The Radio Concept Album

I can hear the conversation now. Every word imagined clearly in my head. Even the setting. I see two kids, 14 or 15 years old. Boys on a street corner and they are arguing about something.

One is slightly larger than the other. The small one is holding his ground. “They did not!” he yells. “They did steal the idea!” yells the bigger one. “You’re wrong. They didn’t. MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE did it on their own.” “It wasn’t their idea, they just did what GREEN DAY did on 21st CENTURY BREAKDOWN. They ripped off the whole thing!”

Things become increasingly heated. I don’t know what they are arguing about but not being a particularly big fan of either group, I don’t particularly care.

It’s just good to see kids still feeling so passionate about their music. Making it an act of war to mock the bands you cherish. Forever reminding others that your band has a claim to be the world’s best and that people that don’t get that are misguided or just plain stupid.

The argument gets louder.

I can finally hear what the debate is about. “MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE was the first to make an album with radio commercials in it like that!” “They were not, Moron. GREEN DAY came out waaaaay before that!”

My heart starts to sink. Really? Did they…? No, they couldn’t really think that, could they? But I am saved by the site of a third friend emerging from the 7-11 to join them.

“What are you dumb sh*ts arguing about this time?” he asks. “This fool thinks that MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE was the first to make a concept album that sounded like you were listening to the radio. You know, with commercials in it and sh*t. Everyone knows it was GREEN DAY on 21st CENTURY BREAKDOWN.”

“You still listen to GREEN DAY? Really?” the friend accuses. Something which clearly stings. “No, not really. But it’s just a fact. And he won’t admit he’s wrong.”

The third friend stands proudly. He’s about to take control of the situation. “Jesus, you’re both so f*cking stupid. You’re both wrong. That sh*t’s been going on forever. Nothing new about it.”

Could it be? Could it be that one of these, clearly very poorly educated, youths, many decades younger than me, has actually absorbed some cultural or historical fact that he did not personally live through? Is it possible?

My hope rises. My fears abate…

“QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE, SONGS FOR THE DEAF.” My dad used to listen to it all the time when I was young.”

I am crushed.

I should have known better to have ever thought it could be otherwise. They know nothing. Care about nothing. This generation we are leaving the very survival of the planet to.

We are doomed.

Thank God, I’ve never actually witnessed such a painful conversation in real life. But I know it’s there. The ignorance. The lack of importance given to anything not personally and directly experienced in their lifetimes.

Fine, fine, I’ll stop being a grouchy old man.

The truth is, I don’t know about teenagers, but I know a whole lot of 20 somethings that are smart and passionate. People that may be young but seriously know their sh*t when it comes to culture and history. They exist, for sure.

But the fear is there.

The fear that rock n’ roll history will be forgotten. That those who broke new ground will never be acknowledged and the honors will go to those who came far later and appropriated their ideas.

GREEN DAY, MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE….

The horror.

So, let’s set the record straight, so to speak. The idea of a concept album that sounds like a radio broadcast is not new. At all. We’re taking over fifty years of such things being in existence.

It has been done many, many, times over many, many, decades.

Which is weird and kind of sad. Because the truth is, historical fact and precedent aside, not a single one of said concept albums is very good.

But that’s not the point.

1967: THE WHO, THE WHO SELLS OUT

This album not only features many truly obnoxious fake commercials but makes an effort to vary the songs to sound as if they might be from different bands.

I blame THE BEATLES, THE BBC and ANDY WARHOL, in that order.

THE WHO SELLS OUT came out in December 1967. THE BEATLES’, SGT. PEPPER had come out in May of that same year. THE BEATLES had framed a collection of songs with segments by their fictional alter-egos and presented the LP as if it were this other band playing to a live audience in a lounge.

The concept album had been born. And THE WHO ran with it, big time.

Add to that the atmosphere of the British government cracking down on illegal, unauthorized, “pirate” radio stations, many of which played rock and the whole Pop Art thing and THE WHO just went for it. How could they not?

Art and commerce. Making it big and selling out. Great themes. And this LP hits them hard.

There’s just one problem. The songs aren’t very good.

Among the tracks on the LP you have “I Can See for Miles” and a couple of others that are OK, if not great. But most them are just weak. They were clearly sacrificed as individual entities in the name of the greater concept. Which might have been worth it if the LP worked as a whole.

Which it still doesn’t.

Unlike SGT. PEPPER, which would hold together with or without its “concept” as an amazing set of songs, THE WHO SELLS OUT comes off as more of an intellectual exercise. Something that is great in theory but that, in reality, stays on your shelf instead of being something you actually listen to.

But give them credit. THE WHO took the concept album and took it somewhere new. Not necessarily good. But new.

1987: ROGER WATERS, RADIO K.A.O.S

I think I’ve only made it all the way through this album twice. I’ve tried. But it’s that bad.

Which truly pains me to say. Roger Waters era PINK FLOYD is some of my all time favorite music. DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, WISH YOU WERE HERE, ANIMALS and THE WALL are some of the greatest classic rock LPs of all time. Period. Bar none.

But Waters going solo? I always knew that was going to be trouble.

It left the remaining members of PINK FLOYD sounding slick but superficial. More importantly, it left Waters unchecked and uncontained by his former bandmates. Something which lead him to excess and artistic implosion quickly.

The signs were already there even in THE WALL days when Waters clearly had the power in the band.

And then it got worse with his first solo album, THE PROS AND CONS OF HITCH HIKING. It’s still a listenable album but not nearly something on par with any of Waters’ work with PINK FLOYD.

It does have a picture of a naked woman hitch hiking on it. So, I give it that.

Actually, that photo got them in trouble in the States and they were forced to redo the cover with a black box covering said lady hitch hiker’s ass, but I digress.

HITCH HIKING was the story of some very disturbed characters doing things. I never was quite clear on the details of that story. But there is one. And RADIO K.A.O.S. pushed that idea even further.

It’s more characters who are even more disturbed doing more things. All over some pretty crap music.

Oh, and there’s conversations between one of the characters with a DJ. And commercials, including samples from actual Ronald Reagan political ads.

Much like THE WHO SELLS OUT, what you end up with is an LP which sounds fascinating in theory. An album which pushes the boundaries of what you can and can’t do on an LP. Something truly groundbreaking.

Such a shame it didn’t really work.

2002: QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE, SONGS FOR THE DEAF

Critics loved it and millions and millions of copies of it sold around the world.

Out of the three LPs listed in this post. it may actually be the most likeable. It’s also a very solid execution of its concept.

Basically, the idea is that you are taken for a drive around Southern California listening to the radio along the way.

Unlike THE WHO SELLS OUT or RADIO K.A.O.S, the concept is worked in fairly subtly and doesn’t come at the cost of all else. You could even argue that it adds a nice sonic texture to the album that makes it sound better than it would otherwise.

Even with all that, I am still not a fan.

The truth is, there’s just always been something about QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE which bothered me. Josh Homme and the rest of the band, including the often used guest artists, are undeniably gifted musicians. They also seem sincere about who they are and what they are trying to do.

There’s just something a little too slick and polished there for me. Too smooth. Too corporate. I just could never get over that feeling that there was something empty and hollow about them. Something missing.

But, even if that’s true, I have to admit SONGS FOR THE DEAF is probably the best execution of this whole ridiculous radio show album concept that I know of.

Not that I’ve heard them all. There are a lot of them out there. And I’m sure I’ve missed more than a couple of the more recent ones.

But why? Why do bands like GREEN DAY and MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE and God knows who else since then feel the need to keep doing this?

Maybe I should ask the next 14 year old I see talking about music to try to explain it to me. Sadly, I doubt they’d have the patience.

He probably wouldn’t know crap anyway. Ignorant punk…

Now get off of my lawn!