produced some remarkable shows in its time. This was the network of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, The Gilmore Girls, and Charmed. The UPN went downhill after it shifted its emphasis to urban comedies, but it did produce the series Nowhere Man, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Enterprise, Veronica Mars, and Everybody Hates Chris. On the other hand, the CW seems to have produced nothing of note so far. And I don't think this bodes well for the future. As I said earlier, maybe it would have been better if the WB and UPN had not merged....

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Two Character Actors Pass On

Two character actors, each of their faces familiar from several television appearances, died recently.

The first was Dabs Greer, who passed on Saturday at the age of 90 from complications from heart and kidney disease. Greer was born April 2, 1917 in Fairview, Missouri. While still a baby his family moved to Anderson, Missouri. He started acting at the age 8 in children's theatre productions. He attended Drury College in Springfield, Missouri. From 1940 to 1943 he headed the Little Theatre in Mountain Grove, Missouri. He later moved to the Pasadena Playhouse in California.

He made his film debut in 1938 while still living in Missouri. He was an extra in Jesse James. Greer appeared in small, uncredited, movie roles for a few years before finally guest starring in an episode of Dick Tracy (1950) as Shakey. From then on most of his work would be in television. Greer guest starred on The Lone Ranger, Father Knows Best, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Adventures of Superman, The Twilight Zone, Bonanza, and several other series. He had a recurring role on Gunsmoke as storekeeper Wilbur Jonas, on Little House on the Prairie as preacher Reverend Robert Alden, minister Reverend Henry Novotny on Picket Fences, and Grandpa Fred Stage on Maybe It's Me.

Greer eventually graduated from uncredited movie roles to more substantial material. He appeared in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, It! The Terror from Outer Space, and The Cheyenne Social Club. His remembered movie role may have been as the older Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks' character) in The Green Mile.

The other actor to die recently was both a recognisable face to many and very well known. Tom Poston was a regular on many TV shows, appeared in movies, and even acted on Broadway. He died Monday at the age of 85 from a brief illness.

Tom Poston was born in Columbus, Ohio. He attended Bethany College in Bethany, West Virginia, but dropped out during World War II to join the U. S. Army Air Corps. He served in the European Theatre, reaching the rank of Captain. After the war he went to New York City to study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Art.

He made his first appearance on Broadway in 1947 in Cyrano de Bergerac, in which he played five different roles. Poston would go onto appear on Broadway in Stockade in 1954, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter in 1955, The Conquering Hero in 1961, and in the revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1972.

Poston made his television debut in 1950 in an episode of Lights Out. He would appear in episodes of Studio One and Goodyear Television Playhouse before his first claim to fame, as the amnesiac in the "Man in the Street" interviews on The Steven Allen Show in 1956. Poston would go onto guest star in such shows as The Phil Silvers Show, The Defenders, Get Smart, St. Elsewhere, and Good Morning, Miami. He was a regular on such shows as On the Rocks, Good Grief, Mork and Mindy, and Grace Under Fire. He was a regular panellist on To Tell the Truth and What's My Line. Perhaps his most famous TV role as the clueless handy man George Utley on Newhart.

On film Poston appeared in The 1963 version of The Old Dark House, Cold Turkey, and The Story of Us.

He made his first appearance on Broadway in Stockade in 1954.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Concept Albums Part Three

For much of the Sixties and Seventies, concept albums were largely the province of progressive rock, heavy metal, and art rock bands. That is not to say that popular artists did not release concept albums in the Sixties and Seventies (obviously The Beatles and The Who are popular), but that this would become more common place in the Eighties.

Indeed, no less than AOR band Styx released a concept album in January of 1981. Paradise Theatre is the story of the fictional Paradise Theatre in Chicago. Through the Theatre, Styx chronicled the changes in America in the late Twentieth Century. The album hit the #1 spot on Billboard's Albums Chart, and produced six hit singles. Styx would release another concept album in 1983. Kilroy was Here portrays a future United States where rock music is outlawed by the Majority for Musical Morality (keep in mind this was before the advent of the PMRC). The album centred on Kilroy, a former rock star who helps young Jonathan Chance bring rock music back. The album was conceived as a stage show, although its tour would fare badly in ticket sales. That having been said, the album did do well. It hit number 3 on the Billboard albums chart and produced four hit singles.

Unfortunately, not every band was nearly as successful with their concept album as Styx was. Music from the Elder by KISS could best be described as the soundtrack to a movie that was never made. It centres on a young boy who is recruited by the Council of Elders for their Order of the Rose, a group meant to combat evil. The course of the album follows him from his recruitment to finally becoming a hero. Despite a good concept and some good songs, Music from the Elder would do the worst of any KISS album before or since. It was the first KISS album to fail to go gold since Dressed to Kill.

Electric Light Orchestra, who had released the concept album El Dorado in the Seventies, fared much better with Time. Released in August 1981, the album concerned a man from the 1980s who is kidnapped and taken to the year 2095 by scientists. The album would go to #1 in the United Kingdom and to #16 in the United States.

That is not to say that popular artists were the only ones releasing concept albums in the Eighties. Progressive rock and heavy metal bands continued to do so. Blue Oyster Cult released its first concept album in 1988. Imaginos centres upon a secret history and child modified by alien gods. If the concept sounds strange, then it is a strange album, even for Blue Oyster Cult.

Iron Maiden would also release a concept album in 1988. Seventh Son of a Seventh Son centres on a man with psychic abilities who tries to warn a hamlet of the impending Apocalypse. The album did very well. It went to #1 in the United Kingdom and #12 in the United States.

Perhaps the most notable concept album of the Eighties was Operation: Mindcrime by Queensryche. The album centred on a young man named Nikki who falls under the spell of the insidious Dr. X, who brainwashes him into performing assassinations. The plot shows some influence from the classic movie The Manchurian Candidate and to a lesser extent George Orwell's book 1984. While the album only went to #50 on the Billboard album charts and produced only one hit single, its songs (particularly "I Don't Believe in Love") received a good deal of FM radio airplay. Queensryche would create a live show based on the album, which was released on video as Operation: LIVEcrime. In terms of its influence, it may well have been more successful than its chart position would lead one to think. Other progressive metal bands, such as Dream Theatre, obviously felt is impact. At any rate, I remember discussing the various questions raised by the album with friends for hours. Queensryche would release a sequel last year, Operation: Mindcrime II, in which Nikki plots his revenge against Dr. X.

The Nineties and Naughts saw fewer concept albums than the previous two decades. I find it difficult to say why, although it must be pointed out that the popularity of both progressive rock and heavy metal was at its lowest in the Nineties. And the artists of the dominant rock subgenre of the early Nineties, grunge, seemed ill disposed to release concept albums. Still a few concept albums have been released since the Eighties.

One was The Crimson Idol by heavy metal band W.A.S.P. It centred on a fictional rock star named Jonathan whose fame leads to his ruin. It was released in 1992. In the Naughts W.A.S.P. would release a two part concept album, The Neon God Part 1: the Rise and The Neon God Part 2: the Demise. It centres on a boy who learns he has the power to read and manipulate people.

In 1996 shock rocker Marilyn Manson would release Antichrist Superstar. It centred on a young man (The Worm) who goes from childhood insecurity to rock stardom. the album itself would go to #3 on the Billboard charts and three of its singles would hit Billboard's Rock Tracks chart. Marilyn Manson would release other concept albums, including Mechanical Animals and Holy Wood.

The Naughts would be sparse with regards to concept albums much as the Nineties had been. In 2002 Tori Amos released Scarlet's Walk. The album centred on the journeys made cross country by the title character. As might be expected of Amos, Scarlet's Walk is complex. Lou Reed would release a concept album the following year called The Raven. The songs on the album were all based on the stories and poems of Edgar Allen Poe.

In 2006 My Chemical Romance would release a concept album called The Black Parade. The album centres on a character only known as "The Patient," who is dying of cancer. The album went to #2 on both the United Kingdom album charts and the United States' Billboard album charts.

It would be just this year that would see the release of Year Zero by Nine Inch Nails. Trent Reznor described it as a "concept album" that could be about the end of the world. Reznor has said that he is in talks about a movie based on the album. There is also an alternate reality game (a game with an interactive storyline that uses the real world as a platform) of the same name, based on the album. The album has done very well, hitting #2 on Billboard's album charts and #6 on the United Kingdom's albums charts. It seems it could be the most influential concept album to come out in a long time.

It is difficult to tell if the success of Year Zero will lead to more concept albums. The Nineties did not produce too many concept albums. And it seems that the Naughts haven't done so either. In some ways this is sad, as concept albums give artists the chance to express themselves in an extended format that can use more complex ideas than a three minute song would allow. I suppose that only the coming years will tell if we will see the return of the concept album or not.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Concept Albums Part Two

As influential as it was, it would be a mistake to think that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was responsible for every single concept album that came out following its release. There were concept albums that were in production before Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released, even if they were released after it. It would seem quite simply that the concept album was an idea whose time had come for rock music. For all the influence of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, there would have been concept albums even if it had never been recorded.

Among these concept albums went into production prior to the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was the first concept album with a storyline. The Story of Simon Simopath by British band Nirvana (not to be confused with the Seattle grunge band of the same name) was released in October 1967. The story was told mostly in the liner notes, about a boy who wanted to fly. The Story of Simon Simopath had little impact and is largely forgotten today, but it is historic as the first concept album with a storyline.

Days of Future Passed by The Moody Blues also went into production before Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. The album's concept was a deceptively simple one: in song it told of a typical day in the life of a common Englishmen. The album was historic as one of the first times a symphony was blended with rock music. The album would have a lasting impact on rock music. The song "Nights in White Satin" would become a hit five years after the LP was released, and could well be The Moody Blues' best remembered song. Days of Future Passed would have a lasting impact on progressive rock and remains one of The Moody Blues' most successful albums. There are those who count it among the greatest albums of all time.

The Who Sell Out by The Who also went into production before the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album was portrayed as a pirate radio broadcast (specifically, Radio London), with every song performed in essentially the same style. It even featured faux commercials mentioning real products (which led to several lawsuits following the album's release).

One album that was released as direct result of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was Their Satanic Majesties Request by The Rolling Stones. Many believed the album to be The Stones' attempt to ride on the coattails of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, including John Lennon. And there is little to deny the accusation. The album has a novelty cover (the original featured a 3-D picture of the band) with The Rolling Stones in costume. It also featured a song that acted as an introduction ("Sing This All Together") and one that acted as a finale ("On With The Show"). At the time Their Satanic Majesties Request received what could have been the worst reviews any Rolling Stones album. Since then the album has been somewhat reevaluated by many. While it is hardly what one would expect of The Rolling Stones (psychedelia did not exactly suit them), many admit that it is a prime example of late Sixties psychedelia.

As the Sixties progressed, concept albums would grow in importance. Among the most significant of the concept albums released in the late Sixties was S. F. Sorrow by The Pretty Things. Like The Story of Simon Simopath before it, the story was mainly told through the line notes. In this albums case, it told the life story of the title character, a typical man born in a typical town. It was released in December 1968 in the United Kingdom and a year later in the United States. It would have a lasting influence. It is considered an indirect influence on Tommy by The Who.

Primarily because The Who were a bigger band and Tommy was released in America before em SF Sorrow, The Who would effectively steal The Pretty Things' thunder. The album's title character was a deaf, blind, and mute pinball wizard who becomes a religious leader. The album was a huge success and as a result proved very influential. It would later be adapted into a 1975 film of the same name. It would also eventually see life on the stage.

While The Beatles, The Who, and The Rolling Stones had their concept albums, The Kinks would have their own as well. The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society was the first. The album was simply a salute to life in the typical English hamlet. The Kinks also had their own rock opera, Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire). It had been meant to serve as the music for a BBC teleplay, which was never produced. The album followed Arthur (who was based on Ray Davies' brother in law) and his plight in post-War England. It was moderately successful in the United States, and is still often ranked among the greatest albums of all time.

The Seventies would see more concept albums released than ever had before. Arguably, the concept album would become a standby of the progressive rock and heavy metal subgenres. In fact, arguably there were bands who made their living at nothing but concept albums. This would seem to be true of Pink Floyd, who produced several in a row. Their first was Dark Side of the Moon (released in March 1973), still considered among the greatest albums of all time. The ablum explored the human experience, from conflict to greed to death. They followed Dark Side of the Moon with several more concept albums: Wish You Were Here (which was about former front man Syd Barrett); Animals (in which animals are used as metaphors for different sorts of people); and The Wall. Released in 1979, The Wall would be Pink Floyd's tour de force. It told the story of Pink, a downtrodden anti-hero who becomes a rock star and then goes mad. The album was the best selling Pink Floyd album in the United States (it remained #1 on the Billboard album charts for 15 weeks). Its success would lead to its adaptation as a motion picture, Pink Floyd's The Wall.

Like Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues would release their share of concept albums. They followed up Days of Future Passed with On the Threshold of a Dream, a concept album about the search for spiritual enlightenment. To Our Children's Children dealt with the spiritual benefits of technology. A Question of Balance would also appear to be a concept album, apparently about the human condition.

It seems that nearly every album released by the Alan Parsons Project was a concept album. Starting with their first, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, they released a long succession of concept albums.

Of course, not every artist would make as many concept albums as Pink Floyd or The Moody Blues. Most would only make one or two. Among the most significant was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by David Bowie. The album centred around Ziggy Stardust, a Martian rock star who in the end becomes a failed messiah. The album would have a lasting influence on rock music. It would influence artists as diverse as Def Leppard and Marilyn Manson. It is still considered one of the greatest albums of all time.

Not nearly as influential was Welcome to My Nightmare by Alice Cooper. The album concerned the nightmares of a young boy named Steven. The album went to #5 on the Billboard charts and remains one of Cooper's most popular albums.

The Who would also release an influential concept album in the Seventies, in this case Quadrophenia in 1973. The album essentially concerned a young man with serious mental problems who becomes disillusioned with the Mod subculture of the Sixties. It went to #2 on the Billboard albums chart, and is still regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time. It was successful enough to inspire a 1979 film, Quadrophenia, starring a young Sting (from The Police). The movie itself would create a bit of a Mod revival in Britain.

Frank Zappa would release his share of concept albums in the Seventies. Fillmore East - June 1971 released by the Mothers of Invention in 1971 dealt with a rock band. Released in 1979, Joe's Garage, released by Frank Zappa solo, concerned a garage band member who must face the travails of the music industry.

Of course, the Seventies would see more concept albums than the few listed here. The form having been well established by the end of the decade, there would be yet more to come in the Eighties, Nineties, and Naughts.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Concept Albums Part One

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....