Concept albums divide opinion. There are those who dislike them as bloated, worthy and self-indulgent. These people see concept albums as being about as welcome as Justin Bieber in The Anne Frank Museum, and avoid them like they would gout. And there are those who love them because they are er, bloated, worthy and self-indulgent.
The eighties perhaps had fewer concept albums than the previous decade, but in a field that comprises such fine albums as Misplaced Childhood, Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, Iron Maiden’s Seventh Son and just about every album by King Diamond, which is best? Don’t worry, this isn’t Harry Hill’s TV Burp – there won’t be a fight or death match… In the spirit of a parent who has to keep every child happy at a party, I’m just going to pick one whose birthday it is today – and give the rest lots of fizzy drinks, cakes, prizes, then let them run around a lot and give them party bags at the end. Let me know if you disagree with my choice.
Corruption, shadowy figures pulling strings, recovering drug addicts, rape and assassination. No, it’s not the political party conference season, today is the 25th anniversary of Queensryche‘s 1988 concept album Operation Mindcrime…
Concept albums, as Forrest Gump once nearly said, are like a box of chocolates. They’re hard to digest all at once and the packaging can be better than what’s inside. Or something.
For eighties rock and metal fans – and probably no-one else – the finest concept album of all time was Queensryche’s Operation Mindcrime – which was released 25 years ago today. The band’s third album, it remains a classic of a relatively unloved genre, but has aged far better than many hard rock records of the time.
I mentioned Queensryche earlier in the year to highlight The Great And Horrendous Photo Shoot of 1986 where, if you remember, the uncomfortable looks on the band members’ faces carried the haunted air of unwilling participants in a hostage video, or perhaps a look of confusion that you would only see on the face of a Daily Mail reader who has just seen the headline “Gay Asylum Seeker Kills Paedophile”.
However I feel it would be remiss of me not to draw your attention to the music also – and their Magnum Opus, the aforementioned Operation Mindcrime. It is my hope that you might check out this record – one of 1988’s finest, there can be little doubt (not that the competition was up to much that year – yes I mean you, Stock Aitken and Waterman) – and give it a spin on its birthday. That you will actually play it if you are not already a fan is perhaps a vain hope of course – similar to the one I have that the kids will one day load the dishwasher in a way that means the plates will come out clean, rather than them cram everything in so it all comes out looking like someone has vomited on them and then warmed them up in the microwave. But it is a hope – and if heavy rock isn’t naturally your bag perhaps you will look beyond singer Geoff Tate’s vocal style and the eighties metal (there’s plenty of Judas Priest-style twin guitar goings-on to enjoy) to simply enjoy the story and tunes.
As with the best concept albums it features a barking plot involving our hero waking up trying to recall how he was used by the shadowy Dr X as a political assassin through drug use and mind control.
We realise our hero may have committed an as yet unknown crime in the opening track – which is dialogue between the hospitalised patient and an evil-sounding nurse. In concert in 1988, when they played the whole album through at The Town and Country Club in London, I remember, along with the whole audience, shouting along to that opening scene with a huge grin on my face.
The album raised a cynical eyebrow to the political problems of the time:
Political self-interest: “That crazy scene in DC – it’s just a power mad town.”
The media: “I used to trust the media to tell me the truth / but now I see the pay-offs everywhere I look / who do you trust when everyone’s a crook?”
Celebrity culture: “Warhol wasn’t wrong / fame 15 minutes long / everyone’s using everybody / making the sale”
Money and Corruption: “I used to think that only America’s way was right / but now the holy dollar rules everybody’s lives / gotta make a million, doesn’t matter who dies”.
Social inequality: “Fighting fire with empty words / the banks get fat while the poor stay poor / the rich get rich and the cops get paid to walk away / as the one percent rule America”.
Heh, thank goodness we don’t have those problems nowadays.
There are some cynical references to particular issues of the day:
“Politicians say no to drugs / while we pay for wars in South America”, “All the shady preachers begging for my cash / Swiss bank accounts while giving their secretaries the slam” (nice delicate phrase that).
I’m tired of all this BS / they keep selling me on TV / about the communist plan” (this was a year before the wall came down, and incredibly, seven years before Fox News started).
Back to the story, our hero befriends a former prostitute (now a nun of course – it is a well known fact that 74% of all hookers become nuns later in life) who shows him the error of his ways and offers a way out. He is ordered to kill her, refuses, but finds her dead and – was he her killer?
Just an ordinary everyday tale then – and certainly no less realistic than the average plot on Eastenders…
Unusually for a concept album, the band got the balance right between progressing the story and writing a decent song. Also welcome was the running time: it all fits on a single LP – this ability to be concise and not overstay your welcome is always a good thing (as anyone who sat through The Hobbit will testify).
Listening to this album for the first time in a little while has been enjoyable. Given it was released at the peak of hair metal (and went platinum) it has stood the test of time, not least because Queensryche eschewed the over-the-top misogyny that was so commonplace in the genre, coming up with a coherent concept, thoughtful lyrics and some great tunes. Songs like Suite Sister Mary broke new ground with an operatic male / female vocal counterpoint – and I don’t mean in a Meatloaf or Renee and Renata way. This was a blueprint that led the way for Evanescence to use to good effect many years later with a song that topped the charts. I’d be astonished if Evanescence hadn’t heard Operation Mindcrime.
In a list published by Kerrang! Magazine in 1988 (the year the album was released) of their top 100 Heavy Metal albums of all time, Mindcrime hit #34. They said “this will be seen as a landmark, a shift in what rock musicians can and should do.”
I think those comments still hold true.
Record #186 – Queensryche – Suite Sister Mary
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