Off the Charts

Pat Benatar: Rock is Her Battlefield

Brooklyn-born Patricia Andrzejewski wanted to be an opera singer. Instead, she ended up as one of the most successful female rock stars of all time.

She’d started singing lessons as a young child. Her marriage at 19 to Dennis Benatar took care of the problem of an ungainly last name, but by then she was distracted from music and focused on “real” life. Good thing she went to a Liza Minelli concert in 1971, a performance that she found so inspiring that she re-committed to music.

Whenever she could, she sang open mics in Manhattan clubs – particularly Catch a Rising Star, where the manager invited her back and offered to manage her singing career. Harry Chapin hired her for his musical The Zinger at a small theater in Long Island, and she landed some commercial jingles. By the time Chrysalis Records signed her in 1978, Benatar had paid her dues and was ready for the big time.

Her debut album was In the Heat of the Night (1979), which eventually reached the No. 12 spot on the charts. It also provided a strong first single, “Heartbreaker,” a cover of a song recorded the year before by British blues-rock singer Jenny Darren.

In fact, the album consists mostly of covers. “No You Don’t,” by the British glam rock band Sweet, proved that Benatar had no fear when it came to rocking out. You can also hear evidence of her training: Her intonation is excellent. Among Benatar’s fellow musicians at these sessions was Neil Giraldo on lead guitar and keyboards. He would go on to be not only her lifelong musical partner and primary songwriter, but also her husband. Other members of the band are Scott St. Clair Sheets on rhythm guitar, Roger Capps on bass, and Glen Alexander Hamilton on drums.

 

The following year, Benatar released Crimes of Passion (1980), which climbed all the way to No. 2 and stayed there for five weeks. Radios worldwide couldn’t get enough of the single “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” by Canadian songwriter Ed Schwarz. The album won Benatar a Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Performance.

Joining the band for this album was drummer Myron Grombacher, who continued to work with Benatar for almost 20 years. Otherwise the lineup is the same as the previous album; Keith Olsen was the producer.

Although Benatar, Giraldo, and Capps wrote several of the songs together, one of the most interesting tracks is the cover of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights.” This shows quite a different side of Benatar’s voice, the gentle, sweeping motions of the melody cradled in soft layers of synth.

 

The Grammys gave Benatar another nod for the single “Fire and Ice,” an original composition from the album Precious Time (1981). Olsen produced again. For the first time, most of the songs are original, written primarily by Giraldo.

Benatar shares compositional credit for the story-song “Evil Genius.” Grombacher’s drums contribute particularly to the character of this song, and again Benatar’s exacting intonation is impressive. The arrangement is fleshed out by a chorus of four sax players.

 

Besides being the year that Benatar married Giraldo, 1982 was the release year for the album Get Nervous. Many of the album’s songs were collaborations of Giraldo and hitmaker Billy Steinberg, who co-wrote “Like a Virgin,” “True Colors,” and other juggernauts. But it was D.L. Byron who wrote the album’s big hit, “Shadows of the Night,” originally recorded by for the 1980 movie Times Square. Benatar won her third Grammy for her cover.

One of the Giraldo/Steinberg numbers, “I Want Out,” is noteworthy for Benatar’s hard-rocking vocal performance, which is arguably more interesting than the song itself. That smooth, nimble voice from “Evil Genius” is now a cracking, growling force.

 

By this point, Benatar was on a roll, dropping annual albums that consistently performed well on the charts. In 1983 she made her only live record, Live from Earth (important for including the studio track “Love Is a Battlefield”), followed by another studio album, Tropico, in 1984 (providing the smash single “We Belong”). Seven the Hard Way was released the following year. Its biggest single, “Invincible,” was originally used on the soundtrack of the film The Legend of Billie Jean. The song also garnered a Grammy nomination.

It’s fun to hear Benatar attempt Motown on Seven the Hard Way as she covers a Four Tops song, “7 Rooms of Gloom,” which was the opening track on side B of the LP. Obviously, you need more personnel for a decent Motown sound, so she brought in the Uptown Horns, Donnie Nossov on bass, and over a dozen backup singers. Benatar really seems to glory in this material.

 

Benatar finally slowed the pace of her career a bit, waiting a couple of years to record Wide Awake in Dreamland (1988). She was itching to branch out from rock, so her next effort, True Love (1991), focused on the blues. The group Roomful of Blues provided brass for these mostly up-tempo “jump blues” songs.

A nice example is the cover of B.B. King’s “Payin’ the Cost to Be the Boss.” Benatar delivers with lots of humor and a solid groove:

 

Gravity’s Rainbow (1993) was Benatar’s final recording for Chrysalis. Although sales were less than stellar, the single “Everybody Lay Down” did very well, reaching the No. 3 spot in mainstream rock. Produced by Don Gehman, known for his work with John Mellencamp and Stephen Stills, the album is named after a Thomas Pynchon novel, although it’s not clear how the songs relate to that title or the novel itself.

A particularly interesting track from this album is “Disconnected,” which opens with African percussion and quickly becomes a hard-driving head-banger with a touch of Southern, sort of George Thorogood meets Black Sabbath. Giraldo burns rubber on the guitar, and Frank Linx drives pylons into the harmony with his bassline.

After a few years away from the studio, Benatar released Innamorata (1997), which barely grazed the Billboard 200. Her most recent album to date is Go (2003), produced by Giraldo on the Bel Chiasso label.

Instead of a single drummer on a set, the lineup for Go includes four percussionists. There’s also a string section; Giraldo did the arrangements. Strangely, Go is not available on any streaming service. However, fans have loaded its tracks onto YouTube. Enjoy them while they remain! For example, the title song is a very heavy rock number that exchanges short vocal phrases with crunching guitar riffs. Without question, Benatar is still at the top of her game on this album.

 

At age 67, Benatar continues to tour, proving that rock and roll can keep on flowing forever in a strong woman’s veins.