Jim Steinman essentially began his career while a student at Amherst college, writing and starring in a musical called The Dream Engine that was described as a post-apocalyptic Peter Pan story with eternal teenager vampires. He basically spent the rest of his career re-writing The Dream Engine, never letting go of his obsessions with vampires, teenage emotions, and Peter Pan.
After several years working with Joseph Papp in the New York Shakespeare Festival, Steinman still felt he was hitting a wall with his love of rock and roll. Instead of trying to bring rock to the theater, he decided to bring the theater to rock. However, it would take until 1977 for Bat out of Hell to catapult him into stardom. In between, there is little that survives of his work.
One song that does survive, to some extent (though it has been out of print for a long time and is seemingly not available on any streaming service), as essentially Steinman’s debut outside of the theater is “Happy Ending” on Yvonne Elliman’s 1973 Food of Love album. It’s not surprising that the theater rocker ends up giving a song to someone who first became famous as a result of working with Andrew Lloyd Weber, and indeed Steinman and Weber would circle one another for years in various ways. The album sank without a trace (in spite of being loaded with famous guests) and the song was essentially forgotten.
However, YouTube has a way of remembering things, so it is possible to hear the song.
The arrangement of the song is immediately striking because it is so unlike any other Steinman song. The fact that he is not involved in the production is clear from every single note, whether it’s the quiet drums, the simple acoustic guitar, or the echoing vocals–none of it sounds like Jim Steinman songs would sound later even when he wasn’t in the producer’s chair. One of Steinman’s repeated tricks (repeated often enough that Avantasia used it in what writer Tobias Sammet called his attempt to write a Jim Steinman song) was to build to a dramatic crescendo, then immediately stop as though the song were ending, only to bring back something from earlier in the song again before it actually ends. “Happy Ending” even does that differently, building only with Elliman’s voice and ending on a quieter note than it began.
The lyrics aren’t nearly what Steinman was capable of at his best, but there are elements of his typical work: vampiric imagery (“hungry older . . . tired and lonely thirst . . . I’m coming out of the dark . . . tired and dusty thirst”), repetition of opening phrases (“take me away” and “don’tcha” appear at the beginning of multiple lines in a row, the former multiple times), sexual provocation wrapped up in metaphor, and over-the-top emotional turmoil. It’s not as focused as his best work would be, and parts of the lyrics are almost nonsensical, but it’s certainly not bad.
Probably the most immediately identifiable thing about Steinman’s writing in general is his song structure. He does not write with a typical ABCBCDBC format (that is, “intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus”), but he also does not eschew the repetition of that format. Indeed, his songs are often built out of increased repetition of multiple parts that eventually get layered together to make the final product, one that would sound like a muddled mess if you hadn’t already learned the pieces earlier. “Happy Ending” does have an unusual structure, but it is in fact without a chorus. It’s really three verses and a bridge, with the phrase “I can’t make it alone” functioning as the closest thing to a chorus by appearing at the end of the second and third verses. It’s not the kind of structure Steinman would later employ, but it does show that he was rejecting the standard pop song structure even at this point.
Elliman sings the song well, though her whispy, clear voice is really the antithesis of what Steinman’s career would be built on working with later. There isn’t a lot of instrumentation to get notice, but it’s all well done.
Is the song a presage of what’s to come? Not really. Is it good? Sure. The chief failing of the song is that it’s rather unmemorable. It’s as though the reason it lacks a chorus is that Steinman just hadn’t found a good enough hook to write the chorus yet, and that holds the song back from being as good as it could be.
Of course, he had plenty of them for his next project.