The Development of The Rock Musical In the Late 20th Century
Rock opera in its narrow definition seems to be a purely British phenomenon, possibly because at the time of its arrival England, as opposed to the United States, had not found its musical theater voice yet: while musical theater was booming in the United States from the early twentieth century onwards, England didn't develop a popular musical tradition until the late 1960s, when Andrew Lloyd Webber started to write and produce large-scale musicals for the London theaters. To provide an overview of the scope of the genre of rock opera, I will briefly discuss some of the most renowned works. It is usually the British rock band The Who that is credited with releasing the first rock opera ever (in 1969), Tommy. It was partly inspired by the Beatles' 1967 concept album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had already experimented with alternatives to the simple, single-oriented approach to recording LPs. Interestingly, as far as productivity is concerned, this genre reached its peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s in England at a time when rock and pop musicians were keen on experimenting with new musical forms and contents, and when society in Europe was, after the highly active 1960s in the United States, still very much interested in musical treatments of contemporary problems and hardships. The Who's rock opera follow-up to Tommy, Quadrophenia, was released in 1973; from 1969 to 1975, another British rock band, the Kinks, released four rock operas: Arthur or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire (1969), Preservation (1973), Soap Opera (1975), and Schoolboys in Disgrace (1975). Jethro Tull's front man Ian Anderson also experimented with the rock opera format in the 1970s, contributing Thick as a Brick(1972), A Passion Play(1973), and Too Old to Rock'n'Roll: Too Young to Die(1976). Probably the last rock opera to come out of England was Pink Floyd's legendary double album The Wall in late 1979. The rock operas mentioned deal primarily with the problems of young, mainly working-class people in England, or with the role and image of rock musicians in society. Quadrophenia, for example, depicts the emotional emptiness, frustration, anger, rebellion, of an ultimate Who fan who belongs to a cool motorcycle gang, the Mods. He revolts against his parents, his boss, and any kind of alliance with ordinary people's lives, their small pleasures and drama. The teenage hero, Jimmy has a problem with authority in general, but in the end he comes to realize that even his cool clique is dominated by the same relentless, inhumane rules and laws as the rest of society; the only difference seems to be the fashionable clothes the Mods are wearing and the trendy music they are listening to. Disillusioned he rides his motorcycle off the cliffs into the sea. The Kinks' operas also deal with flashbacks. Schoolboys in Disgrace, for example, is a nostalgic trip through childhood, reviving 1950s rock'n'roll. It is a series of vignettes rather than an actual story, telling about a naughty schoolboy and his gang, who are always playing tricks on their teachers and bullying their schoolmates, until one day, after another incident, the school's principal decides to disgrace the boy and his gang in front of the whole school. This is the turning point in the boy's life: he realizes that people in authority will always be there to kick him down, that the Establishment' will always put him in his place. Arthur, obviously a pun on the historically laden theme of King Arthur, was the Kinks' most successful and critically acclaimed rock opera. It depicts the story of an ordinary London man who has spent most of his life on his knees, laying carpets, who is now retired, owns a nice little house in suburbia and leads a small life, numbed by the horrors of World War II and English bureaucracy. Now having reached the final stages of...
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