Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Sheena Easton - A Private Heaven

Every now and again someone will ask me to name my ten favourite albums of all time. Over the years the list has changed radically (the brief inclusion of Holly Valance's "State Of Mind" was a memorable miscalculation) but a handful of discs make a regular appearance. If I knew I was going to be stranded on a deserted island for a year, I would definitely take Olivia Newton-John's "Totally Hot", Dannii's "Neon Nights", La Toya's "Heart Don't Lie" and Kylie's "Light Years" - along with as much food and porn as I could possibly carry! I would also pack my cherished copy of Sheena Easton's 1984 masterpiece "A Private Heaven". It pains me that Sheena will forever be remembered as the "Morning Train" girl. As great as that song is, there was and is so much more to this amazing Scottish diva. I love Sheena's early material but "A Private Heaven" took things to an entirely new level.

The seeds for "A Private Heaven" can be traced back to Sheena's hugely underrated 1983 album "Best Kept Secret", which updated her output from ballad heavy soft rock to more contemporary uptempo pop. That album not only revived Sheena's career in the US (it became a Gold selling top 40 hit) but also introduced her to producer Greg Mathieson, who would again take the reigns on "A Private Heaven". Chances are if a song was camp, fabulous and released in the 1980s - Greg had something to do with it. Toni Basil's "Mickey" and Laura Branigan's "Gloria" are just two of his contributions to popular music. While "Best Kept Secret" subtly modernised Sheena's sound, "A Private Heaven" offered a complete transformation. The pretty girl next door emerged as a sex siren complete with an impressive arsenal of edgy dance-pop anthems. The album was an instant hit in America where it sold over a million copies and spawned three popular singles. Inexplicably, "A Private Heaven" failed to chart in the UK and stalled at #88 in Australia. Perhaps the mix of synth-pop and melodic R'n'B was simply too American for the international market but I suspect the real culprit was the album's controversial lyrics - but I'll get to that later. Whatever the reason, the rest of the world missed out on one the best pop recordings of all time. Here is my track by track review:


The album's opening track doubles as a declaration of intent. "Strut" is a winning mix of driving beats and suggestive lyrics that still sounds vibrant today. The song perfectly showcased Sheena's new found confidence and attitude. The production was cutting edge and the kinky lines about wearing "leather and lace" and "feeling like a girl for hire" must have raised eyebrows back in the day. This was a completely transformed woman. Written by Julian Littman and 70s pop star Charlie Dore (who would go on to pen tunes for Celine Dion and German girlband No Angels), "Strut" earned Ms Easton a Grammy nomination for best pop/rock vocal performance and became one of her biggest hits - peaking at #7 in America and reaching the Australian top 20. Watch the video (above). No one works the camera quite like Sheena!

Sugar Walls

If "A Private Heaven" is remembered at all today it is usually for housing the Prince penned trash classic "Sugar Walls", which imbued the album with an air of notoriety that lingers to this very day. With amazing lyrics like "blood races to your private spots" and "come spend the night inside my sugar walls", it's pretty clear that this tune isn't referring to a gingerbread house! I doubt a mainstream diva would even get away with this kind of sauciness today (take, for example, the controversy surrounding Britney's comparatively prudish "If You Seek Amy") but the track caused a major scandal at the time. "Sugar Walls" became one of the few songs to be banned from MTV for lyrical content and was even included on Tipper Gore's "Filthy Fifteen" - a list of songs considered to be indecent and morally reprehensible. The media backlash did little to curb the song's popularity and it followed "Strut" into the American top 20, becoming something of a pop culture phenomenon. The controversy had a greater impact internationally, however, where the song failed to chart in just about every market. Despite the dodgy innuendo, "Sugar Walls" is an absolutely magnificent pop song. Admittedly the lyrics are highly dubious (and very amusing) but the production is unbelievably tight and the chorus is pure magic. Prince was at the height of his powers when he wrote this and Sheena was the perfect muse. They would go on to work together again many times but this is by far their finest achievement and remains a true 80s classic. Check out the banned video below.

Hungry Eyes

A single in Japan, "Hungry Eyes" is a Hi-NRG slice of 80s keyboard heaven. The catchy chorus is set against some truly weird and wonderful sound effects, making for one of the album's hidden treasures. Written by the album's producer and Trevor Veitch (who worked extensively with Donna Summer), "Hungry Eyes" positively channels Harold Faltermeyer's early experiments with electronica. The track hasn't aged quite as gracefully as some of the others but I think it perfectly reflects everything that was good about mid-80s pop music. I wish Sheena hasd played around with this sound more. It suited her voice and would have worked wonders in Europe.

Hard To Say It's Over

"Hard To Say It's Over" is a complete showstopper. This is the kind of searing power ballad that would have made Cher and Barbra Streisand green with envy. I've often wondered why this wasn't a single. It would have connected with Sheena's old fanbase and gone down a storm on American radio. I love the bombastic guitar solos and Sheena's brilliant vocal delivery always gives me goosebumps. I was interested to learn while researching this post that the song was co-written by Australian pop star Gino Cunico, who was signed to Arista in the 1970s. Some truly amazing artists contributed their talent to this album. And it shows.


If you need any further proof of Sheena's credentials as an innovator, check out the album's third single. Ms Easton incorporates a spoken word rap on "Swear" half a decade before Madonna got around to it on "Vogue". However, that's only a small part of the song's appeal. "Swear" is a fiery revelation from beginning to end with its driving guitar (that sounds vaguely reminiscent of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean"), attitude filled lyrics and experimental production. I wasn't aware until recently that the song was a cover and you can check out Tim Scott's original version here. In retrospect, I'm not surprised that it was originally performed by a man. "Swear" is such a strong and muscular track. Sheena's interpretation completely turns the gender issue inside out, making the song all the more powerful. The video (below) is also something of a masterpiece. Clearly inspired by Michael Jackson, the clip is a three and a half minute explosion of 80s fashion and fabulousness.

Love & Affection

I have often thought that "Love & Affection" is the odd song out on "A Private Heaven". This sublime cover of Joan Armatrading's 1979 top 10 hit is the only cut that wouldn't sound out of place on one Sheena's early albums. While the rest of "A Private Heaven" is a boisterous celebration of mid-80s musical trends, there's something pristine and classic about this gem. Joan is a pretty hard act to follow but this version is a silky smooth delight. I love the crispness of the production and Sheena's understated vocal delivery is nothing short of exquisite. "Love & Affection" hasn't aged a day and is one of the few examples of a cover version matching the quality of the original.

Back In The City

Greg Mathieson and Trevor Veitch rope in the services of guitar legend Lee Ritenour for the album's only Latin flavoured jam. There's something so summery and laid back about "Back In The City". The slinky chorus is subtle yet catchy, while the heavy percussion adds a whole new dimension to the proceedings. Sheena released a Spanish language album ("Todo Me Recuerda a Ti") in Latin America around the same time as "A Private Heaven" and I've often wondered if "Back In The City" somehow evolved from those sessions. I was pretty sure the song was never released as a single so it was quite a surprise to discover the video clip on youtube (below). It's very grainy but still rather fabulous.

You Make Me Nervous

The keyboards return in full force for "You Make Me Nervous". Written by the team behind Robbie Nevil's 80s hit "C'est La Vie", this slice of 80s dance music isn't the finest moment on "A Private Heaven" but it is rather pleasant filler. I love the electronic sound but the guitar solos are unnecessary and the chorus feels slightly disconnected from the verses. It is, however, a welcome return to the uptempo pace of the opening tracks after a couple of mid-tempo detours.

All By Myself

The album's second big ballad is not a cover of Eric Carmen's similarly titled classic but an original penned by Trevor Veitch and Steve Lukather (the ex-Toto band member who heavily contributed to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" album). "All By Myself" doesn't quite reach the melodramatic heights of "Hard To Say It's Over" but the delicate production and emotional lyrics more than make up for it. As usual, Sheena's voice is pitch perfect and utterly exquisite. I'd love to see this performed live.

Double Standard

It's only fitting that such a consistently brilliant album end on a high and "Double Standard" more than fulfils that objective. This extremely catchy serving of 80s synth-pop has always been one of my favourite songs on the album. It's just so upbeat and fun. I love the adorable chorus and Greg's production is spot on. "Double Standard" also reminds strongly me of Olivia Newton-John's output at the time, which isn't a coincidence. The song was written by Steve Kipner, who composed ONJ classics like "Physical", "Heart Attack" and "Twist Of Fate". It's a huge compliment to say that Sheena's effort more than holds its own in that lofty company.

A quarter of a century has passed since "A Private Heaven" was recorded and the years have wearied it to some extent. The album was very much a product of its time and some of the tracks sound very dated. However, that's also part of the album's immense charm. "A Private Heaven" is a veritable audio time capsule of 80s music trends and production techniques. It's a snapshot of a time when popular music was still inventive, irreverent and fun. Most of all, it showcases an amazing diva at the very peak of her formidable powers. "A Private Heaven" is a near perfect pop album that deserves to be remembered, appreciated and acknowledged as a triumph.


Jamie_movietrip said...

This album is just an absolute triumph, Swear is just amazing, and I couldn't agree more about Hard To Say It's Over. It's one of my favourite albums too. Her image was so hot at this time too. We need a new CD from Sheena, I'd settle for anything!

I must take this opportunity to whore my review of Sheena's follow up Do You

Paul said...

Brilliant. I love Strut and Sugar Walls. And my parents telling me sugar walls was about having a sweet tooth! Misleaders! I'm still a little ashamed that my two fave Sheena songs are What Comes Naturally and Arms of Orion!

Brewster said...

Another great post!

I have long struggled with whether I like "Sugar Walls" or "Strut" is the better Sheena jam. I've always given it to Sugar Walls, probably due to my blind love of Prince. But after recently listening an the extended mix I'm back on Team Strut. I suppose I just have a compulsion to rank things (ala TOP TEN LISTS like you!). So I'm curious if you would pick one over the other, Mike?

John said...

I wore that sugar OUT! That cassette tape would beg for mercy on the daily. Thanks for reminding me just how fanfriggintastic that was.

But dated!

Justin said...

I was wondering when a Sheena post would appear. I fucking love the bitch so much and some of the best pop tracks from the 80s. Some of my favorites of hers are Sugar Walls, Strut, Days Like This, Telephone, 101, and the ever fabulous The Lover In Me, just to name a few.

Cristián said...

The extended version of Strut could almost be considered a separate track on its own. The overdubs of the drums, and the synth lines and arpeggios are mind blowing, and the effects applied to Sheena's vocal put it on a different league ("Strut pout-out-out-ut-ut... ...sssssssSSStrut").
To this day I still can't decide if either this one or the Extended of "Telephone" is my all time Sheena's fav track.

Mike said...

I'm excited there are so many "A Private Heaven" fans. We need to start a support group!

Brewster - Talk about Sophie's choice! "Strut" and "Sugar Walls" are two of the best songs of the entire 80s in my opinion. I guess the trashiness of "Sugar Walls" gives it the slightest advantage but as Cristian says, the extended version of "Strut" is orgasmic.

Cristian - I totally agree about the "Strut" extended version and "Telefone" is just the hottest song ever. It's definitely in my Sheena top 3 and another example of Greg Mathieson's amazing production.

Adem With An E said...

I have this on cassette! VERY BLOODY GOOD IT IS.

Cristián said...

My hats off to you, Mike. It was a total gift to start my morning today by reading the kind of impeccable (and finally justice-making) review for "A Private Heaven" I wish I could have read 25 years ago when I got that piece of vinyl-treasure in my hands for the first time.

And yes, when do we start that therapy group. I volunteer to go first: "I accept I have a problem. I need help. I've been a Greg Mathieson whore all my life. And a Sheena's. And a Branigan's. And a...(keep adding endlessly with all types of 80's pop trash)..."

The Prophet said...

I adore sugar walls and always have! Telephone, Morning train and Sugar walls are my fave Sheena!

Jennifer said...

Oh mi gosh, Mike! Sheena! Wonderful review of one of Sheena's best albums. Though I prefer the obscure 'Madness, Money and Music', this is in the top 3 of her best albums.

Love "Sugar Walls" but "Back In The City" is my personal fave off of this, it should've been a theme song to some bad cop show back then or something

Tommy said...

I bought this album on vinyl at a thrift shop feveral years ago. It never played well on the crappy turntable I had then, so I put it away until reading this post, actually. Never really been into Sheena that much, but Private Heaven is a fucking great pop album! Thanks for the great review!

Anonymous said...

"Love And Affection" is by far the best song on here. That was the first track of side "B" and it should've been the second single.

Sugar Walls was OK but was only a hit 'cause it was penned by Prince.

I acutually found "All By Myself," and "Hard To Say It's Over," to be way overproduced and smaking of effort.