“Heartless,” 1978 single from the 1977 Heart album Magazine.
Power, musicianship, vocals.
(4 minute read)
*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
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I spent my teenage years, 1980 – 1986, listening to Album-Oriented Rock (AOR) radio. The 70s Classic Rock era is often reviled, only a bit less-so than the ridiculous 80s hair metal era that followed. This “Arena Rock” music featured bands with high-pitched singers, sound-alike guitar solos, pounding drums, and at least one tear-jerking, Bic-lighter-held-aloft-inspiring ballad that had all the same sounds as the other songs, only played slower.
It seems like the disdain for Arena Rock began in the 90s, when grunge and alt-rock were taking over. The artists themselves didn’t necessarily dislike classic rock sounds. Grunge stars Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell and even Kurt Cobain all expressed an appreciation of bands like The Who, Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. But the tastemakers of the era decided that only a few bands didn’t suck, and for many the attitude took hold. It’s true that Arena Rock included some less-than-original1 artists – bands like Styx, Journey, Foreigner – but a great song is a great song, no matter the genre.
By the mid-80s, Heart was known for silly ballads and schlocky, top-40 pop, but in the 70s they were a kick-ass rock band. They were staples of AOR radio, usually the only women heard outside of Janis Joplin and, eventually, Pat Benatar. I love all their radio hits, particularly “Straight On,” and “Even It Up,” and, of course, “Barracuda.”
But the one that tops my list, and to me demonstrates what’s so great about Arena Rock, is “Heartless.” I love the fact that on a cursory listen it’s basic, but when you listen closely you hear the tremendous musicianship and creativity that went into it. Plus Ann Wilson has one of the greatest voices in rock history, so there’s that, too.
The song starts with a short introduction, a preview of the chorus, and even in those few seconds there’s a lot going on. Two guitars, synth, culminating in a strange, watery chord at 0:10. Then the main riff starts.
The thing about Heart from this era is that they had 3 guitar players. Nancy Wilson mainly played rhythm, but also took some leads2. Roger Fisher was a creative beast of a lead guitarist. And Howard Leeds played guitar when he wasn’t playing keyboards. If you listen closely to the riff section, you’ll hear all three doing different things in different speakers. On the left is some twangy plucking, on the right are some crunchy chords, and the main riff is centered. It’s a cool sound that’s easy to miss. Then check out Michael Derosier’s drum fill at 0:29! (He plays a lot of great fills throughout.)
The lyrics are, frankly, a bit mysterious. I’d be even more frank and say “dumb,” but I’ll give Ann Wilson the benefit of the doubt. I mean, she has the kind of pipes that she could sing my blog posts and it would sound good, so I’m not too concerned about meaning. Clearly, the verses are about some asshole dude who’s nailing a bunch of chicks without considering consequences. The first verse involves an unwanted pregnancy, the second a woman who’s bought the Lothario’s lies.
The mysterious part comes in the “Heartless! Heartless!” verses, in which she calls out this jerk, who seems to be a rock star himself, staying in a penthouse, and “sinning in the name of rock and roll.” (It’s fun to think of what handsome 70s ape she may be talking about. Robert Plant? Steven Tyler? Lemmy?) At the end of each verse she gravely chastises him with the phrase “you never realize/ the way love dies/ when you crucify its soul.” I feel he’ll be too confused to really take that admonishment to heart (no pun intended.) Is he crucifying the women’s souls? Or love’s soul? And if he did the crucifying, wouldn’t he expect it to die?
But who gives a shit, because the guitar throughout the verse is one of my favorite aspects of the song! It’s a wide-ranging riff that kind of sounds off, in that good way that great guitarists sometimes play. Plus there’s a little glissando on the second “heartless” that also wouldn’t have to be there, but just adds a cool touch to the song. I think that’s really Arena Rock’s gift to music: the nifty, multiple backing guitars. They’re not noticeable at first, but once you hear them become a necessary component of a song. When done right, it sounds amazing.
After the second chorus, at 2:27, the song takes a very 70s Rock turn for its bridge. As a variation on the main riff is plucked, mellow guitar chords swirl and an “oooo” is vocalized. The organ shimmers along, then at 2:53 provides a quick hit of the most-70s-Rock-sound ever – a Moog synth. It pops up again at 3:23, then fully rears its head at 3:36, just before the brief dual guitar solo that brings us back to the verse at 3:49. I always feel like these types of 70s breakdowns – that minute and twenty-two seconds of repetitive mellow chords and hooting curlicues – was where the listener and radio DJ would both fire up a doobie to really lose themselves in the song.
Those multiple guitars come back to support Ann’s powerful voice on a final chorus, then the last 30 seconds provide another 70s Classic Rock moment: the show-off ending. I’m not dissing it – I’m a big fan! The last 40 seconds are packed with all those guitars, and a piano, and even Ann, playing off each other and having fun. Then Derosier does a cool fill at 4:49, and the band plays a weirdly-timed variation on the main theme to end it. It’s something that makes listeners go, “wait, what was that?” and play it back. It’s a bit self-indulgent, but only mildly so, and basically demonstrates that these folks can play.
Look, Rock music is gone, now consigned to the same bin as genres like big-band and orchestral pop, and even ragtime and barbershop quartet. That doesn’t mean it sucked. A song like “Heartless” demonstrates the creativity and talent that went into it – and there’s nothing wrong with that.