Led balloon: curse of the double album
Led Zeppelin's 'Physical Graffiti' - just re-released - is a rock classic, but it was the last great thing the burnt-out band did. And they're not alone. Peter Howick on rock's great creative jinx
Even 40 years on it is still a thing of wondrous beauty. In February 1975 thousands of Ireland's hippest besieged their local Golden Disc and Sound Cellar to buy Physical Graffiti, the long awaited 82 minute LP from rock gods, Led Zeppelin.
This double album was an A to Zed of the band's styles: from delta blues to Stevie Wonder-inspired funk, to the Valhalla meets Tangiers' flea market.
It was an extraordinary achievement, not least because we now know the band was in a bit of a pickle prior to making this rock colossus.
To mention just two examples, bassist John Paul Jones was giving serious consideration to joining a choir, while drummer John Bonham's drinking had so blighted his bladder that roadies were dispatched to buy him nappies.
The history of the double album shows that while some artists like Zep, Bob Dylan or the Stones did their best work over four sides, they subsequently imploded, or completely failed to match their own exalted standards.
The curse of the double album has led to splits, drug addiction, death... and 'I Just Called To Say I Love You'.
Zep's next album after Graffiti was the distinctly underwhelming Presence and the not unexpected death of Bonham, from a drinking binge so astonishing that even reading about it can make you a little tipsy.
A double album has the vampiric ability to drain an artist of stamina and creativity, often forever more.
The effort required to make one is so onerous that it not only burns up a vast amount of material, but also lead to musical dry rot, simply by forcing bands to spend too much time cooped up together.
All the following albums are classics. But, after they came out, the curse they unleashed ensured that the artists behind them rarely recovered their mojo.
Blonde On Blonde
Blonde On Blonde was the first double album many rock fans ever bought and such was Bob Dylan's standing in 1966 that his record company felt obliged to go along with his grandiose vision.
The outcome was one of music's great releases, a frequent winner of best-album-ever-made accolades and a veritable library of classic songs.
Months later a zombified Dylan used the excuse of a motorcycle accident to get out of the rock rat race. While great songs followed he arguably didn't regain his mesmeric career trajectory until 1974's Blood On The Tracks.
The White Album
After the Fab Four had returned from meditation duties in India, they had a supersized bag of songs to record and were thus prompted to make a double LP, not only because Dylan had done it - a major consideration - but because the more numbers they burned through the quicker they could exit an existing contract.
The five month sessions were an exercise in tense, nervous tension. John Lennon's new squeeze Yoko not only invaded the boy's only club, but was not shy in telling the greatest group in rock history they were coming up short. The Beatles laboured through Let It Be and created the wondrous Abbey Road, but it was the White Album when the rot set in.
Jimi Hendrix, as we all know, joined the stupid 27 Club when he died after taking 18 times the recommended dosage of sleeping tablets and choking on his own vomit.
Perhaps one nail in his coffin was the double platter Electric Ladyland. It's elephant-like gestation detached Hendrix from his health, his manager, and, eventually, his peerless comrades in The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
The album had been one long retake hell, blighted by sessions in which the affable Hendrix, invited hundreds of hangers-on to hang on and/or fall over.
Less than 18 months later, it was game over.
All Things Must Pass
George Harrison's monster release is technically a triple album, but one disc is such a disposable indulgence of boring guitar jams that we can ignore that.
Critics were stunned that the so-called Quiet Beatle could fill up so much space on his first real solo release, not realising Harrison had been bitterly stockpiling tracks rejected by his fellow Fabs for as long as four years. All Things Must Pass was a massive hit. However, bitchy John, who knew the score, tittered that "now George will have to do it all over again".
George, indeed, could not. Successive albums nosedived in quality and commercial appeal.
George Harrison's buddy Eric Clapton had issues: he was madly besotted with George Harrison's wife.
Enveloped in love-sick misery, Eric recruited some crack musicians like guitarist Duane Allman to make this terrific double album, coalescing under the moniker Derek and the Dominoes.
The title track, dedicated to Harrison's missus, Patti Boyd, is rightly regarded as Slowhand's finest hour.
Soon after its making Eric Clapton lapsed into three years of heroin addiction, Allman was killed in a motorbike smash and drummer Jim Gordon killed his mother.
Exile On Main Street
What The Beatles did, the Rolling Stones did immediately afterwards.
So said John Lennon, who summed up the difference between his troupe and the Stones as: "different class".
This is not to say that Exile On Main Street isn't brilliant. Indeed the Stone's never did anything as good again being, according to Keith Richards, "burnt out" when they recorded the tepid follow up Goat's Head Soup.
Goodbye Yellowbrick Road
Written in just three days, this masterpiece was followed by a string of hits, not to say Disney stage shows, Disney movies, and the endless showbiz extravaganza that is the life of the former Reggie from Pinner.
But he never reached the heights of Yellow again.
And there must be a place in hell for someone who can turn a beautiful song inspired by Marilyn Monroe into a cringing dirge devoted to the dippy Princess Di.
Songs In The Key Of Life
Stevie Wonder seemed to own the first half of the '70s. The single album format was too small for his genius. He would double up.
After two long years in the studio and zillions of sessions later he indeed did so with Songs In The Key Of Life. Stevie's muse was so hot he even chucked in an EP for good measure.
Then... oh dear. Have you heard the follow up double album Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants? This is the one where Stevie explores the concept of coming back as a flower.
'And I Just Called To Say I Love You' was just over the horizon...
With the remains of the Sex Pistols lapsing into parody, The Clash carried the New Wave banner and were so down with their fans that they issued a double album for the price of one.
And what a marvel London Calling was and is. Like Physical Graffiti it features a mesh of styles that a longer album time is ideal to display. The follow up would surely be shorter and punchier.
Alas, Sandinista was longer and windier, a triple album as self-indulgent in its own way as anything by hated prog monsters, Yes.
Sign O the Times
Prince is one of the last true giants of 20th century music. Sign O The Times is a great album but his next recording The Black Album was dire. His record company wouldn't put it out.
A dodgy Batman soundtrack was succeeded by all sorts of nonsense such as Prince insisting he not be called Prince.
When Prince released an album called Come, one critic cruelly wrote it should have been called Gone.
And the exceptions that prove the rule ...
The Who not only thrived after their double Tommy, but produced the even better Quadrophenia... and The River didn't kill Bruce Springsteen's career either.
And in these downloadable times, the point of a double album is completely lost. Perhaps that is the greatest curse of all.