Sunday, July 16, 2017

Late '80s Heart: Just Couldn't Leave Those Power Ballads "Alone"

Here's the deal: If you're gonna do a power ballad, you might as well go big. I want to ask a question, in all sincerity: Has anyone ever criticized a power ballad for being ... too powerful? No. No one has ever made such a preposterous statement. It would be like criticizing a swan for being too graceful, a sword for being too sharp, a Bond villain for being too dastardly. It would be absurd.

Well, what if your song's about being alone? Isn't that kind of a ... quiet emotion? Maybe to the outside observer, perhaps, but on the inside, and if you're, I dunno, 16 years old, it's big. It's an emotion so big, it took not one, but two Wilson sisters to fully capture the scope of that pain. Indeed, very few pieces of music have been able to express the sheer magnitude of despair that confronts those in the throes of solitude. Heart's 1987 power ballad, in this regard, may stand (wait for it ...)


Once again, Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly (AKA the "Like A Virgin" guys) secretly scored a ubiquitous '80s #1 hit without anyone noticing who in the hell they were. From Songfacts:
Tom Kelly and I were signed to Epic Records and we made one album under the name i-Ten. It was sort of made out to look like a group, but it was really just the two of us.

We made this album and it was co-produced by Keith Olsen and Steve Lukather. I wasn't really happy with the way it turned out, but it did have some good songs on it. One of the songs on it was 'Alone.' The album was titled Taking A Cold Look. It didn't do much although it has sort of a cult following in Europe.

The most prominent song on it was 'Alone.' Tom and I recorded it for that record and just sort of set it aside when that record didn't succeed ... I just put those songs in a drawer and forgot about them, but then Tom and I were having a good deal of success with 'Like a Virgin' and 'True Colors' and then we heard that Heart was looking for a power ballad and Tom said, 'What about 'Alone'?' I winced and said, 'Oh, I don't really want to look at that song.' He said, 'What do you mean? That's perfect.'

We took the song out and sure enough it was relatively easy to do because we liked everything about the song except the first line of the chorus. The version on i-Ten, the lyric said, 'I always fared well on my own.' Both lyrically and melodically it felt very stiff and unappealing. So I did a minor change on the lyric and it said, 'Til now, I always got by on my own,' and Tom changed the melody and gave it much more movement and almost a slightly R&B feel on the first line of the chorus. That really lifted the chorus, and then all of the sudden I liked the song again.
"I always fared well?" No, no, no. Sometimes it really is the little touches. Could you image, say, "I've been suffering recently from a lack of satisfaction"? Or "There's a lady who I believe is fairly certain that all that glitters is gold"? It's gotta scan right.

The song begins with a piano that initially seems to be alone, although on closer inspection it is paired with what may have been intended to sound like a ticking clock, but perhaps more closely resembles a squeaking shoe. Enter Ann Wilson, seemingly not bothered by the rodent in the studio:
I hear the ticking of the clock
I'm lying here, the room's pitch dark
I wonder where you are tonight
No answer on the telephone

And the night goes by so very slow
Oh I hope that it won't end though
OK, you're thinking, so it's another soft rock ballad a la "These Dreams." That's cool, but where's the rocking Heart of yore? And then BAM.

What I think separates "Alone" from its power ballad peers is that the power totally comes out of nowhere and it's like holy shit where did all that power come from? In the blink of an eye, the song goes from Howard's End to The Crow. At first it seems like Ann is merely taking a pleasant little stroll in the moonlight, but then it turns out she's accompanied by a vast and insatiable army of warlocks and sea serpents and stuff:
Till now I always got by on my own
I never really cared until I met you
And now it chills me to the bone
How do I get you alone?
How do I get you alone?
The best touch is the sudden harmonies added by (I imagine) Nancy and Ann that accompany the line "I never really cared until I met you." It's the way they split across the stereo channel with such precision, like a laser beam refracting. I just want to tell the ungrateful guy she's trying to woo, "Hey, she may look quiet and shy, but underneath, she'll come at you like a coven of feral witches - just give her a chance buddy."

Then the song slips back into sensitive ballad mode. The thing is, if you think too hard about the lyrics of "Alone," you realize that it basically describes an embarrassingly well-worn unrequited love song scenario that's not original or insightful in any way whatsoever. But if you forget about that for a second and just listen to it, you can't help but be touched in your ... you know ... that thing in your chest region?

Then there is the second chorus. Oh man, the second chorus. What's amazing about the second chorus is that the song has already revealed its "I'm going to suddenly go from serene and peaceful to explosive and fiery" gimmick and you figure there's no way it could be as effective the second time around. But it's better. At 1:56, the drummer performs this agonizingly slow, monstrously heavy drum fill that sounds like it's coming from Ringo's evil fairy stepmother. In the first chorus, Ann started singing right off the bat, but this time, there are a couple of extra bars that are merely instrumental, and it creates this unprecedented sense of anticipation. "Where's Ann? Why isn't she singing? Is she hurt? Is she ... dead?" Oh she's alive all right. Here is my best rendering of her soul-piercing battle cry:


And then she sings the chorus. Sit the fuck down.

The rest of the song just sort of rides the inertia from that second chorus all the way to the denouement, although Ann finds one last chance to shine around 3:09 with two jet engine-level cries of "Uh-lowwwwwwwwww-wn-uh!" You can practically smell the burnt fuel residue emanating from her lungs.

So, the video. It begins with some creative staging, as Nancy sits in the foreground playing a grand piano, her hair apparently having been dyed in apricot juice, while Ann, dressed in funereal black, leans on a balcony in the distance. At 0:30 we get a nice close-up of her mascara-smothered visage, but then ten seconds later we get another close-up, and suddenly she's wearing a veil. She's a widow! Dude! She's literally grieving over the death of her fleeting love for some random superficial crush.
But what about the chorus? Something crazy's gotta happen at the chorus, right? Well how about the piano exploding? Oh, and now the rest of the band is on stage and there's an audience with flashing lights and blah blah blah, but honestly: how hard do you have to be playing your '80s power ballad to make your piano explode? Do you think the insurance covered that?

Then at 1:38, the Wilson sisters find themselves in the world's most purple-saturated room. Seriously, what was the conversation like on that set? "Not enough purple! Bob, I wanna see purple bleeding out of my eyeballs!" Where's Barney and Grimace when you need them? And then, then, at 1:54, we have what might very well be the best use of a horse in an '80s music video, full stop. Nancy Wilson, for no apparent reason, is suddenly riding a fucking horse. Hi-Ho Silver, girl, that's what I say. Hi-Ho Silver.

Two final observations: 1) By the end of the video, in half the close-ups of Ann, she's wearing the veil, and in the other half, she's not. Was this a gaffe? Intentional? What does it mean? 2) I love the close-up of Nancy at 3:22 - it's like her post-power ballad sexy satisfaction face. You did it, Heart. You shagged that power ballad harder and longer than anyone had ever shagged a power ballad before. Take a well-deserved nap.

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