It was that extraordinary voice, on classic hit singles from the 80s – Hit Me With Your Best Shot, Shadows Of The Night, Love Is A Battlefield, We Belong – that made her a superstar. But there is another quality to Pat Benatar that has had a powerful influence on her career – call it self-belief, independence or a simple, no-bullshit attitude.
All that she has achieved (including those hits, seven US platinum-or-better albums, four Grammys), she has done so on her own terms, whatever the consequences. As a female rock star in an arena at the time dominated by men and rife with chauvinism, Benatar refused to be marketed as a sex object – she claimed that she once “whacked” the CEO of her record label over a sexist comment he made.
After people warned her not to get involved romantically with her guitarist, Neil Giraldo – because intra-band relationships always end in tears/disaster – she ended up marrying him. 40 years later they’re still together.
When, after a string of million-selling albums, she decided to change tack and make what she called “artsy music” – another slap in the face to that CEO – she ended up with another huge hit. And when she had children, she put her family before her career.
Born Patricia Mae Andrzejewski on January 10, 1953 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York, she trained in musical theatre and opera and worked as a cabaret singer before finding her true vocation in rock’n’roll. At 19 she married her highschool sweetheart Dennis Benatar, and kept his name after their divorce in 1979.
A pivotal moment came in 1977 when she performed at a Halloween show in New York City, singing rock songs and wearing a spandex cat suit. “Something remarkable happened that night,” she recalled. “I became really aggressive. I’m really a nice girl, but this other person exists, and when she came out I never looked back.”
After signing to Chrysalis, she found the perfect foil in Giraldo, whom she described as the Jimmy Page to her Robert Plant. On all her big albums of the 80s, through to the lesser-known records of recent years, Giraldo has been her chief collaborator. And they’re not done yet. After all these years, Pat Benatar is still doing it her way.
Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo tour the US from June 18. For dates, visit their website. (opens in new tab)
Passion (Chrysalis, 1980) (opens in new tab)
Benatar’s second album was the game changer, hitting No.2 in the US and transforming her into a major-league star. Her biggest seller, having sold four million, Crimes Of Passion is also the definitive Pat Benatar album. Punchy hard rocker Hit Me With Your Best Shot, written by Canadian singer Eddie Schwartz, was a huge hit and became her signature song.
And while her take on Kate Bush (opens in new tab)’s Wuthering Heights bordered on karaoke, genuine artistic depth was evident in Hell Is For Children, a powerful song addressing child abuse, co-written by Benatar and sung with raw emotion. “I wanted it to be scathing,” she said.
Live From Earth (Chrysalis, 1983) (opens in new tab)
It was a new studio track, Love Is A Battlefield, on this live album that became Benatar’s second million-selling single and the most famous song of her career. Originally written as a ballad by Holly Knight and Mike Chapman, it was reworked by Neil Giraldo into an uptempo AOR classic on which Benatar dug deep to deliver arguably her greatest vocal performance.
On the simplest level, this is a fine live album, with all her early hits belted out to general rowdiness. But with Love Is A Battlefield she was reaching for something more sophisticated. Live From Earth was the end of one chapter and the beginning of another.
Precious Time (Chrysalis, 1981) (opens in new tab)
In January 1981, Benatar’s album Crimes Of Passion peaked at No.2 in America, with John Lennon (opens in new tab) and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy remaining at No.1 in the wake of Lennon’s death. Later that year, Precious Time gave Benatar her first No.1 album, and it included a tribute to Lennon in a raucous version of The Beatles’ most infamous song, Helter Skelter.
It’s an assured album from an artist at the top of her game, and it includes two of the best songs she ever recorded: Promises In The Dark, a blazing rock anthem with an epic sense of drama; and Fire And Ice, slinky and gritty, with shades of Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers (opens in new tab).
Get Nervous (Chrysalis, 1982) (opens in new tab)
With the cover of her fourth album, Benatar sent out a clear message. With her in a straitjacket, with startled eyes and wild hair, it signalled the end of her days as rock’s pin-up girl. “I wasn’t looking beautiful,” she said. “I was looking crazy.”
There was also a change in her music. Shadows Of The Night was classic Benatar, Fight It Out an emotionally charged ballad, but there was new-wave-influenced weirdness in Looking For A Stranger and the sort-of title track Anxiety (Get Nervous). And in The Victim she really let it all out. With Giraldo driving her band at full throttle as she ranted and raved, it’s her heaviest song.
Tropico (Chrysalis, 1984) (opens in new tab)
There was alarm among Chrysalis execs when Benatar told them she was making an album that was, in her words, “artsy and eclectic”. But that was exactly how it played out on Tropico. And it ended up being another million seller.
Emboldened by the success of Love Is A Battlefield, she shifted further from hard rock to create a slick, big-production album on which AOR was combined with an art-rock sensibility. This radical reinvention yielded mixed results, but in two songs she reached a new artistic peak: Painted Desert, a subtle mood piece, and We Belong, a hit single as inventive as it was beautiful.
Seven The Hard Way (Chrysalis, 1985) (opens in new tab)
Benatar’s seventh album is not one she has much fondness for. Going into it, she and Giraldo were burnt out by years on the touring/recording treadmill. “That,” she said, “is why it was called Seven The Hard Way.”
Despite being her first album not to go platinum, it is one of her very best, with power and edginess in Sex Is A Weapon, beauty in La Bel Age, and AOR perfection in the euphoric do-or-die anthem Invincible. Holly Knight, co-writer of Love Is A Battlefield, wrote Invincible with Simon Climie of Clime Fisher fame. And, as before, Benatar knocked it out of the park.
In The Heat Of The Night (Chrysalis, 1979) (opens in new tab)
On this, her debut album, it was Heartbreaker that set the tone for Benatar’s early career and gave her her first hit. Over an urgent riff, she sang it like she meant it.
Heartbreaker was one of many covers on the album. I Need A Lover was by the then unknown Johnny Cougar (later John Mellencamp (opens in new tab)), while Mike Chapman provided songs he’d co-written and produced for soft rockers Smokie and glam titans Sweet (opens in new tab). Benatar co-wrote two songs, including the bizarre sci-fi tale My Clone Sleeps Alone. More significant was the first song Giraldo wrote for her, We Live For Love, which rocks, but gently.
Wide Awake In Dreamland (Chrysalis, 1988) (opens in new tab)
The end of the 80s was for Benatar the end of an era. All Fired Up, the hit single from Wide Awake In Dreamland, was her last to make the US Top 20. On this album there were echoes of past glories in the full-blooded hard rock of All Fired Up, and also Suffer The Little Children, a sequel to Hell Is For Children.
Best of all was the title track, funky in a gnarly kind of way, with that voice as powerful as it always was. But on the following album, 1991’s True Love, she retreated even further into her past, singing old blues and R&B songs. You can take the girl out of the clubs…
Gravity’s Rainbow (Chrysalis, 1993) (opens in new tab)
Two years after her covers album True Love, Benatar returned to rock with Gravity’s Rainbow. It was not a hit (in the US it peaked at No.85), but it remains the best album she has made since her golden days in the 80s.
The voice was unmistakable, but she had a different sound – rootsy, heartland rock in the style of John Mellencamp, partly the result of having Neil Giraldo co-producing with Don Gehman, who worked on all of Mellencamp’s best records. There are great songs on this album – Somebody’s Baby, You And I, Kingdom Key, Every Time I Fall Back – but this is Pat Benatar as few have heard her
And one to avoid...
Go (Bel Chiasso, 2003) (opens in new tab)
On all of her best albums, Benatar always had her own style – for example, the hard rock of Crimes Of Passion or the artsy AOR of Tropico. But she didn’t on Go, her last album to date, on which she affected a bad impersonation of Alanis Morissette.
For a singer of such individuality, the sub-Alanis posturing on its noisy title track reeked of desperation. And on the songs where she took a softer approach, such as Brave, she sounded like Natalie Imbruglia, only more vanilla. A lousy album, it ended on a fittingly bum note with the festive Christmas In America. It’s time she made amends.