Pat Benatar is giving it her best shot

By Scott Kara

Pat Benatar has survived by being the hard woman of the music industry, Scott Kara discovers

Pat Benatar says her husband, Neil Giraldo, is responsible for 'getting all those high notes out of me'. Photo / Supplied
Pat Benatar says her husband, Neil Giraldo, is responsible for 'getting all those high notes out of me'. Photo / Supplied

Dressed in black, with a shock of big hair, and revealing the occasional pouty sneer, Pat Benatar looked smoking hot and pretty damn tough back in the late 70s and early 80s.

And she needed to, because the male-dominated music world was not a welcoming place for a stroppy 20-something with aspirations of being a rock star.

"Every day was tumultuous, but it was fun and I was up to it. It was like sport," she laughs. "I used to call it the gauntlet, because you used to wake up every day and think, 'What else could they [the industry] possibly throw at us today?' It was a time when females were really fighting for position and a lot of men didn't know how they were supposed to behave."

She recalls going to radio stations where sleazy programme directors would be after a bit of slap and tickle from her as a pay-off for playlisting her songs. "He would pat his lap and say, 'Why don't you come and sit down over here and we'll see if we can get that record played'. I was like, 'F*** you.

I don't think so, pal'. I wanted it to be played because it deserved to be played, not because I was going to sit on someone's lap."

And her songs, such as 1979's Heartbreaker, off debut album In the Heat of the Night, and Hit Me With Your Best Shot - still her two most famous songs - did get played without her having to do any dodgy favours.

From 1980 to 1983 she won four consecutive Grammy Awards for Best Female Rock Performance, thanks to songs like Love Is A Battlefield and Fire and Ice from second album Crimes of Passion, and she was repeatedly nominated through the decade for tracks such as Sex As a Weapon and Invincible.

"I had an idea in my head and I wasn't going to quit. I was militant and warrior-like and there was really nothing they could throw at me that could keep me from doing it. And in 1980 the women's movement was in full bloom and everyone was going crazy. I was just basically part of that movement that was happening then.

"It was a great time, knocking down all the barriers, and I'm happy I got to be part of it," she says on the phone from her home in "sunny California", ahead of her first tour to New Zealand next month.

"We had little kids for a long time. It's a long trip down there [to New Zealand] and we took them touring every time we went, but they're all grown up now," she laughs, by way of an excuse about never making it here during her 40-year career.

Though the 80s was Benatar's heyday, with 1985's Seven the Hard Way her last big-selling album, she has continued to tour and release albums. But how does the 60-year-old relate to some of her early hits these days? Because clearly love is no longer a battlefield - she married her guitarist husband Neil Giraldo in 1982. She calls him by his nickname, Spyder, and he's the man behind most of her songs most famous riffs, including Hit Me With Your Best Shot. The pair will celebrate their 31st wedding anniversary in New Zealand.

"Songs like Heartbreaker, Promises In the Dark, Battlefield are still relevant to me ... because just because we're married doesn't mean there aren't confrontations," she jokes.

"Some of the lyrics of Hit Me With Your Best Shot are a little juvenile now, but if I do it tongue-in-cheek then it's not a problem. And people still love it so much that I find a way to do it every night. Remarkably, Heartbreaker, which was the very first song we [Benatar and Giraldo] recorded, is as relevant today as it ever was - I love singing it.

"When we [ she and Giraldo] played Heartbreaker for the first time, that's when the lights went on. It was exactly what I was going for. And it was the song that was the catalyst for everything. I sing it every night and when it first starts it makes me smile every time, because I remember 1979 and how important it was back then."

Benatar and Giraldo met following a conversation she had with In the Heat of the Night producer Mike Chapman (Blondie) about not wanting to be like a rock chick, "where it's all about me".

"I wanted it to be more like a band, like a partnership. I wanted someone who was going to be as equally involved as I was in the music. Mike said, 'I have this kid. He's 22 years old. He'd be perfect. I had no idea he would be so handsome. And so he walked in and first and foremost I thought, 'Oh, you're so hired'. But he was also exactly musically what I was looking for - and we became each other's muse from the first moment we met each other."

She says Giraldo was the one who pushed her to sing higher (check out the range of songs such as Invincible and Hit Me With Your Best Shot) and more powerfully.

"I wanted to get the balance of really raucous and blasting guitars underneath really pristine singing. But I'm kind of lazy, because it's easy for me to do well, but for me to be great, I needed to be pushed and he was great in that he knew I had far more in me and really pushed me like crazy, and I would do anything for him. So he's responsible for getting all of those high notes out of me."

Who: Pat Benatar (and guitarist and husband Neil Giraldo), with Bachman Turner and America

Where and when: Taupo Amphitheatre, Feb 16; Matakana Country Estate, Feb 17. For full tour dates see ticketek.co.nz. Shows start 1pm.

Essential listening: In the Heat of the Night (1979); Crimes of Passion (1980); Precious Time (1981); Get Nervous (1982); Seven the Hard Way (1985)

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