Ten Scariest Concept Albums of All Time
If your patented audio Halloween greeting is that old, dusty Chilling Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House album, here's a suggestion: This year, dump it and pipe out something that will inflict some genuine psychological damage. That's right, surround your house with that most horrifying emanation from the rock-star ego--the dreaded concept album. Blast the little ghouls with Rush's 2112 or ELP's Tarkus and they will promptly stop knock-knocking and develop a healthy new respect for that weirdo at your address.
Back before long-form videos and CD ROMs existed, musicians had only the concept album for overextending their half-baked ideas. Not content with letting one song do its job, groups charged an entire collection with the mission of delivering a single dunderheaded message. In horror quotient, the results rival the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe. What follows is a blood-curdling review of the worst of the lot. Like the Raven, you too will cry "Nevermore" as we count down these aberrations. Booo, indeed!
10. The Bee Gees/Peter Frampton
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Original Soundtrack (1978)
First Sure Sign of Terror: Seeing George Burns credited on any record sleeve for his singing contribution should be warning enough.
Spooky Concept: People still blame the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper for spawning the concept album, despite that there's no unifying theme beyond the title track and its reprise. Evidently, somebody thought there was a story linking Billy Shears, Lucy in the Sky, the Hendersons, the Lonely Hearts Club Band and Mr. Kite and talked Robert Stigwood in to bankrolling this stinky idea into a major motion sickness starring Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees, and Steve Martin!! And you thought Charles Manson was the only Beatles fan with an active imagination!
Bone-Chillingest Moment: When, knowing Beatles producer George Martin was enlisted to maintain some kinda Fab integrity, you discover the entire cast neighing "I Want You (She's So Heavy)."
Grand Finale: Only single-engine airplane crashes could claim more rock-career deaths than this disaster movie. And because of numerous counterfeit copies of the soundtrack, it became the first album to ship platinum and return double-platinum!
9. Frank Sinatra
Trilogy: Past, Present, Future (1980)
First Sure Sign of Terror: The title of record three, "Reflections on the Future in Three Tenses." But how?
Spooky Concept: A three-record set devoted to Frank's love of music past, present and future. The Past disk (old standards) is a pleasure, the Present disk (songs by writers of the rock era) is hit or miss, but the Future--Whoooaaaa!!! What the Frank is this? A space operetta where the Chairman of the Board zips through the galaxy looking for a planet that doesn't know about his mob ties and will grant him a gaming license?
Bone-Chillingest Moment: Glancing at the lyric sheet and seeing Frank and the Chorus about to sing "Uranus Is Heaven! Heaven! Heaven!" The Hoboken crooner quickly averts disaster by using the queen's pronunciation of the seventh planet (your-ann-us). Whew! That was a close one!
Grand Finale: The kinder, gentler Frank that writer/producer Gordon Jenkins envisions for the Future quickly becomes a thing of the past when WNEW deejay Jonathan Schwartz airs the album before its release date and dismisses it as "narcissistic" and "a shocking embarrassment in poor taste." A peeved Francis Albert calls the station's owner and gets Schwartz suspended for six weeks. Actually, this isn't on the record.
8. Tommy Roe
12 in a Roe (1969)
First Sure Sign of Terror: Surely, the sight of 13 Tommy Roes on the cover should paralyze superstitious bubblegum fans with unspeakable fright.
Spooky Concept: The predictable contents of this greatest-hits collection is offset by a terrifying concept never before and never again attempted in the annals of rock--Roe allows himself to be interviewed in between every song by a Gary Owens impersonator. You've never known true dread until you hear Roe reveal the demonic inspiration behind "Sweet Pea."
Bone-Chillingest Moment: Roe's sinister tirade on "Party Girl." "Dance your last dance/Have yourself a time," he sneers, "After the party's over/I'm gonna marry you. Instead of learning the bossa nova/You'll be learning how to cook (emphasis added)." For God's sake, don't do it, Party Girl!
Interviewer: Put it all together and that's a whole bunch of success.
Roe: I guess the best way to express my feelings about it is to borrow a phrase my dad used to use when everything was groovy. I even wrote a song about it!
That song, friends, is the vaginally retentive yet damned cheerful "Jam Up and Jelly Tight"!
7. Emerson, Lake and Palmer
First Sure Sign of Terror: The inside cover art spells out the gobbledygook story in 11 panels, stylistically a bad mix between Destroy All Monsters and the Stations of the Cross.
Spooky Concept: Rejected Transformer toy prototypes ravage the Earth to the sound of ripped-off Bach riffs played in weird time signatures (insert panting here!). Tarkus, (half armadillo, half Sherman tank) battles Manticore (half lion, half scorpion with a human's head) and a combination pterodactyl/bomber plane. There is also a combo grasshopper and safari helmet that looks like a real pushover, even with the cruiser missiles.
Bone-Chillingest Moment: "Aquatarkus," when the hideous creature/artillery takes to the water and Keith Emerson gets to unload all his farting-in-the-bathtub Moog sounds.
Grand Finale: In an unrelated story, the album concludes with "Are You Ready, Eddie," an attempt by these lofty classical-music bandits to rip off something more current, like Little Richard's "Ready Teddy." For two minutes and eight seconds, Greg Lake quizzes engineer Eddie Offord on whether he is indeed ready to shut down his 16-track recorder. Why couldn't he do that 38 minutes and 56 seconds ago?
Music From The Elder (1981)
First Sure Sign of Terror: Q: Why is KISS afraid to show its fully made-up faces on an album cover for the first time? A: This ain't rock 'n' roll--this is Genesis!
Spooky Concept: Boy joins the service of God--or the king--or, I dunno, Phantom of the Park. What hope is there for the propagation of the species?
Bone-Chillingest Moment: Hear Paul Stanley bellyache on "Odyssey" like Pavarotti after missing a meal, then try imagining the simulated castration special effects KISS would've no doubt crafted for the stage show if this turkey became a huge hit.
Grand Finale: The anthem "I," where Paul and Gene shout it out loud, "I believe in me and I believe in something more than you can understand." Like what, Crystal Light?
Paradise Theater (1981)
First Sure Sign of Terror: Any concept these insufferable Chicago shriekers commit to magnetic oxide would be a witches' brew for musical botulism.
Spooky Concept: How d'ya make the Depression more depressing than it was the first time around? Stick Styx in a time machine set for A.D. 1929 and people won't even wait for the stock-market crash to start jumping out windows.
Bone-Chillingest Moment: Whenever singer Dennis DeYoung tries to sound guttural, he makes Pat Boone sound like Tom Waits. And he navigates around the word "honey" with all the uneasiness of a cloistered monk.
Grand Finale: My kind of Styx song, "State Street Sadie," is 25 seconds of barrel-house piano played very, very far away.
Tales From Topographic Oceans (1973)
First Sure Sign of Terror: Four songs, four album sides--you do the math!
Spooky Concept: Jon Anderson, with some free time in his hotel room before a show, dreams up Yes' waterlogged Waterloo based on a lengthy footnote in Autobiography of a Yogi that describes the four-part shastric scriptures "which cover all aspects of religion and social life as well as fields like medicine and music, art and architecture." Why couldn't he just ball groupies before a show like normal rock stars?
Note: Rick Wakemen reportedly quit the group in frustration soon after touring behind this album because people kept asking him what it was about and he didn't know.
Bone-Chillingest Moment: Steve Howe slips the "Close to the Edge" riff into "Ritual" before quickly remembering, "Ah, wait, that was last album."
Grand Finale: "Ritual" features a drum and bass duel that's supposed to mirror life's struggle between the forces of evil and pure love, a struggle that's played out nightly on hundreds of creaky car back seats in far more lively fashion.
First Sure Sign of Terror: Lyrics by Neil Peart, with acknowledgments to the genius of Ayn Rand. Atlas must've shrugged before, during and after throwing up.
Spooky Concept: The title track is a 20-minute opus in seven, or shall we say "VII," stages. Sometime in the not-too-joyous future, rock, roll and any musical apparatus more complicated than a kazoo is outlawed by an oppressive government. The hero of Rush's tale finds all this confiscated musical hardware in a cave behind a waterfall.
Bone-Chillingest Moment: Like the plucky girl who always goes back into the haunted house alone, this Red Star moron actually goes to the Temple of Syrinx with his guitar contraband and rocks out for the Priests. To which the padres, in Geddy Lee's best Witchiepoo vocals, screech back, "Don't annoy us further!" Amen!
Grand Finale: Three Roman numerals after the above exchange comes "VII: Grand Finale," in which a robotic public service announcement blares, "Attention all planets of the Solar Federation. We have assumed control." What took you guys so long?
Spooky Concept: Sometime in the not-too-joyous future, rock, roll and any musical apparatus more complicated than a kazoo is outlawed by an oppressive government. Hey, why does that sound familiar?
Bone-Chillingest Moment: "High Time," where DeYoung as Kilroy (an imprisoned rock star pretending he's a robot) sings, "I see the kids of a new generation/They're gonna bring back the rock 'n' roll" and "We're gonna start a rockin' nation." Unfortunately, the years of enforced Mind Control prohibit Kilroy from rocking any harder than a Bubblicious commercial.
Grand Finale: Styx, unable to follow up this grand-concept album, break up for 12 years. Domo arigato!
1. Vanilla Fudge
The Beat Goes On (1968)
First Sure Sign of Terror: Liner notes hype this as being "like no album ever made. Above ground or underground. The music is that of Ludwig van Beethoven and Cole Porter and Stephen Foster and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Sonny Bono." Sonny Bono?
Spooky Concept: Vanilla Fudge set out to tell two stories--the history of music and the history of time--in four phases! "Phase One" of the band's two-part pop-music lesson starts with reverent versions of "In the Mood," "Don't Fence Me In," right on up to lousy versions of "Hound Dog" and "She Loves You." Interspersed between the miniatures are jazzy, bombastic, classical and loungey versions of Sonny and Cher's "The Beat Goes On."
Bone-Chillingest Moment: "Phase Three"--the hysterically historical "Voices in Time" segment, featuring such bummer sound bites as FDR's and Kennedy's funeral processions plus Truman's announcement that he just dropped the atomic bomb, against a musical bed consisting of, you guessed it, "The Beat Goes On." Can't you just hear the love-ins grinding to a halt?
Grand Finale: "Phase Four"--nine minutes of interview outtakes with members of Vanilla Fudge, speaking their Vanilla minds while sitars play in the background, a little ditty to remind you that this album is indeed called The Beat Goes On. At one point, bassist Tim Bogert says that the music industry is "disheartening," and that no one in the industry could talk the band out of this atrocity is disheartening indeed. Drop the needle anywhere on this record (it mercifully hasn't made it to CD), and you can't believe what you're hearing. I played it for the usually tolerant Peter "It Crawled From the Bins" Gilstrap and he practically threw me out of his house! People, that's scary!
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