It’s sort of curious how with the recent revival of ’60s rock subgenres, we haven’t really seen much of a reemergence of rock operas. When The Lemon Twigs tried to bring the concept back a few years ago, it felt like a gimmick rather than a legitimate genre, perhaps because so few titles from the original wave of rock operas have withstood the test of time.
Well, if there’s one contemporary songwriter qualified to bring the rock opera back, it’s Butch Walker—who, in addition to helming a commendable solo career over the past two decades, has produced records for several of the most operatic rock groups of our time, including Green Day, Fall Out Boy, Weezer, and Panic! At the Disco. His latest solo release, American Love Story, goes all in with the operatics, demonstrating his storytelling chops on early singles “Gridlock” and “Pretty Crazy.”
Before sharing the full record with us this Friday, Walker threw together a list of eight of his favorite tracks from rock operas—familiar titles and obscure picks alike. From Randy Newman to Tommy to ’80s heavy metal band Queensrÿche, see what Butch has to say about his picks below.
Randy Newman, “Rednecks”
This record [Good Old Boys] blew me away. I had completely forgotten about this rock opera from my youth (I was merely six years old) until my buddy Mike Viola put it back on my radar a few years ago. It was the genesis of my new record, to be honest. I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things, and this is pretty shocking and horrifying, lyrically. Exactly what inspired me. The fact that Randy isn’t scared to have the listener get the first person perspective from the bad guy is incredibly bold.
Green Day, “American Idiot”
OK, I know I produced their latest album and I’m a fan. But you can’t deny that when this came out, it was ballsy and amazing. Energetic as a pissed off rhino, and very much needed for the time. These guys are my favorites because they don’t give a fuck what you think about them.
The Who, “Pinball Wizard”
This was exactly like the scene in Almost Famous, where the older sister tells her young brother to listen to this rock opera with headphones on. If only I smoked pot when I heard this—but that wouldn’t happen until only about ten years ago for me when I finally went to the dark side of the disco ball.
Pink Floyd, “Another Brick in the Wall”
Speaking of the dark side. This rock opera blew my little mind when I heard it. It was so dark and weird for radio at the time, and I grew up in the primitive southern ’70s and ’80s where if you discovered something musically, it was on TV or the radio. Listening to this album on repeat and identifying with self-isolation (the metaphor for “The Wall”) as a young pre-teen that loved rock ’n’ roll more than sports, this really connected. And Bob Ezrin is a fucking genius producer!
Meat Loaf, “Paradise By the Dashboard Light”
OK, OK. This is a weird choice, but you gotta know how a pre-pubescent young dude living in rural Georgia must have felt when this hit. I saw a promo video for the single, with this huge hairy guy with a tuxedo shirt, sweating and giving it his all, while a really sexy female co-vocalist (Karla DeVito) was in his face being suggestive and singing back and forth. I was in. And the album cover was metal as fuck for not being metal. The music was more like if Bruce Springsteen were wearing Dr. Frank N. Furter’s lingerie get-up from Rocky Horror Picture Show. How could you not want to hear this? And “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” ain’t bad, either.
David Bowie, “Suffragette City”
Man, I don’t know what to say about this that doesn’t speak for itself. You had me at “Wham bam thank you ma’am!” What a cool rock opera here. Bowie creating his own alter ego about an alien-channeling, bisexual, androgynous rock star. And when I saw Ziggy in that makeup and the red hair for the first time in the live concert film they were promoting at the same time, it scared me. That’s pretty rock ’n’ roll.
Drive-By Truckers, “Ronnie and Neil”
I was sadly late to the party on these guys, even though we were practically neighbors in the South. I think Patterson Hood and company are some of the best lyricists in rock, and this record blew me away. Making a concept record loosely based on the band Lynyrd Skynyrd and the trials (and deaths) that almost imploded them for good. This song in particular breaks down the myth that Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young hate each other. Not true. And I love this lyric:
Ronnie and Neil
Ronnie and Neil
Rockstars today ain’t half as real
Speaking their minds on how they feel
Let them guitars blast for
Ronnie and Neil
Queensrÿche, “Revolution Calling”
I grew up a metalhead, and when this came out, I was graduating high school in rural Cartersville, GA and planning the big move to LA with my band. I remember thinking how “intelligent” metal was getting mainstream attention at this point, beyond prog rock genres. It felt big—and it was. I’m not sure I really ever understood the album’s concept then, but looking back on it, it was pretty apropo for modern times (politically frustrated heroin addict giving up on contemporary society because of economic inequality and corruption). It gets pretty comic book from there, but man…this was good for my teenage inner-metal nerd at the time. And refreshing to hear a metal band not singing about fucking.