A musical multi-hyphenate with a diverse resume that includes co-writing credits with everyone from Leonard Cohen to Jewel, Patrick Leonard’s greatest commercial success came writing songs (and frequently co-producing them) alongside a pop star who kind of, sort of made a splash in the ‘80s: Madonna.
First teaming up with the nascent icon for 1985's The Virgin Tour, their ongoing creative partnership eventually yielded 20-some songs, including three Billboard Hot 100 No. 1s ("Live to Tell," "Who's That Girl" and "Like a Prayer") and beloved classics like "La Isla Bonita," "Oh Father" and "Frozen."
And while Leonard, like Madge herself, isn't one to fixate on the past, he recently found himself returning to those songs thanks to an unlikely source: Instagram.
Joining the social media service at the behest of his kids, he was surprised at the enduring interest in his work with Madonna. That led to him playing a show at Joe's Pub in New York City in late 2017, and following the enthusiastic fan response to that concert, he began toying with the idea of recording reimagined versions of those classic hits.
Today, Leonard launched a Kickstarter for Bring the Circus Home, an album of new versions of many of the songs he co-wrote with Madonna; the tracklist isn't fully set, and fans are encouraged to weigh in on what they're hoping to hear. But it's not just Leonard returning to these songs: Many of the original studio personnel (Guy Pratt, Bruce Gaitsch and Michael Verdick) are teaming up with him to create new takes on these beloved classics. Kickstarter contributions range from $10 (which gets you a digital download) to $100 (nets you a vinyl edition) to $10,000 (at that level, you snag an in-person studio session with Leonard himself).
Ahead of the Kickstarter announcement, Leonard hopped on the phone with Billboard to discuss everything from his first meeting with Madonna to his hopes for this new project to why "Live to Tell" is like their own Beethoven's Fifth.
So with Bring the Circus Home, you're reteaming with a number of the original musicians on these songs. And what would you call them – reworked versions?
They're reimaginings, new versions; full electronic productions. I'm working with Guy Pratt, who played bass on the Like a Prayer album; Bruce Gaitsch who played on Ray of Light and True Blue; Bill Bottrell, who engineered and mixed Like a Prayer; and Michael Verdick, who mixed True Blue.
There was the occasional thing. Bill and I worked with Leonard Cohen, before he passed, together, and Guy Pratt, I was always in touch with him. But it's the first time we've done this since we did it 30 years ago.
And what was the impetus for it?
It was a bit of a surprise, really. My friend John Lee put together a show at Joe's Pub in New York, directed at Madonna fans discovered via Instagram. I joined Instagram via a dare from my kids and discovered a whole world of Madonna fans. It opened my eyes to the loyalty people have to the music and those songs and subsequently, myself. From that, I thought of many ways of doing it. Right now we're engaged in the process and finding it's lovely to work with the material. It's really good material, and it's nice to have material the fans are familiar with for us to play with -- but to play with it in a way that feels new. It doesn't feel nostalgic at all to me. It's exciting to find a way to realize them in a way that's satisfying.
I'm surprised you didn’t realize the hunger for this material until you joined Instagram. These are such big hits, you really weren't aware?
No, not really. (Laughs) What I occurred to me, and I hadn't framed it this way, but the fans that were in their young teenage years when these records came out, those records were as important to them as records that came out in my teenage years. I don't why that hadn't occurred to me, but it hadn't.
I'm so pleased there's so many fans, I can't tell you. It's lovely to know when I finish this record, there's people who are excited to hear it. It's a luxurious position to be in. I don't have to write hits—I have 16 of them. It's an embarrassment of riches.
And it's material that's part of your life.
I realized at Joe's Pub, I'm not covering this music. It was apparent to me sitting at the piano playing "Live to Tell" that it's an authentic version of "Live to Tell." That hadn't occurred to me (before then).
Which songs are you working on – the hits mainly, or any deep cuts?
It bounces around. Madonna and I wrote 23 songs in total and 16 were hits; I'll choose from the 16, but songs that weren't necessarily hits but were really fun and cool to do, I'll play with them and see if they have a place. And I'm not necessarily doing full songs. Because I can do what I want – for a change – and I'm having fun experimenting. I'm seeing it as something that can be presented as a live show – from that standpoint, whatever music serves the moment I'll use.
You have complete control over this project. When you were working on these songs with Madonna, what was the studio situation? How much say did you ultimately have?
We collaborated well and I certainly have always held to the mutual respect we show each other. Like any collaboration, there are moments where somebody wants one thing and somebody wants another. But also, having been a studio pro as they say, it's ultimately the artist's record. That's where the final decision always rests and I would never push that envelope. But I don’t really remember too many things we disagreed on. We worked fast: I would start something in the studio, then we would work on it together, then by the end of the day or two at most, the song was done.
In past interviews you've said your tastes skew toward prog-rock – do you see any of that in these songs?
Revisiting these songs, as much as they were in the dance-pop market, I don't think I wrote any dance-pop songs. Look at "Live to Tell," "Oh Father," "Like a Prayer" -- these are not dance-pop songs, even though people dance to them. This record is a lot of years later, and I think in all fairness to progressive rock and its devotees, there hasn't been any new progressive rock that I've listened to or come across in 35 years. It's a root for me, but so was James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and Cole Porter, and Gershwin -- they were all part of my background. The prog-rock thing, yeah, I'd rather see Pink Floyd than Red Hot Chili Peppers. If I'm gearing it toward a show, I'm gearing it toward a thread and concept that tells an emotional story. I find that more interesting than a collection of ten songs unrelated.
And what of taking to the stage – will it be all instrumental, or might you have guest vocalists?
Maybe occasionally, but there will be vocals – not a lot – but there will be vocals, and I'll leave it at that. Some human, some not.
Is Madonna aware of this project?
I don't know, I think she might be. I haven't been secretive about it but I don't know. I intend on reaching out to her and inviting her to participate if she'd like to, even if just to observe. Whatever role she takes is fine with me. I'm fascinated with how fun it is to play with these songs. That's where I am right now.
"Skin" is one of my favorites of your co-writes that's not a hit. Might that make the album?
We recently unearthed all the demos for Ray of Light, and I was listening to them, and "Skin" -- the melody, chord changes, that weird little guitar part -- was all there. And I'm fairly certain that one will be part of this.
When you worked with her on Ray of Light, there had been a bit of a gap in between collaborations. And certainly the songs on that one are more contemplative. Did you notice anything different with her around that time?
I wouldn't say I noticed anything one way or the other. We worked on, I don't know, four or five records and took all those years in between, and then we did that, and then there was a project called Hello Suckers [unfinished] from a decade ago we worked on together. When you do that much collaborating, you just fall right back into it. Wherever you are, you are. The one thing I noticed when we were doing Ray of Light was her singing. She was in a slightly different place singing-wise because of Evita, and I think that influenced some of this stuff for her. There had been a lot of focus on singing for her, and it changed things -- but not better or worst, just different.
Were you surprised to hear from her after the gap?
Finding the demos, I found a folder with all of our faxes (from then). The premise was, "this worked really well before, let's try it again." It was just that, it was kind of innocent. If it goes well, we'll do it, and if it doesn't, fine.
"Frozen" is certainly in the "Live to Tell" vein. Do you ever think "let's try to recapture something about that hit?"
When you're writing something, in my career, the word hit never comes into it. You just can't say that word. It's a bad word to say. I remember she asked me if I could write something that was somewhere between The English Patient and Nine Inch Nails, and that's what "Frozen" was.
Revisiting these songs, does it seem like so much time has passed, or are they still fairly familiar to you?
Yeah it's been an interesting thing looking at these songs, I wouldn't have looked at them again… but to be able to play the music for the fans is the main motivation for this. It took me some time, months, to see the music as raw material. The initial reaction to the music was verse-chorus-bridge, and I'm now seeing it as a chef's kitchen. It's a treasure trove of moments, and to select the moments and look at them individually is fun. I'm getting a kick out of this. I've never gone back to material like this. Some of them, "Live to Tell," I wrote 33 years ago. That's a long time ago, man.
Do you remember writing it, or is the memory muddy?
I remember the moment of sitting at the piano and playing the chords. I remember getting up and playing that at the piano and going, "oh that's cool," and writing it down and developing it. At the time I was developing it for a film. The rest of it… I remember recording a demo a little bit, it was a very simple process, and I remember recording with Michael Verdick, and there was something about that one that was special and different than the other ones. Thematically it's like our Beethoven's Fifth – you hear those three notes and you got it. It identifies itself the quickest. I'm looking for intense drama (on this reworking); I really want it to be dramatic. The record is going to be pretty electronic. I'm playing around with those things, playing around with "Cherish" a bit, looking for a way to do that.
So you aren't set on how many songs will be on this, or which songs will be included?
The record is called Bring the Circus Home and I've written a song called "Bring the Circus Home" that will help tell the story and appear a few different times in little versions. I'm doing this as a vinyl-length record, which means 36 minutes. That's when I realized I don't need to do full songs. You don't need an instrumental version of "Live to Tell" with four verses. We'll bend and twist our way through this stuff. It's early in the process and it may change considerably. But with "Oh Father" the musical sequence (on the new version) is different from the record and I expect the same of all of them. Some I might do a narrative version, one of the soft ballads like "Something to Remember," I'll probably stay true to that, that's one of my favorites. A song like that, you can make big, but you shouldn't mess with it too much. It's melodic and lyrical, and that should stay.
Do you see some of them appearing in medley form?
Not like a medley, more like a narrative. Also one of the ways I'm seeing this is like a live performance. So there's the songs, but what I'm hoping to achieve, is when you come to see it live, that's the experience -- it's not just a bunch of different songs. In a live situation, things can be expanded upon, but conceptually it's still the same flow. So that's what I'm working on now, the flow. And playing around with intensity -- how intense can this be? It's fun. (laughs)
Madonna brengt binnenkort nieuwe muziek uit. Wanneer de nummers uitkomen, is nog niet bekend.
Op Instagram heeft de zangeres donderdag een foto geplaatst waarop Beautiful Game staat. Op het Met Gala dit jaar liet ze al een voorproefje van dit nummer horen.
Of de zangeres een album of een single gaat lanceren, heeft ze nog niet laten weten. In juli 1983 kwam haar debuutalbum Madonna uit, met de hit Holiday erop. In 2015 bracht Madonna voor het laatst een album uit: Rebel Heart.
While American Life certainly wasn't the kiss of death for Madonna, her ninth studio album did end one of the winningest streaks in the history of pop. Although the LP—which was released 15 years ago on April 21, 2003—did debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, it became the lowest-selling studio LP of her career up to that point. And the reviews were mixed at best.
The title-track lead single was one of Madonna’s first bona-fide flops, certainly by her standards. It barely cracked the top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 37. Even worse, it was the object of derision for her stiff, silly rap in the second half where she rhymes “latte” with “shoté” and “MINI Cooper” with “super-duper” and “trooper.” No one wants to hear Madonna rap about her lawyer, manager, agent, chef, nannies, assistant, driver, jet, trainer, butler, bodyguards, gardener and stylist. Not then, and not now. The failure of “American Life” made it hard for the album to recover with subsequent singles “Hollywood,” “Nothing Fails” and “Love Profusion” missing the Hot 100.
But revisiting American Life 15 years later, it deserves more love than it has gotten -- it's perhaps the most underappreciated album of Madonna’s catalog. Listening to it now, it certainly bests Rebel Heart and MDNA, and from a lyrical standpoint, it probably beats 2008’s Hard Candy and maybe even 2005’s beloved Confessions on a Dance Floor. In fact, with its confessional tone and commentary on the American Dream in the President George W. Bush era, American Life is easily one of Madonna’s better lyrical outings.
The strong lyrical perspective is complemented by the cohesive musical vision. Madonna worked with one producer, French electronic savant Mirwais Ahmadzaï, for the entire album—although there was additional production by Mark “Spike” Spent on “I’m So Stupid” and “Nothing Fails”—and they expanded on the folktronica experimentation they did on 2000’s Music. Indeed, if there is one Music song that served as the biggest touchstone for American Life, it's “Don’t Tell Me,” with its twangy trip-hop. Madonna and Mirwais—who are back in the studio working on new music together in 2018—also co-wrote all but three of 11 songs together. With such a tight team, not one of the songs feels out of place (although the dramatic “Die Another Day” from the James Bond film of the same name feels like it should have been sequenced earlier in the record).
In retrospect, American Life—the last truly ambitious album that Madonna has made—also marked the end of a very important phase of her career. Having achieved new artistic depth with 1998’s Ray of Light and continued that creative spirit with Music, she was very much still in risk-taking mode on American Life. You might say those three albums—starting from an electronica base but veering in different directions—amounted to her Berlin Trilogy. On an aesthetic level, this period was Madonna at her Bowie-est.
“Love Profusion,” “Nobody Knows Me” and “Nothing Fails” make for a thrilling three-song sequence that displays varied moods and styles. While glowing with its sweet strumminess, “Love Profusion” faces some troubling uncertainties: “There are too many questions/There is not one solution/There is no resurrection/There is so much confusion.” The zig-zagging “Nobody Knows Me” packs a rock thump and a sense of disillusionment: “This world is not so kind/People trap your mind/It’s so hard to find/Someone to admire.” And “Nothing Fails”—the glorious, gospel-infused centerpiece of American Life—is nothing short of a latter-day “Like a Prayer.”
Elsewhere, “X-Static Process”—co-written by Stuart Price, who Madonna would go on to work with for much of Confessions on a Dance Floor—is a beautiful ballad rich in harmony and emotional directness. You can almost hear echoes of R.E.M. on that and the previous track, “Intervention.” Meanwhile, the solemn, string-laden “Easy Ride” may be one of the best album closers of Madonna’s career. The lyric nods to her notorious work ethic: “I want the good life/But I don’t want an easy ride/What I want is to work for it/Feel the blood and sweat on my fingertips/That’s what I want for me.”
American Life—which still sounds very modern and, in some ways, seems eerily prescient of Trump-era despair—feels more like the Madonna album for now than her recent efforts. It’s not a perfect album—“I’m So Stupid” is still irritating—but it’s the sound of Madonna challenging herself, and us.
Madonna took to Twitter on Tuesday (April 17) to share a clip of herself singing along to a poppy dance track, and one particular hashtag has fans thinking she's reunited with her longtime collaborator Mirwais.
"No This is NOT my new music ------------------ But im having fun in the studio in between takes!! ------------. #music #mirwais #magic," the singer wrote in the caption of the video.
The "Ghosttown" singer confirmed in early 2018 that she has been in the studio working on her 14th record. She's remained cryptic about who she's working with, but by tagging the French record producer and songwriter, many fans are convinced that he's involved. "Is this a hint Mirwais is back in the mix???" one tweeted. "Are you working with #Mirwais again??? Yay!" another wrote.
Madonna and Mirwais previously worked together on three of her albums, including her 2000 record Music, which was nominated for three Grammy Awards and whose title track hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. They also collaborated for 2003's American Life and Confessions on a Dance Floor in 2005.
Billboard has reached out to Madonna's rep for confirmation that she's reuniting with Mirwais but hasn't heard back as of press time.
Anyone who claims that Madonna’s appeal has only ever been erotic is kidding themselves – she’s so much more interesting than that. Yet from the very start, erotica was certainly a primary element of her appeal. Her voice had a tinge of sexual urgency without ever tipping over into blatantly adult-content. And because anticipation is so much more exciting than release, Madonna’s refusal (mostly) to belt out her pop songs at the top of her lungs, keeping them tightly wrapped in understatement, suggested future pleasures in the bedroom without fully succumbing to them. Just like a virgin touched for the very first time.
But the religion/sex mashup “Like a Prayer” saw a decided turn towards a more provocative exploitation of her sexual starlet image. And hot (very hot) on its heels came “Justify My Love”, in which Madonna limited her vocals even further to the point where she was practically just talking in-tune, making her sound all the more sultry.
Erotica follows on in the manner of the sexual frankness of “Like a Prayer” and the vocal lack of fussiness of “Justify My Love”. The album’s a series of dance tunes, each one on average longer than 5 minutes, that combine to create an aura of erotic indulgence delayed gratification. Somewhat cold and distant, building from the bottom up with its plethora of drum machines and chilly synths, the tunes take a while to sink in; yet Madonna is always there to promise the pleasure will come later. She still wants to take you there, but slowly this time, and you’re damned right at her own pace.
I don’t think she ever sounded as in control as on this album – with the exception, perhaps, of Music. She takes enjoyment from the male objects of her desire, she toys with them, she’s sometimes hurt by them. She realises there’s something a little scary about going “Deeper and Deeper” – in love, if not in sex – but you can rarely hear that tentativeness in her voice. After all, sexual power can never be absolutely complete, because a relationship relies on two people, and that other person can always fuck it up. Yet Madonna sounds as autonomous, as in control of her pleasures, as it’s possible to be, on a smart album that acknowledges the complexities of sexual relationships between flawed members of the ever-so-flawed species we call the human race.
Humanity emerges from the synth soundscapes in the form of an all-pervading soft funk that leans heavily on Doug Wimbish’s bass, particularly on “Waiting”, which could almost be a De La Soul track. I don’t use that comparison lightly; on many occasions Erotica verges on hip-hop, and producer Andre Betts even manages to sneak in a rap on “Did You Do It?” As usually is the case with good artists, the use of hip-hop production techniques contributes an exciting creative aura in which almost anything can happen (it’s the reason why hip-hop is easily the best genre of music in the world today). Madonna’s often spoken-word technique fits in with that aura, as does the unexpected cover of “Fever” (the best since Elvis), and the sampling of LL Cool J on “Bye Bye Baby”. ‘Forget the rules’ she says on that last song, and boy does she manage to live by that mantra throughout the rest of the album.
Reviews were pretty mixed when Erotica first came out, and it still tends to get forgotten amidst discussions about the Queen of Pop, which inevitably focus on Like a Prayer and her numerous hit singles. Truth is that I don’t like it quite as much as a few of her other albums, including the seminal Like a Prayer of course, but also the glorious mess of I’m Breathless (an album that contains the line ‘Hanky panky/Nothing like a good spanky’ and a song called “I’m Going Bananas”), Music, and the slowly unspooling Ray of Light.
Yet Erotica is probably her most coherent statement of intent. It’s an incredibly brave flip of the bird, so much as to say ‘I don’t care what you think’, to everyone who thought her career simply boiled down to the one word of its title.
Twenty-five years ago, Madonna changed. Sure, Madonna was always changing, but with the release of Erotica on Oct. 20, 1992, she fully shed her ebullient '80s pop skin, donned a leather cat mask, and kicked open a rusty back alley door that previous chart-toppers only dared to scratch at.
You didn't need to pick up a copy of her celebrity nude-filled coffee table book, Sex, to realize it. You didn't even need to see Madonna Veronica Louise Ciccone, whip in hand, mugging for the camera in the video for the title track. All you needed to do was press play on the album and let the impossibly thick, libidinous bass line of "Erotica" start vibrating throughout your body. Forty seconds in, the sampled horns of Kool & the Gang's "Jungle Boogie" flare up, but instead of sounding reassuring and familiar, they seem disembodied and eerie. Then, Madonna's latest alter ego addresses you, low and firm: "My name is Dita / I'll be your mistress tonight."
If her earlier work was an invitation to celebrate sexuality without shame, Erotica was a challenge from Dita Parlo – Madonna's unashamed, unflinching dominatrix persona – to witness and perhaps even indulge in society's sexual taboos. Madonna may have addressed the male gaze before, but on Erotica, she wasn't just staring back – she was making the world her sub.
Erotica occupies a watershed place in the pop pantheon, setting the blueprint for singers to get raw while eschewing exploitation for decades to come. For its 25th anniversary, Billboard spoke to the players involved in Madonna's most creatively daring release. Here's what producer-writer Andre Betts, backup singer Donna De Lory, producer-writer Shep Pettibone, co-writer Tony Shimkin and Living Colour bassist Doug Wimbish recall of the writing and recording of Erotica, the insane release party for the LP and book, and the collective societal pearl-clutching that followed.
The seeds of Erotica trace back to 1990's The Immaculate Collection, which included two new songs: "Rescue Me" from Shep Pettibone and his assistant Tony Shimkin, and "Justify My Love" from Andre Betts and Lenny Kravitz. The gospel-house of the former hit No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100, while the hip-hop-inflected latter – which scandalized the world with its leather-clad, ambisexual music video -- reached No. 1. For Erotica, Madonna reteamed with Pettibone and Shimkin for 10 tracks, and Betts for four.
Tony Shimkin: After doing The Immaculate Collection and "Rescue Me," she let us know she was working on a new album and wanted us to be involved in the writing. Seeing I was a musician and writer and Shep [Pettibone] was more of a DJ and remixer, we collaborated on the writing of the tracks for the Erotica album. We went up to meet with her in Chicago, post-"Vogue," when she was filming A League of Their Own. So we met with her and started to get to work on some music, and sent it to her as we were working our way through it. She would come into New York and have a book full of lyrics and melody ideas and we started working together in Shep's home studio. I believe the first time she was in New York for an extended period, we were working on "Deeper and Deeper" and "Erotica" and "Bye Bye Baby." She's very driven. There's was never a period of feeling it out -- it was diving in headfirst.
Doug Wimbish: I remember Madonna when she used to go to the Roxy before she got really put on. I'd see her at the Roxy when Afrika Bambaataa was down there or [Grandmaster] Flash, and she was down there jamming out. And not just being a spectator, but being engaged in the scene. Madonna's association with the dance music and the gay scene and the hip-hop scene merging in the downtown clubs in New York City, and her coming from Michigan, she got it.... And she knew Dre had something special. A song like "Where Life Begins" is right up his alley. She had a relationship with Dre for his rawness and realness. You gotta be around someone in this business who tells you, "No, I'm not digging that, that's why." And also keep the window open to listen. I think that's what Dre did.
Andre Betts: "Where Life Begins" was the first song we wrote on Erotica. I started working on the track and she started writing lyrics. She called me a few weeks before and asked me over the phone, "I'll be in New York in two weeks, do you want to work?" I'm like, "Yeah of course." She's like, "Find a studio, I don't want to work in a popular studio, I want to be low-key." [The studio I picked] was a hole in the wall for real. She came in, started writing, she's like, "What do you think about this direction and these lyrics?" I was like, "That sounds like something I'd write." Our session got interrupted because a big rat ran across the floor. I'm the only one that got the feet up so at first I didn't think she saw it, and she goes, "Dre, stop being a bitch, it's just a rat." [Laughs] She said, "I'm from Detroit, I'm not worried about a rat."
Shimkin: She really holds fast to a general rule, which is that she's in charge of lyrics and melody, and you're in charge of music. While she has her say in the music end, it's more about the arrangement and how it works with her vocal. She'll still be open to ideas you have about a vocal. One is her dominion, the other is yours, and they don't meet that often, but it's not unheard of to be able to comment either way.
Donna De Lory: She would completely just hear it in her head. Especially when we're doing vocals. Sometimes [backup singer] Niki [Haris] and I would be like, "How 'bout this? How 'bout that?" And she was like, "Nope, this is how it's going to be." And it ended up being great. She was open to other ideas, but I really respected that.
Wimbish: [My first day in the studio], she rolls up and she's got a box with these Playboy magazines from like the '60s. She comes in, Dre sees her and she's chilling, Dre's like, "Yo what's up Mo how you doing?" They start having a conversation. Dre says, "What do you got here in this box." Before she can say anything Dre takes one of the magazines and opens to the center section, is like, "Damn these old babes had some titties back then!" Dre's real straight up and down with her. She's Madonna, she's got that alpha female vibe -- and no disrespect. I'm like "yo, let me see that." She's like, "No, no, I don't want you to see anything 'til you play some bass." Our relationship was broken in based on Dre, that moment and Playboy magazines. Dre's looking at the centerfold, Madonna's doing her Madonna thing, saying, "no, no," and I'm like, "I'm not doing anything until I see some titties and ass."
Shimkin: I was 21, 22 years old at the time. While I'd worked on a lot of major artists' records and spoken to some of them, it can be intimidating at first. When we worked on "Vogue" I didn't speak to her that much, but when we started working in [Shep's] house [on Erotica] and you're there every day, you realize somebody is just who they are. One time, she was asking me if I was done on the computer. She asked me a few minutes later and I was like "not yet," and I started getting more nervous. The next time she asked me, I lost it and I thought it was the end of my career, I said, "I'm not done yet, make some fucking popcorn and I'll let you know when I'm ready." And she was like, "Ah-k." I think she appreciated someone not being a sycophant and kissing her ass, and just being real. It became much easier as time went on. I think she enjoys having people around her who allow themselves to be themselves. She's really no different than what she puts out there to the public in a movie like Truth or Dare. There's not a persona and she doesn't hide who she is.
The first single and title track, "Erotica," set the tone for her album and the Sexbook (a Middle Eastern-flavored version entitled "Erotic" was included on a CD with copies of Sex). But unlike many of the other tracks on Erotica, "Erotica" underwent numerous radical changes during the album sessions.
Shep Pettibone: "Erotica" was four different songs throughout the process. She loved the groove. She would sing it one way, background vocals harmonies and all, then decide to erase everything and start over again. Every version was very good. Shame she made me erase stuff.
Shimkin: The original version of "Erotica" wasn't as slinky and sexy and grimy and dirty sounding until we were in the mixing process of the record, [which was] more toward the final stages. It was experimentation. When we realized it was going to be the first single and started working on the remix, it took on a different, darker vibe. That's when the character emerged, this Dita, when she ad-libbed the speaking parts. Then the character became something that took over.
Pettibone: At one point this was a finely tuned album. She scrapped that and wanted it dirty, murky and not polished.
De Lory: She was more grown up; she was more mature. She had her statements to make and you were there supporting her.
If "Erotica" was a bold sonic departure for Madonna, the second single, "Deeper and Deeper," found her in more familiar disco and house territory – it even featured a lyrical shout-out to her No. 1 hit "Vogue," which "Deeper and Deeper" producers Pettibone and Shimkin also worked on.
Shimkin: The music [for "Deeper and Deeper"] was fairly complete when we handed it to her, with the exception of the middle break bridge section, which took on this Spanish flamenco feel. It had the disco-y feel, the chorus and the melody was all intact, but when we were in the studio transferring the demo elements and adding new elements and getting ready for the mix, I was sitting on the couch in the control room with a guitar and started futzing around with the guitar line in the flamenco guitar section. And she was like, "Yeah, let's do that." Then Shep came up with the idea, "If we're going to go for it, let's go for it – let's add castanets and really take it there." It was an odd thing -- it's not what you normally think of doing in a disco song or club song. But it was a creative process and a lot of fun. [Ed. note: Originally, "Deeper and Deeper" was Shimkin's only credited co-write on the album; he's since been officially credited as co-writer on six other tracks.]
De Lory: All the records with her, you'd show up at the session and you just couldn't wait to hear what she was doing now. By then I'd gotten to know the fans really well, and I thought "the fans are going to love this," especially when we did "Deeper and Deeper." Niki and I loved those songs because we wanted to belt it out. We had so much fun. I remember the brilliance of her vocal arrangements, how she'd wait 'til the end to bring something new in, and you don't want it to fade out, but it is fading.
Shimkin: We were in the process of adding background vocals [to "Deeper and Deeper"]. Most of the vocals came from a Shure SM57 and a quarter inch tape from the demo session, but we did recut some of the vocals. And Shep, while recording, was singing the "Vogue" line over "Deeper and Deeper." She heard it and emulated it, and it just made it. It's happenstance when the melody and key of an original song meld with another one. I think Shep may have suggested [keeping the "Vogue" reference] as a joke and she did it, and we decided to keep it.
Pettibone: Yes [that's what happened].
For as dark as Erotica is, there's actually quite a bit of humor on it, from the cheeky "Vogue" shout-out to the ridiculously boastful "Did You Do It," a rap freestyle set to the music of another album track, "Waiting." It wasn't originally intended for the commercial LP, but it's the reason there are two different official versions of the album.
Betts: What happened with "Did You Do It" was, we used to snap on each other and make jokes. Madonna and I used to talk a lot of shit to each other – a lot. The guys used to always ask me, "the way you guys talk to each other, I know you guys are doing something." They would ask me, "did you do it? Did you have sex with her?" I'm like, "helllllll no." And they're like, "you're lying, you're lying." One day she had to go somewhere, and I'm almost finished with this record, I'm mixing "Waiting." While she was gone, I was just like, "what are we gonna do now?" Everybody's laughing because it's the song "Waiting" and we're waiting for her. And I said, "give me a mic, I'm going to freestyle something." And as a joke, I told them, "guys I need you to sing this part, yell, 'did you do it,' and I'll do the rest." So when she came back she was expecting to hear "Waiting," but I didn't know she was going to come back with the guys from the [Sex] book. So she comes back with four guys in suits, and the song is cued up, ready to play. So I told my engineer, "play," and he goes "uh, no man, this is not the time." And Madonna goes, "stop being a bitch, play the freaking song." He wouldn't do it, so I hit play and sat back down. I'm thinking, "man I don't know how this is going to go down, but it doesn't matter, I'm already paid and this is the last week." So this is going to be one of the worst jokes of all. When I hit play, man, she leaned over behind me and she literally had tears in her eyes and goes, "You are fucking crazy." Not long after that I was with Doug [Wimbish] in Massachusetts working on Living Colour's Stainalbum, she calls me and says, "Dre, I'm using that song on the album." I said "what? Hell no, I'm not a rapper, I didn't even write those lyrics, I just freestyled them," and she's like "I don't care, I think it's brilliant, I love it." Freddy DeMann [her manager] gets on and says, "What if we gave you 75/25?" And I said, "Shit, put that on the record. I don't care what I sound like now." [Laughs] That's really what happened.
Wimbish: Dre helped pave the road to making her explicit.
Betts: Then she called me back to blame my ass: "You know you're the reason I have to have an explicit sticker on my album." I was like, "okay, how you gonna blame me? You decided to put it on." I was like, "You guys want to go through all the trouble for this song to put two different records out?" Because Kmart wouldn't sell records with explicit stickers on them -- they wouldn't even put them in the store.
Erotica wasn't all libido and leather, though. The reflective, regretful "Bad Girl" is one of her most affecting lyrics, and "In This Life" is Madge at her most existential. Meanwhile, songs like "Bye Bye Baby" and "Why's It So Hard" find her experimenting with filtered vocals and reggae, respectively, and on her cover of Peggy Lee's "Fever," she marries chilly club music to a torch song of yesteryear. Taken together, the album shows Madonna's growing willingness to expand her horizons in terms of subject matter and studio techniques.
Shimkin: "Why's It So Hard" is really funny, because it was midpoint writing the record, and we were all a little burnt out. Everybody went on vacation, and Shep happened to go to Jamaica and I happened to go scuba diving in the Cayman Islands, and both places are heavily reggae-based culture. That's what we came back having listened to, so we decided out of nowhere to do a reggae track. And then my vocals appeared on it. Going to see the Girlie Show live and see my vocals lip synced and coming over the loudspeakers at Madison Square Garden was surreal for me.
De Lory: The song "In This Life" was very serious. It was just nice to go into the studio and share our own voices on that, which we could all relate to with what was going on, losing friends to AIDS.
Shimkin: "In This Life" had a really deep personal attachment to her, and [it has an] uncluttered nature to allow her vulnerability to come through. Obviously ["Bad Girl" was] a highly personal lyric. There's a raw element and simplicity that lends itself to a vulnerable vocal and lyric that she puts through. You really hear the emotion in her voice.
Pettibone: [I] never thought about [whether "Bad Girl" was autobiographical]. It was just a good song that I'm sure many people can relate to.
Shimkin: "Bye Bye Baby" was committed to tape with the filtered vocal – it wasn't an afterthought, it was how she heard herself when doing the song. We went to tape with that effect, there was no removing that. Sometimes you apply treatments like that in the mix, but that was committed to tape. There were no restrictions. Everything was tried that was wanted to be tried.
De Lory: When I heard "Bye Bye Baby" and that vocal effect, it had a lot of attitude. There's a bit of girl power in there and that attitude to be able to say that to a guy. You can hear how ahead of its time it was.
Shimkin: We had a song called "Goodbye to Innocence" but that turned into a cover of Peggy Lee's "Fever"; it was something that evolved with the project. There was a song called "Shame" and "You Are the One" [from the sessions that didn't make the album]. I think "You Are the One" fell into what "Thief of Hearts" was feel-wise, and "Shame" probably could have made the record, but it had a happier vibe, it was a little more playful, so I see why it didn't. But they're sitting there in the vaults somewhere. Maybe one day the Basement Tapes will be dug up. Some of it can be found online. People, I think, went into Library of Congress, played demo tapes and somehow copied them. Madonna has such a rabid fan base, they're so interested in knowing everything she does.
De Lory: Niki and I recently did a cover of "Rain," we both love that song and love singing it live [the two still record and perform together]. When I listen to those records I'm so proud of her for being so innovative and being fearless, and to be part of that was incredible. To be on a recording that will be around for as long as forever will be for us humans, I'm so proud. Niki and I were really taken care of, we were paid well and respected and had a great time with Tony and Shep, and I think that comes across on the records.
While Madonna's turn toward transgression wasn't apparent to everyone during the sessions, her collaborators eventually realized the through-line that connected Erotica, her Sex book and the erotic thriller Body of Evidence. At the very least, they were certainly aware of the controversy that engulfed the album upon its release.
Wimbish: She knew how to deliver with shock and awe. The industry had a flow, she got it, and I'm not brownnosing her.
Shimkin: I'm 99.9 percent certain she had this [overarching theme] envisioned ahead of time. It wasn't as obvious to us before when we were doing songs like "Rain" and "Bye Bye Baby" and "Why's It So Hard," but as it slowly came together, it became more obvious as we saw things alongside it. The Sex book, that was being worked on, and she was shooting the [Body of Evdience] movie with Willem Dafoe.
Pettibone: She kept the book very secret from me. It probably would have been a bigger album without all the controversy. But, after 25 years it still sounds good. Better than her newer albums actually. Whatever the matter, I'm still proud of it.
Wimbish: There's all this controversy going on. Here's the deal. From "Borderline" going on, she's a teenage pop idol. And now all the sudden them titties is out. Middle America and everybody else giving their daughters that $10 to buy that record are like, "hey, wait a minute…" Having a record come out with explicit can take sales away from a label. It's all bullshit. People start freaking out and people are starting to cockblock. It's a business we're in. Anybody sees a possibility to shut stuff down, and it starts in the industry itself. But you wouldn't have some of the lanes that are there now without her putting that record out. Fact.
For the book/album release party, Madonna doubled down on the BDSM imagery and threw an infamous party at Industria Superstudio that (to paraphrase Morrissey) would have made Caligula blush.
Betts: Walking in, just showing up out front, is Hulk Hogan standing there trying to get in. He eventually got in. I walk up with my dreads and about three four people, they look at me walk in, I look back at Hulk Hogan like "shit…he could probably whoop my ass." I'm thinking this will be regular party, whatever. The first thing I saw was a naked person suspended in the air on chains, and I say to myself, "oh shit, this will be one hell of a party."
Wimbish: That record launch party she had, oh my God, that was one of the best record release parties ever. By the time I got there it was way past full effect. She had folks behind glass, strippers, and she was like, "this is the way it's supposed to be done." This is no kissing and cuddling – I want to scare you. All y'all know what you're really doing behind closed doors, so let's get it on.
Betts: When I saw the sushi come by with two tits on the tray and the sushi surrounding the tits, I was like, "oh man." Then I saw this big tub of popcorn but the popcorn was moving because this naked woman was underneath the popcorn. I was like, "this is getting crazy now." My friend goes "what's all those doors over there?" So he looks in the first one and goes "oh shit Dre come here," and there's a girl playing with herself. And I go "wow, okay." So then he moves to the second one, there's a couple in there having sex. And he goes to the third one, and it's two guys. And he freaked the freak out, he's like, "oh shit! I've never seen that before." And there was two doors left and he goes "hell no, I don't know what I might see in those doors." The whole point of the party is you didn't know what you're going to see.
Wimbish: The record was one thing, but that party, in my opinion, changed the game.
Betts: She herself didn't do anything crazy that night. She was like, "I've had enough, I want to chill."
Erotica netted four top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, including two top 10s ("Erotica" went to No. 3; "Deeper and Deeper" rose to No. 7), and hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200. It's sold 1.9 million copies to date, according to Nielsen. Even so, the album received mixed reviews, especially compared to the raves she got for Like A Prayer three years earlier. But Erotica has quietly grown in stature over the past quarter century, with critics and artists frequently citing it as a pivotal release in pop and one of her finest efforts. Perhaps the best postscript for Erotica comes from Madonna herself in this 1992 interview with MTV's Steve Blame: "A lot of the things I deal with in my music and the book are, in particular, with the repression that's going on in America right now.…There's a lot of really narrow-minded people. If I can change the way 1/100th of them thinks, then I've accomplished something."
"Like a Virgin" may be Madonna's most iconic hit, but "Like a Prayer," which turns 25 today, is by all accounts her most broadly beloved contribution to the pop-music canon, landing at #7 on our list of the Best Singles of the 1980s. Even the singer's most ardent critics can't help but bow at the altar of the song, a gospel-infused conflation of spiritual and sexual ecstasy that helped transform Madge from '80s pop tart to bona fide icon. To celebrate this sacred anniversary, we're taking a look back at the song's evolution over the last quarter century.
Pepsi Commercial: Following a teaser that aired during the 31st Annual Grammy Awards in January of 1989, Madonna premiered "Like a Prayer" in a Pepsi commercial during The Cosby Show, the #1 rated series on U.S. television at the time. Part of a $5 million sponsorship deal with the soft-drink company, the ad, titled "Make a Wish," was an innocuous bit of nostalgia that would soon be eclipsed by the scandal surrounding the single's forthcoming music video.
Music Video: Madonna dances in front of burning crosses and kisses a black saint in a church pew in this modern morality tale about racial profiling and pious guilt, prompting both the religious right and cultural critics, like bell hooks, to cry foul. Eventually, the mounting outrage caused Pepsi to pull out of their multi-million dollar deal with the Queen of Pop. The singer's response was coyly defiant.
Blond Ambition Tour: Madonna's first live incarnation of "Like a Prayer" was also her best. Sure, her voice was raw and unrefined ("Life is a misstaree, eve'one mus stan alone," she heaves), but her 1990 tour performances of the song displayed a rapturous, almost possessed quality that she's never been able to recapture.
Mad'House Cover: Dutch Eurotrash group Mad'House's claim to fame is their blasphemous take on "Like a Prayer" from 2002. The glorified Madonna cover band's version is stripped of the original's nuance and soul, a tacky, mechanical shell of a dance track. Regrettably, this is the version you're most likely to hear on Top 40 radio today. (Only slightly less heretical, the cast of Glee's rendition of the song peaked at #27 in 2010.)
MTV On Stage & On the Record: Then notorious for forsaking her older material, Madonna dusted off "Like a Prayer" in 2003 during the promotion of her album American Life. Thirteen years after her last live performance of the song, even Madonna's comparatively reedier voice and noticeably more limited range couldn't diminish its enduring magic.
Sticky & Sweet Tour: After performing crowd-pleasing but relatively anemic versions of "Like a Prayer" during her Re-Invention Tour in 2004 and Live 8 in 2005, Madonna reinvented the song for her Sticky & Sweet Tour in 2008, using elements of Mack's "Feels Like Home" for an amped-up techno mash-up.
The Super Bowl: Madonna closed her record-breaking Super Bowl XLVI halftime show in 2012 with "Like a Prayer," and though she wasn't singing live, it was the closest she's ever gotten to her ecstatic Blond Ambition performances. (For those lamenting the lip-synching, she would go on to reprise this version of the song, completely live, during her MDNA Tour later that year.) And if there were any doubt, a stadium of nearly 70,000 football fans waving flashlights and singing along is a testament to the song's transcendent, all-encompassing appeal. The performance's final message of "World Peace" seemed attainable, if only for a brief moment.
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