Tina Turner: Better Be Good To Me
Exploring a deep, convoluted discography.
Not everybody has the good luck to tell their story according to their own terms. Tina Turner got that chance not just once but many times, a process started with a 1981 interview with People Magazine where she first went public with her ex-husband Ike's legacy of abuse, then accelerated with the 1986 publication of I, Tina, an autobiography delivered a couple of years after her phenomenal comeback with Private Dancer.
I, Tina appeared when Tina Turner wasn't merely famous but a dazzling star, existing in the same stratosphere as such newly-minted celebrities as Prince and Madonna. Turner maintained that level of stardom through the release of What's Love Got To Do With It, a 1993 biopic that often treated facts as suggestions but nevertheless zeroed in on the essential core of Tina's story: she was destined to be a star and the strength, smarts, and fortune to be a survivor.
Turner didn't retire immediately after What's Love Got To Do With It, nor did her fame diminish—she'd go on to sing the theme to the James Bond film Goldeneye in 1995—but the film's stirring adult contemporary ballad "I Don't Wanna Fight" was her last American hit and effectively the closing the final chapter of her career. A pair of albums followed before her retirement in 2000, a retreat that largely stuck despite a fiftieth-anniversary tour that doubled as a farewell in 2008, plus four albums of spiritual music she released through the Beyond Foundation, an organization she co-founded.
Like Turner's long-standing Buddhism or her three-decade union with her second husband Erwin Bach, the Beyond Foundation wasn't a secret, yet it was never a public focal point. Turner earned the right to keep her personal life private and she executed that right, choosing to reveal little of her current life while continuing to tell variations of her survivor story, such as the jukebox musical Tina and a recent HBO documentary by the same name. By baring part of her soul, she was able to keep the other, more precious, portion to herself.
Such a cautious division of the personal and the private is an essential part of maintaining a healthy career as a pop diva, a lesson Tina Turner taught by example. Pop isn't a form of music often associated with Tina Turner—she cut her teeth with R&B and gravitated toward rock & roll—but the music she made at her popular peak in the 1980s was unquestionably pop, music directed by British new wave upstarts who understood the potential of pouring her passion into stylish, synthesized settings. B.E.F. (British Electric Foundation)—the production team formed by ex-Human League members Martyn Ware and Ian Craig, which morphed into Heaven 17—didn't revive Tina Turner's career as much as they redefined it, steering her away from the splashy, hard-driving R&B and rock & roll she'd been playing to little avail for the better part of a decade.
The ten years separating "Nutbush City Limits"—a powerhouse piece of autobiography served up by Tina in conjunction with Ike in 1973—and the MTV smash "What's Love Got To Do With It" is still something of a black hole, a murky period that's only recently been illuminated thanks to YouTube, where performance clips and albums never reissued on CD—or, in the case of 1979's disco LP Love Explosion, never released in the US—can be found. On each of these, Turner's power as a performer is evident, and, at times, the arrangements can be inventive, particularly on 1975's Acid Queen, a record where she wrangles with classic rock staples by the Who, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and David Bowie, fashioning them into muscular, psychedelic funk. Similarly, Tina Turns The Country On!—her solo debut from 1974, released while she was still performing with Ike—is inventive and fresh country-soul, funkier than almost any other record in a similar vein. The album didn't click but did earn a nomination for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female at the 17th Annual Grammy Awards, pointing out a paradox in Turner's wilderness years: the public may not have been buying her records but she was beloved within the industry, still appearing on televised game shows and variety programs during the dark years of the late 1970s, and appearing on Saturday Night Live to sing "Hot Legs" with Rod Stewart in 1981.
This predilection for showbiz ultimately sustained Tina Turner's career: it helped her embrace B.E.F. and the new wave and, once she achieved her comeback, she had no problem playing it safe by singing immaculately-tailored, vaguely European adult contemporary for the better part of 15 years. It also can mean that those obscure albums can be riddled with slightly cornball material: she may sing the hell out of "Root, Toot Undisputable Rock 'N Roller" but it's still a song called "Root, Toot Undisputable Rock 'N Roller." These records are almost a reverse image of the music Ike & Tina made during the mid-1960s, when they were chasing every R&B trend to little avail. The duo made a lot of good records during this time—even the bizarre "Betcha Can't Kiss Me Just One Time," a groovy go-go number derailed by a chorus sung by Chipmunks, is fun—but they also just made a lot of records, skipping from label to label in hopes of either hits or quick cash. Sorting through this music takes patience but it doesn't always award the effort. A lot of this music was cut on the fly and Ike Turner's songwriting muse left him by the mid-1960s, never to return during his time with Tina. Even once they stabilized when they signed to Bob Krasnow's blues imprint Blue Thumb in 1969, the duo still was searching for a direction, spending two records playing blues-rock before devising a funk-rock hybrid on 1970's Come Together that appealed more to rock audiences than funk.
That funk-rock reached its apotheosis with their radical revision of John Fogerty's "Proud Mary" in 1970, an expert reworking that showcased Tina's incendiary charisma; she made Ike seem like an afterthought. As was his wont, Ike pushed the duo to record too much, rushing three albums into the store in 1970—'Nuff Said contained "Moving Into Hip Style—A Trip Child!," a blatant rewrite of their version of "Proud Mary"—and, soon, Tina was proving herself the better songwriter of the pair, writing the lion's share of 1972's Feel Good and giving them their last hit with "Nutbush City Limits." Their live albums from the early 1970s show that these new tunes were incidental to what they performed on stage, though: on 1973's Live! The World of Ike & Tina, they spent as much time singing old tunes from Joe Tex, Chuck Willis, Elmore James, and Hank Ballard as they did on their own songs, or even tunes by Lennon and McCartney.
A thorough exploration into Tina's pre-comeback discography deepens an appreciation for Private Dancer. Where Ike & Tina records often seem careless and her 1970s LPs overcooked, Private Dancer is thoughtful: the army of producers on the 1984 album give Turner empathetic and modern arrangements, where the sheets of synths and drum machines synths wind up highlighting the grit and emotion in Tina's performance. Its sequel Break Every Rule gilded the lily in an appealing fashion, while Foreign Affair smoothed and softened this approach, which provided immediate dividends—it made "The Best" into an empowering anthem while also giving a silky undercurrent to Tony Joe White's "Steamy Windows"—but ultimately took Turner in a direction that was a shade too polite. Her inherent charm and professional skill make her 1990s albums listenable but she made a deliberate decision to play it cool, to play it safe, sustaining her career without taking any chances.
In retrospect, it's hard not to wish that she took a few more artistic risks like she did when she covered Massive Attack's "Unfinished Sympathy" in 1996 but that just wasn't in the cards. Tina Turner worked hard for her solo fame and she wasn't going to squander it with a creative detour. Also, it took considerable skill to maintain a successful career without diminishing her legacy. Maybe the records were dull but they never were embarrassing and whenever Tina could be seen on stage or screen during the last years of her life, she offered a vivid reminder that she possessed the kind of magnetic star power that occurs only a handful of times in a generation. That Tina Turner managed to channel that charisma onto record on more than one occasion is a blessing.