In Ten Tracks: Heart

A selection of Heart songs that have meaning to me and have stuck with me through the years, appearing frequently on mix tapes and playlists. Not necessarily stuff you’ll find on an artist’s Greatest Hits collection.

Magic Man  At the time they recorded their first album, Dreamboat Annie, Heart was based in Vancouver, Canada for romantic and legal reasons. Mike Fisher, brother of guitarist and founding member Roger Fisher, was in Canada to escape the Viet Nam War draft in the U.S. One evening after slipping across the border he met Ann Wilson who was in Roger’s band Hocus Pocus at a local performance. The two fell in love and she followed him back to Canada. Soon Roger and Ann’s sister, Nancy, followed and the group set up in Vancouver.  Their first album, Dreamboat Annie, was recorded and released in Canada in 1975 and in the U.S. the following year. It spawned three successful singles: the title track, “Crazy On You,” and “Magic Man.” The track is a perfect amalgam of straight-ahead rock with a touch of hard rock guitar and one of the coolest (at the time) Moog solos, right behind Emerson Lake & Palmer’s “Lucky Man.” Most importantly, though, it introduced the world to Ann Wilson’s formidable vocal talents.

Heartless  When Dreamboat Annie became a success in the U.S. the band’s Canadian label, Mushroom, tried to push out an album of tracks the band had been working on for its followup, the ill-fated Magazine. The band had signed with Portrait Records in 1977 and was working on the album Little Queen, which many consider their best. There was plenty of legal wrangling and in the end, Mushroom was forced to recall their copies of the album and label them as a basically illegitimate product. The band was allowed to re-record much of the album (Ann Wilson recorded new lead vocal tracks for pretty much all the songs) and the disc was reissued in 1978. Magazine did provide one hot track, though–“Heartless” would become a Heart classic and a part of its live performances for many years. It’s an energetic rock number that features Nancy’s guitar riffing and once again Ann demonstrates that the buzz about the influence of Robert Plant on her vocals isn’t just talk. Another thing that was clear–the Wilson sisters were writing half the songs and making Heart their band.

Love Alive Little Queen was released in 1977 and stands as the classic Heart lineup’s best album. With Ann and Nancy featured on the cover as members of a gypsy caravan, the album had plenty of hard rock numbers (the inflammatory ‘Barracuda,’ the frenetic “Kick It Out,” the slinky title track) but it also showed a softer, somewhat more pastoral side of the band. The three-song sequence of ‘Love Alive,’ ‘Sylvan Song,’ and ‘Dream of the Archer’ is stunning, especially for a band that seemed to just be finding its voice. When Little Queen was reissued in 2004 it included the bonus track ‘Too Long a Time’, labeled as an early demo of ‘Love Alive.’ It’s almost like hearing another whole song based on the same thematic material, and it deepens the substance of the album and of Heart.

Little Queen

Sylvan Song/Dream of the Archer ‘Sylvan Song’ is the instrumental link between ‘Love Alive’ and “Dream of the Archer, and it’s an instrumental that demonstrates the influence of Led Zeppelin, this time on the folksier side. Basically an intro for ‘Dream of the Archer,’ it features Nancy Wilson and Roger Fisher on mandolins and Howard Leese on Moog bass.  Channeling the pastoral folk side of Zeppelin, we are offered the vision of a warrior in which he is unable to save people who are called by the wild, feminine nature of the woods. Ann’s vocal work cuts like scalpel blade, yet also twins with Nancy’s to provide a more gentle, dreamlike quality. 

Mistral Wind Fans were primed for the followup to Little Queen, 1978’s Dog & Butterfly, and they were not disappointed. Besides the classic and beautiful title track, there were hard rockers like “Straight On” and “Cook With Fire”. There were more expansive tracks like “Nada One” and there was “Mistral Wind.” This final track became a concert staple and further cemented them as a strong band that had transcended its Zeppelin wannabe status. There were changes coming as well–by the time the band had completed its 77 date tour, Mike and Roger Fisher, who had been with the group since its inception and were romantically involved with the Wilson sisters, would be gone. The mistral is a strong, cold wind that blows from southern France into the Gulf of Lion in the northern Mediterranean. Strongest in the period of transition between winter and spring, the track glows with the power of everything that Heart had been through and the transition that they were working through as they recorded it. Starting with a gentle acoustic introduction, the song soars to the rafters on the back of Roger Fisher’s intense guitar work and Ann’s vocals.

Bebe Le Strange

Bebe Le Strange Bebe Le Strange was the first album without Roger Fisher’s guitar work and the Wilson sisters basically got down to kicking out the jams. Tracks like “Down on Me” rock hard, while the title track and “Break” have nervous new wave energy. “Rockin’ Heaven Down” is a strong stadium rocker with the Wilsons using multitracking to create a chorus of Anns and Nancys. The hit single “Even It Up” mines the tight sound and horn section accents of Exile on Main Street-era Stones. “Bebe Le Strange” is a weird, cool song that was inspired by a fan letter according to Ann Wilson: “Back then there weren’t a whole lot of bands that featured women that had made it on a national level. They were all still in the basement, you know? And this one chick wrote and said basically what’s in the lyrics: “We saw you and we really dig you but your real names aren’t sufficient. We have to rename you and make you an icon.” These girls needed to figure out some kind of banner to go to war under.”

Never  1985’s Heart album completed the group’s transition to ’80s mainstream arena rock, and it was their most successful album of all time, topping the Billboard 200, spawning multiple hit singles and being nominated for a Best Group Rock Performance Grammy. But much of the band’s personality disappeared in the mix, with most of the songs here written by outside songwriters–Sheron Alton & Jim Vallance (“What About Love”), Bernie Taupin & John Martin (“These Dreams”). This was a trend that continued through the band’s ’80s output until 1993’s release Desire Walks On. “Never” was written by the Wilsons and writing partner Sue Ennis (under the pseudonym ‘Connie’) along with Holly Knight. All of the drawbacks of ’80s Heart are on display here, but the song has a certain charm and the lyrics, despite being composed by a committee, sound like Heart. 

White Lightning & Wine-Live In 2007 Heart played their album Dreamboat Annie Live in its entirety as well as a few covers as encores. This track, buried midway through Side Two of the album was always a good little rocker, but the Wilsons give it a greater kick in this live performance. It’s a solid reminder that the group survived the ’80s with their ability to rock and roll intact. 

Rock Deep (Vancouver)  Back where we started, as Ann and Nancy remember the journey they made many years ago from Seattle to Vancouver as their rock journey started. Vancouver is where most of Dream Boat Annie was written and the song has a haunting sound, rising from an acoustic guitar opening to a full orchestra. This track is from the band’s 2012 release Fanatic, easily their best in a long time. The album continues the group’s rehabilitation on record that started with 2010’s Red Velvet Car. Both albums were produced by Canadian Ben Mink, best known for his longtime collaboration with k.d. lang. Mink co-wrote this track with the Wilson sisters. Fanatic had several standout songs, including “Dear Old America,” “Walkin’ Good” (with Sarah McLachlan), and “Mashallah,” which became a live staple. Heart was beginning to get the respect that had long eluded them in the rock community and the year after Fanatic was released they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. 

Johnny Moon (Beautiful Broken version)  In 2016 Concord Music Group released Heart’s sixteenth studio album Beautiful Broken, a collection featuring a few new songs and remakes of some earlier tracks. Several tracks, including “Johnny Moon” come from the band’s ’80s albums Private Audition and Passionworks. Both albums contained some solids songs, but the band’s direction was uncertain and the production and sounds of the ’80s were in full force. These remakes show that Ann and Nancy were far from spent in the eighties–like many other artists they were coming off the excesses of the ’70s and uncertain how to adapt their sound to the new decade. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.