In an interesting cosmic coincidence, this week marks notable anniversaries for two of the more significant debut albums in the world of rock ‘n’ roll: 25 years ago yesterday, the Pixies released Surfer Rosa, while 50 years ago today, the Beatles released Please Please Me. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this is the contrast between the quality of the records — Surfer Rosa was a fully realized artistic vision, while Please Please Me only hinted at what the Beatles would go on to achieve. Still, the Fab Four are in pretty good company as far as bands who overcame relatively unimpressive debut albums go. As these ten records prove, there’s hope for everyone!
The Beatles — Please Please Me
Look, come on. Every time we say anything remotely negative about The Beatles, our comments section gets all pissy, but seriously, look at the track list for Please Please Me — six covers (one of which is the obligatory Ringo track), along with eight originals, of which only two can begin to argue for inclusion in the band’s canon. Sure, it’s not a complete stinker, and sure, it introduced the world to one of the most influential bands in history — but it’s not exactly Abbey Road, either.
The Beastie Boys — Licensed to Ill
Sure, as teenagers we enjoyed the bratty charms of “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)” and “No Sleep ’til Brooklyn,” and we’ll even admit to having a kinda guilty post-feminist singalong to “Girls” — but really, Licensed to Ill sounds awfully dated these days, especially in comparison to the visionary production that accompanied the great conceptual leap forward of Paul’s Boutique and their work thereafter. The fact that Licensed to Ill‘s accompanying tour featured giant inflatable penises pretty much tells you all you need to know about where the Beasties were at when they made this.
David Bowie — David Bowie
Oh yes, even our hero dropped something of a stinker with his first album. Just to make it clear, though — we’re not referring to the 1969 self-titled record that sometimes also goes by the title Space Oddity, but the album that came out two years earlier. The one with “Uncle Arthur” and “Please Mr. Gravedigger” and all the other weird sub-Floyd psychedelic whimsy. That one.
Prince — For You
Until Prince started releasing pretty much anything that took his fancy in the mid-1990s, it looked like this would go down in history as his least inspiring record. As it turns out, it’s a cut above the likes of Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic, but still, it’s only a pale foreshadowing of the heights Prince would scale from the release of this album’s follow-up (1979’s Prince) and occupy for pretty much all of the 1980s. (And of course there’s no Prince on YouTube, so there’s the lovely cover art for you to look at.)
The Beach Boys — Surfin’ Safari
The sound of a young band being marched into a studio by a record company and a crazy father, both hungry for hits. (Apparently the session ended with a fight between Brian Wilson and his dictatorial father Murry, with the latter trying to insist that some of his own songs be included on the record.) The fairly uninspired surf-themed rock contained on this album didn’t even begin to hint at what’d happen once Brian’s artistic vision was liberated from the twin shackles of his father and songs with “Surfin'”/”Surfer” in the title.
The Flaming Lips — Hear It Is
Given the fairly shambolic nature of the Flaming Lips’ origins — see the recent Soft Bulletin documentary, where Wayne Coyne speaks of constantly expecting someone to expose them as a sham — it’s no surprise that it took them a few records to find both a coherent line-up and a coherent sound. This record was later reissued as part of the compilation Finally the Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid, a title that gives a pretty succinct description of the sound of Hear It Is.
Pulp — It
Similarly, it’d take Pulp at least a decade after their debut to find an audience, and although their early records do have both the occasional decent song and a sort of general Smiths-y appeal, they’re also not a patch on the greatness that’d ensue once Jarvis really found his songwriting voice (from about 1992’s Separations onwards).
The Smiths — The Smiths
And speaking of the Smiths, they also fell foul of the curse of the ropey debut record. The problem here wasn’t so much the songwriting — it’s hard to hate on a record that contains songs like “Hand in Glove” and “Suffer Little Children” — no, it was the production, which sucked the life out of Morrissey’s songs and Marr’s arrangements. The band weren’t enamored of the album either, but were apparently given little choice in the matter; years later, Morrissey told Q Magazine, “Rolling Stone cite the first album as the hidden gem. That baffles me. I thought it was so badly produced… I remember [telling] [Rough Trade founder] Geoff Travis and [producer] John Porter, ‘This is not good enough,’ and they both squashed me … and said that it cost £60,000, it has to be released, there’s no going back. I had two very moist cheeks and there’s an anger there that has never subsided, because The Smiths’ first album should have been so much better than it was.”
Can — Monster Movie
The Malcolm Mooney era has its charms, but ultimately, it’s probably not a great sign when your singer is advised by his psychiatrist to leave your band for the sake of his long-term mental health. Still, Mooney leaving Can would turn out to be be the best for both parties — he went back to his native USA and surfaced years later as a painter, while the rest of Can found a certain Damo Suzuki busking on the street, and went on to record three of the most amazing albums anyone’s made anywhere, ever.
Radiohead — Pablo Honey
And finally, yes, while we do get rather tired of people endlessly bashing Radiohead’s first record, it is relatively underwhelming in comparison to what’d follow. Sometimes it just takes bands (and people, for that matter) a little while to work out who they are.