Allegedly, Steinman wrote this song in two days when the producers of Streets of Fire were unable to secure the rights to use Bruce Springsteen’s song “Streets of Fire.” I know that not everyone is a lawyer, but as a general rule, it is actually not the most secure legal position to assume the use of someone else’s copyrighted material in your work, especially in the title thereof. One would think that someone would have realized the precarious position in which these producers had placed themselves before asking the notoriously slow-writing Jim Steinman to produce a last-second replacement. And then the film is still named after a famous Bruce Springsteen song that never appears in it, which is just weird.
Immediately, Max Weinberg announces his presence with thunder–a booming, echoing crash of drums, guitar squeals, operatic high-pitched vocal notes, and piano chords that gives the impression of an explosion in an empty warehouse repeats a few times, creating a tense atmosphere. Those echoing, thunderous drums continue underneath and the keening, dramatic guitars punctuate above as the verse starts, with Laurie Sargent’s voice on top of a rhythmic piano. It’s a foreboding atmosphere, like we’re building up to some sort of conflict.
Then, a short instrumental break speeds up the piano and brings in the 1984 drum machine. A synthesizer sting then leads back into another verse. And then finally we have the almost cathartic explosion of the chorus, with one of Steinman’s best vocal hooks sung by multiple voices (Sargent, Rory Dodd, and Holly Sherwood are all credited with lead vocals, so I’m not sure who is doing what, especially when they’re layered together like this) while the synthesizers mimic strings, the drums crack and boom, the guitars crunch, and the piano bounces at a breakneck pace–this is a loud sound with multiple hooks on top of each other that could easily be a mess but isn’t. Most of the rest of the song stays like this, with the piano noticeably less and less beholden to the rhythm and melody. Even for Steinman, this song is obnoxiously loud, but it also has some of the best hooks he ever wrote and they kind of carry it through the volume of what surrounds them.
If there is one part of the song that feels a bit under-baked, so to speak, from its circumstances, it’s the lyrics. There are some great lines and images, but the overall conceit of the song–teenagers seeking salvation and deciding sex is as close as they can get–just doesn’t go anywhere. “And if I can’t get an angel/I can still get a boy/And a boy’d be the next best thing,” the singer opines in the first verse; then in the second posits, “I’ve got a dream about a boy on a star/Lookin’ down upon the rim of the world/He’s there all alone and dreamin’ of someone like me/I’m not an angel but at least I’m a girl.” But there isn’t any real thought about the results of this celestial expectation, the kind of idea that Steinman would often explore in his larger epics. It kind of comes across like the spark of an idea that would be fleshed out later but doesn’t get fleshed out, understandably given the time constraints.
While there is a later version of this song I like better, it is great in this form. It’s bordering on too-loud in the best way, and the “Let the revels begin/Let the fire be started/We’re dancing for the restless and the broken hearted” closing is one of the absolute best hooks ever anywhere. To most, the big ballads like “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “It’s All Coming back to Me Now” are what encapsulates Jim Steinman; but, to me, it’s hard to top the Streets of Fire songs in doing that. I’m not saying that they’re his best work, though they are both great, but they’re just great examples of what he did.
- It’s a persistent claim (notably usually from detractors) that Jim Steinman is a poor man’s Bruce Springsteen. (Also notably, the Springsteen cult levels that claim at basically anyone who has been popular in rock music since 1975.) I think that perception comes from a few places, perhaps the most obvious being his long-time collaboration with Bittan and Weinberg. He also wrote the ’70s rock album that actually had the success Springsteen fans think Born to Run had. And of course Todd Rundgren described Bat out of Hell as being, to him, a parody of Bruce Springsteen. But I think a lot of it got cemented by this film. You couldn’t get Springsteen? Then hire Steinman. That’s basically what happened.
- I’ve never bothered to watch the film, and I’m not going to pay for it somewhere, so I doubt I really will. But it sounds like it might be an interesting cultural artifact of its time, even if (as I suspect) it is a terrible film.
- I don’t necessarily have a good place to describe it, but Steinman would attempt to pick up the pieces to two Robert John “Mutt” Lange productions this year after Lange stopped working due to mental issues. Billy Squier’s Signs of Life album got decent reviews and even seemed on its way to being a success until a homophobic masculine panic response to a video basically ended Squier’s career–a story that really deserves more attention for what it says about the world in 1984. He and Steinman seem to have gotten along. The other was Def Leppard’s Hysteria, which didn’t come out until 1987 and didn’t end up being produced by Steinman. It was a disaster from the get-go, with personal animosity on both sides (seemingly particularly between Steinman and lead singer Joe Elliott) and professional disagreements about almost every aspect of recording. Eventually, Def Leppard fired Steinman and Lange returned, and bad blood seems to have remained forever on both sides. It was a messy situation for everyone. Def Leppard’s issues recording the album continued thereafter, starting with drummer Rick Allen losing an arm in a car accident in December 1984. Lange would eventually return and they would release their biggest-hit album. There is some more of 1984 to cover, but it’s interesting that there are two movies with opposite results and two Mutt Lange clean-up jobs with opposite results.
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