How Patrick Hernandez’ Born To Be Alive soundtracked the last days of disco…
Having dominated the 70s, the summer of 1979 was largely seen as the last days of disco.
July of that year infamously saw the hosting of the incendiary Disco Demolition Night at at Comiskey Park in Chicago, while by September, the US Billboard Top Ten featured no disco songs for the first time since the mid part of the decade.
For French producer Patrick Hernandez, however, that summer marked a career high-water mark, with the release of Born To Be Alive, a record that sold 27 million copies worldwide and topped the charts as far afield as Canada, New Zealand, Mexico and Australia, as well as in most of Europe.
It was also the very first record bought by DJ John Digweed, as he admitted in an interview earlier this year.
Hernandez still makes regular appearances on French television, often performing his now 41-year-old hit.
When asked recently by France’s Europe 1 as to the secret to a summer smash, he said that all big hits combine a good melody, simplicity and ‘the luck factor’. “You need a good alignment of the planets,” as he put it.
Earlier this month, he revealed in an interview that since COVID lockdown measures were introduced, he spent 109 days in confinement at his L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue residence – a process that was made easier due to his in-house studio and swimming pool, the trappings of any successful musician.
However, things could have turned out quite differently for the now 71 year old.
Following a stint as a session musician, the early 1970s saw Hernandez join pop-rock outfit Paris Palace Hôtel, which enjoyed moderate success in their native France, with tracks such as Ramona, Lyndia Lyndia and Back To The Boogie, on which Hernandez earned a writing credit.
By the tail end of the decade however, Paris Palace Hôtel had disbanded, and the performer, now in his late 20s, appeared to have few options, musically.
Until, that is, he reworked a previously discarded song, which was originally written in 1973.
As he told France Net Infos in 2016, “I first recorded [Born To Be Alive] in 1975 with Paris Palace Hôtel, but this version was not released due to lack of interest by the record companies. So it was not until 1979 that people discovered this version.
“I wrote this song for somewhat special reasons – its title could pass for a pleonasm, albeit one that opened rather nice doors. I saw people around me living half their life, and not concretely, and that’s not in my character. Hence, this was a kind of reaction to this inertia of those around me.”
The song was initially called Born to Be Wild, but given its similarity with the Steppenwolf classic, it was swiftly changed. “The word ‘alive’ appealed to me”, Hernandez added.
On the reworking of the track as a disco version, he told American Bandstand’s Dick Clark, “I wrote Born to be Alive four years ago, and it was a rock and roll version, and now its disco.
“I decided to change the style one year ago when I came back to showbusiness. I left showbusiness for a year, and moved to the French countryside.”
In many ways, Born To Be Alive was tailor made to be an international hit. Hernandez himself was of multiple nationalities (introducing him on American Bandstand, Clark commented “Patrick is an Irish name, Hernandez is Spanish, you are French, singing in English with an international hit, popular everywhere all over the world”) while the track itself was recorded in Belgium by Italian producer Jean Vanloo.
Initially released on French label Aquarius, it soon went global, on major labels such as RCA, Columbia and CBS. A cursory glance at Discogs shows the level to which the track permeated disco clubs and record shops around the world – countries like Yugoslavia, El Salvador and Venezuela are listed alongside more familiar markets.
Hernandez himself adopted a dandy-esque character to accompany the song, complete with well-fitted suit and cane, while the single’s cover featured an almost Warholian image of several colourful ladies tightening their corsets – adding to its aesthetic apeal.
Notably, the track almost also led to Hernandez kickstarting the career of a young dancer called Madonna Louise Ciccone, who the singer had met at a New York audition.
In a 2019 interview with Paris Match, he explained, “In July 1979, the success of Born to Be Alive was global. I’m in New York with the production team for auditions.
“We are looking for dancers and singers to surround me during the concerts of an American tour. Then up steps this young girl who impresses us all. This is Louise Ciccone, not yet Madonna, 19 years old. I am blown away by her performance, it was original and marked by a strong personality.”
Madonna herself namechecked Hernandez’ influence in a 1984 interview on her links to Paris.
“You know the singer Patrick Hernandez?” she explains. “His producers brought me over to Paris – they were going to make me a singing star. […] I auditioned to be a backup singer with Patrick Hernandez when he had a big record called Born To Be Alive… remember that?”
In the end, Madonna didn’t record for Hernandez, at the time preferring to remain a dancer and budding movie star… all that would change, of course, within a couple of years.
As Hernandez would tell OK Magazine a few years later, “She knew exactly what she wanted and was never accepting any compromise. She was a diva even before becoming a star.”
Over the years, Born To Be Alive has been covered numerous times, with varying degrees of success. Kelly Marie, of another late-disco hit It Feels Like I’m In Love fame, recorded a Hi-NRG take on the track in 1986, for example, while German techno producer Westbam released a rework in 1996 under the title Born to Bang.
In 2005, a version of the track by Disco Kings featured a controversial video of a would-be lothario certainly not acting his age – in a similar vein to The Prodigy’s Smack By Bitch Up.
As for Hernandez himself, the track continues to earn him a a moderate sum in royalties, particularly due to its use in commercials, movies and on television, and while he is today somewhat unfamiliar from the bouffant, lank singer of 1979, he still gets recognised from time to time.
“There are a lot of people who don’t know what I look like, even though the song is known all over the world,” he told Rocknlive Social Media in 2013.
“In France, sure, people know what I look like, because I’m regularly on TV. But in other countries, it amuses me a lot of the time when I’m at the bar, very far from France, and people come up to me. […] That’s really gratifying as a songwriter and performer.”
And as for the lasting legacy of Born To Be Alive, of which he describes himself as a ‘humble servant’?
“All of us were born, but few of us get to live an intense life – this song is really about living your life to the fullest. That’s an important message.”