Apart from the really important news of the day — the important breaking story about Ke$ha’s new necklace — Rolling Stone also reminded us yesterday that it was 32 years ago this week that U2’s debut EP, U2-3, was released. The three-song 12″ has become something of a Holy Grail for fans — it’s been reissued several times, but the original releases change hand for shitloads of money. All this despite the fact that like most of U2’s pre-Boy material, it’s not really all that good — two of the three songs (“Out of Control” and “Stories for Boys”) contained on U2-3 would end up in markedly superior forms on the band’s debut, while the last (“Boy/Girl”) slowly slipped out of their setlist and into obscurity. Anyway, the fact that it’s the band’s first release got us thinking about other bands who overcame relatively unpromising debuts — not necessarily terrible albums, mind, just comparatively unimpressive — and went on to bigger and better things. Here are 10 of our favorites. (And no, Radiohead’s Pablo Honey isn’t one of them — we really quite like that album.)
Lou Reed — Lou Reed (1972)
We could actually include Reed twice here, but picking on “The Ostrich” probably isn’t entirely fair. There’s no denying that his self-titled solo debut, however, was a bit of a damp squib — it was a hodge-podge of unrecorded out-takes from the tail end of the Velvet Underground’s career, recorded with a bunch of session musicians and, um, Yes’s Rick Wakeman. Shortly afterward, Reed hooked up with David Bowie and Mick Ronson to make the immeasurably better Transformer.
Primal Scream — Sonic Flower Groove (1987)
Occasionally, it takes a while for a band to find their niche — or, perhaps, for their niche to find them. Primal Scream’s career really took off when they embraced the burgeoning acid house scene and created pill-popping classic Screamadelica in 1991. Before that, though, they made two largely unremarkable albums of jangly 12-string ’60s psych pastiches. The nonsensically-titled Sonic Flower Groove was the first of these, and didn’t exactly set the world on fire.
Warren Zevon — Wanted Dead or Alive (1969)
Zevon’s certainly not the only artist to begin his career in the ’60s with a relatively unimpressive record — even such luminaries as the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys started out with albums that were soon forgotten once the masterpieces started rolling out. Zevon’s debut, however, nearly killed his career — it barely sold, which in turn scotched plans for a follow-up. It took him seven years to finally release another album — and that record, 1976’s excellent Warren Zevon, is often regarded as his “real” debut.
Robyn — Robyn is Here (1995)
You could argue that including childhood/adolescent releases in a list like this is somewhat unfair, and generally we agree (hence the absence of Björk’s self-titled album, released in 1977 at the age of 12, amongst others). But while Robyn was only 16 when this came out, it did at least presage the style of music she’d be purveying in years to come — i.e. electronic-based pop music — and it also sold 1.5 million copies. It’s just that whereas her later records combine chart-friendliness with musical innovation, this entirely eschewed the latter for the former.
The Flaming Lips — Hear It Is (1986)
Bands are rarely given a decade or more to discover themselves these days, which is a shame — who knows how many groups out there have simply given up instead of discovering 15 years after their debut that they had a Soft Bulletin in them all along? Hear It is was The Flaming Lips’ debut LP — they released an EP in 1984 — and also Wayne Coyne’s debut with the band, replacing his brother Mark on lead vocals. Many of the tracks on this album also subsequently ended up on a compilation called Finally the Punks Are Taking Acid, the title of which gives a pretty fine indication of what Hear It Is sounds like — tripped-out moments juxtaposed with thrashing guitars and copious screaming. In 2011, it’s fascinating listening, but compared to what was to come, it’s like an entirely different band (which indeed it is — only Coyne and Michael Ivins remain from the line-up who made this).
Pulp — It (1983)
Also on the subject of bands who took the best part of a decade to discover themselves, Pulp famously labored in obscurity for years before the minor success of His ‘N’ Hers and the major success of Different Class. Again, it’s fascinating listening to their early material these days — Jarvis Cocker’s voice is instantly recognizable, but the music is fairly effete and largely acoustic. Like early Flaming Lips, this isn’t bad, but it certainly doesn’t have the lyrical incisiveness — or danceability — of Pulp’s best work a decade later.
The Beastie Boys — Licensed to Ill (1986)
Sure, this album has an enduringly juvenile charm, but unless you’re organizing a frat party any time soon, it’s probably a safe guess that it’s been gathering dust on your shelf for a while.
The Horrors — Strange House (2007)
The fact that The Horrors have recorded two of the better albums of the last five years seems all the more unlikely when you listen again to their hugely average debut album. At the time, their sub-Misfits shtick and silly names (Spider Webb, indeed) seemed to promise NME-fueled one-and-done status. Then came Primary Colours, which, happily, changed everything.
David Bowie — David Bowie (1967)
This is generally referred to with the adjective “whimsical,” which is never a good sign — it’s only a short step from there to “quirky,” “kooky,” and eternal damnation. The oompa-loompa music hall flavors of Bowie’s debut hardly predicted greatness, although if nothing else, its psychedelic meanderings were indicative of the spirit of the time. Speaking of which…
Pink Floyd — The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
We’re fully aware that people are going to hate on us from this but, well, that’s never stopped us before. We’re also aware that there are those who swear blind that the Syd Barrett era represented the pinnacle of the Floyd’s career, and that the band were never the same after he left. The last bit, at least is true: they weren’t the same once Roger Waters took the songwriting helm in the early ’70s. They were better. Or, at least, they weren’t given to making songs like “The Gnome” any more. Thankfully.