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How Madonna’s Self-Titled Debut Album Launched A Seemingly Endless Success
In Depth

How Madonna’s Self-Titled Debut Album Launched A Seemingly Endless Success

Containing the principal ingredients of her early 80s output, Madonna’s self-titled debut album could not be silenced.

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No one quite knew what to expect from Madonna’s self-titled debut album. By the time it hit the shelves, in the summer of 1983, the singer-songwriter had already enjoyed a No.3 US dance hit – the Mark Kamins-produced Everybody – but, though she had a growing reputation on the club circuit, her label wasn’t entirely sure how to market the woman who would become a global sensation in just under two years.

Listen to Madonna’s self-titled debut album here.

“I wasn’t in control”

The obvious answer was to pair her with someone who could tease out the R&B leanings of her fledgling style, and let established producers and songwriters help with the rest. Despite writing five of the eight tracks on her debut, Madonna admits she wasn’t really leading the project. “The musicians were all guys who are making a thousand dollars a day in the studio, so we couldn’t rehearse much,” she later recalled. “Halfway through, we all started doubting each other… and I went to England during the recording, so I wasn’t around for a lot of it – I wasn’t in control.”

That was quite a confession from an artist so celebrated for having kept an iron grip on her career for over four decades, but there’s no doubt Madonna’s instincts are all over the Reggie Lucas-produced record. Of its eight songs, three are among Madonna’s most famous hits, and each has something to say about what would follow.

The three principal ingredients

Holiday, a track added at the last minute by her then boyfriend, John “Jellybean” Benitez, became the star-in-waiting’s breakout single. Written by Pure Energy’s Curtis Hudson and Lisa Stevens, it had already been rejected by Mary Wilson and Phyllis Hyman, but the Jellybean production and Madonna’s spirited vocals elevated the song to classic status as it became a worldwide hit across the winter of 1983-1984. Simple, direct and incredibly catchy, it contains the three principal ingredients of Madonna’s early 80s output.

Meanwhile, opening the album, the Madonna-penned Lucky Star is a powerful pop-club earworm that quickly sealed her reputation as the definitive dance diva, but was actually issued a full year before it peaked inside the US Top 5. Unlike Holiday, it was paired with a striking video – another signature of the singer’s perennial appeal, and an early indicator that, for Madonna, the visuals really matter.

Her debut album’s final smash, Borderline, has echoes of the classic Motown sound and became Madonna’s first entry on the critical US adult contemporary charts. Broadening her appeal across the genres, it also sowed the seeds for the epic ballads and midtempo draws, such as La Isla Bonita, that she would later also master.

A seemingly endless success

Sharing that addictive intensity of her early years, these three quite different cuts remain the highlights from Madonna’s self-titled debut album. Meanwhile, other songs position themselves closer to the club-soul market of the day. That debut single, Everybody, had featured on the demo tape that persuaded legendary impresario Seymour Stein to sign the ambitious young singer to Sire Records in the first place. A starker electro-pop nugget, it became a decent-sized dance hit and was supported by a simpler in-performance video. Burning Up was the second single to get issued ahead of the Holiday breakthrough and was an urgent pop-rock number that became the singer’s first hit in Australia, where it landed at No.13.

The album was rounded off by I Know It (urgent and melodic), Think Of Me (the record’s most obvious R&B shuffler) and Physical Attraction (a spikier dance cut that almost sits at the sweet-spot of a Burning Up and Everybody Venn diagram), and Madonna’s reputation built over the course of the following year, as each single release did better than the last. By the time Lucky Star had peaked stateside, however, it was causing problems. Madonna’s second album, Like A Virgin, was in the can but found itself delayed by the seemingly endless success of the music she had recorded many months earlier.

“She was a true professional”

As was her way, Madonna was eager to move on. But her debut album’s singles just wouldn’t be silenced. Holiday became a hit all over again in Europe in 1984, and, by August 1985, Madonna was at No.1 in the UK with Into The Groove, with a reissued Holiday sitting just one place behind it in the charts. The following year, Borderline would re-enter the British charts and climb to No.2, while, in 1991, Holiday would yet again reach the UK Top 5.

Also in 1985, the Madonna album itself would be reissued, with new artwork, in Europe as The First Album, but the original Gary Heery sleeve shot is a masterpiece among Madonna’s album covers. Designer Carin Goldberg recalls: “She came in with a lot of bracelets on… that was the one iconic thing about her outfit, besides the rag in her hair… Madonna was probably the easiest job I ever had… She was a true professional, even at that young age.”

Madonna’s unique look, provocative agenda, assured self-confidence and the evocative energy of her records and videos quickly made her an MTV titan. Following her debut album’s release, on 27 July 1983, first the US, then the rest of the world, was gripped by Madonna-mania, and the album that launched her would sell more than ten million copies globally and enjoy 168 weeks on the Billboard charts. Madonna’s pop-theatre would scale higher creative peaks, but nothing would beat the charming energy of her self-titled debut album.

‘Madonna’ Track-By-Track: A Guide To Every Song On The Album

Lucky Star

Written by the “Queen Of Pop”, Lucky Star is one of Madonna’s best remembered early hits. The scattered chronology of her early releases means this was the second Madonna single issued in the UK and the fifth in her homeland, becoming her biggest stateside success to date when it peaked at No.4 in October 1984, more than a year after Madonna’s debut album had first been released and as her profile continued to build. It’s an effervescent dance cut, buzzing with New York City attitude and a perfect blend of style and substance in the studio-set promo video, which features Madonna’s backup dancers of the era, Erika Belle and brother Christopher Ciccone. Like most of the album, Lucky Star was produced by Reggie Lucas, though John “Jellybean” Benitez remixed the cut, adding guitars and extra vocal lifts.

Borderline

The song that turned Madonna into a sensation, Borderline’s blend of yearning vocals and hook-laden pop, with an almost Motown-like melody, elevated a strong track into a bona fide classic among the best Madonna songs. When US audiences saw the Mary Lambert-directed video, they powered the single into the Top 10, but it wasn’t until a January 1986 reissue, at the height of Madonna Mania, that Borderline became a hit in the UK, making it all the way to No.2. It’s a more nuanced outlier on an album that’s unashamedly focused on the dancefloor. Despite its impact, Borderline was rarely performed live until it was reworked in a rock version for 2008’s Sticky & Sweet Tour.

Burning Up

Madonna’s early musical roots in New York’s new-wave scene snake their way into this charismatic dance-rock track. Again, John “Jellybean” Benitez worked his magic on a clubbier remix, and Burning Up’s choppy guitar urgency, courtesy of Paul Pesco, made it an obvious choice for a single, paired with Physical Attraction in some markets and issued as a standalone release in others. Australia took the song to its heart, and Burning Up became Madonna’s first chart hit there, in November 1983, eventually peaking at No.13. Acclaimed video director Steve Barron, who shot Billie Jean for Michael Jackson and Total Eclipse Of The Heart for Bonnie Tyler, agreed to work with the up-and-coming star on her premiere big-budget studio clip. On the 2001 CD reissue of Madonna’s debut album, the terrific 12” version of Burning Up was added to the tracklist.

I Know It

I Know It was one of the songs Madonna brought to her first sessions with Reggie Lucas, and its 60s girl-group intensity makes it a highlight of what’s one of the best Madonna albums of all (at just eight songs in length, Madonna’s debut album is the definition of “all killer, no filler”). There’s a frothy insistence in the vocal, playing up to Madonna’s principal role at this point of her career – the determined manipulator able to seduce her way to any objective with a knowing wink and a barrage of sexual charisma.

Holiday

The “Queen Of Pop”’s breakthrough hit is the sound of every 80s school disco and a constant pop culture reference point ever since it started scaling the charts at the end of 1983 and into 1984. No formal video was ever filmed for the single, which was written by Curtis Hudson and Lisa Stevens, and had been passed to soul singers Phyllis Hyman and Mary Wilson before it landed in Sire Records’ new artist’s lap as recording for her debut album was coming to a close. Madonna recorded it with John “Jellybean” Benitez and it has become one of her signature tracks, regularly appearing in her concert setlists. In the UK, Holiday made the Top 10 three times – No.6 on first release, No.2 in the summer of 1985 (when it nestled behind Into The Groove) and No.5 in the summer of 1991, as The Immaculate Collection powered its way towards becoming the year’s top-selling album. It also became one of three songs Madonna performed at 1985’s Live Aid during a charismatic appearance that arguably sent her career stratospheric. Holiday is so familiar to us all, but its infectious vitality has dimmed little over the decades.

Think Of Me

The funky bass that Reggie Lucas showcases on Think Of Me beefs up an urgent dance cut that’s perhaps closest to the R&B sounds Lucas felt most comfortable with (he had previously produced Stephanie Mills and Detroit vocal group Spinners, of Working My Way Back To You fame). The theme of rejection plays part of a continuous thread across Madonna’s many recordings, but they are rarely painful laments. Think Of Me, like many songs to follow, takes a more confrontational tone.

Physical Attraction

Reggie Lucas wrote this midtempo cut for Madonna’s debut album and it became a decent US dance success, peaking at No.3 on the specialist Billboard listings ahead of the “Queen Of Pop”’s mainstream breakthrough. The press called the album something of an aerobics record – and Madonna has even sometimes criticised her debut for lacking gravitas – and, while it’s true that later pop projects such as the True Blue album would deliver bigger hits, and creative depth would become more evident after Like A Prayer, there’s no denying the attitude and impact of this record. Physical Attraction embodies that: dynamic, punk-influenced dance music entirely of its era but already hinting at far more to come.

Everybody

The song that started it all. Everybody began life as a demo produced by Stephen Bray (who would go on to co-write Express Yourself and Causing A Commotion) that Madonna persuaded DJ Mark Kamins to play during a set at legendary New York nightclub Danceteria. Enthused by the crowd’s reaction, Kamins took the recording to Sire Records’ then President, Seymour Stein, who signed Madonna on the strength of her three-track demo tape. This synth-heavy dance cut was an immediate club hit and included on Madonna’s debut album in its original Kamins production. “I remember to this day the amazing feeling that I had when I heard this song on the radio for the first time in New York City,” recalled Madonna at a concert three decades later. In the UK, it was remixed with a more electro-pop finish by Rusty Egan, Blitz club DJ and tastemaker of the New Romantics scene, but the original production has all the magic it needed to become the first of many classic Madonna singles.

Buy Madonna vinyl, box sets and more at the Dig! store.

Original article: 27 July 2021

Updated: 27 July 2023

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