Back before there were long-form videos and CD-ROMs for overweening artiste types to wallow in, musicians used the concept album to overextend their half-baked ideas. Not content with letting a single song do its job, groups charged an entire collection of tunes with the mission of delivering a single dunderheaded message. What follows are the worst of a very, very bad lot. As we look back on these aberrations at the beginning of a brand-new year, let us be grateful that the concept-album trend seems to be a thing of the past -- at least for now.
10. The Bee Gees/Peter Frampton
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band: Original Soundtrack (1978)
First Bad Sign: Seeing George Burns credited on any record sleeve for his singing contribution should be warning enough.
Concept: Evidently, someone believed there was an actual story linking Billy Shears, Lucy in the Sky, the Hendersons, the Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Mr. Kite. Whoever it was, he or she then convinced Robert Stigwood to bankroll the stinky idea into a major motion sickness starring Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees, and Steve Martin. And you thought Charles Manson was the only Beatles fan with an active imagination.
Worst Moment: When, knowing Beatles producer George Martin was enlisted to maintain some Fab Four integrity, you discover the entire cast neighing "I Want You (She's So Heavy)."
Grand Finale: It became the first release to ship platinum and return double-platinum.
9. Frank Sinatra
Trilogy: Past, Present, Future (1980)
First Bad Sign: The subtitle of disc three, "Reflections on the Future in Three Tenses." But how?
Concept: A three-record set devoted to Sinatra's love of music past, present, and future. The "Past" disc (old standards) is a pleasure, the "Present" disc (songs by writers of the rock era) is hit-and-miss, but the "Future" -- whoooaaaa! What the Frank is this? A space operetta where the Chairman of the Board zips through the galaxy in search of a planet that will grant him a gaming license?
Worst Moment: Glancing at the lyric sheet as Frank and the chorus are about to sing, "Uranus Is Heaven! Heaven! Heaven!" The Hoboken crooner quickly averts disaster by using the queen's pronunciation of the seventh planet (your-ann-us). Whew.
Grand Finale: The kinder, gentler Sinatra that writer/producer Gordon Jenkins envisions for the future quickly becomes a thing of the past when WNEW disc jockey Jonathan Schwartz airs the effort before its release date and dismisses it as "narcissistic" and "a shocking embarrassment in poor taste." A peeved Francis Albert calls the station's owner and gets Schwartz suspended for six weeks. Too bad their exchange isn't on the album.
8. Tommy Roe
12 in a Roe (1969)
First Bad Sign: Surely the sight of thirteen Tommy Roes on the cover should paralyze superstitious bubble-gum fans with unspeakable fright.
Concept: The predictable contents of this greatest-hits compilation are offset by a terrifying act never before -- and never again -- attempted in the annals of rock: Roe allows himself to be interviewed in between every song by a Gary Owens impersonator. You've never known true dread until you hear Roe reveal the demonic inspiration behind "Sweet Pea."
Worst Moment: Roe's sinister tirade on "Party Girl," during which he sneers, "Dance your last dance/Have yourself a time/After the party's over/I'm gonna marry you/Instead of learning the bossa nova / You'll be learning how to cook." For God's sake, don't do it, Party Girl!
Grand Finale: Interviewer: "Put it all together, and that's a whole bunch of success." Roe: "I guess the best way to express my feelings about it is to borrow a phrase my dad used to use when everything was groovy. I even wrote a song about it." That song, friends, is the vaginally retentive, yet damned cheerful, "Jam Up and Jelly Tight."
7. Emerson, Lake and Palmer
First Bad Sign: The inside cover art spells out the gobbledygook story in eleven panels. Stylistically, it's a bad mix between Destroy All Monsters and the stations of the cross.
Concept: Rejected Transformer toy prototypes ravage the Earth to the sound of ripped-off Bach riffs played in weird time signatures. Tarkus (half armadillo, half Sherman tank) battles Manticore (half lion, half scorpion with a human's head) and a combination pterodactyl/bomber plane. There's also a combo grasshopper and safari helmet creature that looks like a real pushover, despite its cruiser missiles.
Worst Moment: "Aquatarkus," when the hideous animal/artillery takes to the water and Keith Emerson gets to unload all his farting-in-the-bathtub Moog sounds.
Grand Finale: In an unrelated story, Tarkus concludes with "Are You Ready, Eddie," an attempt by these lofty classical-music bandits to rip off something less ancient: Little Richard's "Ready Teddy." For two minutes and eight seconds, Greg Lake quizzes engineer Eddie Offord on whether he is indeed ready to shut down his sixteen-track recorder. Why couldn't he have done that 38 minutes and 56 seconds earlier?
Music from the Elder (1981)
First Bad Sign: Q: Why is Kiss afraid to show its fully made-up faces on an album cover for the first time? A: This ain't rock and roll -- this is Genesis.
Concept: Boy joins the service of God -- or the king -- or, I dunno, the Phantom of the Park. What hope is there for the propagation of the species?
Worst Moment: Listen to Paul Stanley bellyache on "Odyssey" like Pavarotti after missing a meal, then try to imagine the simulated-castration special effects Kiss would no doubt have crafted for the stage show if this turkey had become a huge hit.
Grand Finale: The anthem "I," in which Paul and Gene shout out loud: "I believe in me, and I believe in something more than you can understand." Like what -- Crystal Light?
Paradise Theater (1981)
First Bad Sign: Any concept these insufferable Chicago shriekers commit to magnetic oxide would be a witches' brew of musical botulism.
Concept: How do you make the Depression even more depressing than it was the first time around? Stick Styx in a time machine set for A.D. 1929.
Worst Moment: Whenever singer Dennis DeYoung tries to sound guttural, he makes Pat Boone seem like Tom Waits. And he navigates around the word "honey" with all the uneasiness of a cloistered monk.
Grand Finale: My kind of Styx song, "State Street Sadie," is 25 seconds of barrelhouse piano played very, very far in the distance.
Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973)
First Bad Sign: Four songs, four sides -- you do the math.
Concept: Jon Anderson, with some free time in his hotel room before a show, dreams up this waterlogged Waterloo based on a lengthy footnote in Autobiography of a Yogi that describes the four-part scriptures, "which cover all aspects of religion and social life as well as fields like medicine and music, art and architecture." Why couldn't he just ball groupies before a show like normal rock stars? (Note: Rick Wakeman reportedly quit the group in frustration soon after touring behind this release because people kept asking him what it was about and he didn't know.)
Worst Moment: Steve Howe slips the "Close to the Edge" riff into "Ritual" before quickly remembering, "Ah, wait -- that was last album."
Grand Finale: "Ritual" features a drum-and-bass duel that's supposed to mirror life's struggle between the forces of evil and pure love -- a struggle that's played out nightly in the back seats of cars in far more lively fashion.
First Bad Sign: Lyrics by Neil Peart, with acknowledgments to the genius of Ayn Rand. Atlas must have shrugged before, during, and after throwing up.
Concept: The title track is a twenty-minute opus in seven, or shall we say "VII," stages. Sometime in the not-too-joyous future, rock, roll, and any musical apparatus more complicated than a kazoo is outlawed by an oppressive government. The hero of Rush's tale finds all the confiscated musical hardware in a cave behind a waterfall.
Worst Moment: Like the plucky girl who always goes back into the haunted house alone, this moron actually goes to the Temple of Syrinx with his guitar contraband and rocks out for the priests. To which the padres, in Geddy Lee's best Witchiepoo vocals, screech back, "Don't annoy us further!" Amen.
Grand Finale: Three Roman numerals after the above exchange comes "VII: Grand Finale," in which a robotic public-service announcement blares, "Attention, all planets of the Solar Federation. We have assumed control." What took you guys so long?
Kilroy Was Here (1983)
First Bad Sign: "Original Story and Concept by Dennis DeYoung." Everybody cower now.
Concept: Sometime in the not-too-joyous future, rock, roll, and any musical apparatus more complicated than a kazoo is outlawed by an oppressive government. Hey, why does that sound familiar?
Worst Moment: "High Time," where DeYoung as Kilroy (an imprisoned rock star pretending he's a robot) sings, "I see the kids of a new generation/They're gonna bring back the rock and roll" and "We're gonna start a rockin' nation." Unfortunately, the years of enforced mind control prohibit Kilroy from rocking any harder than a Bubblicious commercial.
Grand Finale: The members of Styx, unable to follow up this grand concept, break up for twelve years.
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1. Vanilla Fudge
The Beat Goes On (1968)
First Bad Sign: The liner notes hype this as being "like no album ever made. Above ground or underground. The music is that of Ludwig van Beethoven and Cole Porter and Stephen Foster and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Sonny Bono."
Concept: Vanilla Fudge sets out to tell two stories -- the history of music and the history of time -- in four phases. "Phase One" of the band's two-part pop-music lesson starts with reverent versions of "In the Mood" and "Don't Fence Me In," followed by lousy versions of "Hound Dog" and "She Loves You." Interspersed between are jazzy, bombastic, classical, and loungey renditions of Sonny and Cher's "The Beat Goes On."
Worst Moment: "Phase Three" -- the hysterically historical "Voices in Time" segment -- which features such bummer sound bites as FDR's and Kennedy's funeral processions, plus Truman's announcement that he just dropped the atomic bomb, against a musical bed consisting of -- you guessed it -- "The Beat Goes On." Can't you just hear the love-ins grinding to a halt?
Grand Finale: "Phase Four" -- nine minutes of interview outtakes with members of Vanilla Fudge speaking their Vanilla minds while sitars play a little ditty to remind you that this release is indeed called The Beat Goes On. At one point bassist Tim Bogert says that the music industry is "disheartening," and he's right -- that no one in the business could talk the band out of this atrocity is disheartening indeed. Drop the needle anywhere on this record and you won't believe what you're hearing. This opus hasn't yet made it to CD -- a fact definitely worth giving thanks for.