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Burning Up: Behind The Madonna Classic That Lit Up The Dance Charts
Warner Music
In Depth

Burning Up: Behind The Madonna Classic That Lit Up The Dance Charts

Part of the demo collection that scored Madonna a record deal, Burning Up remains a fascinating outlier among her early hits.

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One of five songs to be picked for single release from the “Queen Of Pop”’s self-titled debut album, Burning Up was the first Madonna song her record label would put some serious money behind. Further US dance-chart success and Madonna’s overseas breakthrough followed, ensuring Burning Up’s place as a fan favourite among the best Madonna songs.

Here’s the story behind the fiery rock-dance classic…

Listen to the best of Madonna here.

Burning Up had been written years ahead of its eventual release

Burning Up is a relatively rare example of a Madonna single bearing a sole songwriting credit – and, in this case, the Madonna’s alone. The song had been part of the demo tape that landed her a contract with Sire Records supremo Seymour Stein, and has since been identified as similar to one of the tracks that Madonna’s former band, Breakfast Club, had been working on (although it has a substantially different construction and a different title). Burning Up is written in the key of B minor at 138 beats per minute and was produced by Reggie Lucas, alongside much of the other material on 1983’s Madonna. The singer’s then boyfriend, John “Jellybean” Benitez, remixed the track for the record.

Burning Up was an obvious candidate to be issued as a single

As Madonna started to create waves in the New York City club scene, her record label – and the industry at large – had difficulty knowing how to position her. Was she a dance act that would appeal to an R&B crowd; or was she a new wave artist, which her focus on visual styling and performance most suggested? Burning Up appeared to straddle each musical silo effectively – it has powerful guitar riffs, accentuated by the Jellybean production additions, and a solid pop-dance groove orchestrated by Reggie Lucas. On 9 March 1983, it was picked as Madonna’s second 12” single for stateside release, backed with Physical Attraction.

Michael Jackson’s director was hired for Burning Up’s video

With the promo clips for Africa’s Toto, Eddy Grant’s Electric Avenue and Michael Jackson’s groundbreaking Billie Jean under his belt, video directors didn’t get much bigger than Steve Barron in 1983. Hired to give the rising singer a boost, the director has said he was convinced by Madonna’s obvious star potential from their very first meeting. Filming for the Burning Up video took place in Los Angeles across two nights and almost led to tragedy when a crane nearly hit Madonna during recording. Much of Madonna’s cinematic charisma and sexual chemistry is evident in the big-budget clip, which sees her provocatively playing to the cameras for the first time.

Burning Up was a hit down under

A decent floorfiller in her home country, Burning Up matched the performance of Madonna’s previous release, Everybody, by reaching No.3 in the US dance charts. In November it became the singer’s first chart success in Australia, climbing all the way to No.13 in a 25-week run. It is a very early incidence of a Madonna song making a mainstream chart in a major territory, although Holiday would enter the US charts around the same time. (That song wouldn’t be a hit in Australia until the following April, long after it had broken through in the US and across Europe.)

Burning Up became a highlight of Madonna’s first tour…

When Madonna announced her first US tour, promoters were soon facing a challenge: all the venues they had booked were selling out within minutes. What started as a modest theatre project in support of her debut and Like A Virgin albums, The Virgin Tour was soon reimagined and rescheduled to fit arenas across the US. Burning Up became the 11th song of the setlist and was performed in a sexually charged segment that accentuated the track’s rock guitars. Although the show held at Detroit’s Cobo Center on 25 May 1985 was issued on video cassette and LaserDisc formats, three songs were cut from the final edit, including Burning Up.

… and would get performed live many times since

Madonna lip-synched to Burning Up on some early TV appearances, including her performance on UK music show The Tube in early 1984. She didn’t then publicly revisit the song until 2004’s Re-Invention World Tour, and would go on to repeat the performance of the now fondly regarded early cut on the Rebel Heart Tour, her international concert trek of 2016.

Most recently, Burning Up appeared on The Celebration Tour, for which Madonna restaged some of the earliest chapters of her long career. An outlier among Madonna’s early songs, Burning up is a blistering rock-dance cut that deftly illustrates her ability to engineer a harmonious culture clash: her genius is often demonstrated by a skill in cross-pollinating one musical genre or visual style with another, and Burning Up remains a shining example of this. Few other artists have attempted to tackle recording it themselves, although a performance of the song did appear in the Madonna tribute episode of the Ryan Murphy smash Glee.

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