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A Night at the (Rock) Opera

The history of a genre.

by Dr. Spin
June 16, 2003

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A Night at the (Rock) Opera_Dr. Spin-The history of a genre. Dear Dr. Spin,

What is the best Rock Opera ever written? Is the Rock Opera dead and gone? What will it take to revive the genre? How about a "Boy Bands" opera?

Sincerely, Back-up Baritone

Dear Back-up,

If the “concept album” is a dying breed, then the Rock Opera is truly dead. The Rock Opera is closely related to the concept album, and indeed, the Rock Opera sprung out of the concept album ideas of the late sixties. Some of the best concept albums have been recorded by the Kinks and one could argue that albums such as Arthur, Lola Versus Powerman and Preservation (Acts 1 and 2) are Rock Operas, and though they carry a “theme” and sometimes even follow a central character, they are not true Rock Operas.

Contrary to popular belief, the Who’s Tommy is not the first Rock Opera. That right actually belongs to the lesser-known S.F. Sorrow, an ambitious yet uneven project of a band called the Pretty Things. The Pretty Things started out as a rougher, raunchier version of the Rolling Stones. Obviously, the Pretty Things never achieved the fame of the Stones, and around 1967, like other sixties bands, the Pretty Things began experimenting with their sound. Around the same time the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper, the Pretties began working on their concept album, S.F. Sorrow. The album’s “story” follows a young man who meets a young girl, falls in love, but goes to war. Sorrow returns from the war, tries to reunite with his love in Amerika. However, she is killed in a hydrogen balloon accident, and Sorrow ends up lonely and despondent (hey, it’s opera!). Though only one record long, (as opposed to the Who’s double LP, Tommy), S.F. Sorrow was still the first album to tell one continuous story throughout all it’s songs.

In my opinion, the best Rock Opera is the Who’s Quadrophenia. Quadrophenia is the Who at their murky best, and the theme of a Mod not quite sure where he fits in I feel has a more universal appeal.

I feel the Rock Opera as a genre is dead. Most bands these days do not have the ambition or vision for such a project, and despite the appeal of Tommy and The Wall, Rock Operas are seen as unprofitable. Because all songs are part of a story, Rock Operas do not avail themselves for hits and therefore do not produce the revenue today’s corporate music industry is interested in. Plus Rock Operas are seen as bombastic absorptions in self-importance; you’re not an artist, you’re a Rock star.

It is interesting though, that now many songs that were never intended to “tell a story” are being thrown together in musical plays. I am talking about the soundtrack to Moulin Rouge and Steppin’ Out, the new musical based on Billy Joel songs. Perhaps these ventures will inspire others to retry the Rock Opera format. Until then, those that dared try to make Rock opera will be seen as a unique group of visionaries who, misguided or not, were willing to stretch the conventions of their music and try something different.

Dr. Spin,

VH1 recently listed their top 100 songs of the past 25 years (see story at yahoo.com). What are your thoughts on this list?

- Jimbo

Dear Bo,

I have been leery of Top 100 lists made by “experts” ever since VH1 made “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” the number one song of all time and the American Film Institute (AFI) failed to include Planes, Trains, and Automobiles in their 100 Funniest Movies list. Still, I could not come up with a Top 100 songs of the past 25 years, not because there aren’t 100 good songs released in that time, but because I really can’t remember all the songs that came out, or when they came out. (“Who Are You?” came out only 25 years ago?)

However, like all lists of this sort, I see some glaring holes. Aerosmith makes the list with that crappy song from “Armageddon,” one they didn’t even write?? Where are the Dire Straits? What about Paul Simon’s Graceland? “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” is not Pat Benatar’s best song, nor is “All I Wanna Do” Sheryl Crow’s best. And the best song of Tom Petty’s (with or without the Heartbreakers) career is “Free Fallin’?” Thank God that, if Culture Club had to make the list, it wasn’t for that crappy “Karma Chameleon.” (not that I like “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” all that better)

It seems a lot of songs made the list based on how long they were #1. A lot of good songs were not released as singles, but were buried on album sides, and they did not make the list. I wonder what VH1’s criteria were and who was on their panel. Perhaps I’ll create my own Top 100 for future column…

…nah, that’s too much work.

* * *

A while back I was asked what “emo” is. At the time I had not heard of such a genre, but I have since learned that emo is a genre of rock “characterized by lyrics of emotional longings,” according to an article I read in the Chicago Sun-Times. The article cited Everclear’s “Father of Mine” as a type of song that has come out of the emo genre, though I still could not pick an “emo song” if you paid me (and I’m not paid).

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