Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Ten acts who made brilliant trilogies without meaning to

Front Row asked me to say something about trilogies - prompted by The Hobbit, 50 Shades Of Grey and the slightly less enthralling news that we're in the midst of a Green Day trilogy.

The best rock trilogies were never designed as such. They're the after-the-fact trilogies, made because standard record contract used to be for three albums, three years seemed to be as long as you could hold a particular line-up of a band together and, as Louis Menand pointed out, the iron law of stardom is that the public can't maintain its enthusiasm for a particular artist much longer than three years. It's interesting to go back and look at record-making not as a steady string of albums but as a blind stumble towards a three-album purple patch. Like these.

Scott Walker's hit trilogy - 1967-1969

Purists disagree but most of us think Scott Walker hit his peak with these three LPs, each of which combined throbbing versions of Jacques Brel with a sprinkling of his own songs. Scott 4 was all his own songs. It was deleted within the year.

The Beatles psychedelic trilogy -1965-1967

Of all the Beatles albums these are the three that feel most like a series. Menand argues that the Beatles are one of the few exceptions to his three-year rule because they had a three-year career as lovable mop-tops immediately followed by another three-year career as moustachioed adventurers.

Bowie's Berlin trilogy - 1977-79

The fans call it his "Berlin Trilogy". In fact, the third one wasn't recorded in Berlin. It would be more accurate to call it his "Eno trilogy". Know what they mean though.

Neil Young's ditch trilogy - 1973-75

"Heart Of Gold put me in the middle of the road," he said. "Travelling there became a bore so I headed for the ditch."

Stevie Wonder's pop/soul trilogy - 1972-74

He'd had hits before and he had lots after but wherever he is tonight he's playing Superstition, You Are The Sunshine Of My Life, Living For The City, Boogie On Reggae Woman and lots of other songs from these three records which were written, recorded and released in a dizzying two years.

The Nick Drake trilogy - 1969-72

When writers talk about not sticking around to mess up their own legacy it's usually because it sounds like a mordant thing to say. Well, it certainly worked for Nick Drake who was dead just two years after the last of this trio came out.

The Cure's dark trilogy - 1980-82

Rock bands hardly ever set out to do trilogies but they often turn round to find that they've done one, which is what happened to the Cure.

The Steely Dan band trilogy - 1973-75

The singer on the first Steely Dan album was David Palmer. He'd left by Countdown To Ecstasy and so Fagen took over. By the time of Katy Lied the band had been replaced by session players but they still sounded like a group, which they never did again.

Bob Dylan's geezer trilogy 1997-2006

Bob Dylan's often done some of his best stuff while marking time. In the late 60s he made three records in Nashville that showcased his new, post-accident voice. In the 90s he re-launched himself as a wheezy old gimmer doing retreads of old r&b tunes which he'd picked up while doing his radio show.

Nick Lowe's Brentford trilogy - 1994 to the present time

Nick Lowe's recent records have all featured the same musicians and the songs all illustrate the life of man in late middle-age who's sorry for a lot he's done. These three were christened "the Brentford trilogy" after Robert Rankin's books and the area where Lowe lives. They've been so well-received that he's made another couple since. Which is bending the rules.


  1. Very interesting and well-observed David, but I must I say that, as a trilogy, Station to Station > Low > Heroes makes a lot more sense to me. Lodger is clearly the start of something different. Something more than a little bit .. unfortunate.

  2. Ive always thought that Dylan did lots of trilogies. From Freewheelin' to Another Side; from Bringing to Blonde; from Nashville to New Morning; From Blood to Street Legal; three gospel albums; and so on.

    There's a trilogy in the first four Beatles albums, interrupted by A Hard Day's Night, which isn't part of it. Beatles for Sale was the apex of the 14-tracks-with-six-covers style.

  3. Beatles Psychedelic trilogy? Surely Revolver, Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour (if allowed).

  4. Anonymous12:05 am

    My suggestions:
    Talk Talk:
    The Colour of Spring
    Spirit of Eden
    Laughing Stock

    HA! Does Gong's Radio Gnome Trilogy count?
    Given the ructions in the band it's surprising they got past the first one.

    Rush:(yeah!?) Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Signals, they peaked with these three albums never sounding better before or since.

  5. Don't think Nick Drake counts. His 4th and 5th albums would have sounded like Nick Drake, too.
    Others? Not a big fan, but Achtung Baby/Zooropa/Pop seems like a trilogy.
    How about Richard Thompsons pre-sufi trilogy 72-74: Henry the Human Fly/Bright Lights Tonight/Hokey Pokey. All earthy/old-new tunes, with similar lyrical threads and musicality. Just a shame Linda wasn't on the first one.

  6. Bands don't do them in three years anymore either. You're lucky to get ONE album from an act in that timeframe these days.

  7. Dark Side Of The Moon
    Wish You Were Here

    (The somewhat underrated)Animals

    That is all.

  8. The Cure have Pornography, Disintegration and Bloodflowers as a self proclaimed trilogy, including a DVD of them performing the three albums one after the other in Berlin.

  9. John Hilton said...
    Just a shame Linda wasn't on the first one.

    An RT pedant replies, I think you'll find she was.

    Thompy's entire career has been a series of trilogies - following John's suggestion, there was the Muslim trilogy, then the break-up trilogy, the Froom trilogy, the Turnaround trilogy, the Cottage Industry trilogy and, finally, the Last Three Albums He's Released trilogy.

    Compelling proof, I think you'll agree?

  10. What about the Jethro Tull rural/pastoral/ecological one:

    Songs from the Wood (1977)
    Heavy Horses (1978)
    Stormwatch (1979)

  11. The Band:
    Music From Big Pink
    The Band