Second toughest in the infants – great second albums
Updated: Sep 20, 2021
When bands come out with their debut album, the songs have usually been around for some time. Many will have been knocking around several years – played in dives, dumps and discos as the bands refine their style, get traction, get a following and get noticed.
The debut albums comes out and if they’re lucky, they are popstars! Fame, fame, fatal fame etc etc.
So, what happens when they come to the second album? Suddenly, they don’t have the songs they have been playing for several years in toilets on the up-and-coming gig circuit. They are starting again. And they are under pressure.
They have record companies baying for blood and hits, debts to pay from badly judged contracts….the drummer who can barely string a sentence together now feels that he deserves a writing credit and the girlfriends and boyfriends have been dumped or dumped them. Alcohol, drugs and sex are free flowing….it’s a make-or-break time in any band’s career.
And plenty have failed at the all-important second hurdle. The La’s never made it to the second album – Lee Mavers just wandered off looking for the sound in his head that no one else could hear. Jeff Buckley didn’t live long enough to complete his second album, tragically drowning and further cementing the remarkable parallels between him and his father’s careers. The Sex Pistols dissolved after Never Mind The Bollocks, suddenly realising that they and everyone else had been cheated.
But some bands thrive, they build on that first album and take it on a stage. Some exceed all expectations, like the debut was just a practice run and reveal previously unexpected genius. And some shatter your dreams and hopes, delivering an indulgent howler, which leaves you baffled and bewildered.
Here’s five albums for me that either build on their predecessors or made a massive jump forward. And I’ll also talk about the most disappointing second album I have ever heard…
5. The It Girl – Sleeper
Sleeper had a couple of cracking singles and their debut album, Smart, was exactly that. Smart, clever, catchy and riding an indie Britpop tidal wave while they could. Fair play.
So, when album number 2 came along, I was expecting more of the same. And in many ways, that’s what The It Girl is….but it’s so much more. The song-writing is more assured, they had proper chart hits and they had plaudits – Elvis Costello covered What Do I Do Now? and you can see why. It’s a truly wonderful pop song. And you know you’ve made it when Declan McManus is covering your stuff – what a compliment…
The It Girl stands up 25 years as a fabulous record.
4. In It For The Money – Supergrass
I Should Coco, their debut was chocker full of catchy, funny pop classics. Caught By The Fuzz is one of the great confessionals and Alright was EVERYWHERE at the height of Britpop. 10 of its 13 songs are under 3 minutes – it was not an album for the chin strokers…
In It For The Money arrived two years later. The comedy personas were still there, but toned down - there were less teenage thrills. The Monkees-lite style was replaced with something still catchy, still fun, but with a few more musical chops and less focused on Gaz’s mutton chop comedy sideburns.
Richard The III is rampaging and raucous (with its joyous WOOO!), Sun Hits The Sky steamrollers along, Going Out and Tonight are catchy and fun. But Late In The Day, You Can See Me and It’s Not Me are gentle, contemplative, lovely. Like Sleeper’s The It Girl, it’s not a radical gear change, but it’s more complex, more refined, a progression.
If they were in it for the money really, they could have just stuck to the comedy songs and got involved with Steven Spielberg, who allegedly want to make a Monkees-styled TV show about them….(there’s a little bit of me that would have loved that!)…but I am glad that they didn’t...
3. Meat Is Murder – The Smiths
The Smiths’ initial singles (in fact ALL of their singles) were amazing, life changing, jaw dropping, all consuming. To me though, the debut album was ok…great in places, but it felt flat. Mike Joyce’s drumming was workman like rather than inspired, which did not help...
Yes it had Still Ill, Reel Around The Fountain, What Difference Does It Make?, Suffer Little Children…but it also had the rather weak Pretty Girls Make Graves and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. Remember This Charming Man was not on the album originally. The album was assured, well-crafted, but it’s not quite there, it doesn’t exceed the sum of its parts.
Meat Is Murder however hits the ground running and doesn’t stop from start to finish. Whether Joyce had been practising or had lessons, I do not know, but his drumming was hugely improved. The Headmaster Ritual blasts out of your stereo, swiftly followed by the fairground rockabilly stomp of Rusholme Ruffians, with its nod to Elvis Presley. It's experimental with the funk workout of Barbarism Begins At Home and the in-your-face political statement of Meat Is Murder. The number of people I know who became vegetarian on the back of this is quite staggering.
The cover is iconic, the sound crisp and the trousers were firmly dropped in front of the queen – Moz’s humour made me howl back then. And the joy of watching Mozzer and Johnny dancing on The Tube to Barbarism Begins At Home remains touching and superb.
Shame Moz is such as arse now, but in the spirit of my new commitment to Morrissey Offsetting (like carbon off setting), I have donated £5 to the Refugee Council.
2. Power, Corruption and Lies – New Order
I have written elsewhere about this perfect record – the gear change this made from their debut, Movement’s dour, pseudo–Joy Division is staggering. Power, Corruption and Lies is a real leap forward, embracing technology, tunes, pop music and club music, yet remaining undeniably them.
The cover is one of the greatest ever, and their stubbornness impressive. Even as they embraced pop tunes like The Village, they still dug their heals in and remained unconventional (any other band would have stuck Blue Monday on this album, but not New Order).
As I say it’s covered elsewhere on my blog, but this is a perfect second album.
1. The Bends – Radiohead
I was at the same university as Thom Yorke. I had a run in with him when he was a DJ in my first year (I may have called him a very rude word indeed), but other than that I had little or nothing to do with him. I wish I could claim that I was there at the beginning, seeing On A Friday (their original incarnation), but I didn’t.
When we heard they had been signed, we laughed – Thom was such a miserable looking fucker. Then they had Creep and we were very sniffy, stubbornly not listening to it - it was ok, but we dismissed it to be honest. I remember seeing them in the Lemon Grove in Exeter on the Pablo Honey tour for £3 and heckling them to the point we got bollocked by the Ents Manager. I think we shouted that they were a “poor’s man’s Carter”, because we thought Anyone Can Play Guitar was ripped off their Do Reh Mi.
I think they even played a show before The Bends in Exeter and I didn’t go, such was my disinterest in them (and we pretty much went to see ANYONE who played Exeter, because not many good indie bands came there).
However, my friend Loz came to stay with me and brought me The Bends on CD as a present for taking her to a ball. I put it on with a casual disinterest and…..it was good….it was really REALLY good...oh fuck…
There’s not a duff track on the album, it’s big, bold, experimental (the weird sample of The Fall at the beginning of the title track; the fact that the music for My Iron Lung was played entirely live at their 1994 Astoria gig – they just edited out the audience and Thom re-recorded the vocals)….and Thom’s vocals….wow.
High & Dry, Fake Plastic Trees, Bulletproof….I Wish I Was and Street Spirit (Fade Out) are Thom channelling Jeff Buckley to perfection, even outdoing him.
It’s not just the gentle numbers. Planet Telex sounds like nothing I had heard then – swirling, woozy, resigned. Just rocks, with its scratchy, shifting guitars. Sulk is a thunderstorm.
OK Computer followed and was magnificent, but on any given day I will swing between which of these albums I prefer. Usually The Bends wins. Their subsequent, cooler, hipper albums have their moments, but The Bends and OK Computer were game changers.
And the most disappointing second album ever….?
Second Coming by The Stone Roses
Their 1989 debut is a truly zeitgeist album. They looked so cool. The artwork was iconic. The tunes were stunning. After the demise of The Smiths, I thought I had found my saviours. And then…nothing. A couple of good or great singles (Fool’s Gold is perfection with a wah-wah guitar pedal).
Then five years later, after court cases, cancelled gigs and more, they were back. Lead single Love Spreads was great. Heavier, but still funky. It's the album's one perfect moment.
But the rest of the album is at best “meh”…an anti-climax, dull, indulgent, skulking, tedious. It took too long and it is too long. It’s too inaccessible, trying to be Led Zep, but frankly failing. Tuneless, bloated, just awful.
Again, in my aim to not financially benefit people with terrible views (Ian Brown is a ridiculous COVID conspiracist and anti-vaxxer), so I am also “Ian Brown Offsetting” - I have donated to NHS Charities.