How Heart Survived the ’80s
Heart reached new commercial peaks during the '80s, but it came at a price. Namely, principal members Ann and Nancy Wilson had to weather creative suppression, an emphasis on image over songcraft and a flashy, video-driven music culture.
“Music became less understandable in the wake of the new MTV era," Ann Wilson told Rolling Stone in 2012. "You weren’t supposed to be anything other than a pop star, to not go deeper than that. 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 s--- goes when you sell millions of records but you’re dying inside.”
At the start of the decade, however, Heart were still a hard-charging, lyrics- and guitars-driven rock 'n' roll band. 1980's Bebe Le Strange, the first record without founding member (and Nancy Wilson's ex) Roger Fisher, boasted a red-hot sound nodding to everything from funky boogie to strutting glam-blues. Perhaps more important, Bebe Le Strange felt like the Wilson sisters had taken the reins of Heart's vision and direction.
Watch Heart Perform 'Even It Up'
“When Nancy and Roger broke up, the power in Heart shifted forever," longtime friend and songwriting collaborator Sue Ennis said in Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock & Roll. "Nancy and Ann hadn’t really claimed it before, but with Roger out of the band, and [manager, Roger’s brother and Ann’s then-boyfriend] Michael Fisher’s influence on the wane, it was if they were hurled toward it. Heart had always been their band, but now they owned it in ways they hadn’t before.”
Bebe Le Strange hit No. 5 on the Billboard album chart and went gold, a more-than-respectable showing. However, the LP heralded a sales decline for Heart's next two albums, 1982's Private Audition and 1983's Passionworks. Although the band was still popular in rock circles — "This Man Is Mine" and "City's Turning" both reached the top 20 on the Mainstream Rock chart, while "How Can I Refuse" hit No. 1 — and didn't shy away from modern flourishes such as keyboards, lineup changes and shifting musical trends had put a damper on their career. In fact, Heart had even been dropped from Epic Records after Passionworks underwhelmed.
Watch Heart's 'How Can I Refuse' Video
Luckily, Capitol Records stepped in and wanted to sign the band, though this new contract came with some rather strict stipulations, according to Ron Nevison, who ended up producing both the band’s label debut, 1985’s Heart, and its 1987 follow-up, Bad Animals. "You have a situation where [label president] Don Grierson over at Capitol picked them up but said, 'Let me just say this: I love you guys, and I’m willing to sign you, but you have to be prepared to mutually agree on the material and mutually agree on the producer,' or he wouldn’t have signed them,” Nevison told Ultimate Classic Rock.
The use of outside songwriters was a tough transition for the Wilsons, who had spent years honing their craft as a unified creative team and were by now used to steering Heart themselves. Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2016, Nancy Wilson recalled going through demo cassettes of songs written by powerhouse writers such as Diane Warren and Holly Knight as the band prepped what would become its label debut.
"For the first time, we were discouraged from doing very much of our own songwriting, which was different for us and it bummed us out a lot," she said. Added Ann Wilson: "I think we came to the realization that, 'Hey, we're not writing so well right now. We're not coming up with the goods.' So we decided to go ahead with it and audition some outside stuff. And you can make sense of that in your brain, but it's hard to convince your emotions and your ego to accept that kind of thing. So it was rocky for me."
Watch Heart's 'What About Love?' Video
And while the band's first Capitol Records effort, 1985's Heart, did feature the Wilsons' musical input — the hit "Never" in particular was a co-write with Knight and Greg Bloch — it was a much slicker, contemporary-sounding album that felt calibrated for radio airplay. Glossy keyboards, squealing guitars and snarling drums cushioned Ann Wilson's shrieking vocals on "If Looks Could Kill"; "What About Love" was pure power ballad; and the mid-tempo chug "Nothin' at All" felt tailor-made for the Top 40. The misty-feeling "These Dreams "— a Bernie Taupin co-write featuring Nancy Wilson on lead vocals — even brought Heart into soft-rock territory.
Heart became a blockbuster, selling five million copies and spawning four Top 10 singles. Naturally, 1987's Bad Animals followed a similar formula: outside songwriters (including Warren on "Who Will You Run To?" and the hit-producing tag team of Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg on "Alone"), slashing guitars and twinkling keyboards and gigantic '80s (over)production. Bad Animals too went multi-platinum and spawned several hit singles, including the underrated Nancy Wilson-led (and co-written) "There's the Girl" and the No. 1 smash "Alone," a showcase for Ann Wilson's inimitable vocal range. "It's a really beautiful song, and one of those songs where it's still just a joy to perform," Nancy Wilson told Rolling Stone. "But by that time there was so much artifice surrounding everything."
Watch Heart's 'Alone' Video
Namely, Heart's image had evolved in tandem with their music, which meant embracing the fashion trends of the time: big hairdos, broad shoulder pads, high heels and flashy jackets. Both in concert and on MTV, the Wilsons were transformed.
"For the videos, we’d get stuffed into these awful outfits — tiny stiletto boots and corsets and bustiers," Nancy Wilson told The Believer in 2007. "Then there’d be all these smoke machines. And a ton of hairspray was involved! It seemed like a fun dress-up party at first, but it got kind of old when we were expected to do it all the time. Ann or I would be like, 'Uh, why don’t we try something different?' And the label would say [faking a deep-throated voice]: 'No, babe! That’s the image that sells, babe! Lick your lips and suck in your cheeks!'
Watch the Video for Heart's 'These Dreams'
"And shooting videos during that period could get pretty ridiculous," she added. "We’d do them in two or three days; and everyone would be on cocaine, especially the director; and no one would sleep, and they’d call you in for your close-up at 6 in the morning." That naturally made for some ridiculous clips: "There's the Girl" in particular is a quasi-futuristic performance video, while "These Dreams" includes fans blowing at the musicians and a heavy-handed symbolic use of water.
"To maintain that sort of an image and do all those videos and try to sustain that through the live shows, it became a parody of itself," Nancy Wilson told Rolling Stone. "It just got to be too much, the whole MTV-ness of it all. At that time, it felt like any kind of progress that women had been making in music was being set back a couple years. People were saying stuff to me like, "Well, if you just put Ann's face on your body, you'd have it all!" And it's like, 'Really?' It was kind of a rude time to be an imperfect girl in the entertainment business."
Watch Heart's 'Nothin' at All' Video
Heart would create one more album using the outside songwriters/radio-friendly formula: 1990's Brigade, which spawned the Mutt Lange-penned mega-hit "All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You." As the '90s progressed, however, the Wilsons decided once and for all to take control of their band and career. The sisters formed an acoustic-leaning side project called the Lovemongers, which put songs at the forefront, and started writing their own music again, starting with 1993's Desire Walks On.
Heart still perform a solid selection of its '80s output — and the Wilsons have come to terms with that era, mainly thanks to hindsight and the passage of time — but are firmly and decisively a rock 'n' roll band once again. Even better, the group still strives to make its saccharine, commercial-sounding '80s era fit better with the rest of its catalog — in a full-circle moment, putting a unique, Heart-shaped stamp on the music.
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