History of the “Rock Opera”

Part 3 of 3 rock opera-related articles by Tim Bustin

The term itself sounds like an oxymoron, implying both a combination of “cool” and pretension (whilst also not clarifying what on earth it is). David Bowie’s (The Rise and Fall of)  Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, The Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia, Green Day’s American Idiot, Jesus Christ Superstar, Pink Floyd’s The Wall – indisputable classics all of them, and each structured around some epic tale – music, exploited in its induction of emotions, used in connection with the lyrics to tell a story.

The term opera brings to mind vast theatres, over-singing and several large dollops of pure boredom, but really it’s a term used to describe where a (usually long) piece, or collection of musical pieces, are used as a way of storytelling. Way back in 1966, the story goes something like this: The Who’s lead guitarist and primary songwriter, rock legend Pete Townshend, was joking around one evening with one of the band’s managers, Kit Lambert (son of Constant Lambert, the composer) and some friends, listening to all sorts of different rubbish music, when, fairly drunk, a comedy song made someone shout out “It’s rock opera!”

Quite surprisingly, one bout of hysterics later, Kit remarked “That’s not a bad idea” So, in order to fill a missing nine minutes at the end of their 1966 A Quick One album, the world’s first rock opera emerged – A Quick One While He’s Away, the mini rock opera. It’s a rather strange story, about infidelity between a forlorn girl guide and an engine driver named Ivor. Yeah, I know. And of course, being at that difficult second album stage, they just said “cello” over and over again to save money on hiring a strings section. It’s a pretty good song actually, despite certain, unimportant, details. Split into six sections, it’s a fast moving tale of love, emotion, youth, sex, and ultimately forgiveness. Not necessarily a noble start for this well-used song/album format, but, trust me, it gets better.

The Who tested the mini-rock opera idea again on their third album, The Who Sell Out. At this time, finance was an issue, and apparently the band’s rhythm section (if it can be called that), drumming icon Keith Moon and hugely influential bassist John Entwistle, were flirting with the idea of going off and joining this new band called (christened by Moon) "Led  Zeppelin". Townshend meanwhile was becoming obsessed with the idea of a rock opera album. Tommy is a complex and compelling story dealing with murder, trauma, bullying, child abuse, sex, drugs, illusion, delusion, altered consciousness, spiritual awakening, religion, charlatanism, success, superstardom, faith, betrayal, rejection and pinball.

A young boy, born as WW1 concludes with his father missing in action, becomes deaf, dumb and blind when he witnesses his returning father murdering his wife’s new lover. The boy’s parents attempt to cure his psychological issues, as Tommy lives in a vibration world, reaching a sort of enlightenment. Finally cured, after abuse which he never knew occurred, he tries to teach others of his ways, though is ultimately rejected, due to human propensity for greed and their inability to sacrifice desires. Now, granted, it sounds more pretentious than forty years of Yoko Ono, but the brilliance of Tommy is that the lyrics never detract from the power of the music: Roger Daltrey’s singing verges between beauty and ferocity, Moon’s drumming is as hell-bent as ever, whilst Townshend’s sublime guitar with matching Entwistle bass produces an album of supreme quality, which turned The Who’s fortunes around overnight, established Townshend as a composer, not a mere songwriter, and paved the way for others to create classic albums. (Tommy is 96th on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list).

This was in 1969, and it was only next year when the album version of Jesus Christ Superstar (by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Time Rice) was released (turned into a stage production in 1971). But it was when David Bowie decided to attempt launched his own rock-opera masterpiece, with his outrageous alter-ego Ziggy Stardust that the rock opera really kicked off. Bowie’s “Ziggy” character is iconic to say the least; flamboyantly dressed and sexually promiscuous. It was Bowie’s lust for fame and attention that allowed such a creation to exist, and to give the character extra depth, the story of Ziggy Stardust was written – a ludicrous, “far out” idea, Ziggy is the messenger for inter-dimensional beings, getting out his ideas through the medium of rock and roll, in a time where people have lost hope and faith, with the ending of Earth being nigh due to man’s exploitation of the world’s resources. Eventually, the travelers (or “infinites”) arrive and take pieces of Ziggy to better integrate with human beings, killing him. Parallels with Tommy are obvious – worship, suffering, the hero’s downfall – yet the music is nowhere near, except in genre. Bowie’s rock songs sometimes sound mild, though the overall product is of course fantastic, with that same distinctive voice carrying the tunes, a solid backing band producing music that’s hard to not want to hear. And now, rock opera had two amazing, equally accomplished, pieces of work, and it had been proved that this genre could be used for great results. (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is 35th on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list).

1973 saw The Who, now fathers of a new genre, release their second rock opera, Quadrophenia. It’s a part documentary of 1960s Mod culture (exploring its fashions, ideals, “way of life”), told through the life of a young Mod named Jimmy, struggling to adhere to the rules of his lifestyle, fighting with rival gang the Rockers, while he attempts in vain to find love and discover who he truly is amongst his four-way personality split (each personality representing a member of The Who – hence he is quadrophenic). The music is vastly complex, the two 6-minute instrumentals, for example, being combinations of the four themes of Quadrophenia (leitmotifs), conjuring imagery to fit the parts of the story with intense effect, whilst the other 15 songs swing wildly from hard rock to sweet-sounding depression. Townshend himself regarded it as his finest work and Quadrophenia is arguably better than Tommy, though less influential. Both were turned into films, with 1975’s artsy Tommy film, starring a whole host of famous actors and musicians, while 1979’s Quadrophenia film became a cult classic, as an accurate look at 1960’s Britain via Jimmy’s struggle to fit by being an individual. (Quadrophenia is 267th on Rolling Stone’s list; for more information on Quadrophenia, read my review of the recent concert at the O2, or check out this term’s 'Fight Club' issue of Portsmouth Point magazine.

So many albums in the rock opera format have been released now, it’s hard to keep track. The next notable one was in 1979, Pink Floyd’s The Wall (87th on Rolling Stone), looking at the barrier that exists between audiences and musicians, and the hits “Comfortably Numb” and “Another Brick In The Wall (part 2)” were spawned. From here albums weren’t hugely successful, and whilst concept albums were rife, it wasn’t until 2004 that we saw a re-emergence of opera in rock form. American Idiot has a sound that couldn’t be further from pretension, even if it’s lyrics are politically motivated, but Green Day’s creation is in every respect a punk masterpiece – from the simple beauty of “Wake Me Up When September Ends” to the raw chords of the title track; the punchy “Holiday” to the ten minute epic “Jesus of Suburbia” and of course the classic “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” – every second is power or serenity. It’s interesting to note how similar the album is to the two Who rock operas – the tale is of an anti-hero Jesus of Suburbia (an opposite Tommy?), hating and confused by life (like Jimmy), meets punk revolutionary St. Jimmy (definite reference), who eventually dies metaphorically, representing that loss of ideals for JoS’s mind. The album is obviously Who-inspired and is utterly brilliant to listen to (225th on Rolling Stone).

Despite Green Day’s second rock opera, the much softer, yet still primarily punk based, 21st Century Breakdown being successful, American Idiot is, so far, the last rock opera “great”. It seems unquestionable that eventually someone else will follow suit and give the world another rock opera, though it may be in the form of a punk or metal rock opera, or another yet untested form. But to a genre, really a sub-genre, which is normally unheard of or not understood, there have been an amazing number of staggeringly brilliant albums produced. It’s a chance for the lyrics to become important, for musicians to become storytellers and to show their opinions through something more powerful than words alone – to fuse a tale, a lyric, an idea, with truly expressive music and create something so powerful, and something that is much more of a statement than the sum of its carefully constructed story, and of its, in whatever style, emotive and wonderful music.