Looking back on the career of a rock ‘n’ roll feminist
Pat Benatar, who celebrates her 70th birthday today, might have been Patricia, the nice lady at the bank, instead of Pat Benatar, influential singer and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.
Benatar grew up on Long Island and had trained in opera. But she’d dropped out of college, married at 19 and wound up working as a teller in a Richmond, Virginia bank.
That all changed when some friends invited her to go with them to a concert. Now, given where she experienced her fame, you might think the show would have been someone like Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple. Nope, it was Liza Minnelli.
But Benatar saw Liza up there on that stage and thought, “I can do that.” It relit the fire under her and she quit her bank job the next day.
This was November, 1973. If fate putting her in Liza’s audience was the first critical point, Benatar had to wait for the second, even bigger one to arrive.
She paid her dues — playing hotel lounges, supper clubs, working as a singing waitress. She moved back to New York where, one night, she unintentionally hit upon what would be a recognizable part of her stage persona.
It was a Halloween show in the Village. Benatar’s costume that night took inspiration from 1953 B-movie Cat Women of the Moon. After competing in that costume, she went to her regular gig, being an opening singer at the comedy club Catch a Rising Star. She didn’t have time to change into her regular stage garb. What she sang was unchanged, but she immediately noticed the more enthusiastic reaction.
Thus, the spandex-clad Benatar was born.
It didn’t come from any record label or management push, just a woman controlling her own image. But, she needed a second intervention from fate. So did a guitar player from Cleveland.
Neil Giraldo’s first break was winning auditions to be part of Rick Derringer’s backing band. But he wanted his own band. Just one problem. Giraldo could play, write and arrange, but he wasn’t a lead singer.
Benatar had snagged a record deal with Chrysalis, but she wanted to be part of a band.
Producer Mike Chapman thought Giraldo had something to offer the unknown Benatar. Giraldo agreed to come to New York on one condition, that he got a two-way ticket so he wouldn’t be stuck paying to go back to Cleveland if things didn’t work out.
VIDEO: Pat Benatar “Heartbreaker”
His caution was understandable, but he needn’t have worried. Giraldo and Benatar clicked pretty much immediately musically, starting with an arrangement of “Heartbreaker”, a cover of a song done by British singer Jenny Darren the year before.
It wasn’t just music, either. The chemistry between the guitarist/producer/arranger and the now single singer hit it off. They’ve been married since 1982.
1979’s debut In the Heat of the Night wasn’t yet a showcase for the band’s songwriting, with seven of its 10 songs being covers. Their version of “Heartbreaker” was superior to the original, which had the attitude in its DNA, but not Benatar’s vocal prowess nor the energy of Giraldo’s arrangement. The cover of the then-John Cougar’s “I Need a Lover” was credible.
Originals like Giraldo’s melodic “We Live for Love” and Benatar and Roger Capps’ strutting “So Sincere” showed promise for the follow-up.
With a contract that required an album per year, Benatar and Giraldo would no doubt want a break soon, but Crimes of Passion benefited from them not resting when things were really starting to click.
They did dip back into the cover well with terrific results — a taut rip through the Rascals’ “You Better Run” and a wonderful cover of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” that certainly deserved more airplay.
VIDEO: Pat Benatar “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”
There’s a certain irony in what’s arguably Benatar’s most definitive hit and statement of feminist FAFO energy coming from an outside writer, and a guy at that. But that irony dissipates with her performance of the Eddie Schwartz-penned “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” For all her opera and theater background, she adapted to rock quite well, imbuing songs like this one with all the required grit and energy. She had the range. She used the range. But it never felt like she was showing off.
Originals like the similarly take-no-shit “Treat Me Right” and the unflinching child abuse tale “Hell is for Children” showed growth on the writing front.
1981’s Precious Time might have equaled Crimes of Passion if its second half had been as strong as its first.
“Promises in the Dark” began as a Giraldo piano ballad, before realizing that he was stuck. He picked up a guitar and thought to himself, “What would Pete Townshend do?” coming up with the chords that led to the piano part being an intro. Benatar was unsure about the lyrics, her first time writing about her relationship with Giraldo. She nervously slipped what she’d written under the studio door.
She needn’t have worried. Giraldo loved them and with third verse added in the studio, they had a hit.
“Fire and Ice”, co-written by rhythm guitarist Scott St. Clair Sheets, Benatar and outside writer Tom Kelly, had a killer chorus. A snappy cover of Paul Revere & The Raiders’ “Just Like Me” is followed by the lengthy relationship drama (and hooky chorus) of “Precious Time”, written by Kelly’s usual writing partner Billy Steinberg.
Benatar already had hits under her belt, but 1982’s Get Nervous showed more pop leanings, both from Benatar herself and with the addition of keyboardist Charlie Giordano.
Thus the synths on the urgent “Anxiety (Get Nervous)” and the catchy “Little Too Late”, as well the organ on the bubbly “Looking For a Stranger” tweaks to the formula.
Not that Benatar had sworn off anthemic rock. “Shadows of the Night”, written by D.L. Byron. The song had been written for the 1980 movie Times Square, but didn’t make the soundtrack. Byron’s label said “didn’t sound commercial enough”, an assessment that Benatar’s soaring version proved to be incorrect.
At this point, Benatar had established herself both as singer and hitmaker, but as an influence. This was a woman who could be unapologetically sexy, but on her terms. And both lyrically and professionally, she was not going to put up with misogynist bullshit. Even in the early stage of her career, she was aware of what that could mean for others down the road. She’s talked about rebuffing radio and promo types who wanted to get a little too close to her, unwelcome at any time but especially in professional settings. Knowing she was neither the first nor the last woman in the business to face this sort of thing, she wanted to do what she could to set a standard of lines that would not be crossed.
The pace at which Benatar had to record meant the reliance on outside writers wasn’t going away, especially as the shift into more of a pop direction continued.
VIDEO: Pat Benatar “Love Is A Battlefield”
This paid some dividends, as in the case of “Love is a Battlefield”, one of two new studio tracks tacked on to 1983’s Live on Earth. Buoyed by a video that got massive play on MTV and one of Benatar’s best vocal performances, it was a dynamic hit.
Likewise, “We Belong”, the anthemic love song could have been a hit for a lot of singers, but Benatar fully commits to it, resulting in it being another one of her standards to this day.
“Invincible”, off 1985’s Seven the Hard Way (and the theme song for the movie The Legend of Billy Jean) boasts a radio-ready chorus to a track that is more of a rock-pop merger.
But while it’s hard to begrudge Benatar’s desire to move in different directions and not stick to the same formula, the overall consistency wasn’t there on the Tropico and Seven the Hard Way. That’s not to say there weren’t other highlights, like the latter’s “Sex as a Weapon”, but it felt like the slicker rabbit hole was nearing its dead end.
There was less reliance on outside songwriters on 1988’s Wide Awake in Dreamland. Benatar, Giraldo and drummer Myron Grombacher handled the bulk of the songwriting.
Of course, the album’s biggest hit was a cover. “All Fired Up” had been a minor chart hit for the Rattling Sabres in Australia the year before. As good as their underrated version was, Benatar and Grombacher turned it into a stadium-ready rocker.
VIDEO: Pat Benatar “All Fired Up”
The album offered a little of everything– the percussive “Let’s Stay Together”, the catchier “Lift ‘Em On Up” and the subdued “Suffer the Little Children”, which revisits the theme of child abuse (this time taken to its painful worst case scenario).
If Dreamland didn’t hit prior peaks, it was an encouraging effort that seemed to bode well for the future.
That’s when things hit a snag. Benatar decided to do a jump blues record, mostly made up of covers. It was clearly an album she wanted to record. The production marked a welcome stripping away of the overly slick synthesizer sounds. But good intentions do not a great album make. There was nothing inherently bad about it, but nothing great, either. It kicked off a decline in her commercial fortunes.
1993’s Gravity’s Rainbow, her last album for Chrysalis had the stomping “Everybody Lay Down”. It was inexplicably not released as a single. Instead, the label chose the social commentary ballad “Somebody’s Baby”, about a homeless man. “Every Time I Fall Back” was the better ballad.
Unfortunately, the album did worse commercially. That didn’t help with the next release, Innamorata, coming out four years later at a point where rock stations were locked into playing the hits rather than new material from those hitmakers. It’s a shame, because it’s superior to its predecessor. “Strawberry Wine”, “Only You” and “River of Love” could have been part of Benatar’s string of hits had they come out the ’80s. If there’s an underrated album in the Benatar/Giraldo canon, Innamorata is it.
Henry Rollins, in a late 2021 appearance on Rick Rubin’s Broken Record podcast was asked why he’d stopped making music back in the mid-2000s, reiterated why he did, saying, “There’s no toothpaste left in the tube.”
Perhaps the tube’s getting emptier for Benatar and Giraldo, as there’s only been one album of new material in the last 25 years — 2003’s Go. It contains plenty of trademark sounds and her voice is in fine form, but the hooks aren’t as sharp.
Regardless of how much was left in the tube, music is still what they do.They’ve remained active and popular on the touring circuit over that quarter-century.
More recently, they’ve turned their pursuits to the theatre stage, collaborating with book writer Bradley Bredeweg on Invincible, a queer-friendly take on Romeo & Juliet with new arrangements of Benatar hits along with five new songs.
We’ll see if that refills the tube, energizing the pair to return to the studio for the third act of their career. Not that they need to, mind you.
Benatar and Giraldo, inducted into the Rock Hall together last year, created a strong enough body of work at their peak. It still holds up as quality mainstream rock and an influence on women singers, regardless of genre, to come.
It sure beats banking.