Welcome again to What’s the Concept?! Since it’s the end of the year, I’ve decided to take a look at a few albums that are essentially half of a concept album. You see, some bands and musicians, many of whom had put out full concept albums, were really good at putting just half of one out there. I think these albums deserve a bit of recognition.
Frank Zappa Apostrophe’
Tracks one through four on Apostrophe’ tell the story of a man who dreams he is an Eskimo named Nanook. He sees a fur trapper beating on his favorite baby fur seal with a lead-filled snowshoe, so he shoves yellow snow in his eyes in a “vigorous circular motion” that’s “destined to take the place of the mudshark in your mythology.” Then the fur trapper shoves a “dog doo snow cone” in his eyes and temporarily blinds him, so he goes to the parish of St. Alphonzo for the cure, where Father O’Blivion is having a pancake breakfast. The whole suite is very silly lyrically, but musically divine. The guitar solos, the xylophone, the bassline in Father O’Blivion, the backing vocals from the Ikettes, all of it is so layered and fantastic. A single edit of Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow was released for the radio and it’s okay, but you really need to listen to the entire suite on this album to realize how great the whole thing is. The single edit makes it a novelty song. The album version, however, is spectacular.
Electric Light Orchestra Out of the Blue
On the first side of the second record, you get a four part piece that is known as A Concerto for a Rainy Day. Jeff Lynne wrote this while holed up in a Swiss chalet he had rented during a very rainy summer. The whole thing is about how weather can affect your mood. Big Wheels is one of the saddest songs ELO has ever done, and it’s an incredibly powerful and beautiful look at depression. Things start to look up with Summer and Lightning, and everything is brought to a head when the sun comes out with the song everyone knows ELO for: Mr. Blue Sky. It’s funny to me that not a lot of people realize that their most famous song is part of a suite. Also, a fun factoid: the last lyric sung through the vocoder on Mr. Blue Sky is “Please turn me over”, a polite instruction to let you know that side of the vinyl is finished. Folks often mishear it, and assume it is just “Mr. Blue Sky” being sung through the vocoder at the end.
Jethro Tull Aqualung
Ian Anderson refuses to call Aqualung a concept album, and made Thick as a Brick to make fun of concept albums. I agree with him. Aqualung is only half of a concept album. The songs My God, Hymn #43 and Wind-Up all deal with religion, and the separation of the ideas of god and religion. Hymn #43 was released as a single and is the most well known of the trio, and is about how people will essentially use Jesus as an excuse to do horrible things. My God is about disillusionment with religion, particularly the Church of England. Wind-Up is about finding your own way spiritually and leaving church doctrine behind, with the cheeky and stinging lyric “you can excommunicate me on my way to Sunday school” towards the end. All three are quite lovely songs, which is to be expected when it’s Jethro Tull.
Rush Cygnus Series
Cygnus X-1 Book I is the last track on A Farewell to Kings, and Cygnus X-I Book II is the first track on their following album, Hemispheres. In the first part, an explorer on a spaceship called Rocinante journeys towards a black hole in the Cygnus constellation, the name of which is Cygnus X-1. The explorer believes something is beyond the black hole, but is sucked in by the pull of gravity. In the second track, the explorer emerges halfway through in Olympus, watching a fight between the followers of Apollo and Dionysus over Mind and Heart. A war breaks out between the two factions as the two different ways of life clash, and the explorer pleads for the fighting to cease. They end up proclaiming him to be Cygnus, the God of Balance, since you can have both love and wisdom in your life. It’s a pretty musically intense set, which is typical of Rush. The set being on two albums just gives you reason to listen to more Rush, and one can’t go wrong by listening to more Rush.