Off the Charts

Heart

In the late ’60s, bassist Steve Fossen and guitarist Roger Fisher started a band called The Army, which changed its name to White Heart, then Heart (briefly), then Hocus Pocus. The name game finally ended in 1973 when everybody settled on Heart. By that point, the band had also found its musical heart, the singer/songwriter sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson.

How all these Americans ended up recording their first album in Vancouver is a complicated story that started with Fisher’s brother fleeing the U.S. Draft Board. Anyway, they all eventually collected up in Canada and made Dreamboat Annie (1975 – U.S. release 1976) on a Canadian label called Mushroom Records. Although the experience of producing an out-of-the-gate hit album led to a pretty gruesome split between band and label, the world now had “Magic Man” and “Crazy on You” to enjoy, so all was not lost.

Less remembered today is the side-2 track “Sing Child,” a hard rocker that shows off some crunching macho riffs from Fisher. The vocal parts themselves, more about poetic exploration than melody, along with the way they react dissonantly with the guitar, owe a lot to the world of psychedelic music.

 

The rift with their studio caused the third album Heart recorded to become the second album they released. Magazine was ready to go but held in limbo by a legal dispute. So Little Queen (1977) was the first one put out by their new record company, Portrait, a division of CBS. Despite the label change, they were once again overseen in the studio by producer Mike Flicker.

In one of the most stunningly crass moves in record marketing history, Mushroom had slandered the Wilson sisters by publicly implying that they were incestuous lovers. Revenge came in the form of “Barracuda,” the song on Little Queen inspired by the odious incident; it became a huge hit single.

Also from that album is the medievalist/fantasist “Dream of the Archer,” a genre also favored by Led Zeppelin (“Ballad of Evermore”) and Queen (“My Fairy King,” among others) at the time. I’ll grant you that the mandolin is overdone and twee, but Nancy Wilson’s delivery of the lyrics is a master class in dramatic narrative singing.

 

Speaking of Zeppelin, do check out Ann Wilson’s powerhouse performance of Stairway to Heaven at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors in honor of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.

The second-recorded album, Magazine, finally got a proper release from Portrait Records later in 1977, followed the next year by Dog & Butterfly, which spent 36 weeks on the charts. Ann Wilson brings a free-form jazz sensibility to the funky track “Hijinx.” Michael DeRosier’s drumming is especially sharp.

 

The first few years of the ʼ80s saw the band continuing to be highly productive but gradually fading from the charts. It was also a time of personnel upheaval. The decade started strong with Bébé le Strange, although it was the first album without Roger Fisher on guitar. Fossen and DeRosier made 1982’s Private Audition their farewell album. Passionworks (1983) had lukewarm sales, and the whole business was feeling stale.

There are some nice songs on Passionworks, including “Johnny Moon” (the B-side of “How Can I Refuse”), written by the Wilsons and longtime collaborator Sue Ennis. While I could do without the electronic drums and some of the tinnier synth choices, the long notes in the melody line are pleasantly reminiscent of Journey.

 

As Heart had learned earlier in their career, sometimes what a band really needs is a new record label. They split with Epic and signed with Capitol, and things turned around. They called their 1985 album Heart as the emblem of a new beginning. And what a comeback it was! The record burned up the charts and shot out smash hits like “These Dreams” (their first number-one single) and “What about Love?” By this point, the only original members of the band were the Wilson sisters.

Bad Animals (1987) did nearly as well. The secret to this new success is probably the more mainstream style these two albums adopted. It’s surely no coincidence that they were recording more songs than ever by writers other than the Wilsons. A good non-single example of this re-imagined Heart is “Wait for an Answer,” a synth-heavy, melodramatic track by Canadian singer/songwriter Lisa Dalbello. Still, Ann Wilson is in terrific voice. (It’s worth noting that Dalbello’s own recording of this song has a quirky, dangerously off-balance energy that’s completely missing from the slick Heart production.)

 

Heart tried to hold onto their fame with three albums in the 1990s. The middle of those was Desire Walks On (1993). The pounding single “Black on Black II” (another Dalbello cover) was very successful, but my favorite track is a Bob Dylan cover. Alice in Chains lead vocalist, Layne Staley, collaborates on this heartfelt version of “Ring Them Bells”:

 

After 1995’s The Road Home, the band took a nine-year break from studio recording. Then, in 2004, they came out with Jupiters Darling on the now-defunct Sovereign Artists label. An ambitious 16-track collection (with two Bonus tracks on the British release), the songwriting and production values show Ann and Nancy Wilson returning to their rock and folk roots, getting rid of the too-easy pop tropes they’d allowed to become a habit.

“Down the Nile” has that raw sound in the guitar (Craig Bartock, with a bluesy touch) and the wandering style of the melody line that had defined their work in the first few albums.

 

For Red Velvet Car (2010) they switched to Legacy Records. Since that album landed solidly, they stuck with Legacy for the unusual recording project called Fanatic two years later, which was recorded mostly in hotel rooms during a west coast tour.

The underlying theme of Fanatic is a return to roots, particularly in a geographic sense. A couple of songs are about Vancouver, where their first album was recorded. One of those, “Walkin’ Good,” is a duet with Vancouver native Sarah McLachlan. The vivid, nostalgic language brings not only the city but also the memory to life:

 

Although Ann Wilson still tours actively, the band Heart seems to have slowed to a stop. Their most recent album, Beautiful Broken (2016), is almost entirely new arrangements of old songs. Fair enough – I’d say they’ve earned a rest.