Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Madonna Long Players: 1996-1999

With the release of 1995’s “Something To Remember” being designed as a showcase for ‘Madonna The Singer-Songwriter’, the stage was thus set for a comeback by the Queen Of Pop. Her return to the throne was a two pronged attack - starting with the none-more-mainstream hysteria that was “Evita”, followed by the futuristic sounds of 1998’s “Ray Of Light”, in which Madonna simultaneously revisited her disco inspired past, whilst also bringing the Electronica genre fully into the pop charts. Welcome to part 6 of my look at Madonna on Thirty Three and a Third.

Elsewhere on this site, I have mentioned that Madonna plugged the first single from “STR”, “You’ll See”, via a Top Of The Pops TV appearance - the first time she had appeared on this (now mostly defunct) UK pop institution for more than a decade. This was achievable mainly because Madonna was already in London anyway, recording the soundtrack for the “Evita” movie. Ever since talk about trying to adapt this musical for the big screen had been started in the late 1970s, Madonna’s name had long been associated with it, and now, finally, her dream had come true.

For much of the final quarter of 1995, Madonna was holed up in a London hotel, heading out after lunch to the local Whitfield Street Studios to record the score of the film. She returned the following May to finish filming on the movie itself, this time renting a house - with a huge front wall - in West London, by which time she was pregnant with her first child. She was thus camera shy this time around, and would come out of the house with an open magazine held in front of her face to try and shield herself from the photographers. By the end of May, filming and recording on “Evita” was thus finished, and Madonna focused then on delivering Lourdes that October.

Promotion for “STR” had trundled on alongside all this activity, with singles being issued on both sides of the Atlantic during the first half of 1996. After a remixed “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” had surfaced in the US, and “One More Chance” had turned up on 45 in the UK, Madonna’s next single was “You Must Love Me” - the first release from “Evita”, and a new song written specifically for the movie adaptation.

Madonna’s involvement in “Evita” gave Warner Bros an excuse to really push the soundtrack album. It was promoted as heavily as any ‘normal’ Madonna album might have been, with not one, but three singles being released in the UK, just as they had done with the earlier non-Madonna but Madonna-heavy “Who’s That Girl” soundtrack LP. Furthermore, they issued not one but two variant editions of the soundtrack itself - firstly, to coincide with the movie release in late 1996, they put out a 19 track “highlights” set on both CD (Warner Bros 9362 46432 2) and Cassette (Warner Bros 9362 46432 4) and then followed this up with a version featuring the full (nearly) unedited movie score as a 2xCD set (Warner Bros 9362 46346 2). This edition came in a new sleeve, with a slightly altered title, and I am convinced it was issued in the UK in early 97 to coincide with ‘Awards Season‘ despite showing a “1996“ copyright date. I could be totally wrong, it was a long time ago. As for the movie itself, both Madonna and the film picked up honours at the Golden Globes, whilst “You Must Love Me” got “Best Original Song” at the Oscars. This was the nearest Madonna ever got to bagging herself an Academy Award, but at least she sung the winning song, so you could say she had an Oscar by proxy.

With the whole “Evita” project now over, it was time to go back - properly - to the day job. In May 1997, Madonna began working on material with former collaborator Babyface, who had co-written the majestic “Take A Bow” for 1994’s “Bedtime Stories”. The songs the pair came up with recalled this pop triumph a bit too closely, and sensing a feeling of déjà vu, Madonna abandoned the partnership.

Madonna then briefly worked with one-time Belinda Carlisle collaborator Rick Nowels. In just over a week, the pair came up with seven songs, but any plans to use these songs with Nowels producing seemed to be either non-existent, or were also abandoned, as Madonna was soon working with another collaborator soon after, old pal Patrick Leonard. Again, this partnership was short lived, as the songs they were coming up with did not fit Madonna’s vision for the album - at least not with Leonard‘s planned production techniques - but a number of songs from both these sessions were put “in the bag“ for future reference.

A suggestion was made by Maverick Records head honcho Guy Oseary to Madonna that she might consider working with electronica act William Orbit. Orbit had worked with Madonna before, but only in a remix capacity - he had created reworkings of “Justify My Love” and “I’ll Remember”, but Madonna was interested in trying to create an entire album of Orbit-helmed music.

A number of the songs that Madonna had already written with Nowels and Leonard were played to Orbit, who thought they sounded a bit too polished, but some of which he figured could be re-worked. Three of the songs from the Nowels session thus survived, “The Power Of Goodbye”, “To Have And Not To Hold” and “Little Star”, the first two of which were to benefit from production work by Orbit and Leonard, with the latter being produced instead by Marius De Vries. Several songs from the Leonard sessions also survived to make the final cut - “Skin” and “Nothing Really Matters” were overseen by Orbit and De Vries, whilst Orbit and Leonard co-produced “Frozen” and “Sky Fits Heaven”. One thing you can see here, is that despite the album often being referred to as a full blown Orbit/Madonna collaboration, there were actually three other co-producers on this record alongside the lady herself.

Nevertheless, Orbit’s involvement was crucial and substantial, and he came up with various electronic inspired pieces which were played to Madonna, to which she attempted to write lyrics. At least eight songs were completed by the pair, with seven given the nod for official release. One of these, “Has To Be”, was a collaboration between Madonna, Orbit and Leonard, with Orbit producing, but was left off the regular album, surfacing as a B-side in the UK instead. Of the remaining six, three were straight ahead Madonna/Orbit songwriting/production efforts - “Swim”, “Shanti Ashtangi” and “Mer Girl”. The other three songs featured help from outside songwriters, although the shared credits for the title track came about because Orbit’s original demo was based heavily on a 1971 song by Curtiss Maldoon, called “Sepheryn”. Orbit had worked with a relative of one of the members of the band on a version of the song, which was then reworked by Madonna with the blessing of the group.

Work on the album began in earnest in mid June 1997, and with most of the album being designed to follow the “electro” vibe of Orbit’s own solo material, much of the music was created using computers, meaning that few people other than Madonna, the engineers, and Orbit, were ever in the studio. Orbit’s computers were prone to breaking down, and Madonna had to wait whilst he fixed them, something she found frustrating. As a result, despite being a computer driven recording experience, the time frame of recording lasted longer than any previous Madonna album had taken, with finishing touches not being applied until November that year.

The album had something of a hippy, earth mother vibe - Madonna had become fascinated with Kabbalah and mysticism in general, and had started to study Hinduism and Buddhism. She took up Yoga. The front cover image also looked nothing like the stocking-clad sex kitten image that had appeared in the early 90s on “Justify My Love“ and in the “Sex“ book. The song “Shanti Ashtangi” featured lyrics in Sanskrit, and the video for lead single “Frozen” showed her with Mendhi imagery on her hands.

Motherhood also seemed to filter into proceedings. The terrifying finale, “Mer Girl”, featured numerous family references, with the “daughter that never sleeps” line being an obvious reference to Lourdes, as was the entire “Little Star“ single. A later single, “Drowned World / Substitute For Love”, featured a video which concluded with Madonna hugging a child, whilst the lyrics of “Sky Fits Heaven” included the line “child fits mother, so hold your baby tight”. It’s safe to say that there was a lineage here between the death of Madonna’s own mother at such an early age, and the reaction that it seemed to be having on her now she was a mother herself.

When it wasn’t coming over all spiritual, or indeed all miserable, “Ray Of Light” bristled with a vibrant energy. Whatever you might think of Orbit’s own solo records, the combination of his dance music stylings with Madonna’s pop suss, created something genuinely forward thinking. The title track was a blaring, hi-energy romp, that almost made “Into The Groove” sound like a Tindersticks B-side, whilst the monumental build up of “Drowned World” helped to create one of Madonna’s more unusual, and stunning, pop nuggets. The pounding throb of “Sky Fits Heaven”, the off kilter crunch of “Candy Perfume Girl”, the techno rumble of “Skin” - as impressively grand and bold as “Evita” was as a movie, the music itself was dangerously AOR, so much so that it even sounded dated seconds after you’d first listened to it (it was an old musical though, really, to be fair), but “Ray Of Light” sounded like it had been beamed in from the future. Just as Bowie had gone drum and bass the year before on “Earthling”, Madonna too was ahead of the pop crowd - this was a record that predated the Xenomania designed future-pop of Girls Aloud some five years before they happened, and even now, it still seems light years ahead of what sometimes passes for “modern pop” these days (yes I’m talking about you, Taylor Swift).

In terms of releases, “Ray Of Light” appeared in the UK on the three standard formats of the time - Double LP (Maverick 9362 46847 1), Cassette (Maverick 9362 46847 4) and CD (Maverick 9362 47487 2). The cassette edition eventually went out of print, whilst the CD version - of course - remains on catalogue, thanks to Madonna’s disinterest in repackaging her back catalogue. The vinyl version was technically reissued in 2003 as a 180g edition, and although some copies were issued - especially in Europe - in a suitably stickered sleeve, others weren’t, and given that the original catalogue number was retained, there is nothing visually different between a 1998 original or a later repress. Similarly, anybody buying a CD edition of “ROL” today may not get a copy with the “featuring the hits” sticker that appeared on the original 1998 release, but it is otherwise to all intents and purposes, exactly the same. It is also available in the 2012 “Complete Studio Albums” boxset, housed in a simple card sleeve, retaining the front and rear cover designs and also the original graphic display as found on the disc itself, plus the less comprehensive "Original Album Series" 5-CD box issued at the same time. I intend to do a full look at these boxes in due course.

As mentioned in earlier “Madonna on LP” blogs, Warners had - by now - abandoned the concept of UK specific catalogue numbers, and all pressings of the album were essentially made in Europe, and then distributed around the continent. However, original UK pressings had a special Warner Brothers hologram with the “UK” legend printed over the top, so effectively, any without these are German imports or later repressings (at least regards the CD edition). The US was also treated to a special limited edition version in a fancy 3-D reflective digipack - some copies were exported around Europe, and listed both the US catalogue number and a “European” one on the back only (Maverick 9362 46884 2), but copies were not stocked in that many stores IIRC. I don’t have one, and I used to go to HMV on a weekly basis back then. Along with a similarly “swish” version of 1994’s “Bedtime Stories”, the 90s saw the beginning of a lengthy period in which all ‘new’ Madonna albums were treated to a more special US release than their UK counterparts (finally ending, sort of, with this years “Rebel Heart“) - more detail in my future Madonna album blogs.

“Ray Of Light” was the subject of much excitement by the critics - it was seen not only as a return to form, but was claimed by some to have been single-handedly responsible for the movement overground of the hitherto underground “electronica” genre. This might be pushing it a bit, given that the likes of The Chemical Brothers had been having hit singles in the UK at least two years before. But it certainly was a contemporary sounding release, and is cited by some as being Madonna’s finest effort. Warners seemed thrilled by it, issuing a gargantuan five singles from the record, and it seemed to get Madonna on a roll again - it was followed by the Doors-inspired psychedlic-electropop of “Beautiful Stranger”, Madonna’s (one time) stand along single from May 1999, another collaboration with Orbit, and seen as further evidence of Madonna’s now undisputed “Queen Of Pop” status being totally confirmed. But the five years that followed were a bit more troublesome, and Madonna had to conduct another “comeback” in 2005. My next blog, possibly due before year end, will look at the albums released in that sometimes awkward 2000-2004 period.