When I try to tell people about my Jim Steinman obsession, they usually then say that they have no idea who he is. I’ve tried to say, “He wrote Bat out of Hell” or, “He wrote every Meat Loaf song you’ve heard” and they tend to stare blankly. But if I say, “He wrote ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart,’” while it does often give them an inaccurate view of my musical taste (They tend to think that means I’m a big fan of Disney music, Celine Dion, Barry Manilow, and lots of other overblown soft pop nonsense that I hate.), they do at least know what it is. Weirdly, it’s a song that was such an enormous hit and been so ubiquitous that people don’t actually listen to it. They don’t realize a lot of what’s going on in the song, which is maybe less “rock” than I want but otherwise pretty pure Steinman.
The song opens with a delicate, dramatic piano riff that sounds every bit as precarious as the singer will later describe. Then the piano is joined by Rory Dodd’s voice, softly singing “turn around” that he will hold in the background through most of Bonnie Tyler’s next line. They repeat this vocal pattern over just a piano until the prechorus brings in Steve Buslowe’s bass. Both singers get louder and more passionate and it feels like we’re building to a chorus, but then it doesn’t happen.
Instead, we go back to a verse and Max Weinberg’s drums and David LeBolt’s synths join in. It’s a bit louder now, as almost every instrument is present, but the overall quiet gives an intensely dramatic “calm before the storm” feeling. The prechorus that we heard before returns but this time leads into an explosion of drums and cymbal crashes opening up the chorus, which isn’t even quite full-throated yet but already a booming mix of Tyler’s big vocal and an impossibly loud rhythm section of Winberg’s trademark booming drums with non-stop cymbal crashes.
After the main chorus, everything else cuts out and Tyler and a backing vocal croon quietly over a piano and light rhythm. An exceptionally dramatic synthesizer solo (And, really, who besides Steinman would create such a thing?) with percussion elements that have always sounded to me like some sort of mix of thunder and something metal being smashed on the ground follows, and we get a third verse that’s louder still than its predecessor. The chorus then explodes with every instrument now at full volume, including the Steinman-traditional Dodd/Troyer backing vocals, a near-cacophonous blizzard of sound that drops away to a gentle vocal, rhythm, and piano sound as it fades out, with Dodd providing some lovely lead flourishes on the way out.
In a way, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is a supremely ’80s version of a power ballad. There is no guitar to speak of but synthesizers play a major role. There are stupendously loud drums along with weird, electronic-sounding percussion elements. The volume is so loud that Phil Spector might have felt like it was over-the-top. It’s everything that the ’80s overdid, but the drama makes it sell. No song ever has sold its feelings better, and while it’s far from my favorite Steinman song, that’s what makes it such a quintessential part of his catalogue.
Now I have to admit something that other Steinman fans will consider heresy: I don’t like Bonnie Tyler’s voice. The incredible amount of rasp in her voice works to sell the emotion of this song, but in general I am just not a fan. When I read criticisms of Meat Loaf’s vocals, they often sound to me like descriptions that are accurate for Bonnie Tyler. I understand that I’m in the minority, especially among Steinman fans, but I really still wish that this song had a different vocalist. However, Rory Dodd’s counterpoint vocals are great, especially in the fade out. He never got a real chance to be a lead singer, but here he actually got one of the more famous vocal parts of the rock era, and that’s definitely an accomplishment.
When I say that people don’t listen to the song, I’m not just talking about how it’s this impossibly loud embarrassment of sound, but also the lyrics. This is a vampire love song if ever there was one. “Your love is like a shadow on me all of the time/I don’t know what to do and I’m always in the dark/Living in a powder keg and giving off sparks” is backwards light and dark imagery for most purposes–“your love is like a shadow on me all of the time” would be a line for an abusive relationship (and a romantic relationship with a vampire is often depicted as one anyway), not for one you want to keep. Even the title is “a total eclipse of the heart”–covering it with shadow, darkness. And then there’s the fact that the primary part of the chorus ends with “Forever’s gonna start tonight,” the cry of a woman about to turn immortal in her vampire lover’s arms. Even a few verse lines like “Every now and then I know you’ll never be the boy you always wanted to be” are direct references to its vampiric origins, especially since we Steinman fans know that his vampires are always teens.
“Total Eclipse of the Heart” is one of the biggest hit songs of the rock era, and it’s that for a reason. The structure is absolutely brilliant, holding back bits and pieces of the song every step of the way until it finally explodes with unbridled energy into something that’s just so enormous and so loud. And that makes the drama of the singer’s breakdown so much stronger than it otherwise would be. It’s far from my favorite Steinman song and it’s definitely not the one that exemplifies him best, but it’s his most famous, and I think it’s fair to say that a slew of writers like Alan Menken and Diane Warren have been trying to match it ever since its release.
Steinman actually produced the entire album containing this song, Faster Than the Speed of Night, though only two of the songs (this and the title track) were his own compositions. I will add some thoughts about the album to the end of my post about “Faster Than the Speed of Night,” but I don’t care as much about his producing work, so I won’t say a ton. However, the success this album had not only revived Bonnie Tyler’s career but brought it to new heights. She would become the closest thing there was to a successor to Meat Loaf as Steinman’s muse until he and Meat Loaf reunited, and she deserves a ton of credit for it. If nothing else, she seems to have started their relationship, recognizing that Steinman’s sound would be a good fit for her when it sounds like most would not have. Steinman also always said that he wrote “Total Eclipse of the Heart” for her, as a showcase for her voice. (Meat Loaf, as would become a recurring theme, claimed that Steinman had written the song for him.) That makes me wonder, just how much of the rest of Steinman’s career is really thanks to Bonnie Tyler? It clearly (and correctly) bought him a ton of goodwill when he produced this hit album and wrote one of the biggest hits ever, so how long would he have had (and how much work would he even have done) if he hadn’t worked with Bonnie Tyler? It wouldn’t have been terribly illogical for the record executives to see him as a has-been who just got lucky once after both his and Meat Loaf’s attempts to follow up Bat out of Hell had flopped by comparison. I find it easy to believe that Tyler really saved his career just as much as he saved hers.
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