Joni Mitchell became a bold, futurist auteur in the 1980sPosted by Mike Schumacher
A number of people believed that Wild Things Run Fast, who turns 40 next month, had betrayed her origins. Looking back, the truth is far more nuanced
During the summer of 1981, travelers to the Caribbean may have seen something unexpected: In the middle of the action at a disco, Joni Mitchell is moving to the mysterious popular song De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da by the Police. She said to Musician in 1983, “I love to dance, and anytime I heard it, boy, I didn’t care if there was no one on the floor.” Because of the rhythmic fluctuations, “I was going to dance to that thing.” The direction of Mitchell’s 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast was influenced by her admiration for the Police’s international rhythmic style. Surprisingly, Mitchell told Musician that the sound was also influenced by the “supersonic sheen” of corporate rock radio kings Journey. “You could believe they are sterile… nonetheless, they have an incredible sound when they play on the radio.
Even though Wild Things Run Fast was one of Mitchell’s most rock-oriented albums to date, it’s fair to say that it wasn’t Escape. While other tracks include fiery riffs, energetic drumming, and witty lyrics, such as “You could charm the diamonds / Off a rattlesnake,” she sings on Ladies’ Man. The title tune sounds like a lost Police A-side. It was one of her least well-liked albums to date.
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As with 1979’s Mingus, the album dabbles with jazz (Moon at the Window), but it also incorporates new wave interpretations of Mitchell’s guitar-driven pop. Wild Things Run Fast is the link between Mitchell’s 70s and 80s (Underneath the Streetlight). When it was first released in October 1982, the album peaked at a respectable No. 32 in the UK and remained just eight weeks there. NME said of it, “There seems nothing of consequence to comment on.” Mitchell’s decade didn’t get much better from a business sense after that: 1985’s Dog Eat Dog only managed to reach No. 57 and left the Top 100 after three weeks. Only somewhat better, Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, from 1988, peaked at No. 26.
Joni Mitchell: Ladies’ Man – video
After dominating the preceding two decades, Mitchell’s influence and presence were significantly reduced in the 1980s. After a protracted 1983 tour, she withdrew from the scene. Even though Peter Gabriel’s acclaimed Sledgehammer video was out before the MTV premiere of the Good Friends video, she wasn’t getting the same type of consistent rotation as her contemporaries. She told Rolling Stone, “I felt like Garbo when they didn’t want her in talkies.
The Los Angeles Times called 1994’s minimalist jazz-pop effort Turbulent Indigo “her best overall album in a good decade and a half,” and it won a Grammy for best pop album. In the decades that followed, this fall from grace made it easier for the press to establish a narrative that Mitchell’s 80s were an aberration or detour. As a consequence, Mitchell’s fans had a totally different perspective of her as they grew up: rather than being a dynamic artist who was pushing the envelope, Mitchell was a performer who was always celebrating an elusive return to form.
Mitchell inhabited a persona that scanned as authentic … performing with John Sebastian, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and David Crosby at the Big Sur folk festival in 1969. Photograph: Robert Altman/Getty Images
This viewpoint was a significant shift from the 1970s, when a prolific and well-known Mitchell was praised for his exceptional work, including the ground-breaking confessional Blue from 1971 and the magnificent Court and Spark from 1974. It’s unreasonable to dismiss all three albums as failures, even while the lack of interest in her 1980s work isn’t unexpected given the “me decade” infatuation with new sounds and new faces over old ones. Mitchell reshaped her aesthetic compass and confirmed her identity as a bold composer with these albums.
Due to difficulties in her personal life, including a protracted legal dispute with her housekeeper, legal action against the state of California over the sales tax owed on her master recordings, a car accident, and a dental accident that she frequently compared to being “butchered,” Mitchell slowed down and kept a lower profile during the 1980s. The Reagan-style conservatism that permeated the US, where the Canadian composer was residing, as well as the grifter mindset it enshrined—the “snakebite evangelists and racketeers / And big wig financiers,” as she phrased it in the album’s title track—also infuriated her more and more.
“I don’t want to get into the ‘poor me’ syndrome,” she told Mojo in 1994, “but the 80s for me were like being a prisoner of war, what with the physical and mental pain and general climate of mistrust.”
Behind the scenes of Dog Eat Dog, which was produced by synthesiser wiz and professed Mitchell lover Thomas Dolby, this rage and claustrophobia would also fester. Due to their divergent working styles—her more freeform (and free-flowing) approach to music creation didn’t mix with his granular and precise recording techniques—he and Mitchell fought in the studio. Dolby ultimately decided to leave the studio and work remotely. Although he acknowledged in his 2016 autobiography The Speed of Sound that he was “probably too much of a brat, with my own blinkered way of working” during the sessions, he was respectful of Mitchell.
Dog Eat Dog’s struggle is apparent in its lyrics, yet the music itself is calm and includes avant-pop and obsidian synth-rock. Mitchell uses synthesisers and the Fairlight CMI to explore with new musical genres and adapt her jazz sensibility to cutting-edge technology. Not all of it functions: Ethiopia criticizes the exploitation based on sympathy that is at the core of charity campaigns, but the song’s inappropriate lyrics (“Flies in your babies’ eyes, Ethiopia”) degrade the people she is trying to protect. Otherwise, Mitchell makes exquisite, shrewd insights that openly and successfully criticize the selfish folks that are ruining civilization. It could be helpful to reframe Dog Eat Dog in comparison to Kate Bush’s 1985 album Hounds of Love, another instance of a female auteur forging a new persona.
Joni Mitchell: (You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care – video
Many of their colleagues followed this route clumsily as they attempted to conform to the era’s standards and shifting aural trends. With varying degrees of success, Mitchell’s earthier songwriting contemporaries from the 1960s and 1970s incorporated dance elements and synthesisers into their works, with results ranging from awkward (disco-infused rock) to transformative (Fleetwood Mac’s nod to new wave, Not That Funny, and the Grateful Dead’s keyboard-sparkled Touch of Grey). While Linda Ronstadt experimented in new wave before opting to embrace her family’s Mexican origins on 1987’s ground-breaking Spanish language Canciones de Mi Padre, Neil Young produced the synth-heavy 1982 masterpiece Trans.
Closest Laurel Canyon friends of Mitchell also followed her example into synthesised music, with varying degrees of success. With 1983’s keyboard-covered War Games, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young made a serious effort to achieve mainstream popularity, but it failed to crack the US Top 40. Don Henley and Glenn Frey, however, adopted slick, corporate pop-rock and went on to become big solo artists.
Conforming to these large, glossy sounds was a necessary price for many seasoned artists who desired 1980s popular fame. Mitchell was obviously interested in aural experimentation, but she still found space to have fun despite her somber subject matter in her lyrics. In 1985, she collaborated with duet idol Michael McDonald on the smoldering pop track Good Friends. Elvis Presley’s rock song (You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care was adapted in 1982 and was a commercial and critical success, almost cracking the US Top 40. It seems as if Mitchell was blowing off steam and relishing the opportunity to play the part of a rebel falling for a square on this joyful cover. It kind of sums up how she felt about so much of this music: she was enjoying keeping things simple and not overthinking it.
Although blockbusters like Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Paul Simon’s Graceland shown that this was feasible, many fans weren’t expecting for well-established musicians to explore new territory. They were meant to approach music in a more mature manner instead.
Mitchell arriving at the Grammy awards in April 2022. Photograph: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
Mitchell avoided studio opposition on her last album of the 1980s, 1988’s Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, by keeping her recording crew small. She co-produced the album with her bassist husband, Larry Klein, but she also added vocals from Willie Nelson, Billy Idol, Don Henley, and Peter Gabriel. With the exception of the psychedelic The Reoccuring Dream, which incorporates cut-and-paste samples of ads Mitchell filmed from TV, it’s typically a more collected album than Dog Eat Dog, dipping into adult current territory with no harsh edges and controlled restraint.
However, Mitchell was fully aware of the rumors and skepticism surrounding her use of synthesizers, particularly on Dog Eat Dog and Chalk Mark. When marketing her debut album of that decade, Night Ride Home, she told Vox in 1991, “It’s almost like they viewed the last two projects and my experimentation with a synthetic orchestra as a loss of my marbles.” But in the view of many people, I’ve always lost my marbles for one reason or another, you know?
Joni Mitchell: The Reoccuring Dream – video
It’s undoubtedly true that Mitchell was regularly questioned about her personal life off the stage (such as her choice of love partners) or criticized for her artistic choices (curveballs such as Mingus). But Mitchell’s 80s albums’ lackluster reception also seems to be a continuation of the hostility she encountered anytime she tried to alter, as with her post-Court and Spark 70s records.
A guitar-playing singer-songwriter who sang sincere folk music, she had a real presence on her early recordings. But eventually Mitchell decided she didn’t want to write a successor to Woodstock; instead, she was more intrigued by exploring novel ways to shape her voice around odd rhythms or figure out how to create expansive, experimental jazz soundscapes. This change seemed like a personal betrayal to many people, not merely a rejection of sincerity. Some of the critiques were well-deserved; for example, there was no justification for her to appear in blackface on the uninteresting double album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter’s cover in 1977. However, it is difficult to concur with Rolling Stone’s criticism of The Hissing of Summer Lawns from 1975, which said that “there are no tunes to speak of.”
Steely Dan, a major influence on Wild Things Run Fast, is another performer from the era who took pleasure in playing with form and function. Mitchell was not the only one. But when the male visionaries of the day chose to throw out the playbook, they were often granted a lot more latitude. “Rock’s gutsiest mainstream performer has dramatically reclaimed his right to make the records he wants to make, and damn the consequences,” Rolling Stone said of Bruce Springsteen’s minimal 1982 album Nebraska. Mitchell was not as fortunate. Not only did records like Mingus turn off her audience, but they also made her seem “pretentious,” which hurt her feelings even more. “In my optimism, I believed that my opportunity for growth might be something that was shared, but that wasn’t the case.”
Mitchell moved farther away from the stereotype that reviewers and fans were evidently eager to associate her with in the 1980s via her research of technology. More than the synthesisers, Mitchell’s lack of sentimentality for her earlier and best-known work may have perplexed viewers. She valued her earlier work by daring to believe that her finest work may be just around the bend rather than by simply reproducing it. She understood there was always another opportunity even if it wasn’t.
Thanks to Annie Zaleski at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.
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