Wishone Ash's Argus (1972) 

Wishbone Ash is one of those epic '70s bands that burned brightly for a few years, releasing top 10 albums, playing stadiums worldwide and then seemingly vanished. If you weren't listening to prog rock in '72 or maybe '74 you might never have heard of them. They never had a charting single in the US, no rock documentary, no "Behind the Music" MTV special, nothing. That makes it all the more surprising that 50 years later they are still recording and touring in the US and Europe.

Although Argus, their most famous and best-selling album, is not a rock opera, it comes pretty close. It's a concept album with a pretty solid unifying theme (something to do with England and uh, fighting for king and country, I think) the music more than makes up for it. Maybe one more song on theme with some characters or story and it could qualify as a rock opera, so we'll cut them some slack. It's kind of an amazing album that ranges from prog rock to folk-rock harmonies and hard rock solos with a hint of classic English blues.

Wishbone Ash pretty much invented the twin lead guitar sound which went on to influence bands like Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest, Steely Dan and even the Eagles. As mentioned, the band still records and tours, led by original guitar player Andy Powell. While they never surpassed the impact of Argus, they've had a productive career with 20 studio albums, a dozen live albums and many compilations. If you want to get a taste of the band, I recommend Argus, the compilation Time Was, and the live album Live Dates. There are some solid later albums including New England, Bona Fide, Elegant Stealth, No Smoke Without Fire.

I've seen them live on several occasions in recent years, in a small club in Michigan and they did not dissapoint. These were among the best live shows I've seen. Checkout some vintage live clips on YouTube.

Dreams from the Witch House (2014) 

I admit, I'm a sucker for rock operas. And if you throw in some HP Lovecraft, well then you've definitely got my attention. "Dreams in the Witch House" is a full-blooded modern rock opera based on one of HP Lovecraft's typically creepy stories about things gone wrong in dimensions we can't know or understand. The story is compelling enough on its own and it provides a solid basis for characters and a story arc. But what really makes this piece shine is the caliber of the rock.  

"Dreams in the Witch House" has an over-the-top classic rock sound. If the combination of Meatloaf meets KISS with a side of Trans-Siberian Orchestra intrigues you, you'll love this album. Standout cuts include "The Nightmare" "No Turning Back" and "Signum Crucis" (featuring one-time KISS guitarist Bruce Kulick).  

On the spectrum of Rock and Opera, "Dreams in the Witch House" is a bit more on the musical story side of things with many spoken word narrative sections. So if you're looking for background rock music, this might not fit the bill. But if you want a captivating story for a long drive, I highly recommend it.The whole project was completed in association with HP Lovecraft Historical Society, who also produce excellent old-time radio adaptations of Lovecraft's stories. It's available direct from HPLHS on CD or Vinyl or you can get it at Amazon for $9. This is perfect for Halloween listening.

You can also check out the videos at Youtube

    Ghost Brothers of Darkland County (2013) 

    This next one is a bit of an odd-ball to me. It's not exactly a rock opera, but it's close enough to warrant examination. "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County" came together in 2013 as a joint project of John Mellencamp, Stephen King and T-Bone Burnett. Ok, that's quite a parentage right there. Their efforts yielded a star-studded band, an album, a "hardcover" box set and a touring cast. While there's some rock to this whole thing, "Ghost Brothers" is more alt-country-musical than rock opera. So it's important to judge the project on that basis, rather than comparing to a traditional rock opera like "Tommy."  If you are looking for big soaring guitar solos, this is not gonna cut it. 

    But if you like the roots rock music of Mellencamp, Elvis Costello or The Blasters, then it might be right up your alley. However, before every musical number there's a dramatic exposition that takes place. It starts off with the narrator (Stephen King) introducing the tale as a back-country DJ known as the Zydeco Cowboy. These narrative elements are done well with professional actors, and they help move the story along in a way that is hard to do with just songs. But if you just want to listen to the music, you'll be hitting the skip button quite often. The songwriting, the vocals, the playing, the production are all top notch, conveying a real sense of emotion and some nice swampy southern sounds. Standout songs for me include "So Goddamn Smart,"How Many Days," "Tear This Cabin Down."  To be clear, I'm way more a fan of "alt" than "country."  Your mileage may vary. 

    Personally, I find this album interesting, but, even with Elvis Costello on board, this is too far afield for repeated listening. It's a good effort, just not my cup of tea. 

    Brainpool Junk (2004) 

    I happened to stumble across the song "This is Junk" by Brainpool while listening to a running podcast back in 2008. It's a catchy number that sounded to me like Ted Leo and the Pharmacists with a top-40 radio vibe. After digging further I discovered that Brainpool was a 90's postpunk pop group from Sweden who had several hits in the early 1990s, but ditched it all in 2000 to write a rock opera called "Junk" on the growing commercialism in society. This was a labor of love that took Brainpool four years to complete. And it's an absolute masterpiece.

    The result was a stunning work reminiscent of the best of the concept albums from the 70's and 80's. Brainpool combined classic rock hooks in the style of The Who, The Clash, Oasis, Pink Floyd, ELP, Queen, David Bowie --and Ted Leo. Not only is the music good, it's eery; like finding a rare unreleased bootleg from a supergroup of classic rock veterans. Brainpool performed "Junk" live with the Malmo Symphony Orchestra in 2005 and then... they broke up.

    Unfortunately Brainpool never found much success outside of Sweden. Maybe the toil of working on a rock opera for four years was too much. "Junk" had a live run in LA and a more limited performance in New York, but sadly the band appears to be on a semi-permanent hiatus. There have been rumors of another album but nothing has come other than the occasional Christmas song.

    While you won't find the CD in the racks at your local musical retailer, you can get it at Amazon, iTunes, etc. To me "Junk" is one of the greatest rock operas ever and a definite source of inspiration for "Underground Radio".  Some of the highlights include "Anybody Home?", "What Have I Done and Why Have I Done It?", "Who's That Man?"

    There are a couple of videos on YouTube if you want to give it a listen.

    Joe's Garage (1979) 

    For a lot of people, Joe’s Garage remains one of the most approachable of Frank Zappa’s works. Technically a triple album when released on vinyl in 1979, it's long since been reissued as a double CD combining Acts I, II and III and clocking in at just under 2 hours. 

    Although the title track has the usual Zappa key and tempo changes, it has a catchy sing-along chorus and just the right amount of humor to not overwhelm the casual listener. 

    Zappa narrates the story as the “Central Scrutinizer,” providing the necessary explanations that keep the story moving along as Joe moves from Garage Band to degenerate rock star, a criminal and ultimately gives up on his musical dreams to worker at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen Facility. It’s got the usual rock opera themes of dystopian society, music is illegal, yada yada yada. (In tribute to Zappa, we snuck in a few references to "Louie, Louie" in Underground Radio. 

    The lyrics range from profane (“Crew Slut”) to comical (“Why Does It Hurt When I pee?”) and occasionally profound: 

    Information is not knowledge 
    Knowledge is not wisdom 
    Wisdom is not truth 
    Truth is not beauty 
    Beauty is not love 
    Love is not music 
    Music is the best 

    Considering the album was released in 1979 against the backdrop of government censorship of rock music, it’s an appropriate and compelling social satire. 

    The album has several epic guitar solos and an occasional ‘70s disco-funk influence, but overall the album holds up. The penultimate song is the instrumental “Watermelon in Easter Hay” a signature Zappa song, that his son Dweezil regards as one of his father’s greatest solos. It’s a truly majestic piece of work, intended as the product of Joe’s tortured imagination. Here's a video of Dweezil Zappa playing it: 

    Klaatu Hope (1977) 

    If you know one thing about the obscure prog rock band Klaatu, it's that in the late 1970s they were rumored to be the Beatles. Of course, that wasn't the case, as legions of Beatles fans later realized when they, you know, actually listened to the first Klaatu album. But they were a pretty good, if undervalued band.   

    Haling from Toronto, these three studio musicians thought that "the music should speak for itself." Hence, no bios, photos or interviews with the band, not even credits indicating who played or wrote the songs. And since they were signed to Capitol Records, some bonehead reporter for the Providence Journal thought it must be the fab four reunited.  

    At any rate, when all these Beatles rumors surfaced, sales for their first album soared. And admittedly, there are a couple of Beatlest-esque tunes on the first album, notably "Subway Sub Rosa" and "Little Neutrino." Meanwhile the band shrugged off the rumors since they were busy in London recording their second album, the rock opera "Hope," with the London Symphony Orchestra. And The Carpenters released had a hit single with their version of Klaatu's "Calling Occupants from Interplanetary Craft."  

    And I've got to say, "Hope" is one helluva an album. Although it clocks in at just over 40 minutes, it is ambitious and grandiose musically and thematically. It tells the story of an ancient race or planet of space travelers and a lonely lighthouse keeper at the end of space or who the heck knows what. There is a story here, which is why I think this qualifies as a rock opera more than just a concept album, but I wouldn't be able to explain it to you. Still, I would put it up there with SF Sorrow by The Pretty Things. It's that good an album.  

    While the whole album is excellent, I view "Long Live Politzania" as the best cut. Ok, and some of the vocals on this album do sound a bit like George Harrison but I think it's just coincidental. The guitar work on "Madman" is also excellent. The music has a '70s extravagance that you will either love or hate. There are elements that compare with Queen, King Crimson, the Beach Boys, fellow Canadians Max Webster and more.  

    Unfortunately, at some point the truth behind the rumor ("Klaatu is Klaatu!") surfaced and there was a huge backlash against the band. This was unfortunate because the band had nothing to do with these rumors. The band recorded three more albums before breaking up.    

    The first three albums are excellent while I consider the last two a bit more hit-or-miss. There's also an excellent box set called "Sun Set" which includes all of Hope with all of the London Symphony Orchestra sections fully restored. The albums are available on Amazon, iTunes and from the official Klaatu website.  

    Since live footage of Klaatu is relatively hard to come by, here's a 1974 live performance on CBC Music Machine with a song from their first album.  

    Tommy (1969) 

    For good or for bad, for most people The Who's "Tommy" is the definitive rock opera. When I tell people I wrote a rock opera, the usual question is "You mean, like Tommy?" Yeah, like Tommy, but better.  

    While I'm a fan of much of The Who's material, I can't say "Tommy" ever really clicked for me. There are some great moments for sure, and I love the theme that's repeated throughout. It's particularly rockin' on the french horn. But as a double album, Tommy clocks in at a bloated and overdone 75 minutes. With a lot of editing this would have been a fantastic single album. Still, the story is pretty good, if a bit cryptic, but it's certainly withstood the test of time. People interpret Tommy in their own personal way, which is probably what Townshend intended.

    Highlights include "Overture", "Underture", "Pinball Wizard", "I'm Free", "We're Not Going To Take It". But if I never hear "Cousin Kevin" or "Fiddle About" again, it will be too soon.

    Still, we owe The Who a debt of gratitude for popularizing the rock opera form in a way that no one else has before or since. But it's a shame Pete Townshend never gave credit to The Pretty Things for inventing the whole genre with 1968's "SF Sorrow."

    Here's a video of The Who performing Tommy live at Woodstock.

    SF Sorrow (1968) 

    If you ask most people to name a rock opera, they'll probably come up with "Tommy" and not much else. Until recently, I had assumed The Who's "Tommy" was not only the definitive rock opera but also the first. But as I learned listening to the public radio show SoundOpinions, Pete Townshend was beat out by a year with a release of the album "S.F. Sorrow" by the UK band The Pretty Things

    The Pretty Things started out as a typical UK R&B band with a claim to fame of being hairier, dirtier and raunchier than The Rolling Stones. The Pretty Things' first two albums ("The Pretty Things", "Get the Picture" both released in 1965) are steeped in American rhythm & blues with cranked-up fuzz guitar. The music is not to everyone's taste, but if you like '60s garage rock sound, it's brilliant. By their fourth album they were stretching beyond the form and had the idea to create a collection of songs that told a story. 

    S.F. Sorrow was recorded at famed Abbey Road studios in London, in 1967 where the Beatles and Pink Floyd were also recording. The music and production is definitely of an era; if you can get past the occasional sitar, woodwinds and backwards tape studio effects, it's a brilliant album that combines melody, lush vocal harmonies, and psychadelic garage rock full-gain Marshall stack guitar solos in ways that I'd never imagined before. It makes S.F. Sorrow a tremendous discovery. Many of the songs sound like they could be from some long lost Beatles bootleg session. Standout cuts include "S.F. Sorrow is born", "She Says Good Morning", "Balloon Burning", "Baron Saturday", "The Journey" and "I See You."  Also "Mr Evasion." And "Talkin' About the Good Times." Ok, I like almost everything on this album.  There are a few clunkers for sure, but overall these fit in with to the broader '60s context and make the best songs stand out even more. 

    Alas, S.F. Sorrow album got little support in America. The band continued to record for many years, with a somewhat evolving crew of band members and still tours to this day. Unfortunately, The Pretty Things never really got the recognition they deserved for their early blues-based albums, their pioneering pyschadelic sound or their creation of the first ever rock opera. 

    Here's a YouTube video with most of the original lineup of The Pretty Things live from Abbey Road in 1998 recreating "S.F. Sorrow" in it's entirety along with some help from David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. (Skip ahead to 3:15 where the music starts.)