It’s hard to imagine Madonna’s life before she became ‘the queen of pop’. As is often the case with mega-stars, it sometimes seems as though she simply emerged from the womb, fully formed, and singing ‘Like A Prayer’ with rouged lips and a sparkle in her eye. But even someone as recognisable as Madonna was once entirely unknown, and it is that period of obscurity which we are going to travel back to today.
Madonna’s pre-fame years in New York may have been short-lived, but they were filled with a whole lot of life. She starred in a student film in which she had a sex scene with a transgender woman, she worked as a live model, as a backing dancer, and even bedded art world prodigy Jean-Michel Basquiat. But amongst all this, she was also discovering her ambitions as a musician and, having been inspired by her idol Debbie Harry, soon became part of New York’s thriving underground post-punk scene.
The legend goes that Madonna Ciccone arrived in New York City in 1978 with $35 in her pocket and survived on a diet of vendor doughnuts and dumpster refuse. At this time, she was working odd jobs and trying to become a professional dancer. But after a brief stint performing with Euro-disco star, Patrick Hernandez, she eventually moved into an abandoned synagogue in Queens, with her new boyfriend, Dan Gilroy.
It was Gilroy who first put a guitar in her hands, and gradually Madonna’s attention drew away from dance and towards music. After teaching herself to play drums and guitar by jamming along to Elvis Costello songs, she began writing her own. She soon formed her first band, The Breakfast Club, named after their habit of rehearsing through the night and then breakfasting at a local Italian restaurant.
After months of honing their live show, the band eventually started performing on the downtown circuit, hitting up clubs like CBGBs. At this time, Madonna was playing the drums, but she quickly grew tired of being tucked away at the back of the stage. “I begged them to let me sing and play guitar”, Madonna would later say. Unfortunately, the band already had a singer in the form of Gilroy, and Madonna’s eagerness to control the microphone eventually destroyed the band.
In response, Madonna recruited an old boyfriend, Steve Bray. Together they formed a group and began rehearsing in a shabby rehearsal space in Manhattan. The band eventually settled on the name The Emmys, which was inspired by Madonna’s nickname.
By late November of 1980, The Emmys had recorded a four-track EP, which included the tracks: ‘(I like) Love For Tender’, ‘No Time For Love’, ‘Bells Ringing’ and ‘Drowning’. Finally, Madonna had the opportunity to satisfy her urge to be a frontwoman and took to the rale with all the punk attitude of Blondie’s Debbie Harry, modelling her style off the new-wave icon’s angular chic.
Although The Emmys would eventually fizzle out, Madonna’s collaboration with Bray would continue even as she morphed beyond her post-punk beginnings. Together, they wrote the songs which would propel Madonna to stardom, including ‘Into The Groove’ and ‘Express Yourself.’
Millions of records sold, her name up in lights and a legend that will never die, Madonna is truly the ‘queen of pop’. And who would have thought it all started in a dilapidated studio space in downtown New York?