During the first half of the 1980s the American music landscape changed significantly. The attention had moved away from the East Coast punk culture and its home at the legendary New York venue CBGB and was now focused on Los Angeles and its growing glam metal scene. Since the innovation of MTV teenagers were no longer digesting their new music over the radio and now artists were forced to rethink their image, while providing fans with stylish and colourful promo videos in order to sell their products.
Due to the sudden popularity of this new medium, record sales increased overnight and musicians faced further demands from their labels, resulting in many established acts reluctantly collaborating with professional songwriters in the hope of remaining relevant in an ever-changing industry. With music tastes having altered so significantly in just a few years, artists that had enjoyed considerable acclaim during the 1970s were now struggling with chart success and found themselves losing popularity as young fans turned their attention to up-and-coming bands.
Platinum-selling artists like Meat Loaf, Alice Cooper and Aerosmith were now failing to keep up with modern trends, instead losing their audiences to new rock stars such as Mötley Crüe and Ratt. The 1980s would see many celebrities of the previous decade revamping both their sound and image in an effort to cater to the new trends, with KISS abandoning their trademark make-up and Jefferson Starship – a later incarnation of Jefferson Airplane – embracing keyboards and soft pop under the new moniker Starship.
Power ballads became requisite for any rock act hoping to score a Top Ten single and soon these became an obligatory inclusion of any album that was aimed for mass consumption. Thus, many veterans who had found themselves struggling to regain their former glories now tried to cater to the new way that music was marketed and while their modern sounds and images may have alienated many of their old school fans, they were introduced to a new generation of music lovers.
Another group that had found themselves at a crossroads, both artistically and commercially, were Heart. Despite having gained major acclaim a decade earlier with the classic albums Dreamboat Annie and Little Queen, by the dawn of the 1980s they too were struggling to meet the demands of the industry, with 1982’s Private Audition becoming the first album of their career that would fail to achieve even Gold status. In between its release and the recording of its successor, Passionworks, longtime bassist Steve Fossen and drummer Michael DeRosier had been replaced by Mark Andes and Denny Carmassi, respectively.
It was all about sex appeal again. Someone like Janis Joplin wouldn’t have made it in the ’80s
‘It was a much more ego-driven, less enlightened time for music,’ explained Nancy Wilson, guitarist and occasional vocalist for Heart, in an article published by Classic Rock Presents AOR in 2013. ‘All this new digital stuff and imaging was happening – everyone had to look like Prince and the Revolution. It was all about sex appeal again. Someone like Janis Joplin wouldn’t have made it in the ’80s. She didn’t have a big haystack of blonde hair, corsets and stilettos.’
The core of the group since their early days had been siblings Ann and Nancy Wilson, while Howard Leese, who served as a session musician and production assistant on their debut, had officially joining the ranks as guitarist soon afterwards. Yet despite the minor success of lead single How Can I Refuse, the band’s label finally decided to cut their losses and removed Heart from their roster. Desperate for survival, the group fired their long-time manager Ken Kinnear and entrusted their future to Trudy Green of HK Management.
‘We thought that a woman manager might better relate to us. We were entirely wrong,’ explained Nancy in the band’s autobiography Kicking & Dreaming: The Story of Heart, Soul and Rock & Roll. ‘Trudy was obsessed with breasts and every video or photo shoot we did that year emphasised cleavage.’ In truth, ever since MTV had placed more focus on the visuals, labels and directors had tried to sell female artists more as sexualised products than musicians, with the likes of Madonna causing controversy for her risqué promo videos. The music industry was entirely different to that of the 1970s, when Heart had toured the country as a Platinum-selling group and this new environment proved to be a shock to the system.
In the press, eyes were always on the two females who fronted the band, either with critics making inappropriate comments regarding Ann Wilson’s weight gain or photographers insisting on cleavage being a major factor during their shoots. They were not the only ones to find themselves in this uncomfortable situation; former Runaways guitarist Lita Ford had embarked on a solo career just a few years earlier and the front cover of her debut album had featured the twenty-four-year-old in leather, knee-high boots and fishnet tights. Using sex to sell a product was nothing new but now it seemed to overshadow the music it was intended to promote.
While reluctant to exploit their sexuality at the risk of belittling their artistic credibility Heart had struggled through several years of internal conflicts, relationship and substance problems and dwindling record sales and so were left with little choice but to agree to the demands of their new representatives. Meanwhile, they had begun to search for a new record label that would be willing to take a risk on the band, despite the poor critical and commercial receptions to their two previous albums. After a handful of companies declined the offer they soon found a new home at Capitol Records, whose impressive list of both homegrown and international clients included Tina Turner and George Clinton.
Unlike their previous employers Capitol had designs on what direction they felt the band should take and no sooner had they signed to the label they began to receive a makeover under the direction of Vice President Don Grierson. Heart’s greatest flaw, he felt, was their lack of hit singles, something that had been most apparent with their recent albums. Since MTV had popularised the music video a few years earlier the single format had become key to the success of artists, with albums such as Michael Jackson’s Thriller producing up to seven Top Ten hits. While Heart had never lost their talent for writing strong material they had not embraced the new video format and both Private Audition and Passionworks lacked the right kind of song that would guarantee the band a hit.
The first step in remodelling Heart was to find a producer who would be able to take the elements that had served the band well and incorporate them into a product that would appeal to the record-buying public of the 1980s. The label eventually settled on Ron Nevison, whose career as an engineer over the past fifteen years had included the likes of The Who, Thin Lizzy and Led Zeppelin. Renowned for his no-nonsense approach in the studio, Nevison’s work was acclaimed throughout the music industry, yet on occasion those who had worked with him had found the process difficult.
Having collaborated with the producer in the mid-1970s, Thin Lizzy‘s guitarist Scott Gorham was quoted in Alan Byrne’s Soldiers of Fortune as stating, ‘I wasn’t real big on Ron Nevison after we finished. It was my first album, as it was Brian’s [Robertson] and we were two young guys trying to find our way in this situation. When you’re in this situation you look to guys like Nevison to help you through the rough spots and it seemed that it was just a gig for him and something that he wanted to get through and get done with it.’
Brash, arrogant and highly opinionated
Heart would also find Nevison a difficult personality, with Nancy later describing him as ‘brash, arrogant and highly opinionated.’ Yet despite occasionally belittling the artists he collaborated with, he was also renowned for drawing the best from them and producing albums of quality. Passionworks had been recorded in a cocaine haze with producer Keith Olsen and the result had been somewhat underwhelming and so Nevison served as a wake-up call. Initially, it was the label’s intention for Nevison to produce only two or three tracks for the album but he was already familiar with the band’s earlier work and knew that under his guidance they would be able to regain control of their career and update their sound for the modern audience.
‘You need to cross over into pop,’ Nevison told Billboard in 1985, ‘but that doesn’t necessarily mean changing the style of the band.’ But the acoustic folk rock of early hits like Crazy on You and Dog and Butterfly seemed out of place at a time when what would eventually become known as hair metal began to rear its head with emerging artists like Bon Jovi and Stryper. In 1984, when talks first began over the new direction that Heart would take, established rock acts were not known for hiring a selection of professional songwriters to compose hit singles. This would become more commonplace as the decade progressed, with Aerosmith, Bon Jovi and Alice Cooper recruiting the talents of Desmond Child, Diane Warren and Holly Knight, yet in the mid-1980s very few artists would agree to such an arrangement.
Meat Loaf may have owed his career to the songs that Jim Steinman had penned for him, while Bryan Adams had composed most of his hits with his regular collaborator Jim Vallance, but bands like Heart were known as much for their songwriting abilities as they were their musical talents. The Wilsons had approached the idea with some reluctance and Nevison soon found it challenging trying to find songs that the sisters were eager to perform, as with the exception of an occasional Led Zeppelin cover Heart had written the majority of their material throughout their career.
Nevison would present the band with a slew of songs, some which could fit their style but many that seemed too far-removed from their earlier sound. One asset of his was Michael Lippman, his agent who also represented a host of talented artists that included the likes of Bernie Taupin, best known as Elton John’s co-writer and the man responsible for the lyrics to such classics as Rocket Man, Crocodile Rock and Candle in the Wind. Elton John had been a major influence on Nancy Wilson during her teens, with the young guitarist having idolised the singer at the height of his popularity and so the involvement of Taupin would be too tempting to resist.
Nancy, however, had already made the acquaintance of Taupin several years earlier when she had been invited to the thirty-third birthday party of Elton John. ‘Elton, of course, couldn’t have been more gay, though he wasn’t out at the time. Bernie, however, was extremely interested in women and that night extremely interested in me,’ she recalled in 2012. ‘He may have been married at the time but that certainly wasn’t stopping him. Bernie was convinced that getting me high was the key to seducing me. He repeatedly pulled me int the bathroom, telling me he had to talk to me about songwriting. Then he’d pull out a vial of cocaine from his suit pocket and dump it on a mirror. I kept saying, ‘ No thanks,’ but Bernie kept tapping the glass vial to get the coke to come out, Only he’d already snorted all the drugs to his vial was empty. We’d sit down and two minutes later he’d be pulling me in the bathroom again, having remembered another vial in his other pocket.’
Another key contributor that Nevison would bring to the project was Peter Wolf, an Austrian producer and songwriter who would assist in the arranging of the songs that Heart were to record during their upcoming sessions. On the inlay sleeve to the album Wolf was to be credited for ‘Synthesisers, acoustic piano and creative input.’ Yet while the majority of the tracks chosen for the record were contributed from outside of the Heart circle, one writer whom the sisters were able to bring onboard from their past work was Sue Ennis, a close friend from their hometown of Seattle and who had received writing credits on their last four studio albums, commencing in 1978 with Dog & Butterfly.
Vallance, who was enjoying the success of Bryan Adams’ latest album Reckless, had co-written a ballad entitled What About Love with Brian Allen and Sheron Alton, former members of Canadian rock group Toronto. Grierson, sensing its potential, had suggested the song to Nevison, who in turn had brought it to the band. Yet as he later recalled; ‘I remember specifically being up at Nancy’s house in Snohomish, Washington, rehearsing and when I played that song Nancy left the room. She wasn’t happy with that song at first for Heart. They hated the treatment and production for the demo and I think it was more the vocal they hated.’
Despite their earlier reservations the band reluctantly rehearsed the song at Nevison’s insistence, yet it soon became apparent that his initial thoughts were correct. In fact, the sound that Heart captured during their recording of What About Love would serve as a template for the majority of their work over the next few years, as Heart would become one of the most successful of the power ballad acts of the late 1980s. Taupin’s contribution to the album would come with another ballad, These Dreams, a track that from the first time Nevison heard it felt that it should be sung by Nancy. Although known primarily as a guitarist, Nancy Wilson had previously performed lead vocals on the song Treat Me Well, which was featured on their second album Little Queen eight years earlier.
Ironically, Nevison had been offered another Taupin composition We Built This City, which he had co-written with Peter Wolf, yet Nevison had found the song somewhat ridiculous and had refused, instead opting for These Dreams. We Built This City was instead recorded by Starship and released as a single in the summer of 1985, reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100. Another key songwriter was Holly Knight, who had begun her career as a member of Spider with future session drummer Anton Fig before enjoying major success throughout the 1980s as the composer of such hits as Simply the Best by Tina Turner and Rag Doll by Aerosmith. Her contributions to the album would be All Eyes and the hit single Never.
Following rehearsals in Seattle, Nevison and Heart relocated to the Record Plant in Los Angeles to work on the basic tracks, before moving on to Sausalito studio where Fleetwood Mac had cut their 1977 classic Rumours, to complete the overdubbing. While Nevison handled the bulk of the production duties he was assisted in the engineering by Mike Clink, whose subsequent work as a producer would include the Platinum-selling Appetite for Destruction by Guns N’ Roses two years later. Among the musicians to make guest appearances during the sessions were Starship co-singers Grace Slick and Mickey Thomas, Survivor guitarist Frankie Sullivan and Johnny Colla of Huey Lewis and the News.
‘We had trouble coming up with a title for the album once we were done. Capitol had an idea: we could just call it Heart since our band name had never been an album title,’ recalled Nancy. ‘It was what many groups did on their debut record. We didn’t love the idea but we went along with it.’ Heart’s eponymous album was released in the summer of 1985, only weeks after the latest record from Mötley Crüe hit the shelves and would prove to be their first offering since Dog and Butterfly seven years earlier to be achieve multi-Platinum status.
Heart was a great album but I think it might have been a little shallow
The first single to be released was What About Love and finally brought the band a Top Ten hit, something that had eluded them for several years, but this was soon followed by a number one hit These Dreams, as well as two further tracks that would receive heavy rotation on MTV. According to a June 1986 issue of Billboard, Heart would be the first album since Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall in 1979 to produce four Top Ten singles for an artist making their debut on a new label. ‘Heart was a great album,’ Ann Wilson told Kerrang! two years later, ‘but I think it might have been a little shallow.’
Regardless, Heart had embraced the modern music industry and had scored their biggest hit to date, transforming the band into an arena act, although they soon found themselves taking part in an endless parade of ridiculous photo shoots and music videos; a small price to pay, it would seem, for such phenomenal success. The reaction to their comeback album had taken everyone by surprise, selling approximately six million copies and landing the group on the front covers of countless magazines. The pressure was on to record a worthy follow-up and with Nevison having been largely responsible for their new sound, he was recruited once again to produce what would become Bad Animals, the band’s ninth record.
Once again, at the insistence of the label, Heart were forced to work with professional songwriters, as well as accepting material from publishers and producers. Who Will You Run To, which would be used as the the opening track and second single from the album, was penned by Diane Warren, the talented writer responsible for such ’80s hits as If I Could Turn Back Time and Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now. Holly Knight, having contributed two songs to the last record, returned with a new track entitled There’s the Girl, while the album’s standout moment, Alone, was written by the hitmaking duo of Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly. One of the most successful songwriting duos of the decade, Steinberg and Kelly’s career highlights would include Madonn’a Like a Virgin, Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors and Eternal Flame by the Bangles.
While far removed from their earlier material Alone would eventually become the signature tune for Heart, as well as one of the most recognised power ballads of all time. ‘We were still resistant to the idea of outside writers but Ron Nevison told me Tom sang as well and that helped soften me. Once Ron played a cassette of Alone I needed no further convincing,’ claimed Ann. ‘I hadn’t written it but it felt like my song. When I sang ‘the night goes by so very slow’ in Alone I didn’t have to act. My sister was never one to mince words. ‘This is soulful stuff,’ Nancy said after hearing me run through it.’
With Nevison once again the driving force behind the record, sessions for Bad Animals took place at two principal locations. The first of which was One on One Recording in Los Angeles, a studio owned by the son of legendary lyricist Hal David, a facility recently occupied by Mötley Crüe during the turbulent making of their fourth album Girls, Girls, Girls. The other studio that would provide a home-from-home for Heart was New York’s Power Station, arguably best known as the studio where Bon Jovi had recorded their original demo, which had resulted in their iconic debut single Runaway.
Having felt somewhat disillusioned with the experience of recording their eponymous album Heart saw Bad Animals as a way to avoid the overly-polished pop sound that they felt had dominated its predecessor. ‘We wanted to record something with a lot more depth so that you could maybe play it six months after you first bought it and still get a buzz as if you were listening to it for the first time,’ explained Ann to British critic Derek Oliver during the promotion. ‘I’ve lived with the album for maybe nine or ten months now and it hasn’t lost its sparkle.’
Despite Nancy having married filmmaker Cameron Crowe in the summer of 1986, during the world tour that promoted their eponymous album the band were still known for their wild parties. ‘The lyrics to Bad Animals reflected where our group was at in those days,’ she admitted. ‘We’d all be hungover, strolling into the hotel lobby with sunglasses on and we moved like a pack. We never were more unified as a band but it was sad that partying was a big part of why this was true. But the lyrics to that song were also a great example of how something good comes when you least expect it. Ann and I had gone down to the beach to write but had wasted the day instead. We were driving home and nearly to Seattle when we began writing the song in the car. ‘We’re bad animals, bad animals, got to swim upstream, got a rebel seed.’ We were screaming the lyrics out the window of the car as we wrote them on Interstate Five.’
Bad Animals, much like its predecessor, went multi-Platinum upon its release in the summer of 1987, in part due to the phenomenal success of Alone, which appealed to the public’s newfound interest in power ballads. Yet despite its popularity some felt that the album lacked the hard edge of their earlier work, while others criticised the group for only contributing to the writing of half the songs. As both Ann and Nancy Wilson have noted over the years, while Bad Animals had a somewhat generic production the tracks that Heart decided to perform on their subsequent tour sounded more full and exciting onstage than they did in the studio.
We learned a lot about our egos and how to leave them behind
‘We’d like to adopt a slightly less classier approach on this next one and if possible write all the songs ourselves this time,’ Ann told Metal Hammer while promoting the record. ‘Before Heart we felt that we’d run out of ideas and were starting to repeat ourselves, so it was time to let the outside world in a little and get a fresh approach. We learned a lot about our egos and how to leave them behind.’ Even during the touring of Bad Animals Heart regularly stated in interviews that their next album would feature less involvement from outside writers and would instead be the result of collaborations within the band. The last two albums had sent them to the top of the charts, yet they had lost their creative influence over their own music.
While the band would defend Bad Animals upon release and consider it an improvement on their self-titled release they would later admit that the album was too much of a compromise, with its watered-down production and reliance on ballads further complicated by the lack of original material. ‘For me Bad Animals was half a record,’ confessed drummer Denny Carmassi to Raw in 1990. ‘Personally, I thought there were six or seven decent things on there and then it got really thin.’
Rumours began to circulate that the sisters intended on recording a solo album together, one that would see them return to their earlier acoustic style, but by 1989 Heart were demoing new tracks and accepting submissions from their label. Much of the original material that would be included during the sessions for Brigade, their third album for Capitol, had been the result of the band jamming together in the studio, while several songs that had been left over from Bad Animals were also considered. Sammy Hagar, Carmassi’s former bandmate from his days with Montrose, would assist with the writing of both Fallen from Grace and album highlight The Night.
Two tracks that were forced upon them came from Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange, the acclaimed producer of AC/DC and Def Leppard, who had forged a successful career throughout the 1980s with a slew of successful albums. One of the tracks, Wild Child, had already been recorded by Romeo’s Daughter, a British rock group whose eponymous debut had been nurtured by Lange. ‘Out of all the covers we had on the first album, we were the most proud of the Heart one,’ confessed singer Leigh Matty to Love-It-Loud in 2010. ‘Craig (Joiner; guitarist) and I actually went to see them at Wembley and they opened their set with Wild Child – we couldn’t believe it!’
The other song, All I Wanna Do is Make Love to You, proved to be another hit for the band, despite the dubious subject matter, in which the protagonist picks up a hitchhiker, has a one night stand in a motel and then leaves before he wakes up. Some time later the narrator crosses paths with the man again, revealing that she now has his child, something her partner was unable to provide. Despite Ann’s dislike for the lyrics, the success of the song meant that the band would perform it on every date of their next tour. ‘Ann positively hated it,’ claimed Nancy many years later. ‘She did sing it and we begrudgingly turned it into a Heart song. It ended up being one of our most controversial songs, even getting banned in Ireland and a few other countries.’
Having felt disappointed by their experiences working with Nevison the band decided to approach a different producer to oversee the sessions for their next album and eventually settled on Richie Zito, a man who had previously collaborated with both of the Wilson sisters on separate projects. In 1988 Ann had recorded a duet with Cheap Trick frontman Robin Zander on a power ballad entitled Surrender to Me, released to promote the Mel Gibson action thriller Tequila Sunrise, while Zito would oversee the recording of All for Love, Nancy’s contribution to her husband Crowe’s teen movie Say Anything… While they would once again return to the familiar surroundings of One on One, sessions would also take place at another Hollywood location, A&M Studios.
‘We probably never found a more perfect producer who knew how to field things on our behalf. Richie was great with the band largely because he’s a guitarist and was on the road with Elton John,’ Nancy told Kerrang! shortly after the album’s release. ‘He speaks the language and appreciates the camaraderie. He’s not an egocentric asshole. He’s a guy, a romantic person and understands where we come from lyrically and musically. He knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the glass. If we’d not had that chemistry we would never have spent seven months with him and this would have been a different record!’
With each member being allowed more creative control over the writing and recording, the sessions for what would become Brigade would result in a total of thirty songs being recorded, before ultimately being reduced to thirteen. There would still be songwriting contributions from Warren, Steinberg and Kelly, while Knight would also compose two tracks, but the production and performance would sound far less diluted and more focused than Bad Animals, a mistake Heart had been desperate not to repeat. With Brigade they had intended to return to their roots but had instead reached a compromise by incorporating the soft rock style that had served them well commercially over the previous five years.
‘We just wanted an album that sounded the way the band does live. The last two have been so far in the glossy pop, digital technology direction that a lot of the electricity got lost in the studio,’ admitted Ann to writer David Ling. Nancy concurred, ‘We weren’t exactly pissed off but we like the live sound of those songs much better than the way they were captured at the time. We’d hear them in a store and go ‘That echo! Those keyboards!’ We just needed a little more energy and a little more fun in the studio.’
Brigade was released in March 1990 and even while promoting the album, some disappointment was expressed. ‘The running order could have been a little better and rocked a little harder,’ confessed bassist Mark Andes, a sentiment shared by several critics. In many ways this album marked the end of an era and one that Heart have mixed feelings about. ‘In the 1980s making music became uncomfortable,’ explained Ann Wilson in a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone. ‘Music became less understandable in the wake of the new MTV era. You weren’t supposed to be anything other than a pop star, to not go deeper than that. It was really strange.’
Barely a year and a half after the release of Brigade the music industry would change and Heart would find their brand of music obsolete once again. Despite the Wilson sisters having been raised in Seattle, in recent years the city’s local music scene had become more raw and drawn inspiration from early ’70s metal and late ’70s punk to create a new sub-genre that the press had dubbed grunge. This had first entered the public consciousness with the release of Smells Like Teen Spirit, the major label debut of Nirvana and over the following twelve months the industry’s attention would promptly move away from hair metal and instead towards such rising groups as Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam.
‘Musicians in Seattle never spoke with the kiss-ass attitude you’d find at an L.A. party,’ declared Ann Wilson. ‘Seattle musicians didn’t lie about liking something they hated simply to get more work, or to network. People were real with you, which was one reason we felt centred at home. So when someone announced, ‘I love Barracuda but I didn’t like your ’80s stuff’ I wasn’t surprised. It might have been something Nancy and I could have said. But it was also evidenced of a generational divide: The music of the ’70s had a powerful nostalgia for those who created grunge but they held no such affection toward anything from the ’80s.’