The Number Ones

July 11, 1987

The Number Ones: Heart’s “Alone”

Stayed at #1:

3 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Nancy Wilson hits a big chord, and the audience leaps to its feet as her piano literally explodes into bits. Ann Wilson stares down the camera, a black veil over her elaborately painted eyes, light seeming to emanate from somewhere behind her head. Candles burn behind sheer, transparent curtains. Ann and Nancy Wilson stare at each other across a vast, destroyed ballroom. A dramatically lit Nancy Wilson rides a black horse toward the camera in extreme slow motion.

Heart were a band long before MTV came into existence, but by the late ’80s, the Wilson sisters had that music-video shit figured out. Virtually any isolated shot from any circa-1987 Heart video deserves to live on in gif form. They were a band of grand, ridiculous gestures — of hair-whips and eyes-shut big-note screaming-at-the-ceiling howls and the kinds of guitar solos that you can really only play while you’re collapsing to your knees in ecstasy. They needed songs that were vast and operatic enough to suit those visions. “Alone,” Heart’s second and final #1 hit, fit the bill.

Heart were on a career downswing before 1985, when the classic rockers embraced ’80s-style arena-level excess, working with outside songwriters and making music big and bright enough to fit the coked-out moment. Their new strategy worked. The band’s self-titled 1985 album launched four singles into the top 10, including the #1 hit “These Dreams.” The LP went platinum five times. When Heart followed that album up with 1987’s Bad Animals, they kept that game plan intact. If anything, they made their whole style even more operatic. The album didn’t do quite as well as Heart, but it still went triple platinum, and it gave Heart the biggest hit of their career.

“Alone” had just been sitting there for years before Heart got to it. By 1987, songwriters Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg were proven hitmakers with a couple of #1 smashes, Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” and Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” to their names. Before they wrote those songs, though, Kelly and Steinberg made music together under the name i-Ten. As i-Ten, Kelly and Steinberg only released one album, 1983’s Taking A Cold Look. Toto’s Steve Lukather and Fleetwood Mac/Foreigner collaborator Keith Olsen produced the album, and it had members of Toto, Journey, and Mr. Mister playing on it. It didn’t matter. The i-Ten album bricked, and the original version of “Alone” went largely unheard.

A year later, “Alone” almost had a second life. CBS had a sitcom called Dreams, about a fictional band trying to make it. On an episode of Dreams, the sitcom’s stars Valarie Stevenson and John Stamos sang “Alone” to each other. (At the time, Stamos was still three years away from becoming Uncle Jesse.) But Dreams was an outright flop, cancelled after less than a month. The episode with their version of “Alone” never even aired.

Even after co-writing a couple of #1 hits, Tom Kelly was still working as a session singer in 1987. One day, Kelly was doing backup vocals for a Survivor song, and producer Ron Nevison mentioned that he was about to do the next Heart album. (Nevison had also produced Heart.) Nevison told Kelly that Heart needed a power ballad, and Kelly had the idea of bringing “Alone” to them. Steinberg had always hated “Alone,” and he was only willing to do it if they could slightly rewrite the song. So Steinberg and Kelly took another stab at “Alone,” changing the first line of the chorus. The relatively inert line “I always fared well on my own” became “till now, I always got by on my owwwwn.” That little flourish somehow heightened the stakes of the song and turned it into something else.

Kelly and Steinberg recorded a whole new demo, and the Wilson sisters were into it. When Heart were recording Bad Animals in the studio, Kelly and Steinberg came to visit, and Kelly ended up singing the high background vocals all through the album. Kelly’s vocals sound great on “Alone,” underlining the big lines on the chorus: “I never really cared until I met youuuu!” But “Alone” couldn’t have worked if Ann Wilson hadn’t sung the absolute motherfucking shit out of that song. She just annihilates that thing. When the key change comes in, and Wilson just lets loose with this primal wordless howl? That’s the good shit. (In the video, director Marty Callner underlines that moment with an Evil Dead II-style zoom in on Ann Wilson, and this was the right thing to do.)

“Alone” is a song worthy of Heart’s histrionics. It’s the best kind of power ballad: The love song that’s really just an internal monologue. Ann Wilson’s narrator is singing to an object of desire, unburdening her soul and telling this person all about how she feels: “You don’t know how long I have wanted to touch your lips and hold you tight.” But on the second verse, we get the twist: “I was gonna tell you tonight, but the secret is my own/ And my love for you is still unknown/ Alone.” She’s chumped out. She can’t bring herself to say it out loud. So the anguished scream on the chorus — “How do I get you alone?” — is just echoing around inside her head. She knows what she has to do, but she can’t do it. The contrast between Ann’s ferocious force and the morose hesitance of the sentiment really just kicks me in the soul.

The two previous versions of “Alone” — the i-Ten one and the Dreams one — are both cool, but neither one has the big-stage theatrical power that Heart bring to the song. Alone stays quiet and controlled on the verses, and then it just goes nuclear when the chorus hits. All the touches in the arrangement — the tinkly piano, the surging synths, the booming drums — make “Alone” sound bigger and more desperate. On the Heart version, even the guitar solo sounds like a growl of frustration. The whole thing approaches Jim Steinman levels of outsized need.

“Alone” was the apex of Heart’s arena-rock era — their one ’80s song that can truly hang with their thundering classic-rock bangers like “Barracuda” and “Magic Man.” “Alone” became the first single from Bad Animals, and the band followed it with the Diane Warren-written rocker “Who Will You Run To,” another hit. (“Who Will You Run To” peaked at #7. It’s a 7.) Heart never returned to #1 after “Alone,” but they came close; their Mutt Lange-written 1990 single “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You” peaked all the way up at #2. (It’s a 6.)

Once the general public lost its taste for big, shiny rock songs in the ’90s, Heart’s commercial fortunes declined, but the Wilson sisters remained relevant in other areas. In 1991, the Wilson sisters bought a studio in Seattle, renaming it Bad Animals after their 1987 album. Bad Animals became an important studio, and in their capacity as studio owners and local rock stars, the Wilson sisters became a friendly guiding light for the young bands on the Seattle grunge scene in the ’90s. Bad Animals is where Soundgarden recorded Superunknown and where Pearl Jam recorded Vitalogy.

The Wilson sisters also participated in that whole scene as musicians. The Lovemongers, their mostly-acoustic side project, covered Led Zeppelin on the soundtrack of the 1992 movie Singles. (Nancy Wilson had married Singles director Cameron Crowe in 1986. They broke up in 2010.) Later on, Alice In Chains’ Mike Inez became a member of Heart, and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell inducted Heart into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

Heart went on hiatus after the 1993 album Desire Walks On, but they started up again in the early ’00s, and they’ve done well for themselves on the arena-rock nostalgia circuit ever since. There have been complications. In 2016, Dean Wetter, Ann Wilson’s husband, was arrested for assaulting Nancy Wilson’s twin 16-year-old sons backstage at a Heart show in Seattle. Wetter, reportedly enraged because the kids had left the door of the tour bus open, allegedly punched one of the boys in the back of the head and grabbed both of them by the throat. The Wilson sisters later said that the whole experience was “a nightmare” and “complete hell.” The sisters didn’t see each other for years, and Heart came close to ending. But in 2019, the sisters patched things up, and Heart got back together to tour.

Heart remain a vastly important band: ’70s hard rock greats who thrived well into the ’80s even as the two leaders of the band faced wild sexism and dramatic interpersonal issues. Maybe they’ll get their due soon. In a radio interview last year, Ann Wilson said that Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein was planning to write and direct a Heart biopic, which would be cool. (On the casting, Wilson also said, “Anne Hathaway came forward, but I don’t think she’s exactly right for it.” That’s pretty weird! Let the beautiful Oscar-winning movie star who can sing and who has your same first name play you in a movie, Ann Wilson!)

Heart won’t appear in this column again, but songwriters Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg and producer Ron Nevison both will. We’ll also see a whole lot more power ballads in the weeks ahead. We are heading into the golden age of the power ballad, and I, for one, am amped about it.

RATING: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Carrie Underwood, cruising to victory on the 2005 season of American Idol, singing the hell out of “Alone”:

And here’s Underwood joining Heart onstage to sing “Alone” at Heart’s 2006 show for VH1’s Decades Rock Live!:

(Carrie Underwood will eventually appear in this column. So will American Idol judge Paula Abdul, who I guess choreographed Heart’s “Alone” video? That rules.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Norwegian production team Stargate using the piano line from “Alone” on the 2006 Nas track “Not Going Back,” a collaboration with his then-wife Kelis:

(Nas’ highest-charting single, 2003’s “I Can,” peaked at #12. Kelis’ highest-charting single, 2003’s “Milkshake,” peaked at #3. It’s a 9. Stargate’s work will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Céline Dion’s reliably dramatic but slightly leaden 2007 cover of “Alone,” produced by the former Evanescence member Ben Moody:

(Céline Dion will eventually appear in this column. Evanescence’s highest-charting single 2003’s “Bring Me To Life,” peaked at #5. It’s a 9.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2011 episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia where Dennis lays eyes on a weather reporter for the first time as “Alone” plays on the soundtrack:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Kelly Clarkson — Carrie Underwood’s fellow American Idol victor and someone who was basically put on this earth to sing songs like “Alone” — casually covering the motherfuck out of “Alone” on a 2019 episode of her talk show:

(Kelly Clarkson will eventually appear in this column.)

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