On this day (May 13) in 1969, the Who played the Boston Tea Party. The show was the first of three at the legendary Boston venue and featured the British band unveiling its brand new masterwork TOMMY, which would be released in stores ten days later. A double-album song collection featuring the Who’s typical rock attack complimented by strings, brass, and complex layered harmonies was united in its central concept of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy finding his way to spiritual enlightenment. The album was soon labeled a “rock opera,” although it could have easily been called a rock musical.
With the freedom afforded by some record labels to their star groups, or just by a happy accident during a time of exploding cultural expansion, the extended concept work called the ‘rock opera’ soon became an often-utilized form of creativity. Indeed, Pete Townshend, the composer of most of TOMMY, would write three of these extended epics for the Who and at least three as solo projects.
In honor of the Who’s groundbreaking move in 1969, here’s a countdown of the Top 15 ‘rock operas’ released in the classic rock era.
#15 TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA – CHRISTMAS EVE AND OTHER STORIES (1996) Trans-Siberian Orchestra grew from the ashes of 80’s heavy metal group Savatage. A ‘West Coast’ and an ‘East Coast’ version of TSO tours every holiday season to record sellouts, playing hard rock holiday classics and originals including “Christmas Eve”/”Sarajevo 12/24,” which was released on the group’s debut rock opera in 1996.
#14 FRANK ZAPPA - JOE’S GARAGE (1979) Musician, conceptualist, singer and (underrated) guitarist Frank Zappa had already stretched the boundaries of rock well before he reached this three-part rock opera originally released on two separate albums. A higher concept of a government which banishes music ties these songs together, but titles like “Crew Slut” and “Wet T-shirt Nite” maintain Zappa’s predilection to describe the cruder aspects of life.
#13 NEIL YOUNG - GREENDALE (2003) In his long and legendary career, Neil Young has explored so many avenues of creativity, it’s a challenge to imagine what he hasn’t attempted. While some of Young’s tours utilized concepts like the huge stage gear on RUST NEVER SLEEPS to a garage rolling open to reveal his garage-group Crazy Horse, the musician had never tackled anything close to this story of a make-believe California town and its off-beat residents.
#12 MEATLOAF – BAT OUT OF HELL (1978) This album united composer Jim Steinman and uber-producer Todd Rundgren with the dynamic and powerful singer Meatloaf. The album of romantic and emotional tales driven on by raging hormones ignited into a monstrous cultural force, becoming one of the world’s biggest-selling albums and passing over 14-million sold in just the U.S. Who can’t relate to the story of passionate lovemaking in “Paradise By the Dashboard Light”?
#11 ROGER WATERS - AMUSED TO DEATH (1992) Unfortunately overlooked, this was the former Pink Floyd member’s third solo studio effort. As with all of Water’s works, he thought big, tackling the overwhelming presence of media in charting our lives and shaping our opinions in everything from politics to warfare. One song describes a live TV show in which a submarine commander torpedoes a ship while game-show hosts banter on about the tactical success or failure of the attack. Is this far-fetched? In an ever more callous world, perhaps not.
#10 QUEENSRYCHE - OPERATION MINDCRIME (1988) The band from Washington state took a leap of faith on its third album by delving into a concept of corrupt society and political assassination. The more complex approach worked out for Queensryche, which received a platinum album for this rock opera even as many of their contemporaries plundered the much shallower waters of hair metal pop.
#9 THE KINKS - THE KINKS ARE THE VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY (1968) Ray Davies, as the main composer for the Kinks took a giant plunge on this early Kinks work. Penning a song-cycle of stories concerning English suburban life and the brainwashing of modern society, this would be a subject Davies visited quite often. The singer took a great liking to the rock opera format, as well, writing subsequent efforts ARTHUR, SOAP OPERA, SCHOOLBOYS IN DISGRACE, plus PRESERVATION ACT 1 and ACT 2.
#8 DAVID BOWIE – THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS (1972) – Bowie’s early career masterpiece involved the onslaught of a new cultural hero, as personified by himself. Reality would imitate art as Bowie became the character in the album and led a group of musicians who actually became known as the Spiders from Mars. The rise of Bowie’s career mirrored that of the mythical Ziggy in the grooves, except that, happily, the iconic real-life star never suffered the fall described in the lyrics.
#7 RUSH – 2112 (1976) This is a 20-minute epic on the 1976 album of the same name was based on a story by Rush drummer and lyricist Neal Peart. The science-fiction theme of a society with art outlawed by the government and eventual revolutionary forces rediscovering music became an immediate fan favorite and extended the Canadian band’s popularity immensely.
#6 GENESIS – THE LAMB LIES DOWN ON BROADWAY (1974) This swansong for Peter Gabriel as the singer of Genesis also marked the pinnacle of the English Prog-rock band’s fascination with the concept album or rock opera. An extended story spread over a double-album, LAMB explored themes of alienation and madness, much like Roger Waters would five years later on THE WALL.
#5 GREEN DAY -AMERICAN IDIOT (2004) Green Day had already sold millions and millions of albums as one of the 90’s most promising and successful punk bands. But in the early years of the new century, it seemed like the group was merely issuing musical retreads. How surprising and wonderful that the trio came up with this self-called “punk rock opera” dealing with the disillusionment of a generation. The album was a monster, selling over 16-million around the globe.
#4 VARIOUS - JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1970) This Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice work was a rock opera on album preceding the eventual Broadway play. Concerning the last days of Jesus Christ’s ministry, this album dropped into our culture as a bomb might, exploding to break open a myriad of creative possibilities for the artists of the time. Ian Gillian of Deep Purple provided the voice (and mighty lungs) of Jesus.
#3 THE WHO - QUADROPHENIA (1973) If you didn’t know that Pete Townshend was a deep thinker before this, the double-album tale of mid-sixties England with colorful pitched battles between mods and rockers left little doubt. This was the world the Who dropped into when they learned their instruments sufficiently to sign their first record contract. Featuring heroic guitar chords, a tympanic Keith Moon, war-whooping bass from John Entwistle, and Roger Daltrey Superstar, this album was (as is) mandatory listening.
#2 PINK FLOYD - THE WALL (1979) Pink Floyd is one of the few classic rock bands that enjoyed multiple era-changed efforts, including DARK SIDE OF THE MOON and this epic that welcomed the darkness of a new decade. THE WALL was a blockbuster when it came out, remaining as the #1 selling album in America for 15-weeks in 1980. It’s messages of distance, alienation, madness, and hope for recovery were matched by songs of melodic depth and in the case of “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2,” commercial appeal.
#1 THE WHO – TOMMY (1969) Even before this album was recorded, the Who were deep in debt for the years of instrument smashing and Keith Moon’s hotel bashing. The rock opera had been prefaced in the extended piece “A Quick One While He’s Away” from 1968 and the song “Rael,” but everyone around Pete Townshend still thought the boy genius was being unrealistically ambitious during recording. Even Townshend himself worried if he was just chasing his muse down an expensive rabbit hole, but the album made the band worldwide stars and set them firmly in the black.