'It got a little shallow': Nancy Wilson discusses how Heart's music changed in the 1980s

One of the essential elements of Heart’s music that was lost as the band turned toward sleek hitmaking in the 1980s was the signature acoustic guitar work of Nancy Wilson.

Classic rock staples like “Crazy On You” — which, after going Top 40 in the summer of 1976, became the band’s first hit — were defined by that sound. But by the time of 1985’s self-titled release, Heart had traded those unvarnished riffs for keyboards. The album was a smash, going on to become their biggest-ever selling project at five-times platinum on the strength of hits like “These Dreams,” “What About Love,” “Never,” and “Nothin’ at All” — each of which went Top 10.

Over the years, critics have derided Heart because it relied so heavily on outside composers: For instance, Bernie Taupin co-wrote “These Dreams,” which became Heart’s first-ever chart-topping single. But for Wilson, the absence of her signature guitar sound on the records hurts more.

She says now that producer Ron Nevison was at the nexus of that decision.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: The terrific career-spanning set ‘Strange Euphoria’ shows how Heart transformed itself from hippie-chick singer-songwriters, to feminist heavy rockers, to glossy MTV stars, and back again.]

“The producer was telling me, ‘it’s so out, man,’ and ‘nobody plays acoustic guitar anymore. It’s unfashionable. There’s no place for that in this production,'” Wilson tells Guitar World. “And that was kind of tough for me.”

Of course, Nevison would eventually become synonymous with such moves, having overseen the transition of Jefferson Airplane to Jefferson Starship, as well as Chicago’s similarly criticized No. 1 hit “Look Away.”

“I play a lot of electric as well and I played a lot more in the ’80s,” Wilson adds, “but acoustic has always been my signature that I brought to the band. Beyond electric sound, it’s been an acoustic sound that’s not funky, but more aggressive than rockin’ acoustic that helps define the initial Heart signature sound. I guess we were kind of like, ‘OK, we’ll run with this and see where it goes for awhile.’ It was a very interesting time the ’80s. It got a little shallow there but it was OK.”

Fans of that original Heart sound are eagerly awaiting the release of the group’s forthcoming album Fanatic, which Wilson indicates will have its share of acoustic stylings. This is the band’s first release since 2010’s Red Velvet Car had its Top 10 debut in 2010. Heart will also be touring throughout the summer and fall, continuing through November 17. Alejandro Escovedo and Shawn Colvin will be supporting in October and November respectively.

“My acoustic guitar has survived the decades,” she tells Guitar World. “It’s one of things where every few years people say, ‘Rock is dead! Rock and roll is dead!’ And then a few years later it’s like, ‘Thank God rock and roll has survived!’ And it just happens over and over. And rock always survives. It will always land on its feet because it’s animal, and it’s human and it’s muscular and good.”

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Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on Heart. Click through the titles for complete reviews …

HEART – STRANGE EUPHORIA (2012): Heart, like many legacy bands in the 1980s, struggled to marry its original sound with the synthesized style of the day. Strange Euphoria, a sweeping new compilation from Epic-Legacy, charts that journey, as Heart transforms itself from hippie-chick singer-songwriters, to feminist heavy rockers, to glossy MTV stars, and back again. Heart, like the title of this endlessly fascinating new box set, still boasts an abiding, very involving complexity. It’s good to be reminded.

HEART – RED VELVET CAR (2010): The first thing that’s evident from listening to Red Velvet Car is that in contrast to Clapton, the Wilson sisters are as rooted in the present-day sounds as they are to the music of the past, and maybe even more so. The second thing is that Ann Wilson’s voice is finally beginning to falter a bit: she’s lost some of her incredible range and there’s a residue of rasp in it that wasn’t there before. Those are two things that put this album below the level of their last one, 2006’s Jupiter’s Darling. On the other hand, Nancy’s power acoustic guitar remains in fine form, and she can still more than hold her own when battling crashing electric guitars for sonic space.

HEART – GREATEST HITS (1998; 2011 Audio Fidelity Remaster): The distractions when it comes to Heart (gender politics, obvious curtsies to Led Zeppelin, wall-to-wall 1980s power-ballads, etc.) are swept away with this single turned-up-to-11 instrumental interlude during “Magic Man.” I’m struck all over again by guitarist Roger Fisher’s ever-increasing distortion, just before a smeared prog rock-influenced keyboard descends from the heavens. Heart’s “Magic Man” (a No. 9 hit in 1976) has, right there inside of it, this brilliant piece of in-the-moment, well, magic — unlikely to happen again in the age of auto-tune, but buried for decades in a muddy pre-digital mix. Now, this small joy has been spit-shined into a revelatory moment, and it’s almost worth the price of admission itself. This band, you quickly realize all over again, wasn’t led by a couple of Girls Who Rocked. They were, simply, rockers. And very good ones, at that.

DEEP CUTS: HEART, “LOVE ALIVE” (1977): Coming right after the hard-charging “Barracuda,” the sisters ease up on the tempo a bit but not at all on the quality. “Love Alive” runs only a little over four minutes, but it’s a three-parter. The soft beginning kicks off with a winsome acoustic guitar motif, played in tandem by Nancy and (most probably) Roger Fisher. As Ann’s gentle, controlled and low-octave vocals begin, some Indian percussion joins in as well. Her first and second and verse is separated by a short flute interlude…also performed by Ann. Hard rock can sometimes get a little rough around the edges, and it needs a woman’s touch to smooth it out just a tad. There’s probably no women better for that job than the Wilson women when they are on their game like they are for “Love Alive.”

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