The joy of difficult second (or third, or twelfth) albums

A new Radio 4 series explains how Dexys Midnight Runners, Fleetwood Mac and Suede fractured under the pressure of fame

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It’s called Difficult Second Album Syndrome: the intense pressure to follow up a huge commercial success. Expectations, internal and external, can make superstars crack.

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Yet that tricky follow-up album – the one after the one everyone’s got in their collection; the one that sold poorly, destroyed the band or was ridiculed by critics – often turns out to be more rewarding. And the stories of how such records were made tend to be packed with extraordinary drama. 

This is the phenomenon Radio 4’s three-part documentary Follow-Up Albums explores. The series starts with Dexys Midnight Runners and their career suicide Don’t Stand Me Down, moving on to Tusk – Fleetwood Mac’s loony-tunes follow-up to Rumours – and Dog Man Star, the recording of which shattered Suede’s original line-up.

Music nuts are always looking for secret clubs to join: the band who will be huge in six months’ time, or the genius singer/songwriter who died without selling any records. Supposedly lesser, disappointing follow-up albums have that snob cachet, but their appeal runs deeper. They’re albums by bands who had proven themselves to be rare talents, but then pushed their art to extremes. There, magic happens.

“You have to dig a bit harder with these albums,” says Pete Paphides, music journalist and presenter of the Radio 4 series. “It’s almost as if these records are a test of whether you’re just passing through or are prepared to put in the time and effort. A record you spend more time with will repay you more handsomely in the long run.”

Knowing the crazy story behind the records certainly helps. “With the bands you obsess about, when you decide you’re emotionally invested you stop wanting their next album to be the best you’ve ever heard,” Paphides argues. “It has to be good – but what you want is a sense of how things have progressed for them, what’s been happening in their life. The bands we love push the story along. The period between having your breakthrough album that sells millions and recording the follow-up makes you a more interesting band than you were.”

In the second half of 1982, Dexys Midnight Runners owned the charts. They’d already had a Number One in 1980 with Geno, but now Come on Eileen was a massive hit and so was its blistering parent album, Too-Rye-Ay. Britain loved the joyous jig of Eileen and smiled indulgently at the band’s curious self-styling as raggle-taggle gypsies with dungarees, sandals and dirty hair. Bandleader Kevin Rowland was rich.

What most Smash Hits readers and wedding DJs didn’t know was that Rowland was not a natural pop star. He was a soul singer. More than that, he was increasingly politically aware, was in a failing relationship with his violinist Helen O’Hara, and was an almost insane perfectionist bent on making the next album an authentic document of what Dexys were.

After recoiling from a US promotional tour for Too-Rye-Ay (“You’d get up in the morning and they’d send someone to interview you while you were having your breakfast”), Rowland and the band went to ground. Three years later, their third album Don’t Stand Me Down arrived. (Only one of the LPs in Follow Up Albums is actually the band’s second – Difficult Second Album syndrome can strike at any time.) Follow-Up Albums reports how the recording sessions chewed up and spat out several of the world’s top producers.

Don’t Stand Me Down was made up of disdainful attacks, gorgeous slow ballads, fiery soul-baring, soft nostalgia and offhand chat. It only had seven songs – the opening track, Kevin Rowland’s 13th Time, was removed at the last minute because Rowland thought a single drum beat was “dodgy” – but most of them were well over five minutes and one of them, This Is What She’s Like, was a 12-minute album within the album that began with Rowland and guitarist Billy Adams talking about nothing in particular for two minutes solid.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xXh19wfJT3Q

Dexys Midnight Runners had made one of the greatest records of all time, but hardly anyone noticed. Don’t Stand Me Down had been deliberately recorded and mixed to be nothing at all like the tinny, glitzy pop sound that was prevalent. Critical reaction was vitriolic or non-existent and, with the Midnight Runners’ record company also baffled, the album fizzled.

“They’d had such colossal success and were so ubiquitous,” says Paphides, “maybe it was felt that they belonged to the pop world. They did get some good reviews for Don’t Stand Me Down. But the general reaction was: ‘Oh. We can’t compute this. This is completely the wrong time for this to be happening. This is a bit weird.’ You’d think papers like Melody Maker and NME would have embraced a bit of maverick behaviour, but things were more tribal then. If someone made a record that didn’t fit into anything else that was going on, it was dismissed as a contrary thing to do. There’s more tolerance these days of records that are proudly out of step.”

It would take a decade for Don’t Stand Me Down to be reappraised, and much longer than that for Dexys to record a fourth album – it’s released next month. But Rowland had purposely swapped his fame for something better. “I had a manager come round and when I played him the demo for This Is What She’s Like, he gave me a look as if to say, you could lose everything you’ve got,” he tells Paphides in the Radio 4 programme. “And I thought, what have I got that I want to keep?”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHJb87nNsGY

Sometimes, the creative force behind a million-selling record doesn’t just want to reinvent the style that earned a fortune – they want to tear it down.

In 1979, Fleetwood Mac were perhaps the biggest band in the world, having shifted more than 10 million copies of Rumours. The next album, their 12th, was Tusk, a wildly oscillating double LP that sounded like the work of separate solo artists, was packaged in what was surely a deliberately awful sleeve, and contained no obvious singles. To this day, non-aficionados only know Sara – it and the title track were modest hits at the time.

While the sound of Rumours was pristine and built for radio, Tusk was all over the show. Rumours had famously, fearlessly catalogued the bitter end of Lindsey Buckingham’s relationship with Stevie Nicks, and Christine McVie’s with John McVie, as well as several awkward dalliances that followed. On Tusk, Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks sounded all talked out, happy to submit tender, regretful fragments like Honey Hi and Beautiful Child. But they’re punctuated by the songs of Lindsey Buckingham, which are best described as furious polkas, and dominate the record. 

“Lindsey was a volatile, domineering personality and the rest just went with it,” says Paphides. “People were worried about him. He turned up at the studio on day three and had cut all his hair off, standing in front of the mirror with a pair of scissors.”

“I would work on a sound and make it perfect,” producer Ken Caillat recalls in his Follow-Up Albums interview, “and he’d say, ‘Turn every knob you’ve got 180 degrees the other way.’ I did. It sounded horrible. And he’d say, ‘Now, let’s record.'”

But while Buckingham stuffed his songs with multi-directional rage and the influence of punk and new wave, he had also become a skilled producer who could bring out the best in his bandmates’ radically different compositions – even those of his ex, Stevie Nicks.

“There’s still a lot of love between Stevie and Lindsey and she’s happy for him that Tusk has become feted as a classic,” says Paphides. “He never tried to inflict his scratchy, lo-fi, I’m-going-crazy production on her. The Stevie songs have lovely, luxuriant waves of elegant melancholy enveloping you. He knows exactly what she wants to achieve. It’s the same with Christine McVie: Over and Over sounds just beautiful. As long as Lindsey could have his own way with his songs he’d do a good job for you.”

Paphides spent four months tracking down Buckingham and scoring an interview – even longer than it took to convince the always-wary Kevin Rowland to talk on tape. “Now Lindsey’s very LA, very Zen, very ‘I’ve been to therapy’. He’s also very aware and proud of Tusk’s reputation.”

But in ’79? “He was angry. If you have a Lindsey Buckingham character, there’s a part of you that wants to destroy all you’re best known for. Kevin Rowland was like that as well. In Suede, it was Bernard Butler.”

Suede had a number one with their self-titled debut album in 1993, a time when it was unthinkable for a literate English guitar band to do that. They partly defined and partly created a sub-culture of intelligent, marginalised, androgynous suburbanites, but more importantly their Anderson/Butler songwriting partnership was potentially as gifted as Morrissey/Marr.

Miles ahead as their debut was, it was the work of a group who had only just found their groove. It rarely strayed beyond guitar/bass/drums and sounded like it had been recorded in a lift shaft. The second album would be the test of Suede’s greatness, a fact their guitarist was acutely aware of as Suede toured America.  Butler, like Kevin Rowland before him, withdrew. While the rest of the band hoovered up groupies and stimulants, Butler set about creating something that would make the Mercury-winning first album seem like the daubings of children.

“With Bernard it comes partly from a Catholic guilt where you don’t necessarily have a high opinion of this thing you did that everyone loves,” Paphides observes. “You want to say OK, you thought that was good? This will show you.”

Suede’s singer Brett Anderson was largely of a mind with his cosmically talented guitarist. Before entering the studio he shut himself away in a house in Highgate, north London, binging on drugs and casting himself in an imaginary new version of Nicolas Roeg’s classic cinematic expression of chemical outsiderdom, Performance. He worked on exploding the band’s desperately adored lyrical palette of weird sex, pointless dreams and beauty found in grim cityscapes. He would replace it with something deeper and timeless, drawing on old Hollywood and tragic, quotidian love stories.

Anderson had the words and Butler certainly had the music, but Dog Man Star would end up an agonising inch short of perfection. Butler’s father had died: the effect on the group’s youngest member of watching that happen was expressed on the 1994 stopgap single Stay Together, its countless guitar parts recorded alone every night by Butler after hospital vigils during the day.

When Suede began recording Dog Man Star, Butler was personally detached from the group and was musically at odds with them too: he had his own view of how the record should sound and was unhappy with the retention of Ed Buller, the first album’s producer.

“Bernard was a very difficult person to be around and I think he’d be the first person to say that,” says Paphides. “He was a man at war with the rest of his band. He was probably grieving and trying to emotionally readjust in ways that weren’t even apparent to him. What they should have done, which I think they all recognise in hindsight, was just stop. Take three or four months out. It’s an idea that genuinely seems to have occurred to nobody until it was several years too late.”

Instead, Suede nearly completed Dog Man Star and, while they were together, the recording was a success. But they couldn’t stay together and Butler left the band with the record unfinished.

When Dog Man Star was released, it was still unfinished. “There was one song he didn’t play on at all, The Power,” Paphides explains. “They got this session guitarist in who was one of the very best you could get. He played what was on Bernard’s demo, note for note. But it didn’t sound right.”

Although Suede’s record label announced that Dog Man Star was the best album “since Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony”, the public disintegration of the band meant the actual record, when it finally came out, was overlooked. The story had gone cold. I can remember hearing Mark Radcliffe play We Are the Pigs on Radio 1, then say: “It’s easy to forget that Suede do make really good records.” The cloud-scraping second single, The Wild Ones, wheezed to No18. People had forgotten.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJYbovI6abc

“The Dog Man Star programme is the saddest,” says Paphides, “because at the centre of it are two people in their 40s who still love each other quite a lot, who are full of regret for what they might have done had they had a little more wisdom and experience.”

But, Paphides says, Anderson and Butler are “intensely proud” of Dog Man Star – and rightly so. For all its tiny flaws it’s an outrageous, ambitious record that will for ever beguile those going back to find it – and like all the LPs profiled on Follow-Up Albums, the romance of it is heightened by knowing how hard it was to conceive.

“In commercial terms, Suede blew it,” Paphides concludes. “But they blew it in the most astonishing way.”

Follow-Up Albums begins Thursday 11.30am Radio 4 and is available on iPlayer.

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