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Why Second Albums Are Never As Good
When music suffers at the hands of the almighty dollar
In the great documentary about The Who, “The Kids Are Alright”, the interviewer asks the band why they keep playing if they’ve made enough money to retire. Roger Daltrey (lead singer), John Entwistle (bassist), and Keith Moon (drummer) all scoot away from Pete Townshend (guitar/vocals) because only he can answer the question.
You see for all the band’s fame and success, Townshend wrote most of their songs. And in the hierarchy of royalties, the songwriter sits King. Entwistle once said “we became rich later than I expected”. A way to continue that would be “though I realized who got rich very early on”.
How Bands Create Songs
Bands can have many different methods of producing music; some are collaborative, some are solo efforts. For U2, The Edge writes melodies, Bono writes the words. For Elton John, Bernie Taupin wrote lyrics and Elton built the music around them. For the Beatles, McCartney and Lennon bounced back and forth, and Ringo and Harrison got a crack at one or two songs an album.
For The Who, Townshend created mostly on his own. An upstart group doesn’t much care in the beginning. They grow up together through basement-bar gigs and part-time openers at small clubs. One day they get discovered and need to collate their songs into their first album. That album is a raging success. Critics swoon, listeners consume, and their venues balloon. “We must be rich,” the band thinks. Yet when the royalty checks start coming in, it is soon clear that “we” is not all-inclusive. The checks are different sizes, and the main songwriters are getting most of the money.
The First Time Is Charmed; The Second Can Be Cursed
In the midst of these realizations the calls for a second album grow louder. The studio knows the fickle public and wants the cooking to continue while the kitchen’s still open. Most people attribute this rush and distraction as the key component to deteriorating quality. Some say that the first album holds all of their best, original ideas, mined from their life experiences; the second album must be picking at the scraps. It’s the change in the band dynamic, however, that can also derail the second attempt.
Songwriting credit is the key to the safe.; everyone now wants their turn. The problem is, their original roles defined the band’s sound. The lead guitarist may have written the songs but their own specialized talents coming together made them hits. Now each one charters their first voyage into songwriting. Personal ego and financial gain, rather than the practical roots of the band’s success, guide their decision.
Take a look at The Who’s first three albums and their songwriting credits.
My Generation: 9/12 songs by Townshend (James Brown wrote two of the remaining ones).
A Quick One: each band member got to write two songs. 4/10 were Townshend.
The Who Sell Out: 9/13 Townshend.
The reversion to Townshend continues through The Who Sell Out, Tommy, Who’s Next, and Quadrophenia (representing their best run of albums). A Quick One lags as the weakest offering, and least “Who” album of the bunch. The more Townshend could write, the better the songs were, and the better the album as a whole could be.
Obviously The Who was one of the greatest bands of that era. They were talented enough and had enough studio backing to push through, find their sound, work out their differences, and etch their names into the rock canon. The question to ask is how many bands have permanently lost their way after the second album falters? Have the original fans tuned out? The great ones may push through, but how many very good bands have we lost at the hands of the songwriting cash-grab?