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‘Private Dancer’ At 40: A Track-By-Track Guide To Every Song On Tina Turner’s Career-Making Album
Zuma Press / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

‘Private Dancer’ At 40: A Track-By-Track Guide To Every Song On Tina Turner’s Career-Making Album

The album that established Tina Turner as a solo star, ‘Private Dancer’ is full of rock-soul classics, as this track-by-track guide shows.

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The Private Dancer album, Tina Turner’s fifth solo record, represented a new freedom and a commanding triumph for the singer after years of difficulty. It propelled her into rock superstardom, and was a purposeful break with her past. “I didn’t want to sing rhythm’n’blues songs then because to me a lot of those songs were depressing,” she said in 1992. “Because I was no longer depressed about my depressive life, I wanted to sing songs that weren’t depressing.”

Turner’s ambition was absolutely unleashed by Private Dancer. “Part of the dream was I wanted to be the first Black woman to fill football stadiums,” she said in 1985, as the vast extent of the album’s success was becoming plain. “I’d like to fill that, and look out there, and see all those people.”

She would do that – and much more – and it all began with this record. As shown by this track-by-track guide to all ten of the album’s songs, Private Dancer kick-started Turner’s incredibly popular second act – this force of nature, now in her forties, would prove an inspiration to millions through her tenacity, dignity and superlative songs.

Listen to ‘Private Dancer’ here.

‘Private Dancer’ Track By Track: A Guide To Every Song On Tina Turner’s Career-Making Album

I Might Have Been Queen

Part of Tina Turner’s appeal lies in her particular ability to turn challenge into fortitude, using her incredibly tough life in her art. I Might Have Been Queen does this to perfection. “I remember the girl in the fields with no name,” she sings, referencing her pre-Tina years when she was Anna Mae Bullock, picking cotton as a youngster. It’s unsurprising that this song was written specifically for Turner, since it draws directly on her life story.

“I’m a soul survivor,” Turner sings – a very clever lyric, since the song itself is very far from the soul scene in which she first made her name. I Might Have Been Queen also references Turner’s Buddhist faith, specifically her belief in rebirth. “[The songwriters] ended up writing about the spiritual side of my life,” she has said. “You know, I might have been queen, all that I’d lived through.”

What’s Love Got To Do With It

Still one of the best Tina Turner songs, What’s Love Got To Do With It was Turner’s first Billboard No.1 and a huge international success, selling in excess of two million copies worldwide. She was asked in 1984 whether the cynical lyrics reflected her own feelings. Laughing, she said, “No. In my case, love has a lot to do with it! I’m sorry!”

Unlike I Might Have Been Queen, this song was not composed especially for Turner. In fact, it had been offered to other artists. Cliff Richard rejected it, and though it was recorded by Bucks Fizz in 1984, the group did not release their version until 2000. Clearly, the song was just waiting for its true home, and, when Turner got her hands on it, she was able to transform it. In the accompanying promo video, Turner owns the song completely, strutting through the streets of New York City, chock-full of attitude and sass.

Turner knew that this song, in particular, captured a moment that she was able to express so well. “With the world today, everything is very fast,” she commented in 1984. “Women have changed, and men have changed as well, so I think the song really fit a lot of liberated girls.”

Show Some Respect

Like What’s Love Got To Do With It, Show Some Respect was another tough rocker co-written by Terry Britten. Britten was originally from Manchester, and had composed some very distinctive hits, including Cliff Richard’s Devil Woman and Carrie. “I jumped at the opportunity [to work with Turner],” he said in 1986. “Not just because of who she was, but because I was fed up with people recording my songs, smoothing them all out, and losing all the atmosphere.”

The feeling was mutual. Turner appreciated Britten’s approach and style, and continued to work with him throughout her career, right up to her final album, Twenty Four Seven.

I Can’t Stand The Rain

As a singer, Turner was very suited to synths and electronic effects: her tactile voice snagged the flawlessness of machine music, creating a unique hybrid. On I Can’t Stand The Rain, the opening electronic trickles mimic a downpour on glass, while Turner overlays the chilly atmosphere with the pure emotion of her vocals. The song became a major hit throughout Europe.

I Can’t Stand The Rain was originally recorded in 1974, by St Louis-born soul singer Ann Peebles. Peebles wrote it with Don Bryant and Bernard Miller; Bryant (who became Peebles’ husband) has recalled how they would bounce off one another in the studio. “When I was around her and a story would pop up, we would sit down and come up with the full story of the song and the melody,” he said. I Can’t Stand The Rain was written in response to a phrase that a frustrated Peebles used one night, when the weather was hampering her ability to see a favourite artist in concert. “Within that night, in just a few hours or less, the whole song was done,” Bryant said.

Private Dancer

“I think Mark has a song that could fit Tina,” Ed Bicknell, Mark Knopfler’s manager, told Roger Davies, Turner’s manager. “He never used [it], because he thought it was a song for a girl.”

Private Dancer was written by Knopfler, who originally intended for it to be on the 1982 Dire Straits album, Love Over Gold. However, Knopfler’s discomfort with his own lyrics meant the song sat on the shelf. Upon hearing it, Turner immediately responded to its darkness and knew she could do a good job. She also strongly resisted the idea that the narrator was a sex worker. “I didn’t see her as a hooker,” Turner said. “I can be naive about some of these things. But actually, the answer is no. I took it because it was an unusual song. I’d never sung a song like it.”

To see the lyrics as only about sex work is to limit Turner’s expressiveness, with lines such as “You keep your mind on the money, keeping your eyes on the wall” being applicable to anyone working in a soul-sapping job. Towards the end of the song the mood seems to shift towards the nature of fame itself – and how performance can turn a person into an object in an audience’s eyes. This point is underlined by the promo video, which features a prone Turner covered by fans’ roses.

The clip was choreographed by Arlene Phillips, who earned an MTV Video Award nomination for her work. “I think Tina’s an artist that is more sure of herself than any other female diva that I’ve worked with, and I’ve worked with many,” Phillips has said. “Tina was kind and generous and warm because she was confident in herself. She was sure about what she was doing.”

Let’s Stay Together

Al Green’s original version of Let’s Stay Together was a musical behemoth. “Oh, it’s a knocked-out piece of work to me,” Green said in 2022, reflecting on 50 years of the track. “No matter what I sing or stuff, I still hear it. Yeah, it’s in my heart, but it’s in the background. I can feel, hear the melody of it.”

It was therefore a bold move for Turner to cover the song; and her boldness was matched by her producers on this track, Martyn Ware and Greg Walsh. Formerly of The Human League, the duo had since formed Heaven 17, and had worked with Turner before, when she guested on the 1982 album Music Of Quality And Distinction Volume One, by Ware and Walsh’s British Electric Foundation project. On that record, Turner had sung Ball Of Confusion and was impressed by the new energy these young producers were bringing to her. “I had always loved Let’s Stay Together as a song, and I thought we could really make this work,” Ware has said. “She immediately latched onto it and said, ‘I love this song.’”

“It seemed obvious to us to try and create a kind of hybrid,” the producer explained, of the techniques he and Walsh used on the recording. “We wanted to use the programmed drums because that was the way we worked at the time. We also wanted to use some new techniques, soundscaping techniques, like the famous intro to the song, that strained sort of chord at the start, which sets the scene.”

The success of Let’s Stay Together in the UK, where it hit No.6, was the first sign of Turner’s artistic and popular revival. It was, at that point, her most successful solo single and encouraged her record label, Capitol, to invest time and energy in the Private Dancer album.

Better Be Good To Me

The song that won Best Female Rock Vocal Performance at 1985’s Grammy awards, Better Be Good To Me seemed like it was created for Turner, but in fact was a cover of a virtually unknown 1981 single by obscure US rock band Spider. “This song was very me,” Turner has said. “I could just see myself performing it. It was just right – the words and the delivery, the performance of it.”

Turner particularly paid tribute to Rupert Hine – who produced and played keyboards on the track. “[The keyboards] just blared through, and wherever you heard it, the first thing you got was that bassline that he added,” she said. “That was what made that song a hit. It was my vocal and Rupert Hine’s keyboard. He’s got something, and it works.”

Steel Claw

Steel Claw was written and first performed by Paul Brady. Brady had a long history in Irish traditional music, both in his solo work and as part of the group Planxty. But at the start of the 80s, he changed direction to embrace contemporary chart styles. His third album, True To You (1983), contained Steel Claw, a propulsive power-pop rocker.

Turner had been including the song in her live act for a few years prior to recording it, and she also performed it on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show – with swaggering, unforgettable authority. It was a key part of her concerts for many years, and a live version was issued as the B-side of 1990’s Look Me In The Heart single.

Help

When John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote Help!, it was a direct sentiment, the search for an anchor in the whirlwind of fame. “The whole Beatles thing was just beyond comprehension,” Lennon said in 1980. “I was subconsciously crying out for help.”

Although the song was written by young men in a maelstrom, Turner’s older, female perspective – the point of view of someone who knows what it feels like when records fail and fame fades – gives it a different meaning. It speaks from a position of not being heard. This is especially poignant when understanding that this recording of Help (fittingly, now without its exclamation point) was the earliest song recorded for Private Dancer. It was created in 1981, when Turner’s career really was at a low ebb.

“I did it,” Turner said in 1984, reflecting on that fallow period. “Years without [releasing] a record. I bought a home, I furnished it. I bought a car, I paid for it. All of that was before this record [Private Dancer]. So now I have this record I’ll go out and do all kinds of things!”

1984

David Bowie was a good friend to Tina Turner. “He’s got so much knowledge,” she said of Bowie. “He really is like the man who fell to Earth, for me. You can’t put your finger on David.” It was Bowie that convinced the business people at Turner’s record label (who were considering dropping her in 1983) to come and see her perform. “Luckily it was a great show,” Turner said. “Seeing it and the crowd’s reaction turned ’round how Capitol viewed me. It was because of David that I got another deal, and everything else followed. I’ll be ever thankful to him.”

1984 was a Bowie song, one he recorded for 1974’s Diamond Dogs album after writing it for an unrealised project based on the George Orwell novel of the same name. This track was again produced by Martyn Ware and Greg Walsh. Bowie and Turner would also perform together on Tonight, a cover of an Iggy Pop song that became the title track to Bowie’s 16th studio album.

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