“…you got the best time, the last time, but this time you’re gonna get burned…”
The first half of the 1980s was extremely successful for Diana Ross from a sales and chart standpoint. 1980 had given her the platinum diana album and three top 10 hits, and early 1981 brought her biggest single ever, “Endless Love.” Between 1981 and 1984, she’d released four albums under her huge new RCA recording contract; one had gone platinum, two others were certified gold, and the singer had also achieved six more top 20 hit singles from them. At the same time, Barry Gibb was also riding high; as a member of the Bee Gees, he’d ruled the 1970s with the blockbuster Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, one of the best-selling albums of all time. As a producer and songwriter, he’d been delivering major hits for other artists in the 1980s; he’d given Barbra Streisand her Guilty album in 1980, and it was a smash (and, coincidentally, the #1 album when diana peaked at #2!). In 1982 Dionne Warwick scored a major success with the Heartbreaker album, written and produced by Gibb. And, of course, in 1983 Gibb wrote “Islands In The Stream,” the hit duet by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton which peaked at #1 on the pop, country, and AC charts.
Thus, the news that Diana Ross and Barry Gibb were teaming up for an album had to have been greeted with excitement by fans and those in the music industry. And on top of those two major music stars teaming up, no less a superstar than Michael Jackson was also involved, co-writing and co-producing the first single. Jackson, of course, had just joined Diana (and dozens of other music artists) at the top of the charts on “We Are The World,” the #1 hit charity single credited to USA For Africa. Earlier in the decade, he’d also provided her with the top 10 pop and R&B hit “Muscles.” Thus, many factors seemed to be coming together to make Eaten Alive one of the best and most successful Diana Ross albums ever. Unfortunately, it was not to be.
Eaten Alive is a really good album…but not necessarily a great Diana Ross album. Had Barry Gibb recorded all the songs and released it himself, it probably could’ve been a smash. Unfortunately, Diana Ross working hard to sound like Barry Gibb isn’t quite as successful. There are those who say this is Diana’s best RCA album, and they blame a lack of proper single choice, promotion, and negative publicity surrounding Ross are blamed for the album’s lackluster performance. Those factors are all probably true, but I’d also say another factor is that Diana Ross just doesn’t really sound like Diana Ross here. The issue, I think, is Diana’s incredible talent for mimicry. Listen to her discography and watch her TV specials; there are some 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 at times becomes high, thin, and raspy (not that Gibb has a weak voice; however, Diana Ross trying to match his high falsetto makes hers sound that way), and the rich, soulful tone of recent hits like “Missing You” and “Swept Away” is sadly absent. Gibb’s demos for the album have since been released, and it’s clear that Diana stayed very close to his guide vocals in some instances, rather than singing the cuts in her own unique style. Thus, although Eaten Alive is indeed a cohesive set with some strong tunes, it’s not the vocal showcase that it could have been.
1. Eaten Alive: There had to be a huge amount of optimism surrounding this song; Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Barry Gibb together on one song had to potential to be a hit on multiple formats. It was a decent success on the R&B and dance charts, hitting the top 10 on both, but it tanked on the pop charts. While there are cases in Diana’s discography of the general public totally missing the boat on a great song (“Take Me Higher,” “Sleepin’,” and even some songs on this album), this is not one of them…”Eaten Alive” is a mess. To call it a Diana Ross single is almost a stretch, given that her voice is far less memorable than either Gibb’s or Jackson’s; it’s hard to even hear Diana on the chorus at all. During the verses, when Diana is allowed to sing a few solo lines, it’s impossible to understand what she’s singing; I’ve owned the Eaten Alive album since it was first released (I made my parents buy it for me on cassette tape!) and I still have no idea what all the lyrics are. There’s no doubt that the beat is dance-worthy, and the chorus (“I don’t wanna get Eaten Alive, ’cause you’re so dangerous, no more hearts I can trust”) is catchy, but that’s about all the song has going for it. Gibb’s high-pitched ad-libs are unnecessary and distracting, and Jackson sounds a little too frantic on the cut. Miss Ross, aside from being hard to understand, offers up a weak performance displaying very little 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 in her voice. Here, as with some songs on the album to follow, the production buries her and she doesn’t do much to fight it — for proof, watch her live performance of the song on the American Music Awards; it’s far better than the recording, thanks to the fact that she’s the only voice featured.
2. Oh Teacher: A simmering, sexy song that had the potential to be a hit, this is a great example of the damage done by a vocal pushed back into the production. The synth-laden instrumental is strong; there’s a darkness and complexity to the composition which is nice. In tone, it’s a song not unlike the #1 hit “Love Hangover” or “Sweet Surrender” (from the Why Do Fools Fall In Love LP)– all have a sizzling, sensual quality, and feature Diana using breathy, hushed vocals. However, Diana’s performances on those songs featured a sly confidence that set them apart from the backing tracks. Here, her voice is dominated by other elements; Barry Gibb’s voice is extremely prominent, to a fault, and the synthesizers here are turned way up. The lead vocal is, therefore, hard to understand and really becomes part of the background instead of standing out or even blending seamlessly with the other elements. Diana also — as is the case on Gibb’s demo — sounds not just breathy, but almost out-of-breath…as though she just finished running a long, hard race. Had she sounded a little less rushed and a little more brash and boastful in her sexiness, this could have been an album standout.
3. Experience: This is an interesting track; as a ballad, it has a nice simplicity that sets it apart from some of the more complex arrangements on the album (and thus, it sounds a little less dated). That said, the chorus bears a strong resemblance to Dionne Warwick’s “Heartbreaker,” also written and produced by Mr. Gibb. In fact, I’d say it more than resembles that earlier hit; you can actually sing one song’s chorus over the other and they match extremely well. This means it’s hard not to compare the two songs, and of the two, I think “Heartbreaker” is a stronger song. For one, while the chorus of “Experience” is strong, the verses aren’t as much; the song doesn’t really hit its stride until the “Experience” refrain begins. Diana’s vocal here is better than on the previous two tracks; she’s still a little hard to understand at times, but she at least shows some power in her voice, especially toward the end, as she sings “I love you…” She does sound eerily like Gibb at times, especially with her clipped pronunciation on the second verse, while singing “And you can make the earth move…” Warwick on “Heartbreaker” retains her signature sound, managing to fit her voice into the confines of the song’s style; unfortunately, Diana doesn’t quite do the same, and so the end result is that the song overpowers her to a degree again.
4. Chain Reaction: This is without question the best song on the album; it was a massive #1 hit in the UK, her first since “I’m Still Waiting” way back in the early 1970s. I wonder if it’s a coincidence that years later, when Gibb released the demos from Eaten Alive, this song was not included — I’d guess there was no demo vocal for her to sing along to, which is why Diana Ross actually sounds so much more like herself on the cut. This is her best vocal on the 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 “…a chain reaction!” at around 3:30 amidst the constantly changing key of the music. The song itself is a catchy, well-written upbeat tune evocative of the charming work churned out by early Motown artists; listen at 37 seconds in, after she sings “…something that you do,” and Diana lets out a coy sigh straight out of her Supremes days. If there’s a fault with the song, it lies with the prominent background vocals; that Gibb sound rings through loud and clear, and it doesn’t quite fit the vintage feel of the song. This would have been a nice chance for Diana to provide her own backing vocals, as she had on 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 also allowed it to sound like a much more signature “Diana Ross” song. Still, the tune is a strong one, and should have been a hit in the US; sadly, it only charted in the lower reaches of the pop 100…even after its success overseas. In retrospect, this probably should have been released as the album’s first single.
5. More And More: A slinky, sexy nightclub number, this one should have been a home run for Miss Ross; this is the woman who mastered the classic torch song, “My Man,” more than a decade earlier on the Lady Sings The Blues soundtrack. Here, she goes for vulnerability by practically whispering the vocals; once again, she’s so breathy and her voice is so weak that she almost sounds like she’s losing it completely. Diana Ross is a singer who wrote the book on conveying vulnerability; the emotion comes naturally to her in songs like “Don’t Explain” and “To Love Again,” and she didn’t compromise her voice in either case. Here, she’s “acting” the part of the woman laying all her cards on the table — and it sounds a bit too forced. It’s a shame that she she’s audibly trying, rather than letting the lyrics speak for themselves; the piano-driven, jazzy number is really a perfect fit for her and should have been the centerpiece of the album.
6. I’m Watching You: One of the prettiest songs on the album, this is a cool, shimmering ballad on which Diana offers a refreshingly straightforward performance; it’s one of her best efforts on the album. Though (like many of the other songs here) it’s cut in a very high key, Diana acquits herself nicely, especially when she’s required to put some power behind her voice at the end of each chorus. 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. While she still clips her words at times, in the manner of the Bee Gees, she at least injects some of her own personality into the piece, and in fact her performance here is similar to some of those on Swept Away. It was a wise move to keep Diana’s as the only voice on the tune, allowing her to take more of the spotlight; that said, this is also a nice showcase for Gibb’s incredible songwriting talent. Mr. Gibb certainly knew his way around a strong pop ballad, and this is a good example of his interesting melodies and ear for creating catchy instrumentals.
7. Love On The Line: A dated number featuring a track that sounds like the theme to an early Nintendo game, this is nonetheless not a bad song; Diana sounds great on the verses, belting 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 heck this woman’s been. When the chorus hits, though, she fades into the wash of Gibb backgrounds. This is the kind of song that deserves a swagger in the lead vocal, a kind of street confidence that Diana showed no problems with back in 1980 on the diana album; it’s there at times, but disappears completely at others, and the inconsistency hurts the overall product. Still, I’d rank this one among the more easily accessible of songs on Eaten Alive; I’m not sure it could’ve been a big hit, but I bet it could have made for a killer video, and possibly would’ve gained some pop airplay.
8. (I Love) Being In Love With You: This is perhaps the best example, aside from “Oh Teacher,” of Diana Ross trying to sound like Barry Gibb; Diana’s pronunciation of certain words and singing style are completely removed from the body of work she’s known for. A minute into the song, when the chorus begins, listen to Diana singing along with Mr. Gibb; they both deliver the words in an almost staccato manner, pronouncing the word “love” as “lav” — with all of Diana Ross’s love songs (and this is a woman who could probably claim a world record for singing the word “love”), she’s never sung it like that before. The way she sharply punches the words robs them of any warmth; the song has an oddly sterile feel considering it’s one of the most romantic lyrics on the LP.
9. Crime Of Passion: This is the best upbeat song on the LP aside from “Chain Reaction” — it’s a fun, rocking piece that allows Diana to show some energy and vibrancy. The song is pure pop/rock, with an electric guitar and keyboard dominating the track, and it certainly sounds a lot like the kind of upbeat pop that was topping the charts in the mid-1980s. Had “Chain Reaction” been the first single and been a hit, this could have been a nice follow-up on radio. This is a case where the prominent Gibb background vocals work; Diana matches them well on the chorus, and also manages to stand out on the verses. I wish her voice sounded a little clearer; there’s a lot of echo here, and it does makes her tough to understand at times. That said, her voice doesn’t sound nearly as weak or forced as on other tracks, and it’s nice to hear her “bite into” the material a little bit here.
10. Don’t Give Up On Each Other: Eaten Alive ends on a nice note, with what is one of the better ballads on the album (it’s tough to say if this one or “I’m Watching You” is superior). This is a beautiful song featuring simple, repetitive keyboard chords that almost have the feel of an early Janet Jackson tune (in a way it’s similar to “Let’s Wait Awhile” from Janet’s Control album). Diana’s voice shines here, as the song gives her the chance to coo softly and display a little power, too; she sounds nicely connected to the lyrics in a way she hasn’t always on this album.
Let’s face it — if you wanted to demonstrate to someone what a great singer Diana Ross is, someone who’d never heard her sing before, you’d probably never choose a song from Eaten Alive. On every one of her solo albums before this one — Diana Ross in 1970 to Swept Away in 1984 — she’d included at least one song that exemplified 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. Unfortunately, only “Chain Reaction” really shows why Diana Ross became a superstar in the first place; the uniqueness of her voice is just too often lost on the album. The material here is strong; there are several really good songs that are catchy and sound like hits, and the talent involved in this project is undeniable. Had Diana Ross just sounded a little more like herself here, and claimed a little more authority vocally, this might have been her strongest RCA set from start to finish. In the end, I’m just not sure it stands the test of time the way so much of Miss Ross’s other work does.
Final Analysis: 2.5/5 (Leaves Us Wanting “More”)
Choice Cuts: “Chain Reaction,” “I’m Watching You,” “Crime Of Passion”
The American Music Award nominees for Favorite Soul/R&B Female Artist that year (held in early 1986) were:
Aretha Franklin (Winner)