Guest writer - James Davidson www.weheart.co.uk
Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, Saint-Étienne, Tuesday 30th June, 1998: England are playing Argentina in the World Cup second round. It's a night that will be remembered for many many things: Beckham's infamous sending off, Ince and Batty's missed penalties, Campbell's disallowed goal; but, for an 18 year-old from North Wales, it was the day he truly announced himself onto the global stage.
Michael Owen's goal that night was from the top-drawer: pundits ran out of superlatives, unhealthy drinks brands plied the boy with millions, and later that year he won the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year - not bad for someone utterly devoid of one. But that’s it. Nothing else to report. He scored more goals of course, for England, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Newcastle and Manchester United, but records were never broken, and in his 4 seasons with Newcastle, and 3 with United, the former golden boy only mustered 47 goals in all competitions (less than 7 a year). In the season just gone, Lionel Messi scored 73. Was Michael Owen suffering from - what in the land of the muso is most commonly known as - "second album syndrome"?
The art of peaking too soon has long been a curse in football, and, of course, in the business of rock and roll, where the "difficult second album" is an age old music journo cliché. Today it's a maxim that's never been so true… since The Strokes' masterful 2001 debut, Is This It, countless bands have fallen at the first hurdle; Klaxons, MGMT, Friendly Fires, CSS… the one-album-wonder seems to be the 21st century's version of the one-hit-wonder.
Glasvegas' debut album went platinum in the UK, with Bono declaring one of its standout tracks "one of the best songs I've ever heard", and NME banging the hype-pipes... Equal praise was bestowed upon its follow-up, Euphoric Heartbreak (NME awarding it a rare 9/10); and so a future of groupies, awards nights, bottomless pits of cocaine and country mansions looked certain for the cocky Glaswegians? The first 6 months of its release saw just 30,000 records sold, their label drop them within weeks, venues for the promotional tour downsized and their 'headline' set on Glastonbury's John Peel Stage positively deserted.
Things had certainly changed. Back in the 1990s, even a critical slamming wasn't enough to derail your success. Take Rage Against the Machine, for example; coming out all guns blazing, young American testosterone saturating the market, their 1992 debut a rip roaring 53 minutes of face-melting fury. Their 2nd was largely the same, as was their 3rd… and 4th. Artistically, Rage Against the Machine had nowhere else to go, but their fans didn't care, and kept on buying. Creatively, it was the equivalent of premature ejaculation, commercially it was a Big Mac… nothing changes but it just keeps on getting lapped up. Rage Against the Machine should have gone down. They didn’t. It was the 1990s.
So, is today’s second album syndrome merely a case of a more savvy consumer noticing that the creativity has run dry? There's an old adage that goes "you have your whole life to write your first album, and 6 months to write your second", and while there may be some truth in that - and, of course, all the usual arguments of record company interference - it's surely easily dispelled by pointing out that Revolver was The Beatles 7th album, Beggars Banquet the Stone's 10th, and Pet Sounds was The Beach Boys' 11th. But things were different back then, right?
Well, The White Stripes' breakthrough album, White Blood Cells, was their 3rd, whilst their most famous - the one with that song - was their 4th… both released since Is This It. In his 2008 book, Outliers: The Story of Success, former journalist Malcolm Gladwell persists with his theory of the "10,000-Hour Rule" - attributing The Beatles' success to their time in Hamburg, playing over and over again. Jack White is a famous workaholic, and can you ever imagine The Rolling Stones giving up? Perhaps the key to enjoying both critical and commercial success as simple as good, honest, hard work?
One of Michael Owen's previous teammates, Paul Scholes, is often referred to as a "good old-fashioned" footballer. For those of you not familiar with the world of football-cliché, this means he is reserved, doesn't shag prostitutes, doesn't get upset that someone else is earning tens of thousands of pounds more than his tens of thousands of pounds a week, and tackles hard. He is also fucking brilliant; a fact that went largely unnoticed for many years, whilst other flamboyant, headline grabbing players took his share of the limelight - much to the painfully shy northerner's delight.
Beckham did the halfway line goal thing, married a pop-star, got the sponsorship deals… Scholes completed virtually every pass he made, kept on keeping on, and in 2010 (when Brand Becks was whiling away its later years playing pub football in the US), Zinedine Zidane stated his biggest regret was having not played alongside the little ginger kid from Salford. And as for Owen? Months spent on the treatment table, or getting splinters from the sub’s bench hardly helped him with his 10,000 hours.
So, that's the secret? Business types seem to agree: "Flaming enthusiasm, backed up by horse sense and persistence, is the quality that most frequently makes for success", said Dale Carnegie. Perhaps it's not really the second album that's the problem, but the third, the fourth? Scholes, keep on keeping on, and the fruits of your labour will eventually fall? It certainly rings true for Radiohead; their 3rd album, OK Computer, is now widely regarded as one of the best of all time. Hardly anyone can remember - or even name - their first.
But, and there's always a but, the chaps from Oxford are somewhat of an anomaly - up to album no.8 already, their star showing no signs of faltering. If you were to plot most band's critical and commercial success onto a graph's y axis, and the number of albums onto its x, you're invariably faced with a fall from grace. If they're lucky, the commercial success will plateau, but critical success will almost always dip at some point. U2 have been in steady decline since 1991's brilliant Achtung Baby, Beastie Boys never recaptured the swaggering brilliance of Ill Communication and Oasis, from 1997 onwards, quickly pissed all over any credibility they may have ever garnered. So, even if you do make it past album no.2 or 3, you're destined for the bargain bin anyway, so what's the point?
If, as an artist, critical acceptance is really all that matters, then surely quitting whilst you're ahead is the answer? Career suicide is the ultimate key to critical immunity? But there's something in a musician's psyche – everyone’s, perhaps - that seems preprogrammed to undermine this… even The Beatles couldn't pull this one off. The Verve split up after album no.2, and album no.3; yet still returned to desecrate their back catalogue with a stuttering 4th. Even though The Stone Roses' Second Coming was much maligned at the time, the 18 years since have been kind to their reputation… but, guess what? They're back. Oh, and Paul Scholes? He tried too, was back in a United shirt within 6 months. Cantona? That's a story for another time. So, if career suicide is a tricky craft to perfect, how about real suicide?
"It's better to burn out than to fade away", wrote Kurt Cobain in his suicide note, a marginally misinterpreted lyric from Neil Young's 1979 song, Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black). Of course, he’d attempted career suicide himself, 6 months earlier, sabotaging the commercial polish of Nevermind with the grunt of 1993's In Utero. Problem was, he wasn't as committed to the commercial variety as he was the shotgun in the mouth type. The album's production was slammed by the men in suits, but in April ’93 Cobain was defiant: "Of course, they want another Nevermind, but I'd rather die than do that. This is exactly the kind of record I would buy as a fan, that I would enjoy owning". However, by September that year, the band had made an about-face, and a number of big-name mastering and producing whizzes had gotten their dirty mitts on Steve Albini's raw original. "The end result, the record in the stores doesn't sound all that much like the record that was made", stated the former Big Black man.
Truth is, the Seattle band's final opus stands the test of time, and is a much more accomplished piece of work today than its 30,000,000-copy-selling predecessor. But it's Cobain's change of heart that is interesting here… a hint that it's not just record company and public pressure that stunts an artist's creative trajectory, but their own self-doubt too. Artists are creatures of self-doubt, and it's surely a factor that leads to an awful lot of follow-up albums being a little bit shit, but questioning yourself, comparing yourself to your previous successes, doubting your relevance in new markets… it goes back to Carnegie's quote about persistence: harness your early enthusiasm and, like Paul Scholes, keep on keeping on. The rewards are just around the corner.
Of course, football's too simple an analogy. Little changes through the years. For Christ's sake, some 16 years after rugby's Super League introduced video refereeing, goal-line decisions at major international football tournaments are still being right royally fucked up. In that space of time, Google has been founded - and become the internet's most powerful force (hell, hardly anybody was even using the internet 16 years ago) - digital downloads have changed the face of record sales forever, social media has done the same for music promotion, and literally 1,000s of sub-genres have been and gone from the pages of the world's music press.
So, how do you stay successful, maintain credibility, and move past that difficult third album, without killing the band, or – indeed - yourself?
The answer. Henry Ford knew: "If I had asked the public what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse". Innovate, innovate, innovate. Do a Radiohead. Late last year, Thom Yorke took to the decks on the world's leading underground music show, Boiler Room, the 43 year-old frontman rolling out cutting-edge electronic music from the likes of Madvillain, Ramadanman and Modeselektor. Can you imagine that from the Gallaghers? Even in football things are changing; with their landmark victory over Italy last week, Spain have shown that they’re the beautiful game’s answer to Radiohead - playing without strikers? Perhaps even Ford wouldn’t have been so bold. So, change your game. Look up. Pass. And don’t do a Michael.