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When America got hooked on Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted to Love’

The first thing you think of is the video. That’s okay: everybody thinks of the video first. “Addicted to Love” has been viewed, referenced and imitated so many times that it’s familiar even to people who never had MTV — who weren’t even alive the last time the network played music videos. It represents Reagan-era decadence, music industry excess, rampant misogyny or the glory of rock and roll (depending on who’s watching), and to this day, it epitomizes what a lot of people think the Eighties was about: sharp-dressed men in Italian suits and high-fashion models with glossy lipstick, everyone’s face a mask of exquisite boredom. Stripped of those signature visuals, “Addicted to Love” still can seem like a collection of Eighties stereotypes: the glossy synths; the wanky guitar solo; the monolithic beat, like a dinosaur swaggering down the street. But keep listening, and those stereotypes fall away. You realize that “Addicted to Love” is a brilliant blend of styles: classic soul vocals, heavy metal guitar pop and, holding it all together, a bedrock of funk.

That makes sense when you consider who wrote the song. In the video, Robert Palmer may come off as a sort of Wall Street uber-douche — Gordon Gekko with a mic stand — but he was the real thing: a seasoned songwriter and veteran performer whose discography maps his three-decades-long musical exploration. Over the course of his career, Palmer recorded New Orleans funk, reggae, heavy metal, Township jive, New Wave, blues, selections from the Great American songbook, and even hardcore thrash (go to YouTube and check out the 1986 live performance where Palmer blends a cover of ZZ Top’s “Planet of Women” with Hüsker Dü’s “New Day Rising”). Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, in his 2020 memoir The Islander, recalled the first time he met Palmer, who even then dressed like he shopped on Savile Row: “Already dazzled by his looks and the fact that his clothes had no creases in them, I would also be endlessly dazzled by his knowledge of music, which seemed to take in everything from obscure jazz to the most cutting edge soul and funk… as a listener, he was virtuosic.” In other words, Palmer may have liked nice suits and fine scotch, but what he loved was music. 

CIRCA 1970: Photo of Robert Palmer Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The son of a British intelligence officer, Palmer was born in 1949 and grew up on the island of Malta. His childhood was reportedly television and movie-free, but he heard plenty of pop and jazz on Armed Forces Radio — Nat “King” Cole, Lena Horne and Billie Holiday — as well as African music on the local stations transmitting from Libya, Algeria and Egypt. After moving back to England, he immersed himself in Black American music: he’d later say the 1965 Stax/Volt LP The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads influenced his singing style more than any other album he owned. Palmer sang with bands like the Alan Bown Set and Dada, a jazz-rock 12-piece. His short stint with Dada introduced Palmer to singer Elkie Brooks and her husband, guitarist Peter Gage. The three of them founded Vinegar Joe, a blues and soul band that put out three strong albums on Island Records between 1971 and 1974 before disbanding.

Palmer signed a solo contract with Island (sweetened, according to Blackwell, by the gift of a house in the Bahamas) and started work on his 1974 solo debut Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley. The list of musicians who contributed to that first album is extraordinary, especially for a singer who was practically unknown — a who’s-who of contemporary funk and soul put together by the session’s producer, famed Muscle Shoals alum Steve Smith. Half the album was recorded at Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn’s Sea-Saint Studios in New Orleans with Big Easy funk pioneers the Meters and Little Feat leader Lowell George, and half was recorded at New York’s Media Sound Studios with the group of studio musicians collectively known as Stuff: Bernard Purdie and Cornell Dupree (who had both worked with Aretha Franklin, among many others), Richard Tee and Gordon Edwards. Palmer’s fellow British soul boy Steve Winwood, who’d recently split from Traffic, even showed up to play Fender Rhodes on the album’s 12-minute long closing track “Through It All There’s You.” 

American drummer Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie during a recording session with soul singer Carla Thomas in New York City, USA, 18th July 1968. (Photo by Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley was an artistic breakthrough, but it didn’t bring Palmer much commercial success. The record peaked at number 107 on the Billboard charts, and the follow-up, Pressure Drop, fared no better. Palmer wouldn’t have any hits until the end of the 1970s, when the calypso-flavored “Every Kind of People” (from the album Double Fun) and 1979’s cover of Moon Martin’s “A Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor)” both reached the bottom half of the Top 20.  

Palmer’s first taste of Top 10 chart success wouldn’t come for another five years. He had already started working on Riptide, the album that spawned “Addicted to Love,” when in late 1984 he was invited to contribute vocals to the Power Station, the new side project from Duran Duran’s Andy and John Taylor. The two Taylors had teamed up with former Chic drummer Tony Thompson, and were eager to break from the synthesizer pop they’d been making with Duran Duran. Originally, the Power Station album (produced by ex-Chic bassist Bernard Edwards) was going to feature different singers for each track. John Taylor had hung out with Palmer (“We’d get drunk together,” Taylor told Goldmine later), and brought him in to provide vocals for “Some Communication.” When Palmer heard they were working on a version of T. Rex’s “Get It On (Bang a Gong),” he asked to take a shot at that as well. Everyone was so pleased with the results they asked Palmer to sing all the songs on the album. 

(L-R) John Taylor and Andy Taylor in concert at The Spectrum 03/10/1984 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Photo by Bill McCay/Getty Images)

The Power Station did well when released in March 1985. Two of the tracks, “Some Like It Hot” and the cover of “Get It On,” reached the Top Ten in the U.S. But Palmer was already restless. He was skeptical of the Taylors’ plan to tour — the band only had eight songs at that point — and was eager to get back to work on Riptide. “They called me on the phone and said ‘Hey, we’re going on the road,’” he remembered on NBC’s Later with Bob Costas in 1989. “Generally, they picked up on my lack of enthusiasm for the idea, and never asked me again.” (Palmer’s place was taken by singer Michael Des Barnes, with mixed results.)

Released in November 1985, Riptide was not an immediate success. The first two singles went nowhere. But then “Addicted to Love,” released at the beginning of 1986, gained some traction, and took off once MTV put the video in heavy rotation. Palmer was always irked that his brief stint in the Power Station threatened to overshadow “Addicted to Love” as it began its rise up the charts: because the Power Station tracks came out first, people assumed that he was copying his bandmates’ distinct hard-rock/funk style. As far as Palmer was concerned, he gave the Power Station his sound, not the other way around. Given how the two projects overlapped –– Tony Thompson, Bernard Edwards and Andy Taylor all play on “Addicted to Love,” after all — the truth is probably somewhere in between. “It’s a chicken-and-the-egg situation,” Palmer told Rolling Stone

British singer-songwriter and musician Robert Palmer (1949-2003) with unspecified band members performing on US talk show ‘Nightlife’ in New York City, New York, September 1986. (Photo by Vinnie Zuffante/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

“Addicted to Love” starts with drums: big Eighties drums. Thompson was capable of intricate grooves, but here he keeps it to a basic, lumbering 1-2 beat. The only ornamentation he allows himself is a quick high-hat accent on the three. Then Wally Badarou comes in on keyboards, playing the kind of soul vamps that once would have been handled by a horn section (as indeed they would be in subsequent Palmer live performances). Edwards follows on bass with a slinky funk riff: not much slapping or popping, none of the intricate note runs he used on Chic hits like “Le Freak” or “Good Times.” It’s a measure of Edwards and Thompson’s funk pedigree that the “Addicted to Love” groove immediately hooks you, despite the relatively simple patterns involved. 

Eddie Martinez enters next with a hard rock rhythm guitar that mirrors the bass riff. This pairing of rock guitar with a funky rhythm section anticipates later musical cross-pollinations — Nirvana’s Nevermind, for instance, where Dave Grohl played disco patterns under Kurt Cobain’s punk-metal songs.(“If you listen to the Nirvana record,” Grohl told Pharrell Williams in 2021, “I pulled so much from the Gap Band, Cameo and Tony Thompson on every one of those songs.”) Finally, Palmer steps up with an absolutely ferocious vocal performance: isolate the vocal tracks here in KORD and you can hear the soul man behind the tailored suits and jetsetter image. He grunts, gets guttural, smacks his lips. It’s not Screaming Jay Hawkins-level cutting loose, but it’s halfway down that road. Palmer’s voice is commanding, enhanced by the double tracking of the backup parts, which give his performance an authority that’s almost superhuman. The vocals are at their smoothest when Benny Diggs and Fonzi Thornton join Palmer on backing vocals after the second verse. 

NEW YORK – MARCH 3: American guitarist and session musician Eddie Martinez poses for a portrait on March 3, 1989 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images)

But who is Palmer singing to? The “Addicted to Love” lyrics suggest introspection. When Florence + the Machine covered the song 23 years later, Florence Welsh sang it in a contemplative tone: a woman lamenting her compulsive need for sexual validation. But Palmer’s delivery is too lustful to be singing to himself. Then there’s the line that ends the second verse: “Another kiss and you’ll be mine,” which reframes things. He’s not singing to himself; he’s trying to get a woman into bed. There’s an edge of nastiness to that, a hint of the old “C’mon, you know you want it” strategy. But there’s also a confidence that’s hard to resist. Plus: that groove.

Any ambiguity is further amplified and complicated by the “Addicted to Love” video. The most popular videos on MTV circa 1986 fell into two general categories: performance-based clips, or attempts at emulating cinema. Sometimes a video tried for both, with scenes of the band miming the song interspersed with brief glimpses of a story (slow-motion shots of a woman running, for instance, while the singer gazes wistfully into the distance). Bigger productions, such as Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” or Tom Petty’s “You Got Lucky,” referenced popular sci-fi fantasy films, while Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” effectively recreated the entire horror genre in miniature.

Still frame from the music video of ‘Addicted to Love’

In comparison, “Addicted to Love” is small scale. It’s a type of performance video, but with almost no attempt at realism. It doesn’t look like a scene from a movie, either. What “Addicted to Love” resembles most — as Palmer later told Bob Costas — was a spread in a high-end fashion magazine.

The “Addicted to Love” video was directed by Terence Donovan, originally a young turk of Sixties fashion photography who helped launch the careers of Swinging London stars like Julie Christie and Twiggy, and spent nearly three decades photographing actors, musicians and other celebrities. Donovan was still a force in the fashion industry, and regularly photographed supermodels for magazine shoots and ad campaigns before bringing his high-fashion sensibility to music videos — a sensibility that would play an increasingly important role in music promotion as supermodels like Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista became celebrities, and the look they embodied infiltrated American middlebrow culture. (In 1990, George Michael would have a massive hit with his video for “Freedom! 90,” which starred top supermodels — Evangelista, Turlington and Crawford among them — who by that point were as famous as Michael himself.) By comparison, the women in the “Addicted to Love” video — the “band” backing Palmer — were anonymous, though they were all working models. Their little black dresses and Kabuki makeup wouldn’t have seemed unusual in the fashion world, but they were roundly mocked for failing to convincingly mime their instruments (which seems to be missing the point entirely) and pitied for being put in such a humiliating role. 

NEW YORK, NEW YORK–AUGUST 02: Musician Robert Palmer performs at Radio City Music Hall on August 2, 1988 in New York City. (Photo by Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Given his fondness for elegant suits and fine living, plenty of viewers assumed the “Addicted to Love” video’s aesthetic was Palmer’s, an expression of the type of women he found sexy. But he saw it as a joke, an ironic take to undercut the macho tone of the track. As Palmer told MTV at the time, he knew “it should be a performance, but the idea of a bunch of guys singing ‘addicted to love’ was a bit too butch for me. [When Donovan] suggested we use mannequins, with no expression, I thought it added the right amount of farce to it.” Others took it at face value, and either accused Palmer of chauvinism or embraced the look themselves: in the years that followed, some female fans showed up at Palmer’s concerts wearing their own glossy make-up and little black dresses. 

Palmer found it all embarrassing. “People think the video was my idea,” he told The Mail on Sunday in 2000. “[They think I want] to portray myself as a James Bond of boogie. That surprises me because I don’t think about my image at all… I’ve always left making videos to someone else. I delegate if I don’t know enough about something.” Embarrassment didn’t stop him from repeating and elaborating on the “Addicted to Love” formula, however, first with the single “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” and then, a year later, with “Simply Irresistible,” the first single from his follow up to Riptide, Heavy Nova. “Simply Irresistible” was almost as big a hit as “Addicted to Love,” especially once MTV started pushing it with yet a third “mannequin” video: this time, the models were just headless torsos undulating in the background.

Still frame from the music video of ‘Simply Irresistible’

One of the other ironies of “Addicted to Love” is that a song so associated with male chauvinism was originally written to be a duet with a woman. Palmer had Chaka Khan in mind when he wrote the song, and the two recorded a demo. But Khan’s management killed it, worried it would interfere with the chart performance of the three singles she had already released in 1985. Palmer kept her vocal arrangements — and insisted she be given credit for them — but re-recorded her parts. 

“Addicted to Love” reached number one on May 3, 1986, knocking Prince’s “Kiss” out of the top spot. The single earned Palmer a Grammy in 1987 for Best Male Vocal. But after “Simply Irresistible,” his momentum stalled. If Palmer was disappointed by this, he didn’t show it. He had better things to do than frantically chase pop music success. He moved to Switzerland, put out five more albums at a leisurely pace, embracing reggae (a version of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” recorded with British pop-reggae group UB40), soul (a medley of Marvin Gaye’s hits “Mercy Mercy Me” and “I Want You”), vocal jazz, blues and even New Wave (a cover of Devo’s “Girl U Want”). Palmer’s sudden death of a heart attack in 2003, at the unripe young age of 54, was a shock, but also seemed consistent with his public persona: he died in a luxurious Paris hotel on the Champs-Elysees, an elegant sophisticate who lived the good life right up to the end. 

“I don’t have any fear of success, and I don’t have any fear of failure,” Palmer told rock journalist Jim Sullivan in 1986. “There are no rules to making music. Once you figure there are rules, then that’s the end of it. It’s no fun anymore.”

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – MAY 15: Robert Palmer performs at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 15, 1986. (Photo by Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Addicted to Love (KORD-0050)

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