It's 1983. Punk is dead. Post-punk is on it's last limbs. According to those in the know, disco is dead also, although that proved not to be the case. Indie and alternative is in it's infancy and pop music seems as varied and sparse in it's tastes as it ever has done. Prince was working up to his career's pinnacle, Talking Heads were about to descend from theirs and, in that climate, it seemed that very few would enjoy more than their fifteen minutes of fame, in a sector of the industry that now felt more immediate than ever before.
Recovering from it's biggest shake up since the emergence of The Beatles in the early 1960s, pop music also felt boundless in what it now had to offer the world. MTV blew the entertainment world wide open in 1981, turning former child star Michael Jackson into The King Of Pop in the process. The industry needed a Queen to share his throne.
Step forward a 25-year-old Michigan native who now worked the restaurants of New York City, following after her move to the big apple, pursuing her dream of making a career in modern dance, fell flat on it’s face. Her name? Madonna Louise Ciccone, although the world would come to know her by only one name.
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In 1982, bed-stricken by a recurrent heart condition, Sire Records' founder Seymour Stein pressed play on her demo for ‘Everybody’, the song that was to become Madonna's first single, as well as the closing track on the eventual debut record. Within hours of hearing it for the first time, and calling over to Danceteria DJ Mark Kamis (who had given Stein the tape in the first place), Madonna was by his bedside, signing the contract that would see her career begin with one of the most fabulously realised debut albums in music history.
It's now 2018 and Madonna is celebrating her 60th birthday. It's also 35 years since that eponymous debut album and subject of this spotlight review hit the shelves in record stores all over the world and, as I drop the needle on my newly acquired vinyl copy, I get a sense of just how exciting it must have been for someone in my position to be doing just that, more than three decades ago.
As the shimmering intro to ‘Lucky Star’ begins to play and is replaced by that prime 80s mix of synth beats, choppy guitars and a funky bass line, I find myself transfixed by her timeless, thousand yard stare, one half of which shoes an angelic, young adult, the other a hardened, tortured soul. She had the look of a woman both frustrated by her past and determined to ensure her future is markedly different. More endearingly, she has the look of someone who's completely unaware of how different that future would prove to be, for both herself, and the rest of the entire world.
It's difficult to think of many more debut albums that, in retrospect, hint so boldly at the career that an artist would grow into and the reputation that they would subsequently cultivate - the only one that springs immediately to mind is U2's ‘Boy’, an album made in Dublin kitchens but destined to be played in the world's biggest, best arenas.
Throughout the course of ‘Madonna’, she discusses the tropes present on most pop debuts - the idea of love, loss and the struggles of early adulthood. The overriding presence of her lyrics here is her independence and her ability to challenge the preconceived ideas that others have of how she should act and the choices that she is making.
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On ‘Borderline’, one of two songs on the record penned exclusively by producer and former Miles Davis band member Reggie Lucas, she pleads with the subject to "try and understand[...] I've given all I can" and that their actions are pushing her to her limits - a theme that she would revisit a few years later with the more on-the-nose and initially shocking ‘Papa Don't Preach’.
Trying to find a dud track on this record is harder than you might expect. The entire first side - comprised of the aforementioned singles ‘Lucky Star’ and ‘Borderline’ as well as ‘Burning Up’, the album's second single that was also one of Madonna's earliest solo compositions, and ‘I Know It’ - provides a well-rounded slab of early 80s pop music, rife with all of it’s trappings, yet not weighed down by any of them.
‘Burning Up’ particularly, feels full-bodied and muscular, offering a scything guitar, as discomforting and repeatedly beat-driven as any that the 1980s would produce. It's here that you are able to hear the remnants of Madonna's time in the hard rocking bands of New York's rock circuit. She sounds energised, like a dreamy punk-girl whose the face of innocence on the outside, masking her self-assured, defiant core. It isn't all high-brow pop music with sinister, guttural underbellies though.
Starting the second side of the record, the near seven minute-long ‘Holiday’ shows that her home, regardless of what tangents she would ever fly off on, would remain the dance floor. If you can listen to the track without at least tapping your foot along to the beat, you're likely dead inside.
Considered a crossover hit at the time, it has now taken on a life not too dissimilar from Bowie's ‘Queen Bitch’. Both of these are songs are individually unique within the context of their own record and yet offer the best glimpse of what was to come from their respective artists. For Bowie, it was a one-way ticket to the hearts of millions as he spear- headed the glam-rock movement of the early 1970s. For Madonna, it was laying the foundations for her to rise to the high table of music, on her way to becoming the definitive female artist of her generation.
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As we descend into the latter parts of the record, she doubles down on these disco-inspired traits. ‘Physical Attraction’, for all of it’s doe-eyed sensitivities, would not be out of place in any dancehall or club in the east coast. Likewise, ‘Think Of Me’ feels destined to only ever be accompanied by an awe-inspiring light show, pulsating throughout it’s near five minute run time but never feeling anywhere near uncomfortable.
Whilst nowhere near as daring sonically or visually as Madonna’s later works would prove to be, her debut album is, nonetheless, a masterpiece. Offering something for everyone without ever selling her talents short, to say it’s a tone setter for the themes that she would come to personify throughout the rest of the decade would be a huge understatement.
It’s a record of immense power and longevity that feels as impressive today as it would have done upon first release and the contrarians who say otherwise are the kind of people that you’d never really want to bump into at a party.
Considering she’d return less than a year later with ‘Like A Virgin’ and, before the decade finished, would release ‘True Blue’ and ‘Like A Prayer’, it’s easy to see why this album can be overlooked, but do so at your peril, as within this magnificent 41-or-so minutes is some of the finest, most relevant, most enduring and most danceable music, ever put to tape.
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Words: Mike Watkins
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