Q Magazine

Music's Greatest Second Acts

From Elvis Presley to Trent Reznor, Alex Chilton and Dave Grohl, some of the most epic career comebacks, pivots and encores in music history.

second acts
Source: MEGA; MEGA; Unlimited Editions Ltd.

Tina Turner, Dave Grohl and Alex Chilton all managed to write glorious new chapters in their careers.

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Elvis Presley

elvis presley
Source: MEGA

The original rock and roll comeback. After becoming the genre's first undisputed superstar, Elvis Presley’s status as “the King” took a bit of a beating when he was drafted into the Army at the height of his powers, and then focused on a flurry of (often regrettable) film roles in the years following his return. By 1968, he was fast becoming a relic as rock music underwent seemingly yearly seismic changes — the post-Summer of Love landscape couldn’t have been more different from the mid-‘50s milieu in which Presley shocked TV audiences by simply wiggling his hips. Which makes it all the more remarkable that his televised comeback special was such a smash, attracting a now-unimaginable 42% of the total viewing audience on Dec. 3. Massive hits like “In the Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds” would soon follow, and Presley would remain a consistent live draw until his death in 1977. -- Andrew Barker

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New Order

new order
Source: PIC Sakura/WENN/Newscom/The Mega Agency

In 1979 Joy Division redefined post-punk with their seminal debut LP Unknown Pleasures, pioneering a darkly atmospheric, eerily dislocated and highly intimate sound combined with lyrics as unsettling as they were literate. That “eerie spatiality” reached its majestic zenith on second album Closer, a record given further poignancy for being released two months after the suicide of singer Ian Curtis… and that would seem to have been that. Except, of course, it wasn’t. Joy Division’s surviving three members, bolstered by Gillian Gilbert, formed New Order and set about becoming one of the defining bands of the 1980s – and with 1983’s “Blue Monday” especially, setting a template for dance music that is still followed today. The scale of the second act becomes most astonishing when you consider that there are just three short years between “Blue Monday” and Joy Division’s doom-laden anthem “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. – Dominic Utton

Alex Chilton

alex chilton
Source: Unlimited Editions Ltd.

Alex Chilton was only 16 years old when he earned his first and only No. 1 hit with the Box Tops' 1967 debut single "The Letter," his first-ever professional recording, but he sounded about a million years older. The Box Tops went on to notch a few more blue-eyed soul hits before breaking up in 1970, and Chilton formed Big Star a year later. Although Big Star never achieved much commercial success, they arguably perfected power-pop and influenced generations of alternative and indie rock to come, inspiring other classic bands like R.E.M. and the Replacements. "And children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes 'round," Paul Westerberg sang in tribute on the Replacements’ 1987 song "Alex Chilton. "They sing, I'm in love, what's that song? Yeah, I'm in love with that song." -- Peter Helman

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Eric Burdon

eric burdon

Burdon, one of the most distinctive voices during the British Invasion, garnered first notice as the lead vocalist of the Newcastle-based The Animals. With their 1964 cover of the traditional folk song “The House of the Rising Sun,” the group ushered in what would be called folk rock. After the fracturing of the original group around 1966, he revitalized newer versions of the Animals, but eventually the band broke up in 1969. After moving to San Francisco, he joined forces with funk rock band War and elevated their status with the classic “Spill The Wine” in May 1970. Flute solos would never be the same. -- Amy Hughes

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Trent Reznor

trent reznor
Source: PHIL MCCARTEN/UPI/Newscom/The Mega Agency

Imagine it’s 1992, and you have somehow gotten your hands on the full cut of the widely-banned music video for Nine Inch Nails’ “Happiness in Slavery.” Imagine watching that video, in which “super-masochist” performance artist Bob Flanagan is slowly tortured to death by a machine that grinds his body into fertilizer, all while the angriest man on earth hollers lyrics like “Slave screams! He’s being beaten into submission!” over an industrial backbeat that sounds like Satan’s own assembly line. Now imagine learning that, in 18 years, the man responsible for that song and that video would win his second Academy Award for composing the music to an animated Disney film. Imagine trying to explain that to someone. -- A.B.

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Damon Albarn

damon albarn

If you're a Brit of a certain age, you probably remember Damon Albarn as the frontman of Blur, duking it out with Oasis for Britpop supremacy in the mid-'90s. But if you're a slightly younger American, you almost certainly first heard Albarn's voice coming out of a cartoon character's mouth, singing Gorillaz hits like "Clint Eastwood" and "Feel Good Inc." (Either that or "Song 2," anyway.) With Gorillaz, the virtual band that he created with comic book artist Jamie Hewlett, Albarn stepped away from the spotlight and somehow ended up more famous than ever. -- P.H.

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Vince Clarke

vince clarke
Source: MAR/Capital Pictures / MEGA

To have been the founding member and principal songwriter for Depeche Mode would be achievement enough for most people. But after writing all but two of the tracks on the Mode’s 1980 Top 10 debut LP Speak & Spell – including “New Life” and “Just Can’t Get Enough” (which peaked at Nos. 11 and 8 in the British charts respectively) – Vince Clarke left to form Yazoo with then-unknown singer Alison Moyet. In their 18 months together he wrote a further four Top 3 singles, two Top 2 albums, and all-but invented the now-standard warm-soul-voice-versus-cold-electronic-keyboards sound. By 1985 he’d moved on again, this time forming Erasure with Andy Bell: 24 consecutive Top 40 singles and 28 million albums later, Erasure are considered one of the most successful British acts of the 80s and 90s… and Vince Clarke remains perhaps the most underrated genius working in music today. – D.U.

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Tina Turner

tina turner s
Source: MEGA

Tina Turner first found fame as an indefatigable onstage dynamo alongside her husband Ike in the ‘60s and ‘70s, touring with the likes of the Rolling Stones, and regularly blowing them off the stage. But as we all know now, behind the scenes Tina was subject to years of awful physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her volatile partner, and when she finally left him in the late ‘70s, her career seemed to have hit the skids. Attempts to go disco were disastrous, and before long Turner was in serious debt, making do with sitcom cameos and chintzy gigs on the Vegas cabaret circuit. Things had gradually started to look up for her in the early 1980s, but nothing could have prepared the world for the impact of 1984’s Private Dancer, which went multi-platinum on the strength of hits like "What's Love Got to Do With It," and established Turner as one of the era's most bankable superstars. It was here that she truly cemented her reputation as the "Queen of Rock and Roll,” a title she retained until her death in 2023. -- A.B.

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Dave Grohl

dave grohl
Source: MEGA

Dave Grohl could have easily ended his music career following the tragic death of his Nirvana bandmate Kurt Cobain in 1994. That’s more or less what bassist Krist Novoselic did. But Grohl had no interest in sitting on his laurels, and quickly began working on a new project called the Foo Fighters. The seasoned percussionist wasn’t just starting a new band. He was putting down the drumsticks, picking up a guitar and getting behind the mic. Two decades later, Grohl and the Foo Fighters have 11 studio albums and 15 Grammy wins under their collective belt. -- Noah Zucker

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Scott Walker

scott walker
Source: Mercury Records

Scott Walker was a singular artist, and his career arc remains one of the most fascinating trajectories in pop music history. He got his start as a pop idol in the Walker Brothers – a group of three Americans, none of whom were actually named Walker, singing lushly orchestrated ballads for English teens in the 1960s. Then things got darker and stranger. After several increasingly arty solo records that gained a cult following in the underground scene and a subsequent retreat into easy listening, he reemerged decades later as a full-fledged avant-garde weirdo. From heartthrob to experimental music legend, Walker was always a true original. -- P.H.

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Ozzy Osbourne

Source: MEGA

Ozzy Osbourne fronted the band that created heavy metal, but when the vocalist was booted from Black Sabbath in 1979 there was no reason to believe he would also become one of the most iconic solo hard rock acts of all time. Despite a grave drug and alcohol habit, Osbourne released Blizzard of Ozz the following year. It was eventually certified platinum five times over in the U.S. even though it didn’t include any top 40 singles. A long, prosperous, and often controversial solo career followed. Much of the singer’s solo success can be attributed to his wife Sharon, who began managing his business affairs around this time, and later co-starred with him on the show that inaugurated his even more surprising third act as a cuddly reality TV star. -- N.Z.

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Tom Jones

tom jones
Source: MEGA

From the beginning of his career in the 1960s and into the early ‘70s, Tom Jones was a staple of the pop charts, scoring five top-10 hits in the US and a dozen in the UK, including the chart-toppers “It’s Not Unusual” and “Green, Green Grass of Home.” As the ‘70s progressed, however, Jones’ sales dipped, and after concluding a surprisingly lengthy period of hits on the US Country charts, it looked like he might end up living the Las Vegas residency lifestyle for the long haul. But after scoring what could easily have been a one-off comeback single in 1987 with “A Boy from Nowhere,” Jones teamed with the Art of Noise for a cover of Prince’s “Kiss.” And then he teamed with Trevor Horn, Youth, and Teddy Riley for 1994’s The Lead and How to Swing It. And then he teamed with a plethora of artists past and present on the UK chart-topper Reload. From Wyclef Jean to Jools Holland to Ethan Johns, Jones has proven that he’ll happily shift genres in a heartbeat and try just about anything as long as it strikes him as interesting, which – at the very least – is invariably what it turns out to be. -- Will Harris

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Jimmy Page

Source: Victor Crawshaw/Mirrorpix/Newscom/The Mega Agency

When Jimmy Page first joined the Yardbirds, he joined one of Britain's most celebrated blues-rock outfits just as they were splintering from inter-band friction. After bassist Paul Samwell-Smith quit the group in 1966, Page stepped into the spot (he had been offered guitarist Eric Clapton’s slot earlier, but turned it down to continue with session work). One year in, Jeff Beck had become the group’s lead guitarist. But Beck fell ill during a US tour and Page switched positions with the group’s other guitarist, Chris Dreja. Once the two came back together, Page and Beck took the band to whole other planet. However, more personal strife continued with Beck’s departure in 1966, and the group broke up in 1968. Page was left with concert bookings to fulfill. He called on friend Terry Reid, who in turn recommended a little-known singer, Robert Plant. Plant brought in his childhood friend, drummer John Bonham, and bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones volunteered his services to his friend Page. A Scandinavian tour in September 1968 had the quartet billed as the New Yardbirds. But upon their return to the U.K., they became Led Zeppelin. -- A.H.

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Loretta Lynn

loretta lynn
Source: MEGA

One of country music's all-time greats, Loretta Lynn never really went away. But it's safe to say her name wouldn't have meant much to most under-30 types around the turn of the millennium. That all changed in 2004, when a super-fan named Jack White -- then at the peak of his "savior-of-rock" fame with the White Stripes -- convinced the 72-year-old to let him produce her next record, on which Lynn wrote or cowrote every song. Van Lear Rose exposed Lynn to an entirely new audience, winning the Grammy for Best Country Album and earning her a spot at Bonnaroo, and for the last two decades of her life Lynn received her well-deserved flowers from fans new and old fans alike. -- A.B.

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The Libertines

the libertines
Source: MEGA

Nobody died to bring about The Libertines second act… but it was a close-run thing for a while. After the bright, blazing promise of debut LP Up the Bracket, Pete Doherty and Carl Barât’s ragged band of punky agitators imploded just two years later in the messiest way possible, amid heroin, jail time, broken friendships and a second album that chronicled it all in unsparing detail. Over the following decade, while Barât worked on various side projects, Doherty struggled with unwanted celebrity and crippling heroin addiction, and the other two (drummer Gary Powell and bassist John Hassall) mostly sat tight and waited it out, The Libertines seemed destined to be remembered as an example of wasted promise – even despite the 2015 tentative reunion LP Anthems for Doomed Youth. And then, extraordinarily, somehow they pulled off the most unlikely resurrection. Doherty got (properly) clean, he and Barât rekindled their bromance, and in 2024 the band released a contender for album of the year with All Quiet on the Eastern Esplanade, a record that fizzes with all the energy and urgency of their debut, but now married to a calmer, more assured sense of self-confidence. – D.U.

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John Lee Hooker

john lee hooker
Source: MEGA

When it comes to grizzled old bluesmen, there is a longstanding tradition of younger – and, indeed, often whiter – artists taking said bluesmen under their wing in an effort to pay them back for all of the tremendous and influential music they’ve introduced to the world. It’s hard to say how old John Lee Hooker was when this happened for him, mostly because Hooker was notoriously vague about his age (maybe he was born in 1912, maybe he was born in 1917), but there were two major moments that were almost two decades apart, so maybe he actually had three acts? However you want to spin it, the moments in question were 1970, when he recorded the album Hooker ‘n Heat with the band Canned Heat, and then in 1989, when he recorded The Healer with the assistance of Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, and many others. From that point on until his death in 2001, Hooker continued to record and collaborate, resulting in a great deal of music that expanded his listenership exponentially. -- W.H.

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Mission of Burma

mission of burma
Source: Mission of Burma (Press)

Admittedly a band before its time, Boston-based Mission of Burma began in 1979 with Roger Miller on guitar, Clint Conley on bass, Peter Prescott on drums and Martin Swope, who contributed tape manipulation. The group’s live reputation could veer wildly from very good to completely horrid, in large part due to their shoot-from-the-hip style, taking chances onstage with setlists chosen right before they hit the stage. While they garnered a fervent following with their iconic anthems “Academy Fight Song” and “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver,” the group disbanded in 1983 due to Miller’s development of tinnitus. In this configuration, they released only two singles, an EP, and one LP, Vs. But as their status grew and albums stayed in print, and they reformed for a second stint in 2002. During that nearly 20-year period, dozens of bands and musicians cited their influence and style, including R.E.M. (who covered “Academy Fight Song”), Miracle Legion, Pearl Jam, and the Replacements. And artists such as Catherine Wheel, Blur’s Graham Coxon and Moby have all performed covers of “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver.” -- A.H.

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Gabe Saporta

gabe saporta
Source: MEGA

This New Jersey native started his music career in the buzzy but underrated pop punk act Midtown. The band was signed to Drive-Thru, MCA and Columbia before calling it quits in 2004 – but Saporta wasn’t done. After finding some inspiration through psychedelics, he started a brash new electro-pop project called Cobra Starship. The group hit it big with their 2009 record Hot Mess, which made it to No. 4 on the Billboard 200 on the back of the hit single “Good Girls Go Bad.” Cobra Starship threw in the towel in 2015. Saporta now works at talent management agency the Artist Group. -- N.Z.

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Adam Schlesinger

adam schlesinger
Source: MEGA

To be fair, it wasn't a complete surprise to see Adam Schlesinger emerge as one of the cleverest TV/film/stage songwriters of the last two decades. Before most of the country had even heard of his band, Fountains of Wayne, he composed one of the most impossibly catchy film songs of all time with the title tune to That Thing You Do. But it was after Fountains of Wayne's dissolution in the early 2010s that Schlesinger's gifts for the medium came into full bloom. His tunes for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend were so dense with impeccable punchlines that it usually took repeat viewings to catch all of them (he won an Emmy for "Anti-Depressants Are So Not a Big Deal"), and he produced gems for projects as diverse as Sesame Street, The Howard Stern Show, and the epic 2011 Tony Awards opener, "It's Not Just for Gays Anymore." He died in 2020, one of the music world's earliest COVID casualties, before his musical The Bedwetter could have its Off Broadway debut. -- A.B.

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Johnny Cash

johnny cash
Source: MEGA

Until his death in 2003, there really wasn’t a time when Johnny Cash wasn’t considered to be a country music legend, but there was definitely a period starting in the mid-1980s when he wasn’t getting the level of respect that he deserved. (For the record, it started with “The Chicken in Black," and this matter is not up for debate.) Even a jump to Mercury in 1987 and albums with songwriting contributions from Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney didn’t help change Cash’s chart fates. But then two things happened that changed Cash’s career path in the best possible way. First came “The Wanderer,” the closing track on U2’s Zooropa album, which – even though it wasn’t released as a single – put Cash’s voice in front of more young ears than had heard it in a long time. And then came Rick Rubin, who fully kickstarted Cash’s comeback with the series of American Recordings albums. With a stripped-down sound and his distinctive vocals out front, Cash recorded some originals, re-recorded some classics, and covered an astonishing array of songs that no one could’ve imagined at first. Tackling tunes from Nick Lowe to Danzig, Neil Diamond to Depeche Mode, and – perhaps most famously – Nine Inch Nails, Cash never tried to sing them like anyone but himself, and in turn, he managed to reinvent himself simply by going to back to the basic sonic template he’d started with. What a concept! -- W.H.


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