Self-Titled at 34: The Difficult Story Behind Madonna’s First Album

On July 27, 1983, one of the most iconic and cherished albums in music history was released. The album came and made a heavy impact on the music industry with its singles skyrocketing up the charts, it’s music videos dominating MTV, and its globally recognised cover being plastered across record stores around the world. It also just happened to be the first album from one of pop’s most applauded and protected artists: Madonna. Overnight, that single name became a worldwide conversation starter. Fashion revolutions, unmatched hype, unimaginable demand for appearances, and complete media obsession came in the wake of what is considered to be one of the greatest debut albums in music history. However, this success did not come overnight. There was work, blood, sweat, and tears poured into every corner of this record.

In 1982, Madonna Louise Ciccone was in the muck of the city of New York trying to make a career for herself. A Michigan girl lost in the urban jungle, Madonna was doing odd jobs while simultaneously playing the club scene to boost a non-existent reputation. Working with her boyfriend at the time, Steve Bray, in a rock band called The Breakfast Club, Madonna was performing for less than interested crowds. The ambitious young woman found herself increasingly discouraged, thinking that she would never achieve her dreams of being a star. There was a slight glimmer of hope when the group was signed to a small label called Gotham Records, however they were quickly dropped after the label became uninterested in the groups shift to funk music rather than straight rock.

Madonna was losing hope more and more as big breaks continued to elude her. She had written and cut demos for three pop songs that she carried with her at all times in the event she came across someone that could mold them into her breakout. These songs were “Everybody”, “Ain’t No Big Deal”, and “Burning Up”. Madonna discovered a music club called Danceteria and she became a club regular. Madonna saw the club as opportunity which she quickly took.

Though it took a lot of work, Madonna convinced the club DJ Mark Kamins to spin her song “Everybody”. Much to his surprise, the song earned an overwhelmingly positive response from the crowd. In the span of this single song, Kamins made a decision that would eventually change Madonna’s life: he was going to get Madonna a record deal.

Madonna readily agreed to let Kamins produce the single, should he secure her a deal. First, Kamins took Madonna his boss Chris Blackwell who was the owner of Island Records. Much to Kamin’s surprise and Madonna’s dismay, Blackwell refused to sign her as he “didn’t see the potential” in Madonna that Kamins did. However, Kamins had another option in mind. Kamins quickly gathered up a pitch and took Madonna to Sire Records. She was pitched to Michael Rosenblatt and he was luckily very impressed with the young woman. He offered Madonna $5,000 up front in addition to $10,000 in royalties for each song that she wrote. Finally, Madonna had her real chance to make her dreams come true, and she certainly was not going to waste it.

Rosenblatt brought Madonna to the attention of the owner of Sire, Seymour Stein, who also shared in the enthusiasm of Rosenblatt and Kamins. He signed Madonna for two 12” singles directly from his hospital bed to see if she could do what she said (and knew) she could. She quickly took to the studio and expanded the demo of “Everybody” into a 12” version with the help of Kamins. During the sessions for this song, there was tension in the studio after Steve Bray was informed that Kamins would be on production duties rather than him, a move that would send Madonna and Bray’s relationship to the dogs. The song’s finished mix came in at over 5 minutes and it’s reverse side dub exceeding 9 minutes.

The production of the song was paid for by Madonna and Kamins, something that Madonna was happy to do. For the first few sessions, there was difficulty in the production due to Kamins’ highly limited experience in the studio, however Kamins’ friend Arthur Baker quickly taught Kamins how to work in the booth. He also supplied an experienced keyboardist in Fred Zarr who also assisted in the production of the song.

The song’s production was very hurried and there was much arguing between Kamins and Madonna who didn’t understand each other’s work on the song. However, there was no time to argue and the single was issued and released in October of 1982. Madonna could only sit back and watch if the hurried song was going to sink or swim. Much to her delight, the song became a smash hit on the dance music charts and in the clubs. This success was all that was needed for Seymour Stine who offered Madonna a contract for 1 LP in addition to two further singles.

Madonna now had her chance to meet the promises she made to herself when she left Michigan. Madonna knew that if she was going to get the results that were required, she needed new blood in the studio. She made the difficult choice to not have Kamins or Bray work on the album. Instead, she got Reggie Lucas to come in and serve as producer. Madonna and Lucas hit an obstacle rather quickly. There was not enough available material to make a full LP. Madonna only had “Everybody”, “Lucky Star”, “Think of Me”, “I Know It”, and “Ain’t No Big Deal” (which was a song Madonna was quickly losing interest in). With the necessity for new music, Lucas put two brand new songs on the table: “Physical Attraction” and “Borderline”. Now armed with enough music to form a standard length LP, the recording process began.

Immediately, Lucas began straying very far off from the demo sound of the tracks, making them sound almost unrecognisable from their demo counterparts. It was at this stage that Madonna intended Lucky Star to be the title of the record. Its namesake came from a song that was originally for Kamins to play at Danceteria, however Madonna scooped up the song as she felt it, coupled with “Borderline”, were the songs she needed to set the jumping off point for the rest of the record.

Though the two worked well together at first, Madonna and Lucas’s working relationship quickly deteriorated. Lucas was taking complete control of the record, disregarding the many ideas Madonna presented. Not happy with losing control of her own music, Madonna knew that Lucas would not be involved the entire journey to release. However, due to time constraints, she kept quiet and finished the recording sessions for the album with Lucas. Frustrated with what he felt was irrational and over demanding behavior from Madonna, Lucas left the project after recording, leaving Madonna without a producer to finish, mix, and tailoring of the album.

Not to be deterred, Madonna quickly brought in another producer, one who would lead the album to success. John “Jellybean” Benitez was brought in to finish the album. It was during this transition period that a frustrated Steve Bray sold off the song “Ain’t No Big Deal” to another label, meaning it was unusable by Madonna. Though, this wasn’t a critical hit because Madonna hadn’t had very much interest in the song anyway. Now short one song, Benitez looked around and eventually found a song to present to Madonna. Titled “Holiday”, Madonna fell in love with the song and became very excited about including it on her album.

Madonna and Benitez got the song recorded quickly. Now that the album’s recording was well and truly finished, the duo were faced with less than two months to get the album fully ready to meet Sire’s deadline. Benitez worked tirelessly, sometimes going on no sleep, to juice up the album’s commercial promise. Madonna, meanwhile, was also working tirelessly to establish the basis of how she was going to present the record. The album was completed, okayed by Madonna, and presented to Sire just in the nick of time, barely meeting the deadline.

Madonna released “Burning Up” as the second single just a few weeks before the album was completed. The song was successful, meaning Madonna now had two commercially viable singles that got the anticipation for the album to fever pitch. The song was accompanied by Madonna’s first true video (“Everybody” having gotten a small, simple clip) which gained heavy play in dance clubs across the country, and respectable play on MTV.

After what felt like a lifetime, Madonna finally made her dreams come true. Her first record, simply titled Madonna, was released on July 27, 1983. The album received positive critical reception, and it’s singled performed exceptionally well on the charts. Though it took some time for the LP to reach it’s peak position (#8), the album was considered a success by Sire and a personal victory for Madonna. Madonna quickly gained fame from the album and her name was on many people’s lips. With a provocative image and intoxicating charisma, Madonna began a lengthy promotional tour for the album, appearing on television around the world singing the album’s songs. Madonna released three more singles from the album (“Holiday”, “Lucky Star”, and “Borderline”) which gained Madonna her first top 10 smashes.

Madonna was on the fast track to taking over the world, which would come with her second album. 34 years down the road, Madonna is hailed as one of the finest pop records of the 80’s and one of the greatest debut’s in the history of music. The album’s iconic cover, incredible singles, and watertight production have left behind a legacy that few other albums earn. Birthing the career of the woman that would go on to change the face of the industry, this album was a gamble that paid off. Obstacles lined the road to success, but Madonna never stopped and she persevered her way to the finish line. In the words of the woman herself, “I went to New York. I had a dream. I wanted to be a big star, I didn’t know anybody, I wanted to dance, I wanted to sing, I wanted to do all those things, I wanted to make people happy, I wanted to be famous, I wanted everybody to love me. I wanted to be a star, I worked really hard, and my dream came true.” No truer words were ever spoken.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO THE ALBUM THAT STARTED THIS WHOLE ROLLER COASTER RIDE WE ALL KEEP RIDING AGAIN AND AGAIN!