Though Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band holds something of an honorary cultural position as “the first concept album,” the Beatles themselves didn’t hear it that way. The term “concept album,” as defined by Polyphonic host Noah Lefevre in his new video above, denotes “a set of tracks which hold a larger meaning when together than apart, usually achieved through adherence to a central theme.” Despite being one of the finest collections of songs committed to a single vinyl disc in the nineteen-sixties, Sgt. Pepper’s does — apart from its opening and closing tracks — reflect few pains taken to assure a thematic unity.
Other contenders for the first concept album, in Lefevre’s telling, include Woody Guthrie’s 1940 Dust Bowl Ballads, Frank Sinatra’s 1955 In the Wee Small Hours, Johnny Cash’s 1959 Songs of Our Soil, and The Ventures’ 1964 The Ventures in Space. Part of the question of designation has to do with technology: we associate the album with the twelve-inch long-playing record, which didn’t come on the market until 1948. (Dust Bowl Ballads had to sprawl across two 78 rpm three-disc sets.)
And even then, it was almost two decades before the LP “caught on as the default format for musical releases, allowing musicians to have more scope and vision for their albums” — that, thanks to expansive gatefold sleeves, could literally be made visible. There began what I’ve come to think of as the heroic era of the album as an art form.
This era was marked by releases like The Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out!, The Who’s Tommy, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and later The Wall. “The seventies were a golden age for the concept album,” Lefevre adds. “It was a time when musicians had the space and budget to experiment, and when new technologies were pushing music into entirely unexpected places.” Partially demolished by punk and majestically revived by hip-hop, the concept album remains a viable form today, essayed by major twenty-first century pop artists from The Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar to Taylor Swift and BTS — none of whom have quite managed to capture the entire zeitgeist in the manner of Sgt. Pepper’s, granted, but certainly not for lack of trying.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.