In 1979 Madonna was eating out of New York dustbins.
Five years later she ruled the world.
27 January 1984. Madonna is due to give her second ever British performance. Last night, she appeared on Top Of The Pops, miming along to Holiday, her debut UK single, currently languishing in the lower reaches of the Top 40. This afternoon, she’s at The Hacienda, the Manchester club that will later be immortalized by acid house. Her performance is part of a live segment on Channel 4’s cult music programme The Tube.
Clad in belly-revealing tank top and with punked-up hair, Madonna writhes through the song with suitable gusto. Behind her are two male dancers wearing Lycra. In the audience is New Order’s Peter Hook, who, like many, watches the performance with a mixture of shock and bafflement. Not only is serious music show The Tube an incongruous place to showcase a brassy New York wannabe — the programme’s other selling points tonight include an interview with straight-faced music critic Paul Morley, plus The Factory All Stars, members of New Order, Quando Quango and The Wake covering electro numbers — but Madonna isn’t even on the stage. With the Factory gear up there, the singer and her dancers are forced to perform on the dancefloor.
Nevertheless, Hook sees something he likes. After Madonna’s performance, he and New Order manager Rob Gretton make a beeline for The Hacienda’s sole dressing room. Inside are Coronation Street’s Pat Phoenix, a dozen teenagers hired for their breakdancing skills, a pyrotechnician known as Bob The Fire-Eater and Madonna. Cornering the singer, Hook and Gretton wonder if she might like to give them a personal reprise of Holiday? They’ll even match her appearance fee: GBP 50. Inevitably, she tells them where to go.
Further indignity follows. Local DJ Mike Pickering has provided Madonna’s accommodation for the night. Arriving at his Chorlton semi with New York DJ Mark Kamins in tow, Madonna manages to lock herself out. “They left the Yale key in the outside lock,” remembers Hook. “Then the porch door shut behind them. When Pickering got up in the morning, Madonna and Kamins were asleep on the steps.”
Despite all signs to the contrary, Madonna’s performance soon served notice of the impending phenomenon. “I was up in Tyne-Tees TV at Newcastle, manning the control room,” says The Tube’s then-producer, Malcolm Gerrie. “The next day we were bombarded with calls. The switchboard just lit up with people wanting to know more about Madonna. We knew then that she was going to be huge.”
He wasn’t wrong. Madonna was on her way to becoming the biggest star of the ’80s. In a time where multinational record companies grew ever more powerful, spending vast sums of money on marketing and engineering careers like never before, Madonna’s rise didn’t originate in any promotions department. It came from her. Against impossible odds, Madonna became the world’s biggest star because Madonna decided that she could be. “I won’t be happy until I’m as famous as God,” she said. Equipped with little more than an instinct for survival and terrifying self-belief, she orchestrated every aspect of these early years, from songs to clothes to image, to choosing who should – and would – produce her music. In the early ’80s, years that would come to define the most enduringly successful – both critically and commercially – career in the history of pop music, she proved one thing: Madonna knows best.
Madonna Louise Ciccone was born on 16 August 1958 in Bay City, Michigan, where her mother was visiting her grandparents at the time. The third of six children, “Nonni”, as she was affectionately known, was auditioning for the role of star child within the family by the time she could talk. Attempting to impress her Italian-descended father Silvio (Tony) and French-Canadian mother (also called Madonna) by dancing on table-tops like Shirley Temple and deliberately hurting herself for sympathy, she quickly established herself as the centre of attention. “I just knew that being a girl and being charming in a feminine sort of was could get me a lot of things, and I milked it for everything I could,” she later explained. “I was always very precocious as a child, extremely flirtatious.”
The defining moment in Madonna’s childhood came aged five, when, after a year in decline, her adoring mother died of breast cancer. She was just 30. “If I hadn’t had that emptiness, I wouldn’t have been so driven,” she later recalled. “All of a sudden I was going to be the best singer, the best dancer, the most famous singer in the world. Everybody was going to love me.”
Despite a rebellious streak — aged 13 she scandalised a talent show organised by her local church by arriving onstage in a bikini and gyrating to The Who’s Baba O’Riley — she proved a model school pupil. At Rochester Adams High, Madonna worked hard, took up gymnastics and drama and became a cheerleader. She lost her virginity at 15 to an older schoolmate, something she later described as “a career move”. By 16, dancing had become her whole life. Under the tutorage of local ballet instructor Christopher Flynn — who escorted Madonna to Detroit gay clubs so she might experience the heady rush of the dancefloor first-hand — she won a dance scholarship to the University of Michigan. However, Flynn was concerned Madonna would simply be biding her time at university and suggested she drop out. If she was really going to make it, he said, she needed to head for New York. In July 1978, Madonna purchased an $88 Northwest Airlines ticket and stepped on a plane for the very first time. Her father was furious.
Legend dictates that when Madonna touched down at New York’s LaGuardia airport with just $35, a pair of ballet shoes and her winter coat, she instructed the cab driver to, “Take me to the centre of everything!” Yet, this period of her life has been greatly romanticised, not least by Madonna herself. “I’d go to the Lincoln Centre, sit by a fountain and just cry,” she told Madonna magazine in 1990. “I’d write in my little journal and pray to have even one friend.”
“Oh please!” says her brother Martin in J Randy Taraborrelli’s hook Madonna: An Intimate Biography. “She never sat by a fountain and cried. She had loads of friends. She later made it all part of the glamorous legend that is my sister. That’s what she does best, she creates legend.”
Still, the notion of “me against the world” proved hugely appealing. “Life was simpler when I had no money,” she later admitted. “When I barely survived.” Rummaging through bins for bits of lettuce (she was vegetarian), spending what money she had on popcorn. yoghurt and peanuts (cheap, nutritious) and washing in public toilets, the 20-year-old dragged herself from dead-end job to dirt-cheap accommodation and back. She worked at Dunkin’ Donuts and as a cloakroom attendant, and posed nude for art classes and photographers. “You got paid $10 an hour,” she explained, of the infamous photos. “It was $1.50 at Burger King.”
Even at the renowned Pearl Lang dance school — where she soon secured a place—Madonna was determined to stand out. Where other dance students wore leotards, Madonna opted to work out in ripped tights, T-shirts held together with foot-long safety pins and a head full of hair bows. When dance failed to provide the fast track to fame that Madonna had envisaged, she quit. Her parting shot to the class: “I think I’m going to he a rock star!” She slammed the door on her way out.
In May 1979, at a Manhattan party, she met and started dating Dan Gilroy, who, with his brother Ed, played in The Breakfast Club, a local punk band. This, surely, would provide a quicker route to success. Moving into the brothers’ home in a disused synagogue, Madonna became an itinerant member of the group, dividing her attention between guitar, drums and singing. She’d bash away at the drums, sometimes for five hours a day. At night, she’d hustle for bookings. But The Breakfast Oub were going nowhere fast. Madonna quit, leaving heartbroken Gilroy behind when she did. “You’re all naked ambition and no talent!” he reportedly chided. But she’d made up her mind: to be the centre of attention, you needed to be the singer.
So Madonna started a new hand with an old boyfriend, Steve Bray. Variously known as The Millionaires, Modern Dance and Emmy (one of Madonna’s nicknames, Bray drew the line at calling the group Madonna), they played Anglophile rock influenced by The Pretenders and The Police. One night the group performed at Max’s Kansas City, the nightclub/restaurant where Bruce Springsteen and Aerosmith had played their first New York shows, and where they caught the attention of Camille Barbone. a music businesswoman from Queens. She immediately offered Madonna a contract, on one condition: she ditch the band. “[They] were awful,” Barhone later remembered. “But I was amazed at her musicality. She didn’t have the strongest voice, but she’s one of the best performers who ever lived.”
Acknowledging Barbone’s bisexuality, Madonna flirted her way to cash loans, free accomodation and music business contacts before the pair fell out over the band’s musical direction. Barbone favoured straight-ahead rock, while Madonna’s ear had been turned by the disco sound of Debbie Harry’s solo album Koo Koo. In their final telephone conversation, Madonna reportedly told Barbone, “I’m a bitch, you’re a bitch, we can work something out.”
Meanwhile, Madonna was back to washing dishes. “That was the fearless part of her,” remembers Barbone. “Walk away from what she knows, jump into the abbys.”
Her next move was to blag a job at the cloakroom at Danceteria – the club at the centre of New York’s party scene – start romancing DJ Mark Kamins and persude him to play one of her demos, Everybody, over the PA. Whenever its simple call-to-arms chorus(“Everybody/Come on, dance and sing/Everybody/Get up and do your thing”) came on, she’d hit the dancefloor and show off her latest look – fishnet tights, fingerless gloves, stockings tied around the head and denim jacket tagged with her new graffiti name: “Boy Toy”.
“I was in hospital with a hole in the heart,” remembers then Sire records president Seymour Stein, recalling the first time he met Madonna. “I’d had it all my life, but it didn’t bother me until I turned 40, then it began acting up – probably because of the rock’n’roll lifestyle. It was around the 15th day (in bed) and I had begun to vegetate. I hadn’t shaved in days, my hair made me look like The Wild Man Of Borneo and I was walking around in a hospital gown with a slit up my ass.”
Madonna wasn’t fazed. “She just cared if my hands worked, so I could sign a contract,” he says. “She had the song Everybody on cassette. My first impression was this ruthless – and I mean this in a very positive way – determination to succeed. After she left, Mark said. What do you think? and I said, You know, if it was Halloween and the shortest way home was through a graveyard, she’d take it.”
Stein contracted Madonna to release two 12″ disco singles. Everybody, produced by Kamins, was a hit on underground dance radio and in the clubs. Accordingly, Kamins was astonished to be dropped as producer for the second single, Burning Up. But Madonna was moving on again. Her next step was to woo Jellybean benitez, DJ at The Funhouse, another of New York’s hipster hangouts. The pair became lovers. When Madonna came up short of material for her debut album, Benitez played her a demo of Holiday, written by Curtis Hudson and Lisa Stevens of the pop group Pure Energy. Benitez had already offered it to Supremes icon Mary Wilson and singer Phyllis Hyman but both had turned it down.
“That record launched my career as a record producer,” says Benitez. “A lot changed for both of us very quickly. Was I as ambitious as her? Yeah, definitely. That’s why we got along so well.”
Bolsted by Holiday, Madonna’s eponymous debut would eventually sell more than 10 million copies. In February 1984, after her appearance on The Tube, it limped into the UK charts at 37. Madonna would later say that the songs were weak. No matter: she kew where to head next.
For her second album, Like A Virgin, Madonna followed her instinct and teamed up with Chic’s Nile Rodgers. His irresistable grooves would bolster singles Material Girl, the title track and Into the Groove (the latter added later, after the success of the film Desperately Seeking Susan) into worldwide smashers. “She was very forceful even then,” Rodgers remembers. “She told me flat out that if I didn’t love the songs sge was going to play me, then we couldn’t work together.”
Having grasped the business of making a smash record, Madonna moved to the next stage of her domination plan: cultivating a highly marketable image. Frequently referred to as “the first star of the MTV era”, the singer was afforded the perfect opportunity to make a lasting impression at MTV’s inaugural Video Music Awards on 14 September 1984. Hosted by Dan Aykroyd and Bette Midler and featuring appearances by Rod Stewart, Tina Turner and David Bowie, it was a music event on an unparalleled scale.
Madonna knew she had to make maximum impact. “Up until a week before the show, she didn’t know what kind of set she wanted,” remembers former MTV executives Les Garland. “One day she calls and goes, I’ve got it. I want a tiger. I want to lay around and sing Like A Virgin to a tiger. I said I’d check it out. I did, and called her back saying they’re not going to let us have any tigers at (New York venue) Radio City. So she comes back with (the notion of) a 17-foot cake we only had five days to build for her. It threw us over budget, that friggin’ cake. At rehearsal, she’s climbing up the cake and has this wedding thing (dress) with nothing else on underneath. She looks down and says, How does my butt look? Looks good from down here, I say.”
First perched on top of the giant cake, next writhing around the stage in her bustier/wedding gown, lacy stockings, shiny “Boy Toy” belt and piles of crucifixes, Madonna smothered the already eyebrow-raising song Like A Virgin in whole new layers of sauce. Middle America’s collective jaw hit the floor. In the audience, Seymour Stein was smiling from ear to ear, “People wanted to kill her afterwards,” he remembers. “But plenty more people loved her. They saw a true star.”
Nile Rodgers was also in the audience, seated next to Cher. “That’s my artist,” Rodgers informed the aghast singer. “She’s ready to kick ass and take the world by storm.”
The world was ready. The week after the MTV awards, the debut Madonna album climbed back the charts to Number 8, while the single Lucky Star hit Number 4. Now Madonna was on a roll.
On 12 November, Sire threw a launch party for Like A Virgin at New York’s Private Eyes club. The album’s sleeve, shot by hip pgotographer Steven Meisel, who would work with Madonna again for her 1992 book Sex, was provocative. Madonna’s instinct for raunchy imagery, controversial enough to take her into the global consciousness but restrained enough not to scare the horses, was totally on the money. On the front cover, a reprise of the wedding dress/Boy Toy look. On the back: dazed and in black lingerie among rumpled sheets, the inference was clear. This was Like A Virgin, with “like” being the operative word.
On 13 November, MTV premiered the video of the title track. As a counterpoint to the album sleeve’s New York arthouse stylings, the setting was Venice – Madonna in ripped black T-shirt, dripping with crucifixes and jewellery, as a gondola carried her beneath the floating city’s exotic, European architecture. As she writhed, mouthing the words to the song, she held the camera’s eye like a Hollywood diva.
The Like A Virgin clip also changed the shape of music videos. No longer simply promotional shirts, they were becoming big-budget productions. “The cost was going to be $10,000,” remembers Stan Cornyn, then a record executive at Sire’s parent company Warner. “Then the producer says, We want to shoot it in Italy, so it’s going to be 25. Well, the whole thing ends up at $100,000. At this point, management are shitting cornerstone-sized bricks.”
They weren’t the only ones in a flap. The Catholic Church, notably, took exception to Madonna’s use of crucifixes and rosary beads. “I was being provocative,” Madonna would later admit. ” I like irony. I like the way things can be taken on different levels. Like A Virgin was always absolutely ambiguous.” At the time, in Penthouse, she claimed she found crucifixes “sexy” because “there’s a naked man on them”.
It certainly worked. Less than a month after the release of Like A Virgin, the album had sold more than two million copies in America. The title track shot to Number 1 in the US and stayed there for six weeks, going triple-platinum by the beginning of February.
Second single Material Girl – the video for which featured Madonna aping Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – reached Number 2 in the US (Number 3 in the UK), followed by Crazy For You, another big hit. the singer was relentlessly ambitious, yet this was success on a level she could scarcely have imagined.
Yet, even while she was conquering the pop charts, Madonna was plotting her next move. Desperately Seeking Susan, the film directed by Susan Seidelman and starring Rosanna Arquette alongside Madonna, was released in the US in March 1985, capitalizing on the singer’s new megastardom. One of the very few movies in Madonna’s career to earn plaudits for her acting chops, it authentically captures the underground scene in mid-’80s New York City, the same scene that Madonna had worked so efficiently. Into the groove, featured in the movie, was a UK Number 1.
Now Madonna was everywhere. With a fresh-faced Beastie Boys in support, she began the 39-date the Virgin Tour in Seattle on 10 April. It was by far the biggest live draw of the year. In her adopted home in New York, all the tickets for shows in radio city Music Hall on 6,7 and 8 June sold out in 34 minutes.
Madonna T-shirts were being sold at the rate of one every six seconds. Meanwhile, the Like A Virgin album was shifting 80,000 copies a day.
Nile Rodgers was heard to confess we were now living “in Madonna world”. The drive, character and ambition in the girl from the Detroit suburbs had, in a few short years, paid off in an unprecedented way. “Sometimes you had to be a bitch to get things done,” Madonna later reflected on these early years. “I’m tough, I’m ambitious and I know exactly what I want. If that makes me a bitch – OK!”
Seymour Stein thinks we’ll never see her like again. “They say people like Madonna come along once in a lifetime,” he grins. “But that’s not true. People like Madonna come once in life.”
© Q Magazine