by Brian Howe
There were a lot of things that made Heart stand out among the giants of 1970s hard rock. With a unique style that braided metal, rock and folk together in a wiry framework with tough romantic vocals, they sounded sleek and fresh compared to many of their contemporaries, plenty of whom were already starting to date themselves as punk and new wave exploded later in the decade. But one thing in particular, even more than the universal appeal of classic rock staples such as “Barracuda,” “Crazy on You” and “Magic Man,” gave Heart’s 2013 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame its most unassailable justification. It had less to do with commercial success, critical acclaim, or even the music itself than with who was playing it.
Before Heart came along, the hard rock pantheon—Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and AC/DC, Aerosmith and Pink Floyd—had plenty of gods, but hardly a goddess to be found. Ann Wilson, a strong and sultry singer, and sister Nancy Wilson, whose go-for-baroque acoustic finger picking rang with steely confidence and fiery power, resoundingly broke through that gender barrier.
The raw power and capability projected by the sisters is still apparent in videos of performances from their very early days. Taking over Canada before quickly storming the United States, Heart went on to sell over 30 million albums around the world and earn four Grammy nominations, with a four-decade lifespan on the Billboard Top 10 charts. But their biggest legacy is inspiring a legion of women to pick up guitars and take on assertive front roles in rock bands themselves. It’s no coincidence that Heart’s U.S. base of operations is the Pacific Northwest, which would spawn the Riot Grrrl vanguard of female-fronted punk bands such as Bikini Kill in the ‘90s.
What was arguably the world’s first feminist rock band was founded, funnily enough, by a bunch of guys, though only with the arrival of the Wilson sisters did it become something more than one of many hard rock bands toiling in obscurity. Its early years featured heavy personnel turnover, with bassist Steve Fossen and guitarists Roger and Mike Fisher being the most important formative members, and a branding evolution from That Army to White Heart to Hocus Pocus to simply Heart, a name the band really wore on its sleeve after the Wilsons joined in the early ‘70s.
Think of it: Two sisters joining a hard rock band and getting romantically involved with its two brothers—Ann with Mike, who became the sound engineer to make room for the superior guitarist, Nancy with Roger—and all of them moving to Canada, where, as the story goes, Mike had fled to avoid the Vietnam War draft. Could anything but drama, spectacular peaks and sloughs, have ensued? Heart made a hard-earned return to the Top 10 charts in 2010 with the back-to-basics album Red Velvet Car, but a bumpy road led there, including an early ‘80s commercial slump familiar to many hard rock bands, a triumphant comeback as AOR hit-makers and an extended period of limbo in the ‘90s.
Building its following in Vancouver, now joined by keyboardist Howard Leese and drummer Michael DeRosier, Heart signed to the Canadian label Mushroom and released its debut album, Dreamboat Annie, in 1975. Not only was it a smash in Canada, the record went platinum in the U.S. on the strength of what would remain two of the band’s most famous singles: the progressive folk-rock of “Crazy on You” and the dancey blues of “Magic Man.” Capitalizing on that success by moving to the larger Portrait label, Heart sold over a million copies of second album Little Queen, which came out in the wake of a legal battle with Mushroom, who had released Heart’s unfinished Magazine LP in a huff. A court ordered Mushroom to let Heart remix and add new vocals to the record, and it was re-released in 1978, eventually going platinum and spawning the canonical single titled, with superb irony, “Heartless.”
Little Queen was powered by the lacerating hit “Barracuda,” whose invective was supposedly directed at a reporter who made an innuendo about a Rolling Stone ad showing the Wilson sisters bare-shouldered above a suggestive caption, “It was only our first time!” It was neither the first nor the last time the Wilson sisters would grapple with the balance between being empowered by their looks and gender and being confined by them. The lyrics churn with a perhaps-newfound awareness of and contempt for the pressures on women to be submissive in male-dominated arenas: “You’re lying so low in the weeds / I bet you’re gonna ambush me / You’d have me down on my knees / Now wouldn’t you, Barracuda?”
At the end of the ‘70s, Heart was on top of the world. Dog and Butterfly went double platinum and scored a very contemporary hit with the disco-and funk-inflected “Straight On.” But as the decade turned, the two romances at the core of the band flickered out, causing Roger Fisher’s ouster from Heart (taking his distinctive guitar work with him), with his brother soon to follow. 1980’s Bebe le Strange became the band’s third Top 10 album, and single “Tell it Like it Is” was their best-charting to date, but the album only went gold and began a period of decline and confusion.
Greatest Hits/Live was all fans had to tide them over for the next two years, until Heart broke with established producer Mike Flicker for Private Audition. Failing to even go gold with the album, Heart fired DeRosier and Fossen and recruited Denny Marmassi and Mark Andes for 1983’s Passionworks, another commercial disappointment. With Heart’s creative core so shaken up and the marketplace shifting away from hard rock, it seemed that Heart was about to fade into obscurity. But a power ballad from Private Audition, “Perfect Stranger,” and Ann Wilson’s duet with Mike Reno of Loverboy—the Footloose-soundtrack pop ballad “Almost Paradise”—portended a new direction for the next leg of their career.
Aptly, it was with 1985’s self-titled record on Capitol that Heart successfully redefined itself, embracing the big and in-your-face emotional sound of ‘80s pop. With five rafter-shaking hits in “What About Love,” “Never,” “Nothin’ at All,” “If Looks Could Kill” and “These Dreams,” the album reached number one on the Billboard charts and sold five million copies. The band’s folk origins continued to steal away behind a shiny arena-ready sound on 1987’s Bad Animals, which spawned several more radio hits and pushed Heart’s chart success into the UK for the first time. This superlative run came to a close with 1990’s Brigade, the band’s sixth multiplatinum LP, which led into a period of significant change in the ‘90s.
Perhaps missing their roots, the Wilson sisters formed an acoustic group called The Lovemongers with Sue Ennis and Frank Cox, which intermittently drew off their focus from Heart through the ‘90s. Heart returned in 1993 with the modestly performing Desire Walks On, which saw more action on the Adult Contemporary and Mainstream Rock charts than the Hot 100. In other words, while Heart was still popular, they were popular in a fading and nostalgic way. In the mid-‘90s, Nancy Wilson took a break from music to focus on her family while Ann toured with her own band, before the sisters came back together in 1997 for Lovemongers album Whirlygig.
The Wilson sisters were active in all kinds of music and film projects during this slow period for Heart—Nancy had married film director and music geek Cameron Crowe—but the dormant band roared back to life in 2002 with a new lineup to tour and, after a couple years, release their first studio album in over a decade, Jupiter’s Darling, which found them refocusing on their early hard rock sound without ignoring what they had learned about pop production. But it was 2010’s Red Velvet Car that really felt like the old Heart and became the group’s first Top 10 album in two decades.
Though classic in sound, Red Velvet Car felt contemporary in inspiration, especially with a hit single called “WTF.” Followed in 2012 by the respectable Fanatic, the band’s 12th Top 25 album, Red Velvet Car put Heart back on track to remain relevant for a fifth decade. That’s a rare accomplishment for people of any gender in any field, let alone two women in the masculine—but, thanks in large part to the Wilson sisters’ fearless example, much less than it once was—world of rock music.