Poor old Cyndi Lauper. Just when you, a Big Apple ‘goirl’, thought you were gonna be a big star with a kooky new take on pop music both audibly and visually, along comes an upstart with attitude from the Windy City who breezes on to your home turf to blow you into the sidings. That is fundamentally the story of Cyndi Lauper, who could have been Madonna, if not for Madonna. But I doubt that she really cared at the time. After all, Girls Just Want To Have Fun.
I suppose I might have chosen that song as the CSFTD. It was her breakthrough hit, although she didn’t actually write it, and has probably become her signature song. I also gave serious consideration to True Colors of course and even I Drove All Night, in which she demonstrates that she has lungs like a freediver’s, though that was originally written for Roy Orbison. But there is something about Time After Time that is, well, timeless, and at least marginally more deserving of the accolade.
Cynthia Ann Stephanie Lauper was born in the New York Borough of Queens to a Swiss/German father and an Italian mother, who divorced when she was five and her mother’s subsequent remarriage introduced an abusive stepfather into the equation. Like so many of her contemporaries she picked up a guitar – a gift from her older sister – and began writing songs aged about 12 though there is no evidence that I can find that either of her parents or her stepfather had a musical inclination, which makes her unusual.
Her eccentricity began to manifest itself at the same time in the form of experimentation with clothing and hair colours. A school friend suggested she change Cindy to Cyndi. Later she got herself expelled from school and travelled to Canada to ‘find herself,’ living in the woods for a few weeks with her dog. Settling for a while in Vermont she took art classes supported by waitressing and odd jobs before heading back to New York.
There she performed as a vocalist in several different cover bands. This didn’t satisfy her burgeoning ambitions but they were almost lost anyway when she damaged her vocal chords and had to take a year off to recover.
Her first band playing original music was Blue Angel, whose output was heard by the Manager of The Allman Brothers Band, Steve Massarsky. He was particularly taken with Lauper’s voice and its four-octave range. But if you’re thinking that’s where her story starts, well it didn’t. Blue Angel’s debut album bombed and they split up. Not only that; Lauper was sued by Massarsky after the band fired him, forcing her into heavy debt. And Lauper had more problems with her voice, brought about by a cyst on her larynx.
She went back to waitressing and working in shops while singing for her supper in local bars. But word had got round about her voice (when she had it) and she was heard by David Wolf, who became her manager and signed her to Portrait Records, a subsidiary of Epic Records, itself a division of Sony (and the same company – Epic/Sony – that Fiona Apple has had so many run-ins with, see CSFTD #10).
Her first solo album, She’s So Unusual – an apposite title – was released in October 1983, four months after Madonna’s debut album and five weeks after Ms Ciccione’s single ‘Holiday’ (which she didn’t write) was released. Even though Lauper’s album reached #4 in the Billboard charts and she became popular with teenagers on account of her adapted (and highly stylised) punk image, Madonna had stolen a march on her – mainly on account of Cyndi’s voice problems and her desire for Blue Angel to be successful instead of promoting herself– that she never relinquished.
Seven singles were released from She’s So Unusual. Girls Just Want To Have Fun got her onto the Billboard Hot 100 chart for the first time but it was Time After Time, the second single that got her to #1, with similar success worldwide. The next two singles were also successful and Lauper can claim to be the first female singer to have four top-five singles on the Hot 100 from one album. She’s So Unusual was nominated as Album of the Year at the Grammys in 1985. While it did not win, Lauper herself won the award for Best New Artist.
The record company provided Lauper with songs that were written by others to record – she was regarded as a singer rather than a songwriter (more echoes of the sort of meddling that Apple has had to endure) – but Time After Time was at least partly written by her, in collaboration with Rob Hyman, a founding member of The Hooters, who also provided backing vocals. She is partially credited with writing four of the 10 tracks on She’s So Unusual. John Turi, who had been in Blue Angel, co-wrote one song while When You Were Mine is a cover of a Prince song released on his 1980 album Dirty Mind.
Lauper and Hyman reputedly wrote Time After Time later on in the album’s production and well after Girls Just Want To Have Fun. Lauper had seen a reference to a 1979 sci-fi film with that title in a television listings magazine. The (quite highly rated) film concerned the use of a time machine to pursue Jack the Ripper into the 20th century. So, just as the US satirical magazine The Onion always writes its headline first, today’s classic song came from a chance glance at a film title.
Critics generally regard Time After Time as Lauper’s best song in terms of its structure and lyrics and it has been championed by media such as Rolling Stone, MTV and Nerve as one of the best love songs of all time. While it went Gold on sales and was nominated for Song of the Year at the 1985 Grammys it lost out though (like the album) and this time to Tina Turner’s ‘What’s Love Got To Do With it.’
The song features keyboard synths and jangly guitars but what always got my attention, right from the start, is the mesmeric metronomic percussion and the way it literally counts out time like a ticking clock, adding emphasis to a song in a way percussion alone rarely does. It is particularly noticeable in the video for the first time when the vocals and the other instruments halt briefly at 1:55 and 2:03. And it continues throughout the song, reminding us that time never stands still. The video has over 100 million hits to its credit.
Despite being one of the first female artists to embrace MTV many of Lauper’s videos were a tad corny. But you can’t help but be moved by the single tear running down her cheek at the end. Can you?
I haven’t the space to detail Lauper’s career since She’s So Unusual – you’d be reading this well into the night – but briefly she has released 11 studio albums, six compilations, three video albums and 46 singles, selling some 50 million albums, singles and DVDs worldwide. Her next album, Detour, has been recorded in Nashville, is one of country and western covers from the 1940s, 50s and 60s and will be released in May of this year.
But this polymath has immersed herself in many other occupations including actress, and musical score writer (including for the Broadway musical Kinky Boots, which won her another Grammy, in 2014 [Best Musical Theatre Album]). Due to her success and continuing influence in the industry and on other artists Lauper has been inducted into both the Hollywood and Songwriters Hall of Fame and indeed she is one of only twenty artists to achieve ‘GET’ status by winning competitive Grammy, Emmy (television), and Tony (theatre) awards.
But what really seems to drive her now, at the age of 62, is her campaigning on equality issues, mainly on behalf of LGBT associations. Her True Colors Residence in New York City is a 30-bed facility offering temporary shelter and job placement assistance for LGBT homeless youths, whom she claims make up 40% of those living on the streets.
But for all this I bet she still secretly wishes people called her Madge.
©D J Bentley, 2016