Alive, She Cried! The Ten Greatest Women in Music Today (part two)

Yesterday, to celebrate 2018 International Women’s Day I kicked off the first half of this article, featuring Annie Lennox, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Pretenders mainstay Chrissie Hynde and Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry.

Welcome back. Pull up a chair and join us as we count down the remaining quintet, starting with a mother of five who turns 74 this month. Go, girl.

6. Diana Ross 

“If you need me, call me.”

It’s a little known fact that Dusty Springfield effectively introduced Motown to Great Britain. In March 1965 the Tamla-Motown Revue – featuring The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and Stevie Wonder – toured the UK for the first time.

Hard as it is to believe now, the Revue had a difficult time filling the theatres. Dusty, a huge fan of black American soul and R&B, wanted to help promote the Detroit musicians to a wider British audience, and convinced the British pop show Ready Steady Go! to devote an entire episode to them, which she was more than happy to host.

On the Sound of Motown bill were three young girls from a Detroit housing project with pop appeal and rock ‘n’ roll attitude. Although The Supremes had scored a British chart-topper with the sugar coated Baby Love in 1964 – and a No.3 with their first UK hit, the immortal Where Did Our Love Go – this was the first time many music lovers had an opportunity to see the trio on commercial television. The Brits, naturally, were wowed.

The Supremes would go on to become the most successful and influential girl group and American act of the 1960s, and lead singer Diana Ross, in a central role between Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, was the primary reason. A waif-like beauty with a honeyed, breathy voice and big telly-ready eyes, Ross cooed lyrics of love, loss and hope on an unprecedented string of US No.1 hits between ’64 and ’67.

The songs, including Stop! In the Name of Love, You Can’t Hurry Love and You Keep Me Hangin’ On (later released by Kim Wilde 20 years and a day after the original) were a consistent salve for a country reeling from assassinations, war and political strife, becoming staples on radio dials for decades to come and putting Ross in millions of living rooms the world over. 

She wound up influencing not just generations of African-American singers with her grace, elegance, style and flair, but also rock musicians of the punk, garage and new-wave eras as well. Eclipsed only by The Beatles in terms of sales, The Supremes were so huge by 1967’s psychedelic-tinged Reflections (one of the first hits to feature the relatively new use of synthesizers) that Motown chief Berry Gordy changed their name to Diana Ross and the Supremes. After the trio’s 12th and final Billboard No.1, Someday We’ll Be Together, Diana launched a solo career.

Ross would go on to find more success as an actress (scoring an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues) and became the unwitting inspiration behind Michael Jackson’s plastic surgery remodelling, but it’s her five decade longevity as a solo artist that really impresses. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough? Ow! Surrender? Gladly. Touch Me In The Morning? Yeah, maybe.

Do You Know Where You’re Going To?, the theme from the Mahogany movie in which she had the starring role, and her next US chart-topper, the propulsive, dance-driven and hugely influential Love Hangover (1976), were featured on the singer’s 1976 album titled simply Diana Ross (actually the second LP to go by that name). By this time Ross, inspired by Donna Summer’s breakthrough Love To Love You Baby, had reinvented herself as a dazzling disco diva. Later covered by Scottish new wave duo the Associates, Love Hangover also happens to be one of Siouxsie Sioux’s favourite songs:

“This highlights one of the biggest misnomers of the punk scene. There we were seeing the Sex Pistols in London, but the backdrop to that was down at the disco. We were at Bang’s at Centrepoint, a gay night, and everyone was dancing madly and this track came on and just caught up with all the energy and fun. I love that line: ‘If there’s a cure for this I don’t want it.’ I love the build-up. It starts really slow and sexy, like waking up in the morning, then it builds up to this tremendous hook of a bass line and the rhythm has the momentum of a steam train gathering speed. It’s fabulous.”

A cascade of other funky floor-fillers followed, including The Boss and It’s My House, and then a tremendous triumvirate of Chic-produced stormers: Upside Down, I’m Coming Out and My Old Piano. Whilst that tasty trio were considerable hits in Britain, the album they were taken from, 1980’s Diana, remains her only UK LP to spawn three Top 20 singles, and may be her last truly classic long-player.

Despite countless packed out arena tours and Diana becoming one of the first working artists to be accorded legendary status, the Brits only ever propelled her to the top three times: once with The Supremes’ Baby Love and then a couple of solo songs that, strangely, did next to nothing in her homeland – 1971’s pretty but maudlin I’m Still Waiting and then 15 years later, the brilliant Bee Gees-helmed Chain Reaction. Despite the Gibbs’ saucy lyrics, a more uplifting Motown pastiche you’d be hard pushed to find. 

Of course it’s her Motown catalogue that endures as Ross’s greatest legacy. Diana & Marvin, her 1973 collaboration with her Detroit compatriot Gaye, is one of the earliest examples of a duets album, and certainly among her most under-rated works.

Though it’s Endless Love, 1981’s syrupy pairing with Lionel Richie that gave Ross the biggest international hit of her career. Almost five decades old, Diana’s debut solo single Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand) remains a staple in her immaculate live shows, and is still her finest message track.

Diana Ross has been touching people and trailblazing for 55 years. Billboard magazine named her the Entertainer of the Century, but whatever the century she remains a truly inspirational icon for our times. The very essence of fabulous, the true definition of a star, Ross is boss.

Alive — 1989, 1991 (London); 2015, 2018 (Las Vegas, Nevada)

7. Grace Jones 

“Feeling like a woman, looking like a man.”

And now ladies and gentlemen, here’s Grace! Born in Spanish Town, Jamaica, Grace Jones was probably the most significant artist to emerge from New York City’s hedonistic habituée, the Studio 54 disco scene of the late 1970s. I mean, once you’ve seen or heard Grace it’s nigh on impossible to forget her, right? 

Singer, songwriter, actress, model, style icon, Bond Girl, controversial trailblazer; and if I can paraphrase Bryan Ferry, who originally wrote Grace’s minor hit Love Is The Drug for his band Roxy Music, she’s the fiercest queen I’ve even seen.

Larger than life and twice as funky, Grace Jones movie career started with small roles in blaxploitation flick Gordon’s War (1973) and an uncomfortable cameo in the unwatchable French sex comedy Attention les yeux! three years later. But it was in the modelling industry, not music or movies where she first made her name. With a brash confidence and subversive bravado, she’d moved to Paris in 1970.

The French fashion scene was surprisingly receptive to Jones’ unusual, androgynous appearance, and it wasn’t long before she was ripping up the system and appearing on the covers of prestigious fashion publications Stern, Elle and Vogue, effectively acquiring the status of the world’s first black supermodel before the phrase was coined, and several years David Bowie’s widow, Iman lay claim to that fame.

Grace evolved into a recording artist with Island Records, first with a trio of perfunctory disco albums that operated around the camper end of the spectrum (I Need A Man! Do Or Die!) under the stewardship of Tom Moulton, godfather of the dance mix.

But it wasn’t until the 1980s that her music and movie career really soared. With anti-disco sentiment spreading, Island boss Chris Blackwell teamed Jones with Sly & Robbie’s new progressive-sounding urban outfit the Compass Point All Stars, which helped her transition into a new wave meets old reggae style.

They delivered a distinct and innovative art-pop hybrid based around Blackwell’s vision of a “rhythmic reggae bottom, aggressive rock guitar, atmospheric keyboards in the middle, and Grace on top.” The resulting triptych of Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing and Living My Life received mixed reviews at the time but are today viewed as seminal works.

1980’s Warm Leatherette boasted material by The Normal (the dystopian proto-industrial title track), Tom Petty (the Heartbreakers’ bluesy slowburner, Breakdown) and a sauntering version of Smokey Robinson’s The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game a good couple if years before Blondie covered it. Earlier the same year the pulsing, percussive Private Life had been included on the Pretenders’ album debut. Jones effortlessly made it her own, and made it her first hit single in the process.

In the liner notes to Island’s 1998 compilation Private Life: The Compass Point Sessions, the song’s author, Chrissie Hynde, conceded it was the cover what won it: “Like all the other London punks, I wanted to do reggae, and I wrote Private Life. When I first heard Grace’s version I thought ‘Now that’s how it’s supposed to sound!’ In fact it was one of the high points of my career – what with Sly and Robbie being the masters, and Grace Jones with her scorching delivery.”

Upon its release, Leatherette failed to charm either radio audiences or most dance clubs; it was too authentically reggae for the New Wave crowd, too slow for disco. But by the following year, both alternative radio and the club scene had grown eclectic. Primed by kindred punk-funk blasts like Yoko Ono’s Walking on Thin Ice, a far more open-minded dance music world was ready to re-embrace Jones and her new sound.

A high watermark for its maker, a cultural milestone, an ears-and-eyes-opening clash of genres, gender and fashion, the rhythmically stronger Nightclubbing (1981) provided Jones with newfound popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, and where all Blackwell and Jones’s ideas coalesced into perfection. Nightclubbing is such a beautiful and strange record, with its echoes of dub, disco, funk, rock and Argentinian tango. Like all great records, it feels almost reductive to speak of it in terms of genre. Contained within it is a universe of rhythm, craft, feel and melody.

Covered the previous year on The Human League’s Holiday ’80 EP, the surrealist synthpop meets dub title track comes courtesy of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, from the latter’s pioneering 1977 album, The Idiot. It’s still a highlight nearly 40 years later, with Grace often opening her live shows with the song as she’s lowered menacingly on a crane. Elsewhere, the post-punk thrash of Demolition Man was a new song courtesy of Sting (though he had The Police record it later that year), while Bill Withers’ Use Me, robotically refashioned as electro-Caribbean minimalism, is exactly what a cover version should be; honouring the strengths of the original while taking possession of it as if it were her own work. A love song for power bottoms everywhere.

The haunting beauty of the accordion-led I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango) and the peerless Pull Up To The Bumper were Nightclubbing’s most successful singles, despite the latter’s the slinky skank being initially banned in the United States for equating cars with carnality: “Pull up to my bumper baby, in your long black limousine.” “Grease it, spray it, let me lubricate it,” she drawled, with strangely erotic candour.

The delicious deviancy of the lyrics was revolutionary because they were smart, risky, and intriguingly gender inclusive, just like Jones herself. Across the pond, the jam-packed nudge-fudge lyrics seemed to strike a chord with the British public, who made it her biggest selling 45 before a new virus began to complicate that kind of fun.

And well, that cover. Black, blue (it even has its own title: Blue-Black in Black on Brown), cropped into angles that would actually cut you if you got any closer. The Armani suit, that cigarette, hanging there. The genuine ‘don’t fuck with me’ article. Terrifying and entrancing at the same time. In pop music, it takes a lot of effort to look effortless, yet in Grace Jean-Paul Goude, her mentor and one-time partner, had very little to do really. You look at that iconic image as the point where you can trace the likes of Annie Lennox, Madonna, Lady Gaga, MIA, Lorde… so many female artists who have emerged in the last 37 years have elements of Nightclubbing, and Grace Jones in general, in their DNA.

By the release of the defiant Living My Life in 1982 (key track: the percolating My Jamaican Guy, later sampled by acts from La Roux to LL Cool J), AIDS, Reaganomics and Thatcherism were striking down vast swathes of Jones’ core audience, and the freedoms of the previous decade shifted to contractions. Jones’ singular appearance and meticulously crafted presentation made her a natural fit for the burgeoning music video medium.

She asserted herself as an astute visual artist with the groundbreaking VHS release, A One Man Show. Staged and directed by Goude, and nominated in 1984 for the first Best Long Form Music Video Grammy, it combined still photography, concert footage, and video clips to distill the pair’s simultaneously sensational and intimate collaborations into a heated, unbroken montage.

Jones donned pointedly geometric designs that accentuated her angles while clad in screaming Pop-Art colours that flashed and flattered. Goude’s art direction came alive through Jones, who glared at the camera as if possessed; she was imposing, alien, almighty—it’s hardly surprising she would soon be stealing scenes from Arnold Schwarzenegger in films like Conan The Destroyer. This was a woman who made things happen by the sheer magnitude of her presence. 

The mid 1980s saw Jones hit the peak of her popularity, several years after bitch-slapping the BBC’s interminable Russell Harty on his early evening gabfest. Sleek like a panther and just as untameable, with an impressive, athletic physique and that beguiling stare, she was often typecast as the savage warrior cum vampy villainess, and thus in 1985 she was seen on the big screen opposite Roger Moore as May Day, the Eiffel Tower-parachuting Bond baddie in the lacklustre 007 caper A View To A Kill… and scored her most celebrated composition in Slave To Rhythm. Trevor Horn’s production work was ornate and opulent, lurid and symphonic. It’s arguably Grace’s signature song, which is all the more disconcerting when you realise Horn had intended it for his protégées Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

The spell cast by this bolder than bold black woman with that bulletproof veneer singing both metaphorically and directly about slavery was profound; the lyrics coaxed infinite interpretations. The FaceEngland’s authority on all things hip—declared it the single of ’85, and Jones appeared on the magazine’s January 1986 cover painted in whiteface. From the pure gloss of its ambition to the obsessiveness of its lyric, Slave To The Rhythm is the ’80s.

Despite the exalted reputation of both song and artist, Slave underscored how Jones’ incandescence and iconoclastic status made her bigger than her sales figures might indicate. She’s never achieved a Top Ten single in the US or UK, though on the back of Slave To The Rhythm’s success in Britain the compilation Island Life did reach fourth place on the album chart.

Opening with the definitive version of Edith Piaf’s heartbreak anthem La Vie En Rose, it was the first Grace record I bought, and in many ways is the ultimate Grace Jones album. In the wake of the LP’s success Britain, Pull Up To The Bumper and La Vie En Rose were reissued as a double A-side single, equalling Slave’s No.12 peak.

The notorious artwork on the cover of Island Life was another Jones/Goude collaboration, entailed Nigger Arabesque; originally published in New York magazine in 1978, and used as a backdrop for La Vie En Rose’s original promo video.

Often described as one of pop culture’s most famous photographs, the body position that Grace is assuming is anatomically impossible, though that didn’t stop Nicki Minaj parodying it in her 2011 music video for Stupid Hoe. It features Jones’ celestial body in a montage of separate images, following Goude’s ideas on creating credible illusions with his cut-and-paint technique.

Inside Story (1987) and Bulletproof Heart (1989) followed on EMI/Capitol, but without the Island team behind her the material was far from perfect. Throughout the ’90s, rumours of new albums surfaced; Blackwell recorded several sessions, so did Tricky. Even Tom Moulton buried the hatchet for a 1997 house remake of Candi Staton’s Victim, but her label nixed its release on conceptual grounds: They thought Grace Jones couldn’t be a victim of anything. 2008’s warmly-received Hurricane is her sensu stricto solitary post-1980s long-player.

By then Grace Jones, shorn of the spectacular filigree of her Goude years, reinvented herself yet again as a formidable live act on the world stage. Her brilliantly avant-garde and highly theatrical shows have become legendary, and unsurprisingly, just as energetic, bewitching and commanding as you could ever hope for.

Amazingly, Grace will turn 70 in May, still pushing buttons, still wildly unpredictable, still that the Harty-beating, car-swallowing creature. She recently released a candid autobiography, amusingly titled I’ll Never Write My Memoirs (it’s actually the opening lyric from Nightclubbing’s self-penned Art Groupie), which took this generation’s pop tarts to task for not challenging the status quo. Even now, her transgressive charisma remains strong. More of the same has never been on the table for Miss Grace Jones. She’d more likely eat the table.

Alive — 1992, 2004 (Produced By Trevor Horn: Slaves To The Rhythm) 2008, 2009, 2014 (all London)

8. Kate Bush

“This woman’s work. This woman’s world. It’s hard on the man.”

It goes without saying, Kate Bush is a complete original, an absolute one-off. In an outstanding career marked by theatrical sensuality, textural experimentation, and allusive subject matter, she’s probably the truest definition of an art-rock prodigy Britain has ever produced.

Bush was born to an artistic family headed by an English medical doctor and an Irish mother in Bexleyheath, where the historic county of Kent meets outer London, Raised in their farmhouse in East Wickham, from a young age, she established her own identity. When she got bored of her given name of Catherine, she adopted the nickname that would stick with her for life. 

A precocious child, Kate began playing the piano and violin at the age of 11 and had been writing her own songs for a good couple of years when family friends told Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour about the 16-year-old’s four-octave range and kooky compositions. He was intrigued by her raw talent, and funded a professional demo tape that ultimately led to her being signed by EMI Records in 1976, when she was just 18 and still studying for her A levels at the local Catholic girls’ school.

Because of her young age and developing talent, she spent the next two years studying music, dance and mime (the latter with Bowie’s eternal mentor Lindsay Kemp) and composing the songs for her first album, though the haunting The Man with the Child in his Eyes was reputedly written when she was just 13. She met bassist and engineer Del Palmer in 1977 and they began a romantic and musical partnership that continued until the 1990s. Testing the water, they played the London pub circuit under the moniker the KT Bush Band, their live sets including material that would appear on Kate’s first album.

That album, The Kick Inside was preceded by the release of Wuthering Heights in January 1978. One of the most audacious and memorable debut singles of all time, the track was the first No.1 single in the UK to be self-penned by a female artist. Amid a landscape of punk and disco, its high keening vocals, florid instrumentation, and literary affectations crackled over airwaves from Aberdeen to Aberystwyth like an alien radio transmission beamed out to an unsuspecting planet.

Bush was an unmistakably singular presence, with her long flowing locks, feline voice, and flouncy fabrics transcending everything around her. Her life would never be the same again. “It was extraordinary how everything changed. It happened, it was instant. It was frightening,” she said. Kate Bush quickly became the female artist all other singer-songwriters since have been measured by.

Capitalising on her early success with another album, Lionheart, the same year, Kate embarked on a series of concerts in Europe, the so-called Tour of Life. She was a mere slip of a 20-year-old presenting a groundbreaking combination of music, mime, dance and theatre in a leotard. Melody Maker hailed it “the most magnificent spectacle ever encountered in the world of rock”.

Her innovative and highly theatrical performances were more like those of David Bowie than the female singer-songwriters chained to their instruments at the time. The petite and seemingly childlike Bush both pirouetted and prowled around the stage, singing about sticky female sensuality, gothic fantasies and violent emotions. It was a heady mix of innocence and precocious experience that ensnared her male fans and spoke to women everywhere. The punishing performance schedule and the death of a crew member shattered the singer, however, and she wouldn’t stage anything again for 35 long years.

Bush’s third set, 1980’s Never For Ever, was the first ever long-player by a British female solo artist to top the UK album chart. Bolstered by a triumvirate of memorable hits – Breathing, Babooshka, and Army Dreamers — possibly the greatest, certainly the most subtle, anti-war song of them all – it was also the first LP by any female solo artist to enter the chart at No.1. 

The 1981 single Sat In Your Lap, an avant-pop stampede of burbling Afro-beats and an astonishingly precise vocal imitation of Lodger-era Bowie histrionics, heralded an altogether more bonkers Bush. A trailer for the following year’s The Dreaming, which saw the singer exerting an even greater control over her output, the LP would be her first self-produced opus, though the original plan was actually to use Lodger’s producer, Tony Visconti. Gone was the damsel in distress with the floral headdresses and adagio dance moves, the fourth album instead delivered us a new Kate – an almighty, animalistic, Amazonian force of a woman singing abstractly about Australian Aboriginals, bank robbers and Houdini. In the quirky promo for the album’s title track Kate even does her best Bowie impersonation, which is a lot easier when you’ve purloined his spaceman costume from the Ashes To Ashes video. Take a gander.

A known perfectionist, by now Bush came to regard the studio as an instrument, and began constructing her own state-of-the art set-up in her home. Equipped with the latest Fairlight synthesizer, the early Eighties saw her recordings become more textural, more layered and complex, evincing a range of influences and styles, from Celtic, Middle Eastern and European folk music, and a mastery of rock and pop idioms.

After a three-year lay-off, the glacial Running Up That Hill (a Deal with God), announced her return. A thing of pristine beauty, it was Kate’s biggest hit in the US (OK, her only hit on the US), and the lead single from her landmark Hounds of Love, an epic, epochal moment in time which knocked Madonna’s lewd and rude Like A Virgin from the top spot — not once, but twice! — and remains Bush’s biggest selling album worldwide, buoyed by three further hits, the title track, The Big Sky and the climatologic climactic Cloudbusting, which was later sampled by the Utah Saints, giving them their two biggest hits of their career. 1986’s Don’t Give Up, her marvellously melancholic duet with Peter Gabriel, gave Bush her fifth hit in little more than a year.

Opening with the celebratory ringing of bells, 1989’s The Sensual World presented an easier audience with a more grown-up woman than the one who left them with 1986’s The Whole Story collection. Undoubtedly her most ‘feminine’ and intimate work, the set takes you on a personal train ride of Kate’s emotions, in song-form. The album beams with a carefree spirit of strength and independence as the artist ruminates on love, loss, sex and relationships with people and inanimate objects.

The spookily prophetic Deeper Understanding predicted just how attached to our computers we’d become, speaking of the isolation found in living life through a PC screen after being seemingly betrayed by humanity. (“As people grow colder, I turn to my computer. And spend my evenings with it like a friend.”). That a critic once criticised the song by asking, What’s wrong with spending evenings on a computer, anyway? demonstrates that her fears may well be true. Revisiting this song on 2011’s Directors Cut ‘remake, remodel’ collection is simply apropos, but she did it anyway, making it the first time Bush released one of her old songs as a single.

Kate played nearly three-quarters of the instruments used on The Sensual World, which would be impressive in itself, even without the stellar execution, though she augmented Love And Anger with some blistering guitar chops from her musical mentor and cohort, David Gilmour. In 1990 the track hit No.1 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart, becoming her only single to top any US chart.

Bush characterised The Sensual World as containing the most positive female energy in her work to date. Relating Hounds of Love to The Sensual World, she stated, “It was important for me to get across the sense of power in the songs that I’d associated with male energy and music. But I didn’t feel that this time, and I was very much wanting to express myself as a woman in my music rather than as a woman wanting to sound as powerful as a man.”

The James Joyce’s Ulysses-quoting title track (renamed Flower Of The Mountain on Director’s Cut) certainly embraces Kate’s sentiment, but nowhere is this attitude more apparent than the album’s original closing track, the endlessly moving and much covered This Woman’s Work, originally written for the John Hughes film She’s Having a Baby. One of Bush’s most beautiful songs, 20 years later she re-recorded the whole thing, reducing it to simply her voice and a piano.

Kate returned in 1993 with the eclectic if over-engineered The Red Shoes, its title taken from the 1948 Michael Powell film about a young ballerina. Accompanying the album, the artist, who had long been directing her own evocative videos, wrote, directed, and co-starred in her own 50-minute movie with performance artist-mime mentor Lindsay Kemp and the actress Miranda Richardson. It’s a release fuelled by drama, heartbreak, and a whole lot of skunk. During the making of the album Kate’s mother died and she ended her relationship with Del Palmer, though he continues to contribute to her recorded output, right up to 2011’s wintry wonder, 50 Words For Snow.

Only Kraftwerk and Bush’s erstwhile collaborator Peter Gabriel seem quite as tardy in coming up with new material. After a decade-long hiatus, where she performed trifling personal tasks like getting married and having a baby, Kate returned with the double album, Aerial, a work featuring a range of material from lavish ballads to undulating dreamscapes. Ambitious but flawed as all great doubles are, just one single was extracted from it, the evocative Elvis Presley-aping King Of The Mountain.

From heights to mountains and back to hills again, Kate’s most recent recording work was a remixed Running Up That Hill for the London 2012 Olympics. Boasting a new vocal track, the single crashed straight into the UK charts at No.6; the groundswell of support setting the scene for her miraculous, headline-grabbing live comeback in 2014. The bulk of Before The Dawn, a 22-date residency at London’s Hammersmith Apollo, comprised of the entire second side of Hounds of Love, the masterful song suite The Ninth Wave, plus the complete A Sky of Honey, Aerial’s second disc. Although the show was filmed, to date the only visual release has been the promo And Dream of Sheep.

“The Ninth Wave was a film, that’s how I thought of it. It’s the idea of this person being in the water, how they’ve got there, we don’t know. But the idea is that they’ve been on a ship and they’ve been washed over the side so they’re alone in this water. And I find that horrific imagery, the thought of being completely alone in all this water. And they’ve got a life jacket with a little light so that if anyone should be traveling at night they’ll see the light and know they’re there. And they’re absolutely terrified, and they’re completely alone at the mercy of their imagination, which again I personally find such a terrifying thing, the power of ones own imagination being let loose on something like that. And the idea that they’ve got it in their head that they mustn’t fall asleep, because if you fall asleep when you’re in the water, I’ve heard that you roll over and so you drown, so they’re trying to keep themselves awake.”

Thanks to the hardly surprising hoo-ha surrounding Before The Dawn, Kate became the first woman to have eight albums in the Top 40 simultaneously. Indeed, at the end of that August every one of her eleven (11!) albums made an reappearance in the Top 50, a pretty staggering achievement for a living artist. She’s also the only woman to have top-five albums in the UK charts in five successive decades, from the 1970s to the 2010s. 

“To me, Kate Bush will always represent the age of exploring your sexuality, when you change from a girl to a woman,” says Björk. “I guess that’s what I found fascinating about Kate: she totally stuck out.” But the real Kate Bush was, and remains, an enigma. “There is a figure that is adored,” she has said. “But I’d question very strongly that it’s me.” Experimental, eccentric, idiosyncratic, incredibly influential: it’s forty years since Kate captivated the world, singing and swirling like the magnetic, witchy force of nature she was born to be. And we’ve been under her spell ever since.

Alive — 2014 (London)

9. Siouxsie Sioux 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BfBXgXsT8yA

“From the cradle bars, comes a beckoning voice.”

As the Sex Pistols’ reputation spread throughout Britain during 1976, so did that of their most flamboyant followers. Among the first to take up the cause of the burgeoning punk band were the so-called Bromley Contingent; a loose ensemble of outrageously attired suburban misfits from the outer fringes of south-east London. Music and fashion-obsessed, the late teens revelled in the affected alienation and otherness they’d learned from glam acts such as David Bowie and Roxy Music.

Sometimes feared, though more often regarded with envy and suspicion, the notorious fashionistas, who included William Broad (the soon to be Billy Idol), Susan Ballion and Steven Bailey among their number, were mythologised in the music press to such an extent that Melody Maker named them Group Of The Year in their Christmas round-up. 

The first stirrings of camaraderie among the decadents of north Kent had come on September 20, 1975, when Bromley-based peacock Bailey (the soon to be Steven Severin) met 18-year-old Ballion, an Emma Peel-inspired fantasist from nearby Chislehurst, during the intermission at Roxy Music’s Siren show at Wembley Arena. The common currency was clothes. An early innovator, she developed her own fashion-forward style of goth and bondage attire and evolved into the priestess of punk, Siouxsie Sioux. 

With their initial line up featuring future Sex Pistol Sid Vicious and Marco Pirroni, Adam Ant’s constant collaborator through the ‘80s and ‘90s, Siouxsie And The Banshees, the band that sprang from the belly of the Contingent, debuted in the autumn of ’76 at the legendary 100 Club Punk Special in London’s Oxford Street, where their entire set consisted of a savage, 20-minute rendition of The Lord’s Prayer. 

The band rapidly evolved to create a form of post-punk discord full of daring rhythmic and sonic experimentation, and in 1978 they released the stunning Hong Kong Garden single, a taster from their grim, dissonant debut album The Scream. It wasn’t long before the band had eclipsed the Sex Pistols and their third-rate imitators with a look and sound that echoed the defiant elitism that brought them to notice in the first place.

Though she couldn’t yet play an instrument, her dramatic voice, punk spirit and raw confidence made her a star, and the Banshees were her vehicle for dark and fearsome theatrical expression. With that stern painted visage and Boadicean air of uncompromising attack, Sioux had a ferocity few dared trifle with.

The Banshees’ sound always was a unique one, and once Budgie arrived from The Slits as drummer and Magazine’s John McGeoch took over guitar duties in 1980, the Banshees found a new direction with the more melodic Happy House and that fragrant strawberry girl Christine; a favourite of U2, however incongruous that sounds. But ultimately Siouxsie never fitted anyone else’s conception.

From early ‘80s classics like Arabian Knights and Spellbound, to coruscating gothic splendour (the coruscating Cities in Dust) and the sophisticated and seductive pairing of Face To Face (from Batman Returns) and Kiss Them For Me, their only Top 40 hit Stateside.

Not to mention later artful experiments like the innovative and contagious Peek-A-Boo, arguably their cleverest track, all of which demonstrate how Siouxsie & The Banshees admirably stuck to their own ideals and sounds.

Her most memorable hit was Dear Prudence, which started out as a delicate and somewhat under-developed John Lennon number on the Fab Four’s hegemonic White Album, a prime influence on the Banshees. “The Beatles got slated for it when it was released – it was unbelievable – but there’s just something about that record,” said the Sioux, armpits au naturel.

On their version, Siouxsie is a siren bewitched, luring us through the swirling mist, while the psychedelic guitar (played by Robert Smith, on extended loan from The Cure) twists like a helter-skelter in a vortex.

In October 1983, as the Thatcher government sent Cruise missiles to Greenham Common and industrial unrest loomed, Dear Prudence was a call from Britain’s dark side – more a winter of discontent than an Indian summer. It was Sioux’s only Top 5 single in Britain, kept off the top spot, much to the band’s annoyance, by the feckless Karma Chameleon and They Don’t Know, the biggest hits of Culture Club and Tracey Ullman’s careers.

Unlike most of their compatriots, the Banshees never really slowed down, continuing to make strong and stylish “alt-rock” albums up to 1995’s The Rapture, part-produced by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale. A year later, the nostalgia surrounding the reunion of their former heroes the Sex Pistols prompted Siouxsie & The Banshees to finally call it quits; Sioux and Budgie, whom she’d married in 1991, upgraded the Creatures from side project to primary project, and a new generation of stars from PJ Harvey to Courtney Love was waiting to soak up her influence.

Following the couple’s divorce, a solo album, the cinematic and sensual Mantaray, followed in 2007. In 2011, she was awarded for Outstanding Contribution to Music at the Q Awards, and at the Ivor Novello Awards the following year she was the fabulously worthy recipient of the Inspiration Award.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BaUK5ADBz0I/?fbclid=IwAR1m6xjStPuzrSJNUYB-oYY9568_ptxwWslDX9XGvnHoAX07KXTrWkq6Two

Siouxsie stands as one of the most audacious and uncompromising musical adventurers of the post-punk era. “She sings with a lot of sex,” was how Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan once summed her up in Smash Hits magazine. That’s 40 years of pretty incredible sex then. In an interview with my erstwhile employers The Independent, she said, “I’ve never particularly said I’m hetero or I’m a lesbian. I know there are people who are definitely one way, but not really me. I suppose if I am attracted to men then they usually have more feminine qualities.”

BONUS: In case you were wondering about the last piccie, since 1992 Siouxsie has been based in France not far from my country house between Toulouse and Bordeaux where I’m writing this. Yes, the town is actually called Condom. This is a Very Good Thing.

Alive —2002 (Siouxsie and the Banshees), 2007 (both London)

10. Tina Turner 

“Better than all the rest.”

Oh, Tina! She may have almost retired, but it was inconceivable that this list could work without the inclusion of this legendary lady. Blessed with a timeless spirit and an effervescent energy, this is a woman who overcame insuperable odds, bursting from the confines of her partnership with first husband Ike Turner to become her own woman, a solo superstar and, unquestionably, the subject of the greatest comeback in music history… ever. Ladies and gentlemen, Tina Turner.

By 1956, Ike Turner – generally regarded as responsible for the first ever rock ‘n’ roll record, 1951’s Rocket 88 – and his band, the Kings of Rhythm was one of the most popular live attractions to the club scene of St. Louis, the Illinois-Missouri border city where America’s midwest meets the south. One night a young nurse’s assistant from Tennessee named Anna Mae Bullock caught the band performing that put her “in a trance”, though she recovered quickly enough to begin dating a member of Ike’s band, the saxophonist Raymond Hill. Hungry for the opportunity to sing and to eat (they had a baby on the way) Bullock made her recording debut as Little Ann, a background vocalist to Ike’s song Box Top, which became a regional single on Tune Town Records in 1958.

It wasn’t until they changed their name to Ike & Tina Turner that history was made. 1960’s A Fool In Love, a pertinent case of doo-wop pop, was the duo’s debut single but Tina wasn’t even supposed to remain on the finished record. When the intended male vocalist failed to show up for a session, Turner then asked 20-year-old Bullock to record the song as a temporary guide vocal with the intent to erase her contribution before the finished product once a replacement could be found.

As luck would have it. the track caught the ear of Sue Records in New York, who insisted that Bullocks raspy vocals, which they noted, “sounded like screaming dirt,” remain. Turner gave Little Ann a new stage name, Tina, because the name rhymed with the television character Sheena, the Queen of the Jungle, therefore starting their career together as Ike & Tina Turner, which was convenient as by the time of the song’s release the duo’s friendship had become intimate. 

A Fool in Love reached second place on the R&B chart and crossed over on the Billboard Hot 100 peaking at No.27. Tina Turner’s national TV debut came in October 1960 when she performed the song on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand while nine months pregnant with Ike’s child. A second pop hit, “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” (1961), reached the top 20 and earned the group a Grammy nomination for Best Rock ’n’ Roll Performance. The couple married on Tina’s 23rd birthday in November 1962, and the Ike & Tina Turner Revue spent the next three years touring constantly on the ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’, building a reputation as one of the most hottest, most durable, and potentially most explosive of all R&B ensembles, though without the presence of any further hits.

At a time when their recording career had stalled, Phil Spector, producer, auteur and all-round trigger happy control freak, caught an Ike & Tina performance in Los Angeles in 1965 and sought to work with the singer. Spector was well aware of Ike’s equally controlling attitude in the studio, and thus drafted an unusual contract: an album would be recorded, credited to Ike & Tina Turner, but Spector gave Ike a $20,000 advance to keep out of the studio. Sensibly, Ike agreed, though that didn’t stop him getting his ugly mug in the title track’s accompanying promo film.

An astonishing and extraordinary example of Spector’s famed everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Wall of Sound, River Deep – Mountain High, the Jack Nitzsche-orchestrated title track, compared a woman’s love and loyalty to that which a child feels for a doll, and a puppy has for his master. The Beatles‘ George Harrison declared it “a perfect record from start to finish. You couldn’t improve on it.” Widely regarded as the pinnacle of Sixties power pop, River Deep may even be the greatest recording of the entire decade, and there were certainly no shortage of takes to choose from.

Due to Spector’s intensity and studio perfectionism, he made Turner sing the song over and over for several hours until he felt he had the perfect vocal: “I must have sung that 500,000 times,” she later said of the sessions. “I was drenched with sweat. I had to take my shirt off and stand there in my bra to sing.” The song gave Tina her first British hit, reaching the top three in the summer of ’66, though failed to climb any peaks in the United States, leading to the producer’s temporary retirement. Ironically, The Supremes, now minus Diana Ross, duetted with The Four Tops on a soaring Motown version of the song that became its highest charting rendition in the US, reaching No.14 in 1971. Sadly the Four Tops are unavoidably detained, but tonight, Matthew, Tom Jones is the one top.

While Turner achieved fame for her instantly recognisable voice, with its bluesy, big-city inflections and soaring vibrato, the music was only one element of her influence; equally significant was her gutsy take on the image of the female pop star, with her tight skirts and wildcat shimmy-shaking routines evoking a stormy romanticism. There was danger in her voice as well as vulnerability—not an easy combination to pull off. 

Tina found herself trapped in a nightmare relationship with Ike, who subjected her to his raving, drug-fuelled violence for oh too many years. In 1968, after another volatile confrontation, Tina bought 50 Valiums and swallowed them all in an attempt to end her life before a show in Los Angeles; she eventually recovered. Despite the internal warfare, an opening spot on The Rolling Stones’ American tour in 1969 saw Ike & Tina increasing their popularity with mainstream audiences.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UHI5Duy8rUQ

The following year, they recorded an incendiary cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Proud Mary. It became the duo’s best-selling single in the States, reaching #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1971 and selling well over a million copies, winning them a Grammy Award. It became one of Tina’s signature songs, a staple in all of her live shows, including slightly unnecessary duet versions with Beyoncé and Cher.

Nutbush City Limits, the bold and brassy semi-autobiographical funk-out in which Tina commemorates her Baptist ‘church house’ upbringing in the cotton fields of Nutbush, Tennessee, would become the last hit single the duo would produce together, and the only single that Tina ever wrote. Characterised by progressive guitar sounds and a substantial synthesizer solo, Nutbush made 22 on the Billboard chart but travelled as far as Four in the UK.

By the mid ‘70s Tina had started branching out, relying on outside production for her first two solo albums, Tina Turns The Country On! (actually it did no such thing, and has been out of print for over 40 years) and Acid Queen. The latter taking its title from Tina’s role in Ken Russell’s film of The Who’s Tommy rock opera, both issued in 1975. 

By this time Ike’s cocaine habit had got out of hand and on July 1, 1976, the couple were en route from Los Angeles to Dallas where the Revue were booked to play a gig. While on the airplane, the two became embroiled in an altercation, which led to a physical fight in their limousine. Even more volatile than normal, Ike had been up for five days straight on a massive coke binge. Tina fled and later that month sued for divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences, and after a year in court, their personal professional parting was made final on March 29, 1978. In the divorce, Tina completely parted ways with him, retaining only her stage name and assuming responsibility for the debts incurred by the cancelled tour, leaving her penniless. Still, at least Tina Turner was finally her own woman.

A further pair of non-charting Tina LPs followed; Rough (it was) and Love Explosion (it wasn’t) but at the turn of the decade she continued to be a successful live act even without the premise of a hit record. Then, out of nowhere, the first signs of a lifeline. The B.E.F.‘s (British Electronic Foundation, essentially two thirds of Sheffield synth maestros Heaven 17) Music of Quality and Distinction Volume One was an ambitious project that, in the main, teamed bygone singers and songs refashioned in the contemporary electronica of the day.

Tina opened the album with a sprightly, edgy cover of Ball of Confusion, the Temptations’ damning sociopolitical Seventies classic which suddenly seemed more relevant than ever. The undisputed highlight of the set, when issued as a single it became a club hit across Europe in 1982 and even a Top Five smash in Norway. Things were starting to stir.

Certain nights can be decisive in a performer’s career; and if there’s one that was a major turning point in Tina’s it’s Thursday January 27, 1983, the first of three nights where she packed New York’s hippest club, The Ritz. In fact one can say that every Tina Turner appearance in NYC between ’81 and ’83 were crucial in terms of networking. From guest appearances with Rod Stewart and the Stones to finally getting Capitol Records’ attention thanks to David Bowie, it all happened in the big apple, and The Ritz would become the nest of “the Phoenix that would rise from her own ashes”.

Bowie, the great Dame, had signed a new multi-million dollar record deal with EMI America at the Carlyle Hotel on the very day of Tina’s first show. At a listening party for his upcoming album Let’s Dance, the record company executives asked if their new boy had any plans that night because they fancied taking him out on the town to celebrate: “No, I won’t be able to make it. I’m going to see my favourite singer tonight,” Bowie told them. The label bosses were stunned to hear the singer in question was Tina Turner, especially because they had just dropped her. The Thin White Duke had been friendly with Tina since Toni Basil, the choreographer they shared, arranged for them to meet when her Wild Lady of Rock tour thundered into Geneva in April 1979.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7rBjuw8h0fk

By 1983 the EMI-Capitol conglomerate had considered Tina too dated and tainted by Ike’s difficult repetition, and, crucially too old to make a comeback. As far as they were concerned, she was a mere club act on the ‘chicken in a basket’ cabaret circuit. Comparatively, the careers of Aretha Franklin and Cher, three and seven years her junior, were in the doldrums, although Diana Ross, five years younger than Turner, had maintained her stardom by never being away, thus she’d been playing to arena sized audiences and carried them with her wherever she went. 

However, all of a sudden Tina’s manager, Roger Davies, received a call for 60 names to be added to the guest list for the opening show at the Ritz, and that night Bowie and the bigwigs piled in a succession of taxis to catch the singer performing 20 minutes downtown. As he took his seat next to The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, Turner began the set with a fiery rendition of Cat People, David’s recent single with Giorgio Moroder. Something was about to happen. The energy in the room was like a thousand sunrises, and Capitol, anxious to keep their new boy happy, re-signed her, as Tina recalls in this interview from 2004:

Heaven 17 hurriedly provided Tina with another soul-meets-synths production in the shape of the Al Green classic Let’s Stay Together; now revitalised as a gleaming, chromium nugget moulded by ultra-modernist studioheads. It was this ‘electro-soul’ approach which Annie Lennox would take to another level with Eurythmics, and one that, sadly, Turner didn’t pursue. See if you can spot Lennox cheering her on at the end of the Tube clip below anyhow. Let’s Stay Together was the worldwide hit Turner needed, peaking at number 26 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming her first solo entry into the US charts. In the UK it went even better, rising to sixth place, and heralded in three and a half minutes the dramatic, bravura transformation of this almost forgotten gem. Tina was back, back, back!

The success of the single forced Capitol to rethink its contract with Turner, offering the singer a three album deal, and demanding the first LP be cut immediately. Recorded in just two months in London, the all-conquering Private Dancer album landed in May 1984, reaching No.2 in Britain and No.3 in the States. The album yielded a string of radio-slaying singles and proved that Team Turner were masters at both understanding the pop moment and selecting tunes that embody it. Worldwide sales of 20 million followed.

The reggae-tinged single What’s Love Got To Do With It scaled even greater heights, giving the great lady her first and only No.1 single in her homeland. Pretty remarkable for a track already rejected as too twee by Donna Summer and, er, Cliff Richard. Even Tina admitted “it wasn’t my type of song” at first, but conceded how pertinent the lyrics were to her own personal history: “I don’t have a beautiful voice like a Diana Ross or a Barbra Streisand,” she said. “But the song had a lot to do with what had been inside for many years.” Rising to heights she had never achieved during the course of her career as the front woman of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, she had become a global superstar in her own right, truly a sole survivor.

Not only had Tina become the oldest woman ever to achieve a chart-topping single, but her resurrection exploded on such a supernova-like scale remains that it remains the greatest comeback in music history. On Grammy night the following February, that comeback appeared more like a coronation, or perhaps a re-coronation, of one of music’s most noble figures.

Witness the scene. Zip to four minutes in of this clip of Turner performing the song in a shiny red dress and ten foot hair. Tina’s tunes were awarded four Academy awards that evening (to Prince’s three), including Song and Record of the year, and just look at her face, barely able to process that she was being crowned Queen of the Night. Watch that thunderous standing ovation and the genuine unbridled joy on the faces of her peers – Dionne Warwick, John Travolta, Sheila E et al – Tina’s success was a triumph for women, for black people, for the oppressed, for anyone of a certain age. “I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for such a long time,” Turner said in accepting her first award of the night, before paraphrasing from the godfather of soul, James Brown. “I feel really good.”

Announcing the winner of Record of the Year, Diana Ross greets the older lady with a warm, sisterly embrace (no, I don’t know why they excised that bit from the clip either). Triumphant but shellshocked, Tina humbly says, “Well… you can tell that we’re new at this!” Even the most cynical misanthrope cannot deny the uncontainable jubilation of this moment. Here was an artist who, since leaving Ike, was “washed up”, “over the hill” and rejected by nearly every major record label, including the one that ultimately signed her. Now she stands victorious, holding the music industry’s greatest honour in her hand. 

Tina continued to smash records and help remove the glass ceiling of what women in pop music could achieve. Her record-breaking relaunch happened concurrently with the unstoppable rise of Madonna, but it was Tina who became the first female performer to sell out football stadiums across the globe; and her Break Every Rule tour of 1987-1988 is still the biggest series of concerts, by attendance, for a female artist ever, bringing in almost 4 and a half million people. In January ’88, she entered the Guinness Book of World Records for the solo artist with the largest paying audience in history with a crowd of over 182,000 people at the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

In Britain she packed out Wembley more nights than any other female performer ever. No Tina single ever hit the top spot in the UK — What’s Love and 1985’s Mad Max theme We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome) equalled River-Deep’s No.3 peak, followed by fifth place for the 1989 anthem The Best, arguably her solo signature song — though the Brits did love her enough to send two of her albums to the top, and a further seven into the Top 10.

On a personal note, Tina Turner remains the only artist to have recorded with my two favourite artists, David Bowie and the Pet Shop Boys, and sing a Bond theme. (the brilliantly bonkers GoldenEye, written for her by U2’s Bono and The Edge). For context, Lulu, who penned what turned out to be Tina’s last Top 10 hit in the US (1993’s I Don’t Wanna Fight) only ever managed two of the three, as did Madonna.

Essentially, Tina’s career was resuscitated because of David Bowie’s patronage, and even though she proved she had the strength, power and that great indomitable spirit to make it on her own, the effervescent girl from Nutbush never failed to credit her friend for helping revive her fortunes. Tina Turner’s own legacy as one of the great singers of all time is unassailable. From tears to triumph and top draw performer, Tina’s story is one of the most heartening comeback stories ever, overcoming adversity, breaking down age and race barriers to become the female performer to sell more tickets than any other on the planet, one of the biggest selling artists in music history, and truly an inspiration to women and men everywhere. 

Alive — 1987, 1996, 2000, 2009 (all London), 1990 (Woburn Abbey)

Steve Pafford

Oh, and by the way, what was the first record I bought by a female singer? As it happens, none of the above. It was Amii Stewart’s ecstatic high disco reimagining of Knock On Wood, the 12” remix issued and purchased in 1985. It’s a corker.

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