Rock Hall Special: Rock/Pop Power Duo Pat Benatar & Neil Giraldo Get Their Due

STILL ROCKING: Neil Giraldo and Pat Benatar mark 42 years of bows at the 2022
iHeartRadio Music Festival at T-Mobile Arena on Sept. 23, 2022, in Las Vegas.
Photo by Kevin Winter Getty Images / iHeartRadio

Pat Benatar came by it honest. Neil Giraldo did, too. With her razor cut pixie and Lycra tights, Benatar was a new wave siren who leapt from FM radios in 1979 demanding satisfaction – sexually, romantically, personally – directly. Giraldo brought everything about brazen swagger and searing electric guitar into a perfect alignment with the vocal powerhouse. If she wanted to be Robert Plant seeking Jimmy Page, the pair – who would sell 35 million albums worldwide – were equally matched to topple stereotypes and shatter rock cliches.

“The label saw us as ‘the unholy alliance’,” Benatar now laughs about her co-conspirator/future husband/fellow inductee. “They were sure they’d lost all control – and they had. I had a plan: I wanted to be an equal player in the band, not window dressing. The power was on my terms, but it was always about the band.”

Radio stations didn’t want to play “Heartbreaker” initially, complaining about too much guitar. But once that thrumming intro, squalling guitars and pure intensity of her mezzo-soprano spilled from car speakers, that tidal wave Benatar sings about broke all over America’s youth.

Punk rising, rock intensity and a firmly-rooted feminism, suddenly a new kind of sex symbol emerged: strong, tough, real. She gave as good as she got, held her ground, drew lines and turned the tables on men as she sneered in her take on John Mellencamp’s “I Need A Lover” tautly “who knows the meaning of ‘Hey, hit the highway…”
A Couple That Rocks Together: Neil Giraldo and Pat Benatar, who first met in 1979, are pictured performing in October 1980 at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey. Photo by Gary Gershoff / Getty Images

Discovered at NYC’s Catch A Rising Star, her theatrical bravura connected, but the rock thrust confused people at her label. Resisting pressure to follow Olivia Newton-John, an outreach from Chrysalis to a young guitarist recording in Woodstock with Rick Derringer ultimately created rock’s greatest male/female team.

“I knew what I wanted,” Benatar explains, “this screaming vocal couldn’t work over piano or acoustic guitar. It had to be an electric guitar that just burned through everything, that I could go head-to-head with as a singer.”

For Giraldo, a kid from Cleveland’s blue collar West side, that wasn’t a problem. Chosen from over 200 players for the Derringer gig, he was literally being “released” from the Guitars & Women sessions, when the call came.

Laughing now, he confesses, “I didn’t care if it was a guy, a girl or whatever. All I wanted was a great rock singer. Mike Chapman, the producer, said it was critical to find someone who was as strong as Patricia when he saw her at Catch. She was looking for a partner, a Jimmy Page, and she wanted to share the spotlight. I love to produce, arrange and write.”

It was chemistry from the jump. Having been raised around women, Giraldo understood core strength, ball-busting and a woman’s capability. He saw Benatar as a singer who would push him, too. “It was a punk attitude in the skin of a rock band…”

As “Heartbreaker” took off, the band catapulted from clubs and opening slots to arenas. Girls copped the striped Ts, leotards and lacquered lips; boys blasted air guitar riffs to the iconic lines Giraldo fashioned. Even in those days before MTV, the platinum In The Heat of the Night was a flashfire – and Benatar and Giraldo were determined to fan the flames.
“Heartbreaker.” “Treat Me Right.” “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” ”I Need A Lover.” “You Better Run.” “Hell Is For Children.” Even Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights.” The hits stacked up – and the sound? An incendiary blast, it jack-hammered into the synapses.

“That was the sound of a band forged on the road,” Giraldo laughs. “That second album was recorded as a live band, who’d been playing at this frantic pace as this thing grew and grew and grew.”

As Crimes of Passion blew up Night’s success, MTV was born. “You Better Run” was the second video played; Benatar becoming the first vocalist and Giraldo the first guitarist ever seen on the video channel that became the ‘80s dominant pop cultural force.
If MTV needed a poster girl, Benatar – with her ferocity and NY street fashion kids across America could adopt – was perfect. Even more, the guitar and terse rock ethos made the sound something that could be programmed against Van Halen, Asia or whatever video the nascent channel might add.

Nestled on Crimes was “Hell Is For Children,” a foreboding look at child abuse inspired by a series of articles in The New York Times. Not exactly cars, booze or sex, Benatar was adamant it be a single, wishing to shed light on the problem, as well as give the victimized a voice. Protests ensued.

“Record companies are motivated by what’s saleable,” the practical, four-time Grammy winner explains. “I was in your face, pushing all the norms. Punk (happening); let us do that. I am not fear-based, you can’t scare me. So when people freaked out, we just kept going – and having a partner helped. We were kind of like Romeo & Juliet …

“And when ‘Hell is For Children’ happened, the religious right protested! At our concerts, they’d be out there. Nobody bothered to listen to the lyrics.”

Wearing a bracelet invoking Joan of Arc’s rebuke of fear, “I was born to do this,” Benatar acknowledges its far greater reward. “We got bags and bags of mail from kids who were being abused. The idea someone had seen them, you’re so grateful to provide that.”

“Promises In The Dark.” “Fire and Ice.” A scalding “Helter Skelter.” “Shadows of the Night.” “Looking for a Stranger.” The iconic “Love Is A Battlefield,” with a video to match Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

The hits – and platinum certifications – kept stacking up. The atmospheric “We Belong” created a place for a smarter lyrics in pop and rock. The pair explored influences, dynamics and how to expand rather than Xerox the music. Ever seeking and curious, there was even True Love, a jump/swing album with Roomful of Blues.

With a Broadway play in development, the pair still exult in playing. Taking it on the road, Benatar is every bit the vocal fury she was in the ‘80s, with Giraldo moving from electric guitar to piano as suits the still-potent songs. True love, indeed.