I’m a sucker for concept albums. They’ve long been denigrated as unfortunate symptoms of ’70s rock excess, but this is a very stupid attitude: The concept album, done well, can be one of pop’s most elevated forms. Sure, 14 separate self-contained musical ideas can be fun and all, but what if you could successfully connect ’em to form bigger, stronger thematic ideas? Even that most hidebound of rock genres—punk—eventually embraced the concept album with Green Day’s American Idiot, and Beyoncé brought the medium into a new dimension with the full-album film for Lemonade.
But the concept album’s heyday was in the ’70s, when countless ambitious musicians tried their hand at album-length narratives in the wake of breakthroughs like the Who’s Tommy and the original recording of Jesus Christ Superstar. One of the latter’s performers even released a concept album of his own in 1972: Nigel Lived, by Murray Head, who’d sung the role of Judas Iscariot and would later have a huge hit with “One Night in Bangkok.”
Gig Harbor, Washington’s Intervention Records has reissued Nigel Lived as an audiophile double-LP set, pressed on high-quality vinyl at 45 RPM for additional fidelity. Their first run of 500 went out of print in a matter of weeks, but a second has just been made available. Intervention’s roster is all over the place, with inessential reissues of Everclear and Billy Squier alongside definitive pressings of classics like the Flying Burrito Brothers’ The Gilded Palace of Sin. And they’ve done absolutely right by Nigel Lived, an album that was maybe a little too ambitious in its original incarnation.
Head’s album is an incredibly detailed recording, with city-scene audio-vérité sound effects and unorthodox instrumentation like steel drums, four-man saxophone sections, and an honest-to-god church organ. It’s also too long to be crammed onto a single piece of vinyl, as it was in its first release. The reissue provides clarity that the original never could—and provides a crackle-free background for the album’s multiple pianissimo stretches—and the analog transfer from a one-generation-removed tape is as good as one could hope for, as the original master is missing.
Intervention also replicates the lyric booklet, which includes a handwritten diary written by the album’s titular character. The story is a fairly unsurprising rise and fall of a country boy who goes to the big city with a small wad of cash inherited from his dead mother, but soon falls into gambling, poverty, and drugs. The songs themselves mostly follow ’70s English pub rock and singer/songwriter tropes, with echoes of Elton John, Cat Stevens, and Van Morrison—although Head, one of the best rock vocalists of the era, is a better singer than all three. He delivers some marvelously catchy pieces like the opener “Pacing on the Station” and the aching “Religion,” and the album closes with “Junk,” a nine-minute drug nightmare of song snatches, ghostly interludes, funk struts, and avant-garde production effects.
Head was just 25 when he recorded Nigel Lived, and it bursts with a young man’s exuberant, confident ideas. They’re not all wonderful ideas, sure, but enough of them are, making Head’s concept album worthy of Intervention’s no-expense-spared presentation.