The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Book

"Sweet Tooth" by Ian McEwan, 21 August

McEwan’s recent works, such as Saturday and Solar, have had a radically polarising effect on audiences, but whether his name fills you with adoration or loathing, as one of our most eminent contemporary authors, the release of his 12th novel can’t pass without remark. Sweet Tooth is the story of Serena Frome, a beautiful British agent sent on a "secret mission", which brings her into contact with a promising young writer. As romance blossoms between the two can she maintain her cover story? And who is inventing whom?  Set in 1972, a year beset by economic disaster, industrial unrest and terrorism, we can expect some present day echoes, as well as a story of betrayal, intrigue, love, and the invented self.

Talk

Appleton Tower, Edinburgh - CERN: Big questions, Big Science, Big Technology, 23 August 9.00pm

This summer's newspaper columns might have been crammed with likes of Bolt, Farah and Ennis, but, following the observation of the elusive Higgs Boson particle this July, CERN are the undisputed scientific heroes. This event brings together experts from different areas of CERN and the LHC to discuss the impact of their work. The talk takes place as part of the Turing Festival, which aims to celebrate the creativity of digital technology and explore the ways in which technology is affecting culture and society. Other notable talks include an address by Apple’s co-founder, Steve Wozniak, and discussions on the future of gaming, medicine and media.

Album

Bloc Party, "Four", 20 August

Four is the magic number. Four years since their last album, British indie rock band Bloc Party (comprised of four muscians, Kele Okereke, Russell Lissack, Gordon Moakes, and Matt Tong) are to release their fourth and much anticipated album Four. Reviews so far are mixed, but if Kele has captured even an ember of his former spark Four will have been worth the wait.

Film

Independent Cinemas across the UK - The Imposter, 24 August

In 1994 Nicholas Barclay, a 13-year-old Texan boy, vanished. Three years later "Nicholas" was discovered by police in Spain. Though initially eagerly welcomed home by the grieving Barclays, as inconsistencies started to add up doubts about his true identity could no longer be surpressed. The Imposter is director Bart Layton's masterful documentary, which mixes real-life interviews and home-video footage with neo-noir reconstructions in his retelling of this true story of deception.

TV

BBC 4 - BBC Proms National Youth Orchestra, 23 August, 7.30pm

Thursday’s Prom celebrates young talent with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Conducted by Vasily Petrenko, they will perform Varèse’s playful Tuning Up,  Nico Muhly’s Gait, Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony, and young composer Anna Meredith’s HandsFree, which was written to be played with anything other than instruments.

Author Ian McEwan's novel Sweet Tooth is to be released on Tuesday
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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records, from Janelle Monáe, Kelis, Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. But he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.