As the deadline for this week’s column drew nearer, I decided to put myself in a situation I would have to write myself out of.
The idea started as “three bands that avoided the sophomore slump” with a follow-up to their debut album. Several came to mind. I decided to narrow the scope and hopefully force some compression to the writing. Then, I came up with it:
Three great sophomore albums, all released by American bands during the Vietnam War.
I know that may sound odd to you. I am not trying to be morbid, but music from the Vietnam War era has an undeniable intensity. Young people were seeing their peers disappear. America was going through a turbulent and eventful time. The music often reflected it by explosive outrage, pointed denial or otherwise. While America’s adults argued over the threat of Communism and whatever else was on the news, their sons and daughters were left to watch things burn and go their own way.
There were bands writing and recording songs who had little or no interest in what was happening in the Brill Building or on Haight-Ashbury. They were plugged into a completely different socket. Dig it.
The Doors, Strange Days: The Doors released their second album in the autumn of 1967. There must have been quite a lot of pressure on the band to churn out more product, because their self-titled debut was released in January of that year. While Strange Days didn’t contain an obvious hit like “Light My Fire,” it gives the listener a preview of Jim Morrison’s desire to take the lyrics and the band to more provocative spaces.
I will never be able to consider the album’s title track as anything less than a perfect encapsulation of a young person’s unease and uncertainty of what was to be their future inside the American Dream. What were the young to think as a war raged halfway around the world that relentlessly consumed the life, limb and sanity of so many of their own? Strange days indeed. The Doors made you think. They were a bummer at the love-in.
Morrison forced you to confront the darkness you tried to shut out with your shiny happiness.
Postscript: It was 1987. I was in L.A., mastering my first band album, Life Time, at a place I believe was called Digital Magnetics. The Grateful Dead were across from me, working on their first batch of CDs. I was told that all the way down at the end of the hall, a member of the Doors and their producer, Paul Rothchild, were working on remastering the band’s catalog for CD.
You have to remember all of this CD business was very new back then. I had someone relay a message to Paul and company that I was in the building. I had met Ray Manzarek and Paul years before and they were always cool to me. Moments later, Paul came into my small room and asked if I wanted to come in and have a listen to what they were doing. Uh, yeah!
As we were walking down the hall, Paul asked me, “What’s your favorite Doors album?” Without any hesitation, I replied, Strange Days. “Mine too!” he said. We went into the studio and for a good while, I sat with Paul Rothchild and Ray Manzarek as they played Strange Days off the mix masters. Strange Days, one of the best sophomore albums ever.
The Velvet Underground, White Light/White Heat: For some, one of the best albums ever. For others, a noisy curiosity that need not ever be visited again, thank you very much. I am sure you can guess what side I fall on.
The Velvet Underground, who in 1967 released one of the most amazing and timeless records, The Velvet Underground & Nico, featuring stop-everything-you’re-doing-and-listen masterpieces like “Sunday Morning,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “Femme Fatale,” a year later released one of the most worship-or-leave-the-room albums of all time. This one is nothing like the one that came before it. Nico had split and the band’s two geniuses, Lou Reed and John Cale, were at each other’s throats. The tension was thick and the result was a clattering caterwaul of shrieking, damaged beauty. This album has it all. Gender reassignment (“Lady Godiva’s Secret”), rough-trade gay-sex encounters and murder (“Sister Ray”), an ode to dope (“White Light/White Heat”) and a perversely hilarious love song that ends in the death of a romantically devoted Waldo Jeffers, who, as you will find out, had reached his limit (“The Gift”).
What more could you want from a band? A beat, you say? The Velvet’s drummer, Maureen Tucker, Mo to y’all, somehow nails down all this nervy chaos and propels this study in dark humor, desperation and density ever forward. White Light/White Heat is real rock & roll and quite visionary. When all of Sister Ray’s 17 minutes, 27 seconds of sonic solidarity comes to a screeching, metal-on-metal halt and all you can do is smile and desire to hear it again immediately, Grasshopper, it is time for you to leave the temple.
Stooges, Fun House: Without a doubt, my favorite second album of any band, ever. How the Stooges could have topped their self-titled first album is beyond me: It is perfection, but it is quite restrained compared to the feral, unleashed-from-its-cage hungry animal that is Fun House. Recorded right here in L.A. in the early summer of 1970 (about a year after its predecessor was released to abusive reviews and general noninterest), Fun House is pure rock & roll. The first few seconds of the opening track, “Down on the Street,” are the definition of disinterested badassity. The song sets the tone of the whole album — a really good time on a really bad trip.
Fun House is a drugged-out, sexualized violence ride — the perfect soundtrack for youth who had been kicked to America’s curb, disowned, names forgotten and left to hang out and pick up on a whole other kind of blues. Nixon’s Christmas bombings on Hanoi were less than two years off and youth were being hoovered off the streets of America and fed into the Southeast Asian dream killing machine. Meanwhile, the Stooges were working through their nihilistic proclivities in the studio and onstage. This album is as brutal as a hyena with its jaws clamped on the throat of an impala. Brutal, yes, but at the same time, completely natural.
The Stooges could not play any other way than how they did on Fun House. That Fun House is ultimate gear is not up for debate. It is a perfect album, timeless, peerless.
I love these albums. As I wrote to you tonight, I played songs from them and got my kicks. No matter what, there will always be music. No matter how bad it gets, there will always be Fela, the Clash and Thelonious Monk. We’ve got Funkadelic, therefore we have nothing to fear.
I reckon we’re going to be OK.