Both the trophy cases and the cutout bins of rock history are well-stocked with efforts to turn the simple rock 'n' roll album into something much bigger: a story, a play, an opus. The Who's "Tommy," currently at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, was the first to go legit with a Broadway staging.
With "Tommy" on the local boards, here is a rundown--not intended to be comprehensive--of some other rock albums you can hunt up if you feel like hearing a story and a big beat at the same time.
For our purposes, only albums written and preformed by bona fide rockers count; no theatrical interlopers like Andrew Lloyd Webber and the "Hair" gang allowed. We're also sticking to albums that, while they may not have been staged, manage to include enough story development to have made a theatrical adaptation possible. Excluded are albums such as Prince's "Purple Rain" that don't stand alone as narratives but rely on accompanying films or texts for most of their plot and character development.
Ratings range from * (poor) to ***** (a classic). Three stars denote a solid recommendation.
***** The Beach Boys, "Pet Sounds" (1966). The first rock album to hang together as a story. Working with lyricist Tony Asher, Brian Wilson told a tale of young love that blooms ("Wouldn't It Be Nice"), staggers ("You Still Believe in Me") and ends in crushing disillusionment ("Caroline, No"). Along the way, the song cycle captures much of the idealism, anxiety, self-doubt and elevated passion that come with growing up. One of rock's most moving and beautiful achievements.
*** Pretty Things, "S.F. Sorrow" (1968). One of the original British Invasion bands, the Pretty Things made the then-common, but in retrospect remarkable, progression from imitating their blues and R&B influences to broadening rock's possibilities with a swirl of folk, psychedelic and music hall-ish elements. This album's nebulous story sends protagonist S.F. Sorrow off to World War I, where he apparently is killed off by the end of Side 1, setting the stage for much metaphysical and darkly philosophic musing the rest of the way. This is worth hunting up as a musically well-wrought artifact of the period, with strong parallels to the sound that Traffic and the Who were creating around the same time.
***** The Who, "Tommy" (1969). A story this preposterous could only be carried by music this strong. Catatonic kid becomes pinball-playing savant, wakes up, gathers cultic following, and is overthrown when he starts making testy demands of his disciples. In terms of dramatic development, Tommy himself is virtually a cipher; some of the more vivid scenes belong to his tormentors, Cousin Kevin, Uncle Ernie and the Acid Queen. Ultimately, Townshend has a valid point to make about the solitary nature of spiritual questing: Disaster befalls Tommy when he tries to bring others along on his spiritual journey, but even after his fall, he remains a faithful searcher on his own personal path to enlightenment. The album is based on riffs and melodies of enduring appeal and is brilliantly sung by Townshend, Roger Daltry and John Entwistle (Keith Moon is wonderful, too, in his comic turn as Uncle Ernie). The main problem is the production, which is a tad too neat. The thunder and ferocity the Who could muster in the late '60s is largely absent. Get "Tommy," by all means, but also get "The Who Sell Out" and "Live at Leeds" for the full picture.
**** 1/2 The Who, "Quadrophenia" (1973). Townshend set aside messianic musings and wrote about something he knew: the teen-subculture conflicts of mid-'60s England that swirled around the Who during its formative days. "Quadrophenia" traces the progress of one mixed-up kid trying to find himself amid the brawling and boozing of the rival Rocker and Mod factions. Such peak rock songs as "The Real Me" and "5:15" find the Who in good, brawny form. But Townshend had fallen in love with synthesizers by this point, which left some selections sounding a bit overstuffed.