Private Dancer at 30, featuring exclusive Martyn Ware interview on working with Tina Turner
Tina Turner‘s Private Dancer was released on this day 30 years ago.
The record became an enormous success for the singer (then in her mid-forties) thanks in part to an 18-month single release schedule that saw no fewer than seven songs from the ten-track album issued as 45s, in various territories.
The first of those singles was a cover of the Al Green classic Let’s Stay Together which, when issued in November 1983, penetrated the UK top ten and became her first top 30 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 since the iconic Nutbush City Limits performed with ex-husband Ike ten years earlier.
That single was produced by Martyn Ware (with Greg Walsh), from Heaven 17 and he spoke to SuperDeluxeEdition recently to share his memories of working with Tina. You can read that interview in full below.
A slowed-down cover of The Beatles‘ Help! (not issued in the US) was something of a misstep in terms of single performance, but that was swiftly forgotten when Terry Britten and Graham Lyle’s What’s Love Got To Do With It became a Tina’s first (and only) US number one single a few months later.
The rocky Better Be Good To Me consolidated this success in the US, but it’s the Mark Knopfler penned title track (no.7 in America) that remains one of the most memorable cuts from the record, particularly the seven-minute plus, album version.
Knopfler had planned for Private Dancer to be included on Dire Straits‘ Love Over Gold album, but although a backing track was recorded, a vocal was never laid down. Turner, when interviewed for her fan club in 2004, remarked: “Mark said this song is not for a man, it’s a girl’s song. He recorded it but won’t use it so when he put the demo on, he sung ‘I’m a private dancer, dancer for money, do what you want me to do,’ I told him, ‘I think you’re right; it’s not a song for a guy. I liked it a lot. I wasn’t sure whether the girl was a hooker or a very classical private dancer, but I thought I’d take it.”
Most of Dire Straits actually perform on Turner’s version, with the notable exception of Knopfler himself (Jeff Beck played the guitar solo).
The album featured a number of cover versions including the aforementioned version of Help!, Anne Peebles’ I Can’t Stand The Rain and David Bowie’s 1984 (from 1974’s Diamond Dogs). The latter was the second (and final) production from Martyn Ware and Greg Walsh.
The single releases offered four non-album B-sides (I Wrote a Letter, Rock ‘n Roll Widow, Don’t Rush the Good Things, When I Was Young) all of which appeared on the expanded 1997 reissue. Additionally, What’s Love Got To Do With It, I Can’t Stand The Rain, and Better Be Good To Me got the extended remix treatment when issued on twelve-inch vinyl. Again, all of these appear on the reissued CD although Better Be Good To Me is edited slightly.
Who better to give us an insight into this era and the very genesis of the Private Dancer album than producer, songwriter, and musician, Martyn Ware, of Human League and Heaven 17 fame. Ware co-produced the song that formed the foundations of the album’s success, Let’s Stay Together. He kindly gave up some time to talk to SDE about that period:
Marytn Ware on working with Tina Turner
SDE: You worked with Tina on the Ball of Confusion single for BEF [British Electric Foundation], was that the first time you worked together?
Martyn Ware: Let me think about this… yes, it was, yes.
How did that collaboration come about?
Well it’s quite interesting really. I was doing the BEF album and I only had one track left and I had got one backing track left. I had lined up James Brown to do Ball of Confusion and we had got it all booked and he had agreed to do it, the terms were all agreed, I was going to fly out to Atlanta to his studio – which is pretty freaky – to record in his studio and all that and meet him. The day before I was due to fly out, Virgin got a call from his lawyer saying that he wanted all the royalties on the entire album, not just his track. Not all royalties, I mean the share we were offering but on the entire album or he wouldn’t do it. And we said ‘no, this is insane, it’s not going to happen’. So I was gutted, of course.
At that point in time I was living quite close to Virgin Records on Portobello Road and went down there. We were all friends, and I was just hanging out there and feeling quite sorry for myself and trying to think, ‘oh my God, I just need to do this one track just to finish it and who can we get to sing it?’ As it turned out Ken Berry, who was the financial controller of Virgin Records at the time, happened to walk past and he said, ‘I’m going out to LA on Sunday, what do you think about Tina Turner, she’s a mate of mine’. I went, ‘yeah’. Because I had just been to see her at The Venue – do you remember that place in Victoria? – and I thought she was fantastic, and I thought a chance to work with a group like that is almost unmissable. And that’s how it happened.
Did she fly over to London to record that?
Yeah. Me and Glenn actually, were in LA doing some promo for Heaven 17, to do with Penthouse and Pavemen, and our manager was based in LA at the time, and so by coincidence we said [to Tina], ‘well should we just pop round and see you?’ You’ve got to bear in mind we’d never had any dealings with LA reality before, it’s a bit of a freak-out. Literally her house was, like, ranch-style – it was like what Roxy Music were talking about, you know, In Every Dream Home A Heartache – it was four level ranch-style beautiful house in the Hollywood Hills. It was completely outside our sphere of experience.
Anyway we got on well and she came over and we recorded it in… I believe it was in the EMI studios. Yeah. And the classic story is – which I have told many times – is her and Roger Davies [Turner’s manager] turned up to the studio and said, ‘where’s the band?’ because she is used to recording with band, and we pointed at the Fairlight and said, ‘well here it is’. And they just stood with their mouths open, you know, it was incredible. Anyway, she gave a fantastic performance on that and consequently they approached me when they were making the Private Dancer album and said ‘would you write a song for Tina?’ We were probably lacking in confidence a little bit and we didn’t really write for anyone else. We weren’t songwriters in that sense of the word, everything we did was for us.
But what was the sequence of events because when you did the ‘Ball of Confusion’ single, at that time wasn’t she basically an unsigned artist or had Capitol already had their plans for her at that point?
I really don’t know about that. Obviously Roger Davies was involved with her so there were plans brewing. But as far as I know I don’t think she was signed. And she hadn’t really got any link with contemporary music. They call it a the ‘chicken in a basket’ circuit – I think it’s a bit derogatory – but she was making a good living and doing what a lot of solo artists had to do, but at a reasonably high level. She was doing Las Vegas and all that stuff, but the credibility in terms of her being a recording artist was lacking at that point and so she didn’t have a record deal. But talent will always rise to the top as far as I’m concerned – she’s an amazing artist.
When you worked with her the second time, with what turned out to be Let’s Stay Together, was there this feeling of ‘we have to try and create a hit’ and ‘this is going to be a big deal’.
Not really. As I said, they said to us would you write a song for her and to be honest we were a bit confused as to… I mean we’re not really soul writers. Whereas we love soul music and we grew up with it, so I turned around to them and said ‘no, but I would really like to do as we did with Ball of Confusion.’ I thought it was very successful [so I said] ‘I would really like to do a cover version for that album’. They said, ‘can you come up with a shortlist of potential songs’ which I wish I still had actually because there’s some really good songs on it, but the one that I really wanted to do anyway was Let’s Stay Together.
The way I explained it to her was that she needed to embed herself into the public perception as being one of the great soul singers of all time. She kind of turned her back on it quite a lot because she wanted to be a rock singer, essentially. She didn’t make any bones about it. You can’t alter the fact that you are born with this God-given talent. I said, ‘I think it’s a good idea to do a reinterpretation of a soul record in a new way’. I asked what her influences were when she was coming into the business and she was saying Sam Cooke, basically and Otis Redding and some gospel as well. I had always loved Let’s Stay Together as a song, and I thought we could really make this work. She immediately latched onto it and said, ‘I love this song’.
The other thing is, that in my career, since the start of The Human League, I had always insisted on non-interference in the creative process and actually that suited her because she doesn’t write songs, she just comes and performs them, and in a strange sort of way, it was a bit like the creative relationship with Ike, where Ike would do all the music and recording and what have you, and then bring her in at the last minute to record. So it kind of fitted well from that perspective.
Did it all come together, more or less, straight away in a session or were there a number of attempts to do the track? How did that work out?
It was myself and Greg Walsh; we were co-producers on this. Greg was helping us do the The Luxury Gap. He was a highly experienced arranger/producer who worked with Rod Temperton and Heatwave and various other Brit soul luminaries, and in fact with Heaven 17 we learnt, shall we say, the more dark arts of vocal arrangement, how to influence people using stacked vocals and all that crap that we use and with Heaven 17, that became part of our sound.
So it seemed obvious to us to try and create a kind of hybrid – we wanted to use the programmed drums because we that was the way we worked at the time. We also wanted to use some new techniques, soundscaping techniques, like the famous intro to the song, that strained sort of chord at the start, which sets the scene. It is actually a piece of equipment called a Quantec Room Simulator which has a thing called a freeze function on it, which of course is quite well known now, but in those days it was the first machine that could do it. So you would take a reverb of a complex chord, for instance, press freeze and it would keep all that in its memory, so you play things into it and it would just create this kind of cloud of sound, which is the opening and I think sets the scene. I just think her vocal performance on that track is one of the greatest ever frankly.
My understanding is that track was done well in advance of everything else and it became a big hit and then Capitol panicked a little bit and then had to get the album together. Was that about right?
I wasn’t really privy to those discussions, because I wasn’t involved in the design of the album, I just did my bit.
But did you know that Let’s Stay Together was likely to be a single or was this just a case of do a track with Tina and it will go on the album?
Obviously, if they didn’t like it, it wouldn’t have been a single. But when they brought it out it was a surprise hit. It was the biggest selling twelve-inch single in American history when it came out.
Did it surprise you that it was a big hit or did you have a great feeling about?
Oh yeah, I thought it was a monster but I had no idea whether it would sell in America because I wasn’t really an expert in that market, but I knew that for the British market I thought it stood a really good chance of doing very well because Britain is very respectful of American soul artists from a certain period.
How was Tina’s confidence? Because at this point she hadn’t ‘come back’ and she was on the verge of having all that big commercial success. Was she nervous or in any way worried about the situation or was she just very relaxed?
Tina was, as far as I understood, totally chilled about anything. She is a Buddhist anyway. She didn’t make a big deal out of it, and it’s not like some kind of tourist version of Buddhism, she believes it’s an integral part of her life, and she is quite calm because of it. I think she really had a huge amount of faith in Roger Davies so it took a lot of pressure off her. You can never really say… with the benefit of hindsight you go ‘look at this fantastic master plan, isn’t this incredible. World domination!’. It’s not the way things work. It’s usually indications that there’s a public appetite for stuff. So the first big indication was, obviously, Let’s Stay Together. Then all of a sudden EMI were going, ‘oh my God this can be proper huge’ and then of course Roger got her to start performing again on a large scale and the whole thing just blew up and her career was relaunched in a supernova. Roger’s a very clever guy, and a very sweet guy as well, and quite a tough businessman but I suppose it’s a bit like the Terence Trent D’Arby thing that I did later on. Nobody could have really guessed that that was going to be so huge.
Was ‘Let’s Stay Together’ recorded at Abbey Road?
I think so, yeah.
You do another track on the album, the cover of ‘1984’ – did that happen on a separate occasion or was that done in the same time?
In the same session I think. Let me think about this for a second. It might be slightly later, I’m not sure. I think I’m right in saying that we were always commissioned to do two tracks and with my arty head on I thought it was really nice that the album was going to be coming out in 1984 and it was about 1984 and it was a futuristic song that was written way back… but she loved David Bowie so it all kind of made sense in my mind.
Were there any other tracks that you recorded, that didn’t get used, or was it just those two?
No. It was just those two for that album. We did some more tracks for the second album and I was thinking about this the other day, we did a cover version of Take Me To The River, which was on the B-side of a twelve-inch single [1986’s Break Every Rule] and we did A Change Is Gonna Come [on BEF’s Music Of Quality And Distinction Volume 2 (1991)]. I’m very proud of that production. By this time she had such a huge success with Private Dancer it was moving in more traditional rock direction, like Graham Lyle, that kind of stuff. Not that I’m knocking it, [but] it was moving away from wanting to sound more contemporary and she was actually in the space where she wanted to be. She wanted to be this big rock artist and then she didn’t do any more soul stuff or not very much electronic stuff either for that matter.
What did you think of the finished album Private Dancer when it came out, because there are a lot of different producers and different songwriters?
There were some really good songs on it. It could have been a bit more daring but at that point in recording history there were three or four albums that everybody had – I call them coffee table albums. And that was one of those. If you can get one of those albums then many, many, many millions will buy it. I don’t know it may be different now, but I think it sold about 20 million and I often think to achieve that level of success in terms of sales, it needs to appeal to a lot of people in a smaller way than a smaller number of people in a really significant way. And I think Roger understood that. So the songs are very memorable but not particularly daring a lot of the time.
Do you take away a best memory from that period of working with Tina? What would you say is your abiding memory of that era?
I just thought she was a complete… if there was such a thing as a gentlewoman, as opposed to a gentleman; she was that, a very decent, honest, open, incredibly talented person. I suppose the most magical thing was the first take of her singing Lets Stay Together, it was literally what you hear on the record is all one take. She had clearly – and I had never come across this, and to be honest I don’t think I’ve ever come across it since, and I’ve worked with a huge number of people – she had clearly from the kind of background that she had come from, she had done her homework to the nth degree about how she wanted to sing that track. Nothing that came out, I got the impression was unplanned. It was all rehearsed.
I often say, particularly to young singers, I tell them this story and say ‘don’t assume that you can just turn up in a recording studio and everything that comes out of your mouth is going to sound great. It’s like doing revision for an exam, really, to a certain extent, she had nailed her interpretation of that song before she came to the studio. So, therefore, all she had to do was relax and then sing it. I mean, right from the very first note. You’re already there aren’t you? Telling a story, it’s the narrative, she has already established narrative in her head and where she’s going to go, she doesn’t want to peak too early because it leaves her nowhere to go, she will want to tell it as a story, you know, a three and a half minute movie in people’s heads.
You memorably performed with her on The Tube, was that after you had done the recording in the studio?
Yeah, that was nerve-wracking. I don’t think I’ve ever been so frightened in my life.
How did that come about, that Tube performance?
Well The Tube was just starting. It might have even been the first one and Virgin were very excited about it because we used to – can you believe – we used to moan about there being very little opportunity to promote things on television. Anyway, it was the first episode and the EMI said would you like to perform Let’s Stay Together with Tina on the show and we were like, ‘it’s a bit scary isn’t it?’
Was the single out at this point. I can’t remember what the timeline was?
I don’t know to be honest; you had better look that up. Anyway, so, the funniest part about it was we were having a nice time and me and Glenn were there, just two boys from Sheffield with nice suits on, having a pint of lager, and what have you, and Tina comes into our dressing room, like three quarters of an hour before, and this is live, and it’s scary as well. So she comes into the dressing room and says, ‘In the middle eight, I thought it would be good if the girls came around and run their hands up and down your body’ and me and Glenn were going ‘it’s not going to happen darling’. We were terrified as it is and the last thing we need is any embarrassing moments on live television. That terrified us even more because we thought they might actually do it anyway. You’ve got to bear in mind this is a show that she had been doing for 30 years and we literally hadn’t performed live anywhere!
Our thanks go to Martyn Ware who was talking to Paul Sinclair for SuperDeluxeEdition. He and Glenn Gregory are currently working on a new Heaven 17 album.