Giraldo helped write many of Benatar's hits, including "Promises in the Dark" and "We Live For Love." Even the ones he didn't help compose, however, feature his distinctively stinging lead electric guitar lines.
Giraldo has also made a name for himself as an outside producer. He manned John Waite's debut album Ignition, and he also produced The Del-Lords, The Cruzados and Kenny Loggins. You can even hear hear his six-string work on Rick Springfield's massive hit, "Jessie's Girl." He has the guitar chops and the golden ears: "Love Is A Battlefield" was a slow-moving demo that he knew right away how to turn into a hit.
We spoke with Neil about the personal and the professional side of the Benatar/Giraldo union - how they make music together, and how they sustain a 30-year marriage. Along the way, we found out why he can't stand most of those music videos, and if they ever communicate through the songs.
Neil Giraldo: Okay. Well, first I'd like to say that I not only write songs with her, but I do so with all kinds of people, and also by myself. But for her, it's like an obsessive situation because we're together all the time. I mean, we've been together for 33 years, from Day One.
It's as simple as this: I have a noisy mind. In other words, it never stops. I'm always thinking, I'm always creating. It's one of those sicknesses that's a blessing and a curse because you love the results, but you hate the noise, because you can't turn it off. You could be watching a football game or doing something else, and then an idea comes in that never stops.
So here's what I do. I have different tools, like a guitar, piano, or just my voice or whatever. And in the morning if I have an idea going right away, I'll start playing it on the guitar while I make up this stuff. Patricia will wander into the kitchen and she'll go, "Don't do this to me now." And I'll go, "No, I'm not doing anything. I'm just going to play this. It's a new idea I kind of like." Then before I know it, she'll look at me and she'll go, "Okay. All right. Get out of the room." So then I'll go and I'll start writing some more. And then she'll come back and maybe half an hour later she'll say, "Okay, I have a few little words for here." I'll take those words and I'll make more melodies and write more words, and that's kind of how the process goes. Then I'll give it back to her, she'll write some more and she'll give it back to me, I'll write some more, and then it's finished. That's really how it works.
Songfacts: It's interesting you call her Patricia, because my wife's name is Patricia. And I can't call her Pat or Patty. I have to call her Patricia. Does Pat require that you call her Patricia?
Neil: No. She hates that name. That's her real name, but she hates it. But I can't call people by their real names. Like even Kay [Giraldo's publicist], she'll have a nickname, too. Everybody gets a nickname. It usually takes a little while to know them, and then I give people a nickname. So I've never really called my wife "Pat" ever. Maybe when we first met, like, a million years ago. But her real name's Patricia. And I love it. She hates it, but I love it.
Songfacts: What's your nickname for her?
Neil: Oh, I've got a million of them.
Songfacts: What's the latest one?
Neil: I can't tell you what they are.
Songfacts: Does she have a nickname for you?
Neil: Well, sure. She gave me Spider.
Songfacts: And why did she give you that nickname?
Neil: Well, it's no exotic, crazy, very cool, made up, interesting story. I like the colors of black and yellow and we were in one of the very first gigs we ever did, and there was a supper club in there called Spider's Supper Club or something like that, and it was black and yellow. She said, "Look, you've got a tie that's black and yellow, your favorite colors are here." She goes, "Look at the name, it's Spider. I'll call you Spider." And that was it.
Songfacts: No kidding. (Laughs) You'll have to make up a better story.
Neil: I should make something else up to make it really interesting collaborative stuff. (Laughs) But I've got to speak the truth.
Songfacts: Well, let's talk about some specific songs. I want to start with one of my favorites, which is "Promises in the Dark." Is there a story behind writing that song?
Actually she slipped the words under the door of our music room in this little house we had. We wrote that I think in 1980. Even though we could have put it on Crimes of Passion, we ended up putting it on Precious Time instead. But she put the words under the door because she was too embarrassed to let me see the words face to face.
Then she had a little bit of an idea of a melody, so I took a little bit of what that was, and I wrote it on piano in our little music room. My favorite guitar I had in the room at the time fell and busted while I was writing, and busted the top of the neck off it. So that was like a curse. And then when we went to record it, we had everything but the last verse, and then I just wrote the words for the last verse in the studio while we were recording it. So that's how that one goes.
Songfacts: Now, did you sense that you had something magical when you created it?
Neil: I thought it was deep in a really good way. I think that it was a commercial hit, but I love the expression of the melody. It gave a lot of room for the vocal to be powerful. And then when we rehearsed the song, that's where I came up with that little guitar riff, which is the signature to that break between the slow part and the fast part. When I hit that in rehearsal and I put the song way up tempo - because the song was a ballad - I found I hit that, then I knew, I went, 'Oh, we got something now. This is going to work.' I knew it right then we had it.
Songfacts: Your guitar style is really distinctive. I wish I could hear some of the demos of some of these other songs that were hits, like "Heartbreaker" and "Treat Me Right," and some of the big songs that you didn't write. Do the songs sound different after you get your fingerprints on them?
Neil: Oh, absolutely, 100% different in the opposite direction. If I didn't write the song, it never even came close to be what the song was. Not even close. I completely rip it to shreds, tear it apart, take it from backwards to forwards. I've always done it.
And the other thing I do as well, if I hear a song, whether we write it or somebody else did, as soon as I hear it, I hear it finished, the way I hear it in the studio. I hear from beginning to end - I know exactly what it's going to be. And the best example of that probably is "Love Is a Battlefield." That was a song written by Mike Chapman (and Holly Knight). Very slow, very methodical, boring, like "We... are... young... heartache... to... heartache..." I mean, it was really slow. (Laughing) As soon as I heard it, I went, "I don't understand why this song would be so slow." I just heard it done in the up tempo thing.
When I did it, and Mike heard it - and I love Mike, he's done so much for me in my life. He's one of the people that I owe everything to, because he's the guy that put all this stuff together for me - but when he heard it, he just went crazy. He goes, "I don't want you to have the song anymore. I hate it. I hate what you've done. It's horrible. I can't listen to it. It's horrible." And then it went to #5, and he goes, "I think it's great!" (Laughs).
Songfacts: It's amazing what success will do to a song, huh? (Laughing)
Neil: Yeah. But you know it was difficult for the record company to hear it, too. Because when they heard it, they went, "What are you doing? What is this drum machine thing you did? Why did you create this weird loop? Why did you do this? It's horrible. What are you doing? I'm not going to release it. It's wrong." I go, "No, it ain't wrong. Song's a hit, I'm telling you. Leave it the way it is." I battled with them and battled with them, and eventually they said yes. And they came around to it, too. But think of it if it was me, where I wrote the song and I gave it to somebody, and I had a vision of what it was and they totally destroyed that thing. I would have said the same thing Mike did. I would have went, "What the hell are you doing? You ruined my song. What would you do that for?" But it's one of those things. When you have a great song or a great arrangement that all works, sometimes it takes a little time to kind of grow on you. And then when it does, you don't get bored. You listen and you go, 'Wow, this is great. I'm really happy I did that.'
Songfacts: So it sounds almost like that song was a battlefield.
Neil: Yeah. It was. Everybody hated me for that. (Laughing) That's nothing new. That happens a lot.
MTV's first video was the befitting "Video Killed The Radio Star." Their second was Pat Benatar's "You Better Run," which fit all the criteria the network could hope for: rock song, American act, attractive female artist, recognizable track (a cover of a song by The Young Rascals, it had charted at #42 the previous year). Benatar's video for "I'm Gonna Follow You" also went in rotation and was played three times that first day.
Since The Buggles were synth-powered, Giraldo became the first guitarist to appear on MTV.
Neil: Well, I didn't think it would revolutionize the music industry, so to speak. First of all, I couldn't imagine a TV channel that was going to be with no commercials for 24 hours. And the other thing, I didn't realize that they were going to play those five videos over and over again for 24 hours. So if you do that for five days and you've got all those people looking at it, it went from somebody maybe knowing what you look like to where you couldn't walk the street anymore, because everybody around is going to be, "Holy, cripe, I just saw you on MTV." So it's like, how did that happen so fast?
But on the other hand, what a medium for trying to get music and songs out. I knew it would be big, but I had no idea it would have that much impact. Incredible.
Songfacts: One of my favorite parts of one of my favorite movies is in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. There's a narrative where the girls at high school talk about the Pat Benatar lookalikes. What did Pat think of that? Did she ever say anything to you about that part of the movie?
Neil: Yeah. She says, "If you want to have a bad look, think about the look you're going to have first before you do it, because if you pick one bad look, people will find it and remember it forever." (Laughing) But we saw it, we liked it, it was funny. She liked it.
Songfacts: Is it nice to be the more anonymous member of the duo? I'm sure people don't recognize you the way they do your wife.
Neil: Correct. Yeah. Unfortunately, though, if I wear a T-shirt, sometimes it attracts people. And credit cards don't help, either. But for the most part, I can weave my way around town. In a way, it's actually good for me, because I can go out and do things like that and not get it. But you're right. It doesn't happen all the time, but it happens enough. You know, people watching me chew food. Like steak, if it's too hard or something, you know what I mean? (Laughing) Or a bad golf swing or something like that. "Well, isn't that Spider?" "Yeah." "Oh, man, he sucks. Look at that golf swing."
Songfacts: Well, I think you said that it's 33 years that you've been married?
Neil: It's 33 years we've been together. We put it together, Patricia and I, in 1979. So it's 33 and a half years. We've been married 30.
Songfacts: 30 years. Okay. I have to ask you, even in regular civilian life I don't meet many people that have been married that long. What do you tell people about what's the key to your success?
Neil: Well, I say this, and it's true in a lot of ways: she's always right, basically. What I mean by that is I don't like confrontation. I try to avoid it at all costs. I know what battles are, I know when not to battle. It's not worth it to me, I don't need to win a verbal argument. I don't really care about that. I'm a pretty easy going guy. I don't usually like any of that.
And the other thing is, we split our lives in such a good way that in our personal life she's the main controlling catalyst. So she controls all the personal side of our life, and it's fantastic, and she's great at it 100%. During that period of time, I do more of the music. I'm always in the studio. I'm always creating. I'm the catalyst for making that work.
And then when she comes in and we work, she has opinions, but they're not as strong as they are in our personal life. In other words, she'll listen and say, "You like that? You want to do it like that?" I'll say, "Yeah, I think it's the right way to go." "Okay."
So in the personal life, if I say something, I go, "Should we really do that? Should the kids go there?" And she'll say, "Absolutely." I'll go, "Okay. If you say so." And respect is a big part. We respect each other. That's very, very important. We respect each other, and that's key.
Songfacts: Well, I want to get back to talking about a few more songs here. One of the ones that I really like is "Hell Is for Children." That's one that you co-wrote with Pat and with Roger Capps; is that right?
Songfacts: And what inspired that song?
Neil: Well, that song was inspired by an article that Patricia read in the New York Times about child abuse. That started the lyric off, and the lyric went from her to Roger. Roger added a few lines to that. And then some form of the melody started being constructed. I got a hold of it and I finished writing the melody and I worked on the chorus, and I did the outro section to build it up, because I wanted the whole song to be very sad as the beginning. I wanted to make it intense so you could really feel the pain of what the song was about. So by the time it ended, you've got to be exhausted. And that was the point. "Hell is for hell," like a very powerful moment.
And so that's where the inspiration came from, an article written about child abuse. And then everybody thought that it was real. They thought that Patricia was abused as a child, which wasn't the case. She had a great upbringing. You couldn't get more Happy Days-like than her. She had the perfect Happy Days life. There was other abuse happening in my family, but it was a different type of thing, more verbal, but not physical like the song depicts.
Songfacts: I'll bet you got some interesting responses from people. Have people told you their stories about the impact that song has had?
Neil: All the time. Yeah. All the time. I'm glad it turned out the way it did. It's one of my favorite songs that we wrote, and it really has a very powerful effect on people. And it's great to play, it's great to sing, great to hear, great to feel.
Songfacts: That kind of leads me to my next question. You have all of these hits and all these songs that you guys have recorded together. What are the songs you enjoy playing the most when you play live?
Neil: I like 'em all. And each night they change. And the reason they change is I try to find something new inside the song to do either by the guitar or keyboards or vocal, anything. I try to make it different in a way. I may go, "Ooh, I like what I did on this one tonight." So they always change. Even a song like "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," which is one of the ones I hate the most. But some nights I'll go, Wow, I did something different and I really like that. That was my favorite song to play tonight.
So it's how you feel. You know, you don't always feel the same every day. Some days you feel tired. The same as doing songs live. Some are different than others. So I always find something good out of them. And I also find something I hate. (Laughs) That happens to me.
Songfacts: When it comes to writing songs together, do you ever send messages to each other in songs, and if so, can you give me examples of those?
Neil: Well, sometimes it'll be a dream. There's a song called "I Don't Want to Be Your Friend, I Want to Be Your Lover." It's about a dream. And in the dream, she makes something up and then it's not real, but it seems so real because it was a dream. So things like that happen. Sometimes we'll throw a line in here and there about something. It changes. It happens.
July 10, 2012. Neil and Pat's tour dates are on benatargiraldo.com.
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