When is album that sells a half-million, a million or even two million copies considered a “failure?” When it’s the follow-up to an album that sold ten times as much. Granted, except for the very few artists who finished up their careers with their greatest success (Simon & Garfunkel, the Police), every artists’ follow-up to their biggest album was obviously, by definition, less successful. However, in this case we’re dealing with artists whose follow-up to their biggest album saw such a huge drop in sales or chart position (or both) from the previous that there would have been really no possibly way to view them as a commercial success. And to be clear: this is not to suggest that this automatically means that these follow-up albums aren’t good (or in the case of REO Speedwagon, Good Trouble), or that their comparatively poor commercial performance necessarily reflects on the artist.
Anyway, with all that in mind, here are ten artists who followed their most successful album with one which was generally considered a failure.
# 10 – Semisonic
In 1995, singer/guitarist Dan Wilson and bassist John Munson, formally of the Minneapolis cult band Trip Shakespeare, formed Semisonic along with drummer Jason Slichter. After two EPs and one full-length album, their second release Feeling Strangely Fine (1998) went platinum thanks largely to the inescapable Top 10 hit “Closing Time.” But it seems Semisonic couldn’t get their hours extended, as the follow-up release All About Chemistry didn’t even make the US top 100 and ultimately led to the band’s breakup.
# 9 – Kool & the Gang
First charting in 1969, Jersey City, New Jersey pop/funk/R&B outfit Kool & the Gang survived the disco backlash, the overplaying of their 1980 hit “Celebration” and MTV’s initial reluctance to play black artists to score the biggest success of their career in 1984 with the album Emergency and its trio of one-word-title classic singles (“Fresh,” “Misled” and “Cherish”). Three years later the follow-up, Forever, sold only about a quarter as many copies and failed to make the US Top 20.
# 8 – Supertramp
In 1979 the world ate up British pop-prog band Supertramp’s sixth studio album Breakfast in America, which sold four million copies in the US alone (the America theme clearly resonated with stateside record buyers). But it appeared as though not many people were interested in brunch, since the band’s next album …famous last words… sold only about an eighth as many copies (with the announcement that longtime singer/guitarist Roger Hodgson would be leaving the band seemingly making little difference).
# 7 – Daryl Hall & John Oates
After successfully staking out a place on the pop charts in the Seventies, the early- and mid-Eighties were an unequivocal victory for Philadelphia blue-eyed soul duo Daryl Hall and John Oates, culminating with their multi-platinum 1984 release Big Bam Boom. The two then did several onstage performances with former members of the Temptations (documented on the album Live at the Apollo), all of which they would later tell Behind the Music left them with a sense that they’d done all they’d set out to do. Several years (and a Hall solo album) later, the pair reunited for their lucky thirteenth studio album Ooh Yeah, which produced one of their last big hits (“Everything Your Heart Desires”) but didn’t go Top 20 (still, Hall & Oates remain a major live draw).
# 6 – Pink Floyd
Although their 1973 classic Dark Side of the Moon would become renowned for refusing to disappear from the Billboard Top 200 album chart for decades, Pink Floyd’s 1979 double album The Wall would undeniably become a phenomenon on many fronts. The conceptual piece would be adapted as a stage show and a feature film, in addition to taking Pink Floyd to the last place anyone would have expected to find them – the top of the singles chart. The Wall is also generally regarded as the last major work of rock’s classic album era (are we forgetting anything? Oh yeah – it’s sold twenty-three million copies in the US alone).
In 1983 Floyd released the far more modest (but no less introspective or emotional) The Final Cut (although many consider it be more of a solo album by bassist/vocalist Roger Waters, who had pretty much taken over the band by that point). The album did sell two million copies, which is of course just a cut of what the previous release had done. Still, some would probably argue that The Final Cut was essentially an afterthought, never truly meant to match the success or impact of The Wall (or in other words… all in all, it was just another brick in the wall).
# 5 – REO Speedwagon
Nine studio albums into their career, REO Speedwagon suddenly ruled the airwaves with their 1980 album Hi Infidelity, which eventually sold fifteen million copies in North America alone. Despite the success, the clear emergence of changing trends (MTV, new wave) probably raised concerns that Speedwagon was on borrowed time, and thus the band was rushed back into the studio to record the follow-up. Each word in the resulting album’s title – Good Trouble – could have described its chart performance: although it peaked at a respectable number seven and ultimately sold two million copies, the 1982 effort was still a major comedown from the high of Hi Infidelity (however, Speedwagon hadn’t quite run out of gas yet: three years later they would top the charts again with the single “Can’t Fight This Feeling”).
# 4 – David Bowie
Easily one of the most influential artists in rock history, David Bowie nonetheless had been experiencing a period of lackluster sales in the early Eighties when he entered into a collaboration with producer Nile Rodgers. The resulting album, Let’s Dance (1983) which featured echoes of the big band era sound as well as a song written by Iggy Pop and David Bowie (“China Girl”) became Bowie’s all-time most commercially successful release, not just selling ten million copies worldwide but also seeing the artist reclaim his place in the popular culture landscape during the MTV age.
Just over a year later Bowie released the album Tonight which, despite a number of decent songs and the participation of the great Tina Turner, mostly sounded like typical Bowie… which up until then would have been thought to be an oxymoron. As Rolling Stone wrote: “This is a throwaway album, and David Bowie knows it.” Apparently so did record buyers, as Tonight didn’t make the US Top 10 (although it did eventually go platinum).
# 3 – Queen
Going from David Bowie to Queen on this list is perhaps a fitting transition, since the experience of what it’s like to follow up one’s biggest album is probably summed up perfectly by title of the two artists’ 1981 collaboration: “Under Pressure.” In 1980 Queen released The Game, and they emerged the clear winners after the album went to number one not just in the band’s native UK but also here in the US, where it spawned two number one singles and eventually sold four million copies.
As disappointing follow-ups go, It doesn’t really matter whether you consider Queen’s actual next album to have been their mostly instrumental soundtrack to the movie Flash Gordon or the “regular” studio release Hot Space, since neither made the US Top 20 (although Hot Space did include the aforementioned classic “Under Pressure,” and the band was on their way toward a major comeback in the UK and Europe).
# 2 – Fleetwood Mac
Originally formed in the UK by Peter Green as a blues-based outfit, Fleetwood Mac had already gone through a number of changes in line-up and sound by 1977 when Rumours became the second studio album released by the band’s most successful incarnation. Which is to say most successful by far, as Rumours quickly became the highest-selling single-artist release in history (a title which it would keep until Michael Jackson’s Thriller came out a few years later).
Everyone knew that there was really no possible way for the follow-up album to do as anywhere near as well… And it didn’t. Tusk (1979) sold only about a tenth of what its predecessor had, and didn’t even make it to number one in the US (still, if the band’s well-documented personal problems didn’t keep them down for long, this certainly wasn’t about to).
# 1 – Meat Loaf
In 1977 Marvin Lee Aday, better known as Meat Loaf (who had already gained some notoriety thanks to his role in The Rocky Horror Picture Show) was set to release his debut solo album, a collaboration with songwriter and keyboardist Jim Steinman. To say that Bat Out of Hell – and its rock opera sensibility delivered with a heavy metal attitude – took off successfully would be a monumental understatement. Worldwide, the record would eventually sell – are you sitting down? – forty-five million copies. It stayed in the Top 20 as late as three years after its release in the UK (where it was seemingly unscathed by the punk movement), and the eight-and-a-half minute epic “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” (a duet with Ellen Foley) would eventually become what seems like every third song played on classic rock radio.
While Bat Out of Hell was already the very definition of a hard act to follow, Meat Loaf’s next album Dead Ringer – despite his continued partnership with Steinman – was dead on arrival when it was released in 1981: it didn’t even make the Top 40, and as of 2020 it’s yet to sell 500,000 copies in the US (the Brits were a bit more charitable, as it at least it went to number one and was certified platinum in the UK). However, Loaf and Steinman did eventually prove that you could go back, when the direct sequel Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell topped the charts in multiple countries – including the US – much later in 1993.
We welcome Richard John Cummins to the staff of ClassicRockHistory.com.
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