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)

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So Who SHOULD Be In The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?

Last week, the nominations came out for the 2016 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and, at the very end of my thoughts, I posited the question, “Who should have been nominated?” Mind you, the list of nominees was outstanding overall: longtime overlooked acts such as Chicago, Deep Purple and Yes getting nominated again (and three bands that I believe are long overdue the honor), newcomers like Janet Jackson, The Cars and Cheap Trick (all no votes) and outside shots such as The J.B.’s (another vote in from me), Chic (no) and N.W.A. (yes). However, there were several other artists that should have been on this year’s ballot if not already inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is personal to me because of my long love affair with music. Despite the factor that I could never play an instrument with any high level of competence, I admire those that can create art out of music, words, melodies and thoughts. While it could be said that writing is something like that, the songwriter and/or musician is an artist that encompasses different aspects, pulling them into one cohesive idea. Thus, I’ve always been a huge fan of music overall and rock music in particular.

My first introduction to rock music dates back to someone who, unfortunately, I don’t know if they’re still alive. The year was 1971 and, riding around in a car with my half-brother Monty (his real name could have been Montague, don’t really remember) on a hot summer day, saw him pop a cassette into the tape deck. Suddenly the mystifying tones of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” came pounding out of the speakers and, as I listened to the words and music, I was transported (you have to remember, these were the heady days of NASA’s Apollo space program) to being “Major Tom” and traveling through space myself.

From there, it was a quick indoctrination into the world of music. My mother had the classics – Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon and Willie and others – from the country music side, but she also had such gems as The Temptations, The Supremes and other R&B acts from the 60s in the record cabinet. My investigations in the rock music genre touched on Santana, The Who, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and James Taylor, then began to branch out into the harder edged rock of ZZ Top, KISS and Led Zeppelin, among others (on a personal note, was always more of a Rolling Stones guy than the Beatles).

As the mid-70s passed, punk rock became the next touchstone. The Sex Pistols, New York Dolls, The Ramones – these were the gates to pass through on the way to adulthood. As I reached high school, not only was it the disco era but it was almost time for the double shotgun-blast of the New Wave from England and MTV, opening the world even further (and we cannot go on without also recognizing the New Wave of British Heavy Metal). As I had to be a part of the music scene, I did the only logical thing a person with little to no musical talent could do – I became a DJ.

Through the 1980s and well into the 1990s, I plugged along as a DJ at pretty much every radio format that you could think of doing. Album-Oriented Rock (AOR), Top 40, easy listening, R&B, adult contemporary, news/talk – about the only thing I didn’t do was country (much like “country” music today, there’s a thin line between what was country music then and pop music). Along the way, there were some great times had in the conduct of my job and…well, let’s just save those stories for another time.

Hopefully you see that who gets in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is important, at least to me. It isn’t “live or die” important, mind you, but it is something that I want to show my son one day and say, “Yeah, I saw them, they were great.” Maybe we will sit down and listen to a CD or, pray tell, if we still have vinyl by then, an album, and talk about music and its history. He’s got a great musical ear, however, so he may be entertaining me with his music rather than our just listening to it.

OK, getting sappy here…

My criteria for putting someone in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame would be somewhat along the lines of what poker uses for its Hall of Fame. These are the criteria that I would use in putting someone in the Rock Hall:

1. Length of career with sustained critical or commercial excellence
2. Influence on a genre of music or on several artists
3. Respect from fellow musicians

Pretty simple, wouldn’t you say? Alas, there are some glaring errors in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. How about some of these artists, bands and contributors?

Warren Zevon – The singer-songwriter born in Chicago has been overlooked for far too long when it comes to the Rock Hall. Responsible for writing such songs as “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” (covered by far too many artists to list but most notably by Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Linda Ronstadt), Zevon was a part of the California scene in the mid-70s, working with such people as Jackson Browne, Neil Young, members of the Eagles and counting Bruce Springsteen amongst his admirers.

When it came to his own efforts, Zevon was beyond compare. Along with his iconic “Werewolves of London,” Zevon penned and performed such classics as “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” “Accidently Like a Martyr,” and “Keep Me in Your Heart,” which was nominated for a Grammy after Zevon’s death in 2003. With a career that spanned more than 30 years, commercial and critical success and the respect of your fellow musicians, there’s no one more deserving than Zevon for induction into the Hall.

Jimmy Buffett – Another product of the singer-songwriter era of the early 70s, Buffett is notable for forging his own path in the music industry. When I say his own path, I mean he created a whole GENRE of music that didn’t exist before – let’s call it “tropical rock,” music with a Caribbean/calypso/reggae/country feel that didn’t fit neatly into any of the “categories” of music in the 1970s (and still doesn’t today, to be honest). Buffett himself has said about that period, “I wasn’t country enough to be played on those stations and I wasn’t rock enough to be played on AOR.”

The way to beat that? Write a song like “Margaritaville” that transcended any charts, genres or radio stations. Today that song has led Buffett into the world of literature, casino and hotel ownership and a “40-year summer job” that the man still enjoys to this day as he approaches 70. He’s influenced a host of country musicians (the Zac Brown Band is a prime example) and, as owner of a recording studio and a record company (Mailboat Records) is ensuring that the “tropical rock” he created will have outlets for the future.

The Runaways – While Joan Jett went in with The Blackhearts last year, she really should have gone in with The Runaways because, without them, there is no Joan Jett.

The Runaways were “created” by producer Kim Fowley who, having drummer Sandy West and guitarist Jett in the fold, was looking to create a “jailbait” band of teenaged girls who could rock out just as well as any group of guys. First found by the group was Micki Steele, who didn’t last long but went on to join The Bangles, before gold was struck with guitar virtuoso Lita Ford, vocalist Cherie Currie and bassist Jackie Fox to fill out the roster. With the group lineup set, The Runaways broke ground as one of the first female hard rock/metal acts to ever have any success in the recording industry.

From the seminal track “Cherry Bomb” to other tunes such as “Queens of Noise” and “I Love Playin’ with Fire” (covered by Jett during her Blackheart days), the band earned a great deal of attention and respect in the industry. The members of the group went on to arguably better success as solo artists or in other creative endeavors, but they were the ones who helped to get such groups as The Bangles, The Go-Gos, Vixen and rock “chicks” like Pat Benatar, Chrissie Hynde and Deborah Harry (among many others) in the door. It is arguable that, without The Runaways, some if not all of these women wouldn’t have gotten into the industry.

Judas Priest – This is one of those omissions by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame that is inexcusable. A band that has sold 45 million albums, generated rock anthems such as “Breaking the Law,” “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’,” “Heading Out To The Highway,” “Living After Midnight”…I could go on, but you get the point. So what has kept them out?

Over the years, the band has been targeted in various arenas outside of music. They were accused of using subliminal messages in their album British Steel that allegedly caused two men to try to kill themselves. They’ve been targeted by conservative Christian groups for their musical content and singer Rob Halford has taken some sabbaticals from the band over the decades. But when you have a list of bands that were influenced by you such as Metallica, Megadeth and Pantera (among others), you’ve done your job well.

There are a slew of other artists that could be held up for consideration – The Carpenters, Kate Bush, Slayer, Bon Jovi, Thin Lizzy, Motorhead – and maybe they are just waiting for their time. There are also those “pop” artists that I am overlooking, but this is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, after all. If you’re waiting for a time that “works,” however, take it from someone who watches how these Halls of Fame work – if you don’t get in within your first couple of years of eligibility, your chances of getting in get worse as time goes by. All the artists listed here deserve to have their place in the pantheon of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame…now will anyone listen and induct them?

It’s Time for the VMAs, But Who Really Cares?

On Sunday evening, something that used to be a “calendar” event in the music industry will take to the Microsoft Theater (formerly the Nokia Theater) stage in Los Angeles, CA. For the 32nd consecutive year, the MTV Video Music Awards will take place, honoring the best video work in the recording industry and the performers who have given us their best (?). In reality, however, the MTV “VMAs” and their “Moonman” award have become a gauche award because nobody really cares about them anymore.

When MTV hit the airwaves in 1981 (in fact, on August 1 the station celebrated its 34th anniversary), it was a brazen broadside against the staid, stoic music industry and the radio industry and stations that would “make or break” careers in a heartbeat. The first video aired on MTV, The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” seemed like a four-minute manifesto of what was the intent of the new channel. Record companies and their artists for years had put together promotional videos that, for the most part, were only seen by a handful of people at the record companies and in the radio industry. When MTV came along, that suddenly changed.

Bringing together these hundreds of videos (literally…pretty much anything on MTV in the early days was seen quite often due to the lack of material), MTV slowly built an audience and, at the same time, became the place where new artists made their breakthroughs. Such artists as Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Men at Work, Bow Wow Wow, Duran Duran and the Human League were getting their attention not through traditional radio play but from the constant airing of their music videos on MTV. The biggest move by MTV in its early years may have been the exposure it gave to black artists. Eddy Grant, Musical Youth and a young man embarking on a solo career by the name of Michael Jackson (among others) benefitted greatly from the exposure that MTV provided.

It also had a way of destroying careers. The 1981 Grammy Awards were dominated by a Texas newcomer named Christopher Cross, who earned the top four awards (Record of the Year for his eponymous LP, Album of the Year, Song of the Year for “Sailing” and Best New Artist) and seemed poised for a long career in the music industry. Due to his pedestrian features and roly-poly physique, however, Cross wasn’t the typical “MTV artist” and he quickly disappeared from the scene following his sweep.

A couple of years into their existence, however, the honchos at MTV were faced with with the dilemma of continuing to grow the channel and coming up blank. In 1984, the powers that be at MTV came up with what they thought would be the cure (no, not the band). Producing their first ever MTV Video Music Awards, the channel looked to give the same gravitas to music videos that the Grammys bestow on music or the Oscars give to cinema. Over the years, the show has provided MTV with some of its most outlandish moments while also being its most watched event.

Who doesn’t remember Madonna’s rendition of “Like a Virgin” at the very first VMAs? Or Madonna’s girl-girl smooch with the randy Britney Spears in 2003? How about Kanye West barging in on Taylor Swift’s “Moonman” acceptance speech in 2009 (one of the few times I actually felt sorry for Swift)? The clothes, the music and sometimes even the videos made the MTV Video Music Awards a spectacle for the youth of the era. Over the past few years, though, the futility of the VMAs has been mentioned and whether it is the iconic “happening” that it was in its earlier incarnation.

Part of the reason for that is in the maturation of MTV itself. About 15 years ago, MTV decided that it wanted to be more of a lifestyle channel for the young and hip rather than concentrate on music alone. To achieve this goal, MTV began to put on its airwaves things that weren’t the “traditional” fare for the channel. A host of reality and game shows were the start, followed by fashion and “home” shows (anyone remember “Cribs”?).

The reality trend that took over in the 21st century allowed MTV to pretty much switch over to just the reality shows, including the vapid Jersey Shore and other scripted programming (none worth mentioning). Lost in the mix? Music videos, the thing that borne the channel (part of that was in the fact that the record companies, looking to tap another potential revenue stream, wanted to start charging MTV for showing the previously “promotional” videos). Hence, here you have a channel which was formerly the “groundbreaking” arena for exposing new artists through their music videos – in fact, naming their station AFTER MUSIC TELEVISION – not even showing them anymore.

Videos themselves also seem to have disappeared for the most part. Back in 1982, Duran Duran released Rio, their second album. Using the new MTV format, the group was sent by their record company, EMI, to Sri Lanka and Antigua to film an unheard of 11 videos for the record. Those videos not only served to be a major part of the programming for MTV in its early years, it also established Duran Duran as megastars in the music industry and provided the group with a career that still exists today.

Today, videos are seldom done and, if they are, it isn’t for promotional purposes. More often than not, they are done by popular artists that have no need to garner additional airplay for their efforts (think of why Swift, who has somehow crafted a career in music, continues to put out videos that no one has ever seen) or as a “vanity project.” There isn’t a purpose anymore for the music video because there isn’t an outlet for it to air on (sorry, YouTube doesn’t count).

Which brings us back to this year’s VMAs. Of the nominees that are on the list, I’ve seen exactly two of the videos – Mark Ronson’s collaboration with Bruno Mars on “Uptown Funk” (outstanding song, great video and it probably won’t win shit on Sunday) and Florence and the Machine’s “Ship to Wreck” (a band I can’t get enough of that also won’t sniff a “Moonman”). The rest could be cartoons for all I know because there isn’t an outlet to show them anymore. The untalented Swift is nominated for nine awards while Ed Sheeran has six, with a smattering between Nicki Minaj, Kendrick Lamar and Beyonce and the “Video Vanguard Award” (think Lifetime Achievement Award) being handed to West.  Without an outlet, however, why hand out awards for something that will basically become a popularity contest?

Imagine, if you will, Hollywood continuing to crank out movies and television shows but every theater on Earth not showing them and no television networks to put the shows on? (This one could become reality with the advent of Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and Hulu starting to film their own projects.) Would there still be a slew of awards shows for basically something that doesn’t exist anymore?

As a former DJ and music aficionado, I used to sit with bated breath each year for the VMAs (and the Grammys, for that matter), not only to know who won what but for the outstanding musical performances that it brought to its stage (never enough rock, always too much pop). Nowadays the videos are all things that I haven’t seen and the “musicians” (and that term is a stretch in many cases) and their music are so over-produced they cannot perform their music live. Thus, you have to wonder if anyone even cares about the MTV VMAs anymore.

Sure, there will be some prepubescent teenagers who will watch as Miley Cyrus, this year’s host, tries to show how “adult” she is through some pseudo-sexual act she’ll perform onstage; Swift will still constantly look like a deer in headlights as she facetiously mouths “Me? Me?” after winning her umpteenth award and there will probably be some spat – usually between warring rap parties – that blows up backstage into a story. It’s time for MTV’s Video Music Awards for 2015, but does anybody really care anymore?