“For all the suburban whiteness of my so-called tweens, at least the DJs at the local FM rock station were still allowed to be halfway cool. So you can bet they were digging deep into Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, which truly is one of the great albums, every note, every sorrowful, soulful texture all flowing together like one vastly complex song. So I’m sure I heard Inner City Blues when it was still pretty new, even if I wasn’t aware of it. Just part of the ongoing flow that was filling me in and filling me up with what was really going on out there in that part of the world that wasn’t organized into easy suburban shapes.” (Philip Random)
Second of two in a row from possibly the most evil album of all time, Aphrodite’s Child’s 666, a four sided monster of a concept completely concerned with … well, what is it all about? In a 1973 interview, principal composer and keyboard wizard Vangelis Papathanassiou said, “the answer to the question 666 is today.” Lyricist Costas Ferris (taking a break from his main job of film directing) was less elusive, citing the central concept as a counter-cultural interpretation of the Book of Revelation, in which a circus show based on the apocalypse performs for an audience at the same time that the real apocalypse is happening outside the circus tent … with All the Seats are Occupied the prolonged and climactic point where these two apocalypses finally collide and all hell breaks loose. Literally. But is it really hell? Aphrodite’s Child being a rarity for all time, a psyche-prog-pop-rock outfit straight outa Greece, apocalypse being a Greek word not for the the catastrophic End of All Things, but for the drawing back a sheet, an unveiling of a new and mysterious thing. So why all the panic humanity?
Aphrodite’s Child being a Greek psyche-prog outfit who didn’t seem to recognize a boundary between sweetest syrup and the hottest fires of hell, musically speaking. It was all just part of the same grand feast. At least, that’s how it feels on 666, their third and biggest and most extreme album, and their most evil, some might argue – the four-sided concept being no less than a musical adaptation of the final chapter of the Holy Bible, the Book of Revelation. With the Four Horsemen being the closest any single track comes to pulling everything together into a single, cohesive (almost) radio friendly unit shifter, the Lamb having opened the first seal, the visions thus unleashed.
“When I was kid, maybe fifteen, it was the story, the big concept that appealed most, perfect for my still growing brain and imagination. Which made Electric Light Orchestra‘s fourth album, Eldorado essential. The one concerning the Dreamer, the Unwoken Fool. He starts out high on a hill, catches a glimpse of the ocean’s daughter, goes after her, gets caught up in a war, a tornado in the desert, Sherwood Forest, a lost kingdom, the south seas, some painted ladies, and so on … finally ending up atop another hill, still a dreamer, unwoken, still a fool. For months, I’d listen to Eldorado beginning to end at least five days out of seven, until one day, I guess I finally got into Yes, or maybe ski season finally started. Or just girls and alcohol. Whatever happened, Eldorado got put aside for more than a decade.
Until one night in 1987 sometime, high no doubt, tired of punk rock and hardcore and whatever, I’m picking through the dregs of my old vinyl (the un-essential stuff not filed on a shelf, just piled in various boxes) and the cover catches my eye. It still does. A still from an actual film frame from Wizard of Oz – Dorothy’s contentious ruby slippers, the wicked witch of wherever trying to zap them off with her pale green hands. I put the album on and I couldn’t help but smile. It was just so big and fun. Sheer melodrama, all those strings and choral overloads, and related surprises. Like in Boy Blue where everything’s revving up to an obvious sort of b-movie climax, but it doesn’t go there. Not yet. Just sidesteps into plucked cellos (I think), and then it goes for the obvious climax. And then in Laredo Tornado, it’s the raw power of electric guitar with everything else majestic and soaring all around it, like a genuine tornado, grand and intense.
And then jump ahead to the climax of the whole thing, the title track, Eldorado, I swear Jeff Lynne‘s channelling Tom Jones here, strong as a coal miner, even if the lyrics are just passing space filler for the most part (I recall Jeff Lynne saying he wrote them all in a weekend). Nah, it’s the music that matters, the big and beautiful journey it takes, electric and full of light.” (Philip Random)
Two in a row from Nektar‘s 1971 conceptual spectacular Journey To The Centre Of The Eye, one of those albums that absolutely walks the line between so-called prog rock and so-called psychedelic rock, managing to be both mindblowing and reasonably precise. Frank Zappa was certainly impressed, so much so that he had plans to sign Nektar to his Discreet label, a plan that crumbled along with Zappa’s partnership with his manager (one of those long stories). Which perhaps explains why we never heard that much of Nektar over here in the Americas. Or maybe their first album was simply their best – an astonishing and ultimately harrowing voyage to the deep and high beyond within. In other words – an acid trip, the heroic kind, right through the centre of the eye to the dream nebula and beyond, all in the mind anyway.
“London’s Pretty Things were always there in the swinging 60s, in tune with the times, if not in time with them (if that makes any sense), which means that by 1968, they were launching into realms psychedelic and beyond with the epic tale of Sebastian F Sorrow, a full-on integrated cycle of songs that hit the culture many months before the Who’s Tommy would make the notion of a rock opera a genuinely big deal. No, SF Sorrow didn’t sell that well, doesn’t generally get name-checked when the experts are trying to make sense of the age, but for me anyway, it stands up better than Tommy, minute for minute, song for song, maybe because it’s only a one record set, with the high point coming on side two, when SF Sorrow encounters the mysterious Baron Saturday (intended to represent Baron Samedi of Haitian Voodoo notoriety), who ‘borrows his eyes’ for a trip through the underworld, with terrifying consequences.” (Philip Random)
Just because punk rock hit in 1976-77 and changed EVERYTHING in its nasty, ugly-beautiful, inarticulate way, doesn’t mean it all happened overnight. Which meant that even as we were all cutting our hair, shredding our t-shirts, learning to dance pogo, there was still time to light up an occasional doob, put on the headphones and trip out to various big deal concepts. Jeff Wayne‘s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds would have been one of the last of these worth paying attention to, a rock opera interpretation of H.G. Welles’ sci-fi epic, featuring the incongruous talents of David Essex, Phil Lynott, Justin Hayward, Chris Spedding, and oh yeah, Richard Burton. The mostly instrumental Horsell Common + The Heat Ray shows up about half-way through side one and deliciously marks that point that the Martians officially turn nasty.
“It seems insane to think about it now, but in 1972 Jethro Tull conquered the world with a 43-minute-44-second song called Thick as a Brick, which comprised the entire album of the same name. Adventurous, dense, continuous, it even half made sense, both musically and lyrically. So what did Ian Anderson (Tull main man) and his talented crew do for a follow-up? Another album long song, of course, this one called A Passion Play, which proved even more dense and adventurous than Thick As A Brick. And I’m still trying to figure it out. Actually, that’s a lie. I gave up a long time ago, because as a friend concluded, ‘Man, you’ve gotta be Ian Anderson’s f***ing brain to know what any of that’s supposed to mean.’ Which doesn’t mean I ever stopped listening to it, just thinking about it. I guess I just pretend I’m the guy’s brain for a while.” (Philip Random)
A reminder from that strange place and time when the band known as Genesis weren’t just considered cool and relevant, they had the keys to the underground. In fact, they had a whole concept album about the place called The Lamb Dies Down on Broadway wherein a Puerto Rican street punk named Rael gets caught up in a local apocalypse (like a fly on a windshield) and next thing he knows, he’s trapped in dense labyrinthian depths that will take him the better part of four sides of vinyl to reconcile. In other words, it’s the early Genesis at the absolute peak of their ambitions (if not their attainments) and Peter Gabriel’s final album with the band. Though both would go off to achieve mega levels of success on their own, neither would ever again come close to the sheer weird edge cutting heights (depths?) they achieved with the The Lamb.