Has the Digital Music Revolution Killed the Concept Album?

Concept albums have never stopped being recorded by ambitious musicians, but the digital revolution has effectively removed them from their position at the top of the mainstream ladder. Could the Beatles have still produced Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band if they had come along after the introduction of the “random” option on compact disc players? Certainly, they could have. As to whether they would have is another matter. The would part of the equation has only taken on a far larger dimension with the transition from compact disc—which, despite the random play option still put the artist at the forefront of creative control over the order in which songs on an album were played—to the MP3, the iPod shuffle and utterly random nature of online streaming services. Albums still get made and they still get played in order. 

On the other hand, anyone convinced that any album made in the last two decades has been played all the way through in the order chosen by the artist as often as any classic album—concept or otherwise—released in the age of the record player is only fooling themselves. The death of the turntable may not have taken the concept album to the grave along with it, but how many people who are not fans of the artist in question can name even one concept album produced in the 21st century? 

But then, that’s always been the great thing about concept albums. Some of them are achingly obvious while others may not even be known as concept albums. Some become classics that sell millions of records while others remain cult favorites impossible to tear away from the grip of their fans. In fact, there is but one element that is applicable to all—or at least most—concept albums: the songs are intended to be listened to in a particular order so that the full measure of the “concept” can play out in a linear fashion.  

Of course, this leaves open the opportunity for some very creative act to make an album in which the very concept itself is the subject of randomness in the universe so that shuffling the order of the songs becomes integral to the process of listening. Maybe, in fact, some musician has already made that concept album. One thing is for sure: that album is not on this list of the various examples of what it meant to be a concept album made in the era when you practically had to listen to the songs in the order the artist mandated. 

The Rock Opera 

The Who’s Tommy is, for many, the ultimate concept album. Those who believe this tend to be the fan who insists that a concept album must tell a story. Not all of them do, as shall soon be demonstrated. If your idea of a concept album is one peopled with characters that tells a fairly straightforward linear narrative with an actual plot and conclusion, then Tommy has to be your icon of conceptual music. 

The Hidden Theme 

From its title, you might expect that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a concept album about loneliness. The Beatles were quite a playful little group, however, and one of their most playful escapades was making a concept album not specifically about the type of band Sgt. Pepper fronts, but the very fact of the band. Only by listening attentively to the songs in the order in which they appear can one slowly begin to comprehend that the subjects of each song almost universally touch upon or directly address generation change and the passage of the torch specifically from the pre-WWII generation to the post-WWII generation. 

The Autobiography 

The ultimate example of the autobiographical concept album absolutely, positively has to be Pink Floyd’s The Wall, of course. That is an album that could only have been made by people who had reached the rarest of all levels in the music world: the bona fide rock legend. A better example from the perspective of an autobiographical concept album being a personal confessional rather than a Broadway production is Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty. Pink Floyd’s The Wall screams at the listener that it is a concept album about what it’s like to be a rock star. Brown’s album, by contrast, is a quiet whisper in your ear among a room filled with people about the very same concept.  

It is generally agreed (whether accurately or not) that The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper was the first rock concept album.  Pink Floyd is the band most associated with the idea of the concept album.  And The Who’s Tommy is generally considered the zenith of the concept album concept.  Most of those are pretty well known, but my favorite concept album is actually Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places by Kid Creole and the Coconuts.

Kid Creole was actually a multi-talented musician named August Darnell.  Kid Creole was a tough act to sell even in the anything goes radio scene of the early 80s.  The band seamlessly combined elements of African and Caribbean music to create a rock-jazz-calypso blend that radio programmers had trouble defining.  Was it rock?  Jazz? New Wave?  As a result, Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places fell beneath the radar of audiences.  What makes an album a concept album?  Well, to put it in the simplest terms possible, a concept album goes beyond being merely a collection of songs; the songs are all interconnected to pursue either a story—such as Pink Floyd’s The Wall—or a theme—such as Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon.  In the case of Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places, the album offers up both a narrative, an obvious theme, and a very subtle subtext.

The story of Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places is presented as more of a musical soundtrack.  In fact, at one point Kid Creole and the songwriters from Squeeze hoped to flesh the story out and mount it as a Broadway musical.  More recently, Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places has been mounted as the “first rap musical.”   The LP came with an inner sleeve that presented missives from the leading character detailing his odyssey around the world in search of his beloved Mimi.  Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places, you see, is a concept album that can be viewed as a modern updating of the story of The Odyssey.  The album begins with the Kid catching a ride on a boat intent on finding his beloved Mimi.  Along the way he and his troupe are arrested for singing on island in which singing has been banned, discover themselves in the middle of a revolution over what kind of music should be allowed to be played on the radio, sing a song of being lost in the middle of a jungle, wind up in a kind of Aryan civilization that has never seen a person with brown skin before, and even meet up with a certain species of cannibal.

As you may be able to tell from this simple description, Kid Creole has a lot more on his mind than a simple concept album story.  In fact, Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places tackles issues of racism both as it applies to the color of one’s skin and the color of one’s money.  The fact that Kid Creole predicted his album would not get much airplay is touched upon throughout the album.  Along the way the music ranges from the gorgeous ballad “I Stand Accused” to the infectious “Going Places” to my favorite, the African-influenced jungle rock of “In the Jungle.”  In many ways, of course, the concept of Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places is immediately apparent.  But what I love most about it is the subtext.  Keep in mind that the Kid sets off on his journey to track down his beloved Mimi.  But if you separate those two syllables, you get Me-Me.  My preference is to Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places as a concept album about the search for identity and meaning.  In my view, Mimi doesn’t exist as an actual flesh and blood entity, but is rather is an abstraction; a philosophical concept who stands as a symbol for a mystery far greater than whether Paul McCartney is really dead.  Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places is an overlooked masterpiece.