Public Service Broadcasting's J Willgoose hated concept albums. Yet his latest release, The Race For Space which came out on Monday, is just that a concept album using samples from the space race between the US and the Soviets... In a guest column for Q he explains how he got his head around the 'concept' concept.
Ten years ago the mere mention of the dreaded words concept album would’ve provoked a wide range of reactions in a younger me; at the low end of the scale, I’d certainly have pulled a disdainful face and made a vaguely discouraging sound, and in a more extreme reaction I may well have taken the opportunity to run screaming into the nearest woods, never to be seen again ("not the flutes! Anything but the flutes!"). They were things of high pretension and low wit, the perfect genre for endless noodling, all dressed in vaguely Stonehenge-tinged naffness. Yet now, dear reader, I must come face to face with the fact that I have very much just made one myself. How did this happen? And why did I feel that concept albums were such anathema to right-thinking music folk in the first place?
A big part of it probably comes from the aforementioned Stonehenge, Spinal Tap’s superlative send-up of the pretensions of the worst of prog rock. The conceptual performance is seized upon by the struggling band as the last straw, a final throw of the creative dice – probably on a level with the jazz odyssey they later experiment with – and ends, famously, with the band joined on stage by dwarfs dancing around a spectacularly miscalculated stage set a mere 18 inches, rather than feet, high. It was such a brilliant skewering that I think it turned off an entire generation to the joys of 13-minute flute solos (there they go again, those bloody flutes).
My own views may have changed – for reasons I’ll go into soon – but in releasing a concept album you are still, I’d argue, taking a creative risk. Reviewers and listeners have a reason to write off your hard work as pretentious nonsense before they’ve even heard a note and, in some cases, even challenge your right to write it in the first place. In our case, what do these boys from south London, who weren’t even alive when the golden age of manned space exploration was happening, know about it? What gives them the audacity to write about it as if they do?
Yet there has been a gradual rehabilitation, if a quiet and mostly unacknowledged one, in recent years. I felt it creep into my life via Primal Scream’s excellent Vanishing Point, my gradual (and late!) discovery of the genius of David Bowie, and Arcade Fire’s at-least-partly conceptual Funeral and The Suburbs. In my mind, it culminated with the 100 per-cent correct awarding of PJ Harvey’s second Mercury prize, for her magisterial Let England Shake. Writing of the scars left behind by World War I, it boasted lines as terrifying as ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’’s none-more-bleak first verse:
I've seen and done things I want to forget I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat Blown and shot out beyond belief Arms and legs were in the trees
It was horrifying, bone-chilling stuff, but written and carried off with such grace, verve and skill that it entirely skirted around the prevailing stigma of concept albums and struck a bold new chord for the long-maligned format. It used the events of the past not as mere laments - yet more reasons to be depressed and weary - but also brought them dramatically into the present, drawing parallels and contrasts between then and now. In short, it was bloody fantastic.
PJ Harvey – a formidable artist when working on any album, it must be said – had used the format, as good artists do, to step outside herself, to say something bigger than other, more conventional artists’ tropes, which tend to focus on how terrible it is to be such a genius and have to tour the world communicating that genius for middling-to-large financial rewards. A conceptual album forces you to remove yourself, or at least step back from, the music you are making – it frees you up and pushes you to take into account other forces other than your own selfish desires and frustrations. It’s a very useful songwriting tool, prompting you to write in response to external forces and in doing so to consider your own place in the world.
And a quick look back through musical history – especially the world of classical music - shows how unfair the casting off of this genre has been. Holst’s The Planets, Debussy’s La Mer, Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides overture, Prokofiev’s Peter And The Wolf, Dvorak’s New World Symphony as well as arguably every opera and ballet suite ever written are just some of the examples that even I, as a mostly ignorant aficionado of classical music, can think of off the top of my head. It’s a movement that’s just as well represented in conceptual literature and art – whether it’s Leonardo’s The Last Supper, Picasso’s Guernica, Tolstoy’s War And Peace or Hilary Mantel’s more recent (and brilliant) re-imaginings of Thomas Cromwell’s exploits in the court of Henry VIII in Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies.
Of course, what all these great works of art have in common is that they offer a fresh voice, re-imagining or perspective on past events, and that really is the tricky part. That is the part that musicians who write concept albums should be judged on, not the mere fact that they’ve had the ill-advised audacity to write one in the first place. With our own effort The Race For Space – which is bound to look absolutely miniscule in comparison with all of the above examples of brilliance – what we attempted to do was recapture the spirit of awe, excitement, amazement and danger that prevailed at the time, to link it together with some recurring musical themes, to bring it into the present and reframe it for our own times.
I find it a particularly sad indictment of our species that arguably our greatest technological and spiritual achievement – leaving our own planet and walking on another celestial body – is viewed by the more cynical as a colossal waste of money or, worse, as the greatest hoax ever perpetuated. ‘Pinprick nitwit neanderthal twits grubbing in the shadows as a giant passes’ is how Danny Baker described conspiracy theorists when Neil Armstrong died, and while I don’t like to call people names, he’s absolutely right – they are. With our album and our music we are attempting to translate into our own voices a celebration of that period, in the process communicating something of ourselves and our faith in the technological progress of our species, and it is on those terms that I’d hope our album is judged.
Anyway, next time you see the words concept album in print or online, do yourself – and me – a favour, and repeat to yourself: there is nothing wrong with concept albums. Just keep those bloody flutes out of it, mind. J Willgoose @PSB_HQ
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