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Don't Call It A Comeback

Sep 5, 2008
Too many times lately has the phrase "making a comeback" been thrown around when referring to the return of a barely missed pop act. A boy band that realised the game was up five years ago whose members find that acting in soap operas or sitting on the sofa doesn't pay as much decide to get up and lip-sync to the same old songs and claim to have become a "man band" is hailed as a comeback.

A pop star who's spoilt tantrums alienated those that wrote their songs for them 2 years ago has found someone else willing to turn out a song and patches together a new album that hits the top five is similarly dubbed a comeback.

Does it matter that the musical world didn't suffer from their loss? That without them the radio was a tad more enjoyable? Probably, and, evidently, actually not. Doesn't someone have to be gone long enough to be missed before making a comeback?

A true comeback is a rare thing and examples can probably be counted on digits without removing your socks. When an artist or act that defined and exemplified their chosen medium fades in the wake that they created and ends up in the 'Where Are They Now?' file the genre is marked by their absence. Be it drug-fuelled, burger-fuelled or even caused by anti-Semitic comments, the fall of a great artist is a sad thing. Thankfully though, if they're truly great they can master a well executed comeback.

The first to do many things, Elvis Presley was the first to create a major comeback. After burning into the minds of the world's youth in the 1950's, Elvis was struggling in the 1960's. A turn in the U.S Army had taken the sting out of his tail and his manager had skewered him into so many movies of little to no success that the King was seen as a relic. In 1968 he couldn't even get a Top 40 single in the U.S and he was six years past his last Number One single.

Unhappy with his career and feeling the threat of new musical trends - the Beatles were riding high across the world - and even Tom Jones, Elvis was initially reluctant when his manager Colonel Tom Parker signed him up to perform a 'Special' on NBC.

Presley's manager intended the broadcast to be nothing more than the King singing a couple of Christmas carols but director Steve Binder had other, grander ideas and wanted to re-establish Elvis as the King.

Appearing on stage was daunting for Elvis, his last concert had been in 1961, but he worked hard to prepare and when he did took the stage clad in black leather Elvis wowed everyone.

The show was a huge success and revitalised Presley's career. Chart successes returned for Elvis and so too did the touring and stage performances with the passion that had gained him fame in the first place.

Another one-time legend that emerged from Sun Records only to find his career faltering, Johnny Cash was struggling to achieve success before he began a rejuvenation in the 1990's that heralded a huge comeback.

Initially seen as an outlaw type figure, famed for kicking out the lights at the Opry, Cash had achieved a small comeback of his own in the late 1960's by playing a concert in Folsom Prison but by the 1980's the once mighty Cash was releasing songs such as "Farmer's Almanac" and "Chicken In Black" that charted poorly if at all.

With a poor decade of television films and health issues behind him, the early 1990's found Johnny Cash without a record label and in need of fresh ideas if he was to return to his former glory. Two wise decisions sparked Cash's comeback.

The first was singing on The Wanderer from U2's album Zooropa and the second was signing to Rick Rubin's American Recordings label which, at the time, was better known for rap and hard rock. Neither decision seemed an obvious one for a County musician but the introduction to a new audience worked wonders. After two critically heralded American Recordings albums, Cash found himself adored by a new and slowly growing audience and, in 1994, performed at Glastonbury Festival.

Rumours of a fatal-diagnosis of Shy-Drager syndrome in 1997 caused Cash to cease his touring but re-invigorated his recording career. The albums that followed, still on American Recordings, were some of the biggest selling and greatest received of his career and re-established him as a major recording artist and, when he sadly died in 2003, Cash was enjoying the greatest success of his career since the late sixties.

Linked to Johnny Cash via a version of Girl from the North Country on his Nashville Skyline album, Bob Dylan has managed not one, but two comebacks in his long career.

Following his early career-defining Blonde on Blonde album, Dylan was sidelined by a motorcycle accident. When Dylan returned to recording it was with the country-tinged albums John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline which were received well though saw dwindling returns. Six years and five poorly selling (in Dylan terms) albums later Dylan found himself in trouble of a marital nature and captured it in an album that has since been hailed as one of, if not the, greatest albums of his career.

Blood On The Tracks was released in 1975 and marked a return to form in terms of song-writing, commercial and critical success; one reviewer stated "finally, we have our Dylan back" in reference to the largely acoustic arrangements. Dylan would follow the success of Blood on the Tracks with the equally well received, though musically different, Desire and a long and fruitful tour.

The comeback he started in 1975 carried Dylan all the way to the 1980's before religion took hold of his music and his conversion to born-again Christianity stalled his career for the second time.

The 1980's where a cruel decade to Dylan, attempts at infusing different genres into his music and different producers all failed to reverse the damage ironically caused by his own religious salvation at the start of the decade and while some albums from the era did well with the critics, the record buying public simply weren't listening anymore.

A comeback was sorely needed and, in the same way as it had for Johnny Cash three years prior, a strip-it-all-down approach proved to be a winner. Released in 1997, Time Out of Mind began a resurgence in critical and commercial revery that Dylan is still riding. A starker and darker album than anything he'd done for twenty years, Time Out of Mind went on to win three Grammy awards and referred to by critics in the same breath as his early career highs of Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde and, his first comeback, Blood On The Tracks.

Perhaps it was the aftermath of Punk, perhaps it was the slaughter of Disco, but the early eighties proved a hard road for many artists and all but finished the career of those of other masters of the comeback, Aerosmith. Though the era isn't as much to blame as the band itself.

The seventies had seen Aerosmith rise to stadium rockers of the highest success perfectly willing to enjoy all the trappings that came with it so it was small wonder when it started haemorraging members at the end of the decade only to reform in 1984. Their first post reunion effort, Done With Mirrors, failed on every level imaginable; it was critically mauled and sold poorly and the tour, though still a big attraction, was hampered by the bands drug addictions.

Following effective interventions and even more effective rehab stints, the band emerged free from drugs and with an album perfect for the MTV era of 1987 that went on to sell 5 million copies in the U.S alone and see the band score success on the singles chart that they had never before enjoyed, following a tour and reinvigoration of their creative efforts, the band released Pump in 1989 which went on to sell even more copies and often be cited as one of their greatest efforts.

More popular than ever, Aerosmith went through the nineties selling millions of records and even scoring number one singles truly capturing the essence of a successful comeback.

For some bands comebacks are more short-lived and for no purpose other than saying "we still can." Pink Floyd's reunion for Live 8 was a comeback for a band that had not played together since the departure of founder member Roger Waters in 1985. Though the band continued without Waters and under the lead of David Gilmour, the band played its last show in 1995 and the music industry lost a band that were the masters of their form.

After what can only be imagined as a lot of arguing and convincing, Pink Floyd took to the stage at Live 8 in 2005 to perform a set just under half an hour in length that marked the first time they'd performed together for 24 years. A stunning display that left audiences amazed, the show stood to reawaken appetite for the band that saw sales of their Echoes: The Best Of album shoot up by over 1000%. To refute any suggestions of being in it for the money, Gilmour donated all the extra royalties to the cause.

Though there has been no subsequent activity from the band the show stood to stir interest in Pink Floyd and rumours of reunions persist as much as the resurgence in album sales.

A similar effect followed one of music's other big comebacks in the form of one-off shows; Led Zeppelin. Following the death of drummer John Bonham, Led Zeppelin closed shop in 1982. In the years since there was constant clamoring for a reunion of the three remaining members but to no avail, though Robert Plant and Jimmy Page would work together on occasion, John Paul Jones was reluctant.

In 2002, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones reconciled and the rumours of reunion once again started only to be squashed by the individual members. In 2007, though, Led Zeppelin did reunite, for a one-off show in memory of Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Eretgun, with John Bonham's son Jason on drums. Demand for tickets were so great that a ticket-lottery had to be set up.

An astounding success, the reunion once again sparked sales in the band's back catalogue and recent compilation and showed that the band was as sharp as they were in their prime, some even argued that they were sharper still.

Once again interest in one of rock's most influential bands is at a high and with members confirming that practice sessions and jamming of new material has taken place in 2008, rumours of a full-scale comeback are set to ring true.

Presley, Cash, Dylan, Aerosmith, Pink Floyd and Led Zeplin while from different walks of the musical life were all gone long enough to be missed before heralding a comeback. They are also artists that contributed to the musical skyline from which they fell, some less graciously from others. Their comebacks also amounted to more than a single that bought them back into the top five ringtones chart for a week.

There is another lesson here; drugs, poor films, religion, dodgy haircuts and even death - a well timed comeback can conquer them all. There are somethings a comeback won't conquer though so don't expect to see a Gary Glitter or Michael Jackson comeback any time soon.
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