Concept albums have been around for quite awhile. Opinions differ as to which was the first of the lot: some say The Pretty Things‘ SF Sorrow, while others pick the most obvious and high-profile release, The Who‘s Tommy. Still other insist that Freak Out by Frank Zappa‘s Mothers of Invention deserves the nod.
All of these are valid choices, as each holds together – to varying degrees – in one form or another. And the “concept” form remained semi-popular through rock history, applied to projects as diverse as Rick Wakeman‘s all-instrumental The Six Wives of Henry VIII, The Tubes‘ Remote Control, and XTC‘s Skylarking. But one thing that all of these albums mentioned so far lack is a narrative story line. The interspersing of dialogue between songs is thought by many to diminish the flow of a record, and to make it something other than a standard “album” that can be listened to while driving, working out, whatever.
And when artists have attempted to go that music-and-dialogue route, the commercial and critical response has been divided at best. Jeff Wayne‘s War of the Worlds employed an all-star cast including Richard Burton, and the resulting 2LP set has its fans (me among them). But it didn’t sell in droves. Pete Townshend gave it a serious go with his 1993 Psychoderelict, the (fancifully autobiographical?) story of a washed-up rocker’s attempt at a comeback. Most critics went on record characterizing Psychoderelict as dreadful; me, I loved it and thought it quite entertaining.
Townshend himself thought enough of the work to mount a stage presentation of Psychoderelict, complete with actors reprising their spoken bits onstage. But he (or his record company) also thought little enough of it to release an additional “music only” version of the album, stripped of all the narrative. (I found that version to be stripped of its power and impact as well.)
But the most notable – and for me, successful – of all attempts to fuse story and dialogue with rock music came from a somewhat unlikely source: Captain Sensible, then best known as bassist for seminal UK punk group The Damned.
The Universe of Geoffrey Brown
, released in 1993) wasn’t a massive commercial success, and perhaps it didn’t even do well enough in the marketplace to be labeled a cult favorite. But it remains one of my favorite albums. A few years ago, I got the chance to speak with Martin Newell
about his role in the creation of the album. And now, I’ve gotten the opportunity to speak directly with the man behind the project – Captain Sensible, aka Ray Burns
– about The Universe of Geoffrey Brown
. We also chatted a bit about his latest project, and a new limited-edition bobblehead that immortalizes the good Captain in plastic resin.
Bill Kopp: There’s really nothing – at least nothing of which I’m aware – in your music prior to The Universe of Geoffrey Brown that tips your hand as having interest in the sort of concept-album that Universe is. How did the original idea for the album come about?
Captain Sensible: I consider myself incredibly lucky as a music fan to have grown up in the 60s / 70s at a time when rock n roll had just grown up – via Dylan and The Beatles, mainly – and some incredible records were being made. Bands pretty much did whatever they wanted in the studio, which cannot be said of today. Even The Damned had visits from label A&R people occasionally, but we usually sent them off with a flea in their ears.
The first time I heard The Pretty Things’ SF Sorrow, I was transfixed. The concept nature of the album took me on a musical journey…a mind trip, even. It was hugely engrossing, and I started seeking out other records of this kind – like The Moody Blues‘ Days Of Future Passed and Tommy. “One day I will make an album like this,” I promised myself. And that’s how Geoffrey Brown came about.
I took my inspiration from the Cold War rhetoric of Reagan
. The question the album asks is, “How did we go from the beautiful love and peace dream of the summer of ’67 to public acceptance of the Dr. Strangelove
world of mutually assured nuclear annihilation?” My main character Geoffrey works at the Ministry of Defence, plotting targets for destruction in a nuclear attack. He considers his job normal until his head is turned by a hippie chick one day on a bicycle ride; he decides to do something more creative with his department’s missile tracking technology.
My poet chum Martin Newell – being of the wordy persuasion – brought the characters to life with some excellent scripts, and we got proper actors to perform the between-song dialogue. It all works splendidly if you ask me, although the whole project took two years or so to complete!
BK: When I asked Martin Newell about the album, he told me that you did the one song and then decided to flesh it out to album-length work. Did you find it difficult to put songs together that – along with the spoken bits between – moved the story along?
CS: No, once we had the story mapped out the song ideas flowed easily. In fact, I recommend the concept album idea to all musicians, as it’s a massively creative and fun way to make a record, and connect with your audience by telling a story.
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