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Delayed albums

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Aside from promising their makers scads of moola, what do the new albums by Michael Jackson, Guns N’ Roses, U2, Bob Seger, and Bryan Adams have in common? They’ve all been ”long-awaited.” It may sound like music-biz puffery, but when you’re talking three, four, and — in Seger’s case — even five years between records, you’d better believe it’s no hype.

It wasn’t always like this. Between 1963 and ’66, for instance, the Ventures managed to squeeze out 12 albums, all of which reached the Top 40. And that wasn’t unusual: Capitol Records alone issued 13 Beatles and 11 Beach Boys albums during the same period.

But the record business has changed. Albums are no longer filler-laden afterthoughts to hit singles; they’re the bedrock on which artists and record labels build three- and four-year plans involving massive international tours and video and merchandising deals. Hit albums used to be milked for three quick singles — maybe four, if the album was exceptional, like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours in ’77 — and then artist and label moved on to the next one. But by 1984, Columbia Records was dribbling out seven singles from Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. and getting a top 10 hit each time. It took the Boss more than three years to release his next studio album, Tunnel of Love, which bore only two top 10 singles. Today, four years later, we’re still waiting for its follow-up.

Which raises the big imponderable: Does a long delay hurt an artist? Dire Straits took six years to produce their recent On Every Street; two months after its release, it’s drifting down the charts, hitless. But then there’s Don Henley’s 1989 album The End of the Innocence, which came five years after his Building the Perfect Beast. Two years and five months after Innocence was released, it still sits comfortably on the Billboard chart.

So whose albums are we waiting for? Discounting such careerist by-product as remix and live albums, the list reads like this:
Three years and counting: Bobby Brown, Bryan Ferry.
Four years and counting: Bruce Springsteen, Def Leppard, Lindsey Buckingham, Pink Floyd.
Five years and counting: Boston, John Fogerty, Lionel Richie.
And the champ: Nine years and counting: Donald Fagen.

Bob Merlis, vice president and publicity director at Warner Bros. records, acknowledges that new albums by Fagen, Fogerty, and Ferry are indeed coming from his label — but exact release dates haven’t been set. ”What can we do?” he says. ”We can’t break their arms and say, ‘Get creative and do your best work.’ It only comes when it comes.”

That such big-name artists are notorious studio perfectionists doesn’t make things any easier. Take Buckingham, who’s been working on an album since leaving Fleetwood Mac in 1987. ”Every year we think we’re going to put it out,” says Merlis. ”We’re sure about it in ’92. He kind of finished (this year) and then, when we didn’t have a release slot, he went back and worked some more on it. He figured he could make it even better.”

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