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Top Ten Music Comebacks

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By: David Schultz for Earvolution.com

Just over a year ago, the Boston Red Sox impossibly overcame a 3-0 deficit by winning four straight games against the New York Yankees, completing the most improbable comeback in the history of sports. New Yorkers were on the happier end of a comeback this year, as late October saw Cream reuniting after a 38 year absence for a three night stand at Madison Square Garden. To honor the tradition of the extraordinary comeback, Earvolution presents the top 10 unpredictable, unlikely, implausible comebacks in music history.

10. Velvet Underground (1993)

In 1968, shortly after the release of their second album White Light, White Heat, John Cale walked away from the Velvet Underground, effectively ending the power struggles between himself and Lou Reed over the musical direction of the seminal band. In the 25 years that followed, Cale and Reed stubbornly refused to acknowledge each other’s contributions to one of the most influential bands in rock history. When Andy Warhol died in 1988, Cale and Reed found common ground to work upon and recorded Songs For Drella, a tribute to their friend and mentor. Their renewed ability to work together laid the groundwork for the 1993 reformation of the original Velvet Underground with bassist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker. Sadly, the comeback lasted no longer then a few European shows. While most bands save the crowd favorites for the encores, the reunited Velvet Underground inverted the traditional scenario, using the encore slot to debut a new song “Coyote.” Coming to bitter disagreements over the production of the band, Reed and Cale’s egos once again consumed their ability to work together. Just as quickly as they came back, the Velvet Underground disappeared.

The VU comeback is an example of the “Hell Freezes Over” comeback. As named and evidenced by The Eagles, this occurs when band members are able to put aside the differences that have kept them apart for years and reunite with a common purpose. Depending on the motivations of the band, that purpose may or may not include the desire to make obscene amounts of money.

9. Pink Floyd @ Live 8 (2005)

The animosity between Roger Waters and his former Pink Floyd band mates grew so great that Waters took David Gilmour, Nick Mason and Nick Wright to court to prevent them from touring and recording as Pink Floyd. Waters lost the suit resulting in two competing tours that begged the question of “Which one’s Pink?” But yesterday’s litigation can be resolved as tomorrow’s reunion. Finding time during the preparations for this summer’s worldwide Live 8 concerts, the ever-persuasive Bob Geldof convinced the most successful lineup of Pink Floyd to make an eagerly awaited and desired comeback. Unlike most “Hell Freezes Over” comebacks, Waters one-off set with Pink Floyd at the free Hyde Park show fell more in line with the event’s message of compassion and brotherhood than the usual money-making motivations underlying most classic rock comebacks. Though all smiles on stage, Gilmour’s seemingly forced smiles while sharing the stage with his former tormentor showed that while the hatchet may have buried, the grave may be shallow.

8. Gang Of Four (2005)

The Gang of Four’s anti-establishment, anti-materialistic, proto-punk rock provided a perfect contrast to the overproduced stereo creations of the late seventies. Peaking with their second album, 1980s Entertainment, the Gang of Four burned bright, but burned quickly. Time has been kind to the Gang Of Four’s reputation, cited as an influence by numerous bands the GO4 legend has grown to mythic proportions over the last two decades. Surprisingly, the stridently anti-materialistic rockers all managed to find success in the corporate world after leaving the band. Drummer Hugo Burnham founded his own management company, bassist Dave Allen found a career in digital audio services and lead singer Jon King became CEO of a corporate event management company. The surprising fact about a GO4 comeback is that all of the members left successful day jobs to return to their first love which made them little money the first time around. In 2005, the original lineup returned to the studio and rather than cut a series of new tracks, simply re-recorded the old. While unclear whether this makes a sly ironic comment on the unoriginality of new music or simply illustrates the band’s newfound bourgeois laziness, the incredible success of the quartet’s 2005 comeback leaves no such ambiguity.

7. Fleetwood Mac (1997)

A human resources manager’s nightmare, the Rumours era lineup of Fleetwood Mac flagrantly flaunted the absence of a non-fraternization policy amongst rock bands. With Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks progressing through the death throes of their relationship and John and Christine McVie’s marriage dissolving, the band channeled their angst into the music and produced one of the defining albums of the seventies. By the time Buckingham left the band in 1987, relationships had mended but without the sexual tension and Fleetwood Mac’s magic had long expired. However, it didn’t stop them from recording well into the 90s. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Rumours (and to make gobs and gobs of cash), Buckingham and Nick rejoined the McVies and steadfast drummer Mick Fleetwood for an MTV reunion that paved the way for a successful US tour. The 1997 comeback didn’t yield much new music, however, it did solidify Fleetwood Mac’s position as one of the most successful bands of the baby boomer generation.

Fleetwood Mac’s comeback typifies the “Return From Obscurity” comeback which could be best summed up by L.L. Cool J’s quip “don’t call it a comeback, I been here for years.” L.L.’s quote bears much truth. The artist usually hadn’t gone anywhere, the audiences just didn’t care.

6. Loretta Lynn (2004)

Outside of country music circles, Loretta Lynn’s career peaked in 1980 when Sissy Spacek won an Oscar for her portrayal of her in Coal Miner’s Daughter. Even those in the know about country music would concede that her best music came during the sixties and seventies. Lynn’s career would likely have remained stagnant were it not for Jack White and his contributions to her 2004 album Van Lear Rose. Bringing his own modern perspective to the mix, White produced, arranged and lent his voice to the outstanding “Portland, Oregon,” bringing Lynn one of her greatest commercial and critical successes while resurrecting her career in the process. White Stripes fanatics and curious listeners received a pleasant surprise as the combination of White and Lynn produced either the most revved-up county album or the most countrified rock album in years. The bizarre sight of Lynn and White accepting their well-deserved Grammy award for Best Country Album provided the coup-de-grace for her “Return From Obscurity” comeback.

5. Roy Orbison (1987)

Roy Orbison had his greatest success in the early sixties. By the mid-eighties, Orbison’s considerable influence could still be felt but his career remained at a standstill. However, a strange combination of events reinvigorated Orbison’s career and regenerated interest in his considerable accomplishments. In 1986, against Orbison’s wishes, David Lynch had Dean Stockwell creepily lip-synch the haunting “In Dreams” into a worklight in one of the films most memorable scenes. After seeing the movie, Orbison and Lynch produced a video to promote the film that gave Orbison his first exposure on MTV. Soon thereafter, Orbison joined up with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne to form The Traveling Wilburys, giving him the biggest mainstream exposure he’d enjoyed in decades. With his Wilbury mates lending a hand, Orbison recorded his final album Mystery Girl. Although released posthumously, Mystery Girl contributed to Orbison’s “Return From Obscurity,” allowing him to enjoy a deserved career renaissance before his death.

4. Meat Loaf (1993)

The mid-seventies saw Meat Loaf atop the rock world, riding the unparalleled success of his debut album Bat Out Of Hell. By the mid-eighties, with such spectacular flops as Midnight At The Lost And Found and Blind Before I Stop, Meat Loaf was well on his way to starring in his own Behind The Music special, that is if he could have found his way off of the “Where Are They Now” list. Though he remained a solid concert draw in England, in America Meat Loaf could only fill college gyms in cities where he once sold out arenas. Greeted with slight derision, Meat Loaf’s announced reunion with Jim Steinman on the creation of Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell barely registered outside of his loyal fans. That is, until he released it. The first single, “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” marked a return to the operatic, Broadway style songs that marked his earlier success and became Meat Loaf’s first number one hit. Meat Loaf persevered for 16 years between the two Bat Out Of Hells, survived becoming a rock and roll punch line and avoided the label of one hit wonder.

Meat Loaf’s comeback exemplifies the “Return To Credibility” comeback. This occurs when the artist avoids a spot in The Surreal Life house and rescues his career from becoming a joke. The best example of which came in 1989, when . . .

3. Donny Osmond (1989)

From 1975 through 1978, Donny Osmond and his sister Marie co-hosted the Donny & Marie Show, a show that ultimately came to singularly represent the absurdity and ridiculousness of the seventies style variety show. Once cancelled, Donny Osmond lost all credibility as a musical artist and his career was left in shambles. Osmond attempted a move to the Broadway stage; only to have his initial effort, Little Johnny Jones, close immediately after opening. By the late eighties, a Donny Osmond album had just as much chance of being a success as a Kevin Federline rap album. To no one’s surprise, Osmond’s 1988 self-titled album, his first in over 12 years, received absolutely no fanfare upon its release and went absolutely nowhere. However, radio stations started playing its lead single “Soldier Of Love,” smartly withholding the identity of the artist. Only when the song had become a certifiable hit was it announced that the singer was in fact Donny Osmond. Osmond’s renewed popularity lasted for about a year but during that time, Osmond’s comeback gave music historians something to write about other than his dreadful variety show.

2. Nick Drake (2001)

Between 1969 and 1972, Nick Drake recorded three sparse emotional albums reminiscent of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Possessing little commercial appeal, Drake’s albums were released to little acclaim and even scarcer sales. Over the next two decades, if Drake had any following at all, it could best be termed a cult following. In 2000, Volkswagen produced a beautifully riveting commercial featuring two couples more interested in driving under the stars than attending a party. Drake’s “Pink Moon” provided the soundtrack for the commercial, which transcended mere advertising. Charmed and transfixed viewers sought out Drake’s 1972 album Pink Moon, vaulting it back onto the charts with surprisingly brisk sales. Drake’s implausible comeback is even more remarkable as Drake died more than 25 years before it occurred, having committed suicide in 1974. The sad lyrics that may have foretold his death provided a gorgeous, if not long overdue, epitaph to his unfortunately brief career.

Drake’s “Return From The Dead” comeback is the toughest one of them all. It involves a career resuscitation of such proportion that it recalls Lazarus emerging from the grave to once again walk amongst the living.

1. Johnny Cash (2000)

Johnny Cash’s improbable comeback involved much more than a reinventing of his persona. It quite literally involved a rise from his deathbed. In 1997, Johnny Cash was diagnosed with a Parkinson’s syndrome-like debilitating degenerative nerve disorder. For the next three years, news of his deteriorating health brought on a death watch complete with tributes honoring the country legend and his musical legacy. However, news of Cash’s impending death was exaggerated. Learning that his condition was misdiagnosed and consequently mistreated, Cash made a resurrection apropos to his lyrics. Returning to the studio under the watchful auspices of Rick Rubin, Cash emerged with a number of haunting and inspired recordings, including sparse but emotional covers of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” U2’s “One” and Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” Cash’s almost literal return from the dead culminated with numerous MTV Video Award nominations for “Hurt.” Just before his death, Cash remarkably saw the greatest success of his career since the late sixties.

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About JD

  • MT

    Frank Sinatra. This may be before your time but it was considered a major feat. Not only did he make a music comeback but he also made a movie one — FROM HERE TO ETERNITY.

  • Can’t forget Elvis either– when he went in the Army it was widely believed that his time was done, but with the famous “comeback” show playing in the round with his old band, he came roaring back. Sure, he came roaring back to a future of drug-addled self-parody, but for a time the King really did reclaim his crown.

  • What about Bob Dylan’s multiple comebacks? Like every ten years, he has an album which is hailed as his comeback album. But then again, Bob Dylan is forever.

    Also, your facts about Gang of Four are very wrong. Entertainment! was their first release and it came out in 1979. Solid Gold which followed came in 1981. You might want to fix that.

    What about the Pixies? They hated each other. I mean, the myth says that they broke up by fax. And now, here comes 2004/2005 where they come back out of nowhere and begin a sold out concert tour as well as making (although often pushed back) plans to make a new Pixies record. That’s like coming back after being hit by a train.

  • Vern Halen

    Johnny Cash’s comeback – like you said, he never left. But getting a sympathetic producer (Rick Rubin) was the important catalyst that helped the rest of the world get in step with Cash’s personal vision. If there’s a comeback for Cash, or any artist really, maybe it’s actually the audience’s comeback to good taste.

  • No mention of the infamous “Heidi game?”

  • JD

    U2? People wrote them off for dead after Zooropa and Pop – (although both have some good tunes) and they came back with back to back blockbusters.

    Pixies would make my top 15 list.

    Good call on Elvis above too.

  • Nice write-up, but some of these don’t appear to be “unpredictable, unlikely, implausible comebacks”, especially Fleetwood Mac. I don’t see Drake as a comeback since you said his “albums were released to little acclaim and even scarcer sales.”

    “Donny Osmond lost all credibility as a musical artist” I don’t remember him having any.

    Good mentions of Sinatra, Elvis and Dylan, especially after his “motorcycle crash”. I would throw in Ray Charles into the mix. And even though they never performed, how about the Roth/Van Halen reunion? Rock fans were abuzz the whole summer.

    People were writing U2 off after Rattle & Hum.

  • JR

    Tina Turner

  • Excellent call on Tina Turner.

    How about Teddy Pendergrass appearing at Live Aid three years after his spinal cord injury paralyzed him from the waist down.

  • JR

    My choice for number one most unpredictable, unlikely, implausible comeback would have to be Spinal Tap.

  • In the popular view, Johnny Cash definitely qualifies as a comeback. I certainly lost touch with him until the American Recordings series.

    Then, I’m not normally a country music fan.

  • Also on the Gang of Four tip (not to be the annoying Alt-Rock Wonder Twins): they actually rerecorded the old stuff for two reasons, dissatisfaction over the original sound and (somewhat less publicized) the fact that they don’t make any royalties from reissues of Entertainment!, Solid Gold, et. al. So yeah, a little bourgeois – and I sure ain’t saying Return the Gift makes any sense for the record-buying public – but motivated by more than just laziness.

    And while I’m being all indie, how about the original Dinosaur Jr. lineup? Beat the shit out of each other onstage…15 years later back together? Sounds like magic to me.

  • Great post, and I won’t disagree with your choices. I would suggest Steely Dan, who went 19 years between studio albums, and with 1999’s Two Against Nature, capture the Grammy for Album of the Year. I saw their 2000 and 2003 tours, and with a thirteen-piece touring band, both were among the best musical shows I’d ever seen. Also, the Dan quit touring in the mid-70s, and only began touring again in, I believe, 1993.

  • Sean

    In addition to the Heidi game, the Music City Bowl has to be considered

  • Glad someone’s giving Loretta Lynn her due. Van Leer Rose is a great album.

  • crooked spine

    Here are the top ten comebacks, according to “The New Book of Rock Lists” by Dave Marsh & James Bernard (1994):

    1. Elvis Presley, 1960
    2. Tina Turner, 1984
    3. Bonnie Raitt, 1989
    4. Aerosmith, 1987
    5. John Lee Hooker, 1989
    6. The J Geils Band, 1980
    7. Elton John, early ’90s
    8. Country music, early ’90s
    9. Eric Clapton, 1989
    10. Marianne Faithfull, 1980

  • Randy – thanks for posting exactly what I was about to, re: Steely Dan. You saved me some serious wordsmithing. Only difference is, I also saw them on the 1996 Art Crimes tour, and will see them / Fagen / Becker again any time one / both of them play live.

    Best musical act *ever* in my admittedly biased and closed book.

  • spokeshave mclachlan

    so.. if a hasbeen is a former wanabe.. and we all know about the contender who could’ve been.. what’s the correct term for a rerun?

  • How about John Lennon, with Double Fantasy?

  • JR

    J.S. Bach made probably the greatest music comeback in history about 75 years after his death.

  • Darren

    Without Googling anything, I really can’t remember what Eric Clapton did in 1989 to warrant inclusion on a comeback list… Was it “From The Cradle”?

  • Darren

    Looked it up. My brain is so embarrassed…

  • david

    Santana, definitely no.1 comeback–30 years between no.1 albums.

    Then there was Elvis, of course