Looking Back

Tina Turner’s Private Dancer turns 40

It was the comeback album that reinvented the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Here’s how it sounds four decades on…

Tina Turner’s career is very much a story of two halves.

The first: born Anna Mae Bullock in Brownsville, Tennessee, Turner’s ascension began as the lead singer of husband-and-wife duo Ike & Tina Turner, penning hits such as ‘River Deep – Mountain High’, ‘Proud Mary’, and ‘Nutbush City Limits’. 

This was the Tina Turner of fierce minidresses and even fiercer live performances (often replicated, never equalled), but behind the scenes, Turner was being torn apart by physical and mental abuse at the hands of Ike. After famously disbanding in 1976 (and after finally divorcing the man who’d subjected her to years of torment), Tina’s star started to wane.

Despite opening for the Rolling Stones during their 1981 American tour, this female powerhouse and that remarkable voice found herself performing in faded casinos and late-night variety performances (zero shade being thrown here, her stints on The Sonny and Cher Show are nothing short of sensational). Critics and execs alike thought her ‘past her prime’, that all-too familiar label leveled at women in the music industry whose careers have (god forbid) lasted beyond the age of 30.

Then, in 1983, the second half began.

In November of that year, after signing a deal with Capitol Records, Turner released a cover of Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’ and the world got a rude awakening. Far from being a ‘nostalgia act’ here was a performer on the cusp of something remarkable; boasting a brand new single scaling both the European and US charts, and a legacy that trumped the plethora of one-hit wonders flying up and down the Billboard 100 at that time. In response to the unexpected success of ‘Let’s Stay Together’, Capitol gave two weeks for Turner (then aged 44, practically ancient according to youth-obsessed 80s standards), to lay down an album – her fifth, and bravest solo album to date, Private Dancer.

Released in May of 1984, the album was recorded in the UK and produced by several different teams, one of which included Rupert Hine and Martyn Ware of Heaven 17. The sound was different – sexier and more richly produced than Turner’s previous R&B cannon – her raspy, distinctive voice backdropped with synths, sax and slick arrangements. Here was a woman unbeaten and ready to take on both the world and the industry who doubted her. This was about redemption, reinvention, and it sounded absolutely sensational – especially given the range of genres and themes explored within.

Tina Turner - Private Dancer (Official Music Video)

The single ‘Private Dancer’ (written by Mark Knopfler and featuring a guitar solo by Jeff Beck) took audiences behind the eyes of a woman who sells her shimmies for credit card slips. This narrative, instead of being exploitative, sounded liberated and empowered when sung by Turner, who was now, instead of being pushed aside like some washed-up showgirl, riding at the very top of her game. The song resonated with women who felt overlooked by the decade, and identified Turner as a phoenix-like figure who’d risen from the ashes of abuse. This writer still has fond memories of a cousin (sadly since lost to breast cancer) performing ‘Private Dancer’ while babysitting, wearing a sequined scarf and frosted lipstick filched from her mother’s dressing table. Even today, the track resonates. It’s that good.

Other standouts on the album include the cautionary ‘Better Be Good To Me’ (another bit of badassery warning men to respect their partners) and the absolutely exquisite ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’. Released as a single in the same month as Private Dancer, ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’ became Turner’s first and only Billboard Hot 100 No.1 single, selling over 2 million copies worldwide. It’s probably now recognised as her most famous track, and went on to title the 1993 biographical film of Turner’s life as well as the touring tribute show.

Essays could and should be written about how perfect this song is. That opening line: “You must understand, though the touch of your hand makes my pulse react…” is flat-out fire. So is the chorus. The single cover. All of it amazing, and incomparable to anything else female artists were doing at the time.

Tina Turner - What's Love Got To Do With It (Official Music Video)

Of course, this writer is somewhat biased. It felt like every mum (including mine) had a copy of Private Dancer in their car during the 1980s, so there’s definitely a lot of emotion and nostalgia intertwined with revisiting the album 40 years later.

It was a phenomenon that defined a generation and redefined an artist, finally affording Turner the respect and adulation she deserved after years of living in Ike’s shadow. A commercial juggernaut, it went on to earn multi-platinum certifications and to this day remains to be Turner’s best-selling album ever in North America. Post-Private Dancer, Turner went on to star in films (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), record Bond themes (1995’s ‘GoldenEye’ written by Bono and The Edge) and turned her life into a musical (Tina: The Tina Turner Musical is currently playing at London’s Aldwych Theatre).

For this writer, Turner is a symbol of strength and resilience, and I was absolutely devastated when she left us in 2023 following years of ill health. Thank heavens though for Mary Anne Hobbs, who kindly granted my song request during her BBC 6Music show the morning after Turner’s death – the request was, of course, for ‘Private Dancer’, and in that moment the grief felt palatable because I understood how this song, and the album that housed it, ultimately set Turner free. 

Private Dancer was music’s greatest comeback and the classiest f*ck you of all time. Tonight, I urge you to throw on a sequined scarf and bathe in its brilliance.

TINA – The Tina Turner Musical is now booking at London’s Aldwych Theatre until May 2025. Find tickets here.

Book by 23:59 on 31 May to save up to 28% on selected seats and performances (click here for full terms & conditions).