Heart – From Magic Man to The Stairway to Heaven

I must have heard “Magic Man” five-hundred times on Classic Rock radio, but then one day I was at the DEQ getting my 76 V.W. bus tested to see if it would pass the emissions test. As I had my fingers crossed, the song came on the radio and I said to myself this is a great song! What happened to make me take notice? That was a few years back, so I can’t really answer the question other than sometimes greatness finds us once we are ready to discover it.

Dreamboat Annie

The Story Behind Magic Man

Magic Man is the first song off of Hearts debut album, Dreamboat Annie. It was released in the United States February 14th, 1976 by an independent Canadian label called Mushroom Records. When asked about making the album Nancy Wilson recalled, “Dreamboat Annie was being recorded during a long period while Heart was still playing cabarets, clubs and grad party dances all over Canada.” Much like the Beatles well documented time spent playing gigs in Hamburg, Heart was an extremely hard-working band that would play five set shows most nights of the week. It is important to note that during this time there were very few women in rock that Anne and Nancy Wilson could look to as models. While Joni Mitchell was teaming up with Jaco Pastorius on her album Hejira, and Fleetwood Mac were promoting their own 1975 self-titled record, Nancy and Anne were forging their own path and had to navigate the male dominated arena of hard rock.

This would really come to bear following the release of Dreamboat Annie when their record label, “bought a full-page ad in Rolling Stone mocked up like a National Enquirer front page.”

The band was incensed that they had never been consulted before the release of the ad, and that readers could make the insinuation that the sisters were involved in an incestuous relationship with one another. This would become a pivotal moment in their career because they had to fight a lawsuit while promoting the new record, and had to work finish recording their next release, “Little Queen” in three weeks so that they could complete it before the court hearing which could have forced them to stop any further recording.

The boys in the band were all about playing loud and hard, but it is Nancy Wilson’s dexterous acoustic guitar work that really gives the band an amazing dynamism. Both sisters were heavily inspired by the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, and was during the recording of Dreamboat Annie that the band really started to develop a sound and style of their own. Integral to this development were the string arrangements and guitar work of Howard Leese, as well as the production and recording wizardry of Mike Flicker. Leese and Flicker had played together since they were teenagers and their work with Heart during the recording of Dreamboat Annie and beyond showcases their talent and experience. According to Leese, “The main reason the record sounded so good was it was unadulterated; it was very pure and very basic. Everyone played at the same time, there was very little overdubbing, it’s really how we sounded.” The melodic interplay between Howard Leese and Roger Fisher is on full display during the extended solo section in Magic Man, and Mike Flicker had the ability to highlight the individual skills of the band and bring them together into a recording that has me hearing different elements every time I listen to the work. This can be illustrated in their use of the moog synthesizer in the song. What I love about the use of the moog in, “Magic Man” is how they seamlessly transition from the guitar solo section to this new sound that then dips to a very low note to support the harmonies of Anne and Nancy, only to reemerge so that it leads us into the break that will deliver us to the final chorus. The introduction of the conga in support of the moog seems to put the song into cruise control mode. Another detail that makes the song pop can be heard in the opening guitar lick, of “Magic Man,” as the opening phrase was recorded onto tape and then played backwards. The same effect can be found on tracks like, “I’m only Sleeping” by The Beatles and in Led Zeppelin’s, “Trampled Under Foot.” What I like about Leese and Flicker’s use of the effect is that it is so subtle that you might not even notice it unless you were hearing it on a good pair of speakers or with some headphones, but the signature sound really sets the tone for the whole song.

For me, what makes this song an iconic classic is the mix of sonic textures created by the band, which support the breathtaking quality of Anne Wilson’s vocal performance. There is a playful sensuous quality to her delivery, punctuated with moments of raw emotional grit. When asked about how she keeps her voice in shape, Anne replied, “I don’t smoke, I don’t drink alcohol and I don’t do a lot of things other people would consider consistent with a rock star image. I don’t do anything that would dry it out or tear it up. I just try to be nice to it. It’s a part of me and I want to show it love so it’ll show me love back.” Her voice is really the reason for this bands existence.

One of the interesting back stories to this album, and the song Magic Man in particular is the fact that at the time the material was being written and recorded, Anne Wilson was in a relationship with Mike Fisher while Nancy Wilson was with his brother Roger Fisher who played lead guitar along with Howard Leese. Magic Man is actually about Anne getting together with Mike and her mother being worried about her. When asked about why the band moved away from their family to live in Canada Nancy tells us, “Draft evasion. It was during the Vietnam War. Michael Fisher, who was Ann’s boyfriend and the Svengali behind the band, was evading. There was all kinds of drama surrounding that situation—like, when Ann came back over the border to get home for Christmas, she got the full-on third-degree interrogation and cavity search. She showed up really shaken that night, feeling like she’d been raped. The feds were all over it.” It’s crazy to think what this band was going through in order to be able to work and maintain a life that would connect them to friends and family. One friend in particular, Sue Ennis was instrumental in helping sisters Anne and Nancy with songwriting. They would go onto collaborate on the soundtrack for the movie “The Golden Child,” (1986) featuring Eddie Murphy.

The other drama that was present during the recording of the album is an all to common phenomenon in the business of forming a band: The Drummer Problem. Nancy Wilson tells us, “we found ourselves in drummer hell, trying to find the guy that would hopefully go forward all the way with us, so there were a few different drummers on the album and the dynamics of choosing one was rather intense.” Producer Mike Flicker adds, “Dave Wilson was their drummer at the time, and we were supposed to do six tracks. Of those the only one I could get out of him was Magic Man.” It was not until Heart started playing with Mike de Rosier that they would find that drummer who would accompany them until 1982 when the band began to dramatically change their sound. It’s funny, because my earliest introduction to Heart was through pop rock anthems like, “What About Love,” and “All I Wanna Do is Make Love to You.” Both of these tracks were smash hits, but when I listen to them today, they feel dated and lack the dynamic quality and instrumental sophistication of early songs like Magic Man. When I was doing my research on the different albums they had put out over the years, I had to ask myself, what happened to this amazing band?

What happened to Heart plays into another struggle that Anne and Nancy would face in navigating the music industry. For one Nancy Wilson recalls, “Yes it started to get all keyboard heavy and synthesizers. And the producer was telling me, It’s so out man,” and “Nobody plays acoustic guitar anymore. It’s unfashionable. There’s no place for that in this production.”

Anne Wilson adds, “In the 1980s [making music] became uncomfortable. Music became less understandable in the wake of the new MTV era. You weren’t supposed to be anything other than a pop star, to not go deeper than that. It was really strange. It was suffocating, image-wise. What you could talk about in a song changed; if you were misunderstood, you were really misunderstood – taken literally. That’s why Nancy and I felt so stifled, yet that’s our biggest commercial success. But that’s the way shit goes when you sell millions of records but you’re dying inside.” So it was really the development of the new mediums of MTV that would dramatically alter the bands musical output. They were not alone…

Despite the challenges Anne and Nancy faced as women in the music industry, they managed to continually evolve as artists. This can be seen in a more recent example of Nancy Wilson’s work on the soundtrack of “Almost Famous.” (2000) It turns out Nancy married director Cameron Crowe and worked on several soundtracks including, “Say Anything,” (1999) “Vanilla Sky,” (2001) and “Elizabethtown.” (2005) In an interview Nancy talks about the writing process for the soundtrack of, “Almost Famous.” “One thing that always seems to sink most fictional movies about rock: the fake songs. So we tried to be as authentic as possible. Before the movie started shooting, Cameron and I were taking a break at the beach, and thought we’d just launch headlong into the whole fictitious world of this Midwestern mid-level rock group circa 1972. We wanted them to feel like a blend of Bad Company with a little Led Zeppelin, Cream, and some Allman Brothers mixed in.” (NW, The Believer) She also talks about the memorable scene where the lead singer of this fake group called, “Stillwater” is on top of the roof and says, “I am a golden god…”

Apparently David Cameron went over to show the film to Led Zeppelin and when Robert Plant saw that scene he looked back and said, “That was me.” Heart has inspired generations of people in music from Gretchen Wilson, to many key players in the Seattle grunge scene including Nirvana. I recently read an article in Billboard featuring Brittany Howard of the band Alabama Shakes and when asked about her lady heroes this is what she said, “Bjork, Erykah Badu, Memphis Minnie, Nina Simone, and the guitar player from Heart, Nancy Wilson.”

Finally, that leads me to the fact that these ladies can still rock. On December 26th, 2012, Heart performed, “Stairway to Heaven” at the Kennedy Center Opera House with Jason Bonham on drums, and in attendance was none other than the three remaining members of Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones. If you watch the video, you can see Robert Plant with tears in his eyes. Our respects to women who rock…

Playlist: Heart: the Early Years

Magic Man
Crazy On You
White Lightning and Wine
Soul of the Sea
Dreamboat Annie
(Love Me Like Music) I’ll Be Your Song
Little Queen
Love Alive
Sylvan Song
Dream of the Archer
Kick It Out
Straight On
Stairway to Heaven