Every band dreams of scoring that big deal and getting their first major release out. Of course, now it’s a bit different than it used to be with so many potential digital platforms and strategies available. These days a career can be launched from a garage rehearsal space or a bedroom with just some fairly inexpensive software. In the Golden Age of Classic Rock, though, a band typically had to struggle to the point where a major label with national or international distribution and promotional muscle would take notice. Once signed, that band might make the record that would hurtle them into the world of fame and fortune.
The debut album was, obviously, very important. Would it break the name of the band to a waiting world? Would it result in Gold or Platinum sales status? Would the members of the band take home enough money to lavish on cars, homes, or a glittering new Rolex? So, let’s assume that happens. Then the newly-minted stars have to come up with their all-important sophomore release. But, often the pace of sudden new success is so rapid that the band can only squeeze three weeks out of a tour to hit the studio and record a follow up. They pile into the process perilously short of new songs and instead try to dream up some brilliance while eyeing the calendar. Sometimes it works, more often it doesn’t.
Then there’s the third album; the “career-album.” If a band comes up with a strong-selling, critically accepted follow up to their sophomore release, that’s usually a good indication that the group will be around for a while. Just for fun, here’s a list of what we think are the some of the best THIRD ALBUMS plus some of the not-so-great ones in Classic Rock history!
SOME GREAT ONES:
-LED ZEPPELIN III (1970) In a deliberate attempt to broaden their sonic palette out from the heavy blues-rock thump of two smash-hit albums, Led Zeppelin got the acoustic guitars and wooden instruments out and retreated into the folky tradition of the British Isles. Blues-rock was represented (“Gallows Pole,” “Since I’ve Been Loving You”) and screaming hard rock (“Immigrant Song”), but much of the third was marked by restraint. The critics, who already hated the band, didn’t know what to do with this one. It didn’t sell as well as the first two, but this album still kept the lights on at Atlantic Records, so no one was complaining.
-DAMN THE TORPEDOS (1979) TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS Petty had merely treaded water on his second album “YOU’RE GONNA GET IT,” with no major singles expanding the base from a stunning debut. While the bandleader fought his record label on a number of issues, sessions proceeded for this, an album of future-classics and his first Top 10 U.S. hit – “Don’t Do Me Like That.” The album went Platinum and Petty ended up beating the piss out of the corporate suits. He’d call the shots from here on.
-TOYS IN THE ATTIC (1975) AEROSMITH Anyone in New England who saw Aerosmith in those early days or went out and bought the first two albums could have told you that this band had it all. They were just waiting for that first straw to break and release the log jam. It happened on this nearly-perfect set of songs, the single “Sweet Emotion” taking Aerosmith’s name outside of Boston and sending it around the country. There would be no looking back from this point on. Well, actually, there would be when the band members did their best to kill the dream with substance abuse issues down the road, but, that’s another story.
-DOOKIE (1994) GREEN DAY After two independent albums, Green Day signed their major deal with Reprise Records and released this monster that would go on to sell over 20 million copies. Featuring five hit singles including “Longview” and “When I Come Around,” this album was a punk rocker’s dream that only hinted at the later and more challenging statements from this trio of knuckleheads.
-BORN TO RUN (1975) BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN One of rock’s greatest poets and stage performers had faced deaf ears on his first two albums, which had barely sold outside of his base of Asbury Park, NJ. Sure, they’d go on to sell millions of copies, but only after this third album made Bruce a household word. Sweeping lyrical vistas matched by the power and dexterity of the E Street Band makes this album as fresh today as in ’75.
-USE YOUR ILLUSION 1 or 2 (1991) GUNS N’ ROSES Releasing the equivalent of two double-albums of music simultaneously might have seemed like a cool idea at the time, but over time it’s clear that these would have made a single, much better, album. That said, these two “THIRD” albums have enough great music on each to qualify as one of rock’s best. The downside was that the band exploded with supernova brilliance, consuming all of their best ideas and creative energy. After this, it was essentially over; “SPAGHETTI INCIDENT” and that other album that took 50 years to make don’t count.
-WAR (1983) U2 U2 launched brightly out of Dublin with BOY, then barely survived a lackluster second album OCTOBER when they tried to do too much with too little studio time. Some carefully considered downtime and a burst of creativity channeled new ideas into this masterpiece. “New Year’s Day” captivated MTV and hit the U.S. singles charts, with “Sunday Bloody Sunday” in close company. Bono came into his own as a vocalist, the band clicked with crackling new energy, and together they left all the tentativeness of ‘82 firmly behind them.
-MASTERS OF REALITY (1971) BLACK SABBATH Black Sabbath was coming off the landslide success of their PARANOID album, so it’s understandable if they had tried to duplicate the highs of that release: “War Pigs,”“Iron Man,” and the title track. But they didn’t. Opting instead to take their heavy sound into even murkier sonic depths, MASTER OF REALITY turned out to be the heaviest-sounding Sabbath release of their entire decades-spanning career. The soundtrack to metal stoners everywhere in ’71 and still coughing up a storm fifty years later.
-LONDON CALLING (1979) THE CLASH The unbridled punk energy of the first album plus the thoughtful songwriting and maturity of GIVE ‘EM ENOUGH ROPE combined into the Clash’s remarkable third effort. The members were bursting with so many great ideas that it took a double-album to contain them. There’s no filler either – from the pounding title track to spit and polish of “Brand New Cadillac” to the shot heard round the world, “Train in Vain.” And by the way, whoever expected the Clash to write hits? It probably surprised even them.
-ELECTRIC LADYLAND (1968) THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE For the band’s third and final album of new material, Jimi Hendrix convened hundreds of hours of recording in his partially-finished New York City recording studio, Electric Lady. Instead of the economically-driven sessions that banged out ARE YOU EXPEROIENCED and AXIS:BOLD AS LOVE in 1967, Hendrix stretched out and took his time on this one. So, you had “All Along the Watchtower,” but you also had the 14-minute “1983” and 15-minute slow blues “Voodoo Chile.” This was simply his best.
-SLIPPERY WHEN WET (1986) Bon Jovi Bon Jovi’s first two albums were lukewarm affairs that found the band looking for its footing. Meanwhile the musicians toured relentlessly and sharpened their attack and brand, just waiting to come up with a winning set of songs. SLIPPERY WHEN WET was just that. With “You Give love a Bad Name,” “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Wanted Dead or Alive” leading the way, the band from New Jersey moved 28-million copies of this plastic pizza around the world. That’s one for every pothole on the Jersey Turnpike. Well, almost.
NOT SO GREAT
-WILD LIFE (1971) Paul McCartney A lot of folks thought the first two albums (MCCARTNEY and RAM) were a bit too homemade and cheeky, but one couldn’t deny that the ex-Beatle had huge hits with them. The third album was also the debut from Wings and it fell flat on its face. A mainstay of the cut-out bins for decades, WILDLIFE was created in eight days at Abbey Road Studios. It sounds offhand and casual…and forgettable. Fortunately McCartney would raise the bar significantly on RED ROSE SPEEDWAY and the iconic BAND ON THE RUN.
-NEXT (1977) Journey Before the arrival of Steve Perry on the band’s 4th album INFINITY, which signaled a shift to more commercial and succinct songs, Journey was more of a prog-rock entity. There was some great music behind the playing of ex-Santana guitarist Neal Schon and keyboardist Greg Rolie on the new band’s first album in 1975. But the material and the concept got thinner and thinner with each subsequent release. By the third album, the writing was on the wall – evolve or go extinct.
-MORE (Soundtrack) (1969) Pink Floyd After a dynamic psychedelic debut and nearly-as-interesting follow up which introduced a new guitarist, this collection of curios and mostly-instrumental oddities were destined for the obscure 60’s hippie art movie of the same name. A few songs would develop into some exciting live passages, but that was down the road.
-THERE’S ONE IN EVERY CROWD (1975) Eric Clapton Clapton’s third album was the follow up to the enormously-successful 461 OCEAN BOULEVARD which featured the #1 U.S. hit version of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.” This album offered some similar reggae and soul-inspired exercises with precious-little rock and roll. A snore-fest than fans largely avoided.
-CARESS OF STEEL (1975) Rush Saying something bad about Rush is usually akin to inserting one’s head into a guillotine and allowing one of the band’s millions of rabid fans to let the rope go. But, CARESS OF STEEL came after the focused concepts and clarity of FLY BY NIGHT, with recent arrival Neal Peart handling the drums and the lyrics, and before the grand concept and breakthrough of 2112.By comparison, this third effort feels unfocused and more than a little uncertain.