Henry Rollins: Why So Few Bands Make Great Sophomore Albums

Henry Rollins: Why So Few Bands Make Great Sophomore Albums
Photo by Heidi May

[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.]

Of all genres of music, punk rock is perhaps the one that ages most pitifully. I can’t think of any other music that has such time-and-place immediacy and purity of moment.

As an example, I’ll use first-wave punk U.K. groups. Punk bands that had released a couple of great singles would task themselves with making an album, which often proved to be too much to carry. They had an idea; it was good but brief. Thankfully, there was an incredible amount of talent in this genre, and from that came a lot of albums that are fantastic. Debut LPs by Generation X, Buzzcocks, The Damned, X-Ray Spex, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The Adverts, Wire and Eater, to name a handful, are all incredible.

How some of those bands were able to follow up with another album is a fascinating bit of musical history, as well as a study of talent, vision and integrity. It is where the rubber truly meets the road. After the explosive excitement of the initial batch of songs has settled, the band often is left with a success-derived self-awareness that hangs like a cloud over the practice room. The awfulness of expectation enters the equation, and the results are not always good.

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Again, there was such a vast amount of true talent in many of these bands that not only did they survive their first album but their sophomore efforts were great as well. Of course, this is all just my musical punditry, but I think the second albums of The Damned (Music for Pleasure), Buzzcocks (Love Bites), Generation X (Valley of the Dolls), Wire (Chairs Missing) and The Adverts (Cast of Thousands) are strong.

Many of the bands that emerged in the wake of this first siege on establishment rock also made some incredible records. The Fall, Joy Division and Gang of Four are examples.

There is one story of reinvention from this time that deserves special note. The Sex Pistols album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols might be the most well-known shot across the bow of the 1970s’ major-label aristocracy. As much an event as a collection of songs, the album is great on every level.

But it is what vocalist Johnny Rotten, aka John Lydon, did next that is perhaps the most important takeaway. While punk rock was still very much alive and well, Lydon broke away and formed a new group, Public Image. They released their first album in 1978! It was probably the last thing Sex Pistols fans thought they would be getting, and it reduced Bollocks to rock & roll calisthenics. That album, Public Image: First Issue, is raw, brainy, brilliant and more assaultive and anarchic than The Sex Pistols could have ever hoped to be.

The 1979 follow-up, Metal Box/Second Edition, is a stand-alone monster and a defining moment for what would be later termed post-punk. Lydon didn’t reinvent himself as much as completely turn his past to ash, almost before it happened.

Neither PiL record is easy listening; they’re not supposed to be. They are as real as anything you have ever heard. Even now, Lydon is intellectually dangerous and uncompromising.

What I am outlining with all this is the idea that the first moments of creation for a band or musician will ultimately be defined not by the work itself but by what comes afterward.

There is a band from England called U.K. Subs. I became a fan at first listen in 1979. They were a huge group in our microscopic music scene in Washington, D.C. In a short amount of time, they had turned out albums and singles, all great. Live they were beyond exciting, and really good guys as well.

The band’s guitarist, Nicky Garratt, left the band after the 1982 Endangered Species album. Besides some reunion stints, he has been up to other stuff. Charlie Harper, the band’s affable singer, still carries on with U.K. Subs and, for the most part, the song remains the same.

Nicky and I keep in touch. A couple of years ago, he sent me a CD of what he is up to these days. It’s nothing like U.K. Subs. Nicky is a man of many interests, and kosmische musik, also known as krautrock, by German bands such as Kraftwerk, Can, Cluster and Amon Düül II, has held his interest for years. So he pursued that with a band called Hedersleben. He and his bandmates are two albums in, and his excitement about it is infec-tious.

He wrote several weeks ago and told me they were coming to town. I went to see them on May 2 at Los Globos. Bass, drums, violin, keyboards, guitar. Women outnumber the men 3-to-2.

Hedersleben were limited to a short set, but it was time well spent. They were great. Ariana Jade, the band’s violinist and main vocalist, is basically the frontperson and wears it well, with a powerful voice and intense musicianship. It was a hell of a thing to watch Nicky, who I have seen play hard to the point of injury, go from his trademark Subs precision riffs into the textured and the atmospheric, alternating on 6- and 12-string guitars.

Shortly after the set finished, I was carrying gear down the stairs, past the rave kids lining up for the DJs to follow. Nicky said he never thought he would see the day when I was part of his road crew.

Music making is such a hard world to be in. There are so many ways to take your shot. I think Nicky Garratt has chosen well. I remain a fan.


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