Dancing on the Edge
With a will of iron and a heart of glass, she rose from New York’s post-punk art/club scene with lucid visions of the music she had to make. Thirteen albums in, Madonna and her key collaborators open up about the musical decisions and lyrical confessions that have taken her from Pontiac, Michigan to The World, always on the cutting edge of pop. “It’s been really intense… complicated,” she tells Tom Doyle.
It’s 1982, and under the lights at Danceteria, 30 West 21st Street, New York City, Madonna Louise Ciccone is lost in music. Inside this four-storey nightlife haven, the soundtrack is as eclectic as the club-goers who surround her: misfits and outsiders drawn together to dance to everything from James Brown to PiL, Grace jones to The pop group, Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock to Arthur Russell/Dinosaur L’s Go Bang.
Bargirls serving up drinks include Nigerian-Brit Helen Folusade Adu – soon to find fame as Sade – and outre performance artist Karen Finley. Teenage members of the Beastie Boys, working as bus boys, charge around emptying ashtrays and wiping down tables. Ciccone’s newfound friend Keith Haring, who by day paints murals featuring kinetic, colourful figures, works in the cloakroom at night. Her soon-to-be paramour Jean-Michel Basquiat furtively inks his “SAMO” tag on the club walls. Madonna’s own, characteristically provocative tag is “Boy Toy”.
“New York was a;ove with everything amazing,” she marvels today. “That’s what the time had to offer. I was surrounded by great artists.”
It is here, in this hive of creative thought and activity, that Madonna’s musical vision first sparks in her mind. Up to the point, there have been dabblings in bands (The Breakfast Club, Emmy) and five-month sojourn in Paris in 1979 at the invitation of two Belgian record producers working with French disco singer Patrick Hernandez, But these experiences, though educational, have amounted to little more than frustration. Now, on the dancefloor, studying club music almost as a science, finally she can see a clear way forward.
“All my friends were DJs,” she says, “so I wanted my records to sound like what I wanted to dance to, I would go to clubs and I would listen to what would make me dance, y’know? And then I would go back and I would work on my music. I mean, I was influenced by Debbie Harry, Talking Heads, The B-52’s. Whatever was getting played at the time. So to me the line was very blurred between what I was working on and what I was dancing to.”
One night, Madonna approached Danceteria DJ Mark Kamins with a cassette of a demo track of hers called Everybody, a synthy connection with a Tom Tom Club bounce, tapped with her lyrics call-to-dance. Kamins listens to the tape at home and, impressed, the next night at the club gives it a spin.
“I was in the DJ booth,” Madonna recalls, as that famous grin lights up her face at the memory. “I thought it was marvellous (laughs).”
“It was the first time this dancer-turned-singer-turned-producer had witnessed her music having a physical effect upon a crowd. “Just to be able to make people dance with your music,” she thrills. “That was a very magical moment.”
Six streets north, five blocks west, 32 years later. Everything and, in some ways, nothing has changed for Madonna. Her business remains taking the sounds of the dancefloor onto the radio and into the charts. In the control room at Jungle City Studios, a surprisingly bijou facility whose previous occupants include Beyonce, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, she sits between the enormo speakers, wearing a ’40-ish rose-patterned tea dress, sipping a glass of champagne and listening to playbacks of tracks from her 13th album, Rebel Heart. The volume is slammingly loud.
“Yeah,” she smiles, mock-coyly. “It’s phat volume. Must be played loud. Not parental advisory. I like to feel like I’m getting kicked in the stomack when I play music or when I make music.”
If so, MOJO wonders, how’s her hearing these days? “My hearing’s actually very good. Hm-mm. Strangely enough.”
A rough version of Rebel Heart’s confessional acoustic-guitars-over-beats title track has leaked in the past few days, though Madonna appears to be taking it in relatively good spirits. “D’you wanna hear the real version?” she asks. Less than a week later, however, when another 10 work-in-progress songs are bafflingly distributed, she’ll fumingly decry it as “artistic rape”, leading to an official iTunes pre-order release of six tracks. Then, on Christmas Day, another 14 unfinished selections will appear online.