Seconds Away

A couple of weeks ago a friend challenged me to come up with examples of second albums (always the “difficult” one) that represent the zenith of an artist’s career.

Let me begin by saying that I have spent far too much time of late thinking about this.

Astral Weeks isn’t rubbish but Van Morrison insists it was his debut solo album, despite all the evidence to the contrary. And Ram by McCartney’s pretty good. (Is it better than Band On The Run? Debatable.) Then there’s Thriller. And Listen Without Prejudice, Volume 1. But for those to count as second albums you have to ignore the artists’ previous work in groups, so they should probably be excluded.

Jim Croce’s You Don’t Mess Around With Jim is a charming album, probably the best of his four solo releases. But is it his second album? Sandwiched between his solo debut Facets and You Don’t Mess Around With Jim sits an album, Croce, that he wrote and recorded with his wife and which was credited to Jim and Ingrid Croce. Another one I probably have to reluctantly pass over.

I don’t personally rate it a classic but lots of people around my age adore Nevermind by Nirvana. I have a soft spot for (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, but it’s not a copper-bottomed classic. I must also confess a partiality to Radiohead’s The Bends, though I do so with the nagging feeling in the back of my brain that this may be as much because of the album’s videos as its music.

In light of his recent enNobelment, it would be remiss of me to overlook The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. I am no expert on Dylan (not least because I don’t understand why people would willingly subject themselves to an hour of the sounds of a man straining with constipation) but wiser people than me suggest it’s a toss up between Freewheelin’ and Highway 61 Revisited as his masterpiece.

For reasons my friend and I have already discussed (in summary: the pair in question are stunningly overrated) I will not pause long to consider the merits of Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black or Adele’s 21, but the British record buying public would have us believe that these second albums represent the twin pinnacles of 21st century musical achievement.

Joy Division’s Closer is a mighty fine record, but if we can’t separate George Michael from Wham!, then it seems perverse to separate Joy Division and New Order. In that context, Closer can’t outmuscle either Power, Corruption & Lies or Low-Life. Also, is it really fair to judge the second of just two albums as the true zenith of a career? (Back To Black would also be excluded by that criterion.) That said, I’m going to blow a hole in that hypothesis momentarily.

I am not down with either the hip or the hop but even this pasty white boy can’t deny the urgency and power of Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back.

And I can’t for the life of me resolve the question whether Nick Drake’s second, Bryter Layter, is better or worse than his debut Five Leaves Left and his final release, Pink Moon. I went on to AllMusic.com to see if they came to a conclusion. They did. Sort of. They simply gave all three albums five stars. And I can’t really argue with that.

So we’re now at the business end and I think I have a top six.

Here are albums two to six, in no particular order:

  1. Tapestry by Carole King. Obvious, I grant you, but nobody with at least one functioning ear can claim that it’s anything other than a cracking set of songs.
  2. Rum, Sodomy And The Lash by The Pogues. I loved that album as a teenager, though I accept that many fans say their third album If I Should Fall From Grace With God was their best.
  3. Meat Is Murder by The Smiths. The point at which both Marr and Morrissey were at the peak of their powers as composer and lyricist respectively.
  4. Elton John by, er, Elton John. There’s not an inch of fat on the album and it’s consistently great, as opposed to his rather more uneven output after the substance excesses took hold. It also blows my mind that it was the second of three awesome albums he released in the space of 16 months in 1969-70. Sixteen months!
  5. Soul Dressing by Booker T. & The MG’s. Unusual for 1965 in that it’s an album comprised mostly of singles and B sides, but when the singles and B sides are this good it doesn’t matter. 12 storming tracks, all done and dusted in 30 mighty minutes.

But I have a clear winner in my mind, notwithstanding the fact that the album in question was and remains a commercial flop, is almost unknown and is also the second of a career comprising just two albums.

I refer to Here To Stay by Darrell Banks, released in 1969 on the Stax/Volt label. This album is simply unfuckwithable. It opens with the indescribably, heartstoppingly immense ’Just Because Your Love Is Gone’ – and it cruises at nose bleed heights for its entire 33 minutes running time.

It physically pains me that the name Darrell Banks is not revered alongside the greatest ever soul singers like Otis and Marvin and Al and Wilson and Sam and Levi and… you get the picture.

Banks’s entire recorded output was a scant 27 tracks – two albums and a handful of singles. But there isn’t a dud among them. Banks fused the Detroit-Motown and the Memphis-Stax/Volt sounds: he fits fully into neither camp, instead bestriding them both like a Colossus.

He had only one proper hit – his debut single ’Open The Door To Your Heart’, a Northern Soul staple I knew from compilations. But, knowing no more about him than that one track, I’d assumed he was another of Northern Soul’s many one-hit wonders.

In 2009 Channel Four showed a three-part drama called Red Riding, based on David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet of books. The critics loved it; the audience less so. The cast was fantastic but the whole thing didn’t really attain the sum of its parts.

But a scene in the first film includes a short excerpt of ’Just Because Your Love Is Gone’. It was one of those, “Oh, my God!” moments. My immediate thought was that it was an Otis Redding track I had inexplicably overlooked.

So I crouched next to the TV, waving my mobile phone at its speakers, replaying the scene half a dozen times before one or other of Shazam and SoundHound told me what the song was. And after that I was off and running on another of my periodic quests to track down a singer’s complete back catalogue.

Sadly, Banks’s tiny catalogue does not take much time or money to explore. (Though, amusingly, a copy of ’Open The Door To Your Heart’ is the second most expensive record of all time, selling for £14,543 in 2014.)

For in late February 1970, aged just 32, Banks was shot and killed in a street altercation in Detroit by an off-duty policeman who was having an affair with Banks’s girlfriend. He was survived by two children, a 9-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter.

For more than three decades Banks lay in an unmarked grave, his name known only to his family and the hardest of hardcore soul fans. In May 2003 five such fans made a pilgrimage to Detroit Memorial Park, only to find that even the small disc bearing the number 539 that marked Banks’s grave was completely overgrown.

They organised an early example of a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for a proper memorial stone. A few dozen fans from around the world clubbed together to buy a memorial bench to mark Darrell Banks’s resting place.

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Both of Darrell Banks’s albums – his 1967 debut, Darrell Banks Is Here and 1969’s Here To Stay – are long deleted (a copy of the latter sold for £200 a few years back), but all of Banks’s recorded output is collected on the 1997 CD The Lost Soul, and the 2010 compilation Soul Classics is on most of the streaming sites, so it’s possible to retrofit the album from those sources.

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And that’s something I urge you to do if you have even just the merest of passing interests in deep soul.

Further reading: Soulful Detroit – The Darrell Banks Story