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The Story Behind The Song: How sexism birthed Heart's 'Barracuda'

Heart were on an upward trajectory as they began writing their true second album, Little Queen. The band that had existed in one form or another since 1967, under the names Hocus Pocus and White Heart, now had a solidified lineup centred around Led Zeppelin-loving sisters Anne and Nancy Wilson and signed to Mushroom Records. Their first album, Dreamboat Annie, had produced two major hits in ‘Crazy On You’ and ‘Magic Man’, and the album had reached number seven on the Billboard 200, eventually going platinum in the United States.

Mushroom Records took a brazen direction when promoting the band: they took the album cover from Dreamboat Annie and superimposed the message “It was only our first time!” The implied incestuous affair was a complete affront to the Wilson sisters, who were trying to renegotiate their royalty rates, and the band demanded to be let out of their contract. Mushroom refused, releasing their in-progress album Magazine without the band’s permission. Heart responded by quickly recording another album, Little Queen, and releasing it on Portrait Records less than a month after Magazine.

The Mushroom ad proved traumatic for the Wilson sisters, especially as reporters and music industry professionals continued to bring it up around them. A radio promotor’s comment after a concert in Detroit prompted a furious response from Ann Wilson. “It was during the ‘after the show meet and greet’,” Wilson explained on Heart’s episode of Behind the Music, “and one of these record company geeks, wearing a little Heart red satin ’70s rock and roll jacket, comes up and says to me, ‘So Annie, how’s it going babe? How’s your lover?'”

Initially, Wilson believed he was referring to Mike Fisher, the band’s manager and brother to guitarist Roger Fisher, with whom Wilson was in a relationship. But the promotor demurred, saying,”‘No, no, no, not Michael. Your sister! You and your sister.’ And that made me so mad.”

The entire episode finds the Wilson sisters in constant battle with the sexism of the music industry. As the band entered the ’80s, music video directors began focusing on Nancy’s slimmer physique, often hiding Ann in shadows. Reviews of otherwise stellar concerts would concentrate instead on Ann’s weight and the sister’s heavily made-up appearance. The reality was that Heart couldn’t win playing into industry expectations or rebelling against them, which ultimately gives ‘Barracuda’ all the more resonance. 

As a response to the ignorant remark, Ann Wilson retreated to her hotel room and channelled her fury into her lyrics. As producer Mike Flicker recalled in a 1999 interview with Mix Magazine, “‘Barracuda’ 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.”

“That kind of stuff now seems small,” Ann would later tell Dan Rather. “But at the time, when you’re just starting out and there’s no precedent for respect of women in rock, it was hurtful.” Later in the same interview, Ann recalls a comment she received from her mother when she first said she wanted to be a musician. “Suddenly my mother’s face came right up saying, ‘Don’t get into show business. It’s so tacky. It’s so full of sleazy people that are gonna misunderstand you.’ And I went, ‘Ugh, you’re so right’… If I would have had a gun, I would have reacted differently to the guy. Thank goodness I didn’t.”

For her part, Nancy understood the rage that was emanating from Ann’s words and sought to match them with an appropriately aggressive guitar part. The inspiration was rooted in another strong woman in the music industry, though one who isn’t necessarily synonymous with “righteous anger”: Joni Mitchell

“We’ve been opening for a band called Nazareth in Europe and also for Queen,” Wilson told Loudwire in 2019. “Nazareth had a hit with a Joni Mitchell song that they covered called ‘This Flight Tonight’ that had kind of that riff. So we kind of borrowed that. And we made it into ‘Barracuda.’ And we saw the guys from Nazareth later and they were pissed. ‘You took our riff!'”

“But that’s kind of what everybody,” Wilson reasoned. “You borrow from what you love and then you make your own. It’s one of those sounds too, it’s one of those guitar tones that I’m still trying to figure out what we did. It’s hard to re-create.” The tone, as opposed to Wilson’s previous reliance on the acoustic guitar, was plugged in, electric, and aggressive, as played by Howard Leese on the recording. 

Heart would continue to battle the rampant sexism of the music industry throughout their entire career, so perhaps it’s appropriate that their most pointed strike against it wound up being their signature song. ‘Barracuda’ just missed out on the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, but it would be the band’s calling card both in the years leading up to their chart-topping MTV dominance and as they were trying to reestablish their hard rock edge after the ’80s. Today it remains one of Heart’s best-known songs, and it stands as a testament to the power of pushing back against ignorant sleaze and misogyny.