In November 1983, over two years before the Pet Shop Boys became famous, a Smash Hits journalist called Neil Tennant interviewed Madonna.
The story behind how the interview came about goes like this: Neil was in New York, helping to set up an American version of Smash Hits called Star Hits. One day – possibly because A Flock Of Seagulls weren’t available – Neil decided to interview a new singer called Madonna. At that time she wasn’t particularly famous either; she’d had a couple of singles out, but so far only her song “Holiday” had been much of a success. All the same Neil reckoned she was well worth a piece in the new magazine.
Now, of course, they’re both fans of each other (the other day Neil even dropped along to have a chat with her at her birthday party) but at the time of the interview Neil didn’t know her at all.
He set off to meet her in a New York cafe, tape recorder in hand, and then spent the next hour drinking cappucinos and listening to an enthusiastic torrent of words from a young woman who turned out to become just about the most famous megastar on the planet. “I hardly said a word,” remembers Neil, couldn’t stop her talking…”
Neil Tennant: Where are you from?
Madonna: I come from a big Italian family. I have eight brothers and sisters. I was born in Detroit and then moved to Pontiac and then moved to another city just north of Detroit. Those are all car factory cities so everybody’s families worked in the car factories. I went to three different Catholic schools – uniforms and nuns hitting you over the head with staplers, very strict and regimented.
To my supiriors I seemed like a very good girl. I was very good at getting into these situations where I was the hall monitor and I reported people who weren’t behaving. And I used to torture people but in the end it came back to me.
Neil: You used to torture people?
Madonna: Just make up thing that they didn’t really do. But my mother dies when I was really young so the nuns forgave me for a lot of the things because they thought, “well, she doesn’t have a monther and her father’s never there” and I knew it so I milked it for everything I could. From the very start I was a bad girl.
Neil: Were you musical?
Madonna: I had a very musical upbringing. I studied piano for a year but I quit. Actually my teacher made me quit because I never went to lessons. I used to hide in a ditch. I used to turn the timer back. When I was suppose to practise for an hour my mother would leave the room and I’d turn the timer so it looked like I only had 15 minutes left. I convinced my father to let me take dance lessons instead. Everyone else had to take musical instrument study but I got to take dance lessons – ballet and then, when I got older, jazz and tap and modern and tap and all that crap.
Neil: What kind of music were you listening to?
Madonna: The very first records I used to listen to were twist (1960 dance “craze”) records. My mother and father had a lot of twist records I did the limbo to Chubby Checker’s records — you know, you go under a broom — and my mother and father used to twist all the time, believe it or not. And I listened to Johnny Mathis and Harry Belafonte and Sam Cooke and stuff. I got into more pop music when I was older.
Neil: Things like The Beatles?
Madonna: Not The Beatles really. I moved into things like “The Letter” by The Box Tops and The Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” — I love that record — and “Incense And Peppermints” (by wonky “psychedelic” pop group Strawberry Alarm Clock) and “Quinn The Eskimo” (old Bob Dylon ditty called “The Mighty Quinn”). All my uncles, who were really young, and my brothers used to buy these records. And then there was the Motown things. I lived in a real integrated neighbourhood. We were one of the only white families living in the neighbourhood actually and all my girlfriends had Motown and black stuff. And they had yard dances in their back yards, little 45 turntables and a stack of records and everyone just danced in the driveway and the back yard.
Neil: When did you start singing?
Madonna: When I was at school and at church I sang in choirs, and musical theatre and stuff in high school — you know, My Fair Lady and The Sound Of Music — and then I came to New York. And when I came to New York in the beginning I was aiming to be a professional dancer. I was 17 then.
I didn’t know anyone when I came here to New York. I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got there. I just knew.
Neil: What had made you realise you were good enough to be a professional singer/dancer?
Madonna: Well, I always knew I was good enough because I always got lead roles in everything when I was going to high school so I thought I might as well go and try it in the big time, so that’s what I did. I always had an idea that I wanted to be a performer and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to dance or sing or be an actress or what. I just started concentrating on dancing because i was much more of a discipline. I’ve never really studied voice — that just came naturally to me; dancing gave me a focus. I had to really work at it. But then, when I got to New York I was dancing in companies for a while; it just wasn’t satisfying enough. I like modern dance companies but there are so few good companies and so many dancers competing with each other and you just worked your ass off for nothing. I was like going to musical theatres and telling them I could dunce and I could sing because I wanted to use my voice.
That led to interest in music and learning how to play musical instruments. I play guitar and keyboards. My first instrument I learned, actually, was the drums. I was a drummer in a band culled The Breakfast Club. It was these two guys called Eddie and Danny Gilroy, and they were these crazy brothers who lived in a synagogue in Queens (an area in New York). They took the whole place over and had a whole musical studio with every instrument and Danny was my boyfriend. He went to work every day and I lived there for a year and I taught myself, and they helped me too, how to play instruments. So I went from dancing every day to doing that.
Neil: Was there anyone you aspired to be like?
Madonna: Well, when I was younger I really liked girl singers like Lulu and those kind of innocent, angelic voices, Marianne Faithfull and that kind of stuff, plus Diana Ross and all the girl groups of the ’60s like the Motown girl groups. Then when I got older my idols shifted ‘cos there weren’t really any female singers I could aspire to be like. From then on I went through an “I want to be like Michael Jackson” phase. I can do everything he can do only I’m a girl! I still idolise him above any performer. He transcends almost every level, appeals to everyone.
Neil: Is that what you want to do?
Neil: Anyway, what happened to the band in the synagogue?
Madonna: Eventually the more music I understood and played, the more songs I wrote. The more songs I wrote, the more I wanted to be the front person of the band, not just playing drums. I was an excellent drummer. I was really strong and I had all this dance training so I had all this energy. I used to dance eight hours a day and then I quit so then I used to practise drums for four hours a day. Drove everybody mad! They were always afraid that I was going to steal the attention from the band ‘cos there were two guys at the front and I was the only girl with three guys. So I thought, “I’m going to front my own band” and I did. I was front person playing guitar with a band called Emmy — that was my nickname in the other band. Then I fell out with my manager and I didn’t have a rehearsal studio and I didn’t have any musicians because my manager paid them. I lost everything. All I could do was get a demo tape together to get a record deal. I started working with this guy, Steve Bray, who I knew from Detroit. He’s a real musical wizard, plays all instruments, understands music theory. He helped me write songs and put all the songs on tape. He was good at getting keys for studios after midnight because he was a musician for a lot of people. We’d sneak in and make demo tapes. The first demo tape I made was the one with “Everybody” on. After I made the demo tape I started going to clubs because I thought “I don’t know anything about the music business.”
Neil: How were you earning a living?
Madonna: I wasn’t really. I was living on the street, in a manner of speaking (laughs). Those were the days when those things didn’t bother me, wearing the same clothes for three weeks. Steve had a studio where he rehearsed with bands and I lived in the studio. That’s where I slept at night. So I started going to clubs, because I knew that people hung out in the DJ booths of clubs. Mainly the Danceteria. This guy, Mark Kamins was DJing and he started flirting with me, telling me how we had all this music in common and I was talking about this music in a more interesting way. He asked to hear a tape of my music and the next day he played it over the speakers before the club opened and he said “God, this is good — I’m going to get you a record deal.” He took me round to record companies and Sire offered me the best deal right away. So I made a 12″ single for them, “Everybody”, and all the other stuff happened after that.
Neil: When did you start using dancers?
Madonna: When I started doing track dates. The whole concept of track dates was completely new to me ‘cos I’d always been used to playing in bands and then, when the record got big, all those discotheques said “Well, come and do track dates.” You just come and sing live over the music and you get paid thousands of dollars which didn’t make sense because I got paid nothing when I was in a band. So I said “That’s great, but I should make something more visual out of it.” With my dance training I thought “Why not make a dance scenario out of it?”
Neil: When did they start calling you Madonna?
Madonna: The day I was born. It’s my real name and it was my mother’s name. She named me after her.
Neil: It’s an unusual Christian name, isn’t it?
Madonna: It’s very Italian. But everyone was telling me when I was in Italy that it’s sacreligious. It’s like people go “Madonna Mia!” and when they were screaming my name it sounded like they were cursing about something. It’s confusing…
Neil: How did you get to be managed by Michael Jackson’s manager (in those days) Freddy DeMann?
Madonna: I thought “I must have a manager.” I thought ‘Who’s the most successful person in the music industry and who’s his manager? I want him.” I went out to L.A. to meet him and at the time he was Michael Jackson’s manager. He came out to New York and saw a show at Studio 54 (famous disco club in the early ’80s) I did for Fiorucci and I was so nervous because Michael Jackson’s so incredible live and I thought “If he thinks Prince is terrible — which he did — what can I do?” Then he liked the show.
Neil: Are you ambitious?
Madonna: What do you think? (laughs)
Neil: What are your ambitions then?
Madonna: To keep making great records. To cross over more into the pop charts as I have with “Holiday”. To develop as a music artist but also get involved in other things. I made a video for MTV. I’d like to make more videos. I’d like to write music for other people and then I have a great interest in films.
I’m going to do more ballads on my next record but give it a more open feeling, you know, like Hall & Oates get. I like Culture Club’s sound. I hate to use that as a comparison but it will still be very rhythmic and dance orientated but… It’s hard to describe. It’s going to be good.
Neil: You want to be an actress as well?
Madonna: Well, I am an actress!
Neil: You haven’t been in any films yet, though.
Madonna: No. But I will.
Madonna: Well, I’m signed to William Morris for both music and film and I know a lot of casting directors. I’ve already been for several films. It’ll just happen. I’m doing a small part in a John Peters’ productions. It’s a movie called Vision quest. Phil Ramone’s doing the soundtrack, the man who did Flashdance, and I’m going to be doing two of the songs for the soundtrack. And in the movie there’s a club that these kids go to and I’m going to be a performer in the club So that’s my foot in the door.
Neil: How does it seem looking back to where you were on the street, now?
Madonna: I worked for everything that I got and I worked long and hard before I got to this point so when I got it I thought “I deserve it.” I think that you get what you deserve. I always knew it would happen.
Neil: Do you go to Detroit very often?
Madonna: Nope: I haven’t been home in two years but I’m going home for Thanksgiving. I’ll be able to get those Christmas presents I left there two years ago. The last time I went home I was like starving and they went “You are disgusting!” So now they hear my record on the radio and see my video on MTV and any press I get and my father’s finally convinced that going to the University Of Michigan was not the only alternative for me.
Neil: What do your brothers and sisters do?
Madonna: Envy me! (laughs)
Neil: Do you still know all of the New York hip-hop crowd?
Madonna: I used to hang out with them in clubs before I even got a record deal. There’s a little culture going on there ‘cos of those kids making big, getting over. The graffiti writers and the break-dancers. But I think I have much more of an oversight than they do. They just want to prove that they can do something that’s going to be bigger that just the Bronx (another area of New York). I plan on making this go on for a much longer time — I don’t think they have further aspirations.
Neil: What do you hope you’ll be doing in 20 years time?
Madonna: Counting my money! (laughs) No, I hope that I’m happy and growing as an artist.
© Smash Hits