Sunday, October 29, 2006

Tina Turner: A retrospective

I'm a new pair of eyes
Every time I am born
An original mind
Because I just died
I'm scanning the horizon
For someone recognizing
That I might have been queen
-- Jennette Obstoj, Rupert Hines, James West Oram, "I Might Have Been Queen"

So opens Tina Turner's Private Dancer (1984). "Let's Stay Together" had already informed some listeners that Tina was back. But what would ultimately be billed as "the biggest comeback since Lazarus" was still under way when Private Dancer was released that summer. "What's Love Got To Do With It" was scaling the charts but had yet to hit number one.

For listeners new to Tina, that first track was going to make or break her. It's a well placed track. Tina's scaling the soundscape on the song that comes off very personal. There's a reason for that personal nature, Rupert Hines had her meet with Obstoj to craft a life story and Tina sang it like it was just that. Track for track, Private Dancer remains one of the strongest CDs of the 80s. The CD release only improved the American version by adding "Help" (top forty UK) to the mix. Ten songs ultimately and the hits included "What's Love Got To Do With It," "Better Be Good To Me," "Show Some Respect," "Private Dancer," and "Let's Stay Together."

An amazing comeback that led to her being crowned the Queen of Rock. Still one of her most talented singers, Tina Turner's albums have never matched that moment again. Largely, they've never come close.

What happened? It's important to remember the chart run included other songs as well. Her first chart hitting collaboration not from Private Dancer was her duet with David Bowie on "Tonight." She performed on U.S.A. for Africa's "We Are The World" (and contributed the pulsating track "Total Control" to the best selling album). She hit the charts with two songs from the soundtrack of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome: "We Don't Need Another Hero" and "One of the Living." She hit via a hard edged duet with Bryan Adams entitled "It's Only Love."
All of that and appearance at Live Aid dueting with Mick Jagger (who ripped off her skirt during "It's Still Rock & Roll") added to the legend, added to the excitement.

Then it got killed. Not because Turner lost the chops. Tina still had the voice, still used it to maxium effect. But the songs?

The first sign of a problem with her follow up to Private Dancer came when a single was released ahead of the album. "Typical Male" was the A-side and a large number of dee jays ignored the designated signal and played the flip side instead, "Don't Turn Around." "Don't Turn Around" would become a mega-hit . . . for another artist (Ace of Bass). It could have been Turner's. It should have been Turner's.

But a deal with the songwriters of "What's Love Got To Do With It" (and the songwriters' own egos) worked to destroy Break Every Rule. First up was "Typical Male" which sailed to number two on the goodwill and interest she'd created. A hideous song that she never the less brings to life, "Typical Male" focuses on a woman's love for a lawyer, "a typical male" whom she begged to tell her "what to do." It didn't reflect anything Turner's music had stood for but it did appear to reflect fear of a strong woman on the part of the writers. Backlash may have given them lyrical 'ideas' but the music was all retread.

It wasn't just that the life had left the songs of Terry Britten and Graham Lyle (their last good moment was "We Don't Need Another Hero"), it was that all their songs sounded similar. An album of "What's Love Got To Do With It" would have made Tina Turner a one hit wonder. The charting of "Show Some Respect" should have underscored that point for everyone involved.

Instead, they were allowed to write the first five songs of Break Every Rule (which Terry Britten also produced as well as the sixth song, a cover of David Bowie's "Girls") and that's really when Tina Turner's recording career ended. Next up on the single release was "Two People" (the most obvious of there musical rewrites of "What's Love Got To Do With It"). While the hideous "Typical Male" had benefitted from being the first release and surprisingly made it to number two, "Two People" was a sign of what was to come as it stalled at number thirty on the Hot 100. No one cared, no one gave a damn, no one wanted to hear that shit.

It's not that Tina sang it badly, she did a wonderful job (note the bridge especially), it's just that it was a useless song about a useless topic and the sort of bland non-statement that could have appeared on sixty albums that year by people you never heard of and never missed.

Their retread of every other dumb song you've heard of ("What You Get Is What You See") was the closest to hard-driving rock and when it became the third single, it actually made it to number 13 and generated a little interest. But "Two People" (and the dopey factor of "What You Get Is What You See") had buried Tina's recording career and it's pretty much stayed there ever since.

Break Every Rule played like Follow Every Rule for the first six songs. Those who could endure the shit up to that point were actually rewarded with the last five songs. "Back Where You Started" was Tina rocking out with the help of writers and producers Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance. It was everything the opening track of Break Every Rule should have been. This was followed with Rupert Hine's "Break Every Rule" which, in terms of image, joined with Brittan and Lyle's songs, but in terms of listenability was actually strong. Mark Knopfler (who'd earlier given Turner "Private Dancer") once again demonstrated he grasped the power of the singer with "Overnight Sensation." "Paradise Is Here" was probably the finest vocal Turner had the album and "I'll Be Thunder" contained more than a nod to her Phil Spector produced masterpiece "River Deep, Mountain High."

But no one cared, no one gave a damn. The shit that Britten and Lyle thought was "genius" killed the interest in the album, killed the interest in her recording career. They really thought, proving what assholes they are, that what the world wanted from Tina Turner was love with a 'typical male.' Did they fear the strong woman?

That's how that shit plays, all five of their weak ass audio doodles posing as songs. Turner was elemental. She was larger than life. (It's what she's always been in concert.) It was as though they were trying to 'domesticate' her -- trying to play Darren to her Samantha. And America didn't want that shit. Tina Turner's comeback included her bestseller I, Tina (as told to Kurt Loder) and her narrative was so well known that when she repeatedly turned down Stephen Spielberg at the Grammys (for The Color Purple) no one held it against her. Everyone grasped what she meant when she said she didn't need to play the role, she'd already lived it.

She was speaking of the years of abuse when she was married to Ike Turner. And that was part of the successful comeback as well. Turner was a survivor. She was also one of the first public faces of someone who survived spousal abuse. While Private Dancer captured that strength, zoomed in on it, highlighted it, Britten and Lyle wrote as though they had Samantha Fox in the studio. Instead of existing to showcase Tina Turner, Break Every Rule existed to highlight Britten and Lyle and, if you wonder why you don't hear from them now on the charts, there's a reason. (Most don't wonder, they're just grateful.)

Along with not including "Don't Turn Around" on the album and instead making it a showcase for the weak 'writing' talents of stooges, there was no Holly Knight song. Knight, Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn had penned "Better Be Good To Me," a powerhouse on Private Dancer. Knight, over the years, had written or co-written many hits including Pat Benatar's "Love Is a Battlefield" and "Invincible," Heart's "Never" and "There's The Girl," Animotion's "Obsession," and, for Tina at that point, "Better Be Good To Me" and "One of the Living." Knight knew how to tap into Turner's image and craft a song to it.

Even after the first three singles killed all interest in Break Every Rule, a Knight song on the album could have turned the tide. Break Every Rule entered the charts at number six on the goodwill all that had come before created. It began tanking quickly. (If you follow the week to week, you can trace the release life of "Two People" by how low the album dips each week.)

Next up was, Tina Live In Europe, a double disc live set that should have explained the career problem just from the audience reaction. They're going wild when she covers "Addicted To Love" and they're much more reserved during "Two People." The Britten and Lyle crap didn't go over.

Which may be why the next album wasn't a showcase for their doodles? Foreign Affair was an attempt to get back on track (1989) and you could hear the desperation with each listen. What was the magic formula? What was the answer?

One answer was bringing back Holly Knight (Knight's "The Best" would rise to number six on the Hot 100 and become an 'evergreen' for Turner). It's the sort of anthem that was missing from Break Every Rule. Also strong was the work of Robert Cray on "Steamy Windows" which promised more than the album ever delivered. "The Best" was one of those songs that never burnt out for radio. It played long after its chart life and just when you thought it was finally gone, it was back in rotation. No song from Break Every Rule managed that feat.

It could have been a resurgence for Turner. The song had a built in good will factor and was popular with lovers and sports fans. ("You're simply the best, better than all the rest, better than anyone . . .") But someone decided that "I Don't Want To Fight" was the answer for a theme song to the film What's Love Got To Do With It (based on the book I, Tina). The big scene in the movie is when Angela Bassett's Turner doesn't back down to Laurence Fishburne's Ike in the limo and fights back. Of interest, for ticket buyers, was the stunning comeback and the abuse. "I Don't Want To Fight" as the theme to this film?

After some dopey end rhymes and useless imagery in the first verse, the chorus comes up:

I don't care who's wrong or right
I don't really want to fight no more
Too much talking, babe
Let's sleep on it tonight
I don't really want to fight no more
Because it's time for letting go.

That's a song of survival? That's a song of a woman who's been battered? "Too much talking, babe"? Did the writers (Steve DuBerry, Lulu and Billy Lawrie) know one thing about Turner's life story? The defense offered on the song was that it reflected Turner's outlook when the film was being made. Considering that the film ends in 1984, her outlook in 1993 was besides the point.

More importantly, she comes off like a whiney little thing in the tiny little song. "Let's sleep on it tonight." 'Empowering' advice? We doubt it's being distributed at women's shelters across the country.

Next up was Wildest Dreams (1996). The big hit, in the US, was "In Your Wildest Dreams" which found Turner teaming with Barry White on a Holly Knight and Mike Chapman song. But Terry Britten and Graham Lyle are back for more dopey nonsense. "Do What You Do" is an attempt at rock that finds Tina Turner in the cornfields of Richard Marx. "Something Beautiful Remains" is destroyed the moment Britten tries to harmonize with Turner in the opening notes. (Listen closely if you've ever wondered what it would sound like if Tina Turner shared a mike with E.T.) The song lacks a riff (the telegraph sound appears to be someone's idea of a riff) and the lyrics ("as one day ends, a new day must begin") would make the writers at Hallmark blush.

While the bulk of the songs seem to have no idea what Turner's image is, Hanes did. They promoted this album and the tour with "Resilience: It's all about strength and beauty." It's a shame 'song crafters' couldn't realize what marketers did.

As the 90s wound down, Tina did a commercial for Target where she performed Prince's "Baby, I'm a Star." She sang it with all the conviction she possed (considerable) and it was enough to get people excited about Twenty Four Seven (1998). Those who purchased the CD had several disappointments. First up was the fact that the Prince cover wasn't on the album. Equally tragic, Terry Britten produced (and co-wrote) two songs. It was as though, back in the sixties, Mick and Keith decided to leave behind "Satisfaction" and 'tackle' "Daydream Believer."

Britten's not the only offender. The second song showcases dopey lyrics and really tacky wow-wow effect (at times, the music sounds like it's the soundtrack to a porn flick). "All The Woman" robs the excitement even before the casual listener grasps that, unlike Johnny Douglas and Paul Wilson, they know winds blow, not "the waters." Determined to sink the album, Terry Britten offers his producing and songwriting 'talents' on track four -- "Absolutely Nothing's Changed." Certainly not the fact that he's never grasped what listeners respond to in Tina Turner. This generic song sounds as though it's been recorded ahead of time for Sister Act IX.

Which is really too bad because the album offered two strong songs. "Whatever You Need" was probably the best single Turner had since "The Best." The bigger hit for the album was "When The Heartache Is Over" which found Turner trying to attempt the Cher Does Disco Comeback that was "Believe." It actually works and that's due to the power chorus, Turner's vocals and the fact that someone involved in writing the song (Brian Rawling and Mark Taylor) grasped that Turner is a survivor ("I can live without you/ I know that I can live without you"). Sadly, Britten shows up for the final track, the hideous "Twenty Four Seven" which appears to combine swing with surf music to ensure that the disc leaves a nasty after taste.

Turner's one of the most successful live performers (in terms of audience reaction as well as box office). Not just one of the most succesful females, one of the most successful across the board -- regardless of gender or race. That's because of what she brings to the stage and what she showcases. Her concerts usually include a few rock covers. Prior to recording Private Dancer, it was common to sit through a Turner concert and hear Prince ("Let's Pretend We're Married") and assorted others. Coming off all those years of club performances of solid songs she'd selected to bring to life, Private Dancer emerged. The tours since have continued to offer covers. They've also required too much Britten (and Lyle).

A lion roars. Britten and Lyle destroyed Turner's recording career by attempting to make a lion purr. Chart success is always difficult for women. They rarely enjoy the lengthy stays that male performers do. They also have to worry about appearances in a way that a Bob Dylan never has to. So Turner was going to hit a cold streak on the charts regardless of what she recorded. But it's equally true that the songs offered by Britten and Lyle (and Britten solo) seemed to be far removed from her strength and what she represented.

Had it been only a song or two, one might think they were attempted to show how versatile Tuner was. "She's not just strong! She's not just a survivor! She has a tender side!" Instead, looking at the bulk of weak ass, shitty songs they've anchored her with over the years, it strikes us as they have no respect for what she stands for and were bound and determined to weaken the charts' Wonder Woman.

As Turner flirts with another album, she should remember what made Private Dancer -- strength, power. There will always be a dozen weak sisters waiting in the wings. Let them sing-song about a 'typical male'; let them offer the generic. Don't waste a considerable talent breathing life into still-born songs. Dance around to the Stones A Bigger Bang. Think about bringing "Let Me Down Slow" or "Rough Justice" to life (on the latter, replace "you" with "I" in the first two lines, and make a similar swap in lines four and five and the song has Tina Turner written all over it). Remind us all of what you have to offer.
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