Looking back on the album that gave the Wilson sisters, and their fans, a true voice
When I was a youngster, I always felt out of place, but couldn’t put a finger on why.
Voices on the radio spoke to me, in a way the singers didn’t necessarily intend, but they most certainly resonated.
These were women’s voices that I related to in a way that said, “You’re who you are, not who people who say you are. You can be like us in a way.” So many did in this period– Debbie, Stevie & Christine, Chrissie and, definitely among them — Ann and Nancy.
The Wilson sisters weren’t just on the radio in the various apartments and homes I lived in back then. My mother had a copy of Heart’s Dreamboat Annie in heavy rotation. I liked it well enough, but then came its follow-up — 1977’s Little Queen, which was released 45 years ago this week.
As my own self-realization was growing, in its painfully slow and awkward fashion, this was an album that, in its myriad ways, spoke to me.
Of course, I had no idea of the path that album took to get to my young ears.
Heart had existed as a band, under other names, since the late ’60s. The band’s trajectory changed from a chance meeting between Mike Fisher, the brother of guitarist Roger Fisher, and Ann Wilson at one of the band’s shows. That led to Wilson joining the band as its lead singer. Nancy, who wanted to be in college at the time, was reluctant to join at first, but the inevitable happened and she entered the fold.
VIDEO: Heart “Magic Man”
The Wilson sisters were the addition the band needed. They had a record deal in Canada and put out Dreamboat Annie. The success there of the song “Magic Man” led to a break — getting an almost literally last-minute spot opening for Rod Stewart at a sold out show at the Montreal Forum. With the growing momentum, Mushroom was able to start selling the album in the States.
By November of 1976 — buoyed by the massive success of “Magic Man” and “Crazy on You”, Heart’s debut had gone platinum in the United States.
Mushroom Records, an outgrowth of a Vancouver recording studio, was a small and relatively new label. And now it had, almost off the bat, an album that was a huge success in North America.
So, what could go wrong? Why are you more much more familiar with the name Heart than Mushroom Records? Well, that’s where Heart’s route to Little Queen gets bumpy.
The label, looking to celebrate the album’s success, took out an ad in the last issue of Rolling Stone for 1976.
So far, so good, right? Then came the ad itself, modeled as a sendup of tabloids like The National Enquirer, referred to as The National Informer. It used a photo of the Wilson sisters from the Dreamboat Annie cover shoot session, topless but cropped above any nudity with an innuendo-laced caption, implying incest to be “edgy” — “Heart’s Wilson sisters confess: ‘It was only our first time!'”
The ad’s content, put together without the sisters’ consent, was the last straw for the group. They were already angry after the label tried to paint their initial success as a fluke when they attempted, with an actual manager, to achieve a fairer royalty rate.
The breakdown happened when Heart had started recording their intended second album — Magazine. The label refused to change its royalty rate and, thus, the sessions with producer Mike Flicker, who’d also produced Dreamboat Annie, stopped.
Flicker, angered by this, left Mushroom. This gave Heart the opening they wanted, as their contract with the label specified that Flicker would be their producer.
So, not only had Mushroom figured out how to anger their only successful act, they’d signed them to a deal that left a loophole big enough to let a platinum seller leave.
Heart signed with Portrait, a pretty new sibling label of Epic under the CBS Records umbrella. The label, which had a little success in ’76 with Burton Cummings’ post-Guess Who hit “Stand Tall,” was pleased to have a platinum-selling band added.
Mushroom, however, decided that Heart owned them two more albums. The first was an attempt to stick it to the band with a bastardized Magazine, with the five unfinished songs from the initial sessions, an early B-side from 1975 and three live tracks.
The album would be released just under a month before Little Queen, making Heart doubly furious — for attempting to undercut their album and doing it with an inferior hodgepodge that they never would have signed off on.
The band successfully sued to have the initial pressings removed from stores, with the condition being that they would still owe Mushroom one more album. They’d fulfill that obligation by redoing Magazine from the ground up over four days of sessions in March 1978. It was released the following month.
Removing the unwanted version of Magazine allowed the focus to be where it belonged — on Little Queen.
The album was recorded in Seattle in early 1977. The band was trying to create while worrying they wouldn’t be able to, as not only was Mushroom putting out the off-brand version of Magazine, they were seeking to stop Heart from recording altogether.
The finished Little Queen doesn’t bear obvious scars from the music business drama that threatened it, but its most well-known song is most certainly informed by it.
VIDEO: Heart “Barracuda”
“Barracuda” — the quintessential Heart track — is most definitely musically inspired by Led Zeppelin (Michael Derosier’s drum part owes a bit to John Bonham’s on “Achilles Last Stand” the previous year).
The chugging riff by guitarist Roger Fisher, came about on tour– when he was just jamming with Derosier at sound check. Michael Fisher, hearing this jam that began with no particular purpose, told his brother he had something with it and not to forget it.
Nancy Wilson later said the riff was inspired by the cover of Joni Mitchell’s “This Flight Tonight” by Nazareth, who the band had opened for in Europe.
The lyrics? They definitely came from the band’s dealings with Mushroom, with a spark lit by the fallout from the unwanted sexualization of them in the Rolling Stone ad.
A few days after that soundcheck jam, Heart played in Detroit.
After the show, some sleazy local promoter thought it would be “funny” to ask Ann “how’s your lover doing?”, referring to her sister.
Ann, furious, left and went back to her hotel to write the lyrics. Nancy, upon finding out about the promoter’s leering query, was also angry and she added a melody and bridge to go with that riff, which was a perfect fit.
I knew none of the backstory when I heard “Barracuda” coming through speakers in 1977, but I felt it. I didn’t know who the barracudas were yet, but I knew the Wilson sisters were not going to put up with their bullshit.
The guitar/drum combination was just the vehicle Ann’s cutting lyrics and dynamic voice needed and Nancy’s “sell me, sell you” bridge was just the right break.
While “Barracuda” was the album’s biggest hit. It was not the only one to gain permanent residence in Heart’s canon.
The title track certainly earned its spot there. It’s a funky, bluesy vamp that I’d say would be in the territory Aerosmith was working, but it’s more nimble and melodic. Plus, not being written by that band from Boston, it didn’t contain lyrics likely to make a Detroit radio promoter snicker like a leering teenage boy.
“Kick It Out”- the lone Ann solo composition– is a quick and sturdy rocker readymade for her continued emergence as one of rock’s best lead singers.It also fit in with the band’s new status as arena headliners, where their 1977 opening acts would include the likes of Foreigner, the Outlaws and the Sanford/Townsend Band.
One of the things that stands out now is how relatively restrained it is in its production. That’s in direct contrast to how Heart would sound during their hitmaking run in the ’80s, which would be dominated by bombast and sonic choices that would date themselves quickly.
There’s also still a chemistry within the whole group and not just the Wilson sisters which helps carry everything off.
Classic as it is,”Barracuda” wasn’t the most accurate depiction of Little Queen’s entire content, as the album contains plenty of their more acoustic and pop sides.
It would be foolish to deny the Zeppelin inspiration and Heart never has. And unlike some others bearing that influence, the tears they’ve moved Zeppelin to are not those of laughter.
“Dream of the Archer”, introduced by the short instrumental “Sylvan’s Song” is driven by mandolins and autoharp. It’s the sound of Heart crossing the turf of “The Battle of Evermore” (which the Wilson sisters later covered as the Lovemongers on the “Singles” soundtrack). The folk ballad features a terrific lead performance by Ann, but it really soars when she and Nancy harmonize.
“Love Alive” blends their two prominent sides, starting in acoustic ballad mode, complete with flute. Then halfway through, the familiar-sounding guitar/rhythm section combo hits, reminding the listener that, yes, Fisher, Derosier and bassist Steve Fossen enjoyed their Zeppelin. But the song pulls back from mimicry (with the harmonies one didn’t hear on that English foursome’s records). It also wisely keeps its love song tone, not exploding into an ending solo. It may not have been one of the hits, but it’s one of the album’s highlights.
The lovely “Cry to Me” acts as the lead-in to “Go On Cry” which, while not nearing space rock territory, definitely sounds like some Pink Floyd was making its way on to the band’s turntables.
Even the deeper cuts have their charms. Nancy’s sole lead vocal turn on her the almost, but not quite, jazz pop “Treat Me Well” is lovely.
“Say Hello” is the sort of pop song that one could have seen Debbie Harry turning into a calypso island ditty in about four years. Although one wouldn’t have had another dose of those well-matched harmonies on a Blondie version.
Little Queen was more successful than Dreamboat Annie commercially, going triple-platinum in the States.
Heart’s immediate proper follow-ups — not counting the still-rushed Magazine, which did at least have “Heartless” — Dog & Butterfly (1978) and Bebe le Strange (1980) weren’t as consistent, but still had enough obvious highlights to go platinum.
The band’s prospects began to slow as members left (or were voted out in Roger Fisher’s case) — the only constants into the ’90s being the Wilsons and talented multi-instrumentalist Howard Leese.
They were dropped by their label and in danger of being dropped again. The label pushed for outside writers and the Wilsons reluctantly ageed. That changed those fortunes for the rest of the decade — big hits, bigger hair,massively uncomfortable corsets and heels and that over-the-top, oh-so-’80s production.
The result was a series of its, including two No. 1 singles — “These Dreams” and “Alone”, albeitwith a tradeoff of losing some artistic integrity. As Heart left the ’80s, their commercial fortunes began to wane and this time, they took a break.
By the time Heart returned in 2004 after an 11-year studio hiatus, their audience for new material had mostly moved on, which is a shame because the three album run of Jupiters Darling, Red Velvet Car and Fanatic all carried an approach that resulted in multiple moments that hearkened back to their early peak.
Heart was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, decades after Mushroom Records had burnt to the wick, ceasing operations in 1980.
All these years later, it’s no wonder why Little Queen resonated, and not just with someone dealing with identity issues like I was. It was a showcase for what Heart did well and a showcase for the two strong, talented women at its core, whose voices still speak powerfully after all these years.