As a general rule of thumb (with some obvious exceptions), most bands early years follow a similar pattern:
- Debut album - consists of the tried and trusted setlist from the past years before getting a record deal
- Second album - often described as "difficult" as the band has run out of songs and the record company demands product
- Third album - this is where it is make or break time - and most bands will have a milestone third album leading to either world domination or abject failure
Because this is not a 100% true-ism, there are various sub-categories and caveats that need to be applied to support this theory.
And as there is always an "exception that proves the rule" (I really do not understand the logic of this phrase?), those that suffered Third Album damnation also need to be considered, as do those who thrive on consistency and it matters not if it was the first, third or twelfth album that is considered the high point.
Third Album successes that effectively "made" the band - after disappointing second albums (which have since been re-appraised and are (generally) no longer considered "disappointing"):
- Iron Maiden - Number Of The Beast
Their debut album was a landmark of NWOBHM and features songs which are still included in their live set today. The follow-up was the slightly disappointing 'Killers' which seemed to be leftovers from the previous and din't really move the band on.
With a new vocalist in the ranks, their third album was several steps ahead in song construct, sound and delivery, and laid the foundations for Iron Maiden to become the biggest Heavy Metal band in the world
- The Jam - All Mod Cons
The sheer adrenaline of their debut 'In The City' could not be maintained on 'The Modern World'. Like Iron Maiden above, the album felt like leftovers from 'In The City' (possibly even the padding of a double album).
With Record Company expectation tested, this album really was "Shit or Bust" - and was the starting point for 4 years unbroken success including 4 Number One singles, a level of popularity which allowed 2 Import only singles to enter the Top 20, and a real feeling of "loss" among fans when they split up (if you go to The Jam Appreciation Facebook page, this loss and non-acceptance of anything they did afterwards is till very much in evidence)
- The Clash - London Calling
Their debut is one third of the unholy trinity of Punk album (along with 'Never Mind The Bollocks' and 'Damned Damned Damned'). The second album 'Give 'Em Enough Rope' was a polished affair, giving a bigger, almost embryonic stadium rock, sound than the debut which was perhaps at odds with expectations.
London Calling was an ambitious affair being a double album and pulled in all their influences. The delivery matched their ambition, and the album remains perfect to this day, and never bettered by the band
- The Damned - Machine Gun Etiquette
The first Punk band to release a single and album. Their second album ('Music For Pleasure') arrived in November 1977, and it lacked the urgency and sheer abandon of the debut. As a result,of the failure, they were dropped by their record company and split up a couple of months later. When they reformed it was without guitarist and songwriter Brian James, and yet they created this absolute Punk-Garage-Pysch-Pop masterpiece.
- Blur - Parklife
Their first album ('Leisure') was OK, if nothing special, and their second ('Modern Life Is Rubbish') a re-invention of themselves as 1990s Mod-ish Brits, and had sold relatively poorly. 'Parklife' built on this British-ness and hit at the right time to perfectly capture a moment in time.
- U2 - War
The debut 'Boy' was positively reviewed by the critics and sold pretty well. Second album gremlins crept in when (a) the band were having trouble aligning their religious beliefs with being in a Rock band, and (b) Bonio had a briefcase full of lyrics stolen just before recording commenced. As a result 'October' was a bit of a hit and miss affair. 'War' on the other hand was the first indication of the true international potential of the band. It's sales no doubt enhanced by the release of 'Under A Blood Red Sky' 8 months later - but this album is the point when U2 started being U2 rather than just another rock band.
- Dire Straits - Making Movies
Dire Straits debut is probably a collection of of songs performed by one of the greatest pub bands you're ever going to see. The playing, the songs, the technicalities - all top notch. Problem was when it came to 'Communique' they tried to produce a carbon copy, and the songs weren't all there.
Making Movies expanded the horizons - a perfect blend of long songs ("Tunnel of Love"), straight rock songs ("Solid Rock") and downbeat semi-acoustic balladry ("Romeo and Juliet").
Although "Les Boys" was a terrible way to finish the album off.
- The Who - Who Sell OutTheir debut was effectively their live set, and second album ('A Quick One') was, I feel, diluted with each of the band getting publishing deals an contributing their own songs. In truth, Roger Daltrey aint a songwriter, and Keith Moon certainly isn't. The closing track on the second album does begin to show Pete Townshend's ambition with the mini-Opera "A Quick One While He's Away".
'Sell Out' was conceived as a (sort of) concept album in tribute to pirate radio - hence the inclusion of advertising jingles, and unbroken track links. A strong set of songs re-inforced the bands ambition and belief and gave rise to the milestone (millstone?) that was the fully conceived Rock Opera 'Tommy'.
- Rod Stewart - Every Picture Tells A Story
His first two album garnered minimal sales and no chart placing in the UK, and it was the same story for the few singles released.
And then something happened ...
Was it his linking up with the Faces that freed him up to concentrate on the folkier, soul-ier side, knowing that all his rock needs (and partying needs, I'm sure) were taken care of?
Whatever it was, something gave him the kick to run parallel careers of equal greatness, and this album was the start of his imperial phase where (for the next 4 years) everything he touched turned to gold - even a song recorded to get him some car seat covers (Python Lee Jackson: "In A Broken Dream")
- Blondie - Parallel Lines
Debut album ('Blondie') was pop infused NY Punk, but not world-shaking. Second album ('Plastic Letters') set the template, but was still lacking killer songs. A make-over by Mike Chapman set this album apart from it's predecessors - was it really the same band? Undoubtedly it was the same band as all the hooks and traits seen before were there, but now there was more. A masterpiece of production and songcraft (including two cover versions). It was even OK for Punk and New Wave fans to like Disco.
- Bruce Springsteen - Born To Run
Signed to Columbia in a wave of glory and expectation in 1972, the debut and it's follow-up ('Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ' and 'The Wild, the Innocent & The E Street Shuffle' (both 1973)) just didn't sell, despite critics wetting themselves. This was make of break time for Bruce, and whilst he was preparing 'Born To Run' he became pre-occupied with making it ever more cinematic and bombastic.
And then cam "the moment" - journalist Jon Landau wrote: "I have seen the future of rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen". Landau steered Springsteen to finish off 'Born To Run' and upon release (bankrolled by Columbia's marketing budget), Springsteen's epic found an audience and a place on American Rock Radio, and has sold pretty consistently ever since.
- Metallica - Master Of Puppets
Along with Slayer and Anthrax, Metallica were identified as one of the "Big 3" Bay Area Metal bands - their first 2 albums had found a solid and loyal audience, and in line with their status there were hailed as leaders of the Thrash movement.
'Master Of Puppets' added more to the armoury, and would/should have found a bigger audience if it weren't for the reach of indie label Megaforce/Music For Nations (the album fared better in the US where it was released on Elektra), massive sales would surely have followed. From a worldwide perspective, massive sales would have to wait until the follow-up - sadly the follow-up was the "sonically-challenged" '... And Justice For All', and world domination would have to wait another couple of years until 'The Black Album'
- Queen - Sheer Heart Attack
The first Queen album came out in mid 1973. Despite backing from EMI and it's proggish affectations in tune with the period, it failed to find a massive audience. Unperturbed, they tried again with 'Queen II' preceded by a Top Of The Pops appearance alongside The Wombles with "Seven Seas Of Rhye". The success of the single pushed it's parent album into chart contention, and also saw the debut belatedly sell enough to warrant a chart placing.
Buyoed by critical acclaim, responsive tours and, no doubt, sheer ambition. Their third album hit the racks in late 1974. It blended the proggishness, straight rock and a dollop of camp. Lead single "Killer Queen" ensured their "breakthrough" - this was the album the fully defined the band and laid the confidence for what came next.
- Marillion - Misplaced Childhood
OK, trying to do Prog-Rock in the 80s was always going to be a tough choice. Fair play to Marillion they didn't bend from the choice, and ploughed a fairly lonely furrow (even getting namechecked on The Young Ones as one of hippy Neil's favourite bands). 'Misplaced Childhood' is perhaps their masterwork - a fully fledged concept piece released in the summer of 1985. It spawned two Top 10 singles and sat at the top of the album charts. A vindication of sorts that it wasn't such a daft idea to "do" Prog in the 80s after all.
The follow-up 'Clutching At Straws' very nearly sustained it, but Fish's departure eventually led to a downturn in the bands fortunes.
- T.Rex - The Slider
Marc Bolan went from cult-ish hippie to Electic Warrior in a little under 4 years - he also invented Glam Rock along the way. By 1972, he was in a position to virtually dictate the terms of his record deal with EMI -this album marked the absolute peak of his popularity.
Always more focussed on the 3 minute single tha the whole album, later albums sounded confused and un-focussed - sadly, so did the singles. 1976s 'Futuristic Dragon' had the feeling of something about to happen for him again, and 1977s 'Dandy In The Underworld' just about kept this going. Unfortunately, we never got a chance to find out if he had it in him to push on and equal 'The Slider'.
- Boomtown Rats - Fine Art Of Surfacing
The debut album was like The Rolling Stones on speed - properly revved up R&B. Second album had more pop sensibilities in line with Geldof's ever burgeoning media celebrity. By this album they'd refined the music and performance, even getting a bit of social comment in with the never to be avoided "I Don't Like Mondays". Sadly, this was it for the Rats and later albums just sound confused, like they're trying too hard
- Pogues - If I Should Fall From Grace With God
Taking steps froward with each of their previous albums, they arrived at this album with confidence and audience at a high. Songs like "Fiesta" became a memorable part of often ramshackle live performances. The presence of "Fairytale Of New York" ensures there will always be interest in the band, and possibly this album too. However, the "fragility" of Shane MacGowan ensured that this was a high point they never reached again. Subsequent albums are OK and often contain great tracks, they just never hang together as well again.
third Album Success rule applies but is (probably?) not their greatest album:
- Def Leppard - Pyromania
Although they continually deny it, Def Leppard were one of the prime exponents of NWOBHM (OK, they were out at the same time and followed the template of a self-financed EP, a Kerrang front cover, and a fine debut album. By the second album (' High n Dry'), they made no secret of their transatlantic aspirations. And for this, their third album, the Mutt Lange button was fully pressed - perfect for the rockier interludes of MTV. Be-decked in Union Jacks, Def Leppard became (for a period) the biggest British band in America.
- Carter - 1992 '101 Damnations' and '30 Something' were mainstays of any self-respecting Indie Disco of the late 80s/early 90s. The signing to a major label (Chrysalis) seemed like a natural progression, and Chrysalis were ostensibly an Indie-Major, so everything should be fine. Shouldn't it?
Maybe the pony had run out of tricks, but all the rough edges were cleaned up and some of the songs began to sound laboured. It may have sat at Number 1 in the album charts, but it was all downhill from here.
- Dexys - Don't Stand Me Down
Constant re-invention was Kevin Rowland's game. From the street gang look of 'Searching For The Young Soul Rebels' to the Soul Revue of Dexys Mark II (sadly with no real major label backing, so bar the odd single there was no real product), to the Celtic Soul Gypsies of 'Too-Rye-Ay' - 3 distinct looks, 3 different incarnations, 3 years. They disappeared for 3 years, returning with a sort of yuppie-stockbroker look (business suits, groomed hair) and an album of meticulously created, and seemingly laboured over, songs that took the band somewhere different again. There was little, if any, promotion of the album and no lead single upon release, and the take-up was minimal. The album has since become recognised as a true masterpiece (and re-configured at least a couple of times), but spelt the beginning of the end - next stop was the theme for BBC sit-com Brush Strokes, and then dissolution.
They did return in 2012 with the superb 'One Day I'm Going To Soar'
trying too hard to create a masterpiece, and end up with an overblown lump of stodge:
- Oasis - Be Here Now
It's good - but is it really the definitive statement of the band that was promised? There is plenty of good stuff here, but suffers from over-producing (kitchen sink theory?), and would've benefited from a bit of editing.
when it doesn't work:
- The Quireboys - Bitter Sweet & Twisted
The long awaited and not wholly disappointing (although a bit shiny) debut ('A Bit Of What You Fancy') followed by a big selling Live album. Their third album (or second album (proper) arrived just as grunge was taking hold and the band found their Faces-esque blusey-wailings no longer had an audience.
(I admit to "stretching" the rules a bit, as their second album was a Live album, but ...)
- Buzzcocks - A Different Kind of Tension
Should've been massive - a better album than the previous releases, but the public disagreed. Maybe the change was just too instant, and like many Punk/New Wave bands, their original audience wasn't quite as quick to move on as they were
- Specials - In the Studio
With half the band departed, this re-invention was too much for the great british record buying public to pallette.
- Stereophonics - Just Enough Education To Perform
The band sort of ran out of steam midway through Performance & Cocktails, and seemed to spend the third album either repeating themselves or trying to re-invent themselves - neith of which happened successfully here. They would spend years re-inventing continually themselves and, save for the odd track ("Dakota"?) never got anywhere near the output of their first two releases
- Guns n Roses - Chinese Democracy
Overdid it with 'Use Your Illusion I & II', and were unable to replicate success of 'Appetite For Destruction' (be honest - were they ever liklely to?), too much tension led to their split despite promise of third album in production. When it did arrive it was GnR in name only - the record is absolute dogsh*t!
does it matter whether it is the third, fifth or twenty-seventh album - consistency is the key:
These third albums are often held up as the artists key work, or spoken of in hushed tones. The truth is that these are (pragmatically) no better or worse than what came before or after. OK, everyone suffers a dip in fortunes once in a while, but this lot kept it at a consistent level of brilliance
- Beatles - A Hard Days Night
The first Beatles album comprising entirely of Lennon & McCartney songs. Some cite The White Album as a sprawling, unfocused mess, others say Let It Be was the death throes writ large. As far as I'm concerned (and I may be wrong, but I doubt it), there was no let up in energy or craft right to the very end.
- Radiohead - OK Computer
If I'm honest (and others are too), no-one could really foresee the future for Radiohead at the time of their debut - it was good, but wasn't really earth-shattering? A similar argument could be levelled at 'The Bends' too although you could see the stretch, the development and the desire to be unique. 'OK Computer' was a different beast altogether. Some said they would never surpass - well, they probably did (if only on artistic terms) by being the same, yet different on every subsequent release.
- Paul Weller - Stanley Road
A second appearance on the list for the bloke from Woking. But this time he didn't have a disappointing second album behind him. On the contrary, 'Wild Wood' sold ny the bucket load. By the time you get to 'Stanley Road' there is the definite feeling that Paul Weller has reconciled himself with his opast and his influences, and can now stop experimenting with different aspects of his influence, and create a whole that is (a) immediately recognisable, and (b) because of when it was released, it assured his position as the Godfather of Britpop.
- Led Zeppelin - III
Led Zep I & II were stuffed full of dirty,heavy, blues-y rock. Was it the template for Heavy Rock and Heavy Metal? Was it the devil's work a la Robert Johnson? Was it the perfect chemistry of 4 musicians, a forthright manger and a very powerful record label?
Whatever it was, people bough the records by the ton, and continued to do so, even when the band took a sharp turn around in sound, or when the quality control went a bit screwy towards the end ('Presence', 'In Through the Out Door').
And spare a though for those that never get to number 3:
- Stone Roses
A magnificent debut followed by a critically panned second album (which took 5 years to see the light of day), and then ... nothing
(Note: 'Second Coming' is the better of the two albums. It just is ...)
- Joy Division
Mitigating circumstances here (obviously), but the reception of their two albums, and the reverence they are held in today, does make you wonder what would've came next. It is wholly possible (although can anyone be 100% sure?) that the band would've followed the trajectory of New Order, which would then put them in the "consistent" bracket above.
OK, it doesn't bear too close a scrutiny, and if you cut a sample size down to small enough numbers you can prove anything (which I think I might've just done), but there must be something in it ....