Opera – the next big thing in rock

By Ralph Thomas

Toronto Daily Star, December 23, 1967

The next thing in rock could very well be opera. I'm not kidding. The thing is already underway.

The Doors, The Mothers of Invention, The Who and, yes, even The Beatles and The Rolling Stones have all made preparatory steps in that direction.

The Who already refer to one of their numbers as a mini-opera. The Doors have announced their intention to get into music with "the structure of poetic drama." And a number of San Francisco groups, including The Jefferson Airplane, have plans to present a full-scale opera in an opera house.

Perhaps the first group to try to expand its music into an operatic form was The Who. The last number on the Happy Jack album is an eight-minute music drama called A Quick One While He's Away. It's not anything like Aida. It isn't a fully developed story with a host of characters. The story is simply suggested, but it's there. It concerns a seducer, the wife of a train engine driver and the engine driver himself.

The seducer gets the lady with the line, "Let's have a quick one while he’s away." The lady later repents, confesses all to her husband, the engine driver, and her husband forgives her.

If you listen to it closely, you'll hear music that suggests a dramatic setting. Presumably, the lady and the seducer are watching a western on TV during the seduction. And each character has his own little aria to sing.

Now, if only The Who had done it, you might just pass it all as an interesting little freak. But then along come The Doors with their 11½ The End.

A strange work in raga-rock it revolves around an Oedipus situation. Once again, there are a number of roles – most of them abstract. And on stage, The Doors lead singer, Jim Morrison, goes out of his way to give a different character to each role – in some cases using masks to let you know when he's singing the part of a new character.

The Doors' latest effort – called The Unknown Soldier (as yet unrecorded) – takes them even further into opera. The Unknown Soldier, an anti-war music drama, even includes sound effects to suggest a real dramatic occurrence – with martial music, shouted commands, and rifle fire punctuating the music.

Most other groups haven't gone that far yet, at least not on record. But many are working in the area which in classical music directly preceded opera – that is, the oratorio form.

The Mothers Of Invention on their latest album – Absolutely Free – openly refer to their works as "underground oratorios." They also ask you to send in at least $1 ("as much as you can") for their complete and "absolutely free" librettos. (You figure that one out).

The librettos on Absolutely Free are direct, free-wheeling and pungent attacks on American life, hitting out at such things as:

The use of cosmetics – "She's as plastic as she can be; she paints her face with plastic goo; and wrecks her hair with plastic shampoo";

Right-wing sentiments – "Watch the Nazis run you down and then go home and check yourself; you think we‘re singing about someone else";

Teenage sex – "Only 13, and she knows how to nasty";

Status-seeking – "I'm trying to get my status back today, baby";

Phony expressions of brotherly love – "I'm dreaming of love (done to the tune of I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas . . . there's a
bomb for blowing up your mommy, a bomb for your daddy, too").

The interesting thing about Absolutely Free, aside from its statement, is the form the Mothers use. They employ sound effects,
straight electronic music, straight serial music, as well as old operatic, old music hall and old Broadway musical singing and instrumental styles.

And they use public announcements and dramatic exchange of dialogue. For instance, at one point a voice comes in and describes this 13-year-old girl who "knows how to nasty." Then, another voice says: "If she were my daughter, I would . . . " "What would you do, Daddy?" a sweet little girl's voice asks. Then, the group sings: "Smother that girl in chocolate syrup: smother that girl in chocolate syrup." And finally another voice adds: "I'd love to have her do her nasty on the White House lawn."

Though the album is divided into roughly 13 songs, no one song really belongs on its own. In effect, the two sides of the album are self-inclusive, 19-minute works which could almost be dramatized and presented in a theatre.

Though radio stations separate the songs on the latest Beatle and Stones' album, they, too, really belong together. Sgt. Pepper is an oratorio with operatic overtones.

The Beatle dress-up isn't just for show. It’s all part of a presentation which could be staged. The six songs that make up Magical Mystery Tour, of course, belong to an abstract TV musical.

The Stones on Between the Buttons present a show similar to that of the Beatles on Sgt. Pepper. And on Their Satanic Majesties Request they present what, "in effect is an oratorio complete with interrelated songs and bridging sound effects".

What this will all mean to the rock radio station format of the near future, who knows? The stations are getting along now by chopping songs out of context in order to fit them into their song - patter - song - commercial - song - patter format.

The groups themselves are making it increasingly harder for them to do that. "Much more music" stations are going to have a hell of a time getting 17 songs and 12 commercials to the hour when the songs run up to 11 minutes in length. And that, it seems, is where the serious groups of today are going.

The Stones, for instance, could always be counted on to bring their songs in at the length radio stations prefer – under three minutes, but on their latest album, only one song makes it under the mark. The others range all the way up to eight minutes. Not only that, but there's hardly a second's silence between numbers.

I say: More power to them!

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