Joni Mitchell’s 80s: how the Canadian songwriter became a fearless, futurist auteur

Some viewed Wild Things Run Fast, which turns 40 next month, as a betrayal of her roots. Looking back, the reality is far more complicated

by Annie Zaleski
September 27, 2022

Tourists visiting the Caribbean during the summer of 1981 might have spotted something unexpected: Joni Mitchell in the thick of things at a disco, grooving up a storm to the Police's inscrutable hit De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da. "I love to dance, and anytime I heard it, boy, I didn't care if there was no one on the floor," she told Musician in 1983. "I was going to dance to that thing because of those changes in rhythm." Mitchell's appreciation for the Police's worldly rhythmic approach would influence the direction of her 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast. Surprisingly, the "supersonic sheen" of corporate rock radio gods Journey also inspired the sound, Mitchell admitted to Musician. "You might think they're antiseptic ... but when they come on the radio, they have a sound that's outstanding."

It's safe to say Wild Things Run Fast was no Escape, although the album was one of Mitchell's most rock-oriented releases to date. The title track feels like a lost Police A-side, while other songs incorporate scorching riffs, vivacious drums and sharp lyrics: "You could charm the diamonds / Off a rattlesnake," she sings on Ladies' Man. The album was one of her least popular yet.

Wild Things Run Fast is the bridge between Mitchell's 70s and 80s: as with 1979's Mingus, the LP dabbles in jazz (Moon at the Window) but it also features new wave takes on her guitar-driven pop (Underneath the Streetlight). Released in October 1982, the album debuted at a modest No 32 in the UK and spent just eight weeks in the Top 100. "There seems nothing of consequence to remark on," NME declared of it. From a commercial standpoint, Mitchell's decade didn't improve from there: 1985's Dog Eat Dog scraped No 57 and dropped out of the Top 100 after just three weeks. Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, from 1988, fared only slightly better, reaching No 26.

The 1980s were a decade in which Mitchell's presence and influence were markedly diminished after she had towered over the previous two decades. She retreated from touring after a lengthy 1983 jaunt. While the video for Good Friends aired on MTV - the stop-motion whimsy even predates Peter Gabriel's much-lauded Sledgehammer clip - she wasn't receiving the kind of sustained rotation of her peers. "I felt like Garbo when they didn't want her to be in talkies," she told Rolling Stone.

In subsequent decades, this fall from grace made it easier for the press to entrench a narrative that Mitchell's 80s were an aberration or detour - an assertion reinforced after 1994's minimalist jazz-pop effort Turbulent Indigo, dubbed by the Los Angeles Times "her best overall album in a good decade and a half", won a Grammy for best pop album. The result was a generation of fans who grew up with a very different take on Mitchell: she wasn't a vibrant auteur pushing boundaries, but a musician in a perpetual victory lap celebrating an elusive return to form.

This perspective was a marked change from the 1970s, when a prolific and highly visible Mitchell was lauded for singular work such as 1971's landmark confessional Blue and 1974's exquisite Court and Spark. And while the indifference to her 1980s work isn't surprising, given the "me decade" obsession with new sounds and new faces over old ones, it's unfair to write off these three albums as missteps. In these records, Mitchell refashioned her artistic compass towards the future and reaffirmed her status as a fearless composer.

Mitchell slowed down and kept a lower profile during the 80s, in part due to challenges in her personal life: a prolonged lawsuit with her housekeeper, litigation with the state of California over sales tax on her master recordings, a car accident, a dentistry mishap she often likened to being "butchered". The Canadian songwriter also became increasingly incensed by the Reagan-style conservatism permeating the US, where she was living, and the grifter mentality it enshrined: the "snakebite evangelists and racketeers / And big wig financiers", as she put it in the title track of Dog Eat Dog.

"I don't want to get into the 'poor me' syndrome," she told Mojo in 1994, "but the 80s for me were like being a prisoner of war, what with the physical and mental pain and general climate of mistrust."

This anger and claustrophobia would also fester behind the scenes of Dog Eat Dog, which featured production from synthesiser whiz (and avowed Mitchell fan) Thomas Dolby. He and Mitchell clashed in the studio due to incompatible working styles - her more freeform (and free-flowing) way of creating music didn't mesh with his granular and precise recording methods. Dolby ended up leaving the studio and collaborating from a distance. (Nevertheless, he was complimentary about Mitchell in his 2016 memoir The Speed of Sound, admitting he was "probably too much of a brat, with my own blinkered way of working" during the sessions.)

Despite the conflict behind Dog Eat Dog, the music itself isn't turbulent, but encompasses obsidian synth-rock and avant-pop. Mitchell embraces the Fairlight CMI and synthesisers, experimenting with new ways to compose music and configuring her jazz sensibilities for cutting-edge technology. Not everything works: Ethiopia chides the pity-heavy exploitation at the heart of charity drives, but its ill-advised lyrics ("Flies in your babies' eyes, Ethiopia") insult the people she is aiming to defend. Otherwise, Mitchell directly and effectively castigates the greedy characters rotting society with elegant, incisive observations. Perhaps a good way to reframe Dog Eat Dog is to consider it as a companion to Kate Bush's Hounds of Love, another 1985 album that saw a female auteur carving out a new identity.

It was a path many of their peers trod awkwardly as they tried to adjust to the era's expectations and changing sonic trends. Mitchell's earthier songwriting peers from the 1960s and 1970s incorporated dance influences and synthesisers with varying degrees of success, ranging from the awkward (disco-infused rock) to transformative (Fleetwood Mac's new wave nod Not That Funny, the keyboard-sparkled Touch of Grey from Grateful Dead). Others chose to chase their own muses outside prevailing trends: Neil Young released the synth-heavy 1982 opus Trans, while Linda Ronstadt also dabbled in new wave before deciding to embrace her family's Mexican roots on 1987's groundbreaking Spanish language Canciones de Mi Padre.

Mitchell's closest Laurel Canyon peers also followed her lead into synthesised music, with mixed results. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young made a concerted push for mainstream success with 1983's keyboard-coated War Games but it missed the US Top 40. In contrast, Eagles members Don Henley and Glenn Frey embraced slick, corporate pop-rock and became huge solo stars.

For many veteran musicians who wanted 1980s mainstream stardom, conforming to these big, glossy sounds was a necessary sacrifice. As well as her clear interest in sonic experimentation, Mitchell certainly wasn't averse to commercial overtures - 1985's smouldering pop single Good Friends featured duet darling Michael McDonald - and she made room to let her hair down despite her serious lyrical matter. A 1982 take on the rocker (You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care (as popularised by Elvis Presley) succeeded on both fronts, almost breaking the US Top 40. This upbeat cover is especially fun, as if Mitchell were letting off steam and enjoying playing the role of a rebel falling for a square. In a way, it represents her relationship to so much of this music: she was enjoying playing it straight and not getting too complicated.

But many fans weren't looking for established artists to break new ground, although blockbusters such as Michael Jackson's Thriller or Paul Simon's Graceland proved this was possible. Instead, they were supposed to take a more grownup approach to music.

On Mitchell's final album of the 80s, 1988's Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, she protected herself from studio dissent by keeping her recording circle small: she co-produced the album with her husband, bassist Larry Klein, although she also enlisted Willie Nelson, Billy Idol, Don Henley and Peter Gabriel to add vocals. It's generally a more poised record than Dog Eat Dog - venturing into adult contemporary territory with no sharp edges and measured restraint - save for the trippy The Reoccuring Dream, which features cut-and-paste samples of commercials Mitchell taped from TV.

Nevertheless, Mitchell was well aware of the whispers and scepticism around her synth work on Dog Eat Dog and Chalk Mark especially. "It's almost like they viewed the last two projects and my experimentation with a synthetic orchestra as a loss of my marbles," she told Vox in 1991 while promoting her first album of that decade, Night Ride Home. "But then I've always lost my marbles for one reason or another in a lot of people's eyes, y'know?"

It's certainly true Mitchell was frequently interrogated about her offstage life (such as her choice of romantic partners) or excoriated for her creative decisions (curveballs such as Mingus). But the lukewarm reception to Mitchell's 80s albums also feels like a continuation of the antipathy that she met with whenever she attempted to change, as with her post-Court and Spark 70s albums.

On her earlier albums, she inhabited a persona that scanned as authentic: a guitar-playing singer-songwriter performing earnest folk music. Yet at a certain point, Mitchell didn't want to write a sequel to Woodstock; she was far more interested in examining new ways to mould her voice around offbeat rhythms, or decode how to compose sprawling, experimental jazz soundscapes. To many, this evolution wasn't just a snubbing of authenticity; it felt like a personal betrayal. Some criticisms were richly deserved: there was no excuse for her to appear in blackface on the cover of the dull 1977 double album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. But today it is hard to agree with Rolling Stone's assessment of 1975's The Hissing of Summer Lawns: "There are no tunes to speak of."

Mitchell certainly wasn't the only musician of the period who delighted in experimenting with form and function: Steely Dan, an influence on Wild Things Run Fast, certainly fall into this category. But the era's male visionaries were generally given far more leeway when they decided to rip up their playbook. Of Bruce Springsteen's stripped-back 1982 LP Nebraska, Rolling Stone noted: "Rock's gutsiest mainstream performer has dramatically reclaimed his right to make the records he wants to make, and damn the consequences." Mitchell didn't have the same luxury. Not only did albums such as Mingus alienate her audience, they saw her labelled as "pretentious", which stung her even more. "In my optimism I thought my opportunity for expansion could be a shared thing, but that wasn't the case."

Mitchell's exploration of technology in the 80s marched her further away from the archetype that critics and fans were apparently keen to pin her to. More than the synthesisers, perhaps what most confounded audiences about Mitchell was her lack of sentimentality about her older and best-known work. For her, valuing her past work didn't mean repeating it, but daring to hope that her next best work could be around the corner. Even if it wasn't, she knew there was always another chance.

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