Madonna: Like A Prayer 30 Years On

Here it is: Madonna’s artistic breakthrough, the first album of hers that was really geared to the CD-buying audience, and a fresh start after the distinctly dodgy years of 1987 and 1988.

Like A Prayer (weird title: didn’t someone in the Warner Bros. marketing department say, ‘Hey, it’s a bit similar to Like A Virgin‘?) was released 30 years ago this week. It topped the US and UK charts, spawned six hit singles and has sold around 15 million copies to date.

It was a revelation on a few levels – Madonna’s singing voice had more range and richness. Her lyrics were getting personal. There were two songs about her marriage to Sean Penn, and three zoning in on family relationships. She co-wrote and co-produced all the songs; by all accounts she knew exactly what she wanted and was present at all the tracking sessions, finding ever new ways of inspiring the performances she was after (see below).

She hooked up with co-producer/co-songwriter Pat Leonard to great effect. It was a classic double act – she provided melodies, street smarts and lyrics, he provided the classically-trained piano and arrangement skills. The result was her Sgt Pepper’s, a varied, ambitious, major work.

But how does Like A Prayer stack up these days? Here’s a track-by-track rundown of arguably Madonna’s greatest album.

‘Like A Prayer’: The lead-off single, a US and UK #1, once described by Rolling Stone magazine as ‘as close to art as pop music gets’. It was also highly controversial in its allusions to oral sex and an apparent conflation between religious/sexual ecstasy, not to mention the envelope-pushing video.

‘Express Yourself’: Great feminist party pop/funk tune co-written with Stephen Bray, inspired by Sly And The Family Stone and anchored by JR Robinson’s crisp grooving. Shep Pettibone’s single remix subsequently usurped the album version. David Fincher’s video cost a reported $5 million.

‘Love Song’: This duet with Prince was a curious meeting of pop giants, musically in the Lovesexy/Batman mould but lacking a great hook, though apparently they did initially write it eye to eye, Prince programming drums and Madonna donning a synth. Tapes were then worked on individually and sent back and forth between LA and Minneapolis. Whilst interesting, it’s nearer to a Prince B-side than something really memorable.

‘Til Death Do Us Part’: A coruscating portrait of her marriage breakup to Sean Penn, made even more poignant by its sprightly Scritti-style pop. Bassist Guy Pratt was the recipient of Madonna’s unique production style on this track. ‘What did you think of that?’ she asked him after one take. ‘Um… I think it was OK…’ was his response. ‘Did it make your d*ck hard?’ Madonna shot back!

‘Promise To Try’: A powerful ballad, featuring an uncharacteristically emotional vocal. According to Madonna, it was written completely spontaneously: ‘He (Leonard) just sat down and started playing, and I started singing.’

‘Cherish’: More Scritti-inspired pop fun, all major chords and twinkling synths, looking at happier times with Sean. Jeff Porcaro’s trademark shuffle is his one and only drumming appearance on the album.

‘Dear Jessie’: An inspired take on late-’60s psychedelia, almost like a children’s lullaby. A very cool, unexpected track.

‘Oh Father’: A gorgeous ballad in 6/4 with music by Leonard and lyrics by Madonna, written in a tiny rehearsal studio in the garment district of New York when Madonna was in ‘a very, very dark place’ during her tenure in the David Mamet play ‘Speed-the-Plow’. Madonna: ‘”Oh Father” is not just me dealing with my father. It’s me dealing with all the authority figures in my life’. The song’s intro alone can put a big lump in this writer’s throat. Madonna apparently coaxed the band through the song, telling bassist Pratt and drummer Jonathan Moffett in no uncertain terms where not to play. Apart from string section and guitar overdubs, they got it on the second full take, including Madonna’s live vocal. During the sessions, Moffett also asked her when he should come in. ‘You come in when I do this’, she replied, lifting up her blouse!

‘Keep It Together’: Another Stephen Bray co-write, this Go-Go-inspired ode to family togetherness, featuring some brilliant Randy Jackson bass, became a mainstay of her ‘Blond Ambition’ tour. If you play it loud you can also really hear the superb backing vocals of her regular live duo Niki Haris and Donna DeLory.

‘Pray For Spanish Eyes’: The point where Like A Prayer starts to run out of steam. A corny, soft-rock version compendium of Spanish clichés, complete with castanets and weary acoustic guitar, and a weirdly unmemorable melody.

‘Act Of Contrition’: And here’s the other stinker. Madonna free-associates awkwardly over a reversed version of the title track, with Prince’s backwards guitar track also ladled on to no great consequence.

Further reading: ‘Songwriters On Songwriting’ by Paul Zollo

‘My Bass And Other Animals’ by Guy Pratt

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Narada Michael Walden: Looking At You, Looking At Me/The Nature Of Things/Divine Emotion

Singing drummers: the ’80s were chock-a-block with ’em. But Narada seems a somewhat forgotten example, at least compared to the far more popular Phil C, Don H, Stevie W and Sheila E.

Yet he started the decade as the one you’d probably have put your money on, ending the ’70s as he did with an impressive run of R’n’B hits.

Narada had of course started his music career as a jazz/rock drumming tornado in the second incarnation of John McLaughlin’s mighty Mahavishnu Orchestra, going on to record famous fusion sides with Jeff Beck, Weather Report, Tommy Bolin, Alphonso Johnson and Jaco Pastorius.

During the ’80s, he was one of the most in-demand producers on the planet, helming Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, Aretha Franklin/George Michael’s ‘I Knew You Were Waiting For Me’ and Starship’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’. But his solo career was somewhat in limbo during this period, so it’s fascinating to check out a new, nicely-appointed three-album survey of his 1983-1988 output.

Looking At You, Looking At Me (1983) is the best of the three albums, but a frustratingly inconsistent record. Listening to the superb title track, you’d think he might have found hit his true metier, a languid, luxurious, West Coast pop/jazz, similar to the kind of music Al Jarreau or Manhattan Transfer were making at the time.

But an OK duet with Angela Bofill, passable cover of ‘Reach Out (I’ll Be There)’ and sick drum-machine/horn workout ‘Shake It Off’ aside, the rest of the album is fairly unmemorable R’n’B with occasional virtuosity from guitarist Corrado Rustici and bassist Randy Jackson.

The followup, 1985’s Nature Of Things, is even more problematic, sounding mainly like a kind of soft R’n’B version of the ‘Top Gun’ soundtrack, with way too many synth-based ballads. But Divine Emotion (1988) was a partial return to form, led by the effervescent title track (with one of the great ’80s basslines) which gave him a timely UK hit.

Narada had obviously been prompted into action by his highly successful production work – his vocals and arrangements have never been better. But while Divine Emotion sounds like a million dollars, there are still issues on the songwriting front. Put simply, only the title track, ‘But What Up Doh’ and closer ‘We Still Have A Dream’ have memorable hooks (the latter also features some brilliant jazz/rock kit work from Narada).

One wonders what might have happened if he had hooked up with some great ‘pop’ songwriters like Kenny Loggins, Rod Temperton, Michael McDonald, Carole Bayer Sager or even Burt Bacharach at the outset of the decade rather than relentlessly ploughing his own furrow. ‘Looking At Me, Looking At You’ offers tantalising possibilities.

But looking at his career as a whole, it’s all turned out fine – Narada’s always been one of the coolest, most talented musician/producers around, and apparently he’s an absolute joy to work with.

Angela Bofill: Angel Of The ’80s

angelaThe strand of jazzy soul music developed by artists like Minnie Riperton, Phyllis Hyman, Chaka Khan, Jon Lucien, Al Jarreau, Randy Crawford and Carl Anderson probably reached its commercial apex with Anita Baker’s eight-million-selling 1986 album Rapture.

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But perhaps the most underrated singer in that style was Angela Bofill, an ever-present on the US R’n’B charts between 1978 and 1984. Best known for her sultry ballads and Latin-tinged mid-tempo jazz/soul tracks, I stumbled upon an Angie Best-Of sometime in the early ’90s and have been a fan ever since.

Her voice has a lovely, yearning quality, with power, range, great enunciation and a hint of Whitney Houston about it. But you’ll never hear Bofill’s music on the radio, at least here in the UK, and it’s a shame that she didn’t quite manage that breakthrough pop hit.

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Born in the Bronx to a Cuban father and Puerto Rican mother, Bofill studied classical singing at the Manhattan School of Music. After a tip-off from Latin Jazz flautist Dave Valentin, she was initially mentored by producers Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen, recording her successful first two albums Angie and Angel Of The Night for the fledgling GRP label.

Moving to Arista Records under the supervision of legendary impresario Clive Davis, she worked with some big-name producers throughout the ’80s: George Duke, Narada Michael Walden, Norman Connors and The System (David Frank/Mic Murphy). Narada particularly seemed a good fit for her, co-writing a few killers such as ‘Tropical Love’ and ‘Too Tough’ and teaming up with future ‘American Idol’ judge Randy Jackson on bass to make a phenomenal rhythm section.

Angela also made a wonderful guest appearance on ‘Where Do We Go’, the standout track from Stanley Clarke’s lacklustre Hideaway album of 1986, and there were also interesting duets with Boz Scaggs and Johnny Mathis around the same time.

But her most impressive material was self-penned. ‘You’re A Special Part Of Me’, ‘Gotta Make It Up To You’, ‘Song For A Rainy Day’ (which she also produced), ‘I Try’ (memorably covered by Will Downing in the early ’90s), ‘Accept Me’, ‘Rainbow Inside My Heart’ and ‘Time To Say Goodbye’ are all stand-outs which demonstrate her fine musicianship as well as vocal skills. It’s a shame her composing, producing and arranging talents were never properly utilised, though she left us with a few classics nevertheless.

Angela made a comeback in the mid-’90s with Love In Slow Motion, a nice album featuring three superb tunes – ‘All She Wants Is Love’, ‘Soul Of Mine‘ and the very Janet Jackson/Jam & Lewis-esque ‘Love Changes‘ – which matched anything from her ’80s peak. She also made a notable appearance at the 1998 Montreux Jazz Festival with Billy Cobham and George Duke.

Unfortunately serious illness befell Angela in 2006. Two strokes have limited her recording and live appearances, but she did make a brief return to the stage in 2012: ‘The Angela Bofill Experience’ featured stories from her life and career, with artists such as Maysa Leak, Phil Perry and Melba Moore performing signature songs.

Since then, things have been quiet, but we send good vibes from London. Angie’s certainly not forgotten in these parts.