Album by Album: Belinda Carlisle
Taking the road less travelled through melodic punk, juggernaut pop success and an LP inspired by Kundalini yoga, Steve Harnell looks at the back catalogue of the singer who first found fame with The Go-Go’s
Released 19 May 1986 Label I.R.S
Chart Position UK-US No.13
After calling time on The Go-Go’s at the Rock In Rio Festival, it was more than a year before Belinda Carlisle emerged blinking in the solo spotlight. With a radical new clean-cut look she was repositioned for the pop market, all vestiges of her punk roots excised.
Her launch as a solo artist got off to a flying start in North America with debut single Mad About You. It’s a clear indication that this is a fresh proposition from her Go-Go’s days, with only a rocking guitar solo courtesy of Duran Duran’s Andy Taylor providing any clue to her past life. The single made No.3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and topped the charts in Canada. In 2017, Carlisle told Classic Pop: “It was very intimidating going solo. I really had to find my feet. It took a long time.
“I was really insecure about being out there as the complete focus. I couldn’t bounce things off of other people on stage.”
Retaining Go-Go’s guitarist Charlotte Caffey as the major songwriter on this debut LP allowed for some sense of familiarity amongst the Brave New World of Carlisle’s solo career. Caffey supplied five songs on Belinda, a record that spins through a myriad styles as Carlisle searched for a new musical direction. Belinda added: “Charlotte’s an amazing songwriter and was a great support to me when the band broke up. We get each other. We were both born and raised in California so we have that sensibility. We have the same musical tastes and our relationship is really intuitive.”
As a well-connected LA mover and shaker, Carlisle attracted various A-listers to the songwriting table for her debut; The Bangles’ Susannah Hoffs co-wrote Need A Disguise, a subtle indication Belinda may not have been the butter-wouldn’t-melt pop star that her record label was presenting her as. Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham hooks up with Caffey and Jonathan Segal for Since You’ve Gone, a two-paced track that grows from a piano-led ballad with mournful strings into a guitar rocker.
Carlisle’s debut also features a clutch of soul-pop numbers, from the Phil Spector vibe of I Feel The Magic to the equally retro-sounding I Never Wanted A Rich Man. She bravely tackles the soul classic Band Of Gold – her strong vocal performance shines against an anodyne synth backing.
Crackling rocker Gotta Get To You is the clearest signpost to where she should be going and the first indication of what would be the trademark Carlisle sound.
Shot In The Dark, synth-pop with a weird Tropicália vibe where the keyboards are meant to sound like Caribbean steel drums, misfires and a closing cover of Split Enz’ Stuff And Nonsense, including a keyboard solo that apes the piccolo trumpets of Penny Lane, fails to play to Carlisle’s strengths.
Second and third singles I Feel The Magic and Band Of Gold neglected to dent the charts and the fourth culled from the LP came out as a promo only. Belinda certainly had its moments, but there was still much work to be done in establishing Carlisle as a solo act. Her next step would be absolutely decisive.
Heaven On Earth
Released 5 October 1987
Label MCA Virgin
Chart Position UK No. 4, US No.13
If Carlisle’s debut solo album was characterised with a tentative uncertainty about its musical direction, the 1987 follow-up was its mirror image.
Everything about Heaven On Earth oozes confidence. The album is front-loaded with killer tracks but even lesser cuts mark Carlisle out as a force to be reckoned with.
Near-title track Heaven Is A Place On Earth was an irresistible call to arms and topped the charts in the UK and US. Key to the success of the new album were the songwriting chops of Rick Nowels whose gutsy pop-rockers wrung every last drop of emotion out of Carlisle, who was now making the most of her sexy vibrato. Nowels explained: “Since Belinda was not a writer, it was my responsibility to come up with the songs. I asked my friend Ellen Shipley to fly out from Brooklyn to help me write. In the first week we wrote Heaven… and Circle In The Sand. I was looking for a Go-Go’s beat with an anthemic inspirational lyric.”
Carlisle added: “Rick and Ellen knew I didn’t like lyrics that were too literal, they knew I liked lyrics that were more romantic and poetic.”
More than 200 takes were needed to nail Heaven Is A Place On Earth’s master vocal and Nowels also came up with the masterstroke of changing the verses from minor to major key – an 80s anthem was born. Michelle Phillips from The Mamas And The Papas is among the backing vocalists.
The ethereal Circle In The Sand, with an electric sitar chiming away in the background and Thomas Dolby on keyboards, is further proof of this new-found thoroughgoing confidence.
And as if to fully assert her rock credentials, the choice of covering Cream’s iconic I Feel Free feels perfect. The guitars don’t crunch quite as hard as Clapton’s and his solo is replaced by a spooky sci-fi synth but Carlisle sounds feisty here; it’s a nod to rock’s past and a simultaneous jump into the future.
Go-to hit-maker for the stars Dianne Warren serves up a typically lovelorn ballad (World Without You), which smoothes off Carlisle’s rough edges and the more engaging I Get Weak features the singer’s vibrato in full effect.
By now, Nowels had hit upon a winning formula; We Can Change is a tick-box of Carlisle song tricks; the instantly memorable chorus, a wibbly guitar solo and, most pertinently, a key change in the final third to raise the emotional intensity up another notch.
Fool For Love tips its hat to Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark on a Bon Jovi-esque chugger but there’s a winning gear change for the most aggressive cut on the album, the punky Nobody Owns Me. It’s another example of Belinda asserting her new-found independence – almost. “Nobody owns me, nobody but you.” That kicker muddies the waters somewhat.
The rather predictable lighters-in-the-air anthem Love Never Dies closes an album which was already making all the right noises, but MCA weren’t taking any chances.
Heaven On Earth remains Belinda’s biggest seller of her career; a multi-platinum behemoth. Six singles were culled from the album, the first three – Heaven…, I Get Weak and Circle In The Sand – were Top 10 hits in multiple territories. Belinda had arrived.
Released 17 October 1989
Label MCA Virgin
Chart Position UK No. 4, No.37
Now installed as one of the world’s biggest female solo artists, all eyes were on Belinda to follow up the success of Heaven On Earth.
If the pressure to write another hit-packed album was intense, it only spurred Carlisle and her team on to even greater and more diverse work.
In a 2013 interview with Mark Goodier, Belinda explained: “If [Runaway Horses] was a failure I would have thought we were over-thinking it too much. But in my experience with The Go-Go’s it’s the sophomore jinx. Even though you don’t want to put pressure on yourself to live up to that and to do even better, it’s just human nature.”
The album is a personal favourite of the star, who singles out La Luna and Summer Rain for particular praise; notably they’re two tracks that expand upon the pop-rock template of Heaven On Earth and take her into more ethereal territory.
The songwriting team of Nowels and Shipley had asserted itself as the main creative force in Carlisle’s life, further bolstered by an A-list cast of collaborators that included George Harrison, Bryan Adams and Paul Buckmaster, the British composer who’d provided distinctive string arrangements for everyone from Bowie and Miles Davis to Elton John, Carly Simon and The Rolling Stones.
While the album introduces new inflections to Carlisle’s sound, those innovations are brought to the table carefully. Brilliant opener Leave A Light On is another pop-rock gem, elevated by an instantly-recognisable stunning slide guitar solo from George Harrison, who volunteered his services as a fan of Carlisle’s vocal style.
Harrison’s involvement was an honour for Carlisle, as he rarely took on session work, although its magnitude has only become apparent in later years. Carlisle told Goodier: “At the time I appreciated it, of course, but in retrospect it’s turned into one of the most amazing experiences of my career. He took Leave A Light On to a different level because his guitar-playing is so distinctive.”
Fittingly enough, the title track is an irresistible galloping anthem, rewritten after the melody of its first incarnation was too close for comfort to a Cher song of the time. It gradually builds momentum before unleashing one of Carlisle’s finest punch-the-air choruses
Like Heaven On Earth, Runaway Horses is packed upfront with singles but the depth of material here makes this one of Carlisle’s most rewarding albums. In line with her belief that this is more European-sounding than its predecessor, Buckmaster’s string arrangement brings drama and sophistication to Summer Rain. There’s even a flamenco flavour to La Luna; new territory for Carlisle that features piano accordion and fiddles.
To add grit to the delicacy, there’s the conciliatory rocker (We Want) The Same Thing, and the chiming, Byrdsian feel of Deep Deep Ocean, the latter featuring Harrison once again.
Bryan Adams provides support on Whatever It Takes and, inspired by cultural trips to Europe with her husband, Morgan Mason, Carlisle finally flexes her songwriting muscles on subtle ballad Shades Of Michelangelo. This is Carlisle’s most complete studio LP to date.
Live Your Life Free
Released 14 October 1991
Label MCA Virgin
Chart Position UK No.7
The two-pronged songwriting team of Nowels and Shipley feature throughout here but the material on Carlisle’s fourth studio outing lacks the bite of Heaven On Earth and Runaway Horses.
The first of Belinda’s solo works not to chart in the US, the knives were out in her homeland. Rolling Stone magazine was far from complimentary when it wrote: “Carlisle merely stirs up a nostalgia for carefree girl groups singing gooey love songs – giving Live Your Life… a certain giddy, pointless coherence.”
There is plenty to enjoy here, though, from the upbeat pop-rocker of the title track with its oh-so-rawk guitars and the singalong jangle-pop of Do You Feel Like I Feel?, which comes with a de rigueur early-90s electric sitar solo.
Sheryl Crow turns up on backing vocals for waltzing ballad Half The World and that’s a two-second snatch of John Lennon counting us in on You Came Out Of Nowhere, sampled from Nobody Told Me. Most peculiar, Mama!
Dramatic keyboard stabs and swirling guitar add a little intrigue to the feisty You’re Nothing Without Me, while Shakespears Sister’s Marcella Detroit co-writes Little Black Book with Belinda. Love Revolution is a real grower if you can get past the trite sentiment (we can).
Commercial momentum in the United States had begun to slow; Do You Feel Like I Feel? was Belinda’s last single to reach the Top 100 in her homeland, but Live Your Life Be Free sold strongly in Europe.
Released 29 September 1993
Chart Position UK No.9
Another game-changer for Carlisle, as significant in its own way to her evolution as a solo artist as Heaven On Earth.
Prompted by the LA Riots in 1992 and a major earthquake, Belinda and her family upped sticks from their California home and relocated to France.
Apart from the geographic shift, Carlisle was now tired of her conventional role as a pop star. “I was so tired of being on a hamster wheel, so tired of having to look good and being in the public eye. I was tired of everything. I was going through an identity crisis,” she explained in 2013.
A new studio methodology was adopted with the majority of tracks on Real written to drum loops. The headline news was that Rick Nowels was dispensed with as a main songwriter although the services of Ellen Shipley were retained on two tracks. Carlisle was very much running the show, though.
As the senior producer on the album Belinda oversaw the recording of every single instrument on Real, including, much to her chagrin, the drawn-out tedium of getting the right drum sound down.
Carlisle has co-writing credits on six of the 10 tracks, which also featured the work of Charlotte Caffey and her brother Tom as well as Ralph Schuckett from Todd Rundgren’s live band.
Carlisle explained: “I’m very proud of [Real]. It got a lot of critical acclaim, which I had never had before. It was all too easy to write me off as a piece of pop fluff but I obviously do have a brain. In my prime, when I was doing Mad About You and was this California babe, people write you off if you look good as being vacuous and stupid.
“Real was a big turning point in terms of people’s perception of me and what I do and who I am.”
Living up to its title, there’s more of a live band feel to the record from the Blondie-ish punk-pop of Goodbye Day and the crunchy Garbage-goes-to-the-Middle-East vibe of One With You.
There’s a pleasing Burundi beat hat-tip to Big Scary Animal (“Situation flammable!”) and the string and brass section nuance of Too Much Water. She even pre-dates Britpop with the Beatleisms of Wrap My Arms.
Gregg Alexander from The New Radicals – who Carlisle had known since he was 15 – provides anthemic closer Here Comes My Baby. It’s a satisfying finale.
A Woman And A Man
Released 11 September 1996
Chart Position UK No.12
Despite being in the grip of substance abuse by the time she made A Woman And A Man, none of that debauchery made it into the finished record. Instead, it’s a rather too-polished collection of adult-oriented pop. Carlisle told Classic Pop in 2017 that it’s her least favourite: “That album is terrible. I was in the throes of addiction. I can’t even listen to it. I think there are a couple of decent songs but for the most part it’s not very good. I was going through a lot of personal stuff so I had to sort that out first.”
She may have relocated to France, but in typically unpredictable Carlisle style, the headline song in this collection is a wistful ode to her home state, complete with layered harmony backing vocals by Brian Wilson. California may not be of the standard of his Pet Sounds-era ‘pocket symphonies’ but such was his impact in the studio that Carlisle had to call it quits for the day. She told Classic Pop: “When he came in, he was kinda odd. The producer let him do his thing. It was like him conducting a symphony in-between belches or whatever. It was the wildest thing I’ve ever seen. It was emotionally exhausting but in a good way. We couldn’t work after that. I mean, what do you do afterwards?”
Elsewhere, Belinda impresses on the sophisticated ballad In Too Deep and Northern Soul stomper title track. Roxette’s Per Gessle supplies two songs, the superior cut being the rocking Always Breaking My Heart with its huge chorus. But wispy ballads like the MOR Remember September and the gloopy My Heart Goes Out To You feel like phoned-in performances from the usually committed Carlisle.
Too many songs pass by without making an impression – where were those instantly memorable performances and punch-the-air anthems?
Even the usually reliable Neil Finn couldn’t up the quality threshold with the underwhelming mid-paced slowie He Goes On. The question was at this crossroads in her career, would Belinda…? It turned out that Carlisle wouldn’t return to the recording studio for another decade.
Released 5 February 2007
If you’ve hit a creative impasse, who ya gonna call? Like many before her, Carlisle picked up the phone for the grand boffin of pop, Brian Eno.
Now established with her family in France for more than a decade, Belinda decided on a radical departure. Voila is a covers record of classic French chansons and pop standards, taking in the works of Serge Gainsbourg, Édith Piaf, Françoise Hardy and lesser-known names. World music star Natacha Atlas provides evocative backing vocals on four tracks and Eno’s keyboard textures ensure this slinks along with a contemporary sheen.
To skew the pitch, many of the featured musicians are Irish. Nevertheless, this feels authentically Gallic.
Upon its release, Carlisle said: “After I moved to France, I became familiar with the classic French chansons as well as a lot of French pop music. I came to love this music and wanted to record some of them with a playful, contemporary feel.”
The cover of Gainsbourg’s Bonnie Et Clyde, originally sung with Brigitte Bardot no less, particularly impresses with Atlas appearing at the coda. Carlisle’s rarely ventured into torch song territory, but her command of the form is eye-opening. Breathy, and giving full vent to her vibrato, Léo Ferré’s Avec Le Temps is a heart-wrenching triumph. Carlisle explained: “You don’t really have to know what’s being sung to know Avec Le Temps is a devastating love song. When I heard it for the first time, it broke my heart.”
Released 29 September 2017
Label Edsel Records
Another intriguing back catalogue outlier, Carlisle’s first album in a decade and last to date is inspired by her practice of Kundalini yoga.
Three years in the making, the LP sets traditional chants within a traditional Western pop framework and works remarkably well. She explained to Classic Pop: “I could never be a traditional devotional music singer, I’m a pop singer, that’s all I know.
“The way the album was going to work for me was to take repetitive mantras and put them into a pop song format where there’s a verse, bridge, chorus and sometimes a middle eight.”
Seven-minute opener Adi Shakti makes a powerful case for the album, while the peaceful Rakhe Rakhan Har ticks along with tambourines and tablas; Humee Hum Brahm Hum is a joyful slice of acoustic folk.
Light Of My Soul sounds like it was taken from a hippy-dippy self-help book but it’s hard to sneer at the authenticity of the sentiment.
Only the tacked-on closer, a remodelling of Heaven Is A Place On Earth as a piano ballad feels out of place here. It sugared the pill for the less adventurous of her fanbase, no doubt.
“The mantras have a lot of power behind them and have the ability to change the atmosphere energetically – that’s been proven,” Belinda expounded. “What I’m hoping – especially in this crazy world – is to bring more people to Kundalini yoga. This record is not for everybody and isn’t meant to be.”