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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Elton John & Bernie Taupin Tribute CDs “Revamp” & “Restoration” Evoke Different Responses

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Earlier this year, the legendary pianist, vocalist and performer Elton John announced that, after 50 years on the road as a musician, he would be retiring from the road. There’s plenty of reason to believe John when he says this – he’s never even mentioned the idea of quitting prior to 2018 and seems quite happy performing (his residency in Las Vegas was one of the hottest seats in town). The announcement of his retirement disappointed many of his longtime fans and made interest in his concert tour more special that simply being able to see the virtuoso.

Along with his farewell tour, John has also been feted with not one but two new CDs from artists paying tribute to the songwriting of John and his studio partner, Bernie Taupin. This isn’t the first time that the duo has gotten this treatment; back in 1991, they were the subject of a tribute album called Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin (the title of the CD reflected the fact that John and Taupin often worked separately on songs, with John coming up with the music and Taupin writing the lyrics in…two rooms). The record featured artists as diverse as The Who, Kate Bush, Oleta Adams, The Beach Boys, Wilson Phillips and Bruce Hornsby (his version of “Madman Across the Water” is nearly as good as the original) and their take on some of the classic music from John & Taupin.

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With John calling an end to his touring days, it seems natural for another trip down memory lane and instead of one CD, fans get two. There’s a reason for this:  one CD, called Revamp, is filled with the top artists from the pop world and their renditions of popular John/Taupin tunes, and the other CD, called Restoration, features the best in current country music taking their shots at saluting John/Taupin. Surprisingly, it is the country side that wins out the “reimaging” (why not just “tribute”) battle between the two CDs.

Revamp kicks off with a snippet of John performing “Bennie and the Jets” before segueing into rapper Logic and P!nk joining forces for a rap/pop version of the tune. The twosome takes the classic song and make it their own, entertaining the listener and offering hopes that the remainder of the CD will be as adventurous. Unfortunately, that doesn’t come to be as pretty much every other song on the disc holds close to the original renditions.

Coldplay’s “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” falls flat, never even coming close to inspiring the listener, but Alessia Cara attempts to redeem that performance with a well-done version of “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues.” Ed Sheeran turns “Candle in the Wind (2018)” into a folksy tune and Florence + the Machine hold serve with “Tiny Dancer.” Mumford & Sons (“Someone Saved My Life Tonight”) shows up for a so-so rendition before the top two performances take the CD.

Mary J. Blige demonstrates some very powerful vocals in tearing into “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” and really does make the song hers. By far the top song on the album is the collaboration between rapper Q-Tip and Demi Lovato, who take the classic tune John performed with Kiki Dee, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and stand it on its head. Where the original tune was a piece of pop pablum, Q and Lovato turn it into a reggae/R&B mixed effort that comes off fabulously. Their approach wouldn’t have worked on any other song from the John/Taupin catalog, so it was outstanding that the right performers and song were matched up. Although Miley Cyrus (“Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”) and Lady Gaga (“Your Song”) cover their respective tunes admirably, the Killers (“Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”), Sam Smith (“Daniel”) and Queens of the Stone Age (“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” possibly the worst effort on the CD), come up short on their work.

Revamp is devoid of the artists taking their chances at recreating John/Taupin classics. For the most part, they stuck to the material and, while enjoyable, I’d rather see them stretch a bit and attempt something new. This doesn’t make Revamp bad, it’s just it pales in comparison to its companion disc.

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Surprisingly, it is the country artists that take part in the tribute on Restoration that take the most chances in their interpretations of John & Taupin’s songs. From the start of the CD, with Little Big Town delivering a daring rendition of “Rocket Man,” the country artists seem to be more comfortable with deviating from the originals. The country artists also delve deeper into the John/Taupin catalog than the pop artists did.

Although there is a repeated song – Maren Morris’ OK version of “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” – and a repeated artist – Miley Cyrus shows up again to give a so-so performance of “The Bitch is Back” – the other artists take some chances with some deep cuts from the John/Taupin catalog. The Brothers Osborne deliver a stunning rocking version of “Take Me to the Pilot” and country legend Willie Nelson contributes a well-done version of “Border Song,” but other artists stretch their legs.

This isn’t to say they all hit the mark. Don Henley and Vince Gill give up an uninspired version of “Sacrifice” and Lee Ann Womack’s start slow/finish strong version of “Honky Cat” are a bit of a disappointment, but they are more than made up in such choices as Miranda Lambert (“My Father’s Gun”), Chris Stapleton (“I Want Love”) and Kacey Musgraves (“Roy Rogers”). Two duets bear special mention because of their uniqueness, the Rhonda Vincent/Dolly Parton collaboration on “Please” and Roseanne Cash and Emmylou Harris’ stirring rendition of “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore.”

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For its sheer daring and stylistic changes, Restoration comes out as the better CD than Revamp. It could have been for the fact that the pop singers weren’t as well versed in Elton John’s music or that they didn’t feel comfortable taking such songs and making them their “style.” It really seemed that the country artists understood John and Taupin’s works much better, displayed in the chances they took in song choices and the way they were performed. While you can’t go wrong with either one (nor the original Two Rooms…in fact, ownership of all three is well worth having in the catalog), it is clear to see that one is better than the other.

If I Were the President of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame…

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Next weekend, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame will open up the doors of its enclave for the 31st time to induct new members into its midst. Holding their ceremonies at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY, this Friday (April 8), this year’s inductees are quite eclectic, with some of them well deserved and overdue – such as Chicago and Deep Purple – some riding a wave of popularity due to recent attention – the gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A. – and two choices that were a bit surprising – Cheap Trick and Steve Miller. As with many of the ceremonies past, there is a bit of drama as to the festivities.

When it comes to Deep Purple, which incarnation of the band will be inducted? Much of the attention has been given to the late 1960s/early 1970s incarnations – the Mark 1 through Mark 3 versions of the band that featured musicians such as Jon Lord on keyboards, Ian Gillian on vocals, Ritchie Blackmore on guitar, Roger Glover on bass and Ian Paice on drums. Not so much attention has been given to the later renditions of the band that featured future Whitesnake vocalist David Coverdale, so we can pretty much count on the factor that the group of men who gave us milestone classics like “Space Truckin’,” “Smoke on the Water” and “Highway Star” are the ones that the Hall will be inducting.

The second story is will the entirety of Cheap Trick reunite for the show? In 2010, drummer Bun E. Carlos had a rather acrimonious split with singer Robin Zander, guitarist Rick Nielsen and bassist Tom Petersson, one that actually ended up in a courtroom (apparently the three men tried to cut Carlos out of his rightful piece of royalties from the band’s work…the trio lost the case). Since then, the men haven’t spoken, but they will apparently put aside the animosity and play for one night only. According to Nielsen, Carlos “is going to play the inductions because they’re inducting the people who made the records…he deserves it.”

I always get a little reflective when the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies come up, mostly because I think there are several people there that shouldn’t be inside the walls without a ticket. Over the 31 years that the voters have put people into this hallowed sanctum, they have besmirched the walls with some who haven’t earned the right to be there. If, for one day, I were the President of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I would remove these five members forever, correcting the wrongs of the past:

The Beach Boys (1988)

Probably one of the most overrated acts ever in the annals of U. S. music history, all the Beach Boys were is a doo-wop group who moved off the street corner and onto the beach. Their sound had already been created (unless you forgot Dick Dale, another erroneous non-entry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame) and they very rarely deviated from a set pattern:  beach, surf, multiple girls (you might throw a car in there on a rare occasion). Lather, rinse, repeat. There was nothing that was groundbreaking about them at all; even their supposed masterpiece, Pet Sounds, was Brian Wilson looking to duplicate what producer Phil Spector had done with his “Wall of Sound.”

Madonna (2008)

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By far the most egregious error in the voting annals of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame committee. That Madonna got in the Hall before such people as Alice Cooper, Dr. John, The Crickets (Buddy Holly’s backing band), Heart, Rush and Albert King (just to name a few) is a miscarriage of justice beyond measure. Furthermore, there is no way that you can tell me with a straight face that Madonna had ANY impact on the development of rock music – if the category was POP music, then yes, Madonna’s fingerprints are all over it (hello there, Lady Gaga!). But this is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and, last I checked, nobody is naming her as a significant influence.

Donovan (2012), Bill Withers (2015) and Steve Miller (2016)

Unfortunately, all of these men fall into the same category:  they all are pretty good at what they did. The problem is we are not electing people into the “Hall of Pretty Good.” This is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, people!

I know this might sound sacrilegious, but while Withers’ works were memorable (“Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean on Me” and “Just the Two of Us” are all outstanding songs), he just didn’t have enough of them. This also could be said for Donovan; name me another song he did outside of “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow?” You might be able to sway my thoughts on Miller, but I believe that he’s getting more of a vote on his pedigree (studying at the feet of the legendary Les Paul and Mary Ford as a child will get you those types of votes) than on any outstanding works he wrote or performed. These three men just don’t meet the criteria for what I would call “Hall of Fame material.”

Now that five places in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame have opened up, who should be inducted into those slots? I’m glad you asked. As the President of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, these five artists/bands will be the ones who will take over their rightful places. I’m completely blown away that they aren’t there already, to be honest:

The Runaways

Although Joan Jett is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame along with her band The Blackhearts, they needed to go back a bit further to actually encapsulate the first band that broke Jett onto the rock scene. The Runaways were the first female hard rock band to enter the scene, led by vocalist Cherie Currie and the dual guitar attack of Lita Ford and Jett (little known fact is that Mikki Steele, who was a member of The Bangles, was originally the bassist for the group). Svengali Kim Fowley pushed the group as a “teenage jailbait” band, but their music was actually pretty damn good. Most known for their hit “Cherry Bomb,” The Runaways were huge stars in Japan and did pretty well in Europe. In the United States, they were before their time, but their members would go on to bigger success as solo artists.

Pat Benatar

Are you fucking kidding me? One of the most successful female rock artists of all-time, definitely one of the Top 50 artists of the 1980s, isn’t in the Hall of Fame yet?

Pat Benatar (who, to the best of my knowledge, has NEVER EVEN BEEN NOMINATED) followed up on the heels of The Runaways, carrying the banner for women in rock with an unapologetic, no-nonsense approach to the genre. Where Benatar took it a step further was she was the one in charge of her career – she didn’t bow to the dictates of a manager and she definitely didn’t kowtow to the record companies. On her VH1Behind the Music,” the story is famously told about the record executives that Benatar famously took down because they tried to sexualize her style early in her career. Perhaps that is why she hasn’t gotten the kudos she’s due…the record industry is still holding a grudge against her. And name me another hard rock singer who has a four-octave range and is classically trained?

Warren Zevon and Jimmy Buffett

You might be saying, “What makes these two guys different than those three you threw out above?” There’s plenty that makes them different!

In the case of Buffett, he literally created a genre of music that didn’t exist before he came along – tropical rock, or “trop rock,” a fusion of so many musical stylings that it is literally impossible to list them all (if you haven’t listened to a Buffett album or been to a Buffett concert and heard at least six musical styles, you must expand your musical knowledge) – and still is at the top of his game more than 40 years after hitting the road. He has a catalog of music that has inspired a host of entertainers today, such as Kenny Chesney, the Zac Brown Band and others from the U. S. and around the world. Finally, he’s a shrewd businessman, turning his biggest song – “Margaritaville” – into a mega-empire that includes restaurants, casinos, a clothing line and a Sirius XM radio station. That “empire” is now a private company that is thought to make hundreds of millions of dollars per year – that’s a nice nest egg to sit back on!

Zevon, who unfortunately passed away in 2003, probably did more for others’ careers than he did his own. He wrote songs that were hits for Linda Ronstadt and worked closely with Jackson Browne and The Eagles before finding some acclaim on his own. Always more of a critical darling, Zevon’s album Excitable Boy (his most commercial effort) brought Zevon’s biggest hit, “Werewolves of London,” while the remainder of his works on the album (including “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” and “Lawyers, Guns and Money”) showed his eclectic side. The remainder of his catalog presented an extremely diverse and talented artist who entertained and challenged his audience. Overall, he is highly respected in the music industry for his artistry, his passion and his individuality, things that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is supposed to honor.

Judas Priest

With both Chicago and Deep Purple going in this year and with KISS entering in 2014, you might think that there wouldn’t be any more “fan outrage” over artists not being in the Hall. That would be inaccurate, however, until the omission of Judas Priest is corrected.

Judas Priest has, for almost 40 years, been at the forefront of the hard rock/heavy metal genre, carrying the baton from the Led Zeppelin/Deep Purple/Jimi Hendrix/Black Sabbath early days of the game. With singer Rob Halford (or without, as the days of Tim “Ripper” Owens didn’t slow them down any) and the dual guitar attack of Glenn Tipton and K. K. Downing, the definitive style of Judas Priest is recognizable anywhere. They also have been heavily influential in the genre, with such bands as Pantera, Metallica and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWBHM) of the 80s citing them as heroes.

There’s a whole litany of artists and groups I could get into that deserve a place in the pantheon of rock, but my day as President of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is done. I’ll be watching the induction ceremonies on Friday night (or whenever the hell they’ll be on – thanks HBO!) and celebrating the music of the inductees for 2016. Then it will be time to consider who will be inducted for 2017 and the madness will begin again.