The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Festival
The London Korean Film Festival, various venues, 22 October-3 November

Across various London venues, comprising 33 events, the seventh London Korean Film Festival will feature a combination of films ranging from low-budget independent works to big-budget, box office hits. This year’s festival sees the return of the animation section which will include the violent morality tale King of Pigs, a film that has been doing the rounds on the international festival circuit. “Regardless if you are a connoisseur of Korean cinema or completely new to the country’s film scene we have created an exciting and varied program that will delight, thrill, scare and, most importantly, entertain you,” says festival director Hye-jung Jeon.

Music

Barclaycard Mercury Prize, Channel 4, 1 November, 12:10am

The 20th Mercury Prize for best album sees the list of nominees dominated by guitar bands – including the Macabees – and singer-songwriters, most notably former Pulp guitarist Richard Hawley. But it’s Plan B who’s tipped to win. His third album marks a change in direction, his sound harder, his music more political. Elsewhere on the list is the funky-jazz outfit Roller Trio and South London solo artist Jessie Ware.

Art

Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present, National Gallery, 31 October-20 January 2013

The National Gallery’s first major photographic exhibition will show the work of leading photographers alongside historical paintings to emphasise how photographers draw on the traditions of fine art to inspire their own work. The exhibition will show the works of painters, early photographers and contemporary photographers ordered by traditional genres such as portraiture, landscapes and nudes. The exhibition will feature images from British and French photographers as well as works from international contemporary artists.

Television

Homeland, Channel 4, 28 October, 9pm

Last week, former marine, current congressman and reluctant, part-time al-Qaeda operative Nicholas Brody killed his tailor (who was also his purveyor of bespoke explosive vests). A devastating result was that this caused him to be late for his wife’s party – which made her angry. Meanwhile, twitchy, jazz-loving, ex-CIA agent and current English teacher Carrie Mathison gets un-friended by the CIA – again – before being vindicated by seeing Brody’s “By the time you watch this, I would have killed a lot of people, including myself” terrorist farewell video. This week we can expect more of the same kitchen-sink shenanigans. Brody’s video will be shown to Estes, Carrie’s former boss, who will authorise surveillance on Brody. But will Carrie get to put her twitchy eye to the telescope?

Film

Hackney Halloween screenings, Round Chapel, Hackney, London, 30 October

On the eve of Halloween, the creators of the Rooftop Film Club will host a short series of classic spooky films. The venue, Hackney’s Round Chapel, will only add to the ambience of horror. The event will comprise four screenings, two of which are suitable for children: ET: The Extra Terrestrial, Shaun of the Dead, Ghostbusters and The Lost Boys. 2012 marks the thirtieth anniversary of ET and a special edition Blu-ray was released this month to mark the occasion. A note on the dress code and a disclaimer from the organisers: Fancy dress is not enforced but encouraged. Please note that Experience Cinema does not accept responsibility for any lost limbs, teeth, or fingers!”

Richard Hawley: one of the nominees for the 2012 Barclaycard Mercury Prize. Photo: Getty Images.
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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) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and 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 Hadestown 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 in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to 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. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

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”. Unfortunately, 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.