“Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years, rockin’ my peers, puttin’ suckers in fear” – LL Cool J, “Mama Said Knock You Out”
Everybody loves the drama of a good comeback. If you think about Hollywood there’s really only two story lines. There’s the story where our hero struggles, but all good things come to him in the end. I don’t know about y’all but “happily ever after” doesn’t usually happen in real life, at least to me…with the exception of the Rock Chick of course. The other story line that Hollywood loves is the comeback. Our hero gains fame or fortune but somehow, usually through some personality flaw or the machinations of some villain, our hero falls. It’s how the hero handles that adversity that fuels the drama. He struggles and then finally rights the ship and makes, yes, the comeback. That’s certainly the formula they used for the Freddy Mercury and Queen movie, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ In that case, I’m not sure how historically accurate it was.
All of that said, there have been some great comebacks in rock n roll. There are many cases where a band or artist makes it big but then… loses it. Whether they succumb to drug abuse or the pressure of fame gets to them, the artist drifts creatively. The Rock Chick continually marvels at these bands/artists who work all their young lives to get famous and sell records, who finally “make it” only to lose their shit. I kinda understand that whole thing. I don’t think anybody has any conception of what real, big fame is like. The artist perhaps feels isolated, turns to drugs or some other self-destructive behavior. Or maybe just freaked out by their fame, the artist changes their musical approach or fires the band. Certainly hubris plays a big part in all of this… I’m thinking specifically of Axl Rose who thought he was Guns N Roses. Never underestimate band chemistry, Axl.
There are many cases of big stars who eventually faded. For some odd reason I’m thinking of Sly Stone when I type these words. But for every star who eventually faded, against all odds, there are artists who have made the improbable comeback. They have somehow been able to summon the creative fire of their early success and create an album or a series of LPs that solidify their legacy and place in the rock n roll pantheon. There are many of these “comeback” albums that I just love. As I was thinking about this concept, I thought I’d share our favorites with you. There’s something about an artist with their back against the wall who comes out swinging that I’ve always loved… but then I’ve always been the underdog.
- Elvis Presley, From Elvis In Memphis – The greatest comeback ever belongs to the King. His evil manager Colonel Tom Parker had Elvis stuck on a treadmill of making basically the same movie over and over again. The King wasn’t even doing concerts anymore. The Colonel had rendered the King irrelevant. The one time in his career Elvis bucked the Colonel was when he decided to do a television special at the end of ’68. Longtime fans were nervous… did Elvis still “have it?” Indeed he did. He mesmerized on the Comeback Special. But how to follow it up? Elvis went back home to Memphis and recorded one of his strongest albums, From Elvis In Memphis. “Stranger In My Own Home Town” still brings chills up and down my spine. Had he not come out with a strong LP after the TV show the comeback would have fizzled… The Memphis album as it came to be known solidified the comeback… Alas Colonel Parker took over again and put Elvis on the Vegas concert treadmill but that’s another story.
- Muddy Waters, Hard Again – The 70s saw a bunch of new musical trends and they all led away from the blues and blues rock that had dominated in the late 60s, early 70s. Muddy kept putting out LPs in the early 70s with diminishing returns. One might describe his 70s output as disappointing. Muddy acolyte, blues master Johnny Winter approached Muddy about producing an LP. Muddy agreed. They assembled a topnotch backing band and the alchemy struck gold. The version of “Mannish Boy” on this album is definitive for me…
- Johnny Cash, American Recordings – Johnny Cash was washed up and left for dead by the Country Music establishment. He was doing dinner clubs with an ensemble of musicians. Uber producer Rick Rubin attended one of those dinner club shows and approached the Man In Black about doing a stripped down album. American Recordings, his first of several LPs with Rubin, was stark and fierce. The liner notes were a copy of something Johnny wrote on lined notebook paper. It was a staggeringly successful return. “Delia’s Gone” was my favorite but there’s a lot to like. He does everybody from Nick Lowe to Danzig. It was the beginning of one of Johnny’s most fertile periods.
- Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind – Even a diehard Dylan fan like me had given up on Bob by the late ’90s. The last LP I’d bought of his was Oh Mercy! almost a decade prior. Dylan had holed up and done a couple of albums of folk covers. I ignored them at the time – although I love them now – but those records recharged something in Dylan. Time Out of Mind feels like mortality itself reaching out to deliver a message It’s a late career masterpiece. It led to a series of great LPs in what can only be called a late career renaissance.
- Paul McCartney, Flaming Pie – McCartney’s late 80s/early 90s losing streak was the thing of legend. I don’t think anybody was paying attention to him any more. It verged on being embarrassing. After he collaborated with the remaining Beatles on the Anthology Series, McCartney was able to reconnect with his creative spark. Flaming Pie was an amazing record and McCartney has been on a winning streak ever since, culminating in McCartney III last year.
- George Harrison, Cloud Nine – Odd that there are a couple of ex-Beatles on this list… After his early solo success with All Things Must Pass, Harrison’s career had stagnated. The last thing I expected in the late 80s, driving around Ft Smith, Arkansas was to hear a great Harrison song, “Got My Mind Set On You.” Harrison had brought in Jeff Lynn of ELO fame to produce. Clapton and Ringo show up to help out. Cloud Nine led to the Traveling Wilburys and nice little late career surge for George, an underrated Beatle.
- Warren Zevon, Sentimental Hygiene – Zevon had so many career collapses and comebacks I struggled to pick just one record here… I picked Sentimental Hygiene because it’s one of his greatest records. The title track features a blistering Neil Young guitar solo – recorded in one or maybe two takes. Everyone should be listening to Warren Zevon and for God’s sake if any of you have any pull – get him into the Rock Hall of Fame, please.
- Neil Young, Freedom – Speaking of Neil Young… the 80s were a terrible decade for him. He was actually sued by his record company for “Purposely making uncommercial music.” Sigh. While many of the songs on Freedom had been around for a while, the album hung together as a whole. “Rockin’ In the Free World” in both its acoustic and electric versions is an iconic Young tune. It was a real return to form and set Neil up for a very creative decade in the 90s. Neil’s always got something left in the tank.
- The Allman Brothers, Seven Turns – You could perhaps describe this as a reunion album more so than a comeback album, but I love it and it was so good to hear the Allman Brothers make new music in 1990. They had a great three or four LP run after this. “Good Clean Fun” and the title track remain amongst my favorites.
- Aerosmith, Permanent Vacation – I had loved 70s Aerosmith but then they just fizzled into a morass of heroin and stupidity. I thought Done With Mirrors was a better album but it was this LP that brought Aerosmith back to center stage. While “Angel” bothers me, I loved “Dude Looks Like A Lady,” and “Ragdoll” with his greasy slide guitar. The world is always better off when Aerosmith is rocking.
- Metallica, Death Magnetic – The Load and Reload albums sold well for Metallica but man, they left me cold. St Anger was to these ears, unlistenable. But then in 2008 Metallica dropped this gem of a record and everything clicked for me in terms of Metallica. This comeback LP got me on their bandwagon for good… I went back and purchased all their first four LPs and they are amazing.
- Red Hot Chili Peppers, Californication – In the video for the first single from this album, the amazing “Scar Tissue,” the Chilis look like someone beat the shit out of them. They’d certainly had a rough go of it. Lead guitarist John Frusciante had quit. Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction fame had joined and left. They were considering doing an electronica based record. But Flea reached out to Frusciante who was fresh out of rehab – his heroin addiction can only be described as harrowing – and John decided to return to the fold. The results were proof Frusciante is the only person who should be playing lead guitar for the RHCPs. I saw this tour, still a very dark vibe from these guys but it was a great show. They went on to even greater heights until Frusciante quit again after Stadium Arcadium… only to return again. Fingers crossed for a new album from these guys.
- Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, The Rising – Bruce had disbanded the E Street Band, his longstanding back up band and wandered in the wilderness through the 90s. He’d gotten them back together for a reunion tour but wasn’t sure he could still write rock songs. When the tragic events of 911 unfolded, Springsteen was inspired. He was walking down the street and a fan had yelled to him, “We need you now, man.” He responded with one of his greatest sets of songs ever. The Rising was a measured and inspired response to a horrible tragedy. It’s truly one of his finest hours.
If you’re feeling like a little rock n roll comeback drama, I highly recommend every LP on this list. I’ve been cranking Cloud Nine all day. I do so love the title track. Hopefully rock n roll drama is the only thing you’re facing out there today and everything is going well. Take care of each other out there!