We live in an age of modern conveniences, with technology steadily making our loads lighter and task times shorter. The result has been two-fold—and also both sides of the same coin: 1) amped up demand for instant gratification; and 2) shorter attention spans. This “dynamic duo” affects many aspects of our lives, business or pleasure. For instance, how we choose and listen to our music; people seemingly have time for only shorter snippets.
These days it seems to be more about one song than it is that song being part of a larger whole or conceptual piece. Nowadays the right software allows any lone “artist” to create a tune, with a full digital backup band, without ever leaving the house. In turn, that lone song can be bought for about a buck on iTunes. An Apple press release titled “iTunes Plus Now Offers Over Two Million Tracks at Just 99 Cents” reflected this. In the release, Apple also boasts of it now being the third largest music retailer, along with an asterisk.
In curious contrast to the title’s intent, the footnote explains that sales data was calculated “so that one CD equals 12 tracks.” Apple also allows for “the ability to turn previously purchased songs into completed albums at a reduced price.” While part of this is no doubt market savvy—better they spend ten dollars than just one—I think it also has to do with some of those first-bought songs. However found—movie soundtrack, TV commercial—it’s later discovered that the song is a puzzle piece, just one chapter from a bigger story album.
To a sizable degree, AOR is the father of this brainchild. Taking hold in the mid-1960s, AOR—or Album Oriented Rock—ruled the turntables and airwaves in the 70s and, to a point, the 80s. Prior to this, rock ‘n’ roll’s musical mission was finding that hit song, the kind that would fit on stacks of 45 r.p.m. records blaring on portable record players in countless teen bedrooms. This was a stark contrast to Mom and Dad’s mammoth console stereo, taking up half a living room wall as Lawrence Welk spun at the much slower speed of 33 and 1/3.
The Times They Are A Changin’
Then, in 1965, a marriage changed the game. It was an unlikely musical merger between good-time rock and thoughtful folk, with Bob Dylan playing matchmaker. Much to the surprised crowd’s dislike and dismay, Dylan shocked everyone by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival. Once the backlash died down, this sparked a change in rock music which, in a sense, did some growing up. (Hi-fi’s grew up too, with component systems that played album-length vinyl.)
This spawned the golden age of AOR and the “concept album” (songs with a singular theme or story); with releases by some big swingers, such as the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band. Other bands, to name just a few, followed suit: the Who—Tommy and Quadrophenia; Pink Floyd—Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall; Rush—2112. Even for LPs (long-playing) that weren’t conceptual, the order and overall feel of the songs were well thought out.
And so, even with its frequent displays of puffed-up self-indulgence, AOR’s essence still finds its way into today’s fragmented musical landscape. It can be found in an Apple press release. It can be found on countless Apple iPods. It can be found with bands like the Flaming Lips doing Dark Side of the Moon front to back at a live show, or Pearl Jam covering the Who’s Baba O’Riley at their concerts (I remember it well). And I think it’s because we all love a good tale, some drama about the tragedies and triumphs of the human condition. Which is what draws us to these Albums That Tell a Story.