Death by Power Ballad: Heart, “Alone”

Heart’s second coming coincided with the golden era of the power ballad arts. Remember—this is the group that roared out of the Seattle area (by way of Canada) before the Seattle area was known for much more than timber, the Space Needle, and lots of rain. Originally presented as a kind of chick Zeppelin—thanks in no small part to Ann Wilson’s Plantesque caterwaul—the band seemed to peter out three years after Zeppelin’s 1980 demise, with the underrated Passionworks, their last record for CBS.

Of course, two years later, Heart scored a Number One album with their self-titled Capitol debut, and followed it up in 1987 with Bad Animals. Each record was produced by God’s gift to power balladry, Ron Nevison, and each was terrific in its own way. One had to notice, however, that the Wilson sisters increasingly ceded writing duties to pros outside the band. “What About Love,” the mammoth first single from Heart, was credited to Jim Vallance and two others; “These Dreams,” their first chart-topping hit, was a Martin Page/Bernie Taupin co-write.

Bad Animals‘ first single was “Alone,” and it was something of a cover tune. Written by Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg (who had given us “Like a Virgin,” “Eternal Flame,” “Sex as a Weapon,” “I Touch Myself,” and approximately 8,500 other Eighties hits), it was originally recorded by the writers’ band I-Ten in 1983. The song went nowhere. In 1984, it was recorded by quasi-/faux-/not even remotely a Beach Boy John Stamos for some sitcom or another, and not only did the song go nowhere, it went beyond nowhere, actually disappearing from this plane of existence for several months before struggling mightily to return to nowhere (Stamos has that effect on music).

“Alone” found its voice when Heart recorded it, and the voice it found was none other than Ann Wilson’s. In the hands of this veritable force of nature, “Alone” became one of the mightiest of all power ballads, an exercise in stopping the world dead in its tracks and making its inhabitants burn in the vast and intense fire of its singer’s longing. Granted, neither Wilson nor Heart wanted to hurt anyone, so the band consulted with physicists, auditory specialists, and Aquaman, in order to properly calibrate the recording’s awesomeness so that neither human nor beast on land or sea would be harmed once the song was released. Nevison had to wear protective gloves when mixing the record. Drummer Denny Carmassi had to wear a helmet. Bassist Mark Andes had to wear a cup. Bassist Mark Andes had to be told by drummer Denny Carmassi that the kind of cup he needed was not the kind they kept in the studio kitchen.

It’s difficult to pinpoint just one great thing about the song, aside from the voice. The verses are quiet, almost coiled, waiting for the conclusion of the last word to allow the song to spring into that chorus—kudos to Kelly and Steinberg for the use of such dynamics in their composition. But in none of the previous (or subsequent) versions of the song was that chorus so bullet-train-smacking-into-brick-wall forceful as it is in Heart’s version, a testament in large part to Nevison’s prowess as producer and the song’s arrangement, not to mention the band’s ability to pull it off.

But back to the voice. You hear the subtlety of Wilson’s gift in the first verse, when it’s just her and the keyboard. You hear the flat-out authority she brings to the song in the first chorus. You hear the modest interplay with the background vocal in the second verse and the manner with which she plays with the buildup at the end of that verse. Nothing quite prepares you, though, for the almost feral wordless exclamation that precedes the second chorus. I’ve heard everyone from Celine Dion to my kid sister try to master it, to mimic it, to channel Wilson’s command and dominance. No dice. Can’t be done. The woman practically blew up Alderaan with that sound, and Carrie Underwood’s supposed to be worthy of such ascension? No offense to country music’s sweetheart, but I think not.

Wilson can still bring it live, too, at 60 years old. That’s the power of a great voice, a weapons-grade vocal, put to the task of launching a great song and keeping it in flight. The word awesome was made for singers like Ann Wilson, and songs like “Alone.”




  • http://www.popdose.com Michael Parr

    Holy Shit, Ann Wilson is 60? Wow, I had more to say but I can't get over that. She is a powerhouse, plain and simple. That song makes the hair on my arms stand every single time I hear it.

  • jbacardi

    …the underrated Passionworks

    Right on the money there!

    When I'd hear this song on the radio or see it on MTV, like, every 10 minutes for a while there, in my twisted brain I'd hear it as “How can I get you a loan?” and my twisted brain would answer “Go to the bank!”.

    Yeah. Guess you had to be there.

  • http://twitter.com/DanielNester Daniel Nester

    The John Stamos version has some nifty guitar hero work. But still: WTF?

  • http://www.jasonhare.com jasonhare

    I thought I knew everything there was to know about this song, but I had no clue John Stamos recorded it. My hat is off to you.

  • Gigi

    Kelly & Steinberg more than justified their existence. Love that someone besides me remembers that “Sex as a Weapon” exists.

  • http://www.popdose.com DwDunphy

    I always liked this song until this revelation. Now it will be hard to hear it without knowing it was first violated with Stamosness.

  • jbacardi

    I think that's the best thing Benatar ever did. The video was clever, too.

  • EightE1

    One of these days, I'm going to do a DbPB on “Run Between the Raindrops,” another track on Seven the Hard Way. Love that song.

  • EightE1

    You funny, Comicman.

    I flipped a coin before writing this — it was either “Alone” or “Allies.” I'm-a save “Allies” for a future column. I've always liked Passionworks. Cool record that gets, like, no props. The Wilsons probably don't like it much, either.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/EE62VPYR4HIEYVRLELSONZQBYM the_oracle

    Saw Heart in concert three years ago; “Alone” and “These Dreams” were the only two songs they played from the Capitol Records era; everything else was either earlier or a cover version. (Sadly, “Allies” wasn't in the set list.) And yes, Ann and Nancy can still bring it.

  • Matt

    they've added a couple more from the '80s since then, although with the new album coming out, I'm sure that that will be adjusted.

    Here was their setlist last summer at the Illinois State Fair:

    Barracuda
    Never
    Kick It Out
    Straight On
    Love Alive
    Mistral Wind
    Immigrant Song
    Back to Avalon
    These Dreams
    What About Love
    Alone
    Love Reign O'er Me
    Crazy on You
    Sand
    Going To California
    Magic Man

    (not sure where the encore split was)

    Here's a previous setlist from their tour prior to that with Journey and Cheap Trick,

    http://addictedtovinyl.com/blog/2008/09/08/setl

    Two absolutely kick ass sets from Heart….it had been a few years since I had seen 'em, and I was happy to see that they could still bring it. Damn, add me to the list of folks that had no idea that Ann Wilson was 60. Long may she run! (and sing)

    Speaking of Ann, here's a Youtube compilation of various impressive high notes from the Heart catalog. Wow.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yi2a8hlwOg0

  • jhallCORE

    The artist formerly known as R.J. Smith strikes again.

    “In the hands of this veritable force of nature, “Alone” became one of the mightiest of all power ballads, an exercise in stopping the world dead in its tracks and making its inhabitants burn in the vast and intense fire of its singer’s longing. Granted, neither Wilson nor Heart wanted to hurt anyone, so the band consulted with physicists, auditory specialists, and Aquaman, in order to properly calibrate the recording’s awesomeness so that neither human nor beast on land or sea would be harmed once the song was released. Nevison had to wear protective gloves when mixing the record. Drummer Denny Carmassi had to wear a helmet. Bassist Mark Andes had to wear a cup. Bassist Mark Andes had to be told by drummer Denny Carmassi that the kind of cup he needed was not the kind they kept in the studio kitchen.”

    The above paragraph is terrific. I'm not sure what made me laugh harder. The end of this graph or the Family Guy clip.

    More to the point, I've always appreciated Rob's ability to convey the sound of the music and vocals in his prose. You capture that song very well.

  • http://www.popdose.com jefito

    Indeed. Rob Smith is a lord among sniveling prawns.

  • bjwanlund

    Disagree mightily, I love that album as well, can’t wait to see your take on that entire album.