Album of the Week, January 10: Precious Time by Pat Benatar

BenatarPreciousPatricia Andrzejewski was born in Brooklyn 63 years ago today. She developed an early interest in music and theatre, starting voice lessons at the age of eight. Trained as a coloratura, she planned to go to Julliard but changed direction at the last minute, enrolling in a nursing program. She left that to marry her high school sweetheart, gaining the surname Benatar and a career as a bank teller following his military postings. Inspired by a Liza Minnelli concert, she quit banking and became a singing waitress, eventually becoming a regular performer at the Catch A Falling Star club. She developed a solid rock repertoire and recruited a sterling band; after a headlining run at Tramps, she was signed to Chrysalis records. Producer Mike Chapman, who had vowed to take on no new clients, changed his tune after hearing her demo and manned the boards for her debut, In the Heat of the Night. A reasonable success, it was followed by the smash Crimes of Passion. That album featured her first Top 10 hit, Hit Me With Your Best Shot and went to #2, unable to dislodge the Lennon/Ono Double Fantasy juggernaut. Benatar and her band toured heavily to support the album, writing new material on the road. Chrysalis wanted to capitalize on Passion‘s success and rushed them into the studio.

Title Precious Time
Act Pat Benatar
Label Chrysalis Release Date July 6, 1981
Producer Keith Olsen and Neil Giraldo
U.S. Chart  #1 U.K. Chart  #30
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Promises In the Dark [#38]
  2. Fire and Ice [#17]
  3. Just Like Me
  4. Precious Time
  5. It’s A Tuff Life
  6. Take It Any Way You Want It
  7. Evil Genius
  8. Hard to Believe
  9. Helter Skelter

Benatar’s guitarist and future husband, Neil Giraldo, had effectively co-produced the second disc with Keith Olsen. On Precious Time, he received full credit for his efforts, helping ease the tension of the hectic sessions. Benatar and her band were a well-honed unit at this point, and had a solid formula for recording and song selection. As with the previous two albums, this disc included a couple of established covers, a couple of solid tracks from outside writers, and contributions from Benatar, Giraldo, and company.

The opening track is one of Benatar’s finest moments. She wrote the song with Giraldo, but was still nervous enough about her writing that she slid the lyrics under his hotel room door. The collaboration was powerful, however, and the slow build and lyrical structure are perfect. The song makes the most of Benatar’s vocal power, from a whisper to a roar, and the band are flawless behind her. The singer’s third Top 20 hit, Fire and Ice is next. Penned by Benatar and guitarist Scott Sheets with rising star songwriter Tom Kelly, it’s a great pop-rock track, firmly establishing her as a star.

Just Like Me was a #11 hit for Paul Revere and the Raiders in 1966. Benatar and company stay true to the original while giving it their own stamp. It’s a tested formula for her, and pays off as an energetic third track. The title track is a meditative number written by Tom Kelly’s musical partner, Billy Steinberg. It’s well suited to the rushed existence of the band at this point and provides a strong centerpiece for the disc. It’s a Tuff Life is a fluff track, a reggae-tinged Giraldo song that snarks at a poor-little-me celebrity. It’s a fun song that helps leaven the disc but arguably the weakest link.

Things surge back into form with Take It Any Way You Want It, an angry kiss-off song written by Giraldo with power popster Martin Briley. It’s a should-have-been-hit, zipping by in under three minutes, making its point perfectly and moving on. In lesser hands, Evil Genius would be melodramatic trash. Instead, Benatar and Giraldo craft it into a sort of 80’s thriller soundtrack piece. Over half the song is instrumental, showcasing the band and building the eerie tension that makes the song work. It’s smart and unexpected, a harbinger of musical explorations to come.

Drummer Myron Grombacher wrote Hard to Believe with Giraldo, proving his growing strength in all aspects of the Benatar team. It’s a solid pop rocker that would be a standout in lesser company. Benatar picked a risky cover to wrap up the proceedings. She describes the Beatles’ classic Helter Skelter as “something that rocked, sounded dark, and was a lot of fun to scream to.” It fits the dark themes of the album nicely and provides an energetic catharsis. Benatar has always had a great ear for songs to make her own, and this unexpected choice underscores that talent.

Pat Benatar has said that she was disappointed with Precious Time, feeling like it was too rushed. She wishes that the best of this disc and its follow-up Get Nervous had formed the “correct record”. I appreciate an artist who is critical of her own work, and the what-if track listing of the “Nervous Time” hybrid is fun to ponder. I disagree with her assessment, however. The demand to put down the tracks quickly forced the band to be honest and straightforward, eliminating the gloss that sometimes obscured her later work. The result is a powerful, consistent album — incidentally the singer’s only #1 — and a highlight in an impressive career.

FURTHER LISTENING: Benatar, Giraldo, and company knocked out four albums in four years as they established her as one of the best singers in the business. All four are solid, building in confidence and skill. Get Nervous hints at the more pop-oriented material that would dominate her hits after 1982. Her later albums have strong individual tracks but lack the cohesion of the early work; the finest is 1988’s Wide Awake In Dreamland. A mainstay of rock and pop radio in the 1980s, Benatar has an enviable collection of singles and an array of compilations. The best of these is 2005’s Greatest Hits, a 20-track set that includes all the hits and a couple of significant album tracks.

P.S. – Happy Birthday, Pat! Thanks for all the wonderful music.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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