Third Time’s The Charm: The Artists Whose Third Album Was The Breakthrough

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*Only 5 LPs photographed because most of your intrepid blogger’s property is still in storage…

I don’t know if this is true or not, but it sure seems like bands have a lot more avenues to get their music out these days especially when compared to how they used to do it in the 70s or 80s… I’ve been sitting in the cheap seats watching my friend Drummer Blake work to establish his latest band the Sunset Sinners and those guys are a marketing machine. I don’t think they’re any different than any new band out there today. There are so many tools at a band’s disposal. Bands now have YouTube where they can release videos of live performances or just old school videos like Dirty Honey‘s latest. There’s so much more a band can do with social media today. Whether it’s Facebook, Instagram or Twitter new bands have a way of communicating directly with fans so when a record company comes calling, the band already has a built in fan base that can literally span the globe. And now with Tik Tok that social media reach may have even gotten broader… at least that’s what my friend James tells me, he loves Tik Tok. I’m only on a few social media platforms and Tik Tok ain’t one of them. Not yet anyway. I only got on Instagram to follow the bands I love…well that and to watch videos of cats and dogs doing adorable things. I’m like everyone else in that regard. 

In the old days a band’s social media consisted of the guys in the band wandering around downtown stapling cheap copies made at Kinkos to telephone poles to announce a gig. I think there was a scene in Motley Crue’s ‘The Dirt’ where they’re doing just that which had to be hot and exhausting in all that spandex. Typically to start a band a few like minded musicians who liked the same music might huddle together in a garage and start playing cover tunes. After a while and usually a few line up changes – often that involved someone answering an ad in the newspaper like Ace Frehley – the band might start doing gigs in front of actual people, not just distressed family members. A school dance here, a keg party there, it all helped the band to start to create a following. The band’s repertoire would expand and eventually they’d start to create their own, original music. Eventually some enterprising bar owner would let the band play on their stage… or perhaps give them a residency. Maybe Gene Simmons would show up and pay for a demo tape like he did for Van Halen…probably not but somehow  demo tapes would get made. If fortune and luck shone on the band, a record company would extend a contract… Oh, and a manager probably showed up somewhere in this process to take 10%.

When the record company would offer the band a contract you’d think all their dreams were answered. It’s the Cinderella story. Record companies today seem to only want bands who can deliver that mega-million dollar selling debut LP. Maybe record companies have always been that way? But for some bands that debut album fails to connect. Not every debut can be Boston or Appetite For Destruction (Pleased To Meet You… The Epic List of Our 40 Favorite Debut Albums). Some really classic debut LPs from the world’s biggest bands have been commercial failures. In meetings, the record company guys all act supportive, but the pressure is really on now. To make matters worse, there’s the sophomore slump that hangs over a lot of bands. Bono, in his Rock Hall of Fame speech was talking about being in a band and described the 2nd album (and he was speaking generally) as “the difficult second album.” The old saying, “You have your whole life to write your first album, and only a few months to write your second,” holds some truth. Even for bands whose debut LP had a hit single or two and sold well, a weak second album only brings more pressure. And there are a lot of weak second albums out there… U2’s October is a prime example. 

For a band whose first two albums hadn’t sold in big numbers, I can only imagine that the third album was a “make or break” situation. Today, I don’t think any current label would keep an act longer than two LPs if neither sold well. We live in an instant gratification world, and if a band’s first or second album doesn’t explode, it’s time to move on. Back in the 70s and even the 80s, record labels seemed to be slightly more patient. They would let a band develop, mostly by playing a shit ton of concerts on the road, but also in the studio and as songwriters. Sometimes all that was needed was a new producer. Maybe the band tweaks the line up. It just felt, without all the social media to help build in that fanbase, that record companies back in the day gave artists’ more time or a little more leash, if you will. 

Some of the world’s most renown artists took an entire three albums to break into that world wide fame and commercial success. If these bands were coming out today I’m not sure any record company would have stuck with them until that third album and that would be a damn shame. Here is my list of phenomenal third records that made the bands who recorded them famous. I consider each of these records essential rock and roll listening. 

Aerosmith, Toys In The Attic

While Aerosmith had the hit “Dream On” on their debut, the album didn’t make a dent. They moved in together so they could rehearse constantly and brought in renown producer Jack Douglas for their second LP Get Your Wings, which sold better. At that point Aerosmith became road warriors. They toured incessantly behind the 2nd LP which helped build their fan base but also improved their songwriting and chops. With the big singles “Walk This Way” (later redone with Run D.M.C. during their “comeback”) and my favorite “Sweet Emotion” Aerosmith became superstars. This, to me, is Aerosmith’s peak album. Even the deep tracks like “Uncle Salty” and “Adam’s Apple” kick ass. I love the first two Aerosmith LPs, but I can understand how this is the one that broke them wide and far. It’s telling that they re-released “Dream On” during this time period to try and boost sales of that debut. 

Lenny Kravitz, Are You Gonna Go My Way

While Lenny’s debut is now considered a classic, you never heard much of it on the radio. Every woman I met in the 90s, even casually, put his debut on for me to hear. Despite his unending support among 20-something aged women, his second LP, Mama Said was pretty much invisible. Then suddenly, the title track of this album exploded on to radio and MTV with an iconic video of Lenny rocking in a circular room and flinging his dreds everywhere. There are so many classic tunes on this album – “Believe,” “Heaven Help,” “Black Girl,” and “Just Be A Woman” to name a few. Yes, Lenny tends to wear his influences on his sleeve, but he distills all of them into a fantastic album here. I’m not sure he ever did anything as good as this essential third LP. 

No Doubt, Tragic Kingdom

I had no doubt back in the day that I didn’t like this band. Then the Rock Chick took me to see them live on their reunion tour and I was blown away by them. Guitarist Tom Dumont, bassist Tony Kanal, and drummer Adrian Young were lean and muscular. I wasn’t prepared for how hard they rocked. Front woman Gwen Stefani who went on to totally disappoint me on her solo career was charismatic and energetic on stage… I was mesmerized by her performance…but I’m getting off topic. After that show, I went out and bought all their albums. Their eponymous debut LP got zero support from their record label and they asked to be dropped from their contract which the label refused to do. Their 2nd album, Beacon Street Collection can be thought of as songs about hating their record company. Finally on the third LP, they pierced the grunge consciousness of the era with Tragic Kingdom. Listening to this LP all these years later, it’s a staggering leap forward from the first two records. “Just A Girl” is a woman’s empowerment anthem for the ages and it actually rocks. From that to the ballad “Sunday Morning” this album is just about perfect. 

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Damn The Torpedos 

Petty’s first two albums had classic songs and hits – “Breakdown,” “American Girl,” “I Need To Know” and “Listen To Her Heart.” Listening to those albums today you could tell this was a band who was on the verge of breaking big. Damn The Torpedoes was that quantum leap forward and coincidentally the first Petty LP I ever purchased. My brother had it before I even did. “Here Comes My Girl,” “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee” were all monster hits but I like some of the deep tracks. “Even the Losers” (a personal anthem) and “You Tell Me” are stellar. I even dig “Louisiana Rain.” One of the greatest albums of all time. 

The Police, Zenyatta Mondatta 

Maybe some day someone will explain the title to me… I was in junior high when the Police’s debut album Outlandos D’Amor came out. We all loved “Roxanne.” I remember singing it like Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours, loudly, high-pitched and out of tune in study hall much to the chagrin of the teacher in charge. Outlandos was a classic despite the French title, but I didn’t know anybody who owned it. The second album, Regatta De Blanc boasted the hits “Walking On the Moon,” and “Message In A Bottle” but it didn’t seem to resonate with as many people. Frankly I thought both those tracks were on the debut. After a world wide tour, much like Aerosmith, that honed their playing and songwriting skills they returned with Zenyatta Mondatta and suddenly everyone was on the Police bandwagon. “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” about the nonsensical nature of speeches by politicians, teachers and lawyers was the first single and despite probably not understanding that, we all loved that song. I think my friend Doug saw the Police on this tour. Every song on this album could have been a hit. Between the Police and Aerosmith I think it could be argued every new band should be sent on the road for at least a year to play as many shows as they can. 

Bruce Springsteen, Born To Run

Springsteen’s first album Greetings From Asbury Park is now seen as a classic. Groups from Manfred Mann to Bowie to Greg Kihn have covered tracks from this album. Commercially though, it was largely ignored. His second disc, The Wild, The Innocent And the E Street Shuffle, which gave his backing band its name, is my favorite Springsteen album. Oddly, the great epics on that album like “Incident On 57th St,” “Rosalita,” or “New York City Serenade” were largely ignored. With his back to the wall, Springsteen wrote his greatest batch of songs. He wanted lyrics like Dylan with Phil Spector’s “wall of sound.” I’d say he checked both those boxes! Like Damn The Torpedoes this is one of the greatest albums of all time. I’m just glad Columbia Records let Bruce have a third shot at an album. They would have dropped him if this record failed… 

Rod Stewart, Every Picture Tells A Story 

After his brief stint as “vocalist extraordinaire” for the Jeff Beck Group, Stewart recorded his debut, The Rod Stewart Album, or as it was known in the UK, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down. It was part folk, part rock n roll which would set the template for the rest of Rod’s best work. It didn’t take off so he joined the Faces as their lead singer and after that, he’d release an album with the Faces and a solo album every year. It wasn’t until his third LP, Every Picture Tells A Story that he broke it big when a DJ in Cleveland flipped over the first single “Reason To Believe” to play the B-side, a little ditty named “Maggie May.” Rod became a superstar which was great for him, not so great for his mates in the Faces. I still hope Rod, Ronnie Wood and Kenny Jones can get a semi-Faces reunion together and do something. Rod was always better when he was working with a strong guitar player like Wood. 

U2, War

Boy, U2’s debut boasted the fabulous song “I Will Follow” that they still play in concert but it only made a little dent on the charts. The “difficult second album,” October didn’t do them any favors. Like Springsteen, with their backs against the wall, they retreated to Hawaii and recorded their breakthrough album. Sure, they had bigger and perhaps better albums, but War is the LP that broke them wide open… it’s also the first LP from them I purchased. The anthems “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” moved them in a political direction that I always loved. It’s amazing how many of these third LPs ended up being some of the greatest music ever recorded… Maybe it’s the pressure? 

The White Stripes, White Blood Cells 

Like a majority of people, this was the LP where I first discovered the White Stripes. I ended up going back and buying their previous 2 LPs almost immediately upon buying White Blood Cells. The eponymous debut was all garage-rock, meaning it sounded like it was recorded in a garage. It was raw and ferocious, naturally I loved it. Even I will admit however, I can see why that wasn’t an international sensation. Their second LP, De Stijl was, like Springsteen’s E Street Shuffle, my favorite Stripes album. It’s bluesy and punk… its blues punk. However, it also failed to resonate far and wide. White Blood Cells had the big hits that made them famous “Dead Leaves On The Dirty Ground” and “Fell In Love With A Girl” that likely drove a lot of people like me to their first two records. They may have had bigger albums but this one is almost perfect. “We’re Going To Be Friends” is the best acoustic track they ever did. “I’m Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman” has always been a personal fav. The Stripes just released a wonderful Greatest Hits album if you’re not obsessive about owning every LP but White Blood Cells is the perfect place to start with the Stripes. 

 

Most, if not all of these bands went on to storied, long careers. They all had “bigger,” better selling albums but these are such critical pieces of that later success. These are some of the greatest albums ever. I urge everyone who hasn’t heard these “third” records to do so immediately. Because as we’ve just learned, sometimes the third time is the charm. 

Cheers! Be safe out there, we’re getting closer every day to being able to some of this great rock n roll played live! 

 

 

Review: U2, ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind (20th Anniversary Edition)’

I can’t believe it’s been 20 years since U2’s (Singer Bono, guitarist the Edge, drummer Larry Mullen, Jr and bassist Adam Clayton) monumental LP All That You Can’t Leave Behind came out. At the time, people tend to forget that U2 had been knocked back on their heels a bit. It was a comeback of sorts for them. I think I’ve always been fond of this record because on a personal level, I had a comeback of my own in those days. 

I like to think I was an early adopter on U2. I purchased War (on vinyl) when it came out when I was in college. I taped a copy of The Unforgettable Fire which at first had disappointed me – it was a bit of a stylistic left turn from the straight-up rock of War and I was small minded. I guess I wasn’t ready for “Produced by Brian Eno” when I was 20. I can still remember listening to my brother’s cassette of The Joshua Tree on my Sony Walkman, laying on the floor of my bedroom in the dark, illuminated only by the light streaming in my door from the hallway. Oddly, I thought it was a stronger album than The Unforgettable Fire, but felt it lacked the kind of anthem that the previous LP had, like “Pride (In The Name of Love).” The more I listened to it back then, the more I realized I was wrong. I think every track on side one of the album was released as a single. The Joshua Tree changed everything for U2, it was simply put, a masterpiece. I can still remember looking at their earnest, serious gazes staring at me from the album cover. I think after that album came out they were so big they were probably on postal stamps in some of the smaller countries around the world. Deservedly so. 

For the follow-up, while touring in the U.S. they filmed a documentary. They intended to record a live album along with the doc but ended up recording new music. Rattle And Hum was, to my ears a brilliant “hybrid” album – part live, part studio (The B&V List of Essential “Hybrid” LPs – Part Live/Part Studio Albums). The critics however, were a bit more savage in regard to their indecision, live vs studio. There were great songs on that record and they shouldn’t take any shit for it from anyone. It was, to me, the sound of a band finding their roots. They’d formed around Larry’s parents kitchen table when Bono had never sung before and the Edge was learning guitar. They were a blank page. Rattle And Hum seemed to chronicle the band absorbing America and rock and roll all at once. Stung by the criticism of R+H, they did what I now view as a very U2 thing… they retreated for 3 years and completely changed their sound. They released yet another masterpiece, Achtung Baby. They’d included electronica, dance and alternative rock elements to their music. Grunge wasn’t gonna kill U2 they just adapted and got stronger. 

The ‘Zoo TV’ tour was my first time seeing U2 in concert. I had a chance to see them in late ’87 in Atlanta on the tour for The Joshua Tree but declined. Arkansas Joel tried to talk me into going down and scalping tickets at the Forum. But, like ‘Good Will Hunting,’ I said no… “I had to see about a girl.” I dated her for a year but like most of my relationships back then it didn’t work out. On the upside, my relationship with Arkansas Joel has lasted 35 years. And to be clear, he never let me forget that bad decision, what are friends for? While in the middle of touring Europe on the ‘Zoo TV’ tour, they decided to keep that tour momentum up and duck into a studio. At first they were just going to record an EP but it ended up turning into a full fledged album, Zooropa. I loved that record but it felt like an EP. It didn’t seem to match the usual epic scope of a Joshua Tree or an Achtung Baby. I don’t know why but everyone seemed to feel that way. Zoopropa while great, just confused people. Because of that the expectations for their next album were huge. We all wanted a big, bad ass, new U2 album. We didn’t want it, we needed it. And, it fit their up/down pattern – Joshua Tree/Rattle and Hum to Achtung Baby/Zooropa. 

When it took four years, until 1997, to get the follow-up expectations were driven through the roof. When Pop finally dropped, it was a huge disappointment. Even though it took that long to finish, the band had set some aggressive deadlines and its completion was rushed. The first single “Discotheque” didn’t give us a lot of hope. I have to admit, all these years later, stripped of those mammoth expectations Pop is a much better record than anybody gave it credit for being. The ensuing tour, called Pop-Mart, saw U2 playing to stadiums that were not full. I’d seen the ‘Zoo TV’ tour in Arrowhead Stadium where the Chiefs play and it was packed to the rafters. There were empty seats in the upper deck on Pop-Mart. Starting with Achtung Baby, rather than continue their earnest, serious approach, U2 began to immerse themselves in irony. It worked at first but on Pop no one got the joke. U2 had been in the south of France partying with Michael Hutchence of INXS and supermodels and, as Bono said at the time, they “wanted to capture the party but they only captured the hangover.” 

Once again, U2 retreated. While they were recording All That You Can’t Leave Behind, their good friend Michael Hutchence died under strange circumstances in Australia. They had already largely stripped their songs of the irony they’d tried on, but his death affected this album deeply. As U2 typically does, when their back is against the wall, they emerged with one of their greatest albums… 

As the 90s waned, the wheels were starting to come off my gypsy lifestyle. I changed jobs in ’96 but my career had basically sputtered to a halt. I didn’t have much money to show for the effort. I started dating a woman in 1997 who was simply wonderful… but unfortunately wasn’t the right person for me. We were locked in this death knell of being together, breaking up and then reuniting… rinse, repeat. Towards the end we were bringing out the worst in each other. Finally, I made the difficult choice to end the affair for good. I had to work on myself. I finally got out of that relationship, which caused a lot of pain, and started a more inward focus. Within a few months I had a better job with more pay. And a few months later… I met the Rock Chick. When I first met her, on our first date, we both enthused about this new U2 song, their first new single, “Beautiful Day.” It was a return to the earlier, rocking sound. There were rumors that they’d almost rejected it because it was “too U2 sounding.” Luckily those guys have a sensible man like Larry Mullens, Jr in the band who put his foot down and insisted on releasing the song. 

The Rock Chick and I broke up after a few months. She had a daughter and I was still rather untethered to adulthood. I was pretty gutted but then All That You Can’t Leave Behind came out and as usual U2 helped me get through it. I ran into her one night in one of my favorite watering holes…we had both been looking forward to the new U2 and I had wondered what she thought about it. Naturally, after a few awkward exchanges we started talking about how much we both loved the new record… “Wild Honey,” a rare sunny moment on the album, a driving acoustic number, was a favorite of both of us… One thing led to another and the Rock Chick and I were back together. A new job, a well-propertied woman… things had finally changed for me. We played this U2 album incessantly and it remains a personal favorite to this day. 

The first single was spectacular and remains one of their biggest hits. “Beautiful Day” was a great way to announce their return. Bono had joked about ATYCLB that U2 was “reapplying for the job as best band in the world.” “Beautiful Day” was a great resume builder in that regard. “Elevation” was another great rock song that proved the Edge hadn’t forgotten how to play guitar. “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” was written for Hutchence and is another favorite. “Walk On” was another hit single. The lack of irony, the straightforward way they sang about grief and loss would prove to be universal after the tragic events of 9/11. It was almost as if U2 had felt something sad coming… I saw this tour with the Rock Chick, we were living together by then on November 27th 2001 in Kansas City and it was one of the best shows of theirs I’ve seen. 

Now the band is looking back with a box set “20th Anniversary Edition” of the album. The original album is remastered and expanded with a great track that wasn’t on the original LP in the U.S., “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” which has always been one of my favorite U2 deep tracks (U2’s Ten Greatest Non Album Tracks & 5 Best Covers, In Honor of Joshua Tree 30th Anniversary). It was originally released on the soundtrack to a film Bono and the Edge were involved in when recording ATYCLB, entitled ‘The Million Dollar Hotel.’ If you haven’t heard it, you definitely should. Spacey and sexy it’s one of their greatest tracks. Salmon Rushdie wrote the lyrics. 

The box also contains a disc of bonus tracks. In the interest of full disclosure, I have not purchased this box set – I already have everything that was on the bonus disc. I joined their fan club somewhere along the way and when I did they sent me a “fan club exclusive” double CD, U2 Medium, Rare and Remastered” that contained six of the tracks contained here. I already owned the original LP, “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” and six of these tracks. There are some great tracks on the bonus disc. “Levitate” starts things off… it’s a bit of a woozy number but kicks in towards the end. There’s an early version of “Summer Rain” later released on a compilation. “Big Girls Are Best” is an upbeat danceable number. “Stateless” was one of the few tracks I hadn’t heard and it’s a meandering ballad. I love the acoustic version of “Stuck In A Moment” here. “Flower Child” is a great, hippy acoustic love song. “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” is a Johnny Cash cover…reimagined as an almost reggae song. Its rather curious. 

There is also a complete concert from the 2001 tour from Boston. Again, I bought the DVD when it came out 19 years ago so… while this is a superb concert, I already own it in one form or another. It did remind me of what a force they were on that tour. They had a giant, heart-shaped catwalk that surrounded most of the floor. Towards the end of the show they projected the names of all the souls lost on 9/11 and it was one of the most moving concert experiences of my life. Hearing this concert again I’m reminded how remarkably aggressive and spectacular the Edge’s guitar playing is. U2 continues to grasp for relevancy or current popularity… if the Edge would play guitar like this where they sound like, well, U2… they wouldn’t have to worry anymore. I love the acoustic version of “Stay Faraway” on the live disc. If you don’t already own it, this concert is reason enough to buy this box set. 

While this is a beautifully packaged (from what I’ve seen) commemoration of a masterpiece album, it wasn’t worth it for me as I own almost every component of the box set. Well, I don’t own the remix disc but that’s always crap anyway, no matter who the artist. However, if you haven’t heard this concert, it’s worth the price of admission here – much like the Stones’ recent box for Goats Head Soup (Review: The Rolling Stones, ‘Goats Head Soup Deluxe’ Box Set). If you don’t own the bonus tracks, the ones I mentioned above are all tracks you’ll want in your U2 collection. 

Be safe out there… these are turbulent times. I’d love to see all of us pull together as a country and a planet like we did in the wake of 9/11. We are always stronger together, when we’re united… Hang in there, people.. we’re merely “stuck in a moment,” but we will get out of it.