A BRIEF (AND INCOMPLETE) HISTORY OF ROCK OPERA
It is generally accepted that the first rock opera was in fact a rock operetta called “A Quick One While He’s Away”, a 9 minute song written by Peter Townshend for The Who’s 1966 album “A Quick One”. Two years later, Townshend and The Who created “Tommy”, perhaps the best known rock opera, and the first musical work explicitly billed as a “rock opera”. It tells the story of a boy who has a psychological trauma rendering him deaf, dumb and blind, and his parent’s efforts to find a cure for his illness. Along the way, he becomes a pinball champion, and eventually a messianic spiritual leader who is worshipped by fans who eventually become disillusioned by him and attack and abandon him.
At the same time Pete Townshend was writing Tommy, other artists were working on their own rock operas. In 1967, a British group called Nirvana (not the famous American band) released “The Story of Simon Simopath” and in 1968, The Pretty Things released “S.F.Sorrow”. Most notably, the KInks released “Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)” just after Tommy was released in 1969. This would be the first of several great rock operas written by Ray Davies and performed by the Kinks in tours that bridged the gap between rock concerts and theatrical presentations.
The influence of Tommy on the rock music world was profound, and the 1970s was the first golden age of rock opera, with many great works being created. Some well-known examples:
“The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars” – David Bowie (1972)
“Quadrophenia” – The Who (1973)
“Preservation: Act 1” – The Kinks (1973)
“Berlin” – Lou Reed (1973)
“Preservation: Act 2” – The Kinks (1974)
“The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” – Genesis (1974)
“Soap Opera” – The Kinks (1975)
“Schoolboys In Disgrace” – The Kinks (1975)
“The Wall” – Pink Floyd (1979)
“Joe’s Garage” – Frank Zappa (1979)
In the 80’s the punk rock rebellion against the excesses of rock recording and touring led to “rock opera” becoming a pejorative term associated with the overly bloated budgets and personas associated with the increasingly corporate-dominated rock establishment.
However, the 90’s brought a resurgence of interest in the rock opera form.
In 1993, Randy Newman released “Faust”, a rock opera album featuring an all-star cast, that was later developed into a stage musical. In 1995, Rivers Cuomo of the band Weezer recorded songs for a rock opera called “Songs From The Black Hole”, that was abandoned, although some of the songs were released in the album “Pinkerton”. The bootleg recordings of Cuomo’s demos have a strong cult following, and many fans still hope the project will eventually be finished and released. The same year David Bowie released a rock opera “Outside” ushering in a new phase of his varied musical career. Also in 1995, Mark Governor and his band performed early versions of “The Scarlet Letter” in LA clubs, and 2 years later staged it weekly as a rock opera at the Luna Park nightclub in West Hollywood. In 1996, Marilyn Manson released “Antichrist Superstar”, and in 1998, “Mechanical Animals”.
“Faust” – Randy Newman (1993)
“Outside” – David Bowie (1995)
“Mechanical Animals” – Marilyn Manson (1998)
The 21st century has been marked by a resurgence of interest in the rock operas of the past, and by the form being embraced by new bands and artists. Green Day led the charge with “American Idiot” in 2004, described as a “punk rock opera”. They followed up with another in 2009 called “21st Century Breakdown”.
In 2006, My Chemical Romance released “The Black Parade”. In 2008 “shAme”, a reworked rock opera version of Mark Governor’s “Scarlet Letter” was produced at the King King in Los Angeles by LA Rock Opera. In 2009, The Decemberists released the rock opera “The Hazards of Love”. In 2010, the rock opera “How To Survive the Apocalypse” was presented at the Burning Man Festival in Nevada.
“The Black Parade” – My Chemical Romance (2006)
“The Hazards of Love” – The Decemberists (2009)
This is by no means a complete list. The form of rock opera is alive and well, and constantly evolving. Los Angles Rock Opera Company is proud to be a the forefront of the new generation of presenters and creators of rock opera.
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