FEATURE: Hardly a ‘Lucky’ Star: Madonna’s Groundbreaking Debut at Thirty-Six




Hardly a ‘Lucky’ Star

ART DIRECTION: Carin Goldberg/PHOTO CREDIT: Gary Heery 

Madonna’s Groundbreaking Debut at Thirty-Six


I was going to write a Vinyl Corner feature…

 IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna captured in 1983/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

about Madonna’s eponymous debut as it turns thirty-six tomorrow (27th July). There are a number of reasons why the record is so special and has endured for so long. Madonna is a great album to hear on vinyl, mind, and it sounds as fresh and energetic as it did back in 1983. I wanted to go deeper than a mere nod to the sound of the record and why it is perfect on vinyl: there is such much more to Madonna than meets the eye! Her debut album is, in many ways, groundbreaking and unusual for Madonna. She established herself as a promising singer in New York during the early-1980s and she was signed to Sire by their President, Seymour Stein. Her debut single, Everybody (1982), was a success and he could clearly see she has potential, ammunition and momentum.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna looking relaxed for Richard Corman in 1983

I think Madonna’s debut is quite rare in the sense that, on five of the eight songs, she is the sole writer – she would not enjoy this sort of freedom for quite a while. Madonna was used to working with other producers and writers but, right from the off, she was penning her own songs and had a sense of freedom. So many Pop artists would have been told to stand aside whilst producers/a committee wrote songs that, in their mind, would launch their new artist. Madonna would collaborate more on future albums which is a weird way around: usually, artists might start with others but break away; Madonna sort of did things the other way around. I like the fact Madonna is an album where the creator gets her say and it is not just another throwaway Pop album where there are endless credits and the artist is sort of buried in the mix!

It is staggering to think that Madonna is about to turn thirty-six! I was born the same year the album came out but I was being made aware of its hits when I was at school. I will talk more about the tracks but Borderline, Holiday and Everybody are among the most immediate and finest Pop tracks of the early-1980s. Madonna is also unconventional in the sense that her songs were not a conventional three minutes in length and necessarily primed for radio. Rather, the songs are suitable for discos and clubs; where D.J.s can let the song play and people are not concerned about running time. Many overlook Madonna’s eponymous album in favour of bigger works such as Like a Prayer and Ray of Light. That is fair but it is unfair to judge Madonna as an inessential record – considering the legacy it has and, in 2019, there is nothing that sounds quite as fresh and upbeat! Listen to Pop music now and it either sounds too processed and busy or it is experimental and darker. There are some 1980s-inspired artists like Shura but, for the most part, Pop has gone in new directions. If someone wants to sound Madonna-like, they tend to fail – maybe it is hard to reproduce an album that was of a particular moment. That said…there are so many artists around now that are taking from Madonna’s debut and being influenced by it.

It is small wonder as Madonna is rife with Disco sounds; made using technology of the time such as Linn drum machines and the Oberheim OB-X synthesiser. Madonna was not quite the singer she is now – or at her peak around the time of Like a Prayer (1989) – but I do think her debut sells and resonates because of the more girlish and bubbly delivery. If the vocals were too deep, dramatic and experimental then it would damage the songs. You get this very real and colourful burst of life coming from a singer who, whilst still learning and far from her best, was seducing people around the world with her incredible songs. Whilst the songs on Madonna are memorable and nuanced, they are relentlessly bright and youthful. There are deeper and more mature moments but I love the sheer sense of optimism and verve. If Madonna herself went on to dismiss her debut to some degree, its importance and legacy is clear – more on that a bit later. In 1982, a year before Madonna was released, Madonna was living in New York and trying to get herself signed. She performed in The Breakfast Club and was joined in the band by her then-boyfriend Steve Bray (who would write for Madonna from Like a Virgin (1984) onward; he was not working with her by 1992’s Erotica). The Breakfast Club were more Hard-Rock-driven and did go into Funk territory. The band continued without Madonna but it was clear, even then, she wanted to move in a different direction and was a clear star.

  IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna is snapped by Richard Corman in 1983

Singing for a band is great but, with such ambition and desire, Madonna was writing her own material and has dreams of making it on her own. Although Madonna worked with Steve Bray a lot after her debut, she chose not to do so on her debut – she opted to have a Warner Bros. producer, Reggie Lucas, helm the record. Maybe Madonna was looking for something New York disco-like; something quite free and not too complicated. As the demos started to develop, more instruments and layers were built in. Lucas eventually left because there were disputes between him and Madonna. She felt he did not listen and consider her ideas; there were too many instruments and she did not have enough control – showing the tenacity and boldness this new artist has right at the start! There is plenty for everyone on Madonna. She was a little disappointed there was not as much variation as she’d hoped; a bit too reliant on the Disco sound. It is understandable she’d pine for Disco considering that is where she started and that is what she was fascinated by. Future albums would see her spread her wings but, to Madonna and some, her debut is not as eclectic and variable as you’d hope. If there is an emphasis on more upbeat and danceable songs, there is sentimentality and emotion on offer.

Borderline is about a love that is never fulfilled; I Know It – an underrated track on the album – is gentler and has saxophone and unusual chord changes; Holiday is pure Pop and remains one of her defining tracks. There are few songs on the album but those that are on there are fulsome and fascinating. If there were more tracks then it might grow tiring: the fact there is so much energy means that you are pretty satisfied and exhausted by the end. Madonna would come to be defined as a style icon later in her career but she was definitely standing out in 1983. Shot by Gary Heery and directed by Carin Goldberg, the front cover is striking. Wearing a dog chain around her throat, rubber bangles on her hands and her hair blonde and short, it is an eye-catching cover that seems to show two sides of Madonna: the vulnerable and playful sparring with the tough and assured artist. Madonna would develop a more sexualised and provocative image before too long but she was not exactly she and holding back on her debut album – unlike so many peers who were far too safe, placid and bland. Madonna peaked at number-eight in the Billboard 200 and was certified five-time platinum by the Recording Industry Association. Critics at the time were positive (for the most part) but I think Madonna has gained greater attention and praise in the years since; seeing how it has influenced and the fact, unlike so many albums from that period, the songs do not sound overly-dated.

IMAGE CREDIT: Billboard Magazine 

In their review, AllMusic, had this to say about Madonna’s 1983 debut:

 “And her eponymous debut isn't simply good, it set the standard for dance-pop for the next 20 years. Why did it do so? Because it cleverly incorporated great pop songs with stylish, state-of-the-art beats, and it shrewdly walked a line between being a rush of sound and a showcase for a dynamic lead singer. This is music where all of the elements may not particularly impressive on their own -- the arrangement, synth, and drum programming are fairly rudimentary; Madonna's singing isn't particularly strong; the songs, while hooky and memorable, couldn't necessarily hold up on their own without the production -- but taken together, it's utterly irresistible. And that's the hallmark of dance-pop: every element blends together into an intoxicating sound, where the hooks and rhythms are so hooky, the shallowness is something to celebrate. And there are some great songs here, whether it's the effervescent "Lucky Star," "Borderline," and "Holiday" or the darker, carnal urgency of "Burning Up" and "Physical Attraction." And if Madonna would later sing better, she illustrates here that a good voice is secondary to dance-pop. What's really necessary is personality, since that sells a song where there are no instruments that sound real. Here, Madonna is on fire, and that's the reason why it launched her career, launched dance-pop, and remains a terrific, nearly timeless, listen”.

Writing in 2017, Pitchfork investigated Madonna and had this to say:

Disco and disco-adjacent stars like Donna Summer and Michael Jackson still were programming their hits, but the overall focus was back on a full-band sound. There’s no shortage of organic instruments on Madonna’s debut—“Borderline” wouldn’t be the same without the piano’s melodic underscoring, standout album cut “Physical Attraction” without its funky little guitar line—but the slinky digital grooves often take center stage. Through this, Madonna is able to achieve an almost aggressive twinkling that still feels fresh: the effervescent fizz at the start of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Cut to the Feeling” seems cribbed straight from “Lucky Star.”

Madonna vaguely criticized her debut’s sonic palette while promoting its follow-up, 1984’s Like a Virgin, but its focus is part of what makes the album so memorable, so of a time and place. She would soon become known for ritual pop star metamorphosis, but with a clearly defined musical backdrop, Madonna was able to let shine her biggest asset: herself.

Maybe the New York cool kids rolled their eyes at the Midwest transplant after she blew up, but she had effectively bottled their attitude and open-mindedness and sold it to the MTV generation (sleeve of bangles and crucifix earrings not included). Innocent as it may look now, compared to the banned bondage videos and butt-naked books that followed, Madonna was a sexy, forward-thinking record that took pop in a new direction. Its success showed that, with the right diva at the helm, music similar to disco could find a place in the white mainstream—a call to the dance floor answered by everyone from Kylie to Robyn to Gaga to Madonna herself”.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna shot by Deborah Feingold in 1982

There are numerous reasons why we should reinvestigate Madonna’s debut - seriously, though, snap it up on vinyl if you can. The sheer thrill of dropping the needle and listening to those songs burst forward is more exciting and evocative than listening through headphones or digitally. Madonna brought Disco vibes to the mainstream after Disco had sort of died – when Punk arrived in 1978, it was not long until Disco was declared dead and, on 12th July, 1979, Disco ended. If Madonna has been released in 1980 or 1981 then it might have suffered: it would be too soon to try and reintroduce Disco but, with a break of four years, Disco was back in the forefront – although it was not as widespread and popular as it used to be. Madonna’s debut helped bring Dance-Pop to the front, too, and it would also set her on a path; an ambitious and always-inspiring artist who paved the way for so many others. Everyone from Janet Jackson and Debbie Gibson can lay claim to having been inspired by Madonna when it came to their own direction. Maybe it was her sound of the fact she had this unique look but Madonna had star power in 1983 and instantly set herself aside from everyone else – more than a chart artist, she was a pioneer and it would not be long until she was crowned The Queen of Pop.

Not only did her fashion turn heads but the videos for Lucky Star, Borderline and Burning Up mixed this idea of Madonna being a girl-next-door type but introduced a tough edge: a woman who was accessible but definitely took no sh*t from anyone. The hits from Madonna became radio staples and so many girls/women around the world were introduced to this new role model. For men and boys, perhaps there was this attraction: this clearly tough and determined artist who was also quite mysterious and down-to-earth. Future albums such as Erotica (1992) and Like a Prayer (1989) would cause some ruffling of feathers and showed this bolder, more sexual Madonna – her debut has this charm and innocence that is hard to resist. Of course, critics took shots at her and were cruel about her voice – that it was high-pitched and Minnie Mouse-like – and claimed she’s a one-hit wonder.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna stands tall for Richard Corman in 1983

Madonna took this in her stride and, with some impressive attitude and her distinct image, she definitely shut people up and proved she was not going to take it. This criticism spurred her on to become even bigger and more ambitious. It is strange how criticism and negativity can drive us on but I wonder how many of those who dared criticise Madonna in 1983 are sneering now – if they are even still alive, that is! I will end with a couple of features that pay tribute to a groundbreaking album from a future icon and megastar. This article talks about Madonna’s first exposure to the U.K. – it would take longer for people here to latch onto her sound/look than in the U.S. – and how one particular video seemed to define who Madonna was and who she would become:

Madonna’s eponymous debut album was released on 27 July 1983 to largely positive reviews. It heralded a new era of dance music populating the mainstream, fusing irresistible pop and R&B hooks with club-friendly beats, utilising the latest technology. The album entered the Billboard chart at number 123 and climbed gradually as Madonna embarked on an extensive promo tour, often playing three clubs in one night. Her act consisted of singing along to backing tracks and performing a series of choreographed routines with her back-up dancers, Martin Burgoyne, Erica Bell and Christopher Ciccone (Madonna’s younger brother).

Following a trek across the US, which helped Madonna to peak at number eight in October 1984, having sold 2.8 million copies, Madonna made her first visit to the UK to promote the album. As well as a seemingly endless round of interviews and photo shoots for magazines such as Smash Hits, The Face, Sounds, Record Mirror and i-D, she performed a showcase at Camden Palace, and performed Holiday on Top Of The Pops and The Tube (famously filmed in The Haçienda in Manchester).

The video for her fourth single, Lucky Star, released in September 1983, served as the perfect introduction to Madonna. For many people, who were seeing her for the first time, it was a shocking revelation that the voice they’d heard on the radio wasn’t, in fact, a black artist but a white girl. The video’s iconic opening shot, a close-up of Madonna taking off her shades, gives way to the singer gyrating in front of a white background, exuding star quality and a potent sexuality, with Christopher and Erica dancing behind her.

The video gave the singer her first taste of controversy – something she’d court throughout the next three decades – with some viewers enraged that someone calling herself Madonna was emanating such a sexual image (little did they know at the time that Madonna was her birth name). Despite this, the video became one of the most requested on MTV and sent Lucky Star to number four on the Billboard chart, giving Madonna her first Top Ten single.

The video also highlighted Madonna’s unique sense of style. Her tousled hair, cropped tops, cut-off tights, rubber bracelets and lace gloves became synonymous with her, and she pioneered the underwear-as-outerwear trend. Her look was streetwise, provocative and attainable for her growing army of fans, who soon copied their idol’s every fashion statement”.

Popfection talked about the importance of Madonna and how it has endured over the years:

Madonna was on the fast track to taking over the world, which would come with her second album. 34 years down the road, Madonna is hailed as one of the finest pop records of the 80’s and one of the greatest debut’s in the history of music. The album’s iconic cover, incredible singles, and watertight production have left behind a legacy that few other albums earn. Birthing the career of the woman that would go on to change the face of the industry, this album was a gamble that paid off. Obstacles lined the road to success, but Madonna never stopped and she persevered her way to the finish line. In the words of the woman herself, “I went to New York. I had a dream. I wanted to be a big star, I didn’t know anybody, I wanted to dance, I wanted to sing, I wanted to do all those things, I wanted to make people happy, I wanted to be famous, I wanted everybody to love me. I wanted to be a star, I worked really hard, and my dream came true.” No truer words were ever spoke”.

I also want to bring in a feature from CLASH who claimed, quite rightly, Madonna is a bold masterpiece:

It's difficult to think of many more debut albums that, in retrospect, hint so boldly at the career that an artist would grow into and the reputation that they would subsequently cultivate - the only one that springs immediately to mind is U2's ‘Boy’, an album made in Dublin kitchens but destined to be played in the world's biggest, best arenas.

Throughout the course of ‘Madonna’, she discusses the tropes present on most pop debuts - the idea of love, loss and the struggles of early adulthood. The overriding presence of her lyrics here is her independence and her ability to challenge the preconceived ideas that others have of how she should act and the choices that she is making.

Whilst nowhere near as daring sonically or visually as Madonna’s later works would prove to be, her debut album is, nonetheless, a masterpiece. Offering something for everyone without ever selling her talents short, to say it’s a tone setter for the themes that she would come to personify throughout the rest of the decade would be a huge understatement.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna shines for Richard Corman in 1983

It’s a record of immense power and longevity that feels as impressive today as it would have done upon first release and the contrarians who say otherwise are the kind of people that you’d never really want to bump into at a party”.

On Saturday (27th July) it will be thirty-six years since this bright, infectious and classic Pop debut arrived in the world. As the weather is so hot and sticky, it seems like Madonna is the perfect album to spin. That said, the sort of energy the album provokes might be a bit dangerous so it might be best to listen to it through headphones! That is what I shall be doing. Some critics turned their noses up at Madonna’s debut and Madonna herself sort of dismissed it – or does not see it as personal and important as some of her later work. They are all wrong because, when you listen closely, it becomes apparent that this incredible debut is one of the most important records…


 IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna looking chic for Richard Corman in 1983

WE have ever seen.