Back in the 1970’s there was an occasional classification of music called Rock and Roll Opera. Despite what you may be thinking, the opera part is not opera like you might expect. Rather, this was an entire rock album dedicated to one theme or story.
Perhaps the best known Rock Opera is Tommy by The Who. Pete Townshend’s masterpiece tells the story about a deaf, dumb and blind kid with a masterful talent for pinball. So successful has this creation been, in addition to being available for forty-five years since it’s 1969 release as an LP, CD, SACD or download, Tommy has been a movie, performed on Broadway, and an opera. The movie, released in 1975, starred the likes of Ann Margaret, Jack Nicholson, Eric Clapton and Elton John. Few, if any, rock and roll works have reached this level of success.
Another one of my favorites was Rick Wakeman, Journey To The Center Of The Earth. Conceptually, it was based on Jules Vern’s book of the same title. On the album cover is Wakeman with his long blond hair dressed in a white choir vestment and surrounded by keyboards. Along with Wakeman’s own band, The London Symphony Orchestra (lso.co.uk) and the English Chamber Choir (www.englishchamberchoir.com) all blend perfectly together for a certified gold masterpiece.
My all time favorite and one to which I still listen regularly is from the English band Jethro Tull. If you were thinking Thick As A Brick, you would be correct. I first heard this album at a friend’s house in 1972. I recorded it on a portable cassette player and literally hung the player on the handlebars of my bicycle so I could listen to it while riding through the neighborhood. As soon as I was able, I bought the album-which I still have. I also have it on CD. I recently acquired a thirty-year-old version of a MoFi numbered, limited edition, half speed mastered audiophile LP that sounds the best of all.
Thick As A Brick only had one song- the entire album. It was about a fictional boy named Gerald Bostock who entered a writing contest in school. His submission won but was disqualified because of Gerald’s age and questionable morality. I have listened to this album more times than I can count. Every so often, I just get this need to hear Thick As A Brick and will get lost in the music for a while.
There are others from the era, of course. Many bands ventured into the rock opera type of format. Queen and the Moody Blues come to mind. But not so much any more. Why is that? Why has that style fallen from favor?
I think that music in the 70’s was intended to be more ethereal. Listeners were supposed to be far more involved with the music. Put on an album and listen, actually listen. We were supposed to connect with the music and the story behind and in the music. I realize that connections to music happen today but we also spend quite a bit of time plugging in the ear buds or listening while we are doing something else. Perhaps this is why I get so much enjoyment out of being an audiophile, I can simply sit, listen and connect to the music.
In many ways, I’d like to see a rock opera again but I doubt that will happen. Conglomerates rather than one musician or a group makes so much of today’s music. Songs need to be radio ready and not many stations will be interested in one song that lasts for an hour. Many acts today have lyricists, arrangers, choreographers, vocal coaches and physical trainers not to mention the business side of music. Okay, sure, that also existed to a point in the 70’s but not for most bands. Most all of the musicians back then wrote the music and performed it as well. There was a certain simplicity in that. Even if today’s musicians aren’t conglomerates, they still need to sell albums. And an album that has only one song and lasts for an hour just doesn’t seem to sell today.
So until someone or some group decides to revive a long gone way of releasing music I suppose I’ll just have to listen to Ian Anderson’s masterpiece for the umpteen thousandth time. So excuse me while I queue up the turntable. Because in the words of Gerald Bostock “… and your wise men don’t know how it feels to be Thick As A Brick.”