Don’t call it a comeback. Even though it was described in the press as such, the May 29, 1984 release of Tina Turner’s album Private Dancer wasn’t really a comeback, as the artist herself recalls in Tina, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s recent documentary on the rock icon. It’s more accurate to call it a debut, since this was the first time Turner had full control of her career, after having escaped her horribly abusive and controlling ex-husband and musical partner Ike Turner eight years earlier.
In retrospect, it’s a miracle that Private Dancer even got made at all. As a Black woman in her mid-40s, in a music industry that prized youth above nearly everything else, and which was far from racially equitable, Tina Turner was navigating very rough terrain. Just how rough is succinctly illustrated in a pretty nauseating anecdote related in Tina by John Carter, the Capitol Records A&R representative who signed Turner, and was part of the UK production team of Private Dancer. Just as they were setting things up for the recording, a new executive regime came in at Capitol, and suddenly Tina Turner was on the label’s chopping block. Carter immediately went to the executives to fight for Turner, and recalls one of them admonishing him for signing “this old n—er douchebag,” referring to Turner. After a long fight, Turner was allowed to remain on the label, but that same unnamed executive vowed that there would be few resources and no promotion for the album they were about to record.
Nevertheless, Private Dancer was eventually completed in just three weeks. One indication of the speed of recording is that half of the album’s ten tracks are covers, but this was very much in Turner’s wheelhouse; back in the Ike and Tina Turner Revue days, she transformed “Proud Mary,” originally a pretty good Creedence Clearwater Revival song, into a truly transcendent slice of rock and soul. Private Dancer‘s covers include: a gospel makeover of the Beatles’ “Help!”; clattering, synth-heavy renditions of soul classics “Let’s Stay Together” and “I Can’t Stand the Rain”; and David Bowie’s moody, dystopian “1984.” None of the album’s covers rivals “Proud Mary,” but the best of them, “Better Be Good to Me” — originally released in 1981 by New York rock band Spider — at least comes within spitting distance. It’s also the best track on the album overall, a muscular, assertive rocker that stands out on a record built mostly on smoothed-out adult contemporary sounds. Produced by Rupert Hine, who also contributed the pulsating keyboards and bass, the music is a perfect match for Turner’s charismatically growling delivery of Holly Knight and Mike Chapman’s lyrics. Although the song’s narrator initially describes herself as “a prisoner of love, entangled in your web,” and further admits, “I’m captured by your spell,” she goes on to demand that her lover reciprocate her commitment to their relationship: “Be good to me / ‘Cause I don’t have no use for what you loosely call the truth / And I don’t have the time for your overloaded lies / So you better be good to me.” Turner’s fervent, yowling performance on both the track and its accompanying music video posits her as a female counterpart to Mick Jagger.
Two of Private Dancer’s original songs form the longest-lasting legacy of the album. The seven-minute title track was written by Mark Knopfler for his band Dire Straits, but he soon realized that it would be very weird for a man to sing this song in the voice of a jaded woman sex worker focused on accumulating enough money to escape that life, and so he gave it to Turner. And she absolutely nails the vocal, neatly matching the song’s smoky, sensual atmosphere — bolstered by fine work from saxophonist Mel Collins and guitarist Jeff Beck — and effectively conveying the narrator’s rising desperation to flee her constricted life in the successive iterations of the chorus. Turner has claimed not to have realized the song was about sex work until after she recorded it, but those deep, breathy sighs she gives at the top of the track and between verses very much suggest otherwise.
Which brings us, finally, to “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” Private Dancer’s most popular and enduring track. It was Turner’s first and only #1 pop hit in the U.S., and won three Grammys at the 1985 awards, including Song and Record of the Year. It epitomized the album’s overriding aesthetic and commercial strategy, pairing Turner’s gritty, soul-survivor vocals with slick, smooth, contemporary ’80s pop. With its gentle, synth-driven rhythm and faux-reggae beat, the song would be completely unremarkable if anyone but Tina Turner were singing it. But her impassioned delivery of these lyrics — which mock the idea of love and advocate simply fucking without the complication of emotions — transcends this generic musical backdrop, emphasizing the key line in the chorus: “Who needs a heart, when a heart can be broken?” Like many of the greatest actors, Tina Turner makes us feel the pain and hard-lived experience behind those words, and this song, this vocal, this lyric encapsulates the enduring power of the personal and artistic rebirth that Private Dancer represents.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.