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Superstar Comebacks Stall on the Charts

Remember all the noisy hype surrounding the recent superstar comebacks of Brian Wilson, Jimmy Page, Patti Smith and Hall & Oates? The press commotion may have stirred interest, but it didn’t help propel any of the artists into the Billboard Top 10.

In fact, all four albums were disappointments--or complete flops:

Wilson, one of the most celebrated pop composers of our time, saw his album peak at a lowly No. 54, an especially poor showing considering that his Beach Boys brethren’s “Kokomo” single seems assured of cracking the Top 15.

Page, the guitar hero behind Led Zeppelin, a perennial Top 10 band, ran out of gas at No. 26 with his much-ballyhooed “Outrider” album.

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Smith, the critics’ darling and high priestess of the punk movement, returned with her “Dream of Life” album, which stalled at No. 65 (and is now limping along at No. 122).

Hall & Oates, which had a string of hits through the mid-'80s, barely cracked the Top 25 with their album. It’s quickly plummeted to No. 132, despite a big promotional push by pop hit-factory Arista Records, the group’s new label.

What’s the problem here? Has the increasingly youth-oriented pop mainstream turned its back on its elders? Pop Eye asked several key record-industry figures to analyze these career setbacks.

Rock manager Cliff Burnstein: “With Brian Wilson, it was really a surprise to me that the record made it as high on the charts as it did. There just isn’t any mass awareness there. No one’s ever bought a Brian Wilson record before. Except for old rock critics, no one knows anything (of) the Beach Boys. I mean, if kids don’t know that Paul McCartney was in the Beatles, then how would they know about Brian, who hasn’t made a record in years?”

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A&M; Records exec Wayne Issak: “The real trend over the past five years is that the biggest hits have come either from debut artists or performers who just exploded. I don’t think pop superstars can count on coming back anymore. They’ve become a trendy commodity--today’s audience is much more likely to go on to the next fad or just grow out of consuming pop music. It’s a reflection of our media fast-burn society. I’m actually amazed when a pop act--like Madonna or George Michael-- keeps progressing year after year.”

Billboard chart guru Paul Grein: “I think the biggest factor in play here is the rise of these pop youngsters, from Debbie Gibson and Tiffany to Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and Tracy Chapman--who are all still under 25. It’s made a pop artist who mounts a comeback at age 40 look that much older. It graphically accentuates their age. It’s always been tough for pop veterans to maintain their consistency, because pop music is so youth-oriented. But now it’s harder than ever, especially with radio being so dominated by teen music.”

Rock radio consultant Jeff Pollack: “The bottom line is that some of these artists, especially Patti Smith and Brian Wilson, released nice songs but they’ve been away too long. To come back from a layoff, you need a remarkable album, especially with radio dominated by dance music and marching to the beat of the 15-year-olds. Getting back together is a risky business. We’ve heard about the Rolling Stones and the Who reuniting, but it’s not automatic. Neither of their last albums really cut it, so there’s no guarantee that they’ll make it either.”

Radio & Records columnist Ken Barnes: “What really fascinates me about the Brian Wilson album is the cruel irony that the hottest single in the country is ‘Kokomo,’ the Beach Boys without Brian. Here Brian spent all this time and money and effort on his solo project, but now his old band outdid him with a single that seems to have been slapped together and thrown on a sound track. It’s got to be a major blow to Brian. We’ve always seen this A&R-exec; philosophy that you can just bring back these old vets in a new configuration and they’ll still sell. But maybe now you have to assume that the pop audience has moved on.”


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