Thursday, April 22, 2010

Song of the Week!

Earlier this week, I wrote about Green Day's foray into theater, and why Broadway might be punker than punk. What I forgot to mention was my initial reaction upon hearing that American Idiot would be made into a Broadway show: "I should've seen this coming."

Song of the Week: Green Day "Before the Lobotomy"

The "punk + pop + politics" formula of American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown earned Green Day critical acclaim, an even broader audience, and ample Clash comparisons. The comparisons are well-grounded: you can hear the Clash's influence in the politically-charged lyrics, the muscular songwriting, Billy Joe's sneering vocal stylings, etc. Green Day's always worn that label proudly, and well.

But I heard a different band as the primary influence for American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown (the two albums that have been adapted for Broadway): Queen.

You heard me. Queen.

Before American Idiot, Green Day's strength was the four-minute pop song. Their best music was accessible, uber-melodic, tightly written, and small in scope. With American Idiot--a loosely narrative and stunning concept album--everything changed. Two of its (best) songs are over nine minutes long. 21st Century Breakdown took this method to the next level. Songs swing wildly from section to section, one track bleeds into the next, melodies reference other songs and foreshadow those to come, preludes and reprisals bookend the album, etc. Each individual song is a huge planet in an interconnected universe. Both albums create worlds, detail vast urban wastelands, juggle multiple plots, introduce recurring characters, interweave both musical and lyrical themes, all within the vehicle of epic, mercurial pop songwriting.

In other words, this isn't "London Calling"; it's "Bohemian Rhapsody."

The proof is obvious:

Listen and try not to picture it onstage. A pale, single spotlight shines on our antihero, alone on an otherwise pitch-black room. It's a soliloquy, a rare moment of solemn quiet in our chaotic story. Then, at the 1:21 mark, guitars kick in. Lights blast the theater. Dozens of extras begin a raucously (ehem, rockously?) choreographed dance number.

It writes itself.

There's an undeniably operatic quality to "Before the Lobotomy," and it's not even one of the nine-minute epics. Both albums are true rock operas--the kind Queen perfected but rarely tried, and the kind the Who often tried but never perfected.

In fact, many of pop's biggest and best albums share this quality. With Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles were overtly theatrical; with Abbey Road, they dabbled with extended-form songwriting. Led Zeppelin's work was operatic in scope and principle, but not in execution; they were too "live," or unscripted, to be fully operatic. Pearl Jam's Ten also works: Eddie's vocal style, the narrative lyrics, the anthemic choruses, the carefully-scripted themes ("Master/Slave" piece that opens and closes the album), etc. And Thriller--with its epic songwriting, choreographed videos and ethereal iconography--might be the best example.

All of this got me thinking: what are some other famous rock albums that could hit Broadway? What are some of your favorite rock-opera albums? And what's your favorite song from American Idiot or 21st Century Breakdown?

Hit up the comments and add to the list!

(Postscript: Between Monday's post and this one, "American Idiot" debuted on Broadway and earned a rave review in the NYTimes. Check it out.)


Michael said...

I think some of the Decemberists earlier stuff could be fodder for a rockpera...but they actually DID a 'rock opera' album (The hazards of love) - and in my opinion it was mediocre at best.

Chris Milam said...

I thought Mediocre At Best was the title of their rock opera.

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