Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart were enjoying the success of their 1976 debut album, Dreamboat Annie, when they saw the ad their record company had placed in Rolling Stone: a full-page, tabloid mockup featuring a picture of the two bare-shouldered sisters and the caption “Heart’s Wilson Sisters Confess: It Was Only Our First Time!”
The nudity wasn’t the only thing that was implied in this ad. As Ann Wilson wrote later in Kicking & Dreaming, the memoir she co-authored with Nancy:
The ad went against everything we had hoped to achieve, against our ideals, and against all the intent and beauty in our songs. What steamed us the most was that our own record label had put out an ad that implied we were incestuous lesbian lovers.
The label’s decision to place the ad in Rolling Stone, which was then the most influential and visible mainstream outlet for musical coverage, compounded the insult. The sisters were furious, but attempted to carry on with their promotion of the album. However, an encounter on tour a few months later rubbed salt in the wound when Ann found herself in a discussion with a sleazy record station promoter who leeringly asked her how her lover was. Ann originally thought he was asking about her boyfriend, the band’s manager. However, she quickly realized that the promoter was referring to her sister.
Ann detached herself from the slimeball, but it was the last straw. She went back to her hotel and, fueled by the rage at all of the shady people she and her sister had to deal with, began to write the song “Barracuda,” which included the lyrics:
You lying so low in the weeds
I bet you gonna ambush me
You’d have me down, down, down, down on my knees, wouldn’t you?
When Nancy returned to the hotel later, she helped her sister finish the piece. Both of them had reached the breaking point. As Wilson observed, the two sisters didn’t know what the word misogyny meant, but they knew what they were facing.
Suffice to say, Heart split with its record album after the ad. “Barracuda” made it to number 11 on the Billboard charts, and almost forty years later, it has an assured place in musical history. Its iconic galloping guitar riff is considered to be one of the greatest in classic rock. The song itself has become a rock classic, with VH1 calling it the 34th best hard rock song of all time. It has been covered more than a dozen times by artists as varied as Alice in Chains and Lea Michele.
Heart has sold 35 million records worldwide. They continue to perform and tour, and their 2012 performance of “Stairway to Heaven” at the Kennedy Center ceremony honoring Led Zeppelin was viewed over 16 million times on YouTube. Unfortunately, their original record company wasn’t around to see any of this — they folded a few years after Heart dumped them.