Flash forward seven years.
Our protagonist has spent all of them working towards becoming a pop star. Her first serious effort in 1983, a recording session with Narada Michael Walden, who would go on to produce Whitney Houston on the soundtrack for The Bodyguard, produces neither anything of value nor anything that has made it into the public sphere, although lyrics including the chorus “give me the go/ and let me / rub you down /I’m in your power, when you’re / takin’ me down / I’ll just lay low until / you come around / good to go / rub down / good to go /rub down” suggest we’re not missing out. In 1984, she moved to LA, at first doing basically the same sorts of bar gigs she’d been doing in DC. In 1985, she cut a commercial for Kellogg’s short-lived Just Right cereal, where she’s cast as “the piano player who isn’t obviously supposed to look like Elton John.” That year, things finally began to coalesce. She met Steve Caton, a guitarist who will end up sticking with her through To Venus and Back, and ends up forming a band along with future Guns ’n Roses drummer Matt Sorum and a bassist, Brad Cobb. The group cuts a demo tape of five songs (the contents of which will be another Patreon-exclusive in a few months. Don’t worry, this won’t be a habit; the period of Amos’s career where we have a pile of extant demos that never went anywhere ends here).
The tape is sent to Atlantic Records under the name “Tori Ellen Amos and her band named Y Kant Tori Read,” (the name, apparently, is a reference to her frustrations at the Peabody with regards to sheet music) firmly positioning Amos as the project’s focal point, and is enough to net Amos a contract that she’ll spend the next fifteen years working her way out from under. The resulting project is a messy compromise. Amos had only reluctantly shifted gears into the band setup, writing home to her parents, “I have to accept that the girl and her piano are dead. That time in history is over.” And so she reinvented herself in the vein of 80s arena rock. Upon being signed, however, Amos found herself at the mercy of an over-involved label. The ten tracks of Y Kant Tori Read were ultimately recorded across six studios with a rotating cast of musicians. Sorum remained the drummer across all of it, but Caton was exiled to “additional guitars,” and was ultimately one of four guitarists on the album, while Cobb did not appear on it at all save for a cowriting credit on “Fayth.” Pulled in so many directions, the album ends up being a smorgasbord of 80s cliches, almost all of them a few years past their sell-by date. The largest and most obvious inspiration, however, was Pat Benatar, a fact made obvious in the hiring of Joe Chiccarelli, fresh off of work on Benatar’s 1985 album Seven the Hard Way, as producer.
Benatar was one of the few female icons across the male-dominated 1980s rock scene. This phrasing is instructive: Benatar was primarily a singer of other people’s songs, holding only a handful of co-writing credits across her biggest hits. She does not play instruments or produce any of her work, with many of those duties handled by her guitarist Neil Giraldo, who she married in 1982. Giraldo gave her what she was looking for sonically: a style that was firmly in the vein of rock instead of the more female-friendly pop scene out of which artists like Madonna or Belinda Carlisle would arise. Benatar was a classic frontwoman, responsible for vocal performance and maintaining a suitably iconic style. At this, however, she excelled, with her cover of the Young Rascals “You Better Run” becoming the second song played on MTV. The video was simple: a dilapidated warehouse set in which Benatar, immaculately made up in a black and white shirt and vinyl pants, swaggers her way through the track while her band cowers in the corner like the incidental props they are.
Her biggest hit, and the most obvious inspiration for “Fayth,” came in 1983 with “Love is a Battlefield.” The song is one of those that’s essentially inseparable from its video, the first to feature overdubbed dialogue, which featured Benatar leading a workers uprising in a taxi dance club, which in practice means leading a mob of women whose aesthetic can roughly be described as “punk rock as imagined by someone who was only allowed to shop at a renn faire” as they terrify a pimp with the power of their shoulder thrusts. Like all of Benatar’s best work it is rousing, anthemic, and propulsive.
Its most obvious influence on “Fayth” comes in its first forty seconds, in which Benatar offers a laconic spoken word iteration of the chorus, the weariness of which sets up a sharp contrast with the opening assertion that “we are young.” The trick does not work nearly as well for Amos, who is in no way up to the task of selling lines like “make it in the city / do what you can / wave to the boy / with a gun in his hand,” and is instead left sounding like an awkward white girl trying to rap. (The delivery on this last line, meanwhile, suggests that someone—presumably Cobb—was listening to the Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls.”) The song, has no plausible way of recovering from this excursion into high camp, and it feels at times like Amos is desperately leaning into it, most obviously in her remarkable pronunciation of the word “sex” in the pre-chorus.
This is the way of things for the album, which makes a habit of irretrievably sandbagging itself with extreme tastelessness. (See also the poorly-dating decision to spell the song title with a Y.) Nevertheless, things improve on the chorus, where the song settles into a solid groove that circles around an Eb, first rising from the Db to reach it as Amos stretches “fayth” over two syllables, then staying there for several syllables before climbing up to the F and dropping back to the Db again, lending a cyclical urgency to Amos’s plea for her partner to help sustain their relationship.
There is a curious hollowness to this, however. Amos invokes fayth as a means to keep both herself and her love together, and as a means to “wake up and face the day,” but this is seemingly the whole of her vision: things like emotional labor and better communication are absent from the equation. She simply demands fayth—whether in her or on her part—as a salve to all wounds.
The song’s real highlight—and indeed one of the highlights of the album—is the bridge, where Amos soars out of the Eb minor key that the song had been operating in and into the relative major as Amos finally moves from her hollow protestations and towards some form of hope, imagining herself starting again and berating herself for her fear of change. For a fleeting moment you can hear the artist Amos would become, including a fascinating moment where “fayth” goes from standing in for the concept as in “with a little more fayth / I could keep our love together” to a person or entity as in “maybe Fayth would understand,” a elision of the sort she’d eventually make routine practice. The escape is short-lived—she’s foreclosed the possibility again by the end of the bridge, imagining how their love could be brought back with a suitable application of fayth, but for a fleeting moment there’s an open window and a clear line of sight to something other than this oppressive knockoff arena rock.
With the bridge’s burst of potential expired, the song finds itself with nowhere to go and nearly two minutes to spend getting there. Indeed, the song plays at resolving before the bass line starts up and allows room for a stalling guitar solo to lead into another repetition of the chorus, at which point Amos begins riffing on the chorus at the high end of her register in a way that seems to assume that the instrumentation is going to follow her just as it drops back out to strand her there. Finally everybody resolves to riff on the chorus for a bit while the song sheepishly fades out, ironically lacking the courage of its own convictions.
Recorded somewhere in 1987 or 1988 at any of half a dozen studios in the Los Angeles area. Played exactly once on both the 2014 and 2017 tours each time as a punchline to a cover of another song, with “Fayth” reworked to form a smooth transition. I In 2014, it comes out of George Michael’s “Faith,” reworked to maintain the syncopation in that song and reduced to a bridge supported by two choruses. In 2017, she gets to it out of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” mashed up with “Way Down” off of Boys for Pele, using only the chorus as a sort of requiem, starting from the dirge-like quality of “Way Down” before gradually soaring upwards.
Top: Rappers performing “West End Girls” in the Pet Shop Boys film It Couldn’t Happen Here; still from “Love is a Battlefield”; Y Kant Tori Read band photo featuring, from left to right, Brad Cobb, Matt Sorum, Tori Amos, and Steve Caton
Thanks to Nathan Curtis for help with pinning down the songs musical structure.