“I’m on a journey for the inspiration…”
In the October 5, 1985 issue of music trade magazine Billboard, Nelson George seemed to sense some trouble for the latest single release by Diana Ross, writing, “It will be fascinating to see the reaction to Diana Ross’ ‘Eaten Alive,’ which features the songwriting and production talents of the Bee Gees and Michael Jackson…The record will get airplay — but, despite the reputations of all involved, will it sell through?” Just a week earlier, writer Brian Chin in his “Dance Trax” column also gave the song a less-than-effusive notice: “Diana Ross allows Michael Jackson to take her to a positively weird outer limit of theme and production…even more rockish and nerve-wracking than last year’s ‘Swept Away'” (September 28, 1985). “Nerve-wracking” may have described the way Diana Ross felt reading notices like these, considering she was coming off one of her most successful albums of the decade and had just enjoyed a #1 single (“Missing You”) earlier that year. Teaming with writer-producer Barry Gibb for an album and featuring Michael Jackson on the lead single were moves clearly aimed at producing a smash hit; so, what was going wrong?
Barry Gibb had been on a major hot streak for quite some time, both as a performer and as a producer; after scoring major hits with his brothers as the Bee Gees, Gibb wrote and produced (with Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson) Barbra Streisand’s hugely successful Guilty album in 1980 (that album held Diana’s diana from the #1 spot on the Billboard 200), followed by hit albums for Dionne Warwick (1982’s Heartbreaker) and Kenny Rogers (1983’s Eyes That See In The Dark). Reportedly, the idea of teaming Gibb and Diana Ross had been floated around for quite some time; finally, following the release of Diana’s largely self-produced Swept Away album in late 1984, a deal was struck and Gibb-Galuten-Richardson began cutting demos for Miss Ross. According to the exhaustively researched Gibb Songs by Joseph Brennan, “The first four songs for Eaten Alive have copyright registrations dated January 28 , with creation noted as 1984. They were ‘Love on the Line’, ‘Oh, Teacher’, ‘I’m Watching You’, and ‘Don’t Give Up on Each Other.'” The additional six songs were registered for copyright in March, although title track “Eaten Alive” was later partially re-worked by Michael Jackson, who heard the song in the studio and suggested some additions.
Although the album was slated for an August 20 release, it ended up being delayed a month; reaction to the album’s first single and title track, co-produced by Gibb-Galuten-Richardson and Jackson, ranged from indifference to bewilderment upon its release in September of 1985. Davitt Sigerson in Rolling Stone called Jackson’s input “unhelpful help” and dubbed the song “certainly his worst effort since ‘Muscles'” (mind you, the magazine had praised that song in its review of Diana’s 1982 LP Silk Electric), while Billboard called it “high-tech, high-pressure paranoia for the modern age” (September 14, 1985). Although the song took off at R&B radio and in dance clubs thanks to a 12″ mix, “Eaten Alive” was completely ignored at pop radio, which sank the album and sapped interest in the project. Second single “Chain Reaction” would suffer an even worse fate in the United States, barely making the R&B charts and only hitting #66 on the Billboard Hot 100 when re-released with a new mix. Overseas, however, “Chain Reaction” lived out its own lyrics, exploding in popularity throughout several countries including the United Kingdom, where it became Diana’s second #1 hit and her most successful release ever.
So, back to that earlier question — what was going wrong? There are those fans who contend this is Diana’s best RCA album, and they blame a lack of proper single choice, promotion, and negative publicity surrounding Ross for the album’s lackluster performance in her home country. Those factors are all probably true, but another clear problem is that Diana Ross doesn’t sound like Diana Ross on Eaten Alive. At all. The culprit is the singer’s incredible talent for mimicry; just listen to her discography and watch her TV specials, filled with striking examples of Miss Ross imitating another artists to startling effect. Here, she goes so far adapting her style to Gibb’s that her voice is generally high, thin, and raspy, totally eradicating the rich soulful tone of recent hits like “Missing You” and “Swept Away.” Because Gibb’s demos for the album have since been released, it’s clear that Diana rarely strayed from his guide vocals; on certain tracks, it’s tough to tell their voices apart. In a time when bigger voices — in terms of both power and range — were beginning to dominate popular music, Diana Ross was allowing hers to shrink away.
1. Eaten Alive: In promoting the release of both the Eaten Alive album and its title track, RCA dubbed the projects “A Major Musical Event,” and certainly anticipation was high not only for the pairing of Diana Ross and Barry Gibb, but also the added superpowers of Michael Jackson. Initial word on the single was promising; WXKS Boston program director Sonny Joe White was quoted in Billboard as saying the single “fulfills what we need right now: very light, fun pop” (September 14, 1985). R&B radio jumped on board quickly, making the song the most added single the week ending September 28, and within only two weeks the song was a Top 20 Dance Club Play hit. But after a full four weeks, “Eaten Alive” had only crept up to #77 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it wouldn’t go any higher; it was a surprising and embarrassing showing for Diana Ross, who’d scored at least a Top 40 pop hit with the first single from nearly every album she’d ever released. While there are a few cases in Diana’s discography of the general public totally missing the boat on a great single, “Eaten Alive” is not one of them; the song is a mess. To call it a Diana Ross single is a stretch, given that her voice is so weak and drowned in echo on the verses that it’s barely distinguishable; she might as well not even be on the refrain, as she’s completely overshadowed by the shrill falsetto vocals of both Barry Gibb and Michael Jackson. Due to the frantic pace of the song and cacophony of sound effects layered into the track, it’s almost nearly impossible to decipher the song’s lyrics; repeated listens only result in further confusion over what’s been sung and what the song is actually about. There’s no doubt that the beat is dance-worthy, which is why its peak of #3 on the Hot Dance/Disco Club Play chart seems justified; that said, the beat and mildly catchy chorus are all the song really has going for it. Gibb’s high-pitched ad-libs are unnecessary and distracting, and Jackson is frantic on the cut; Miss Ross, meanwhile, offers up a weak performance displaying almost zero range, allowing herself to become the least important element of the song, which is probably the biggest crime of all. In theory, the rock/R&B/pop feel of this cut isn’t that different from “Swept Away” from only a year earlier, but Diana sounded far better on that single; her voice was allowed to remain center stage, and she displayed real emotion and power. Probably based upon the involvement of Michael Jackson more than anything else, “Eaten Alive” gave Diana Ross another Top 10 R&B single (her 16th); as with the singer’s three previous singles (“Swept Away,” “Missing You,” and “Telephone”), R&B radio was far more willing to spin a single by the legendary singer than pop DJs. Still, in this case, it’s hard to blame anyone for not wanting to play “Eaten Alive” — it’s a miscalculation for everyone involved, and certainly doesn’t get better with age.
2. Oh Teacher: This was one first demos worked up by Barry Gibb for Diana Ross, a darkly driving, synth-heavy track that sets the tone for the rest of the album and reveals just what vision Gibb was working toward for Miss Ross; the writer-producer clearly wanted to give Ross a sexy pop album, capitalizing on her image as the glamorous, sensual woman who’d once purred, “If there’s a cure for this, I don’t want it.” The song itself, written with brothers Robin and Maurice, is a sizzling cut with definite hit potential; unfortunately, the finished recording is a perfect example of just how literal Diana Ross was in interpreting Gibb’s original demos. Listen to his recording, and then hers, and it’s abundantly clear that she’s mimicking his every breath; the result is a high, raspy lead vocal performance that sounds nothing like the Diana Ross of “Love Hangover.” From her very first note, Diana’s voice is dominated by other elements; Barry Gibb’s own voice is extremely prominent, frankly to a fault, and the synthesizers here are turned way up. Therefore, the lead vocal is nearly impossible to understand and really becomes part of the background instead of standing out or even blending seamlessly with the other elements; Miss Ross also (as is the case on Gibb’s demo) sounds not just breathy, but out-of-breath, as though she just finished running a long, hard race. It’s hard to understand why the producer would allow Diana Ross to virtually disappear into the track, especially given how audible he is during the refrain; considering how adept Miss Ross has always been at conveying a flirtatious “I’m-gonna-get-you” attitude, this is the kind of song she should have nailed in a single take. In a surprisingly positive review of the overall album in Rolling Stone, Davitt Sigerson wrote, “the relative neutrality of Ross’ instrument makes her an ideal vehicle for the Gibbs’ boudoir swish of sounds.” Sigerson seems to be forgetting what a unique and singular artist Ross had proven herself to be over the previous two decades; when she’s at her best, nobody in the world cuts through an instrumental track like Diana Ross. In the case of “Oh Teacher,” it seems perhaps the artist herself forgot, too.
3. Experience: At the time of Eaten Alive‘s release, “Experience” was regularly named a standout by music critics reviewing the album; Rolling Stone called it a “flawless ballad” and Billboard dubbed it “lovely.” There’s no denying that “Experience” stands out at first listen, due mainly to the fact that it’s produced with a relative simplicity that sets it apart from some of the more complex arrangements on the album and thus sounds a bit less dated. To be honest, the chord structure of the refrain bears more than a passing resemblance to “Heartbreaker,” also written by the Gibb brothers and produced by Barry, and taken to #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and #1 Adult Contemporary) in 1982. Considering the same writers are behind both tracks, this wouldn’t be that big of an issue except that it encourages comparison between the two, and “Heartbreaker” is a far superior recording. For starters, while the chorus of “Experience” is a memorable one, the verses aren’t so much; the song doesn’t really hit its stride until Diana Ross singles the title word. Speaking of that vocal, it’s again eerie how much the singer sounds like Barry Gibb at times, especially during the second verse , which Ross delivers with an excessively clipped pronunciation. There are some moments at which Diana displays real power in her voice, particularly during ad-libs toward the end, but they’re not quite enough to balance out the weak, breathy singing on the verses and the fact that she’s often overpowered by the background vocals. This is the biggest difference between “Experience” and “Heartbreaker” — Dionne Warwick retained her signature sound, managing to fit her voice into the confines of the song’s style without losing her own identity; unfortunately, Diana doesn’t quite do the same, and so the end result is that the song’s other elements overshadow her to a significant degree again. Still, “Experience” is at least an improvement over the previous two tracks, and it was released as an international single, finding moderate success in a handful of countries.
4. Chain Reaction: This is without question the best song on the album; it was a massive #1 hit in the United Kingdon, Diana’s first since “I’m Still Waiting” way back in the early 1970s. Interestingly, “Chain Reaction” almost didn’t make it onto the album; according to the Gibbs, it was added after every other song had been finished. “The whole album was done, and [Diana] was still looking for that one song she could call a single,” Barry Gibb recalled to Billboard in 2001. “We asked her, ‘How do you feel about doing something that you might have done 25 years ago?'” Maurice Gibb further explained, “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to make a great Supremes record — we’ve got the lead singer!'” (March 24). So that’s exactly what the Gibb brothers did, crafting a compact and compelling pop single set to a jaunty beat and with an enormously catchy refrain; the lyrics are more suggestive than anything Holland-Dozier-Holland could have turned out for The Supremes back in the 1960s, but the melody is sharp and instantly memorable and gives Diana Ross plenty to work with. The singer delivers her best vocal on the entire album; never once is she difficult to understand, and her voice is treated as the star, which means she’s not competing against the rollicking instrumental. Along with a pitch-perfect, energetic performance on the verses and chorus, she also finally gets to display a little more power, like when she wails out the title phrase at around 3:30 amidst the constantly changing key of the music. Her work is also smartly evocative of her earliest performances as a recording artist; listen at roughly 37 seconds in, as Diana lets out a quick, charming sigh straight out of her Supremes days. This the kind of signature Diana Ross touch that is missing on every other Eaten Alive inclusion; interestingly enough, when Barry Gibb’s demos for the album were released, “Chain Reaction” was missing, which means it’s possible Miss Ross didn’t have a vocal to mimic. Speaking of vocals, this would have been a nice opportunity for Diana to provide her own backing vocals, as she had on earlier RCA works like “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” and “Mirror Mirror” — having female voices behind her would have continued the fun, retro feel of the song and given listeners a break from the rather overpowering Bee Gees backgrounds. In any case, “Chain Reaction” is a very strong song and the clear triumph of the album; it should have been released as the first single, but instead was released second in November of 1985, after which it disappeared quickly with a dismal peak of #95 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #85 R&B. But when “Chain Reaction” was released internationally, accompanied by an adorable and energetic music video, it caught on immediately, sailing to #1 for three weeks in the United Kingdom and also topping the charts in Australia and Germany. RCA responded by remixing the song and re-releasing it in the United States; it returned to the charts in May, but after a promising start, stalled out at #66 on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s unfortunate that “Chain Reaction” didn’t give Miss Ross a much-deserved pop hit in her home country; it’s even more disappointing that it remains her final appearance on the pop singles chart.
5. More And More: If “Chain Reaction” is a brilliant play on the qualities that made Diana Ross a superstar in the 1960s, then “More And More” seems to be a clear attempt to recall her stunning jazz work from the early 1970s, when she covered the Billie Holiday songbook for the film Lady Sings The Blues. Written by Barry and Andy Gibb and Albhy Galuten and produced as a slinky, sexy nightclub number, the song recalls the similarly-structured “The Man I Love” (from Lady Sings The Blues) and features a low-key track driven by classy keyboard work; if there was any song on Eaten Alive that Ross should have nailed, this is it. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to judge the singer’s performance because, frankly, she barely gives one. Adopting the weird, clipped pronunciation of Barry Gibb’s demo and attempting to convey vulnerability by practically whispering the entire song, Ross sounds so weak that she seems to be losing her voice completely. Now, let’s be clear; Diana Ross wrote the book on vulnerable vocal performances, having just delivered her best-ever ballad work with “Missing You” the previous year and emoting that song with breathtaking clarity and honesty. The singer from “Missing You,” however, seems to be suffering from a bad case of laryngitis on “More And More,” and although it’s clearly an intentional move to sing this way, it’s still difficult to listen to. When Diana Ross first tackled the songs of Billie Holiday in preparing for her film debut, she famously captured the jazz singer’s unique tone so perfectly that Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. had her re-record her vocals, urging her to put “more Diana Ross” back into the recordings. It’s too bad Barry Gibb didn’t do the same thing here; Ross sounds so much like him that she loses herself completely. (NOTE: “More And More” was released as the b-side to the “Chain Reaction” single.)
6. I’m Watching You: This cool, shimmering ballad is one of the prettiest songs on the album; the signature synthesizer line that opens and closes the song is lovely and memorable, and alone probably could have garnered the song some pop airplay. Written by Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb, this song isn’t terribly far removed from “Emotion,” the lovely ballad written Barry and Robin and first recorded by singer Samantha Sang in 1977; both feature an achingly beautiful melody and melancholy lyrics about a lost love. The good news is that Diana offers up a fairly straightforward performance; she’s still quite breathy, far more than she needs to be, but there are some refreshing moments of both strength and smoothness in her performance which bring to mind the singer’s best efforts. The bad news? The song is cut in a very high key, a key perfect for the stratospheric falsetto of Barry Gibb but not necessarily Diana’s supple instrument. Because the focus here is completely on Diana (there are no background vocals to distract from her performance, which is a welcome change), her straining to hit some of the highest notes is more noticeable than it would have been had she been wrapped up in other voices. Still, overall, Diana acquits herself nicely, especially when she’s required to put some power behind her voice at the end of each chorus. If “Chain Reaction” had been released as the album’s first single and the United States and given Miss Ross at least a moderate hit, “I’m Watching You” probably could have made a nice follow-up single; it sounds like it could have gained airplay on multiple formats (pop, R&B, and Adult Contemporary) and even with the high key, Diana likely could have given some superb live performances of the song. As it stands, it’s one of the few tracks on Eaten Alive that hints at the possibilities of a better collaboration between Gibb and Ross, and showcases the strengths of the brothers are songwriters.
7. Love On The Line: This is a sizzling tune produced with the kind of instrumental swagger immortalized by the biggest Bees Gees hit ever, “Stayin’ Alive” — it’s easy to imagine John Travolta in his white Saturday Night Fever suit strutting down the street to the groove of “Love On The Line.” The synth-led track is undeniably dated (let’s be honest, it sounds a lot like the theme to an early Nintendo game), but it’s one of the few songs on Eaten Alive that instantly sounds like it could have been a hit at the time of release; there’s a darker, more complex energy here that’s appealing, particularly when compared some of the blander recordings surrounding it. Diana sounds surprisingly great on the verses; the song lends itself to her breathy delivery better than several others, and she belts out some of the lyrics with a passion that’s sorely missing on other cuts. Listen to her starting at around 55 seconds in; there’s a power as she wails “But then, love don’t mean surrender” that makes you wonder where in the hell this woman’s been the whole time. Unfortunately, when the terrifically-written refrain hits, Ross completely fades away into the wash of sharp, clipped Gibb backgrounds. When Davitt Sigerson wrote in Rolling Stone of the “Gibbs’ boudoir swish of sounds,” he could have been talking about this song; the pure pop, swishy background vocals during the chorus really hurt the overall success of the song, which deserves a street-swagger all the way through. Diana showed no problems with that kind of sound back in 1980 on the diana album, as she sang with the kind of toughness befitting a Detroit girl who’d once proclaimed on record, “Why don’t you be a man about it?” That confidence is there during the verses, but it disappears when the Bee Gees take over, and the inconsistency hurts the overall product. Still, this one ranks among the more easily accessible of songs on Eaten Alive; too bad Diana didn’t make a music video for it, because it could have been a killer.
8. (I Love) Being In Love With You: Although “Eaten Alive” is a mess and “More And More” features a shockingly weak vocal performance, “(I Love) Being In Love With You” might just be the nadir of Eaten Alive; certainly it ranks among the most nerve-grating ballads ever recorded by Diana Ross, although it sounds a lot more like Barry Gibb singing than Miss Ross. As with the earlier “Oh Teacher,” this ballad showcases the lengths Diana Ross would go to adopt the Bee Gees sound; her pronunciation mirrors Barry’s demo vocals so closely it’s tough to tell them apart. Diana’s staccato delivery is unlike just about anything she’d ever done on record before; on the refrain, she sharply sings the word “love” as “lahv,” something which had never happened an any of the countless love songs she’s recorded before — and this is a woman who can probably claim a world record for singing the word “love.” Aside from the odd pronunciation, the way Diana sharply punches the words robs them of any warmth; the song has an oddly sterile feel considering it features one of the most romantic lyrics on the entire album. Think about the singer’s previous ballads, even something relatively obscure, like 1978’s “Never Say I Don’t Love You” (from Ross); the way the singer is able to sensitively turn a phrase is unmatched in popular music, and although many shortsighted critics never really considered Ross a “soul” singer, it’s her soul that sells a love song. The bottom line with “(I Love) Being In Love With You” (and much of its parent album) is that there’s no soul to be heard anywhere, something pointed out by UK magazine Blues & Soul at the time of the album’s release, even in a marginally good review: “[Eaten Alive is] a good collection of songs if you instantly put out of your mind that Diana was once an integral part of a soulful trio and was a foremost soul artist via her early Motown recordings.”
9. Crime Of Passion: It’s hard to dislike this fun song, which adds some much-needed energy to Eaten Alive; just the presence of an electric guitar is a relief from the wash of synthesizers on the previous tracks (although, make no mistake, there are plenty of synthesizers layered here). The song is pure pop-rock, with an aggressive melody line that calls for more power and range from its lead vocalist; Miss Ross delivers for the most part, offering up a sexy reading that’s breathy but never weak on the verses and full-bodied during the refrain. She’s joined on that refrain by those prominent Gibb backgrounds, but this is a case where the sound works; the song is supposed to be sharp and edgy, and the male voices enhance that feeling. If there’s an issue with the lead vocal here, it really lies in the production; Diana is enveloped in a lot of echo, particularly when she’s belting out ad-libs; the result is that she sounds like she’s shouting into an air-conditioning vent, a problem which had plagued 1982’s Silk Electric. Had her voice been cleaned up and brought just slightly more forward in the mix, it would have really improved the recording; it might also be easier to understand the lyrics she’s singing. Still, particularly coming on the heels of “(I Love) Being In Love With You,” Diana’s her voice doesn’t sound nearly as weak or forced, and it’s nice to hear her sink her teeth into stronger material, and had RCA invested in giving “Crime Of Passion” a 12″ mix, it probably would have given the singer another dancefloor hit.
10. Don’t Give Up On Each Other: This lovely song seems to foreshadow Janet Jackson’s “Let’s Wait Awhile,” which would give Miss Jackson a #1 R&B hit in early 1987; Diana’s recording is driven by a simple, repetitive keyboard line that could have come straight from a Jimmy Jam-Terry Lewis production of the era. Penned by Barry Gibb and George Bitzer, “Don’t Give Up On Each Other” is easily one of the best-written songs on the album; there’s real feeling in the lyrics, and the words match the achingly pretty melody perfectly. Back to Janet Jackson, Miss Ross actually sounds quite a bit like the younger singer on this track, delivering a crisp, bell-like vocal performance that nicely keeps the emphasis on the song’s message. Although she’s a bit muted, Miss Ross does shine on this track, injecting her performance with much-needed emotion and moments of vocal power. In terms of the ballads on Eaten Alive, this song rivals “I’m Watching You” in terms of quality; that earlier inclusion gets the edge only because it’s a slightly more focused composition. But “Don’t Give Up On Each Other” is a perfect way to end the album, and stands as another bittersweet sign of the better Ross-Gibb album that could have been.
Although first single “Eaten Alive” was derided by many critics, the album itself did gain Diana Ross some positive reviews; Rolling Stone preferred it to the previous year’s Swept Away, calling it “deep and intelligently crafted.” But without across-the-board support for the first single, audiences stayed away from the album, and it peaked at just #45 on the Billboard 200, remaining on the chart half as long as Swept Away had. On the R&B Albums chart, Eaten Alive made it to #27, the singer’s second-worst showing ever, after 1978’s Ross. At the end of 1985, in an article noting the “Year of Surprises on the Charts,” Billboard writer Paul Grein placed Eaten Alive at #1 on the list of the year’s disappointments. Of course, this is only half of the album’s story; thanks to the major bump provided by “Chain Reaction,” Eaten Alive did enjoy major international success, peaking at #11 in the United Kingdom, her best showing for a studio album since 1976’s Diana Ross, and it climbed even higher in counties like Sweden and the Netherlands.
If you wanted to demonstrate to someone what a great singer Diana Ross is, someone who’d never heard her sing before, you’d never choose a song from Eaten Alive. Every one of her solo albums before this one included at least one song that exemplifies her gifts as a vocalist; from “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” to “I Love You (Call Me)” to “I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You” and beyond, there are numerous examples of the range and power Miss Ross was capable of delivering, as well as the tenderness and subtlety she could convey. On Eaten Alive, only “Chain Reaction” definitively shows why Diana Ross became a superstar in the first place; the uniqueness of her voice is just too often lost on the album. There is some strong material here; clearly Barry Gibb and his brothers are talented songwriters and the producing team of Gibb-Galuten-Richardson knows how to craft a masterful album. But Eaten Alive isn’t one, not even close. It’s a shame, really; had the album been tailored to its central figure’s abundant gifts as a vocalist, it might have been one of her best.
Final Analysis: 2/5 (A “Crime” To Bury Diana)
Paul’s Picks: “Chain Reaction,” “I’m Watching You,” “Love On The Line”