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Chain Reaction: How Diana Ross Sparked A Renaissance In The 80s
Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

Chain Reaction: How Diana Ross Sparked A Renaissance In The 80s

Written by Bee Gees and performed to perfection by Diana Ross, Chain Reaction updated the 60s girl-group sound for a new pop era.


In 1982, Diana Ross claimed that the 80s were a “golden age”, adding, “There’s so much opportunity.” As a woman who had found huge success – both artistic and commercial – across the previous two decades, her unwillingness to look back was refreshing. She was also proved right. It was, indeed, the 80s that brought Ross one of her biggest-ever solo successes: Chain Reaction, released as a single in 1985.

Listen to Diana Ross’ ‘Eaten Alive’ album here.

Who sang Chain Reaction?

Diana Ross sang Chain Reaction, which was originally released in 1985 on the album Eaten Alive. “I like what I do, I have a gift,” Ross said that year, as she reflected on staying current in a changing musical world. “I don’t know what else I would be doing if I weren’t singing.”

This dazzling star had already experienced many different phases in her career. She was a pioneer of the soulful girl-group sound in The Supremes, alongside Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson; she navigated many changing styles during the 70s; and had broken into making movies. For most of this period, from 1961 to the end of 1980, Ross had been signed to Motown and her work had been directed by the company. Motown was famously protective of its brand, and most of its stars chafed against its controlling impulses at some point. Ross was no different.

“All of a sudden I felt like, here I was, 37 years old, with three children and through a divorce, but not yet able to take full responsibility for my own decisions,” Ross has said of her final days with the label. “I don’t want to pick up the phone and call Berry [Gordy], Motown, or anybody else if I want to buy a car. I want to know where my bank accounts are. People who do things for you don’t mean any harm, that’s just the way they’ve always been. They’ve always taken care of you and always will. But that’s not always the answer.”

Leaving Motown and signing to RCA in 1981, Ross now had complete creative control and a seven-year contract worth $20 million. She established her own production company and personally chose her collaborators. This led to the important creative partnership underpinning Chain Reaction.

Who wrote Diana Ross’ Chain Reaction?

Sibling band Bee Gees – brothers Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb – wrote Chain Reaction. Although they had experienced huge success in the late 70s with their Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, there had been a reactionary backlash against disco at the end of that decade. This led the Gibbs to take stock and mainly concentrate on writing songs for others rather than releasing their own material.

“When we did Islands In The Stream [recorded by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rodgers] it was our way of getting other people to hear our songs,” Barry Gibb said in 2023. “Because if we sang it, it wouldn’t have got on the radio, and I wanted the songs to succeed no matter who was singing them. Chain Reaction is another example, having other artists become your instruments.”

The Gibb brothers, in various combinations, wrote all of the songs on Diana Ross’ Eaten Alive album, and Chain Reaction was the final one composed for the project. Initially intending for it to sound like Diana Ross’ early Motown work with The Supremes, the Gibb brothers then worried Ross would reject it for that very reason – and it’s been reported that she initially did just that. However, with her keen ear for a hit, Ross changed her mind.

“Once Diana had recorded it, she sat down and heard the playback and realised it was a credible tribute to her past,” Barry Gibb said. Barry can also be clearly heard on the track, providing distinctive backing vocals.

What year was Chain Reaction No.1?

Chain Reaction went to No.1 in the UK on 8 March 1986, but it wasn’t a simple road to the top of the charts. The first single released from Eaten Alive had been the album’s title track; co-written by Maurice and Barry Gibb with Michael Jackson, it was a very different song to Chain Reaction: funky, minimalist, less commercial, Eaten Alive was a great single (and still sounds fresh today) but not what people were expecting from Ross. Commercially, it fared poorly in the mainstream charts although – tellingly – did very well on specialist R&B and dance charts.

This meant expectations were perhaps tempered for Eaten Alive’s second single, Chain Reaction, but the song’s pop genius was undeniable. It soon picked up airplay, and its video found heavy rotation on TV, particularly in Europe. The song would go on to spend three weeks at the top of the charts in the UK; it also topped the charts in Australia and Ireland.

Who made the music video to Chain Reaction?

The video to Chain Reaction was directed by David Mallet and is one of the 80s’ most distinctive promo clips. Opening with a pitch-perfect recreation of 60s black-and-white TV – the kind that had consistently beamed The Supremes into millions of households in North America – the video makes Diana Ross look as stunning as she ever did, recreating a mid-60s look in her modish wig, go-go boots and Twiggy-esque eye make-up. Intercut with the black-and-white footage is Ross in full 80s colour. Wearing a series of incredible outfits, she swings between the two contexts, cleverly playing with the song’s homage to her past.

David Mallet was already a veteran of music videos, having created promos for Queen (Bicycle Race, Under Pressure), Blondie (Hanging On The Telephone) and David Bowie (Boys Keep Swinging, DJ, Ashes To Ashes) since the late 70s. Mallet ensured that the class, humour and glamour of Chain Reaction was amplified in the video, and the visual flair he brought to the clip was an important aspect of the song’s success.

Who else has sung Chain Reaction?

The most famous cover version of Chain Reaction was by British pop group Steps, in 2001. Proving just how timeless the song was, Steps’ version reached No.2 in the UK charts. However, because the group had a young audience, they changed a lyric considered as too sensual. “You taste a little then you swallow slower,” with its hints at oral sex, was toned down to become “You taste a little then you follow slower”.

Diana Ross herself revisited the song in 1993, authorising several remixes for a UK 12”. Ross had long been alive to the need to stay alert to current trends. “I listen to most everything that’s out there,” she has said, “because I need to stay aware of what’s happening in the industry.” Chain Reaction was also part of her 2022 set at Glastonbury Festival.

Chain Reaction is an important milestone in Diana Ross’ career and, as Ross has said, was part of the period when she became totally self-assured. “I got more comfortable with myself,” she revealed in a candid 1993 interview, about her life during the 80s. “I became more womanly, I felt much better in my own body. I mean, I liked myself better.”

Find out where Diana Ross ranks among the best 60s female singers.

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