Second album syndrome – how Blur, My Bloody Valentine and others bands dodged the second album bullet

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Blur

Blur

In defiance of the infamous curse of the second album, Getintothis look into bands who have managed to avoid the perils and pitfalls of the difficult follow up LP.

The curse of the second album can be a very real thing.

The truism behind it being that a band has six years to write and hone their debut album, but only six months to do the same for their second.

Add to this the fact that when releasing their first album, bands can be seen as new and refreshing, perhaps even an alternative to the tail end of a dying scene, but by the time of the follow up all shock of the new can have evaporated and a band’s songs can be put under a microscope. We’re thinking here of The Strokes back-firing spectacularly with Room On Fire after their seminal debut Is This It, or Raekwon following up one of the cornerstones of hip hop in Only Built 4 Cuban Lynx with Immobilarity. Or how about the blogs favourite band of 2005 Clap Your Hands Say Yeah dropping their eponymous internet-shaping debut and followed up with the damp squib of Some Loud Thunder?

Then there’s The Darkness, who followed the daft fun of their Permission to Land album with the less-of-the-same One Way Ticket to Hell… And Back, selling only a fraction of its predecessor and being the subject of a critical mauling. Others simply buckle under the pressure of following up a record that gained significant critical and commercial acclaim. Take for example the Stone Roses taking five years to deliver the much-maligned Second Coming or Elastica taking a similar amount of time to come up with their dreadful second album The Menace.

There are of course countless others who have fallen into these traps, tripped themselves up or been too tempted by the lure of commercial success – you fill in the names, I cry too easily.

But there are also bands who buck this trend. Bands who may be just finding their feet on their debut album, who go on to grow and forge an identity for themselves as they mature. For every poor second album there is a follow up record where a band suddenly bloom and where their ideas coalesce, such as Nirvana’s Nevermind or Public Enemy’s It Takes an Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

Here the good and true folk of Getintothis take a look at some of the bands who spectacularly dodged the curse of the second album.

 Public Image Ltd: Metal Box

PiL - Metal Box

After the Sex Pistols folded with but one album to their credit, John Lydon had a task that was perhaps unique in rock music; what do you do for a follow up when you’ve already changed the world forever? PiL’s answer to this was rip up the rule book and start again. Their first album, First Issue, was a game changer. Gone were the powerchords and aggression so much a part of the Pistols, and in their place was a looser, more experimental approach.

Public Image Ltd were a different band and in their hands, post punk was born. The trouble was, they only had a few songs in their repertoire. In order to be able to release an album they hastily added a track called Fodderstompf, an improvised jam lasting almost eight minutes that stretched the running time to a more respectable length. Drummer Jim Walker later said Fodderstompf was “Not even a song just a wank, ripping off our fans. It still turns my stomach thinking about it.

When the time had come to record its follow up however, the band were bursting with ideas. They had also, by this time, fostered a seething dislike of abiding by the rules or restrictions of traditional song formats.  These two facets came together with stunning effect on Metal Box. At the time, listening to the album gave the listener a sense of a ship sailing into unknown waters – beyond here be dragons!

The song’s structures seem loose and there is a sense that, in lesser hands, things could have fallen apart at any moment and trivialities such a song’s beginnings and endings seem arbitrary and given scant regard. The same cavalier approach seems to have been present throughout the album – one track on the record, Bad Baby, was rumoured to have been Martin Atkins audition for the vacant drummer’s position in PiL.

Listening to the album with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to hear a shift in the musical landscape, with Lydon once again pointing the way to a world of new possibilities. Hats off to him. Banjo


Beastie Boys:
Paul’s Boutique

Beastie Boys - Paul's Boutique
The Beastie Boys debut album – 1986’s Licensed to Ill – was one of Columbia Records’ fastest-selling debut records and the first rap LP to top the Billboard album chart. In other words, it was a hard act to follow.

Going into the studio to record Paul’s Boutique, the trio must have felt up against it – they were written off in some quarters as a one-joke act, they had lost their superproducer Rick Rubin and they had become estranged from their Def Jam record label. Pretty much written off and living in self-imposed exile in LA, the odds on their second record being a success must have felt astronomical.

They turned to the production team of EZ Mike and King Gizmo – known collectively as the Dust Brothers – a duo who had produced other 80s rap artists Tone Loc and Young MC, and were gaining traction on the hip hop scene.

The resulting collaboration, with the Dust Brothers creating the music and the Beastie Boys MC-ing in perfect co-ordination over the beats, has gone down in history as one of the best hip hop albums ever created. Paul’s Boutique was one of the first albums made entirely of samples (apart from the Beasties‘ vocals).

A less commercial-sounding, more experimental and creative album than their debut, Paul’s Boutique struggled to sell initially, but has since been lauded as a masterpiece of the genre, turning the Beastie Boys from frat boy one-hit wonders to credible artists. It’s a rich, dense yet free flowing album that had a massive influence on pop and hip hop that followed. A totally different prospect to Licensed to Ill’s ‘party, girls, sex, booze’ immaturity. It was also one of Miles Davis’ favourite albums, which says it all. Chris Burgess

 

Rickie Lee Jones: Pirates

Pirates_-_Rickie_Lee_Jones

I love Rickie Lee Jones more than I’d love, say, a child of my own. Her self-titled debut album was released in 1979, and was a Grammy-winning success, reaching number three on the US charts and presented Jones as a bohemian beatnik, with music bordering on the jazz. When your fans include Quincy Jones, you have done something right. She even scored an international hit with Chuck E’s In Love.

At the time, Jones was dating one Tom Waits (in fact you can see her on the back cover of Waits’ Blue Valentine album), but at some point on the promotional campaign, the two parted company. For her follow-up, Jones reflected on her relationship with Waits.

Which makes Pirates sound as dull as dishwater – but I assure you, it isn’t.

It would be easy to call it the dreaded break-up record, but it is absolutely more than that. This record represents an unparalleled artistic leap. The characters on Pirates are even more vivid than those on her debut. The lyrics on We Belong Together might be surreal (“I say this was no game of chicken/You were aiming your best friend”), but you feel like you know these kids. Similarly, Living It Up features a succession of defined young characters, including domestic abuse victim Zero and Louie and Eddie, who I have always perceived as addicts (“Louie told Eddie that he’d fix him up”).

Musically, the jazz influences remain in the epic Traces of the Western Slopes, and the title track’s irresistible horn-laden refrain. But it is the be-bop homage in Woody & Dutch On The Slow Train To Peking which is the session you would most like to have been present for. It has to be the single most fun that anyone has ever had in the studio.

And through it all is Jones‘ voice – part soulful woman with experience, part lost child not knowing what to do next. A totally unique voice that is instantly recognisable from a single note.

Jones has never quite gotten her due throughout her career. She has continued to release daring and experimental records, from the electronic Ghostyhead to the minimalist, improvised The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard. But Pirates probably remains her masterpiece. Shaun Ponsonby

Mansun: Six

Mansun - Six

Mansun’s Six is a record that can sneak up on you. There you are one day in the 90s, minding your business and getting on with your life, when you put Six on and suddenly Pow! – you realise that it’s just possibly the best album ever made.

This is not to say that there is anything wrong with Mansun’s first album, Attack of the Grey Lantern, at all. It is a perfectly good 90s album and features the classic Wide Open Space and other greats such as Tax Loss. It’s just that nothing on it prepared us for just what was to follow.

Six is a jigsaw of a record, and listening to it is similar to setting an iPod full of new wave, prog, classical and rock to preview/shuffle. The album version of Being A Girl alone can make a listener think of XTC, Nirvana, U2 and David Bowie in the space of three minutes, before the band career off in splintered directions all of their own. And yet, although it is easy to pinpoint such points of reference, the whole cannot be anyone but Mansun.

Described by the band as “commercial suicide”, Six’s takes in a theme tune for a kids’ cartoon show that existed only in Draper’s head, a spoken word cameo by Tom Baker, a music box playing the Sugar Plum Fairy and a song about the dying thoughts of Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. That all this does not come across as a self indulgent work of disparate ideas is where Mansun’s genius comes into play.

It is difficult to decide which aspect of this perfect record appeals the most; is it the diamond sharp guitar lines of Dominic Chad. Paul Draper’s lyrics and incredible singing voice, the brilliance of Draper and Mark ‘Spike’ Stent’s production or just the absolute bonkersness of the record as a whole.

Six is an album that will forever surprise, a career peak that the band struggled to produce and then latterly struggled to live with. Banjo

Blur: Modern Life is Rubbish

Blur_-_Modern_Life_is_Rubbish

Arguably the first Britpop album (although Suede fans may disagree), in hindsight this ensured longevity for Blur. It’s very different from the album which preceded it – almost a re-boot for the band. Although it contained a handful of indie-disco classics, Blur’s first album was not a great record and suffered from jumping on the baggy/Madchester bandwagon that was already beginning to fade by the time it was released.

Then grunge happened and swept away much that went before it. Dismayed by the mid-Atlantic accents of British grunge bands like Bush and the Americanisation of what had previously been a decidedly British indie guitar scene, Blur instead set out to make an unashamedly British, even English collection of songs in the tradition of the Who, Madness and The Smiths. They succeeded but were ahead of the curve, eschewing the teen angst of Nirvana and co. to produce a much more subtle and musically accomplished record displaying a growing talent for the craft of song-writing.

It’s a very knowing, even contrived record that shows-off a host of hip influences – The Pretty Things on Oily Water,  XTC on Colin Zeal, The Teardrop Explodes on Pressure on Julian – yet these influences are subtle enough to allow the album to cohere and avoid descending into pastiche. In terms of its production, arrangements and overall sound it was still very much a 90s record, even if, at that stage what constituted an identifiable 90s sound was yet to be established.

This album provided a blueprint. Lyrically too, the record was a great leap forward. Opener For Tomorrow takes its inspiration from Martin Amis’s London Fields, but is the record’s only overt reference to our nation’s capital city. Elsewhere Albarn’s lyrics begin to riff on provincial small-towns with character-driven songs reminiscent of The Kinks and XTC.

Although not as commercially successful as either the band’s first album or, of course, the one that came after, Modern Life is Rubbish sent the band in a new and rewarding direction. Instead of following in the footsteps of their contemporaries, Blur were boldly setting out on their own path and where they led many others soon followed.

Magazine: Secondhand Daylight

Magazine - Secondhand Daylight

Magazine’s first album , Real Life, was a pretty decent stab at being an intelligent post-punk album. The classic Shot By Both Sides was the highlight, reaching number eight in the charts and it managed to get the band a slot on Top of the Pops to boot.

But the band never really managed to break into a public conscience, which is a shame. They deserved much better. Clever lyrics from Howard Devoto – having recently departed as The Buzzcocks’ front man – and wicked bass playing by Barry Adamson along with tremendous guitar work from John McGeoch showed they were more than just another (post) punk band.

But Real Life was an eclectic, not knowing what it wanted to be sort of album. Like the curate’s egg – good in parts and utterly rotten in others.

I’ll confess I hadn’t heard Real Life before I heard Secondhand Daylight, but no matter what the argument, Secondhand Daylight is a proper grown up album, coherent in its style. This is not a punk album, nor even a post-punk one. It has no peers. It has saxophones and detailed rhythm and even one track that goes on for more than six minutes (Back to Nature). This was not the punk way.

But it was the track Permafrost, a slow grind of bass and keyboards, with the lead guitar dipping in and out, that sealed my love affair with Secondhand Daylight. My 17 year old self had never heard anything like it before. It’s mesmerising, even today, as I sit here re-listening to it. It rooted me to the spot as I heard it live at Liverpool Uni way back when.

Opening track, Feed The Enemy, is as chilling a start to any album as anyone could think of. It’s marching drums and bass give a real sense of doom. And then Devoto opens it with the line “It’s always raining over the border”. I need say no more.

It kicks me every time I hear it.

Magazine went on to attempt to get into the charts with later releases, but the eye for the catchy tune wasn’t their best. Secondhand Daylight is a triumph that would be on my Desert Island Discs (if we were allowed to take albums). Peter Goodbody

My Bloody Valentine: Loveless

MyBloodyValentineLoveless

My Bloody Valentine’s debut album, Isn’t Anything, turned out to be a massively influential record that set something of a blueprint for 90s alternative acts. It’s sounds and textures pretty much gave rise to the Shoegazing genre, so called because bands involved spent more time looking at the massed effects pedals at their feet than making eye contact with their audience.

With extroverted guitars and introverted vocals, Isn’t Anything is undoubtedly a great record. What people were not expecting was the quantum leap that they took on their follow up, Loveless.

Famed as the record that almost bankrupt Creation Records, Loveless had a torturous gestation. Two years , nineteen studios and a multitude of producers meant that the album cost in excess of £250,000, a staggering sum for an indie label in the early 90s. Creation’s Dick Green was driven to a nervous breakdown around this time, saying “It was two years into the album, and I phoned Shields up in tears. I was going ‘You have to deliver me this record’.”

In many ways, Loveless was almost a Kevin Shields solo album, with bassist Debbie Googe missing entirely from the recording, as lead Valentine Kevin Shields had tried to get the sounds in his head down onto tape. Produced Alan Moulder stated “Kevin had a clear view of what he wanted, but he never explained it.” Tales of him recording, sampling and looping his own feedback circulated as the album’s recording went on.

Both Shields and guitarist Belinda Butcher took time off during the recording as they both developed tinnitus as a consequence of the volume the guitars were recorded at and My Bloody Valentine developed a reputation as one of the world’s loudest live acts.

The result of all this is an album that sounds like no other. Loveless bursts out of the speakers, with opening track Only Shallow setting the agenda with a squall of otherworldly guitar. The guitars on the album sound somehow off center, not quite in line with the rest of the track. Loops and effects dominate and Loveless sounds almost like it wasn’t played on real guitars, but some futuristic equivalent. Imagination was key here, and the only constraints seemed to be the limits of studio technology at the time.

Despite the cost, the breakdowns and the hearing damage, My Bloody Valentine created a timeless classic with Loveless; one that is an incalculable progression form their debut and one that still stands alone today, despite its legions of imitators. Banjo

Neil Young: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

EverybodyKnowsThisIsNowhere

Neil Young’s eponymous debut from 1968 is no bad album, but pales alongside its follow-up, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, which is the first full flowering of the cantankerous Canuck’s musical vision to these ears.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere was the first of Young‘s back catalogue that this writer acquired, having gained entry to his musical world in 1990 through the newly released, grunge-approved Ragged Glory. I quickly devoured much of the rest of his classic 70s output, sensibly taking my time before arriving back at the debut.

His self-titled debut album suffers from what seems to be an uncertainty as to what kind of record it should be, surprisingly so at first as Young was already the veteran of three Buffalo Springfield albums, although when you consider that only ten of his songs had featured across those releases it becomes more understandable.

There are a couple of frankly rather unnecessary instrumentals, while even the record’s finest track, The Loner, whose guitar presages his second long player (and first with Crazy Horse), is somewhat let down, like much of the album, by Jack Nitzsche’s sweet orchestration (a partnership that worked much better on 1972’s Harvest).

There are some frankly pretty lame gospelly backing vocals on I’ve Loved Her So Long, while the record ends with the epic, acoustic The Last Trip To Tulsa that signposts the lengthy songs on his second album, but still suffers from some rather preposterous lyrics.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere came just six months later but was a radically different record, most notably due to its rockier sound thanks to the backing of Crazy Horse.

The record kicks off with the sublime Cinnamon Girl, while each side closes with an epic guitar-heavy track that does not outstay its welcome, with all three of those amongst four songs apparently written on the same day while suffering from a high fever!

Other highlights of this album are the glorious vocal harmonies from the band, and the cover photo that includes Neil’s dog Winnipeg, named after his home town in Canada. Will Neville

Cocteau Twins: Head Over Heels

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At first glance, Cocteau Twins appeared to have been one of those bands who arrived fully formed from the off. Their first release was their debut album, 1982’s Garlands, on 4AD Records and critical acclaim was instant. Their sound was often compared to Siouxsie and the Banshees, but in reality there was little similarity between the two.

Garlands consisted of a drum machine, chorus-laden bass and guitars and Liz Frazer’s extraordinary vocals. Their sound at the time was fairly abrasive and definitely leaning towards goth territory. This writer can remember falling for Garlands in a big way, the music fitting in well with the prescient goth scene and bands like the Sisters of Mercy and March Violets.

By the time it came to record album number two however, things had changed. Original bassist Will Heggie had left, so Fraser and guitarist Robin Guthrie chose to record Head Over Heels as a duo. Without the anchoring effects of Heggie’s bass, Guthrie’s guitar was free to fly, and fly it did, Cocteau Twins music became a mix of heavily treated guitar soundscapes and a drum machine with previously unimagined amounts of reverb. Liz Frazer rose to the challenge and her vocals changed completely from Garlands and for the first time the world was given a taste of just how singular a talent she was becoming.

First track When Mama Was Moth starts slowly, with an ominous drum sound, before Guthrie’s guitar drones start up. When Frazer’s vocals enter the mix, we are treated to our first glimpse of the Cocteau Twins as we now remember them. At this stage, Frazer was still singing actual lyrics, although they are fairly undecipherable throughout and it is the sound and tone of the vocals that is important here. The lyrics to Love Paramour, for example, consist almost entirely of the line “Two different fates, my love paramour ooze out and away onehow”. Later she would abandon language altogether and sing in Glossolalia, the vocalizing of speech-like syllables that lack any readily comprehended meaning.

Head Over Heels contains the first Cocteau’s classic, the heavenly Sugar Hiccup, along with epic closer Musette and Drums. We may have thought Garlands had introduced the band fully, but Head Over Heels changed everything and ushered in one of the 80s most compellingly beautiful bands. Banjo

The Everly Brothers: Songs Our Daddy Taught Us

Songs Our Daddy Taught Us

The first album by The Everly Brothers is a stone-cold classic. A self titled debut, it includes Bye Bye Love and Wake Up Little Susie; the latter, when released as a single, making number one on the country, pop and black singles charts.

A true crossover record. (What weird times they were back in 1958. Three different, completely segregated charts). The album itself reached number 16 in the US charts and has been re-released countless times.

So you’d expect them to come up with something similar for their second album, wouldn’t you? A winning formula sort of thing. Not a chance.

Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, the follow-up, second Everly Brothers album is the saddest record ever made. The grimmest record ever made. This album takes on the darkest, deepest records made by Sunn 0)))Swans or whoever is dealing with despair and makes them pale in comparison.  Anyone else is just playing for effect.

Songs Our Daddy Taught Us is so hardcore that it defies belief.

I’d heard about this record for a long time before I eventually got hold of it.

To me The Everly Brothers were purveyors of schmaltzy harmonising; good tunes and all the rest, but didn’t have that edge that their contemporaries such as Gene Vincent or Eddie Cochran possessed. I suppose that the only songs I’d really heard by them were the big hits, Cathy’s Clown, All I Have To Do Is Dream, Bye Bye Love etc, but that’s not unusual.  I wouldn’t have necessarily gone digging around for much more.

As with more than a fair few of the artists or records that I’ve belatedly discovered I can put it down to hearing John Peel sing their praises. It must have been during a radio interview when he was asked which records affected him the most on an emotional level, as well as mentioning his well-known favourite – The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks – he referred to this album by The Everly Brothers as well. (I also discovered Shep and The Limelites’ Daddy’s Home through this same route. Another great tearjerker). As I recall, Peel said something about not being able to play The Everly Brothers album without ending up in floods of tears. That was it for me – I just knew that I’d have to get hold of it.

I was staggered when I first heard it. Every song is unremittingly dark and despairing. Far beyond the normal cliché of country songs, the narrative of each track is that don’t expect things to get any better – because they will only get worse. When matters are at a low point, don’t anticipate that there’s an upturn around the corner; it’s only going to spiral in one direction – downwards.

There are songs of death, betrayal, loss and destruction. Heartbreak and immense regret. Sadness and of pitiful history repeating itself over and over again, for generation after generation. The songs that I used to sing to my children (badly, I must add, and not with vocal dexterity of Phil and Don), comprised of such happy ditties as The Wheels on The Bus and Two little Fishes Swam Over The Dam.

It is no wonder that Phil and Don had such a fractious relationship if their Daddy sat them down to learn such tunes as The Lightning Express. This is a tale that’ll have anyone with a soul blubbing within thirty seconds. (I’m still not allowed to play it within earshot of my daughter as it’s “too sad”).

It’s the story of a little boy who’s about to be thrown off a train as he can’t pay the fare, but he pleads with the stern yet kindly conductor to be allowed to stay for the journey. The child has to reach his mother that night as she is dying and may not last much longer. He begs the conductor to ride the train as “the best friend I have the world is waiting for me in pain…expecting to die any moment…and may not live through the day…I want to reach home and kiss mother goodbye before God takes her away…” There’s a whip-round on the train by the other passengers so his fare can be paid, but you never get to know what happens next – except that the little boy’s words keep echoing through the conductor’s head.

This is the general tone of the rest of the album. There’s tracks called That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine, I’m Here to Get My Baby out of Jail, Rockin Alone (In An Old Rockin Chair) and more. You can kind of work out how it sounds. Although it’s such a great record, it certainly isn’t one to be listening to if you’re feeling a bit down in the dumps.

But what a second album. I do wonder if many of today’s artists would have gone out on such a limb with their second album. The Everly Brothers did and even though it never charted, it really is a remarkable work of art. Rick Leach

Led Zeppelin: II

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Perhaps the definitive ‘second album’ as Led Zep went from being a great band in the making to perhaps the greatest rock band of all-time.

Each and every track showed the brutal prowess and outrageous musical craftsmanship the four players had to offer as they moved from blues re-interpreters to pioneers of their game. Kicking off with one of music’s most iconic riffs, Whole Lotta Love set the template for a thunderous listen while the likes of Heartbreaker, Bring It On Home and Living Loving Maid showcased Jimmy Page‘s spectacular range of six-string histrionics.

But it’s Page’s production nous which is truly something on Led Zep II with deft touches throughout marking them out from their contemporaries; see how the whimsical folk-tinged Ramble On transforms into a full-throttle rock and roll juggernaut or the progressive fusion tumble of Moby Dick as John Bonham‘s bass drums positively boots through the speakers. Remember, this album was released in 1969 – bands simply didn’t sound this loud, this heavy, this huge.

The album also allowed Robert Plant to assert both his vocal register even further while providing song-writing credits he’d yet to previously; see the tender-come-explosive What is and What Should Never Be. While Zeppelin may yet to have hit their career peaks, Led Zeppelin II saw the emergence of one of music’s titans and define music forever. A second album that sets the bar. Peter Guy

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  1. Some other bands whose 1st album was just a warm-up for a hugely superior 2nd album……….. Pogues Rum Sodomy & the Lash, Wedding Present Bizarro, Radiohead The Bends, Super Furry Animals Radiator, Adam & the Ants Kings of the Wild Frontier, Neil Young Everybody Knows this is Nowhere, Elvis Costello This Year’s Model, Teenage Fanclub Bandwagonesque

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