It is easy to forget how quickly everything changed in the 1960s. When The Beatles blew up like a benevolent atomic explosion of creativity none other than the Prince of Darkness, Ozzy Osbourne, described the afterglow as akin to going to bed and the world is black and white “and then you wake up, and everything’s in colour.” However, The Beatles were not alone with these Promethean feats of pop culture, they were joined at the forefront of rock ‘n’ roll at the height of the British invasion by acts like The Who.
Concept albums may well stretch back into the history of music, but they were never really popularised in the conventional form until Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club made its seismic mark — and it would seem that it was a record heavily inspired by The Who.
As Pete Townshend told Rolling Stone magazine in a recent interview regarding the influence of their rock opera ‘A Quick One, While He’s Away’: “The Beatles copied us! Paul McCartney came up to me at the Bag O’Nails [a music club in Soho, London], which we mention in the album artwork. He was always very, very sweet to me, I should say that first. But he said to me that he really loved our mini-opera, which was called ‘A Quick One, While He’s Away.’ That was on the album that preceded The Who Sell Out. And he told me they were thinking about doing similar things.”
In the happening artistic melee of the sixties, everyone was in the same sphere of influence in a very direct sense. Townshend declares that the progression of music towards concept records was only natural. “I think anybody that was even a little bit art school back then,” he went on to say, “A little bit adventurous — and, of course, the Beatles were encouraged to experiment to the max in the studio — would have thought about doing something which was a concept.”
The Who would go on to create a slew of concept records, including Tommy in 1969 which saw them delve into an epic journey pinball and the metaphysical teachings of Meher Baba. In many ways, The Who are now the eponymous concept album band and thus, it is no doubt that anyone who followed in this immediate direction would have been influenced by their seminal works.
Townshend goes on to acknowledge the extent of their influence on The Beatles in this regard, describing their own work on The Who Sells Out, as being “weak and it needed a framework.” Later adding, “But getting back to Sgt. Pepper, there isn’t much of a concept to that record. But to this day, whenever I sit down and get the vinyl out, stick it on, something always leaps out that I’ve never noticed before. So I think the same is true with Pet Sounds. Those two albums are seminal changes in what we all believed was going to be possible if you were in a band making records, just extraordinary leaps of faith that the audience would accept it.”
Clearly in the case of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club that leap of faith paid off and then some! The record now resides as one of the most beloved and important in music history and in the fated chronology of rock ‘n’ roll, who knows how it would have sounded without the mini-opera in six movements that The Who boldly unleashed on the world in 1966, a year before The Beatles followed suit in scintillating fashion.