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Foreign Affair: Behind Tina Turner’s Commitment To Being The Best
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Foreign Affair: Behind Tina Turner’s Commitment To Being The Best

Tina Turner’s ‘Foreign Affair’ album was more than a fling with rock music. ‘She likes being badass,’ says The Best songwriter Holly Knight.

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In just five years, Tina Turner had turned it all around. The first signs of what lay ahead could be heard in her cover of Let’s Stay Together, which, released in 1983, not only rebooted her career, but claimed Al Green’s Southern soul classic as her own. By the time the Private Dancer album cemented her return to the mainstream the following year – consigning to history a string of late-70s albums on which she sought the style that would define her solo career – Turner was ready to take the crown as “Queen Of Rock And Roll”. And yet the best – quite literally – was yet to come. Released in 1989, as her final album of the 80s, Foreign Affair was a typically stylish rendezvous with fans who – unbeknownst to them at the time – wouldn’t hear from the singer again for another seven years.

Listen to ‘Foreign Affair’ here.

“I’ve never done that with any artist since”

If Let’s Stay Together announced Turner’s return, and What’s Love Got To Do It established her new rock-infused direction, songs such as Better Be Good To Me, from Private Dancer, and One Of The Living, from 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome soundtrack, helped her sustain it. Penned by Holly Knight, then fresh from East Coast rock group Spider, they helped give Turner the hard-edged sound she was looking for. So when the singer found her head turned by another Knight original, The Best – co-written with Mike Chapman and hitting the airwaves in its first incarnation, by Bonnie Tyler – the next logical step was to find out what other songs Knight could bring to the album that would become Foreign Affair.

“She had called me up about The Best, and we had a discussion about that,” Knight tells Dig! today. Invited to visit Turner at a hotel in Beverley Hills, the songwriter arrived with a selection of material she’d recently completed with a new writing partner, Albert Hammond. “I had about six songs, and she listened to them right then and there. That alone is unheard of,” Knight says. “Most people don’t want you to be anywhere near them when they’re listening to a tune, so they can reflect on it in an honest way. But the fact that she listened to them herself, and I was sitting right there, was incredibly generous of her. I’ve never done that with any artist since.”

On the spot, Turner picked three of the six: Be Tender With Me Baby, You Can’t Stop Me Loving You and Ask Me How I Feel, tracks which, along with The Best, would provide the centrepiece to her new record.

“She likes the provocative stuff, but she also likes just being badass”

Turner had cut her teeth in the 60s while fronting her abusive ex-husband’s high-octane soul/R&B outfit, The Ike And Tina Turner Revue. Going on to command funk, pop and rock music throughout the changing musical landscape of the 70s and 80s, by the time she recorded Foreign Affair, she could turn her voice to anything. In discussions with Knight, however, she was clear about what material she now wanted to sing.

“She was very vocal about a lot of things,” Knight recalls. “And one of them was that she didn’t want to sing the blues. She’d done all that with Ike, and this was a different part of her life where she wanted to be celebratory. The greatest revenge is to be happy and enjoy life.” The new material “had to be sophisticated”, Knight adds. “It had to be adult. It had to be sexy without being trashy. That’s a fine line she walks: it’s got to be classy and elegant, but can still be suggestive and a bit naughty. She likes the provocative stuff. But she also likes just being badass.”

Though another song that appeared on Foreign Affair, Undercover Agent For The Blues, proved Turner could still sing low-slung sultry blues cuts with ease, it was the album’s opening track, Steamy Windows, that supercharged her R&B past and provided provocation right off the bat. A celebration of the sort of back-seat exploits more commonly associated with youth, the song found the then 49-year-old singer proving that experience outweighs age when the job needs doing right.

“Steamy Windows is like – let’s get the party started,” Knight reflects today. “And then she just hits them right between the eyes with The Best.”

“It wasn’t written for her, but it was meant for her”

Though The Best became a landmark song for Turner, its initial launch was inauspicious. The song had already been turned down by a male artist (“I won’t say too much… but he hates when I bring it up to him,” Knight laughs) before finding its way to Bonnie Tyler, in whose hands it had entered the lower reaches of the UK Top 100 in 1988. When Tina Turner heard it, however, she envisioned a better future for a tune that now has “anthem” written all over it.

“She called me up and said, ‘I want to cut this song. I love it. It’s a very special song. But it’s not right,’” Knight recalls.

“I want you to change something,” Turner told the songwriter. “I want a bridge, and I want the key to go up. And I want the ending to be big and celebratory, so I can do my thing. Let’s just cut loose.”

“She was absolutely right,” Knight says today. “Before, it was a great song. But when Mike and I rewrote it to have a bridge and a key change – she knew exactly what she was saying. And if you combine that with the fact that it was Tina Turner, and the title itself – there are so many moving parts that make this thing work… There’s nothing better than ‘the best’, is there? By definition. And that’s her.”

The full-throttle makeover was released as a single on 2 September 1989 and immediately took its place among the best Tina Turner songs. Though it peaked at No.15 in the US, it went Top 5 in Australia, the UK and around Europe, and now stands as Turner’s most iconic track.

“It wasn’t written for her, but it was meant for her,” Knight says. “It was always meant for her… She shared her story with the world, and to be able to be victorious in the end, instead of a victim – this song captured that for her.”

In the decades since its release, The Best has become an anthem of empowerment for every type of occasion. US President Joe Biden played it after delivering his acceptance speech in November 2020; Netflix TV show Schitt’s Creek returned to it three times, in three different ways, across its six seasons, including an a cappella version performed during the show’s finale – the long-awaited wedding between David Rose and Patrick Brewer. “Because of that show, it became the wedding anthem for the LGBTQ+ community,” Knight says. The song’s durability has also seen it covered by everyone from Céline Dion to James Bay and Wynonna Judd. But “it’s so well known by Tina”, Knight observes, “when people do it, it’s like an homage to her… It just keeps going. It really has a life of its own.”

“She was a Black artist that wanted to do rock’n’roll – she was different”

Definitive and with some of Turner’s finest vocal pyrotechnics, The Best tends to demolish everything else in its path. The other three Foreign Affair songs that Knight co-wrote with Albert Hammond, however, more than hold their own on the album – and allowed Turner to dig deeper into the rock music she had become increasingly drawn to throughout the 80s.

“I was a girl doing rock music, which was unusual,” Knight says. “Just like she was a Black artist that wanted to do straight up rock’n’roll – she was different, too. So I think, without even having to say anything, we just had that sympatico… Being empowered – especially as a woman, especially in those times – was so important to me.”

Released as Foreign Affair’s final single, and going Top 30 in the UK, Be Tender With Me Baby sits as a companion song to the exemplary I Don’t Wanna Lose You (penned by Albert Hammond and Graham Lyle), giving Turner the chance to flash her rock credentials in a power-ballad setting. “I really felt like it was time to try and write something very intimate – personal and quiet and calm,” Knight recalls of Be Tender With Me Baby. “That’s almost like a respite on the record. She had all these different vibes and that was one just like, ‘Let’s all sit down by the fire and listen to me for a second.’” Drawing listeners in with her imploring verses, Turner then soars on widescreen choruses that build with passionate intensity each time they roll around.

“Tina has a great range,” Knight observes. “She can sing really low, and she can screech and sing really high – she can be singing really pure, and then all of a sudden she does something with the harmonics. Tibetan monks can sing three notes at a time – and so could Janis Joplin. They have so many parts of raspiness in their voice that they would actually be singing three notes at one time. And Tina does that. It’s something she turns on when she wants to.”

If You Can’t Stop Me Loving You added a funky strut to Turner’s rock swagger (“It’s kind of like an Aerosmith vibe in a way – like a Walk This Way”), Ask Me How I Feel unfolded at a more conversational pace. “It sounds that way because it starts with the chorus, which I tend to like to do,” Knight says. “So by the time she hits the verse, she’s sort of like, ‘You know, I want to talk to you about this.’

“I think she appreciated that song more than I realised,” Knight continues. “It wasn’t a single or anything, but she put it at the beginning of her HBO documentary. And also, in one of her books, each chapter is named after a song that she’s recorded, and she used some of the lyrics to Ask Me How I Feel.”

“She was an iconoclast. She was a trailblazer”

Released on 13 September 1989, Foreign Affair stalled just outside the Top 30 in the US, but surpassed its predecessors in the UK, where it went to No.1. Having played four consecutive nights at London’s Wembley Arena on her Private Dancer tour, Turner would stage a seven-night residency at the venue as part of the Foreign Affair: The Farewell Tour, a mammoth, 121-date trek that would mark her last full-scale European shows until 1996. By the time she returned to the UK, in support of her Wildest Dreams album, she had upgraded to what was then the 76,000-capacity Wembley Stadium. “A woman who could sell out Wembley Stadium as a solo artist – nobody did that,” Knight says today. “And very few have done that afterwards.”

Though Turner was capable of playing the biggest venues on the planet, in private, “She was the most down-to-earth person,” Knight says. Even when recording a song as career-defining as The Best, “She had a T-shirt on, she had jeans on, and very little make-up. We all ordered hamburgers, and she had a greasy hamburger just like all of us. She was one of the guys, just hanging out and being part of the process… She was lovely. And I’m glad I got to see that side of her.”

To the wider world, not lucky enough to witness Turner in such informal moments, she remains an untouchable icon – elevated beyond the best to sit among the pantheon of the gods. “She was an iconoclast. She was a trailblazer,” Knight asserts. “She was a great dresser – she always had these great wigs and a look that was completely different from other Black artists at the time. A lot of women have followed in her footsteps… I didn’t think of it at the time, but I knew I didn’t have many female friends when I was working. The female rockers were few and far between… What she was doing was groundbreaking, and what I was doing was groundbreaking. And I loved it. I didn’t mind being the only woman in the room. It made me different. And she probably felt that way, too.”

Throughout the 80s, culminating with Foreign Affair and career peaks such as The Best, Turner opened up new possibilities for women in rock – not just the types of songs they could sing, but the levels of success they could achieve in a male-dominated industry. But while Knight’s songs have helped define Turner’s career, “She’s defined my career, too,” the songwriter reflects. “Though I wrote for other people – whether it’s Rod Stewart or Pat Benatar or Heart or Aerosmith – I really feel like Tina was the muse… It’s like we did something great together. And we gave each other something really beautiful that we shared with the world.”

The deluxe edition of Foreign Affair is out now. Buy Dig!’s exclusive 2LP white vinyl edition here.

FOREIGN AFFAIR (2LP WHITE)

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