The Second Disc

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Reissue Theory: Madonna, “Like a Prayer”

with 19 comments

By now, you’ve likely heard the 1,000th No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 – Lady Gaga’s new single “Born This Way.” The dance anthem has come under a bit of fire for critics thanks to its striking similarity to another dance-pop icon’s hit, Madonna’s “Express Yourself.”

The Madonna-Gaga comparisons have been wildly obvious from the start – Italian-American, dyed blonde singers with decent if not fantastic voices, a flair for the visual and a desire to control every aspect of their iconography – but it’s the same damn chord progression on both tunes. If there is a bright side to the situation, though, it’s that listeners might be tempted to revisit “Express Yourself” and the landmark pop album it came from, Like a Prayer (1989) – which has never been remastered on compact disc.

You know what this means, of course – a Reissue Theory look at Madonna’s most ambitious album, and arguably her most satisfying. It’s all after the jump.

Before Like a Prayer was released in the spring of 1989, Madonna Louise Ciccone was again in danger of the certain kiss of death for pop stars: overexposure. Her last studio LP, 1986’s True Blue, was a good if not mind-blowing pop record; it was followed by a stopgap remix album, You Can Dance, a year later. She had attempted to transfer into the acting world, with the aid of her husband, Sean Penn. But Shanghai Surprise and Who’s That Girl? were massive bombs, and the Penn’s tumultuous relationship with the press – and each other – finally came to a head right before the album was finished, with the pair nullifying their marriage in January 1989.

The singer was also internally struggling with her family – her mother died when Madonna was only five, and relations with her family were sometimes difficult – and her religion (the Catholic-raised girl was the arguable epitome of sexual rebel in the 1980s – a role that became heavier to her as AIDS became more prevalent). She elected to put those feelings in her work for the first time ever, resulting in a much more personal kind of songwriting and production. (Collaborators Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray produced the bulk of the album, having produced its predecessor as well.)

Madonna wasn’t afraid to experiment with bigger beats and harder-edged dance on tracks like “Like a Prayer,” “Express Yourself” and “Keep It Together.” But the biggest leap for most fans was “Love Song,” a slow-burn trip of a song co-written, co-performed and produced by Prince. The Artist, at the time, had completed Lovesexy, the difficult alternative to the unreleased Black Album, and was beginning work on another LP of gopsel-inspired funk, Rave Unto the Joy Fantastic. (Work on that album was scuttled when Prince was recruited for the soundtrack to Batman in 1989; portions of Rave would end up on both that album and the subsequent Graffiti Bridge project in 1990.) Though many considered the collaboration to be less than the sum of its parts (including Madonna, who coyly intimated in interviews that His Royal Badness was far too interested in his music to notice her or her advances), Prince did contribute one of the best pieces of the Like a Prayer mythology: a blistering guitar solo on the title track, unheard on the album version but played backwards for the final track “Act of Contrition” (which Prince produced under the name “The Powers That Be”) and partially reused for some remixes on 12″ singles.

No Madonna album would be complete without iconic videos, and the Like a Prayer project had several. The first, a stunning, provocative clip for the title track, featured sensual activity in a church (with the black Saint Martin de Porres), stigmata and burning crosses. (In an equally striking but not as controversial shift, the singer went back to brunette.) The video pushed the boundaries of what the public considered decent; the Vatican strongly condemned her and Pepsi, which was to promote the album with a commercial starring Madonna and premiering the song, cancelled the endorsement. Nonetheless, the clip is seen as a classic today, continuously cited by MTV and VH-1 as one of the greatest of all time. But the “Like a Prayer” clip wasn’t the only classic video of the era: “Express Yourself,” which featured an empowered Madonna in a black pantsuit among a Metropolis-inspired backdrop, was an early hit for David Fincher, who would use the video’s success to jump to feature films like Alien3, Se7en, Fight Club and last year’s The Social Network. “Cherish,” the album’s bounciest ballad, was the first video directed by the late, great Herb Ritts, who’d been known as a top-notch still photographer (his portrait of Madonna for the True Blue album sleeve is one of his many iconic shots).

Madonna capped promotion of the album with her biggest tour yet, the Blonde Ambition Tour of 1990. Featuring iconic costumes (including the Jean-Paul Gaultier-designed cone bra) and increased sexual antics (which got one show in Rome cancelled and nearly got the singer arrested in Toronto), the tour was a high point in her career – and was later obsessively chronicled in the documentary Truth or Dare (1991).

Though Like a Prayer is arguably Madonna’s musical high point – and certainly one of the greatest albums of the 1980s – Warner’s series of Madonna remasters in 1999 stopped short of including that album. The singer has since moved on to a record deal with Live Nation, although she remains on good terms with her longtime label. Many have hoped for a box set or deluxe reissue campaign to happen under the influence of Rhino; should that ever happen, Like a Prayer will be able to be revisited as a masterpiece, as it deserves to be seen.

Here’s what a deluxe Like a Prayer might look like, featuring bonus remixes (released and unreleased) and outtakes.

Madonna, Like a Prayer (Sire/Rhino)

Disc 1: Original LP

  1. Like a Prayer
  2. Express Yourself
  3. Love Song
  4. Til Death Do Us Part
  5. Promise to Try
  6. Cherish
  7. Dear Jessie
  8. Oh Father
  9. Keep It Together
  10. Pray for Spanish Eyes
  11. Act of Contrition

Disc 2: Remixes and Rarities

  1. Supernatural
  2. First is a Kiss
  3. Possessive Love
  4. Just a Dream
  5. Love Attack
  6. Like a Prayer (12″ Extended Mix)
  7. Express Yourself (Non-Stop Express Mix)
  8. Cherish (Extended Version)
  9. Keep It Together (12″ Remix)
  10. Like a Prayer (with Full Guitar Solo)
  11. Express Yourself (Local Mix)
  12. Cherish (Shocklee & Castellano Remix)
  13. Keep It Together (Instrumental)

Disc 2, Tracks 1 and 8 from Sire 12″ single 0-21326
Disc 2, Tracks 2-5, 10 and 12 previously unreleased
Disc 2, Track 6 from Sire 12″ single 0-21170, 1989
Disc 2, Tracks 7 and 11 from Sire 12″ single 0-21225, 1989
Disc 2, Track 9 from Sire 12″ single 0-21427, 1990

Written by Mike Duquette

February 15, 2011 at 13:11

Posted in Features, Madonna, Prince, Reissues

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19 Responses

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  1. It’s hard to believe Like A Prayer is now heading towards 25 years.

    I think a 3 set would be even better, including all the fabulous videos.


    February 15, 2011 at 14:22

  2. Fans of Madonna around the time of Like A Prayer should pick up My Bass And Other Animals, by Guy Pratt.
    He played the bass on the Like A Prayer single and he has some very funny stories about being in Madonna’s universe at the time.
    Also revealed in the book is his weird experiences whilst recording for Wacko Jacko, when Guy was hired to basically replicate the same bass playing from Like A Prayer on the wig out at the end of Earth Song.

    It’s a great book from start to finish, and unlike so many of todays limp and fat-free rock autobiographies, he’s incredibly indiscreet, even about current long time employers Pink Floyd.



    February 15, 2011 at 14:37

    • Sorry, but his name is Michael Jackson, not Wacko Jacko.


      May 3, 2011 at 11:38

  3. This is the first I’ve ever heard of “Cherish (Shocklee & Castellano Remix)”. Where was it first released? I’d love to hear it.

    BTW, while there are several good remixes of Like A Prayer, the 12″ Club Version needs to be included.


    February 15, 2011 at 14:56

    • Apparently it wasn’t. Billboard had mentioned it in a blurb or something but it never turned up.

      I had the 12″ Club Version of “Like a Prayer” on the list but I scuttled it at the last minute because the whole reason I ever imagined a reissue would be to get the song with that full Prince guitar solo. There’s a Reissue Theory post in one of my notebooks about Madonna’s singles as a box set – one of the most obvious box set ideas ever, probably – and the club version would be a natural inclusion.

      Mike Duquette

      February 15, 2011 at 15:00

  4. Also, no mention of the fact that early copies of this album (and CD as well) were all patchouli-scented? I thought that was pretty cool, but I like the scent.


    February 15, 2011 at 14:58

    • I remember well the patchouli scent. For weeks it stank up the CD store where I worked.


      February 15, 2011 at 16:14

  5. This album and True Blue were definitely Madge’s musical high points, for me. I think I’d have to give the edge to True Blue, though. “Live to Tell” was a mighty ballad, and “Papa Don’t Preach” and “Open Your Heart” were huge as well. Plus the Herb Ritts album cover you mentioned is a definitive image.

    Hey, where did all those previously unreleased tunes on Disc 2 of your reissue theory come from?


    February 15, 2011 at 15:04

    • “Supernatural” was the B-side to “Cherish,” but the others were outtakes I’d read about on various Madonna fan sites. The trick with Reissue Theory posts is that most of the time I have no inside info on outtakes (who does, really? well, e-mail me if you do!), but there are a few exceptions, particularly when it comes to the big three of the ’80s (MJ/Prince/Madonna).

      Mike Duquette

      February 15, 2011 at 15:23

  6. You forgot the remixed version of “Supernatural”, which was included on the 1992 benefit LP, “Red Hot + Dance”, which is definitely worth checking out. It features George Michael’s hit, “Too Funky”, as well as contributions from Seal, EMF, and others.

    Amy Green

    February 15, 2011 at 15:26

    • I’d like to see them reissue that album outright. It’d be for a fantastic cause. I don’t know, put a few new tracks by new artists on it or something.

      Mike Duquette

      February 15, 2011 at 15:46

  7. She probably won’t allow it.

    Bill Janowski

    February 15, 2011 at 17:17

  8. Fun Fact: “Like A Prayer (Dub Beats)” contains samples from “Bob George” from Prince’s then-unreleased “Black Album.”


    February 16, 2011 at 08:43

  9. I also like True Blue a bit more but I never understood why the 1999 reissue program didn’t include Like A Prayer. “Supernatural” is one of my favorite b-sides by any artist ever and there were more than enough remixes to choose from had they wanted to keep it to one disc/two bonus tracks.

    Glenn S.

    February 16, 2011 at 13:20

  10. Great idea! `Now, who do I talk to about my own suggestions for expanded/remixed albums? I have a few suggestions of my own…


    February 16, 2011 at 15:35

  11. Great article! Don’t forget that Madonna also co-produced the album (as she has the bulk of her musical output since 1985). It’s widely reported that she’s a very “hands on” co-producer (i.e. she’s not someone who just insists on having their name included on the credits without doing much – she has a lot of input and earns the credit).

    Scott A.

    February 20, 2011 at 05:27

  12. The track “Just a Dream” was later given to then Madonna background singer Donna DeLory. It’s on her self titled debut CD but I think it’s out of print. Madonna vocals are heard all over the track(background) but are especially present in the fadeout. It’s a really great pop tune. Would love to hear a solo Madonna version if one is out there…

    Brian Dias

    February 22, 2011 at 12:44

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