35 Years Like a Virgin
When you think about Madonna and her major hits, one of the first songs to come to mind is Like A Virgin.
And even if it’s hard to believe, this year marks the 35th anniversary of these incredible song and album.
The single was released by Sire Records on October 31, 1984 while the album, Madonna’s second, hit the stores on this day 35 years ago: November 12, 1984. Like a Virgin debuted at No. 70 in the the Billboard 200 and reached the top on February 9, 1985, spending three weeks at No. 1. In July, it became the first album by a female artist to be certified for sales of five million units in the United States. In 35 years, Like a Virgin has sold some 22 million copies worldwide.
MadonnaTribe first had the chance to celebrate a major “Virgin” anniversary fifteen years ago. Today we reprise the original story that we wrote in November 2004 and updated in 2014, adding the latest tidbits to make it feel shiny and new.
Written by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, who co-wrote many memorable hits such as Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors and I Drove All Night, Like A Virgin was a song that had a major impact on rock and pop history, presenting to the world the one and only Madonna, and it’s a song that survived through the years – also thanks to her many different live interpretations.
After many homages, including the Broadway rendition that the acclaimed australian filmaker, Baz Lurman put in his masterpiece Moulin Rouge, Like A Virgin has finaly reached the “classic” status, that was denied for a long time by snob music critics.
But how did the song come to life? Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly recalled how Like A Virgin was originally conceived and written, and how the song reached Madonna.
In an exclusive interview back in 2006, Billy Steinberg told MadonnaTribe.com:
In 1983, when I wrote the lyrics for Like A Virgin, I was very happy because I had extricated myself from a very difficult relationship and was enjoying a new one. I felt like a virgin.
I wrote the first verse lyric first, starting with “I made it through the wilderness.” I didn’t start with the title. But after I wrote the line, “you made me feel shiny and new“, the title “Like A Virgin” popped into my head. Right away, I knew it could make a startling song and I was excited about working on it with Tom.
Tom Kelly also recalled how the song came to life in an interview reprised by SongwriterUniverse:
I especially related to the lyric at the time, since I was going through a tough divorce. Initially, I tried to compose a ballad or midtempo song to accompany the lyric, but it wasn’t working. Out of frustration, I started to clown around, performing the song in an uptempo, Smokey Robinson-style, with falsetto vocals. Lo and behold, it worked.
I had just purchased a Roland Jupiter 8 keyboard and we used the Jupiter 8 to create the main keyboard and bass tracks. For the drum track, we used an old Linn drum computer. We demoed the song quickly, and kept it simple. I sang the falsetto in a Smokey-style voice, then we added some background vocal parts.
Even if Steinberg and Kelly were very pleased with their new creation, the song was turned down by many record labels and artists. Steinberg recalls:
Sometimes a song will only “fit” one artist. Like A Virgin is one. When we submitted it for other artists, we were told that “no one will sing a song with that title.”
One A&R guy suggested I re-write the lyric.
More than a year later Steinberg and Kelly played the song to Michael Ostin, then Senior Vice President at Warner Bros. Records. Kelly explained:
We were nervous about playing ‘Virgin’ for Ostin, but at the end of the meeting we finally played it. When he heard it, he flipped over the song. He said it would be great for his artist Madonna to record. Madonna at that time wasn’t a major artist yet, it was before Borderline and Lucky Star became hits, but it was clear that she would be a perfect artist to sing this song.
Madonna immediately loved the song and insisted that it would also be the perfect title for her second album and a perfect song for the first single from that album. The album producer and supervisor, Nile Rodgers, recalls that he wanted the album concept to turn around the song Material Girl, but Madonna told him:
Here something you don’t understand, that to a girl or a woman, losing your virginity is a big thing. Here’s the case where the message is bigger and better than the groove.
Rodgers said he hardly followed Madonna’s instinct:
Like A Virgin was one of those historic rock and roll decisions, where only Madonna believed in that song to the depth that she believed in it.
I was going for Material Girl, I’m a club guy. I don’t come from a world where the lyric is more important than the groove, I don’t get that and she stuck to her guns, she was steadfast and unwavering and every argument I could throw at her, every argument the record company could throw at her…she knew.
She is a great artist and that song transformed her life and mine.
Like A Virgin became a worldwide hit and a milestone achievement for Steinberg & Kelly, Nile Rodgers and Madonna.
Billy Steinberg said:
When you’re songwriters, and you write a song like “Virgin”, then you have to find the right singer to place the song with. We were lucky that Madonna came along, because I don’t think anyone else could have put the song across quite like she did.
Nile Rodgers also once described Like A Virgin as the biggest album of his entire career.
The original video of Like A Virgin was shot in Venice, Italy in 1984, by director Mary Lambert, who already directed Madonna’s first “real” video, Borderline.
In the video two different Madonna personas are presented, as it happens in every Madonna video by Lambert (Borderline, Like A Virgin, Material Girl, La Isla Bonita).
Usually in Lambert’s videos, one of the character is the real Madonna, and the other represents a perception that people have of her.
Madonna explained that the video was shot in Italy because: “We felt Venice symbolized so many things, like virginity. And I’m Madonna, and I’m Italian”.
Another main character of the clip is the lion, that probably was put there as it’s the symbol of the romantic city.
The lion didn’t do anything he was supposed to do, and I ended up leaning against a pillar with his head in my crotch.
I thought he was going to take a bite out of me, so I lifted the veil I was wearing and I had a stare down with the lion, and he opened his mouth letting out a huge roar. I got so frightened my heart fell in my shoe.
ON THE CHARTS
Like A Virgin – the single – debuted at #48 on on the Billboard Hot 100 (issue dated November 17, 1984) and reached #1 the week of December 22, 1984 – reigning supreme for six weeks.
The song was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America on January 10, 1985, at a time when the requirement for a Gold single was a million copies shipment across the USA.
No need to say – it also topped the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart.
In 2000, Like A Virgin made the fourth spot on the 100 Greatest Pop Songs list compiled by Rolling Stone magazine.
Three years later, the song appeared on VH1’s 100 Greatest Songs of the Past 25 Years at #10, and in Q Magazine’s chart of the Top 20 Madonna Singles of All-time at #5.
Like A Virgin was also featured in US magazine Blender’s March 2004 list of The 25 Sexiest Music Moments in TV History.
In their very special chart Madonna performing at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards gets the second spot.
Here is why Blender described Madonna’s appearance as hot:
La Ciccone’s wedding dress-clad performance of “Like A Virgin” was so ahead-of-the-curve provocative that 19 years later, Britney and Christina revived it at the VMAs prior to getting kissy-kissy with the Material Girl herself. But Madonna’s performance at MTV’s inaugural awards bash remains definitively raunchy, as she prowled the stage and grabbed her crotch in a manner summed up by Melissa Etheridge as “the most brave, blatant sexual thing I’ve ever seen on television.
THE LIVE PERFORMANCES
There’s probably no other Madonna song that is remembered for its live renditions more than Like A Virgin. And that makes definitely sense, thinking about how the song had its first big exposure at the inaugural MTV Awards in 1984.
Billy Steinberg remembers that special moments:
Tom and I were shocked by Madonna’s performance of “Like A Virgin” at the MTV Awards in 1984. It didn’t seem at all rehearsed.
The camera awkwardly followed her as she rolled around the stage, exposing her voluptuous, but slightly-pudgy body.
I guess we worried that it would doom the song. But Madonna and “Like A Virgin” were unstoppable.
In her tours Madonna has always succeded in giving the song new life and always make it feel “Like A Virgin”.
In her 1985 Virgin Tour she put few lines of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean in it, while in her 1987 Who’s That Girl Tour rendition she stopped the song for a Four Tops homage with I Can’t Help Myself, the song that inspired the “Virgin” bassline.
In 1990, Madonna decided to go with the most daring, provocative and sexy performance of the song ever in her Blond Ambition show. In a golden Jean-Paul Gaultier bustier with cony breasts Madonna simulated masturbation on a red bed with her dancers Jose and Luis – and almost got arrested on stage.
In 1993, on her Girlie Show tour, the song was again shiny and new. Madonna dressed as a man sang the song as a homage/parody of Marlene Dietrich and closing it with Dietrich’s song Falling In Love Again.
In 2003 Madonna performed Like A Virgin a couple of times during her promo tour for American Life. The song, a little “Mirwais-rized”, proved yet again to be a fans favourite and marked the season when the Queen of Pop started looking at her back-catalogue in a different way.
And the same year the song returned to the MTV Awards stage with a bang.
The song returned on a Madonna live show on the 2006 Confessions Tour. This time “Like A Virgin” fit the equestrian theme of the show first segment and was performed on a S&M carousel horse. The song was musically re-arranged to a 70’s disco feel by the tour musical director Stuart Price and it was a completely fresh and new version incorporating samples and elements from the original version.
A demo version using original 1985 studio vocals circulated online for a while. This time too, in her typical style, Madonna draws inspiration from her personal life experiences. The theme reminds of the horse accident she had her forty-seventh birthday the previous year (August 2005) when she broke several bones. To complete the setting real x-rays of her broken bones where filmed and put together for the accompanying backdrop video.
Like A Virgin was briefly performed acapella a few times on the tongue-in-cheek fan request section of her 2008’s Sticky & Sweet Tour but was not officialy part of the setlist. On September 6, performing on stage at the Olympic Stadium in Rome, Italy, Madonna made a very special dedication.
I want to dedicate this song to the Pope. I know he loves me. I am a child of God.
In 2012 Like A Virgin returns re-invented again for the record breaking MDNA Tour. This time she came up with a personal darker version, stripped down by all the classic musical elements of the song. Musically, this 2012 Like A Virgin Waltz, was a basic piano version, mashed up with “Evgeni’s Waltz”, one of the main score tracks composed by Abel Korzeniowski for her own directed movie W.E.
The lines of Like A Virgin were sung to fit this waltz musical track, so some verses had to be really sung on a different melody. During the last part of her tour, she also broke the song into two parts, adding another song in the middle, Love Spent.
Despite the early perplexity by the fans, in the end this number was very well received by the audience, who could really experience and intimate, still moment with Madonna on stage as the song was not the only thing to be stripped down. Madonna herself in a sort of burlesque like number, teasing the public, many times showed her ass and once her breast too.
And once again, she made it through the wilderness.
We had the chance to talk to Billy Steinberg again in 2014 for the song’s 30th anniversary and asked him about Madonna re-inventing the song in many of her live shows. Does Billy have a favourite Madonna version of Like A Virgin?
I have only seen Madonna in concert once and that was during the Virgin Tour in the mid-1980’s. I know that she has, over the years, experimented with different arrangements and approaches to performing Like A Virgin. Her fans want to hear it and she probably re-invents it to keep herself interested.
I heard her sing it with an acoustic guitar accompaniment. It may have been her playing the guitar. It sounded great.
I just hope she includes it in her next live show. I am always disappointed when I hear that she is touring and doesn’t sing Like A Virgin.
And not to disappoint anyone, Like A Virgin was indeed part of Madonna’s Rebel Heart Tour the next year, with a live version based on the fantastic remix created by Dens54.
THE RHINO RECORDS REISSUES
Madonna made her debut on the list of the limited edition releases of Record Store Day on April 16, 2016. It was her very first time, and Rhino picked up Like A Virgin & Other Hits, the EP originally released in Japan in 1984, that was presented as a limited edition 12″ pink colored vinyl, replicating the original artwork and Obi strip along the side of the album.
Speaking of the album, the 12″ Like a Virgin LP was re-issued three times in the recent years. It was first presented on clear vinyl in 2017, then on white vinyl in 2018. On November 8 this year it was released on crystal clear vinyl again as part of the re-issue of Madonna’s first three studio albums and of her first soundtrack record.
If you head to your music store and ask “what’s new from Madonna today?” they will tell you, once again: Like a Virgin.
THE TOP TEN LIKE A VIRGIN COLLECTABLES
If you’re up for older and vintage stuff instead, here’s a look at our Top Ten list of the most lovely Like a Virgin collectables from the past.
- Like A Virgin – Limited Edition promo only Canadian album on White Vinyl issued by Sire Records and manufactured by WEA Music Canada in 1984
- Like A Virgin – UK official 1985 Picture Disc Album, the only official Picture disc released in the UK for an album. It contains “Into The Groove”
- Like A Virgin – Kamo Geba – 1984 Bulgarian Edition of Like A Virgin, different cover artwork and no “Into the Groove”
- Like A Virgin – Original 1984 US CD album with no Into The Groove!
- Like A Virgin – Japanese limited edition Picture Disc – A re-release exclusive to Japan
- Like A Virgin And Other Big Hits – 1984 Japanese original Vinyl and cd release containing the Extended Dance version by Jellybean
- Like A Virgin – Original 1984 US 12″ inch vinyl single with the Jellybean Extended Dance Mix
- Madonna EP – Original 1985 4 video VHS and Laserdisc featuring for the first time commercially the “Like A Virgin” video
- Rolling Stone – Madonna Goes All The Way – Album review by Christopher Connelly on the November 22 1984 issue of Rolling Stone magazine
- Like A Virgin album on Cassette! – The ultimate 80’s collectable! Available with and without “Into The groove” (re-release)