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Fire and ice, sugar and spice, Benatar re-wrote rock's rules

Part Led Zeppelin, part Foreigner and all talent, Pat Benatar arrived just in time to blast disco off the charts and knock rock and roll off of its feet.

By Martin Popoff

For decades, women have been told that they simply cannot have it all — a fulfilling career, a loving marriage, a family — but Pat Benatar sure looks like the exception to the rule.

She didn’t have it easy. She paid her dues on stage, on tour and in the studio. But Benatar managed to break the glass ceiling of rock and roll while building a career, a life and a family with her songwriting partner, guitarist and husband, Neil “Spyder” Giraldo.

Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo

Neil "Spyder" Giraldo and Pat Benatar have been a team since first working on Benatar's debut album, "In The Heat of The Night" in 1979. Their partnership grew into marriage —they have been married for 33 years — and a family. Publicity photo.

The duo teamed up professionally for Benatar’s debut, “In The Heat Of The Night,” way back in 1979. Music was at a crossroads, with Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” Eagles’ “The Long Run” and Led Zeppelin’s “In Through The Out Door” apocryphally saving the record industry from a year forecasted to be a financial bummer. Punk had turned to post-punk in the U.K. and skinny-tie New Wave in the U.S. Disco was getting old, and there’d been very little hard rock of note, given that the careers of KISS, Aerosmith, Ted Nugent and Blue Oyster Cult were all flagging at exactly the same time.

So into this crap zone flew a strange new bit of musical alchemy in the form of five-foot-nothin’ Pat Benatar, a powerhouse vocalist who belted out hard rock and roll like nobody’s business. It wasn’t a whole movement so to speak, but it was an new act with a difference.

“Everyone subliminally is influenced by everything that happens out there,” Benatar begins, trying to make sense of those times. “I think in some way, a lot of what we did in the beginning was influenced by New Wave music. But we were always a rock ’n’ roll band. That was what we did. I should have the answer to this, because people ask it all the time, but it’s really hard to discern when it’s your thing. All I know is that it was edgy and different because of the twist of having a female doing that really hard-rocking stuff; that was unusual, me combined with Spyder’s guitar playing. It was the combination of having these pristine, clean vocals with this raucous, shredding guitar. I mean, I modeled it after Zeppelin. I love Robert Plant, I love Jimmy Page, I love that whole thing together, and I loved Lou Gramm from Foreigner, so I was just trying to find a way that I could be those two guys, morphed together.”

Giraldo has his own take on their trademark sound. “When I start to make a record, I have a focus, an idea of what it should sound like, and a direction — I have an idea, right? I have tools. You know, I play guitar; I play keyboards. I’m a rhythm-based person. I love drums; I play drums as well, so I have an idea where to start. So after I finish that record, I’m kind of done, I’ve already been bored with it, I’m ready to do something different. So what I always did was try to tailor a sound … Now in some ways it was intentional, in some ways it just kind of flowed. And I just tried to make it always a little bit different. I was given, I was blessed with my muse, who, Pat is my muse and vice versa. She inspires me; I inspire her. I do things she doesn’t do; she does things that I don’t do. The combination of us together is just a palette for any kind of beauty you want to paint. I mean, my background is a very hardcore punk, rocking, aggressive style; I come from aggressive playing. I love to play, I used to bite my guitar. I bleed, I just go rip the hell out of it. To me it’s just a tool, and I just kick the hell out of it. Patricia has a beautifully gifted voice that is stunning, that I can basically take and shape, with backgrounds, and also, just when I work with her, to do anything we want. It’s a partnership that we’ve always had. That’s how we make it work.”

Those two adjoining views can be summed up by the duo’s decision to cover both Kate Bush (“Wuthering Heights”) and Sweet (“No You Don’t”), or, even more succinctly, the whacking of the only heavy metal song The Beatles ever did, “Helter Skelter,” on to their No. 1-charting third album, “Precious Time,” issued in 1981.

But it’s smash singles like “Fire And Ice,” “Promises In The Dark,” “Treat Me Right,” “Hell Is For Children” and, of course, “Heartbreaker,” that propelled the band to their string of gold and platinum records, as well as, remarkably, pretty much headline status immediately, with no looking back.

“Disco was really at its peak,” reflects Giraldo, “and ‘Heartbreaker’ ... nobody in America would play ‘Heartbreaker.’ We tried other singles. Nobody would play them. They didn’t do anything. We put two or three singles out and nothing would break. We put ‘Heartbreaker’ out as the last-chance break. This was the last shot of having a hit off that record. It was the Seattle and Portland area that would play it. Everybody else said there was too much guitar on the record; it was too aggressive the way we played. They were the ones who broke it, and other people started picking up. But they would chop the solo at the end, and then you’d listen to the radio and all of a sudden they started keeping it. And so we got the energy from breaking that disco thing. And when we started playing live, they heard it, and it was unstoppable. Then, we go to Europe, and just the whole aggressive approach to things ... you know, where was another band that had a female singer that was rocking and had a band that was really aggressive? I mean, we were in London, and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant had come down. There were all kinds of people, people from Queen, all these people came to see us play because they were intrigued by us. And Jimmy Page, he looked at me and said, you know, ‘I love you.’ And I said, ‘I love your Death Wish record,’ and he said, ‘You’re my best friend’ (laughs).”

Both Benatar and Giraldo recall the band as a fierce proposition when it hit the stage. Not bad, considering that the only other band member was well-regarded drum-whacker Myron Grombacher.

“He was a maniac,” Benatar says. “Those two together were like a wrecking crew. I mean, it was … we would only have three pieces. Sometimes we would have a keyboard player — Charlie Giordano played with us three years — but the truth is, the trio, that was the band. The two of them together. It was insane. I mean, people would go nuts. It was crazy. It’s still like that. People still can’t believe that it’s just a trio up there now, and we’re so old, you know what I mean? ‘Oh, you oughta turn it down.’ I don’t think so! (laughs).”

That kind of unrestrained power made it tough to pair up then-opener Benatar with a headliner on tour.

“We played a couple shows with a couple of people. We did it with Eddie Money, whose mother — a couple shows we opened up for him — says to him, ‘I don’t think, Eddie, you should be closing the show. They should be closing the show,’” Giraldo recalls. “And then a friend of mine from Pittsburgh, who had a little career going — David Warner — did a couple shows with him, and he’d come back backstage and go, ‘You know, do you think you guys could just tone it down a little bit? It’s really hard for me to play after you guys.’ (Laughs.) Yeah, after that, these people were just afraid. We were just too strong.”

So was the act’s meteoric success little more than a manifestation of being in the right place at the right time?

Pat Benatar publicity photo courtesy Chrysalis

Pat Benatar recalls what it was like to be one of the few female artists in the male-dominated world of rock and roll back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Long story short: It wasn't easy. "Chrissie Hynde and I weren't hanging out. We were busy clawing our way up the freaking ladder," Benatar says.

“I attribute it to the world was changing,” Benatar says. “Spyder is a visionary, and he’s really, he’s kind of like way on the west side of the universe. He’s thinking of stuff that’s insane. And my whole job in this relationship is to pull in what he’s thinking of, and make it palatable for human beings, you know what I mean? I always say that I’m really common, which is, maybe people would think that that would be like, well, that’s kind of boring. But the truth is, it’s really a gift, because I am feeling what everybody else is feeling all the time. Which makes me very, very sensitive to … when I’m writing songs, I’m writing songs that other people relate to. I’m thinking of doing things that other people relate to. So when this is happening, because I’m so common, I’m just part of the rest of American women. I was feeling what they were all feeling. I was expressing it musically. That’s what happened, period. That’s what happened.”

But don’t think for a second she takes for granted the trail blazed for her by acts including The Runaways.

“Of course, sure, absolutely! But you know, they got so squashed, you know what I mean? You sit there and go ‘Why, why, why? I love Joan Jett. I’m like, What the hell? Why is this not happening? But when you’re in it, you’re not doing all that thinking. Looking back now, I see. But when that was happening, all I could think of myself was, ‘Why isn’t this working? I don’t get it.’ So all I did was focus on myself more to make it work. I wasn’t thinking about anything else except well, something’s not happening here, and it should be — let me figure this out in my situation. I’m pretty sure that most of us were doing that. I mean, we didn’t all hang together. Chrissie Hynde and I weren’t hanging out. We were busy clawing our way up the freaking ladder. We’d see each other once in a while, and it wasn’t like we were in competition with each other. It’s not like we were hanging out and going, ‘How are you doing this?’ That wasn’t happening. We were just doing it, you know?”

Things got more stressful after the arrival when Benatar and Giraldo added a family into the equation.

“I tell you, having to juggle these things ... you know, it would be different for Spyder. Men, most guys that played in bands had wives that stayed home and took care of their children, or brought their children out on the road. Here, it just so happened that the singer of this band brought the children out, and I had to take care of the children at the same time. It was very difficult. It took a year or so of just trying to figure it out. That was probably the hardest it ever was. And then it was a piece of cake, once I just figured it out. But that first tour was pretty nightmarish. I wasn’t getting any sleep. There was baby sh*t everywhere. ‘What’s the problem? You have to be here for sound check!’ I can’t! But that was it. I loved playing and he loved playing, and it was the original attraction for us and it still is. I mean, I love making records, too, but I love to perform live; that’s my main thing. And him too, and that’s the truth. We love doing it. I will do it as long as it works and it doesn’t look stupid and everybody wants to come see it (laughs).”

Benatar and Giraldo continue to hit the road; they recently wrapped up a tour with fellow ’80s icons Journey and Loverboy.

“It’s always fun to go out. We’ve gone out 17 summers in a row, so it’s crazy, but it’s kind of like what we do in the summer, Spyder and I,” Benatar says. The difference this time around was that it was a child-free tour. (Benatar was proud to relate that her baby had just graduated.) But, that’s basically the only difference between 2012 and 1985.

Pat Benatar publicity photo

Pat Benatar passed up the chance to train in music at Juilliard in order to study health education at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Photo courtesy Webster and Associates.

“It’s pretty much … it’s still blasting (laughs),” Benatar says. “I mean, we do have an acoustic segment that we do, which everybody really loves. They always want more of that. That’s ’cause they’re so freakin’ old now (laughs), but it is what it is. It’s probably evolved so that it���s more musical. When we were young, we were just bashing away. So now it’s more musical, but it’s still pretty bashing. I mean, somebody came the other day and said, ‘Holy sh*t! It’s so loud!’ I said, ‘Well, why did you … If you wanted quiet, go see Josh Groban.’ I don’t know what to say (laughs).”

The couple have been hard at work on other fronts, too. Both are working on books — a novel for Benatar, an autobiography for Spyder — and a pair of studio projects: One is a Christmas record and the other is “a new project that’s totally removed from the things we’ve always done,” Benatar says. “It’s just Spyder and I as a duo, and it’s something else altogether.”

With so many accomplishments behind them — and more to look forward to —what makes Benatar and Giraldo the proudest?

“I’m just proud of the whole collection of work,” Giraldo says. “I’m proud of being able to create a moment of history, when you don’t understand history because you’re in it. We kind of helped recharge rock music at a time when it really felt like it was going nowhere. I mean, radio was monopolized by disco; everybody had to have a disco song. And I’m proud of the fact that we just got out there and ripped it apart. And we did it with as much passion as we had. I mean, I loved it.”

While Benatar is thankful for a great career, the first thing on her list has less to do with rock and roll than real life.

“I’m happy to be married to my husband after 33 years,” Benatar says. “I mean, even if we weren’t doing this for a living, it’s an accomplishment. And we have a great life. We have two beautiful daughters. Our musical career still includes playing. I mean, I never would’ve guessed that would’ve happened. I would’ve thought we would have retired. We’re still very much each other’s muse. We go in there, and I only want to play with him, and he wants to play with me, so we write, and we still do things together. You know, I have four Grammys. I’m proud of that. There’s a lot of things to be proud of. I’m proud to have been part of the women’s movement, and the first wave of all the female rockers that came out together and changed everything for all the females that work today — that’s a huge, huge thing for me, to have been part of that. I’m very happy to have been in the trenches, and seen where it’s gone. Being with my other compatriots; we get to ruminate on all of that, and it’s pretty cool. It was a tough road, but it was really fun, and it was exciting every day. It was hard, but I’m happy that I got to do that.”