MADONNA burst on to the pop scene 30 years ago but few realised back then that she would go on to dominate quite as she has, despite her sound, sex appeal and stunning look.
The newcomer’s photograph wasn’t even on the cover of her first hit single, Holiday, released in the US on September 7, 1983, which was instead promoted with a picture of a train leaving a station.
Madonna’s label, Sire, was trying to make listeners think that she was black in the hope of getting the song played on R&B radio stations.
Holiday not only got airplay but became the breakout hit from her debut album, Madonna, which entered the lower reaches of the charts in late August 1983 and stayed in the LP charts for 168 weeks. That eight-track album would eventually sell 10 million copies and still holds up well today as an infectious dance pop classic.
Yet it was her look that won attention before her music with the lace tops, ripped jeans, studded bracelets and bleached hair being hard to miss. That was certainly the case when the starry-eyed wannabe made a fateful trip to Danceteria, the hot New York nightclub of the time.
The disco on four floors on 21st Street was a real future star factory as British singer Sade worked behind the bar, rapper LL Cool J was the lift operator and the Beastie Boys cleared away glasses.
On this night, Sire Records executive Michael Rosenblatt was at the second floor bar chatting to his guests, George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley from hot new group Wham!, when he suddenly noticed a striking girl sashaying across the dancefloor and asking the DJ to play her demo tape.
Rosenblatt recalls: “She radiated star power. I introduced myself, asked her what she was looking for and Madonna’s answer was, ‘I want to rule the world’.” A few months later she was recording the debut album that would put her on the path to world domination.
On the recommendation of Rosenblatt, his chief talent spotter, Sire Records founder Seymour Stein listened to her demo tape and signed Madonna to his label.
On shaking hands with the singer and looking into her eyes, the label boss instantly knew he would not regret it. He remembered: “I saw a young woman who was so determined to be a star.”
That determination showed itself when she worked hard in the studio, spending long hours perfecting the debut album, and rehearsing endlessly ahead of live performances.
Stein added: “I never saw anybody work this hard in my life and I thought, ‘There’s no stopping this girl’.”
Needing one more song to complete the album, her producer boyfriend Jellybean Benitez found her Holiday, a catchy number that had been rejected by Mary Wilson of the Supremes.
Madonna sprinkled her magic on the song, and even played one of the instruments used in recording it… a cowbell! A few years ago she revealed that Holiday was the favourite of all her songs. It was her first hit but clearly wouldn’t be her last.
Follow up singles Borderline and Lucky Star also became big successes from that first album and further smashes came thick and fast.
Madonna’s reign as the queen of pop was just beginning and fully justified her decision, five years earlier, to drop out of college and move from Michigan to New York. She would later say of that big move: “It was the first time I’d ever taken a plane, the first time I’d ever gotten a taxi cab.
I came to New York with $35 in my pocket. It was the bravest thing I’d ever done, but New York was the centre of everything.”
Before finding fame she scraped a living there as a waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts, as a dancer and an artists’ model.
She also performed in two pop bands, Breakfast Club and Emmy, failed an audition for a Martin Scorsese film, acted in a stage play (In Artificial Light) and posed for nude photos.
Her story is that of the classic starving artist. She was living in a tiny flat, claimed to be eating out of rubbish bins and grew frustrated that most men she approached in showbusiness wanted to sleep with her rather than work with her.
Yet she took control of her destiny by making a four-track demo tape at a Times Square studio, a tape that proved to be a passport to the big time when she persuaded DJs to play it in clubs and momentum began to build.
Madonna modelled herself on pop queens Debbie Harry, Grace Jones and Chrissie Hynde but would swiftly go on to eclipse them all. Childhood influences clearly had a big impact on her success.
She was raised in Detroit, home of Motown, and those dance-orientated records shaped her pop sound.
Watching countless Hollywood films and Broadway musicals inspired her stage persona. It was part of a relentless search for attention and affection that was fuelled by the loss of her mother to cancer when Madonna was five.
The debut album was a lot tamer than what would pour out of Madonna in later years as sexuality and spirituality took a controversial hold on her career and things got both steamy and scandalous.
This was just sunny pop with catchy hooks and irresistible dance beats. The critics loved it but none were predicting she would stay around the pop scene long term. That seemed impossible to imagine. But with drive and talent she certainly managed it.
Madonna, now 55, has sold more than 300 million records and is the best selling female recording artist in history with a net worth of more than a billion dollars.
Yet it all started with that first album 30 years ago, one that would change pop music forever.
Happy anniversary Your Madgesty.
by Sandro Monetti