Dave Simpson on when labels refuse to release artists' albums

Klaxons' label isn't happy with the, er, experimental nature of the group's new album. They shouldn't worry. Being asked to go back to the drawing board can often be the making of a band

Just 18 months after walking away with the Mercury music prize – and the £20,000 cheque – for their 2007 debut Myths of the Near Future, Klaxons have been told to re-record their second album because it's not up to scratch.

"Yes [we were asked to re-record part of our album], because we've made a really dense psychedelic record," singer Jamie Reynolds told NME this week. "We've made a really heavy record and it isn't the right thing for us. First and foremost, we're a pop band. I haven't thought about that for a long time, and now it's in the forefront of my mind."

I bet it is. You don't have to be a mind reader to suspect that their label waded through an hour of psychedelic fog, and declared "What is this?! Where are the hits?" and sent them straight back to the studio. This must be terrible for any group – it's a bit like the teacher telling you your homework is rubbish and then telling your mum. On the other hand, the Klaxons shouldn't worry too much – some of pop's biggest names have experienced the same treatment and emerged – after a bit of fiddling – with a classic album.

Echo and the Bunnymen's Porcupine (No 2 in 1983, the highest-charting release of their career), Blur's Britpop-ushering Modern Life is Rubbish and Diana Ross's 1980 colossus Diana are all examples of great, bestselling albums that were sent back to the drawing board.

George Harrison (Somewhere in England) and Eric Clapton (Behind the Sun) are other A-listers that have suffered the ignominy of being told they can do better – the latter even suffered the insult of being told to finish the album with songs provided by a professional songwriter, not him. Warner's subsidiary Reprise even deemed Wilco's 2002 Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to have "no commercial potential". When it was released by Nonesuch – another subsidiary of Warne Music – it sold half a million copies. It's not just rock bands who suffer this fate, of course. Eminem was told by Interscope that his Marshall Mathers LP lacked a hit, forcing him to go back to the studio and add The Real Slim Shady to the set.

There are plenty of examples of albums that horrified their record companies but were released anyway and achieved iconic status: Big Star's fabled Third and Marvin Gaye's era-defining What's Going On were originally loathed by their labels.

Far more disturbing for an artist are those occasions when the label refuses to put anything out. Brian Wilson's early 90s Sweet Insanity falls into this category. Reportedly as bonkers as its title, it was recorded while the Beach Boy legend was "under the care" of controversial psychologist Dr Eugene Landy, whose "24-hour therapy" was so all-encompassing he wanted songwriting credits. Wilson has since recovered enough of his marbles to claim that the tapes were stolen, so it will likely never see the light of day. David Bowie's early-noughties project Toy – pairing versions of his earliest 60s songs with some new material – also never appeared, although a couple of the new tunes appeared on 2002's Heathen, his best work in years.

Sometimes, the artists themselves make the painful decision that an album is too rubbish or too plain weird to inflict on the public. Prince pulled 1987's The Black Album – the intended follow-up to Sign of the Times – because he apparently became convinced that the record was "evil" and experienced a crisis over its violent and erotic content. Some songs were supposedly inspired by a bad ecstasy experience. When his label heard songs such as The Future – with E-inspired lyrics like "Yellow smiley offers me X/Like he's drinking 7-Up/I'd rather drink six razor blades/Razor blades from a paper cup" – they didn't argue with his decision. The album eventually came out years later to little fanfare.

Just like Spinal Tap's forays into free-improv jazz, record company paymasters are usually the most alarmed by artists' "new directions". Already beleaguered by Neil Young's early-80s forays into uncharacteristic electronic music, the news that Shaky was recording a 50s-sounding rock'n'roll album was too much for Geffen, who pulled the plug on recording sessions. The Everybody's Rockin' album was released, but, at only 25 minutes, it was significantly shorter than Young intended. Soon afterwards, the company took the Tap-like decision of suing their own artist for "not sounding like Neil Young".

But if Klaxons need cheering up, they should look to an example of when having an album rejected can be the making of a career.

In 1988, Jam frontman-turned-Style Councillor Paul Weller was having some sort of religious revelation (or mid-life crisis) – hanging out in ecstasy-addled acid house clubs and wearing some truly terrifying shorts. Unsurprisingly, when he presented Polydor with an album of house music titled Modernism: A New Decade, Polydor decided the prospect of the Modfather becoming an acid-addled dancefloor guru was too alarming, and just said no.

The Style Council's house music did eventually appear years later on the Complete Adventures of the Style Council box set. It would be wonderful to say that Paul was right all along, and that if Modernism had been released at the time, we'd have all joined him in shouting "Peace, brother!" and (gulp) "The working class, let's do it!" over an acid beat. But some things just aren't meant to be. Instead, Weller broke up the Style Council, returned to what he does best and – 21 years later – the best male solo artist at the Brits 2009 has emerged triumphant.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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