If Looks Could Kill – The Resurrection of Heart

Ann and Nancy-Wilson in 1990

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-chaning industry. With music tastes having changed 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 Meatloaf, Alice Cooper and Aerosmith were now failing to keep up with modern trends, instead losing their audience to new rock stars such as Mötley Crüe. The 1980s would see many artists 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, best known for their 1967 hit Somebody to Love) embracing keyboards and pop under the new moniker Starship, while power ballads became requisite for any rock act hoping to score a Top Ten single. Thus, many veterans who had found themselves struggling to regain their former glories were now forced 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, bassist Steve Fossen and drummer Michael DeRosier had been replaced by Mark Andes and Denny Carmassi, the latter having started out a decade earlier performing with future Van Halen frontman Sammy Hagar in the short-lived Montrose. The core of the group since their early days had been siblings Ann and Nancy Wilson, vocalist and rhythm guitarist, respectively, 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 Wilson 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 of the 1980s was entirely different to that of the previous decade, 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, leaning against a giant spider web. 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.

Ann and Nancy Wilson 1985

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 they recent albums had lacked. 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 for the new decade was finding 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. Thin Lizzy 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.”

Heart would also find Nevison a difficult personality, with Nancy Wilson 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 early 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 co-written 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 over the previous decade.

Nevison would present the band with a slew of songs, some which could fit their style and 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. 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 “Synthesizers, 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, who had received writing credits on their last four studio albums, commencing in 1978 with Dog & Butterfly.

Heart Nothin At All

Vallance, who around that time was enjoying the success of Bryan Adams’ latest album Reckless and the hits that it would produce, 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. Because the vocal in the demo was so wimpy, and I said, ‘Listen, there’s the way it’s gonna be: I am not going to force you to do any song. But also, when you listen to a demo, I don’t want you to listen to somebody’s wimped-out vocal, because you guys are the greatest singers in the enter fuckin’ rock world.'”

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 be 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 he heard it Nevison felt that it should be Nancy who sang it. 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. Although Ann was understandably concerned that another singer may take the spotlight from her, the Wilson sisters have always displayed a strong bond and have shared their success with little ego.

Ironically, Nevison had been offered another Taupin composition, We Built This City, which he had co-written with Peter Wolf, among others, yet Nevison had found the song somewhat ridiculous and had refused, and so was instead given These Dreams, which suited Nancy’s style of singing. We Built This City was instead recorded by Starship (singer Grace Slick contributed backing vocals to What About Love) 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. Nothin’ At All, one of several hit singles to be released from the record, had been written by Mark Mueller, who would later find success with such pop stars as ‘N Sync and Girls Aloud.

Following rehearsals in Seattle, in which songs were developed, rewritten and arranged, 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 Appetite for Destruction by Guns N’ Roses, one of the most acclaimed rock albums of the decade, and their 1991 double albums Use Your Illusion I and II. Among the musicians to make guest appearances during the sessions were Starship co-singer Mickey Thomas, who performed backing vocals on three tracks, Survivor guitarist Frankie Sullivan and Johnny Colla of Huey Lewis and the News. Heart’s eponymous album was released in the summer of 1985, within a week or two after the latest records from Mötley Crüe and Ratt hit the shelves, and would prove to be their first offering since Dog and Butterfly seven years earlier to be awarded multi-Platinum.

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 more tracks that would receive heavy rotation on MTV, Never and Nothin’ At All. 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 ridiculous photo shoots and music videos, a small price to pay, it would seem, for such phenomenal success.

Heart 1987

The reaction to their comeback album had taken everyone by surprise, selling approximately six million copies and landing the group four top ten hit singles. 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 released 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 (one being the classic Never), 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, whose career high points included Madonn’a Like a Virgin, Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors and Eternal Flame by the Bangles.

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 also many criticised the group for not writing many of their own 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’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 also the pressures of MTV and magazines had forced them to revamp their image. 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, helped with the writing of The Night and Fallen from Grace.

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. 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.com 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 new partner was unable to provide. Despite Ann Wilson’s dislike for the lyrics, the success of the song meant that the band would perform it on every date of their next tour.

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,” said Andes in an interview with Kerrang!, 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. As the Brigade tour came to an end, the rising music scene in Heart‘s hometown of Seattle was slowly starting to make waves, although it would be another year before the likes of Nirvana and Soundgarden would become household names. Exhausted and unsure on what direction to take next, the band seemed to stall. “We had fired most of the band after the end of the Brigade tour, and we didn’t want to put together a pick-up group just to perform under that name,” confessed Nancy Wilson in Kicking & Screaming. “We also didn’t want to play as the two of us, because that would have been compared to Heart, too.”

Heart Nancy Wilson 1990

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