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The Aging Punk 022

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Wednesday, 27 March 2013

What do Marquee Moon, Horses and The Doors all have in common? They are all first albums released by the artists who composed them. They're also all on my personal list of Top Ten Albums of All Time. Okay, it was a trick question. I didn’t really expect you to know the second part. But as I think over my favorite albums, I am struck by how many of them are first albums. In addition to those, we have Appetite for Destruction, Dreamboat Annie, Exile in Guyville and Can’t Buy a Thrill, as well as the first (self-titled) albums by Blondie, Aerosmith, Van Halen, Jane’s Addiction and Garbage. Plus there are many more artists whose first album may not be my favorite, but I still love it: The Ramones, The Clash, Roxy Music, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello.

Why is this? What is it about first albums which so appeals to me? Logic says that later albums should be the best ones, when they have had time to learn their craft, hone their performances, polish their sound. There certainly are plenty of bands who got better over time as The Beatles, the Stones, the Who and David Bowie did, but there is just something about that initial offering which really appeals to me.

Part of this is, of course, my own taste. The two things I look for in music are energy and originality. Not surprisingly, both are usually present in first albums.

Most bands have the most energy when they are starting out. The excitement of playing music for its own sake usually carries over into the first recording sessions. Some classic examples are the first albums by Aerosmith, Van Halen, Guns n’ Roses and Elvis Costello. They all might have produced “better” albums later in their career, but they never again put so much pure energy into a recording. Even the Beatles’ first album made its mark  by means of simple excitement. The best bands do maintain (much of) that energy as they mature, but not all, and even the best seem to flag in later years.

As for originality, most bands (at least those that get signed) start out by establishing their own musical identity. That’s what gets them a record deal. Sure, in the very beginning they may have imitated their favorites, but any band that has a chance of making it develops a unique sound. Television, Roxy Music, Patti Smith, Liz Phair, The Ramones — their first albums all sound unlike anything else being put out at the time. Even the Doors, which today are so overplayed they sound cliched, created their own sound back in 1967 when their debut came out.

It might seem that a band who starts out with an original sound should be able to not only maintain it, but polish and perfect it, as they progress. Many do. At least as far as their third album (yes, the cliched progression — first album a hit, sophomore slump, 3rd album an all-time classic). But too many bands, under pressure to repeat their initial success, attempt to commercialize their music, and end up sounding like everyone else. Sometimes this pressure comes from the record company (the same company that rewarded their originality with a contract now wants them to sound more commercial), but just as often the band places it on themselves.

An even more common, and insidious, phenomenon is when an artist ends up sounding like themselves. That is, they just keep repeating the successful sound of their first album. Sometimes this is the result of the aforementioned commercial pressures, trying to repeat their success. Just as often, however, a band may only have one good idea, and once they’ve used it up, they have nowhere to go.

I could give plenty of examples of these problems, but that would just be an act of flogging a horse already well-beaten. You know who they are. Rare is the band who can produce original music album after album. Even the Stones ran out of ideas eventually, and, judging from their solo output, the Beatles would have as well, if they hadn’t broken up.

There is one other aspect of many first albums which I find appealing, although it may not be as universal as the first two explained above. I’ve used the word “polish” a couple of times in this discussion, and not necessarily favorably. I like a certain level of rawness in my music. Raw like punk, raw like the blues. Rawness is often where the emotion gets in. And so, Led Zeppelin over Led Zeppelin IV, Aerosmith’s first over Toys in the Attic. And while I wouldn’t rate the first Clash album over London Calling (also on my Top Ten, by the way), there is a definite appeal the rawness of that debut. Perhaps the best example of this is my love of Blondie’s first album over Parallel Lines. Blondie is a pop band, and pop music equals polish. But it was the rawness of the first album, the way it combined punk energy with the Phil Spector sound, that first attracted me to them.

If any one album exemplifies all of these attributes, it would be Patti Smith’s Horses. As I said, at the time of its release, there was nothing in popular music which sounded remotely like it. It had the energy of punk, a good year ahead of time. And it was raw, in the way the best rock n’ roll is; although it has its moments of beauty, on the best cuts (“Gloria” and “Land”), the band is just bashing it out. A truly amazing album. And, although Patti Smith has continued to produce moving and original music, she has never quite repeated it.

So excuse me, I think I’ll go listen to it now. And then maybe the first Ultravox! album.

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