The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Black Sky Thinking

Ben Myers Salutes The Return Of The Rock Opera
Ben Myers , April 6th, 2009 08:34

As Green Day announce a rock opera based on American Idiot, Ben Myers casts his beady eye over the much-maligned genre

Much to the chagrin of proper music (ie Radiohead) fans the world over, news greets us that Green Day's conceptual 2004 album American Idiot is being staged as a rock opera.

Now, I'll happily admit to liking Green Day. I like them because they had the tenacity to take a long-dead concept (punk) and repackage it for the MTV generation, happily pissing off the punks and pseuds who had forgotten that teenage music can still be, you know, fun.

But a rock opera signifies something else, in this case the ascension of Green Day into that narrow bracket of very rich, very successful and very silly rock stars.

American Idiot sold twelve million copies and loosely concerned a number of characters from the working class American mid-West living their lives under the post-September 11 Bush regime. By virtue of a lack of competition, it was possibly the most politically critical rock album of its era. Featuring a selection of heart-tugging and air-punching songs such as 'Jesus Of Suburbia' and 'Are We The Waiting' that are more Meatloaf than Minutemen and each tailor-made to run the gamut of emotions in the world's enormodomes, it's easy to see why director Michael Mayer wants to stage such a production.

With its high concepts and libretto narratives concerned with a protagonist's bildungsroman, the rock opera is of course the antithesis of economical, ham-fisted punk, so a punk bank staging a rock opera is, perversely, very punk indeed. If Green Day were a punk band. Which they're not. But still. They are massive fans of The Who though, whose Pete Townsend has a monopoly on the rock opera, starting with 1966's nine-minute musical suite A Quick One While He's Away before progressing to 1969's Tommy – perhaps the first official rock opera – and then 1973's Quadrophenia.

By then they were all at it: The Pretty Things released S.F. Sorrows (1968) and The Kinks followed with the conceptual Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire). There was a certain naiveté and playfulness to these rock operas of the 60s, which seemed to legitimise pop culture and also embody the endless possibility of the times. In the 70s, though, things took a more serious turn. In five short years things we leapt from songs around pinball to David Bowie penning operas about aliens saving the planet from Armageddon and Lou Reed writing about prostitution, addiction and suicide in Berlin. Thanks Lou. But can you put some gags in next time please?

Then the true musos waded into the pissing contest. Bam! Genesis hit us with 1974's The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, a garbled account of a half-Puerto Rican delinquent based upon Peter Gabriel's dreams (and we all know there's nothing worse than hearing about other people's dreams). Kapow! Pink Floyd gave us a coke-dusted, tax-dodging The Wall – a metaphor that said more about the band's attitude towards fame and their fans as much as anything else. Bosh! Human ventriloquist's dummy Andrew Lloyd Webber suddenly had a career as he turned the rock opera treatment on Jesus, TS Eliot, Eva Peron and rollerskaters. That took care of the 80s.

While the 90s may have seen flirtations with the rock opera in Marilyn Manson's baffling cross-album concepts or titillation for the tourists in Queen's We Will Rock You, no one has actually gone back theatrical devices such as the narrative arc or the deus ex machina.

But the signs of rock opera's return are there: My Chemical Romance's 2006 album The Black Parade was opera-goes-emo, while The Decemberists recent Hazards Of Love was conceptual, if not outright operatic. I doubt any of this can be a good thing, but don't be surprised if Bono springs us with God's Earthly Representative: Paul Hewson (A Life) sometime soon.