For the few million that saw MTV at that time, a star was born. The band's debut EP went gold (250,000 copies for EPS) making it the most successful of the EPs that the labels were trying out at the time.
It was then that all hell broke loose. Pretty soon MTV had grown up, was across the country, and began showing a strange video of the band's lead singer dressed up as if she were about to go onstage to perform in Cats. But we get ahead of ourselves.
Patty Smyth was the lead singer who gained instant fame thanks to MTV. She started out, as all musicians do, not being so well known, in fact being downright obscure. Several bios list her first band as Patty and the Planets. Upon questioning, she barely remembers them. "I told this guy who knew me as his friend's little girlfriend that I could sing. He was like, ohkaaaay, and told me to come on down; they were doing a gig on this boat. And that was it. I don't think that we played more than a couple of shows, and it wasn't until later that we were Patty and the Planets. And then only for, like, 10 shows. It was mostly blues back then. I did my first show on that boat, doing James Brown and all of this R&B." This was about 1980. She decided that she liked singing well enough, but also wanted to travel. So she went to Europe for a while.
When she came back she heard from friends that a guy, Zak Smith, had been trying to track her down all over New York. When she finally did connect with him he asked her to come over and do some singing with him and a band he was putting together. She remembers that her first session did not go as well as she had hoped. "He was mad because I had returned his call, but not left my number. I had no idea who he was, so I didn't want to leave my number. I think that was our relationship from then on." She laughs, "He asked me to come over to his house and listen to the music. But as I came over I saw this chick leaving, a singer. I guess he had her over to audition. So when I went in I said, 'look, I'll be real clear. I'm not singing in your living room. You know I can sing, so if you want me in your band just say so, but I'm not auditioning.' After that he had to have me in his band!"
"We wanted to be an 'up' band. We didn't want to be a new wave band necessarily, just write good songs." But all that changed when they made a video. Unlike today, when record companies have whole departments dedicated to making videos, the medium was so new that it was up to the band to make the video. "We did it with our friends. My boyfriend at the time was the camera operator; Zak's wife did the direction. It was just fun to do it. I was born to do that in some way. I could lip-synch; I never made a mistake. I was like 'Turn that camera on!' We had a lot of fun at first, they got weirder after that."
I asked Patty about that weirdness, the follow-up to the EP, their first proper album, The Warrior. Rarely in music has a band with a winning formula under gone such a dramatic change. Gone was the fun, 'up' new wave pop of the EP and replacing it was a harder, more polished AOR sound. Patty's answer is simple, "The record company got involved. Mike Chapman got involved. I guess that he was going to turn us into the next Blondie. He and Zak did not get along and that's basically when the band began to break up. I'm not saying it was entirely Chapman's fault, but he forced the issue. Anyway, then the art department came in, and everyone else. My attitude was, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. But the record company thought they had something huge on their hands and thought they knew best. It's hard to argue with those people. I thought, they must know what they're doing after all."
And for a while it seemed like the label did know. "The Warrior" was a top-five single and the album started off to good sales. But continued interference from Chapman and the record company quashed any momentum. A second song, "Beat of a Heart," was a radio hit, but Chapman pressured the record company to issue a song he wrote as the second single. As a result the wind went out of the albums sails (so to speak) and it quickly sank from view.
Despite the band's taste of success, Patty says that she did not feel the need to press on and try again. If anything she felt discouraged by the whole experience. And who wouldn't be? "The video looked nothing like me. People couldn't recognize me. Then I got pregnant and after that - it was not received well by anybody. Chapman wanted me to do a second record, but when I pregnant, that was it. Now I think it was good. I have a daughter who is grown up and it helped me as a whole artist to be a mother. Going through all that gave me a sense of what I wanted. The time I felt pressure was after my last record (Patty Smyth) because it was such a hit. [the first single from it, "Sometimes Love Just Ain't Enough" went to #2 in 1992] I went into a total writer's block after that."
Her relationship with Don Henley, who sang with Patty in a duet on "Sometimes," goes back much earlier than 1992. She recalls that it was the "Goodbye to You" video that got her in touch with the former Eagle. She only knew about him because of "Dirty Laundry," which she loved, but when asked by Henley to sing backup on Building the Perfect Beast, she initially told him no. "I wasn't a background singer. I was afraid I'd suck! He came back to me and said that if I would come down to LA he'd put me up in the Beverly Hills Hotel, so I was like, Okay! And as it turned out we were born to sing together. I sang on five songs on that album!" When she wrote "Sometimes" she played it for him and he agreed to sing with her on it. And she says that Henley stuck with her despite several aborted attempts to get the song onto an album. Finally, when the project got off the ground, she went back and asked him to sing it again. "I was like 'one more time!' and he was like 'Okay'!" The result was a pop chart smash, re-establishing Smyth as someone to watch.
Patty has had her biggest successes in the '90s, not only with "Sometimes" but also with a track on the new multi-million-selling Armageddon soundtrack, (As she puts it "Ka-ching!")
But she doesn't shy away from her past. She tells an interesting story about how she relates to the '80s. "My daughter's school has this program where famous parents come in and talk to the school about their career. So I came in and brought an acoustic guitar. I played them some of the more current stuff, including the stuff from Armageddon. I explained to them all about it and I think they got it. But the best response was when I played the Scandal stuff, which they loved. I played them the "Warrior" video. They started laughing, but they loved it. It was strange, but afterwards some of the kids came up to me and said that they were really into music from the '80s. It struck me as odd, but hey - That's when it struck me about the '80s. I had no idea. I realize now it went over as well as it did because there is this '80s revival. But it makes sense to me, I mean it's a little hard to have a '70s revival. Let's face it, except for R&B music got a little bleak in there. But music in the '80s was very up. Maybe decadent too...at least the lifestyle was!"
When pressed about her current tastes she mentions the Brandy and Monica hit ("The Boy Is Mine"), but also still likes the old standbys like Gladys Knight. But, for the record, she doesn't like duets. "They always turn out to be shlocky, with few exceptions. Marvin Gaye and Tammy Sherelle were an exception."
With that it was time to say goodbye to the wonderful Ms. Smyth. She promised an album of new material soon, but until then, the image of her pogoing to the beat will remain in my head.