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I was there... when Madonna shot to stardom

19 July 2022

In her new memoir, public relations guru Barbara Charone recounts being there in the Eighties when Madonna became a star.

Madonna
Photography Mediapunch/Shutterstock

In October 1983 I went backstage at the Camden Palace (now KOKO), a concert venue in London, with a couple of record company colleagues to tell one of our artists – a young woman called Madonna – that the 20-minute set she’d just performed had been really good. Actually, it was incredible.

Back then Madonna was just beginning her career. Her first two singles, Everybody in 1982 and the next single Burning Up, hadn’t been hits. But it would be third time lucky with Holiday, which had just been released.

When she stepped onto the stage that Thursday night with her eye-catching look – crucifix earrings, black top, black skirt, cropped leggings, that hair, the lipstick, the bare midriff – there was already a growing buzz of excitement around her.

The set was short. Madonna performed just those first three singles, accompanied by a couple of dancers in front of an audience of no more than 1,500 people. But the dance pop show she delivered that night was electric. The atmosphere was contagious, the dancing impressive and songs magnificent. It felt like we were all witnessing the birth of a superstar.

'Really?' Madonna said, with genuine humility, as we relayed how enthusiastically she had been received. Of course, it’s easy to say in retrospect, but I could sense then that Madonna was at the start of an astonishing journey. Although not even I could have imagined how I would see her go on to become one of the world’s biggest musical artists ever.

My hunch was, of course, proved right. Madonna returned to London four years later in 1987, the biggest star on the planet. Every publication in the country wanted to put her on their cover. This time she performed to almost 100,000 at Wembley Stadium.

To have achieved that sort of career trajectory – from such a small gig as Camden Palace onto a stadium, with no learning curve from performing at smaller venues in between – was a staggering accomplishment.

Like Madonna’s, my own career took off in a landscape very different to today’s. The Eighties, especially, were a really great time for music, live and recorded, and the media enthusiastically embraced it on TV, radio and in newspapers and magazines.

The atmosphere was contagious, the dancing impressive and songs magnificent. It felt like we were all witnessing the birth of a superstar.

I’d been working for Warner Brothers for a couple of years by the time I saw Madonna’s first gig at Camden Palace. Over the next decade I would go on to head up the company’s press office. Then, in 2000, I co-founded the public relations company MBC PR with Moira Bell as, my former boss at Warner Music.

I’m proud to say that today, almost 40 years after I first saw her perform, we continue to work with Madonna, along with Foo Fighters, Rod Stewart, Keith Richards, and many other great artists. Today Madonna’s a global superstar and when she releases a new album will usually do one or two interviews. I’ve always tried to focus on the music. When the awesome Music came out in 2000 she did a classic cover of [youth music and culture magazine] The Face. And when Confessions on a Dance Floor came out in 2005 she did the cover of MixMag, which really suited the project as opposed to something with a bigger circulation.

Back in the Eighties, pop was bursting onto the scene and it was a thrilling time for everyone involved. In those days, there was no social media; the only way to read about artists was to wait for the latest issue of NME or Smash Hits to drop. If you wanted to get any closer to a band or artist you were mad about, you went to a concert.

Today, you’re spoilt for choice, able to access all kinds of music from every genre of artist, simply by picking up your mobile phone. But that’s not to say, almost 50 years after I started working in it, that I find the industry any less exciting now.

The MBC roster has always been eclectic so over the years we’ve looked after a diverse mix that’s included Robert Plant, Cher and Simply Red.

I also worked with REM when they were the biggest band in the world. And James Blunt when he was an unknown former soldier who wrote the global smash hit You’re Beautiful.

And there’s Keith Richards, of the Rolling Stones, about whom, after first meeting him back in the early Seventies, I wrote: ‘When Keith Richards walks in a room, rock’n’roll walks in after him.’ I was working for the music magazine Sounds in the mid-Seventies and had been sent to interview Keith about the release of the Rolling Stones album It’s Only Rock’n’Roll.

Almost four decades since i first saw her, people continue to ask me, “has madonna changed?” my reply is always the same. No

I was impressed by everything about him. From there I would go on to interview Keith many more times, developing a level of trust that led to me writing his authorised biography, which was published in 1979. When we launched MBC PR we had the freedom to choose who we worked with and it was nice to be able to work with Keith as his UK PR, after all those years.

I think one of the things that made mea good music journalist and now a good music PR is the fact that I love music. I’ve spent all my adult life working with musicians. When I’m in a taxi and the driver asks what I do for a livingI always say, I work with famous people! I’ve worked with many of our artists for a long time: Madonna, Depeche Mode, Elvis Costello, Robert Plant, Keith, all for decades. And it’s just as rewarding working with newer artists such as Kasabian, Jack Savoretti, Keane and Jake Bugg.

Meanwhile, almost four decades since I first saw her perform, people continue to ask me ‘has Madonna changed?’ My reply is always the same. A firm ‘no’. Pretty much from day one she was the same as she is now: very opinionated, smart, she knew what she wanted. She was confident, she was ambitious and an absolute perfectionist – just as she is today.

It’s hard to pick a favourite Madonna show as each tour she seems to get better and better. Her recent Madame X tour at The Palladium was another landmark show. She continually betters her past tours.

It’s impossible to pick a favourite Madonna song but I’d have to say Music and Ray of Light were right up there.

Back then, as now, the look and the dancing – everything came from her. I think with people the best art always comes from themselves without someone having to tell them what to do. She had an aura about her from the very beginning that radiated an energy force that would not be swept aside. She had buckets of self-belief – while still appreciating a bit of reassurance following those early performances – and gave off the air of someone that was in charge of every aspect of her career.

Would she have made it today as she did back then? Of course she would. Madonna was always going to be a star, whatever era her career was born in.

As told to Rachel Halliwell. 

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