Original publication date: January 11, 1999
Next came the Casablanca years. Cher’s one and only US top-ten hit between 1974 and 1988 was the title track from the first of her three Casablanca albums, Take Me Home. Though the track and the album both proved to be wildly popular, Cher was reportedly less than fond of the finished product (“Not true,” she told us, but more on that later). The final two albums in her Casablanca deal, the uneven pop set Prisoner and an ambitious, self-titled album from a Cher-fronted rock & roll band called Black Rose, were both commercial disasters.
When her next album, the brilliant I Paralyze set (released on Columbia in 1982) also failed to click, Cher told us that she thought her recording career was definitely over. It would be six years before anyone could persuade her to give it another try, and even then she did so reluctantly. Still, deep down, part of her has always been ready to Believe. She was anxious to talk about her new album, so that’s where our conversation began.
We started by asking her what made her decide to do a dance album this time. “You know, I love this album (and) I’m very proud of it but I can’t take any of the credit. It wasn’t my idea at all. Rob Dickens, the head of Warner Brothers-UK, said to me, ‘Cher, I think you should do a dance album’ and at first I resisted it. I said ‘oh...ah…No, I don’t wanna do that.’” Fortunately, Dickens persisted. He persuaded her to at least listen to some of the new songs he’d found, and she agreed. “He sent me these songs…and there were two that I really loved.“ One was ’Dov’è L’amore” and the other was “Strong Enough,” both of which were written by the METRO team. “He then suggested that I come to England to work with these boys, and so I did.”
The ‘boys’ in question here are, as we mentioned before, the METRO team leaders, Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling, who produced most of the album, and songwriter Paul Barry. “It’s hard to explain how METRO works. I mean, it’s like…‘What is METRO?’ Brian runs the office and keeps everybody enthusiastic. Mark is the engineer, and Paul writes the songs. Paul just kept writing songs (and) Mark and I would record them…in the tiniest studio I’ve ever seen!” As the recording sessions continued, the album’s focus began to take shape. “Before I knew it, it had turned into a dance album.”
The first song actually recorded for the album was “Strong Enough,” and it is definitely one of Cher’s personal favorites. “Rob told me that he said to the boys ‘I’m gonna give you a chance to produce Cher. I want you to write a song for Cher…you know, a ‘Cher song’, and ’Strong Enough’ is the song they came up with.” That track, in particular, has the kind of undeniably catchy, retro-disco flavor that Cher herself favors when she goes out to a club. “If I’m going to go dancing, I wanna go on a night when they’re playing ‘70s hits, because that’s my favorite music to dance to.”
As far as the new album is concerned, Cher likes the fact that several tracks seem to capture that same disco-era essence. “It’s not that I think this is a ‘70s album…but there’s a thread, a consistency running through it that I love. It’s more obvious on certain tracks than it is on others, especially ’Strong Enough.’” She told us that Mark had tried approaching the track from several different, more contemporary angles before admitting, begrudgingly, that it worked best when they did it the way Cher suggested, meaning “the way they did it in the old days.” That meant real strings and the dramatic, a capella-into-slam dunk disco punch of classic hits like “I Will Survive.” “That was the only way to get into that song. The boys tried a whole bunch of different ways to do it (but) I told them it wasn’t gonna work.” Cher says that they finally “bit the bullet,” and did it her way. The results, of course, speak for themselves, with “Strong Enough” emerging as the near-universal choice for the next single release in Europe.
Surprisingly, Cher said that a different track would probably be selected as the next American single. “Music seems to be a little different over here…so I couldn’t say for sure what the next single might be. But “Believe” was just the obvious choice for the first single everywhere. It’s the best song on the album.” The evolution of the album’s chart-charging first single, with its infectious, sing-a-long chorus and ear-catching vocal flutter, is a story in itself.
“We had done the song, and we loved the chorus, but the verse was just shit.” Later, while soaking in a bathtub, Cher herself came up with the line ”I’ve had time to think it through, and maybe I’m too good for you,” and suddenly the whole song made sense. Additionally, Cher told us that the track’s unique vocal hooks were inspired by a similar sound effect that she’d heard on an album by Roachford.
She met with some initial resistance, however, when she tried getting the boys to experiment with her own vocal tracks in the same way. Finally, they relented. “Mark got busy (in the studio) and first he added the compression to the first part of the vocal so that it sounds kind of like it’s coming out of an old radio speaker. And then we started screwing around with the pitch machine [for that ‘fluttering’ vocal effect]. We put that on, looked at each other, and said, ‘That’s it!‘” Cher knew instantly that she had nailed it. “From that moment on, it was my favorite song. I said ‘I’m calling the album Believe, and ‘Believe‘ is going to be the first single.‘”
Still, others involved needed some convincing. Rob Dickens, for one, tried his best to dissuade her, arguing that to him it just didn’t sound like a Cher record. “Rob tried to talk me out of using ‘that weird thing’ on my voice, and finally we all had a big meeting.” Cher sat down with everyone involved in the project and said, “Alright, you guys. I understand what you’re saying…I understand that at first, it doesn’t sound like me—but eventually, it does—and if you want to change the mechanical stuff…I want you to know that it will be over my dead body.’ We never talked about it again.”
Suffice it to say the ”mechanical stuff” stayed, and last month the single debuted at #1 on the UK pop chart. “It had been 33 years since the last time that had happened to me [with Sonny & Cher’s ’I Got You Babe’ in 1965]… I was pretty excited. We were at a Blockbuster in Italy when we heard.” Her manager, Billy Sammeth, was waiting in the car when Cher got the call on her cell phone. “I was banging on the door, going ‘We’re #1! We’re #1!’ but he couldn’t hear me.” She continues, saying that he just went ‘yeah-yeah-great’, but still had no idea what she was trying to tell him. “Then he understood, and we were all jumping around. The people around us probably thought we were insane…but eventually they understood what we were talking about. Then everyone was jumping around. It was great.”
With “Strong Enough” already locked up as the next UK single, we asked again what she thought the next American single might be. Cher said that it might be “Dov’è L’amore.” Interestingly, “Dov’è L’amore” is a Spanish song with Italian lyrics, and we asked Cher how that came to be. “When the boys wrote ’Dov’è’, there was an Italian restaurant next door—there weren’t any Spanish restaurants around—and they just kept running to the guy in the restaurant who spoke Italian and said ‘tell me how to say this,’ and ‘how do you say that?,’ and that’s how they wrote it.” She laughs, continuing. “And I love the Gypsy Kings, so we got one of the Gypsy Kings to do the guitar work.”
We then asked if what we’d heard about Madonna’s fondness for the track was true. “When Madonna heard the song, she called Liz [Rosenberg, of Warner Brothers-US], and then Liz called me. She said that Madonna insisted that ’Dov’è’ had to be the next single and that, if it was, she wanted to direct the video.” Other possibilities include “All or Nothing” (“I really love that song”), “Taxi Taxi” (a thumping, Chicago-styled house track produced by Todd Terry), and the set’s lone Junior Vasquez contribution, “The Power” (“It’s kind of a strange song, but I really like it. There’s just something about it…”).
The new album also contains a reworked version of her 1989 hit “We All Sleep Alone,” and we were curious as to why she chose to revisit that particular track. “Because (at first) they were talking about re-doing ‘Bang Bang,” and I was just soooo over ‘Bang Bang’—I mean, I’d just done it and done it (so many times) that I didn’t want to do it again.” Then her hairdresser suggested reworking “We All Sleep Alone” into a dance song and she liked the idea. “I sent it to Todd (Terry), and he said, ‘oh yeah, I’d much rather do that,‘ and so we did it.”
The original version of “We All Sleep Alone” comes from the period in her recording career that Cher says, prior to now, had always been especially significant to her. We asked her about that period, her Geffen label “hit years,“ and specifically 1989 to 1992. “It was my favorite time as a singles artist, because I was getting to do songs that I really loved… songs that really represented me, and they were popular! I loved ‘I Found Someone,’ ‘If I Could Turn Back Time,’ ‘Main Man’… It was really an exciting time for me. I loved working with Jon [Bon Jovi] and Richie [Sambora], and I loved getting back into the music business after so long.”
Although this period produced more consecutive Billboard Top 40 hits than any other in her career, Cher initially resisted going back into the studio. She eventually succumbed, however, to the gentle-but-persistent pressure of producer John Koladner and her long-time friend David Geffen.