For the first time in this series, we have a song making its second appearance, as someone sees fit to rescue one of the songs from Dead Ringer. And, as everyone would have expected, this would-be rock and roll hero is . . . Barry Manilow.
Interviews and reviews at the time are often shocked at Steinman’s willingness to work with Manilow, which seems rather bizarre to me. I don’t like Barry Manilow’s music and love Steinman’s, so I don’t by any means think that they are the same, but both could easily be described as “huge, theatrical, piano-based mixes of modern pop/rock and Broadway.” Manilow tended toward the more traditional modern pop and Steinman tended toward the less conventional Broadway and rock parts of that concatenation, but there was definitely some overlap in the sounds they pursued. And the theatricality of Manilow was something Steinman praised in response to such concerns. Regardless if what one thinks of Manilow’s music, though, he is at least a perfectly fine singer, and “Read ’em and Weep” is a song that deserved better than the arrangement and especially the vocal it got on Dead Ringer. Having Steinman on board as producer and Manilow singing meant that it should at least get both no matter what.
The song opens with simple piano from Sterling Smith and some echoing guitars from Davey Johnstone. Multi-layered Manilow vocals join in and we stay with that arrangement until the chorus. At that point, cavernous drums (from Nigel Olsson instead of Max Weinberg), non-stop cymbal crashes (from Jimmy Maelen), and choir-like backing vocals (from Dodd, Troyer, and Sherwood again) join in, giving us a chorus that is unmistakably Jim Steinman. The second verse is filled with bursts of backing vocals and includes a soft synthesizer from Roger Powell while drums back off, though the bass from Dee Murray is more audible. The drums return for the second chorus and everything stays present until the soft final chorus, which is backed only by synthesizer and guitar. It’s a much more traditionally-Steinman sound, even if it’s light on guitars and just a bit smaller overall than one would expect from him.
In the second half of the second verse, we have some new lyrics that are an improvement over the Meat Loaf version, but that’s the only lyrical difference. The new part doesn’t change anything about what the song is saying but it says the same thing in a more poetic way.
However, the most obvious change is the lead vocalist. Steinman songs take a type of melodramatic delivery that I actually do think Barry Manilow is capable of, but it’s just not present here. I don’t know whose idea it was to go with the multi-tracked vocal for all of his leads, but it makes him sound robotic and mechanical, which is a shame because he does hit every note perfectly well. It’s almost like an early ’80s version of auto-tuning and really harms a vocal that otherwise seems fine. It’s an improvement over Meat Loaf’s Dead Ringer vocal still, but I feel like the recording weirdly does Manilow a disservice here, because I think with just one of his voice there we would get miles more emotion, and that’s the only part that’s lacking in his performance. This was Manilow’s last top-40 hit and he was 40, so maybe he needed the help, but what I’ve heard of his voice after this one suggests to me that he really didn’t.
Overall, I actually do think this version of “Read ’em and Weep” is better than its predecessor. The country twang is taken off of the guitars, it has much more of the typical Steinman bombast, it has a small lyrical improvement, and Manilow’s vocal, even marred by the multi-layered sound, is an improvement. I often list this song among the group that I feel never got a definitive recording, but this one isn’t really that far off–it has some dated-sounding synthesizers and that robotic vocal but otherwise does sound good. The three big 1983 Steinman ballads have a real similarity to their sound and this is my least favorite of the bunch, but it’s still pretty great.
I suggested before that I think Steinman may have worked with three different artists in 1983 as sort of a hedging of his bets, hoping that it would ensure that at least one managed to hit. But in reality all three did. “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was massive, the biggest hit song he ever wrote, and Bonnie Tyler experienced a career revival that surpassed her previous peak thanks to Faster than the Speed of Night; Air Supply made it to second place on the singles charts with a song only intended to entice fans who already owned the rest to buy a greatest hits album; and Barry Manilow also made the top-40 for the last time in his career with his own new track for a greatest hits album. He surely had some real juice with record executives after that performance. The near future would see Hollywood come calling twice and Steinman try to clean up two Robert John “Mutt” Lange productions with mixed results.
At this point, Meat Loaf was in dire financial straits and the pair were involved with a number of lawsuits pertaining to Bat out of Hell, including against each other. And yet, Meat Loaf would cover two Steinman songs on his next album.
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