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‘In a lot of ways it’s easier to be a woman in rock,’ exclaimed Heart singer Ann Wilson in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1977, shortly after the release of their latest album Little Queen. ‘So many doors are open since we’re new and different. I think I’ll really like it when people stop thinking of it as a novelty. ‘Hey, that’s freaky, that’s weird, they got women in their group.’ It’ll be neat when it’s more commonplace.’
While women in rock would become more acceptable during the 1980s and ’90s with the likes of Lita Ford and Courtney Love, in the mid-1970s the rock scene was dominated by testosterone-fuelled all-male groups like Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith and AC/DC and so when Heart first emerged they would come as something of a revelation; women could rock as hard as men.
Inspired by their love of the Beatles, Ann and her younger sister Nancy Wilson immersed themselves in the music of the day until the inevitable moment came when they realised they wanted to create their own songs. Ann would be the first to pursue the dream, joining forces with several local musicians as the singer before relocating to Canada so her bandmates could avoid being drafted into the military and sent overseas to fight in Vietnam. Eventually Nancy would follow and Heart was formed.
Formerly White Heart, the band had steadily gained a reputation as a hard rock act but the arrival of a second guitarist signalled a necessary change. ‘Steering Heart toward more acoustic material proved to be a bigger challenge,’ she later recalled. ‘The group’s reputation was based on playing radio hits, songs that the crowd could dance to. We began to include an occasional Seals and Croft song, or Elton John number and those were places for me to shine.’ Thus, this creative conflict would provide Heart with an edge severely lacking from many other artists of the era who would either cater to the rock or folk crowd, yet while Nancy Wilson’s influence could be felt on early classics like Crazy on You, guitarist Roger Fisher’s rock-style would shine on the rawer tracks such as Barracuda.
By the end of the 1970s Heart had enjoyed five Platinum-selling albums but as the new decade dawned the band would undergo both significant line-up changes, leaving only the Wilson sisters as original members, while the music landscape would become heavily influenced by the arrival of MTV. Struggling to achieve their former glory, Heart were eventually dropped from their label but after signing with Capitol and being reinvented as a hair metal soft rock act, they were launched into the charts with a succession of power ballads that included fan favourites What About Love and Alone.
‘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,’ recalled Ann when looking back on their ’80s reinvention. ‘It was really strange. It was suffocating, image-wise. What you could talk about in a song changed; if you were misunderstood, you were really misunderstood – taken literally. That’s why Nancy and I felt so stifled, yet that’s our biggest commercial success. But that’s the way shit goes when you sell millions of records but you’re dying inside.’
Following three successful albums music tastes changed once again with the arrival of grunge, a scene that had originated from their hometown of Seattle, but the style had that served them well over the last five years would become obsolete. ‘We felt like we were has-beens, going home with our tail between our legs,’ recalled Nancy on the negative impact that grunge had on their success. ‘We had forsaken our own integrity to wear all the costumes, the huge hair and the posing. We really felt it was over. But the guys in Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden stuck up for us. They said we were a huge influence on them.’
It would be easy to see how rock bands of the 1990s may have been inspired in some way by the Heart of the ’70s, with many of their grittier and heavier earlier songs like Devil Delight providing the template for what many of the grunge bands would adopt a decade later. And while Heart would struggle to escape the power pop sound that had thrust them into the ’80s mainstream, with the 1993 single Will You Be There (In the Morning) sharing a similar radio friendly sensibility, in recent years Heart have returned to their rock ‘n’ roll roots with a series of acclaimed albums that commenced with 2010’s Red Velvet Car.DREAMBOAT ANNIE (1975)
While many artists may improve over time, it is often on their debut album that the true essence of their soul can be found, a collection of songs that were written and perfected during their early days. Ostensibly a folk rock record, Nancy Wilson’s influence on Dreamboat Annie can be most felt on both the title track and breakthrough single Crazy on You. ‘Initially, as the studio sessions began it felt like we were simply recording singles and the songs lacked cohesion to each other,’ explained producer Mike Flicker in the band’s autobiography Kicking & Screaming. ‘Singles were important still but this was the era of the album and I told them that. Ann came by a few days later to say she had a song she thought she could frame the record. She played me Dreamboat Annie. That, I told her, was a thread we could build the whole album around.’
LITTLE QUEEN (1977)
Although they had initially planned to follow Dreamboat Annie with their sophomore album Magazine, complications with the band’s original label and their signing to Portrait caused their previous home, Mushroom, to release an incomplete version of the album. Meanwhile, Heart were hard at work on Little Queen, their major label debut. But internal complications began to cause tension in the ranks, which would ultimately influence both the musical and lyrical content. ‘I had two former boyfriends in the band, which was no the smartest thing to do,’ admitted Nancy to Classic Rock. ‘In hindsight, what was I thinking? We were in a capsule moving so fast that the band was our sort of portable community.’
DOG & BUTTERFLY (1978)
Although not a concept album of sorts, the title of Dog & Butterfly represented a key theme that would be integral to the album, representing both aspects of the group that had been prevalent from the very beginning. ‘We have the heavy rock and we also have the Dog & Butterfly album concept. That was because of the ‘dog’ side and the ‘butterfly’ side of this band,’ Nancy told Ultimate Classic Rock. ‘It’s always been an interesting dichotomy. Because fans usually go, ‘I like Barry Manilow, because he’s a ballad singer. I like Scorpions, because they rock!’ We sort of do a really wide scope between the two and a lot of things in between. So a lot of our fans initially would go, ‘Why the heck do you do Barracuda? Why can’t you just do Dog & Butterfly’ all of the time?’
BEBE LE STRANGE (1980)
Following the Platinum sales of Dog & Butterfly, tensions within the ranks began to boil to the surface and nowhere was this more clear than on their first album of the new decade, Bébé le Strange. ‘For me, that album reflects the changes we were going through at the time,’ Ann told Kerrang! eight years later. ‘It wasn’t just the obvious things, we were having problems with Steve (Fossen) and Michael (Derosier) and I ended up having to play a lot of bass guitar to help finish the record. At times we sounded like a power trio, which accounts for the less than lavish production.’
PRIVATE AUDITION (1982)
Although struggling to remain relevant during the early 1980s, Heart would produce albums that while uneven still delivered hard rock melodies. ‘It started off on the wrong foot and ended up on a different wrong foot,’ claimed Fossen to Legendary Rock Interviews when looking back on Private Audition. ‘Jimmy Iovine was supposed to be the producer on that album and when we took our whole crew down to Los Angeles to do that album and when he came to our rehearsals he said ‘Well, I like this and I like that but that’s only a couple of songs. You guys need more songs, I would suggest you write some more songs and do some more rehearsing and brainstorming and all that.’ Ann and Nancy would have nothing to do with his suggestion, they thought things were going along just fine and they wanted to continue on with what they’d written so far.’
The reinvention of Heart in the mid-1980s would literally involve taking the band apart and putting it back together piece by piece, with a drastic image change following by the incorporation of professional songwriters, while Nancy Wilson’s style of guitar playing would need to be adapted to suit the hair metal scene with the assistance of fellow guitarist Howard Leese. ‘Her base being acoustic guitar, she’s really anxious right now to learn as much as she can about playing electric,’ acknowledged Ann in a 1985 interview with the Georgia Straight during the recording of their comeback album. ‘So Howard’s helping her a lot and also she has a new guitar roadie and friend named Scotty Olson who’s a really good guitarist in his own right, and he’s spent a lot of time working with her.’
BAD ANIMALS (1987)
The phenomenal success of their eponymous 1985 album introduced Heart to a new generation of rock fans but soon the pressure was on to deliver a worthy follow-up. Much like Private Audition and 1983’s Passionworks, their next offering, Bad Animals, would prove to be something of a mixed bag, blending rock tracks like opener Who Will You Run To with mediocre ballads such as I Want You So Bad. ‘For me, Bad Animals was half a record,’ admitted drummer Denny Carmassi to Raw while promoting their next album three years later. ‘Personally, I thought there were six or seven decent things on there and then it got really thin and that’s why we wrote more songs this time, to avoid filler tracks.’
The over-saturation of songwriters and overproduction of Bad Animals had left a sour taste in the mouth of the Wilson sisters and so for their next offering they wanted to capture a sound closer to their true selves. While the ‘Mutt’ Lange-produced power ballad All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You did little to convince otherwise, 1990’s Brigade would attempt to distance itself from its predecessor, opening with a cover of Wild Child, initially written by Lange for Romeo’s Daughter two years earlier. ‘We came into this project with the idea to explore everything and narrow it down,’ claimed Nancy to Kerrang!. ‘We recorded more songs than necessary, narrowed thirty songs to sixteen in pre-production and demos and picked from those…we decided to present ourselves more as we are on stage both song-wise and sound-wise.’
By the release of Red Velvet Car in 2014 it had been six years since Heart had released an album, during which time Ann had recorded her first solo album while Nancy had scored Elizabethtown, the third consecutive feature for her then-husband Cameron Crowe. Finally the two sisters reconvened to work on a follow-up to 2004’s Jupiters Darling that would ultimately mark the beginning of a new chapter for the band. ‘We worked for a couple of years writing songs between the touring and getting other musical stuff together,’ Nancy told the Huffington Post. ‘But working with Ben Mink, our producer on this, was just what the doctor ordered, and people are responding so well. After being around for a while and doing this, our thirteenth studio album, we’re really happy to report that it’s debuting stronger than any of our other albums ever did.’
For years the 1980s had cast a shadow over Heart, with the sisters unable to escape the power ballads that had become a staple of MTV, but in 2010 they had finally returned to their roots to deliver uncompromising hard rock and folk, much as they had done in the early days but now with three decades of experience. ‘It was so much fun to do Red Velvet Car and we had such a great experience we couldn’t stop,’ confessed Ann to Ultimate Classic Rock. ‘We were still on tour, but the songs were still coming. We had honed our songwriting skills a little bit with that one, so with Fanatic we made a decision just to go ahead and be opinionated. You know, if you felt strongly about something, like Dear Old America, just go ahead and let’s make the songs on this album have contours and speak out and be participants.’