100 Essential Albums of All Time – Queensrÿche, Operation: Mindcrime (1988)

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One of the greatest purposes of music is its ability to tell a story. Even if you go back to the times of Beethoven or Mozart, the purpose for their creations was to entertain an audience with a tale through musical composition. There is a modern-day equivalent to the masters of yore and their symphonies: the concept album.

Concept albums have been a part of the music landscape since the 1940s, believe it or not. The idea behind such creations is that the whole of the songs together on an album tell a larger story, rather than the individual songs themselves standing alone with different tales. It is thought that the first “concept album” was the 1940 release Dust Bowl Ballads from folk legend Woody Guthrie and crooner Frank Sinatra’s works through the 40s and 50s had elements of a concept album in their creation. To be honest, however, the concept album has been best done by the world of rock music.

There are several legendary rock groups that can potentially lay claim to the creative idea regarding the concept album. The Beach Boys (Pet Sounds), the Beatles (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) and The Who (Tommy) are some of the groups that are credited with bringing the concept album to rock music, with the term “rock opera” being bandied about, in the 1960s. As the 70s came, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage and Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway carried the torch.

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By the 1980s, however, the “rock opera” seemed to be a dying art. With the advent of Music Television (MTV), though, it became a prime opportunity for the concept album to make a return. Duran Duran did it well with an unofficial concept album in Rio (the songs weren’t necessarily telling a story, but the videos supporting the album were all filmed in Sri Lanka and Antigua, giving them an exotic feel and a common thread).

The concept album would make its biggest return in the world of hard rock/metal in the mid to late 1980s. Foremost practitioners of the concept album was the Seattle band Queensrÿche. Building a growing following with their early releases, the band was searching for a story that they could bring to their stage performances. They would come up with one of the classic albums in the history of heavy metal and a definitive entry into the concept album/rock opera Hall of Fame with the record Qperation: Mindcrime.

Operation: Mindcrime is the story of Nikki, a recovering addict who hates the corrupt, totalitarian society that he lives in. As Nikki lies in a near amnesiac state, memories slowly come flooding back to him. As a result of his dislike of the current socioeconomic state, Nikki joins a group that is thought to be “revolutionary” but, in reality, is a team of political assassins. Nikki is used by the leader of the group, the mysterious Dr. X., who looks to use certain members of the group for his own nefarious purposes. Dr. X uses Nikki’s heroin addiction to get him to submit to brainwashing techniques that, upon Dr. X uttering the word “mindcrime,” puts Nikki in a submissive state. This is what enables Dr. X to use him for whatever purpose he desires, in particular using Nikki to kill on command.

Nikki’s humanity begins to creep through, however. A corrupt priest who works for Dr. X gives the services of a prostitute-turned-nun named Sister Mary to Nikki. It is this relationship with Sister Mary that Nikki begins to question why he is doing the evil that Dr. X orders him to do. As his love for Mary grows, Nikki begins to assert himself, first killing the priest and then telling Dr. X that he no longer wants to work for him. Dr. X threatens to withhold his daily fix of heroin from Nikki to keep him in the fold, but Nikki refuses.

As Nikki returns to the church to tell Mary what has occurred, he comes upon her lifeless body. Not knowing whether he killed her or not due to his blackouts from his addiction, he slowly begins to go insane. The story ends with Nikki in a mental hospital under suspicion of killing Mary, now fully recovered from his amnesia but not knowing how he became the person he is today.

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Pretty intense stuff, huh?

When it was released in 1988, it WAS pretty intense stuff, especially for what some considered a “hair metal” band. But it was also hailed as one of the greatest concept albums ever done, put up beside The Who’s Quadrophenia and Floyd’s The Wall. The album made Queensrÿche superstars in the music world, spawning a sequel in Operation: Mindcrime II in 2006 (in which we learn that Sister Mary actually committed suicide after Dr. X threatened to kill Nikki to keep them apart) and sparking a musical career for the band that still exists today (albeit not with the same lineup; Tate left the group after Mindcrime II and Queensrÿche continues as a band without him).

What makes the album incredible is the story that is told. Sometimes you have to stretch to be able to grasp what an artist is trying to do with their work. With Operation: Mindcrime, however, there is absolutely no question of right or wrong in the story; it is entirely the case that Dr. X, with his evil organization, is attempting to use Nikki and, by extension, Mary, for his criminal ways. Another great thing is that, with Queensrÿche and Operation: Mindcrime, you can pick up at any point in the album and immediately know where you are in the story. The album also captures your attention, from Geoff Tate’s outstanding soaring vocals to the dual guitar attack from Chris DeGarmo and Michael Wilton, with the combination forming an all-out sonic assault that seems fitting for the story that is being told.

Operation: Mindcrime is not going to be for everyone’s taste. Some people won’t like the raw edge of the hard rock sound of Queensrÿche. But if that’s the only reason that people have for not hearing one of the most outstanding rock operas/concept albums of all time, then it is their fault for closing their minds.

Previous entries in the 100 Essential Albums of All-Time

Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968)
The BusBoys, Minimum Wage Rock & Roll (1980)
Rockpile, Seconds of Pleasure (1980)
Metallica, …And Justice for All (1988)
Rick Wakeman, Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1974)

Wondering Whatever Happened to…For February 1

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Sitting around wondering whatever happened to the “Filthy 15” while pondering…

You Want to Talk About Double Standards? In December in Akron, OH, Daniel Kovacevic was the subject of a brutal verbal tirade from Deone Slater on a sidewalk in a busy neighborhood. Kovacevic was so in fear, reports state, that he called police in to get Slater away from him. Police arrived on the scene and did speak to Slater, who was yelling profanities at Kovacevic…because Kovacevic wanted to walk in front of Slater’s business, a barbershop, while carrying a loaded rifle slung on his shoulder.

While Ohio is an open carry state – even to the point of being able to openly carry WITHOUT a license – Slater was understandably bothered that Kovacevic chose to do it in front of his business and really didn’t understand why police had an issue with his displeasure. “They (police) asked me why do I have a problem,” Slater said. “He’s a threat to me and my people. He’s a threat to me.”

If you hadn’t figured it out, Slater is black while Kovacevic is white and Slater believes this played into police reaction, which they deny. Still, the state of Ohio is the one that saw police shoot to death a 12-year old Tamir Rice for having a toy gun (among other superb examples of police work in the state), but in this instance decided to speak to a business owner about being upset over a guy walking around in front of his place of business carrying a rifle and running off his customers. Double standards, anyone?

What, You Contributed How Much? OK, Go Ahead and Kill Kids… – In the state of Florida, the stupidity normally runs towards criminals running into the swamp and being eaten by alligators or a bicyclist who shoots himself to death because he’s carrying his gun on him, but this one takes the cake. After the Republican Party of Florida was partially the beneficiary of $200,000 in political contributions from Tenet Healthcare, state officials dropped quality standards for surgical procedures for children with heart defects despite those procedures being in place for nearly four decades without being questioned.

Tenet Healthcare is a for-profit hospital that was under review because many tests and services for pediatric cardiology weren’t being performed at the hospitals owned by the company. As such, the Tenet-owned hospitals were unable to maintain a proficiency in heart operations for children, even on some babies younger than six months. A doctor from Johns Hopkins University suggested that the Tenet hospitals stop performing surgeries until their performance could improve. The hospital system ignored them.

Since those Tenet-run hospitals didn’t conform to the state’s standards for children’s heart surgeries, the state got involved. The state also quickly closed their investigations after $200,000 in campaign contributions were given to Governor Rick Scott’s political action committee, Let’s Get to Work, and the Republican Party of Florida. Of course, the politicos in charge claim that there is no “pay for play” in action in this case.

You might think that protection of children might be something that everyone would be interested in. Apparently not in the state of Florida…

For SHAME, Woman! Wear The Proper Clothes! – In Kansas, apparently a lawmaker is more interested in what a woman might wear when she appears in front of his committee instead of what the committee’s work might entail.

Kansas State Senator Republican Mitch Holmes instituted an 11-point dress code that dictated what was an “acceptable form of dress for women appearing in front of his committee.” Holmes, who said he thought about putting in something for men but eventually decided that “they didn’t need any guidance,” is the chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee and says he wrote the instructions “because provocatively dressed women are a distraction.”

Naturally, the pervert Senator caught some flak for these “guidelines.” A fellow Senator, Democrat Laura Kelly, plainly said, “Oh for crying out loud, what century is this?” Another female Senator and the ranking Democrat on the Holmes committee, Oletha Faust-Goudeau, stated, “In my 13 years in the Legislature, that’s the first time I’ve ever read anything like that.”

After several days of being the laughingstock of the Kansas Senate, Holmes was finally shamed into removing the rules from his committee. “My failure to clearly specify that all conferees, regardless of gender, should strive to present themselves professionally is unacceptable. I apologize and meant no offense. I have decided to retract the conferee guidelines,” Holmes said in a written statement. He has refused any further statement on the subject.

Perhaps now the Senator can get about the business of rescuing Kansas’ rapidly escalating budget deficit rather than worrying about seeing some woman’s cleavage.

Perhaps A Remedial Course in the First Amendment Is in Order – Last week, the University of Missouri assistant professor who called for “some muscle” to rough up a student journalist during a campus protest in the fall was charged with a misdemeanor assault charge. Almost as quickly, the professor was able to avoid prosecution by agreeing to complete 20 hours of community service and not violate the law for the next year.

The problems began at the University of Missouri on November 9 when professor Melissa Click, who had joined several protestors who were protesting the delay that the school’s leadership was taking in its investigation into several racial matters on the campus, aggressively approached two student journalists who were working for the campus newspaper. Click allegedly grabbed one of the student journalists and called for “some muscle” to forcibly remove them from reporting on the scene of the protests on campus.

It must also be added here that Click is a professor of communications on the campus and had a courtesy appointment with…the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, which she not surprisingly resigned after violating that little thing called “freedom of the press.”

Although the legal case is apparently solved for Click, the school still has to decide what to do about her position. There is a tremendous uproar from the state Legislature to have her tenure revoked, but there is an almost equal crowd that is willing to accept the apologies that she has made and move on. At the minimum, she should have to take a review course in Journalism 101 and maybe keep that “freedom of the press” thing in mind next time around.

Now the answer to the question…whatever happened to the “Filthy 15?”

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Three decades ago, there was a movement afoot that attempted to crush the rise of “shocking” lyrics found in pop, rock and metal music of that era. Led by then-Senator Al Gore’s wife Tipper (we never really found out who else was with Tipper in the group, just that she had a “legion of followers”), the Parents Music Resource Center railed against all forms of music that it felt violated certain standards that it set (and, once again, there was no indication of how these standards came about). They called the songs the “worst of the worst,” the worst offenders, the “Filthy 15” and the PMRC even went to Congress testifying about how “this type” of music was destroying the youth of that day.

The PMRC, as they were known, wanted to introduce a ratings system, much like what was done with movies since 1968 with the MPAA film ratings system. Instead of PG, R or X, however, the PMRC wanted something a bit different – D/A for drug/alcohol references, O for occult, V for violence and, sure, X for profanity or sexual references. After a hearing in front of Congress didn’t get the ratings system that they wanted, the PMRC was able to run the long con on the music industry that they WOULD be able to get their ratings system through eventually. The two parties ended up settling for the “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” sticker that we’ve come to ignore for the past 30 years.

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To look back at the “Filthy 15” today, you would really have to chuckle. Metal bands such as Judas Priest, Motley Crue, W.A.S.P., Mercyful Fate, Def Leppard and Twisted Sister (yes, the song that Donald Trump currently is using in his Presidential campaign, “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” was a part of the “Filthy 15”) were easy targets for violent or occult references, but some of the others were comical. The Mary Jane Girls (“In My House” for being sexually explicit), Cyndi Lauper (“She Bop” an ode to masturbation) and Madonna (“Dress You Up” for being sexually explicit in probably what was her most non-sexual song ever) all earned the ire of Gore and her coven of mommies whose ears hurt when they heard these songs.

It seems the ladies had a particular wing of the PMRC built for the iconic Prince. Not only was he there for “Darling Nikki,” he also earned his place on the list with Scottish songbird Sheena Easton (“Sugar Walls” was written by Prince) and his protégé Vanity (“Strap On ‘Robbie Baby’”). Yes, if you couldn’t figure it out, it was for profane or sexual content that these songs made the PMRC list.

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The two gentlemen above (along with musician John Denver, oddly enough) were at the forefront of testifying against Gore and the witch hunt from the PMRC. Noted musician Frank Zappa, while not a member of the “Filthy 15,” eloquently testified to Congress against the censorship of music, while singer Dee Snider of Twisted Sister said at the time that the music was no different than what kids had done throughout history…finding a way to rebel against their parents’ staid world. Unfortunately, Zappa would pass away in 1993 from colon cancer; Snider still is on the road, performing with Twisted Sister and as a solo act, and he admits to listening to everything that his children do to make sure that it is appropriate for them to hear, only censoring in the most extreme cases (he notes the Tenacious D song “Fuck Her Gently” was not appropriate for his eight year old daughter in an interview).

So what happened to some of the other “Filthy 15?” Vanity, for her part, never quite had the career that she might have had if she had stayed under Prince’s tutelage (she was supposed to be the female lead in Purple Rain, but had a falling out with Prince before filming began; the role would then fall to another Prince acolyte, Apollonia). The album that her PMRC greatest hit appeared on, Wild Animal, wasn’t exactly memorable and, in 1985, she posed for Playboy. In the early 1990s, she shed the stage name Vanity (returning to her birth name), found Christianity and became a minister. Regarding her days as “Vanity,” she said to Rolling Stone, “I was young and irresponsible, a silly woman laden with sin, not caring for anything except fame and fortune and self.”

The same is also true for Blackie Lawless, the founder and leader of W.A.S.P. Their song “Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)” was one of the biggest bombshells of the PMRC and Lawless’ photograph – of him with a circular saw blade protruding from his groin as he played bass onstage – was waved frequently during the hearings in Washington, D. C. in 1985. Lawless, however, now is a born-again Christian and states that he hasn’t played the song – either live or otherwise – in more than a decade.

Others, however, are unapologetic for the music they created. Easton commented to Billboard that “parents have the right to filter the content that their children are exposed to. If parents felt that “Sugar Walls” was inappropriate…they were well within their rights. Adults, on the other hand, are free to choose what they want.” Prince noted that the “times were different back then” in saying, “I wouldn’t stand out today if I were brand new.”

Finally, there are those that viewed that “Parental Advisory” label as a badge of honor. King Diamond, the vocalist for Mercyful Fate who went on to form his own eponymous band, stated, “The sticker never served as a warning, but more as a stamp of approval that kids ended up looking for in record stores.”  Vince Neil of Motley Crue echoed Diamond, saying, “Once you put that sticker on, that album took off. Those kids wanted it even more.

And as for the PMRC and Tipper Gore? The organization doesn’t even exist anymore and Gore separated from her husband in 2010. She continues to be a political advocate, this time for the LGBT community and in support of AIDS research. Meanwhile, no one pays any attention to the sticker on the CDs anymore and songs such as Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck with You,” Tove Lo’s “Talking Body” (where she sings “we fuck for life”) and other songs are readily played on the radio nowadays with little thought about their lyrical content.