May 142020

Until today, that time in my audiophile, stoner, Talking Heads-loving friend’s room was also the last time I heard The Red and The Black. The thing I remember about that single spin of the album in 1981 is that it was both surprisingly great and surprisingly disappointing because it sounded exactly like outtakes from Remain in Light, with a less interesting singer and rhythm section. Listening to the album today, I had the same reaction. It feels like Harrison’s first foray as a solo artist is completely riding on the coattails of his band’s sound and success.

I didn’t know it at the time, but there were already tensions within the band. To Harrison, maybe it felt like the end of the line and he figured, “Why not take some of the contributing musicians from my band’s biggest-selling album – Adrian Belew, Nona Hendryx, Bernie Worrell – and show the world that I am a stronger contributor to our sound than Byrne and Eno would have anyone believe?”

At the time, though, it felt like the band was in its prime and, rather than show the world who Jerry Harrison was, what made him tick, he blatantly aped the unique sound of his meal ticket. Even Phil Collins, who was at the helm of ABACAB-era Genesis, did something different on his concurrent debut solo album.

Excluding band members who step out and make solo albums while their roots or pub rock band (or reggae, country, or some other codified genre) are in mid-flight, are there other examples of band members from stylistically distinct bands going solo and releasing what I’ll call a coattails album, like Jerry Harrison’s The Red and The Black?

I guess the solo albums that Steve Howe and Chris Squire put out while Yes were at their peak qualify. Maybe some of those solo KISS albums, too. Tom Petty somehow managed to ride his own coattails and unnecessarily blatantly copy himself when he went from making solo albums backed by his band to what were simply billed as solo albums. He must have really hated Stan Lynch!

To be fair, by the time Talking Heads expired and Harrison put out another solo album, he was still doing a Blues Hammer take on funky Talking Heads.


  20 Responses to “Coattails Albums”

  1. BigSteve

    Sidemanitis! I was thinking about this concept recently because someone recommended the new album from Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien to me. It’s called Earth, and he’s named his ‘project’ EOB. It sounds great, since it was produced by Flood and mixed by Alan Moulder. And it’s generally in the style perfected by his band, like The Red and the Black, Ed got cool people to play on his album too. Besides first call session guys like Nathan East and Omar Hakim (must be nice to be able to afford those cats), he’s got Wilco’s Glenn Kotche and Portishead’s Adris Utley, and Laura Marling duets with him on a couple of songs.

    But somehow he just doesn’t have the personality or uniqueness to carry a whole album. Some of this is down to the singing. If you’re not the main vocalist in your band, there’s probably a reason.

    This is related to the Moon Martin post, because songwriters have the same problem. The songs can be really good, but somehow the resulting album is just not compelling enough to attract many listeners.

  2. That sounds so much like this Harrison album. Good stuff!

    This reminds me, I have an Oasis-related post I want to get to, but I find that band so boring that I’ve been avoiding taking the time to use them as the launching pad for an idea. When I do get to it, maybe I’ll go back and compare the brothers’ post-Oasis offshoot bands. One of them, I believe, was the severely mono-browed guitarist with the remaining Oasis members minus his singer brother. The other was a band led by the singer brother. Or maybe it was the opposite way around. Either way, I wonder if comparing those offshoot bands will help me better appreciate Oasis as a whole.

  3. I do think it was the opposite, which I’ve always found kind of interesting.

  4. How about the Attractions venture into superficially Elvis-less self expression, “Mad About the Wrong Boy.” It certainly seems unnecessary. It’s nowhere near as good as “The Red and the Black.”

  5. Jerry also was responsible for Bonzo Goes to Washington’s record, We Begin Bombing in Five Minutes.” Fotta give him credit for that.

  6. BigSteve

    This may be stating the obvious, but the Tom Tom Club’s selt-titled album is a good example of a largely successful coattails album. Unfortunately after that one, they kept putting out albums and regressed to the mean.

  7. cherguevara

    Wasn’t the Tom Tom club a bigger hit than the Talking Heads, back when they first came out? Genius of Love is a a banger for all time. Jerry Harrison is a Swiss Army knife, what with his bands, solo albums and production credits. I was thinking the other day that I should give late period TH another chance. I really didn’t like Little Creatures, that’s where I signed off. Haven’t listened to Byrne solo, either. There’s a lot of music I’ve ignored. I did read one of Byrne’s books, though, I found it to be self absorbed.

    What about the Jacksons Victory album, kind of a reverse-coattails cash in. I don’t really remember it, though.

  8. Naked was pretty good. In my mind, way better than anything after Speaking in Tongues. Byrne has a lot of good solo records. I particularly liked “Grown Backwards” and “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.” I’m pretty lukewarm on the current one.

    What book did you read? He has more than one. I really thought “How Music Works” was full of interesting stuff about both the technical and business of music. I know Townsman Al was particularly into that book.

  9. “Wasn’t the Tom Tom club a bigger hit than the Talking Heads, back when they first came out? Genius of Love is a a banger for all time. Jerry Harrison is a Swiss Army knife, what with his bands, solo albums and production credits.”

    I’ve said this before, I think, but Talking Heads was the union of four really interesting and quite different musicians, and the elevation of Byrne over the others is a serious if common mistake. I’ve always found it interesting that it’s the rhythm section that had far more commercial success—and, arguably, more influence—doing solo work than Byrne did. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Harrison as a producer has actually made more money than Byrne has as a solo artist. (Although it’s important to note that a lot of Byrne’s non-Heads work was very deliberately non-commercial.)

    I’m going to crib the holy hell out of something I wrote elsewhere, because I think it applies:

    The auteur theory started to gain traction in the late 60s with the rock press. And it certainly does seem to make more sense in rock and roll than in film, at least to me. Someone like John Fogerty or Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen or Paul Westerberg writes, sings, plays and produces their own music and at least two of those three artists have produced full band recordings all on their own, playing all the instruments themselves, with some terrific results.

    But judged in the context of their careers, those recordings can be seen for what they are: wonderful anomalies. Because rock and roll is about many things—for a pleasant diversion, google “rock and roll is about” and see just how many things it’s apparently about—but two of those things come down to the seemingly mutually exclusive but actually inherently intertwined individualism and community. It’s about finding a community where you can be yourself, and finding people who can help you find yourself and your own voice, and who care what you have to say.

    If a great artist like Fogerty or Young writes a song and brings it to ten different bands, it’s going to sound recognizably the same yet very different, depending upon whether the drummer is Al Jackson or Ringo Starr or Keith Moon or Stewart Copeland or Manu Katché. And if that great artist has been writing songs for that same drummer for ten years, well, that drummer is going to be part of the song the artist hears in his head as he’s first writing, before he ever brings it to the studio. John Lennon may not—couldn’t possibly—have known what Ringo was going to play on “Come Together,” but the sound of Ringo’s drums, the feel he was going to bring, if not the exact pattern, was already in John’s mind, already ingrained in his DNA.

    That’s what the rest of Creedence Clearwater Revival did for John Fogerty. They gave him a sounding board, a launching pad from which he could and did for a brief while go almost anywhere: blues, country, R&B, pure rock and roll. And without them, it turns out, he was lost.

    Neil Young was never part of a band anywhere near as long as CCR was together—Fogerty met Stu Cook and Doug Clifford when they were all in high school, nine years before their debut album finally came out—bouncing from group to group as a kid. And Buffalo Springfield was only together for just over two years, and even then the band was less a reality than a creatively fruitful business arrangement. Instead, Young has always been a solo artist, albeit one who sometimes finds it interesting to be part of a theoretical group dynamic.

    Yet even Neil Young, classic solo artist, has found himself drawn back, again and again, to the somewhat ham-handed ragged glory that is Crazy Horse. Why? Because while there’s never the slightest doubt who the creative shot caller is, Young understands that there are certain times you need the magic brought about by the bone deep familiarity playing with certain musicians over a long period of time will generate, and that for the most part there’s no equal for that spark when it comes to creating the very greatest rock and roll. No one is ever going to confuse Crazy Horse bassist Billy Talbot with the late, great Donald “Duck” Dunn, with whom Young also worked, or Jack Bruce or Stanley Clarke or Paul McCartney. And Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina is almost certainly the least good drummer Neil Young ever chose to record with, by a very, very long shot. And yet ol’ Neil just can’t quit them—time and again he goes back to them, to these less than technically stunning musicians, clearly recognizing that they give him something no one else can or does, and that he at least sometimes needs in order to create the very best music he can, to bring out the best he has to offer and make it sound just the way he hears it in his head.

    Creedence Clearwater Revival was a great band. Stu Cook, Doug Clifford and Tom Fogerty were a great rhythm section—an unusual rhythm section, but a great one. But more than that, they were the right rhythm section, the right band, the perfect foundation for Fogerty to build his masterpieces upon, and the spark that helped Fogerty conceive those masterpieces in the first place. That’s why John Fogerty created a remarkably large, diverse and powerful body of work in the brief period Creedence Clearwater Revival was a recording band, and why in the thirty years since Fogerty’s done nothing that even approaches it, not even close. Because clichéd though it may be, it’s nonetheless true: sometimes the whole is ever so much greater than the sum of the parts and because, as Pete Townshend wrote but didn’t sing, sometimes it really is the singer and not the song—and that applies to the band as well.

    That’s why David Byrne has had an artistic career post-Talking Heads that’s as least twice as long as his career with Talking Heads. (And the same thing goes for Sting and the Police, incidentally.) And he’s created some fine art in those solo years. And yet despite being far, far longer a period, his post-Talking Heads work (great though some of it may indeed be) doesn’t come close to his Talking Heads work, despite having more control and working with “better” musicians.

  10. And that all goes quintuple for Robbie Robertson and the Band, of course.

  11. Happiness Stan

    I’ve not heard this album, and never really liked Talking Heads as much as I always wanted to, but I’d forgive him anything just for being in the original Modern Lovers and driving one of the most perfect albums committed to vinyl.

    Great post, Scott, not much to disagree with in that.

  12. Good points, Scott. But also, doesn’t every rock auteur simply do their most inspired, natural, and original music in their 20s rather than later in life? Regardless of who is backing them up, that’s when they do their great stuff. So even when they get better musicians behind them, they’re just not bringing the heat themselves the same way they once did.

  13. It’s funny, I ruled out Tom Tom Club in this context! I don’t recall the timelines, but I thought Tom Tom Club actually influenced the direction Talking Heads would take, beginning with the Speaking in Tongues album and, especially, the cutesy Little Creatures.

    Geo rightfully mentions The Attractions’ Mad About the Wrong Boy. Didn’t Costello write a couple of those songs under an assumed name? It’s been so long since I’ve heard that. Almost any Rumour album, sans Graham Parker, could also fall into this discussion, but the Rumour with or without GP played a sort of essential form of music. It’s like drawing a hand. How original can it be? It’s going to look like a hand.

    Happiness Stan brought up the Modern Lovers. That gets to something I might have expected Harrison to touch on, but again, that wasn’t *his* band. I LOVE LOVE LOVE his organ playing on that album!

    Undeniably good stuff by Scott – definitely worth pulling from your archives!

  14. cherguevara

    The book I read was “Bicycle Diaries.” The man is simultaneously a big star and a cult artist, he’s been deeply immersed in the arts, not just music, for at least 45 years, a combination of deep knowledge and potential pretension. I would jump at the chance to hang out with him, or sound engineer for him, but there is something about him that I wrestle with. Maybe the “auteur theory” is just the explanation.

    I’ve considered reading “how music works,” but not sure. I’ve read a few pop-culture books about music, psychology of, pathways of… etc etc and generally find them to be dumbed down to the extent that I wish somebody could just dog-ear the pages with good stuff so I could skip the rest. (“This is your brain on music” is one such book, “Musicophilia” is another.) If I have pre-judged “How Music Works,” I’d reconsider.

    I imagine Morrissey wants to be considered the heir to the musical legacy of the Smiths. Morrissey had an excellent jumping off point in the Smiths, atop a solid rhythm section and Johnny Marr’s musicianship. If his solo music isn’t as deep, it’s because he’s diving in from a lower platform now. He tried to carry on with the same sound, but it pales, and he doesn’t have a consistent, talented foil like Marr. (I can’t listen to him or Smiths anymore anyhow.)

    The Sting interview in the Sodajerker podcast is fascinating in so many ways, and the interviewers are clearly huge fans. I can’t imagine being a Sting fan without being a fan of the Police, the group is the rug that pulls the room together. Same is true for many of the artists mentioned in this thread. I’ll also mention another of my favorites, Neil Finn, whose songwriting clearly changed the style of Split Enz, then was the crux of Crowded House. Despite clearly being the origin of his own sound, when he finally made a solo record it was done with the intent of not sounding like his other bands. I suspect this was a challenge for him, one of the reasons he reunited the band, so he could step back into his more comfortable shoes.

    A lot of this is just due to the “strike while the iron is hot” nature of the pop music business and fickle fans, can’t really blame anyone for making the most of that hard reality.

  15. cherguevara writes: “…the group is the rug that pulls the room together.” THAT may be the Line of the Week!

    My wife read Bicycle Diaries and liked it a lot. She would read passages to me. I meant to read it myself. I should see if she still has her copy. Unlike me, she doesn’t tend to hold onto everything that’s ever touched her hands.

    I would definitely take my chances having a meal with Byrne. There would likely be some long, awkward silences, but then I could imagine him snapping to and us getting on a 15-minute deep dive on something satisfyingly pretentious.

  16. I also liked Bicycle Diaries. I did not care much for How Music Works. Some good ideas in there, but he tended to repeat himself. Also, his kinda blind optimism that the tech and music industries would eventually right themselves and do more to prioritize/protect artists was and continues to be unfounded.

  17. I’m not entirely sure of the criteria here but would the first Crazy Horse album count?

    Granted it’s the mirror opposite of Jerry Harrison in that it’s an entire group snatching onto the coattails of the one person who made them standout, but the difference between their 1968 release as the Rockets and their first non-Neil release as Crazy Horse in 1971 is pretty profound.

  18. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that Rockets album, cdm; in fact, I didn’t know one even existed! I’ll have to look it up. As you describe it, that does sound like a good example of what I’ve tried to lay out.

  19. “Good points, Scott. But also, doesn’t every rock auteur simply do their most inspired, natural, and original music in their 20s rather than later in life? Regardless of who is backing them up, that’s when they do their great stuff. So even when they get better musicians behind them, they’re just not bringing the heat themselves the same way they once did.”

    That is a VERY valid point. There are lots and lots of great rock albums made by Angry Young Men. In fact, with the exception of a handful made by Angry Young Women, pretty much all of them are. (And a million more lousy ones made by the same demographic.)

    But there have been enough stone classics made by older musicians that I don’t think that’s necessarily the only factor. Blood on the Tracks was made when Dylan was 34 which, of course, was considered old (for rock and roll) at the time. Tunnel of Love when Springsteen was 37. If they weren’t old at the time, they were certainly no longer young, nor angry (or at least not Angry Young Men). (Although this 51 year old sure as hell now considers 37 to be practically toddlerhood.)

    But then each of those two guys went on to produce masterpieces that can proudly and legitimately stand beside their very finest works: Time Out of Mind when Dylan was 56 and “Love and Theft” when he was 60. Springsteen produced Magic when he was 57, Wrecking Ball when he was 62 and Western Stars when he was 69. (Although most of the work on that was apparently done at least a few years earlier and holy god can you imagine being so damn talented and with such an oeuvre that you could write and record “Moonlight Motel” and then just freakin’ shelve it because the time wasn’t right?)

    So, yes. Absolutely 100% age is a factor. But I don’t think it’s the only factor. And it may not be fair to compare most artists to Dylan (or Springsteen, who I suspect I love more than most on here). But I feel like the track record is pretty clear: the number of frontmen who go solo and achieve an equal or greater amount of success on their own is so slim I’m surprised it’s not a bigger inhibiting factor. Then again, you don’t get to be massively popular without having a corresponding ego. (And that’s not meant as a criticism, merely a statement of what seems to be pure fact.)

  20. ladymisskirroyale

    “But also, doesn’t every rock auteur simply do their most inspired, natural, and original music in their 20s rather than later in life? Regardless of who is backing them up, that’s when they do their great stuff. So even when they get better musicians behind them, they’re just not bringing the heat themselves the same way they once did.”

    For your consideration and discussion:
    1. Edwyn Collins versus Orange Juice
    2. Paul Weller versus The Jam/The Style Council
    3. Brian Eno verus Roxy Music
    4. Bryan Ferry versus Roxy Music
    5. Jack White versus The White Stripes
    6. Tom Verlaine versus Television
    7. Iggy Pop versus The Stooges
    8. Scott Walker versus The Walker Brothers
    9. Michael Jackson versus The Jackson Five
    10. Justin Timberlake versus The All-New Mickey Mouse Club

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