Digital Spy: Surprising Stories Behind 6 Madonna Hits
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Oct 29 2016, 09:58 AM
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The surprising stories behind 6 of Madonna's biggest hits
BY ALIM KHERAJ | 29 OCTOBER 2016
It's safe to say that only a handful of recording artists can be said to embody pop culture. Madonna is one of them.
With a career that's spanned three decades and 13 studio albums, and has seen her become one of the highest grossing solo artists of all time, Madonna has repeatedly rewritten the rules of what it means to be a popstar.
Of course with a career as legendary and iconic as Madonna's there's bound to be a few tales to tell. So, we've dug out our copies of True Blue, donned our leg warmers and delved into Madonna's discography to pull out the surprising stories behind six of her biggest songs.
1. 'Like a Virgin' was inspired by a guy driving around a vineyard in a red truck
Released in October 1984, 'Like a Virgin' is the quintessential early Madonna record, with its inescapably catchy chorus, sexual motifs and bouncy synths. Yet the track wasn't actually written with her in mind at all.
It was written by Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg, the duo behind '80s classics like Cyndi Lauper's 'True Colors' and 'So Emotional' by Whitney Houston, and was actually based on songwriter Steinberg's own personal experiences.
Detailing how he just broke up with his then band, Billy Thermal, and had headed back to his father's vineyards in the Coachella Valley, Steinberg tells how the idea for the song came to him while he was driving a red pickup truck.
"I had been involved in a very emotionally difficult relationship that had finally ended and I had met somebody new," he said. "I remember writing that lyric about feeling shiny and new – I made it through the wilderness, somehow I made it through – I made it through this very difficult time."
Taking the lyrics to his songwriting partner Tom Kelly, Steinberg said that initially the track was going to be a "sensitive ballad". Yet, the lyric "like a virgin" was a stumbling block. "How can you write a tender ballad called 'Like a Virgin'? It just sounded ridiculous," Steinberg recalled.
After becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of direction for the song, Kelly started playing what would later become the bass line, adding a falsetto vocal.
After playing the track to Michael Ostin of Warner Bros records, it was decided that the song would be perfect for Madonna's second album.
Speaking about hearing both 'Like a Virgin' and 'Material Girl' for the first time, Madonna told Rolling Stone magazine in 2009 that she liked them because they didn't actually relate to who she was. "I am not a materialistic person, and I certainly wasn't a virgin, and, by the way, how can you be like a virgin? I liked the play on words; I thought they were clever. They're so geeky, they're cool. I never realised they would become my signature songs," she said.
The song would end up being produced by Nile Rodgers, who wasn't necessarily too keen on it to begin with. Thinking that the lyric "like a virgin" wasn't a good hook, he actually tried to convince Madonna that she shouldn't record the song at all.
"It's weird because I couldn't get it out of my head after I played it, even though I didn't really like it," he said later. "It sounded really bubble-gummy to me, but it grew on me. I really started to like it."
While the song was a massive hit for Madonna, she refused to work with Steinberg and Kelly again, despite the fact that song writing duo offered her more songs. In fact, she only met the pair five years after the song was released at her manager's 50th birthday party.
2. 'Open Your Heart' was originally meant for a fellow '80s pop icon
Released as the fourth single from Madonna's iconic 1986 album True Blue, 'Open Your Heart' was originally a rockier song called 'Follow Your Heart' and was intended for Cyndi Lauper (although she never ended up hearing the demo).
While it might be hard to imagine Madonna accepting something intended for her commercial rival, it seems that in 1986 the outspoken singer was less fussed with such matters. However, that doesn't mean that she accepted the song as is. Rather, she insisted on rewriting the lyrics and changing the track into the pop classic we know today.
Co-writer Gardner Cole recalled in Billboard's Book of Number 1 Hits that initially he and his writing partner weren't sure it was a hit song at all. "Peter (Rafelson) and I usually write very quickly. It's usually a day or two a song, but for some reason this didn't really hit us as a hit song," he said. The original title of the song, 'Follow Your Heart' was actually stolen from a Californian health food restaurant, where a young woman that Cole was infatuated with worked.
After Cole and Rafelson played Madonna the track, they were sure that she'd turn it down. "I thought she was going to stick with 'Holiday' and what she was already doing," Cole recalled. "But this song was a step forward for her, it was a different area – more rock and roll than I thought she would want to go."
Despite the fact that Madonna had gone in and re-worked parts of the song, Cole and Rafelson weren't sure that it would actually end up being included on the final tracklisting for True Blue. "It was the first song that was cut on the album," Cole said. "It made me nervous as a writer, because a lot of times the very first song that gets cut doesn't make it in the long run."
'Open Your Heart' would later go on to hit the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100, and go top five in the UK. In fact, the song had such an impact on a certain Ms. Britney Spears that she sang along to it in the opening of her only cinematic outing, Crossroads.
3. 'Like a Prayer' actually features another pop icon
As she matured, Madonna dropped the dance-pop that had previously scattered her lead singles, instead accepting the rockier, gospel vibe of 'Like a Prayer'.
The track was co-written with Madonna's long-term songwriting partner Patrick Leonard, who helped the Queen of Pop with many of her most famous singles. Speaking to Billboard on the 25th anniversary of the song in 2014, Leonard said that he and Madonna always knew there was something special about the track.
However, it wasn't always the way that we knew it. "Originally it had bongos and Latin percussion," Leonard recalled in Billboard's Book of Number 1 Hits. "We decided to eliminate that quickly."
In the same interview, Leonard detailed how the pair recorded the vocals in three hours and that, after removing the Latin influences, the idea to incorporate the church organ and Andrae Crouch's choir came pretty soon after the song's conception. According to Leonard, the opening guitar riff of the song is by Prince, who also appeared on 'Love Song'.
With 'Like a Prayer', Madonna was the first artist to premiere a song in a commercial. She signed a $5 million deal with Pepsi, which saw her film an alternative music video for the song.
Once the real – controversial for the time – music video for the track was released, Pepsi pulled their advert. While they said that it had nothing to do with conservative groups threatening to boycott the company, it would take until the 2012 Super Bowl for Madonna and Pepsi to make amends.
4. William Orbit feared for his job during the recording of 'Frozen' and Ray of Light
Taking a three-year break before releasing another proper pop album, Madonna worked on various projects including 1995's Something to Remember, as well as the 1996 musical drama film Evita.
During that time she had her first child, Lourdes. "That was a big catalyst for me. It took me on a search for answers to questions I'd never asked myself before," she told Q magazine in 2002.
Co-writing 'Ray Of Light' with previous collaborator Patrick Leonard, Madonna explained to Spin magazine that she was heavily influenced by the film The Sheltering Sky and told how she wanted something with a Moroccan and tribal feel to it; "something really lush and romantic". "When he started playing some music," she explained, "I turned the DAT on and started free associating and came up with the melody."
However, while Madonna and Leonard worked together on a handful of tracks, she wasn't necessarily happy with where the production was going. "Pat's production would have lent the songs more of a Peter Gabriel vibe, and that's not where I was looking to go."
Instead she took the material to William Orbit, who re-worked the songs. "When we first started working together she'd want me to create on the spot and I'd freeze," Orbit recalled to Spin. "Madonna's very hands on and that was a challenge for me."
In fact, while recording Ray of Light, Orbit spent most of the time terrified that he was going to get fired, while Madonna dubbed the experience a "culture shock". "We had lots of problems," she recalled. "Things went haywire and everyone got frustrated because we were working with samples and synth sounds and Pro Tools and not with live musicians, and shit would keep breaking down and nobody would know how to fix it."
Ultimately, after four months of recording (a long time in Madonna months), Ray of Light was completed and released in 1998.
5. 'Don't Tell Me' was written by one of Madonna's family
In 2000, Madonna announced that she was working on the follow-up to Ray of Light, which had re-invigorated her career following a small slump.
The resulting record was Music, a heavily experimental electronic and meditative album that explored Madonna's newfound love of acoustic guitars, acid bass and her need to push more sonic boundaries.
Joining forces with French producer and DJ Mirwais Ahmadzaď, Madonna was keen to avoid becoming synonymous with William Orbit's signature sound, which had become increasingly popular following the success of Ray of Light. Rather, she wanted something different. "I love to work with the weirdos that no one knows about — the people who have raw talent and who are making music unlike anyone else out there," she said at the time. "Music is the future of sound."
While one might assume that 'Don't Tell Me' began its life like many of Madonna's songs, it was actually based on an original idea by her brother-in-law, songwriter Joe Henry.
"It's probably the last thing I've written with regard to her," Henry said. "It's a line I just don't cross. Musically it's never seemed appropriate." After his wife (Madonna's sister) heard the song, she suggested that Henry send it to the pop singer as she really thought it might work.
"I thought the song was a complete throwaway. I had just moved and set up a studio in the guesthouse of my home and was looking to record anything to make sure my things were working," Henry recalled to NPR. "I needed something to record, so I wrote that song in about 25 minutes just to give myself something to do. I was a little embarrassed by it, it starts off a little spoon-in-June and takes a cryptic turn at the end."
Henry's demo of the track was originally called 'Stop', and is very different to the version that Madonna ended up recording. It was this difference that discouraged him from sending it to his sister-in-law. However, his wife insisted that he made her a tape of the demo and she ended up sending it to the singer.
In a radio interview, Henry said that Madonna called him up within a couple of days of receiving the demo and said that, while musically very different from the album she was making, she was so in love with the song that she wanted to try and turn it into something she could use.
"Months went by and I thought it was just an idea that she didn't have time to pursue," Henry said. "She said, 'How would you feel if I radically changed the music so it was in keeping with the record that I'm making?'" Henry said that he was surprised that, lyrically, the track had remained the same.
Madonna was, meanwhile, drawn to the sentiment of the song. "There were many poetic things happening on this record," she said. "Things were just falling into place and coming to me that I felt were all meant to."
6. Getting the ABBA sample for 'Hung Up' wasn't easy at all
After her 2003 politically-charged ninth album, Madonna decided to return to her dance music roots with Confessions on a Dancefloor.
However, rather than going in to write an album, Madonna was actually working on two musicals at the time. Teaming up with Patrick Leonard, Mirwais Ahmadzaď and British producer and songwriter, Stuart Price, who was brought on board to write disco songs like "ABBA on drugs", Madonna started to work on another musical along with Luc Besson.
"I intended to do the bulk of the record with Mirwais," Madonna told The Guardian, "and then it turned out to go in the other direction, because the first song resonated so monstrously." That first song was 'Hung Up'.
After feeling creatively exhausted following a vigorous tour – her first in three years – and deciding that the musicals were actually not a good idea, Madonna then decided that she wanted to make an album of all dance music. "It was like, honey, I want to dance," she told Billboard. "I wanted to lift myself and others up with this record."
Of course, getting permission to sample ABBA's famous 'Gimme Gimme Gimme' wasn't easy. Notorious for declining requests for samples, Madonna had to write a letter to Stockholm "begging" the Swedish pop band to use the song. "They had to think about it, Benny and Bjorn" Madonna said. "They didn't say yes straight away."
"'Gimme, Gimme, Gimme' is the essence of the new song and we have agreed to split the copyright with Madonna and her co-writer," Benny Andersson of ABBA told The Telegraph. "We said 'yes' this time because we admire Madonna so much and always have done. She has got guts and has been around for 21 years. That is not bad going."
Ultimately, however, the decision to allow the sample was because at the heart of 'Hung Up' was a solid 100% pop song. "'Hung Up' is really good. If it wasn't any good we would not have said 'yes'. It is a wonderful track," Andersson said.
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