Second Comings: The Klaxons and the Struggle to Follow Up a Hit Debut Album

IT TAKES SOME doing to instigate a backlash from your fans without actually releasing a record. Yet this month, by revealing that their record company, Polydor, had asked them to rerecord some of their album, that appears to be exactly what Klaxons have done. “We’ve made a really dense, psychedelic record,” said an eerily contrite Jamie Reynolds, the band’s singer and bassist, “and it isn’t the right thing for us, I understand and know that. First and foremost we’re a pop band. I haven’t thought about that for a long time, and now it’s in the forefront of my mind.”

Far from eliciting any sort of sympathy for the onerous task of following up their Mercury-winning debut Myths from the Near Future, the comments board beneath the NME story that broke the news forms a vapour trail of disappointment. The consensus seems to be that Klaxons have “sold out”. One fan called gripperrocks writes: “I really like Klaxons, but that is so f***ing embarrassing . . . If they were happy with it, they would have refused to redo it.”

Not since the Stone Roses decided to call their second album Second Coming has a band compounded the already difficult job of writing a decent follow-up. Famously, in 1990 the Stone Roses producer John Leckie flew to America and produced and mixed an entire album by the Seattle band the Posies in the six weeks it took the Stone Roses not to get around to mixing ‘One Love’ (he did it for them in six hours).

But unlike the Stone Roses, Klaxons are working within the strictures of an industry that was already in recession before the rest of the economy hit the skids. Whereas the Stone Roses managed to milk Geffen’s goodwill for four years, Klaxons have, according to Reynolds, been given just over a month to pen some hits. And the worst of it is that, when the album finally appears, everyone will be trying to work out which ones they wrote under strict orders from their paymasters.

Worse still, the graveyard of pop is littered with the corpses of bands struck down by the crippling self-analysis that comes with the pressure to emulate something that may initially have been the result of mates mucking about in a studio. Next month at the Albert Hall, ABC perform their 1982 debut album The Lexicon of Love. With no reason to suppose any differently, the Sheffield quartet probably imagined that all their ensuing albums would spawn a hatful of era-defining hits such as ‘Poison Arrow’ and ‘The Look of Love’. And yet, in 1983, when the band mislaid their entire fanbase with the stringless stodge-rock of Beauty Stab, they entered a decline that they never quite arrested.

Having just announced their reformation this week, Spandau Ballet will have no shortage of hits to choose from when they step on to the road. And yet they too came briefly unstuck when they were overcome with delusions of grandeur on their second album, Diamond. Looking back on that record, the group’s frontman, Tony Hadley, is blunt. “Side one was quite good, but on the other side we’d decided to go all spiritual . . . a bit Indian – not great. But had we been told that we had to come up with a different sort of sound, we wouldn’t have taken it well.”

With so many tour-bus hours to dwell on things that once came naturally, it isn’t hard to overthink things. When Fleet Foxes issued a gushing acceptance speech in acknowledgement of the Album of the Year accolade bestowed upon them by Uncut magazine, it was hard not to feel a slight trepidation. “It’s awesome. It’s crazy,” frothed the group’s frontman Robin Pecknold. “It makes us want to step up our game. I see it as you throwing down the gauntlet – now we have to live up to it. Obviously, prizes are not something you should think about or hope for when you are making music. I hope our next album isn’t like an awards grab, like the equivalent of a Clint Eastwood movie, y’know, Oscar bait. If we set out to try and win Album of the Year, we’ll end up sounding like Coldplay or something.” When Coldplay’s Guy Berryman was shown the speech, he remarked: “For such a cool band, that’s a really uncool speech.”

Once the thrill of hit records and awards dissipates, success has a way of changing the way people relate to their talents, with potentially disastrous ramifications. The clinical sports psychologist Dr Victor Thompson specialises in helping athletes to come to terms with loss of form and believes that there are parallels to be drawn between the realms of sport and music. “As you get more successful, you become surrounded by more and more people who have an opinion on how you should improve your performance.”

He says one key to holding your nerve throughout periods of change is to “have dialled in what you need to perform in any arena”. Thompson has observed that in the realm of sport, the most consistent performers have been those who have been able to cultivate a team to work for them. “Michael Schumacher is someone who was and is incredibly single-minded and impervious to what people think of him.”

Just as Ferrari were to Schumacher, so are the rest of Radiohead and their supporting cast of players to Thom Yorke. It isn’t hard to imagine Yorke, like Shumacher, fostering a siege mentality among those close to him, while indifferent to the risk of being perceived as aloof or difficult by the wider world. And yet, in the wake of their first album Pablo Honey – the one with ‘Creep’ on it – Radiohead virtually drove themselves crazy trying to ensure that their second album had a song that could do what ‘Creep’ did for the first one. After protracted arguments concerning the hit potential of one song, ‘Black Star’, the producer John Leckie persuaded them to road-test some of their new songs with a string of dates.

His advice was inspired. Seeing the reaction that some previously unheard songs received, a rejuvenated Radiohead recorded The Bends in a fortnight. They even exorcised ‘Creep’ by writing a song about it. The titular metaphor in ‘My Iron Lung’ perfectly encapsulated the queasy feeling of being kept alive by the very thing that was incarcerating you. They may not have known it, but according to Thompson, the drama surrounding The Bends allowed Radiohead to find answers to a few questions that were crucial to their subsequent progress. “What do we enjoy? What is this journey about? And how much is selling lots of records a part of that?” Thompson feels these are questions any band struggling with their second album needs to answer.

Along with David Balfe, Andy Ross ran Food, the EMI-owned imprint to which Blur were signed throughout the 1990s. He suggests that, whatever answers Klaxons find to those questions, we shouldn’t be too swift to condemn them – nor should we judge their music on the basis of its commercial strengths (or lack of them). Ross has a certain amount of experience. Had he and Balfe not taken similar steps when Blur presented them with an early version of Modern Life is Rubbish, the band might have been dropped and the record denied a release. “Whatever people want to say about Balfe [the group wrote ‘Country House’ about him], it was him that told them to go away and write a couple of singles. Damon came back and presented us with ‘For Tomorrow’ and ‘Chemical World’ – the two singles which effectively pulled them back from the brink.

“Since the dawn of time,” he adds, “Bands have been told to go back and write a couple of ‘singles’. The only difference with Klaxons is that people found out.”

© Pete PaphidesThe Times, 27 March 2009

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