I couldn’t stand the Tina Turner cover of ‘The Best’ when I was a small girl. Played over footage of Australian rugby league matches on NZ television, the tune became utterly ubiquitous in the early 90s. My dad adored it, playing it at ear-wincingly loud levels at parties where his deeply embarrassing, deeply old 30-something friends would lurch and shake in a manner that made my skeleton shrink inside my body. That, and the woman that sang it had, to my mind, a ludicrously shaggy hairdo. I did not think Tina Turner was cool. How very foolish I was.
This is the thing with the genuine legends of rock music. The ones whose output straddled decades - Bowie, Prince. Your entry point to their music may be when they’re at what you consider a naff nadir (ahem, David, ‘Dancing in the Street’? Mr Rogers Nelson, the ‘Bat Dance’? The late 80s were a rough time), but soon, with a little luck, the depth and breadth of their talent will reveal itself.
So it was with my appreciation of the artist born as Ana Mae Bullock - an era-defining talent, a woman who modernised the sound of rock music in the early sixties, a survivor of staggeringly awful domestic abuse, who managed to end her long life by all accounts happy and loved, living on her own terms. Tina Turner was cool, man. We don’t get many people that cool. And I'd wager, if you were ever a Tina Turner sceptic, like me, connecting her with that one, mega-monolithic hit, you couldn't dig into her life or back catalogue without concluding the same.
A pioneering voice of rock and roll
Think of the great rock voices - those that belt and wail, with rough edges yet smooth, lung-rattling precision for hitting the high notes. In the 1960s, performing with her then husband (and, I can not stress this enough, truly terrible man, Ike Turner), Tina Turner created that sound. Rather than the smooth, mellifluous voices of rock in the 1950s, Turner - raised in Memphis Tennessee - grafted her southern roots, the big voices of gospel, the wailing howls of the blues, onto rock songs.
She had rasp and grit and was truly pioneering, and, indeed, influential - her style was the antecedent of the magnificent voices of Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, Robert Plant, countless others. A sound that comes from the gut, that reverberates, connects. It's on the precipice of anguish and triumph and it is, crucially, dripping with sex. I do not feel aptly placed to comment on what it was to be a woman of colour creating music in an America still failing to offer basic dignity to its Black citizens, but lord, it must have taken strength.
Smashing down the wall of sound
Listen to 'River Deep, Mountain High,' for example. Co-written and produced by Phil Spector, it could have been yet another impressive example of his layered, technically complex 'wall of sound'. Tina Turner took the mike and smashed that wall down, to stand astride the rubble, triumphant.
Consider, too, in the crafting of that song: Tina Turner was in that room, with Ike Turner, her husband, a violent rapist who very nearly killed her, and Phil Spector, a violent rapist who later killed a woman. This was not a woman who was encouraged or cultivated by men. This was a woman formidable enough to overcome men - in particular her husband's (again, the man was scum) - attempts to control her.
I don't want to dwell on the abuse that Tina Turner suffered - not because it wasn't significant, nor that it didn't form the course of her life and inform her work - but because it makes me cross to give so small a man as Ike Turner any consideration when discussing a towering titan of tunes like Tina. She wrote about it with candour and strength in the 1986 autobiography I, Tina (later adapted into a film, What's Love Got to Do With It, featuring a barn-storming performance by Angela Bassett as Turner).
A global superstar
Suffice it to say she escaped her profoundly abusive husband at the end of the seventies with no money or assets to her name, requesting only one thing in the divorce: the name 'Tina Turner'. She used that name to rebuild her fortunes and become a global superstar, to sell out arenas. She duetted with David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Cher, Jimmy Barnes, Tom Jones, Bruce Springsteen, Beyoncé. She had such force and presence she could make Oprah 'interviewed everybody in the world' Winfrey starstruck. And, per my father, who told me such things whether it was appropriate or not, she had a truly cracking set of pins.
Ask any individual to picture Tina Turner and a different iteration maybe conjured in their mind. For my brothers, it would be her eighties glam rock, chain-metal wearing, deliciously mad turn as Auntie Entity in Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome. For others, the Acid Queen Era, an epithet taken from her full-throated rendition of the song 'Acid Queen' on The Who's gloriously psychedelic seventies rock opera Tommy. I've seen friends posting awe-struck videos of Tina Turner duetting with Cher in besparkled Bob Mackie dresses (rightly so). My good friend sent a WhatsApp message on hearing of her death, noting how we need to get to karaoke to wrap out mouths around 'Goldeneye' - her 1990s Bond Theme, and one of the best entries into that franchise's epic list of main songs - as soon as possible.
The first song that comes to mind, though, for most people, is almost certainly going to be 'The Best'. And do you know what? When I hear that sound now, I don't cringe. My soul doesn't leave my body at the thought of mortifying parents wiggling on the dance floor. I hear power and resilience and precision and a wild, almost miraculous lust for life, a life that would have bought most of us to our knees. I'm so pleased I delved into her back catalogue - if you never have, you should too. We were lucky to have Tina Turner.
Rest in power, you absolute legend.