B&V’s Favorite “Comeback” LPs

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“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 AgainThe 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!

Cheers!

‘McCartney 3,2,1’ Streaming Now On Hulu – Paul Talks Music With Producer Rick Rubin

McCartney 3,2,1

“Paul was one of the most innovative bass players that ever played the bass.” – John Lennon

I mentioned on a recent post on the great documentary Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) directed by Questlove, how disappointed the Rock Chick and I are about the dearth of new rock n roll coming out these days.  Well, at least a dearth in the rock n roll we’re interested in here at B&V. People kept saying that musicians, unable to tour in 2020 due to Covid, were holing up in studios and taking the time to write new stuff… I haven’t really seen that come to fruition yet in 2021. I will say, I do believe we’re on the cusp of a bunch of new music coming out – both new stuff and archival. Typically when we find ourselves in a bit of a lull on the new release front as we’ve been lately, I find myself turning to the television. After we wrapped up watching the aforementioned Summer Of Soul last weekend we turned to the new, limited series McCartney 3,2,1. Over the course of six, thirty-minute episodes Paul sits down for a candid, lengthy conversation with uber-producer Rick Rubin. As binge watches go, we burned through this one pretty quickly.

First, I’ve always been a big Rick Rubin fan. He’s produced the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Cult, the Black Crowes, the Beastie Boys, Metallica and AC/DC. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. He literally resurrected Johnny Cash who had been left for dead by the Country Music “establishment.” When producing Black Sabbath’s 13, he told them, “Pretend you’ve just recorded your first album. What comes next?” He’s clearly a vibe guy, not a technician. I saw a documentary about the Avett Brothers and Rick Rubin was producing them. I think he owns and maybe lives in the Malibu studio (named Shangri La) where the Avett Brothers doc was filmed. Bob Dylan and the Band recorded Planet Waves there. The man is a rock n roll Guru…and frankly looks the part.

I am also a huge McCartney fan. When you came of age in the mid to late 70s, McCartney was at a zenith and was most people’s favorite ex-Beatle. Lennon went into semi-seclusion in 1975 when he went into his “house-husband” phase after the birth of his son Sean. The late 70s saw the once promising careers of George Harrison and Ringo Starr sort of… fade. McCartney kind of became the de-facto “favorite” as he was the only one in the public eye in a big way at the time. I will say, even then my brother’s favorite Beatle was George… the Quiet Beatle. Which makes sense as I got the loud/obnoxious gene that he was able to avoid. Were I quizzed now, with the benefit of time and reflection I’d probably say John was my “favorite” Beatle. Although I absolutely love much of George Harrison’s solo output. And, I still love Paul McCartney. His late career stuff from Flaming Pie onward is the type of stuff that B&V was founded on – older artists making phenomenal, oft-overlooked new music. I loved his latest, last year’s McCartney III. Having just written all of that, I can’t help but think that maybe I don’t have a “favorite”… maybe I just like the Beatles.

A few years back I saw Black Sabbath on the tour for the aforementioned 13. I met a dude who plays the drums in a local band, the Sunset Sinners. The guy has been around music and musicians his whole life. We’ve had kind of an on-going dialogue about music and the creative process ever since. He has a term for certain bands, albums or songs. He says some stuff is too “musician-y.” Meaning, that the song or the band is so geared toward other musicians that it may not be popular on a broad scale. He once told me he thought the Queens of the Stone Age were too much of a “musician-y” band that they’d never reach a mass audience. (That was me using the term in a sentence for all you Spelling Bee fans.) It’s like when political commentators talk about conversations that are too “Inside the Beltway,” which I assume means its too “wonky” for most of us folks on the street. Or perhaps when a comedian tells an “inside joke.” Same concept, loosely speaking.

McCartney 3,2,1 finds Paul – and isn’t it cool after all these years we still know him by his first name – and Rick Rubin sitting in a studio (maybe it’s Rick Rubin’s Shangri La, I’m not sure). The show is filmed in black and white which classes everything up. McCartney has on what appears to be jeans, a white t-shirt and a cool jacket. After all this time McCartney, especially without hair-dye, is still the person with the coolest hair in the room. Rick Rubin looks like a beach bum who has wandered in off the strand. Rubin looks indistinct and rumpled. He’s got baggy shorts on with a t-shirt that I’d be willing to bet has food stains on it. He’s barefoot during most of the shoot. At times he sits down with his legs crossed and he really looks like a Rock N Roll Buddha. Buddha is always laughing but Rick Rubin is almost always smiling through his thick and unruly beard. He looks like a rock version of Yosemite Sam. I will say Rick is tan – that comes across even in black and white – and looks trimmer than he used to. The clothes, wild hair (whats left of it) and beard make Rubin look like some crazy, rock n roll aesthete or monk.

The Rock Star and the Producer spend the entire time talking music. It’s clear that Rubin is the fan here, smiling and geeking out at some of the things McCartney is describing. They sit, like in an interview show, but not for long. They’re often standing up as though so excited about the conversation and music that they can’t sit down which is understandable. They stand for the most part at a mixing console where Rubin summons up different songs from McCartney’s past. It’s mostly Beatles stuff but there are a few solo or Wings’ tracks that get played. They keep the conversation very lively although at one point I thanked the Rock Chick for hanging in there for six episodes because it’s basically watching two experts stand around and talk about their craft. It’s like being in a bar and overhearing people talk about their favorite sports team. When Rubin starts a track he usually turns elements of the song up loud and other elements down. He’ll break down the bass part or the drums. He likes to focus on guitar solo’s because, well, who doesn’t? He’s very interested in how the Beatles were able to do things in the studio that nobody had done before. Rubin is like a pupil with a master. I enjoyed that but I thoroughly understand that doing all of that, breaking down/analyzing songs is really well, musician-y. This is inside stuff. Most of us listen to the song on the radio and let the whole thing wash over us. Some of us put the headphones on and try to concentrate on the bass or the drums. These guys take that and blow it up to infinity. You won’t hear a complete song, with all parts played. It’s fascinating to hear how they put together a song but again… you gotta really love music which luckily I do. It really sheds light on a song when you strip it down to the studs.

By deconstructing all of these songs it does make you realize what an amazing bassist McCartney is. He talks about how the bass line in some of the tracks helped change the shape and sound of certain tracks. Nowhere is that more evident than on John’s “Come Together” which started as more of a Chuck Berry riff. McCartney talks a lot about the recording process and how the Beatles came up with certain sounds. He has nothing but praise for producer George Martin. They played a guitar solo and Rubin, who is obviously having the time of his life asks who played the solo. McCartney says, “I want to say I did because it was so bad.” That got a chuckle.

During the course of the six programs, while discussing certain songs and the piece parts of tracks McCartney does share some great Beatles stories. Although be prepared, the conversation is non-linear and they bounce all over the place. One could call it a rambling conversation. On one episode they’re talking Beatles and out of nowhere jump to “Band On the Run” which caused the Rock Chick to say, “Wait, I thought this was a McCartney solo song.” Some of the changes of subject matter may cause a little whiplash. Paul tells about the genesis of the song “Michelle” coming from his going to parties at Lennon’s place when John was in art school and pretending sing in French to get “the girls.” He mentions that Lennon was never complimentary of much but that he once told him he really liked one of Paul’s songs when they heard it during an album playback. You can just tell how much that meant to Paul. Rubin at one point reads a quote where the speaker talks about what a great bass player Paul is. Rubin asks him, “Do you know who said that?” Paul didn’t know but it was John who said all of it (excerpted above). It was a nice moment as you could tell that meant a ton to McCartney. He seemed a little flustered.

He also tells the story of the first time they played with Ringo on drums, “He elevated the whole band.” He also said that George was incredibly generous to “let” Eric Clapton play the guitar solos on Harrison’s song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” I’m guessing not a lot of people realized how in the Beatles they all played parts interchangeably on songs – McCartney exclusively played bass but Lennon, he and Harrison all played guitars including lead. Whoever had the hot hand in the band got to play the part. George Martin often jumped in on piano. They were so open to the creative process and that freedom and their confidence let them really do extraordinary things that other bands couldn’t do.

I thought all of this stuff was incredibly fascinating. If you’re a Beatles fan this is a “must see.” Although I will admit and warn everyone again, there are parts of this that are very, very “musician-y.” I watched it all in two sittings and maybe breaking it up a bit would be better if you’re not into the craft and details. Its certainly fun to watch Rick Rubin geek out in such a big way. Paul is still an amazingly charismatic and charming man. You might need to turn it up a little because, a) its the Beatles’ music which needs to be played loud and b) McCartney is prone to mumbling… especially in the scenes where he’s chewing gum. I really enjoyed this rare, up-close-and-personal candid conversation with one of Rock n Roll’s legends. I think you will too.

Cheers!