The grandiose late seventies heyday of the all-star CONCEPT ALBUM

The late seventies are remembered primarily as the time when music tastes (at least for the average music consumer) changed drastically, as the pomp of prog, the boogie woogie of hard rock and the squishiness of soft-rock gave way to hard-edged punk and new wave sounds. Which is partly true. But of course, you don’t just trash your music tastes and collection overnight unless you are a really immature teenager in search of a cool image to worship (I did that, ahem, but I learned my lesson).

So it’s facile to assume that in 1976 suddenly everyone had safety pins through their noses and never wanted to hear a mellotron, synth or a string section in a rock song again. In fact, some of the most gloriously overblown albums in rock history came out between 1976 and 1980, and these albums weren’t aimed at no punks.

In a short span, several prog-influenced concept albums came out, each weirder than the last. The usual method was to come up with or adapt a story and make a kind of album musical out of it. Then you’d invite big-time singers of the day (and sometimes the musicians as well) to play the parts in your little rock opera, and hope that the all-star nature of the affair would lead to a massive success.

I can only think of one album that really did become a bestseller, and you’ll find out about it below. But the ambition of these recordings is certainly something to behold. Now, upon listening you might find all this just too over-the-top, dated and just plain silly. But you’re not approaching it from the right angle. I don’t mean to be ironic here — I don’t do irony. At their best these albums are like audio novels or not-horrible musicals, telling a nice little story. And often there are some very grand, even beautiful songs on them. And I have a soft spot for orchestras on rock albums. So there.

Here are four albums of that nature, released around the same time, that achieved varying levels of artistic and commercial success. If you can think of another all-star affair that I’ve forgotten, let me know about it and I’ll add it to the list. Though I suppose most Alan Parsons Project albums could come under this banner…

Put on your sequined suit with embroidered roses on it, brush back your feathered mullet and take an audio journey to the days of pomp!

jeff-waynes-musical-version-of-the-war-of-the-worlds-4f80e55d0c13bJEFF WAYNE’S MUSICAL VERSION OF THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1978)

This is apparently one of the most successful albums of all time, period, with sales in the millions. All I know is it inhabits a dear place in my heart. I first heard it while visiting British relatives in the early eighties. I was very young at the time and quite taken with the drama of the thing.

Jeff Wayne is a producer and songwriter who at the time was best known for working with pop hottie David Essex. He conceived of doing a grand rock opera version of H.G. Wells’ story then set about assembling an impressive cast of musicians and singers, including Essex, Justin Hayward (Moody Blues), Julie Covington (a popular musical singer), the legendary Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy), Chris Thompson (Manfred Mann’s Earth Band) and … narration by Richard Burton. Yeah, that guy. As well as the musical talents of people like Herbie Flowers and Chris Spedding.

tumblr_m8eao5i4ah1rsicwvo1_1280So why was it so successful? For one, it came in the most awesome gatefold package ever, with a booklet of scary paintings commissioned for the album (see left). And to my young eyes, those were sooooome scary pics of Martians heat-raying people down and melting ironclads.

Secondly, the story is truly wonderful. While Wayne did sexy up Wells’ classic early sci-fi cautionary tale (which was mainly about how we treat “lower” species, not about terrorists as Señor Spielbergo tried to make it in his horrible movie adaptation) with some female interest, he kept it in the right period and infuses it with appropriate levels of apocalyptic drama.

Thirdly, the music is totally over the top, a fusion of way-out prog and danceable disco grooves. That shouldn’t work, but it does. Oh, how it does. And lots of spacy, laserlike  sound effects to boot! The musicians are just killing it, especially Flowers with his sly, bouncy basslines and Spedding with his razor-sharp guitar lines. The singers distinguish themselves as well, from Hayward’s customary bell-like perfection on the really beautiful (even outside the context of the album) “Forever Autumn” to Lynott’s anguished bellowing as a parson who’s gone mad from the carnage he’s witnessed, to Thompson’s raspy melodrama on the stirring “Thunderchild“. The acting comes across as a bit wooden in the spoken word segments (frankly, Burton is pretty stiff on this and is out-acted by the scene-stealing [if you could see him] Lynott), but ultimately that doesn’t seem of much consequence.

Is this cheese? I guess so. But if it is, it’s the world’s finest and rarest and is to be appreciated in all its glorious fragrancy. To the point that I plunked down a fair amount of money for the deluxe 7-disk package with documentary, outtakes, the whole lot. You probably won’t want to do that, but you should at least check out this monolithic relic from the era of successful musical excess.

cover_12111615112009-1MANDALABAND – THE EYE OF WENDOR (1978)

This came out the same year as Wayne’s epic but did not achieve even a fraction of the success. Nonetheless, it’s a worthy album in its own right. Mandalaband was a not particularly interesting prog band that had released a previous album. Led by keyboardist and studio proprietor David Rohl, the (nominal) group’s direction changed with this ambitious fantasy concept album. Interestingly, Rohl is now a respected Egyptologist. Kind of like how I used to be such a famous musician but now I, like, blog and stuff. OK, not the same at all. But this was the seventies, anything was possible! This was supposed to be part of a series of albums telling a lengthy story, but for obvious reasons, the others weren’t made.

For this album, Rohl called on musicians with whom he had a close working connection, namely members of pop funsters 10cc and CSNY/prog fusion masters Barclay James Harvest. For singers, well, looky here — here’s Justin Hayward again! He must have enjoyed being a part of such projects, and frankly, they’re all lucky to have him, for is there a better voice in this world? But that’s for another post. Another interesting choice was Maddy Prior of electric folk band Steeleye Span, known for her hyper-dramatic, nasal delivery. As on Wayne’s album, there’s lots of epic strings to be enjoyed as well.

I can’t really figure out the story, but suffice it to say that it’s typical fantasy epic stuff and thus not particularly memorable. The music itself is a bit varied. There’s a fair amount of disco-ey noodling going on amongst some other very pleasantly melodic pieces, which I could take or leave, and the songs sung by 10cc members such as Graham Gouldman and Lol Creme are fine and often easy on the ears, but it’s the star turns by Hayward on the extremely lovely “Dawn of a New Day” (worth the purchase price alone!) and Prior on the equally celestial “Like the Wind” that really make an impact. Taken out of context of the story, these are actually quite inspiring pieces of music, unless you are convinced that dramatic, romantic and fanciful music stinks. If you are, go away.

So while this album is only about 70% successful, it’s still well worth a listen for the melodic jewels that lie within.

kingofelflandsdaughterPETER KNIGHT AND BOB JOHNSON – THE KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER (1977)

Funny I mentioned Maddy Prior, because this album is the product of two Steeleye Span members, guitarist Bob Johnson and fiddler Peter Knight. You might think that some of these albums are copycats riding on Wayne’s success, but it appears this came out first. Johnson and Knight had quit the folk-rock crusaders of “All Around My Hat” fame and evidently had some serious ambitions beyond updating old folksongs.

They took a novel by Pre-Raphaelite socialist utopian and artisan William Morris and adapted it for the era of BIG PROG. I’ve read the novel in question and wasn’t exactly blown away by it, but it fits well with the pre-industrial, idealistic oeuvre that Johnson and Knight had come from.

Again, a varied and sometimes bizarre cast was assembled, including Christopher Lee as narrator (now an elderly purveyor of heavy metal albums — go Mr. Lee!), blues growler Alexis Korner, hippie singer Mary Hopkin, jazz progger Chris Farlowe (Colosseum), and yet more blues/soul singers in Frankie Miller and P.P. Arnold. And guess who’s on bass and guitar? Yep, Flowers and Spedding!

Again, the music is proggy grandeur, though in this case with trad-folk inflections rather than disco. You’d think I would love this, but there are some serious flaws here, the main one being that apparently the vocalists were directed to sound as weird as possible, with some pretty bizarre affectations. In particular I direct you to Farlowe’s truly odd performance on the otherwise nicely melodic “The Request”, Arnold’s nasty overly dramatic soul howling on “Witch”, and Korner’s unlistenable muttering on “The Coming of the Troll”. Frankie Miller’s performance on “Just Another Day of Searching” is fine, but the song is not very memorable. These people are all distinguished singers with talents of their own, so I must assume that they were misdirected.

Redeeming performances are provided by Hopkin on the pretty “Lirazel” and “Beyond the Fields We Know“, and much of the music on the recording is quite good. And then there’s Christopher Lee, who is perennially cool.

So this is not a great album but still a worthy curiosity. And it has a really cool cover by noted artist Jimmy Cauty.

igtbcdTHE INTERGALACTIC TOURING BAND (1977)

The year 1977, toward the end of the glory days of science fiction as a respected genre (let me say that it should have remained respected, but people don’t like novels of ideas so much in our era), the time seemed right for the release of another all-star affair, this one, well, I have no idea whatsoever what the plot is. But it’s safe to assume it’s taking place out in space. I’m a little sketchy on the genesis of this, but I’m thinking that synth innovator Larry Fast had something to do with it.

In any case, there’s the same elements as the other albums: seventies rock and prog and orchestral grandeur, as on “Approach (Overture)”. Unfortunately, that’s kind of the highlight of the album, which is the least successful (to me) of the recordings I’m discussing here. There’s again an interesting cast, including one of rock’s purest voices, Annie Haslem of Renaissance, David Cousins of the Strawbs, Ben E. King (!), (Crazy World of) Arthur Brown, Rod Argent, Meat Loaf and the dudes from Status Quo. You’d think this would make for an interesting album.

But this recording is curiously lifeless and soulless like a lot of glossy late seventies rock albums (think Utopia at their worst, or Jefferson Starship), overblown in the way Steinman’s Meat Loaf recordings were but without a lot of beauty to be found. I guess what I’m saying is this cheese is fragrant but not really in a good way.

Argent does well on his track, “Silver Lady” and Arthur Brown is typically melodramatic. Cousins puts in a good turn on “Heartbreaker” (no video to be found), which is not a great song. But David Cousins is awesome anyway. And Haslem is hard to resist on “Reaching Out“, the prettiest song on the album and the best reason for getting a hold of it — some nice string parts too. “Love Station” is an absolutely turrible song that sounds like a bad Earth Wind and Fire impression, and I’m sure Ben E. King forgot about his participation as soon as he could. And Meat Loaf? Well, I appreciate he has his talents, but no thanks. I can’t stand Bat Out of Hell, say no more.

Only pick this one up if you are an aficionado of this kind of curio.

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