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Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love” helped define the MTV era

In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album or single that went to No. 1 on the charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love,” which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on May 3, 1986.

Robert Palmer’s iconic video for his biggest single, “Addicted To Love,” celebrates its 30th anniversary this coming January. Paying homage to American art deco legend Patrick Nagel, for the video the singer substituted the seasoned session men who helped him record his breakthrough 1985 LP Riptide and replaced them with quintet of high fashion models.


“I remember feeling an acute sense of embarrassment when I first saw how sexy the video was,” “bassist” Mak Gilchrist said to Q Magazine in 2009. With Palmer out front dressed to the nines in a white shirt and tie, the video created an imagery that has come to define MTV during its ’80s heyday as prominently as any other single of its time. Nobody in the Top 40 carried themselves like Palmer back then: Standing in a crowd among his peers, he looked like Don Draper on the set of The Goldbergs.

“People talk about the way he dressed in the videos, but that was the way he dressed all the time,” renowned studio guitarist Eddie Martinez tells The A.V. Club. Martinez, along with Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor—Palmer’s associate in the short-lived supergroup The Power Station in ’85—gave the song its feral hard-rock edge. “And there was no pretense; he was very comfortable in his own skin. He’d come to the studio dialed in his double-breasted suit and proper tie, and he wore it well. I always respected that.”


However, it was the strength of the song itself that propelled “Addicted To Love” to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 the week of May 3 in 1986. The success of that single and the Riptide album served as a serious turning point in Palmer’s established career, which dated all the way back to his work in the early ’70s English R&B group Vinegar Joe. That effort led to a long relationship with Island Records, yielding such choice solo work as 1974’s Sneaking Sally Through The Alley, 1975’s Pressure Drop, and 1980’s Clues. With Riptide, however, the singer updated his approach, coupling the white-hot mid-’80s R&B climate with the equally in vogue hard-rock scene to create a sound entirely his own. Palmer was helped by Chic bassist Bernard Edwards behind the production desk and a crew of great musicians that included Taylor, Martinez (the man behind the guitar riffs on the Run DMC hits “Rock Box” and “King Of Rock”), drummer Tony Thompson, keyboardists Wally Badarou and Jeff Bova, and bassist Guy Pratt, among others.

“Robert had this plan for a while,” Pratt explains to The A.V. Club. “He wanted to do a rock album, with Jeff Beck originally, using disco technology. No one had really done that yet, and Riptide was a very influential album in terms of the shaping of that ’80s sound. You know, that big guitar and really bright techno stuff, all of which had nothing to do with the vast amounts of cocaine being used by people at the time [Laughs.] Originally when Robert wrote ‘Addicted,’ it was basically a ZZ Top song. It was Bernard who came up with that bass line, which takes the song to a whole other place because it came from the man who created ‘Good Times.’”


“For the ’80s, the song had something very modern to it,” adds Martinez. “When I listen to Riptide now, and particularly that track, there’s something to it that still holds up to this day in a really good way. There are other albums I was on during that time that didn’t hold up as well. But I think the way it was recorded and the way it was performed really still rings true. The whole thing was done digitally, too.”

“Addicted” was originally intended to be a duet with Chaka Khan, but her then-manager refused to sign off on its release in fear of her overexposure, as she was enjoying her own success with her 1984 LP I Feel For You. A demo version of the song with Khan, however, is said to be in existence. Palmer gave her credit for vocal arrangements. Khan posted a picture of her and Palmer performing “Addicted” at Wembley Stadium on her website, shortly before Palmer died of a heart attack in September 2003. She wrote, “I arranged the vocals for his #1 hit ‘Addicted To Love’ but unfortunately, the vocals I recorded didn’t make the final version. I was still pretty stoked to have been involved in this project!”


“I wish I got to hear that demo!” says Martinez. “It was a bad move on her management’s part to keep Chaka out of the mix. Little did they know how huge a hit it would be.”

Another famous R&B diva, however, did make the song her own. Tina Turner began incorporating her cover of “Addicted To Love” into the concert set list during her tours in support of Private Dancer and Break Every Rule. It was released as a single off her 1988 double live album Tina Live In Europe. “Robert thought it was really cool,” Martinez states of Palmer’s reaction to Turner’s version of “Addicted.” “He was like, ‘Man, cha-ching!’ He was incredibly flattered to have her sing the song.”


The song has also been covered by the Sonic Youth side project Ciccone Youth, as well as a still-unreleased version Johnny Cash did for his second album with Rick Rubin, Unchained, in 1996. The Eagles Of Death Metal included their take on the song as a bonus Easter egg in random copies of the 2006 LP Death By Sexy.

At the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards, Van Halen performed the first verse of the song before breaking into “Best Of Both Worlds,” during their pre-recorded contribution to the show. At those VMAs, the excitement surrounding “Addicted To Love” reached a fever pitch, as the song earned Palmer a Moonman for Best Male Video. The singer opened the show with a performance nearly derailed by an overzealous fog machine.


“It was quite a memorable opening,” Martinez explains. “We opened the show and the fog machine just spewed out billows of smoke. We could barely see one another on stage. We were just waiting for the 18-inch Stonehenge set to drop from the ceiling.”

Riptide yielded a few more singles during its time on the charts, “Discipline Of Love” and a slinky cover of the 1984 hit for R&B singer Cherrelle, “I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On.” Meanwhile, Palmer replicated the hard-rock formula and video motif that shot “Addicted” to the top of the charts in 1988 with “Simply Irresistible,” the lead single off Palmer’s underrated ninth solo album Heavy Nova, which peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100. But nothing captured the world’s attention quite like “Addicted To Love,” which scored the crooner his first Grammy win in 1987 for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance. The song also garnered the distinct honor of being parodied by “Weird” Al Yankovic in the fetishistic potato ode “Addicted To Spuds” in 1986.


For Martinez, who would go on to work with Palmer on both Heavy Nova and the 1990 follow-up Don’t Explain, the magic of Riptide and its crown jewel of a number-one hit existed entirely within a perfect balance of genius and generosity on the part of its creator. “I think Riptide was a pivotal album for [Palmer],” Martinez says.

As a guitarist, I took each song as an ad hoc adventure. And it wasn’t exactly a prevailing thought prior to making the record to put these humongous guitars on there. It was just the way it wound up being. And it felt authentic, because that’s what Robert was. He was authentic. Great to work with, great to hang out with; it was always a really collaborative type vibe working with him. Robert was all about collaboration. And trust. I can’t even begin to tell you the trust I felt from him. When you have that, you’ve got it all, man. And all these doors opened up from it. I remember we were on tour and at an airport—in I think Minnesota—when Robert first heard that ‘Addicted’ reached number one. I was so happy for him.


“I was working on Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors album at Power Station when the Billboard report was announced,” remembers Jeff Bova,who played keyboards on Riptide. “We would never talk out it during the recording, as not to jinx anything, but you kind of know when you work on a song like this, that there is something very special about it. You can hope that when all the pieces come together the right way, that a song like this can climb to number one.”

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