Shaenon: Music is a big influence on Skin Horse, as is classic science fiction. Since Jeff and I are fans of both these things, it is perhaps inevitable that we categorically adore overblown sci-fi rock concept albums. The sci-fi concept album enjoyed its heyday in the 1970s (the 1970s as a decade being another key Skin Horse influence), but adds richness and joy to any era. Jeff has even developed his own idea for such an album, called Rocklifter, which involves space princesses and heavy machinery and which I hope he will describe to you in detail sometime.

Meanwhile, we are pleased to present…


Jeff’s Top Five:

1. 2112, by Rush
In the dystopian world of Rush’s 2112, all art and culture in the Solar Federation is under the direct control of the Priests of the Temple of Syrinx, a bunch of hoity-toity squares who totally have a hate on for all things Rock. Putting all art and culture under the control of a monolithic, fascist organization is, of course, a great idea, until some wiseacre finds an ancient electric guitar and decides to make music (Rock) that doesn’t agree with the state’s ideas of what music should be (we never really find out.) Our young, idealistic hero presents his Rock to the Priests of the Temple of Syrinx, who immediately flip out like weasels and break the guitar, whereupon he promptly offs himself in despair after only about half an LP, leading up to a B-side that’s completely unrelated to the plot.

At the very end of the story, a voice announces, in stentorian tones, “Attention all planets of the Solar Federation: We have assumed control,” and they totally don’t explain what that’s all about. Is this an invading race? Was there a revolution? It’s certainly a great line to broadcast over huge planet-spanning loudspeakers, but what the hell?

(Incidentally, you will find that this “What The Hell” factor is pretty common in science fiction concept albums, actually, because if the whole thing were totally plot-based and coherent throughout, you’d call it a “Rock Opera.” Sci-fi concept albums tend to set up a world, a character, a conflict, and then go, “and then, um, Rock!” This is one of the reasons that I love these albums so.)

2. Kilroy Was Here, by Styx
In the dystopian world of Styx’s Kilroy Was Here, all art and culture in America is under the direct control of the Majority for Musical Morality, a bunch of hoity-toity squares who totally have a hate on for all things Rock. Clearly, when I write my own science fiction rock opera, some manner of Rock-hating dictatorship should be included. Dennis DeYoung plays Kilroy, a renegade musician imprisoned by the evil Dr. Righteous for his flagrant Rock sensibilities. To escape imprisonment, he dons a robot suit and pretends to be a service ‘droid until the time is right to make his escape, so yes, there is an actual plot reason for the iconic 80’s anthem “Mr. Roboto”. For some reason, it really improves these 80’s anthems in my esteem to have them be part of a plot. I never really liked “One Night in Bangkok” until I learned the proper context, for instance.

Anyhow. Kilroy eventually makes contact with idealistic reporter/musician/something-or-other Tommy Chance on the outside, who is on a mission to bring Rock out from under the thumb of Dr. Righteous. Realizing that the whole robot disguise thing makes him valuable as a sleeper agent within the MMM, he abandons his escape plan, and then, um, Rock! I really am not certain how it all turns out in the end, especially since the final track is called “Don’t Let it End This Way”, but despite its somber and ambiguous title, the track itself rocks pretty hard, so I guess that’s a good sign for the Kilroy/Chance Rock Initiative.

3. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, by David Bowie
In the dystopian world of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, all art and culture in the entire world ARE ABOUT TO BE EXTINGUISHED ENTIRELY because the world is going to end in five years. Apparently, this is due to resource depletion, although how you can put such a hard limit on the end of the world when you’re talking gradual attrition is a mystery; as it turns out, this sort of clunky weirdness is par for the plot of this album. If you thought 2112 and Kilroy Was Here were a little vague in the story department, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Ziggy Stardust is a young rock star who is either (a) in telepathic communication with a bunch of savior-aliens called the Infinites or (b) an actual agent of the Infinites, and he’s got a message of hope and love and peace that will do, excuse me, jack squat to help with the resource-depletion Armageddon scenario, but whatever. Hearing the first glimmer of hope in ages, all nations and peoples begin an almost cult-like worship of the young rocker, and gradually, he begins to lose sight of the message in favor of a decadent Rock lifestyle, causing friction within the band, and salvation seems to be slipping away, and yadda yadda yadda. You really have to read a lot into this one; the “then, um, Rock” factor is really pretty high. Eventually, the Infinites arrive, and, in the words of Mr. Bowie himself…

“…they take bits of Ziggy to make them real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist in our world. And they tear him to pieces… As soon as Ziggy dies on stage the Infinites take his elements and make themselves visible.”

…which will come as a great shock to anyone listening to the actual music, because there is nothing EVEN REMOTELY LIKE THIS ON THE ALBUM, which means this is probably David Bowie smoking something and making crap up. And, hey, it’s his album, so more power to ya, Mr. Bowie. One wishes he’d have seen fit to actually write a song about it or something, though. Anyway, Ziggy sacrifices himself so that the savior aliens can manifest, and I guess everything’s all better. The End! It’s unforgivable story-wise, but on the gripping hand, it’s musically brilliant and very listenable, which counts for a lot.

4. Tales from Topographic Oceans, by Yes
No plot to speak of here; no idealistic young rock stars, no oppressive fascist organizations, no Sticking it To the Man. Instead, what we seem to have in Tales from Topographic Oceans is a symphony-length evocation of the music of an unnamed alien world. This landmark prog-rock album consists of four tracks, clocking in at almost twenty minutes apiece, none of which cohere to any conventional pop music structures. Rhythms and keys vary wildly, musical themes appear in the form of revisitations rather than choruses; the whole thing is, basically speaking, pretty frikkin’ weird. This self-indulgent musicianship will not be surprising to anyone who’s heard anything from the Yes oeuvre beyond the radio-friendly “Owner of a Lonely Heart”. In terms of noodling around on their instruments, Yes ranks just below Phish and the Grateful Dead. But in the end…

…in the end, what was surprising is that when I got past the bitter first taste of pompous self-important meaninglessnesss, I started to realize that this really is a pretty good album. Yes, it shuns things like choruses and bridges and whatnot, but if you just listen to it as the soundtrack of an alien planet, the whole thing seems to come together and make a strange sort of sense. Your mileage may vary, of course. It may just be that my musical tastes stray toward the pompous, self-important and meaningless. I do, after all, listen to Mannheim Steamroller. But that’s a story for another day.

5. Flash Fearless vs. the Zorg Women Parts 5 & 6!, by basically everyone
In 1975, a short album was put together as a proof-of-concept for a pulp science fiction rock musical stage show, starring basically every single second-string rock musician that 1975 had to offer. Well-known shock-rocker Alice Cooper stars as slick American golden-age Space Hero Flash Fearless, who spends the entire album attempting to escape the various dangers and pitfalls of the planet of the titular Zorg Women: giant snakes, purple alien ladies who want to have sex with him, all that jazz. Released just two years after Richard O’Brien’s “The Rocky Horror Show”, Flash Fearless was a fairly obvious attempt to leap on the science fiction pop musical bandwagon, such as it was; the whole thing seems to have been constructed from the ground up with the specific purpose of becoming a cult classic.

For the most part, it seems to have been a failure in this regard. Despite some admittedly catchy tunes, the whole album suffers from Supergroup Syndrome, and generally comes off as little more than a melange of differently-styled pieces that have been assigned to the various stars involved in the project. Also, like Ziggy Stardust above, what passes for a plot here seems to take place largely outside the songs. About as much as I can definitively say is that that Lots of Stuff Happens. Happily, the album’s liner notes contain a crudely-drawn indie comic to help explain the storyline; sadly, it is of very little help. I speak disparagingly of the album, but Flash Fearless makes it here to my list on the strength of (a) its concept, because we really need more 50’s science fiction serial musicals, and I’ll take what I can get, and (b) Cooper’s memorable performances on the two tracks he is given, “I’m Flash” and “Space Pirates”. His growling, vicious portrayal of Flash, so obviously wrong for the well-scrubbed momma-loving space captain of the script, is beautiful in its cognitive dissonance, and makes you wish that more had come of this flawed, ambitious project.

Shaenon’s Top Five:

1. Preservation, Acts 1 & 2, by the Kinks
In the dystopian world of the Kinks’ Preservation, greed-mongering capitalist Mr. Flash battles socialist technocrat Mr. Black for control of Britain, while the skeptical Tramp observes from the sidelines. The pretty much plotless first album sets up the three characters; the second album introduces a plot, wherein Mr. Flash has taken over the government and Mr. Black amasses an army against him. Unlike most of these albums, Preservation has no Rock hero; instead, the people of England get to choose between being enslaved by Mr. Flash (who gleefully sings odes to his own evilness) or being forced to conform to Mr. Black’s vision of a “clean,” automated society without sex, drugs, or, presumably, Rock and Roll. The whole thing is a weird sci-fi warping of the Kinks’ brilliant earlier album The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, which was itself a sort of musical Spoon River Anthology praising small-town English values.

With the above paragraph, I believe I have written in greater depth about Preservation than anyone ever has since Act 1 debuted in 1973. Preservation was initially conceived as a rock opera in the style of Tommy, but no one liked it very much, and as far as I know it was never performed. The first album is not the Kinks’ best work, but Act 2 has some catchy tracks (“He’s Evil,” “Scum of the Earth”) and is interesting as a dark mirror version of Village Green Preservation Society. Also, whether you count it as a rock opera or a concept album, it’s got a pretty coherent plot and message by the standards of either. Maybe this is just the giant Kinks fan in me speaking, but Preservation deserves a second look.

2. Time, by ELO
In the dystopian world of ELO’s Time… actually, Jeff and I have spent considerable effort discussing what the hell is going on in Time. As far as we can tell, it’s the story of an ordinary twentieth-century man who is so bummed out over his recent breakup that he travels to the future (possibly through the power of Rock, it’s not really explained) and mopes around there. He gets a robot girlfriend, he travels through space, but flying so high with some IBM product in the sky is his idea of nothing to do, so eventually he gives up and returns to the present. So the whole thing is basically just laying a huge guilt trip on his ex.

All that aside, Time holds the distinction of being the nerdiest rock album ever made, and no, I am not forgetting the existence of They Might Be Giants. Not only does it include songs about dating robot ladies, it opens with “Twilight,” which was once the otaku anthem by virtue of its use as the soundtrack to the classic 1983 Daicon IV opening animation, produced by the fan group that would go on to be Gainax. (Others may have forgotten, but I carry the torch for old-school anime nerditry.) The Daicon IV animation is the single nerdiest thing ever, ergo Time, which provided its music, is the nerdiest rock album. QED.

3. The Mothership Connection, by Parliament
In the sweet Afro-futuristic funkiverse of The Mothership Connection, the Extraterrestrial Brothers, Dr. Funkenstein and the Lollipop Man, orbit the Earth in a flying saucer, broadcasting groovy music and good vibes while fighting off alien forces that wish to steal or destroy the funk. This album is just one volume in the sprawling musical sci-fi epic created by George Clinton, disciple of completely insane jazz god Sun Ra (who, as far as anyone can tell, honestly believed his music came from the space aliens who abducted him), via his bands Parliament and Funkadelic. But it’s a good starting point, not in the least because it consists entirely of some of the greatest funk music ever made.

Most people have heard the track “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker),” a.k.a. that song with the relentlessly catchy “We want the funk/Got to have the funk” chorus. But how many know that, in the context of the album, it’s sung by a race of aliens who wish to steal the Earth’s funk supply (stored in key locations like the Pyramids and the Bermuda Triangle) to replenish their own funk-depleted planet? In conclusion, George Clinton is God’s greatest gift to a troubled world.

4. Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse, by Of Montreal
I guess you could argue that Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies is more of a fantasy concept album than a sci-fi concept album, inasmuch as the main character is a friggin’ fairy. But she hooks up with a mad scientist, and you know how I feel about mad scientists, so it gets a pass. Anyway, in the not particularly dystopian world of Coquelicot, the title character, a fairy-like creature called an Efeblum (just go with it), decides to become temporarily human and travel the world with a guy named Claude and an inventor named Lecithin. Most of the rest of the album is a series of disconnected weird adventures, related via hallucinatory, discordant music (what a surprise, Of Montreal). Eventually the characters wind up on a remote frozen island, then the story ends with everyone turning into Efeblum and flying away, which is exactly how Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe ends. So maybe this is a sci-fi concept operetta.

In a side note, I enjoyed this album enough to include a reference to the track “Lecithin’s Tale of a DNA Experiment That Went Horribly Awry” in my other webstrip, Narbonic.

In another side note, I recently dragged Andrew to an Of Montreal concert. It turned out he was under the impression that they were a nerd-rock band along the lines of my beloved They Might Be Giants, and was taken somewhat aback when their stage show involved Kevin Barnes having sex with, then eating, naked pig-headed people. This was similar to the time he went to Pan’s Labyrinth thinking it was a children’s movie (“Peter Pan is a children’s movie and Labyrinth is a children’s movie…”) or the other day when we saw Black Swan. Anyway, I really went to the Of Montreal show to see the opening act…

5. The Metropolis Suite, by Janelle Monae
The heir to the glorious legacy of the sci-fi rock concept album (not to mention George Clinton/Sun Ra-style Afro-Futurism) and a cultural hero, Janelle Monae has so far released two of the three planned albums in The Metropolis Suite, Metropolis: The Chase and The ArchAndroid. I feel like a fool for ever entertaining the thought that Metropolis: The Chase was just a vehicle for the awesome single “Many Moons,” because The ArchAndroid is not only spectacular but deepens the musical, political, and science-fictional themes introduced in the first album. Plus her hair.

Anyway… In the dystopian world of The Metropolis Suite, an android is condemned to death for falling in love with a human and flees to the underground, where she becomes a prophet and heroine to the oppressed masses. While organizing a rebellion, she sends a duplicate, the Janelle Monae we know, back in time to the 21st century to inflame the people of the past with Rock. With the power of such singles as “Cold War” and “Tightrope,” she will inspire us to fight the Man in the past while her duplicate fights the Man in the future.

In case you can’t tell, I have the world’s biggest girlcrush on Janelle Monae.