Whilst American rockers Heart have countless great songs, none kick as hard as ‘Barracuda’. Released in 1977 on their third album, Little Queen, at that point, the band had already established themselves as one of America’s hottest hard rock bands, but the track allowed them to go one step further, cementing their status in the great global pantheon of music.
Rightly, the song was a hit, complete with a groove that had a universal appeal, an instantly iconic riff, and frontwoman Ann Wilson’s mesmerising vocal performance.
Interestingly, the song is not entirely original. In conversation with Gear Factor in 2019, the band’s guitarist Nancy Wilson revealed that the earworm that is the song’s riff was directly inspired by Scottish hard rock band Nazareth and their cover of Joni Mitchell‘s ‘This Flight Tonight’.
Wilson said: “We’d been opening for a band called Nazareth in Europe and also for Queen, actually. And Nazareth had a hit with a Joni Mitchell song that they covered (in 1973) called ‘This Flight Tonight’ that had kind of that riff.”
She continued: “So we kind of borrowed that. And we made it into ‘Barracuda.’ And then, we saw the guys from Nazareth later, and they were pissed: ‘You took our riff!’. But that’s kind of what everybody – you borrow from what you love, and then you make it your own. It’s one of those sounds, too; it’s one of the guitar tones that I’m still trying to figure out what we did. (Laughs) It’s hard to re-create.”
Whilst musically, the song is fantastic, I’d argue that it is more significant for what it represents; defiance in the face of misogyny, sexism, and an overall disdain for the music industry. I’d also go one step further and posit that this is why Ann Wilson’s passionate vocal performance is so stellar, as she channels her anger into this siren-like chorus, wrapping her fury up in sheer beauty.
The origin story of ‘Barracuda’ needs to be recounted more to students of rock and roll, as it’s a masterclass in positively reacting to adversity. As Ann has discussed over her long career, the song was about the band’s anger towards Mushroom Records, the label the band launched their career with, who released their first album, 1975’s Dreamboat Annie.
Showing the extent of just how coarse the music industry was back then and the state of gender politics, as a publicity stunt, the label released a fictional story about an incestuous affair involving Ann and her sister, Nancy.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t just this instance that inspired the song’s creation. Ann was left furious after a show when a male radio promoter approached her and asked her outright how her “lover” was. At first, Ann was taken aback, thinking that this overly confident creep was talking about her then-boyfriend and Heart’s manager, Michael Fisher.
However, the man then revealed he was talking about Nancy, following the rumour that had circulated been circulated by their label. Incensed, she went back to her hotel room and wrote the initial lyrics of the song, which features cutting lines such as, “You lying so low in the weeds / I bet you gonna ambush me / You’d have me down, down, down, down on my knees / Now wouldn’t you, barracuda?” and the unforgettable, “And if the real thing don’t do the trick / You better make up something quick / You gonna burn, burn, burn, burn, burn to the wick”.
Unbelievably, Mushroom Records’ slight on Heart wasn’t finished there. Per an account by Little Queen producer Mike Flicker, the label were so rigid in their contract negotiations that Heart decided to abandon the album they were creating, their second album, Magazine, and instead sign to the new label, Portrait Records. On Portrait, they opted to make another record instead, which became Little Queen.
As was customary for Mushroom Records, they proceeded to release Magazine in its unfinished form in 1977, before the band eventually finished it in their own image the following year. They wouldn’t get the rights back to their first two albums until Mushroom finally went out of business in the early ’80s when Capitol picked them up and reissued them.
Of the origins of ‘Barracuda’, Flicker said it was “created conceptually out of a lot of this record business bullshit. Barracuda could be anyone from the local promotion man to the president of a record company. That is the barracuda. It was born out of that whole experience.”