Bonnie Tyler – Total Eclipse of the Heart

First Hit #1: October 1, 1983

I mentioned how Phil Ramone produced two songs that sound completely different yesterday. I bring it up again because now we have Jim Steinman, who doesn’t do that. You can instantly tell a Steinman-penned song, a certain giant operatic push, big vocals – this time delivered by the smokey pipes of Bonnie Tyler – little quiet bits on piano between the big epic showcase moments. Even the videos are often the same, with the singer wandering around really drafty old buildings at night while spooky things happen all around them. It’s bizarre, but understandable, since Steinman’s songs just sound like an old movie about ghosts and forgotten lovers. Big, melodramatic, slightly silly, but enjoyable if you’re in the right mood.

I might seem to be complaining about the man’s artistic oeuvre being a bit similar all around, and that’s not really the case. I like having a dose of Steinman’s massive musical theater putting itself in the middle of the pop charts. It’s something that nobody else really does, and he knows how to use big voices in a way that nobody else does. He embraces the way certain types of singer make a beeline to over-the-top places, by taking things to such an insane place that you can’t help but sort of admire his bravery. He’s a madman, but we all go a little mad sometimes.

Cue the wind machine…

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One Response to Bonnie Tyler – Total Eclipse of the Heart

  1. Robert Berman says:

    But for a stingy record company, this song and its companion piece “Making Love Out of Nothing At All” would have both been sung by Meat Loaf. That would have been fine; Mr. Loaf does a good job with Steinman’s grandiose compositions. But as things were, Bonnie Tyler’s recording of “Total Eclipse” and Air Supply’s recording of “Making Love” ended up as the #1 and #2 songs on the Billboard chart simultaneously. That’s amazing for at least two reasons. First, has any other songwriter ever achieved that feat? Has Max Martin, or Burt Bacharach, or Johnny Mercer? Maybe Barry Gibb at the peak of Saturday Night Fever? If not unique, it’s nearly so. Second, the listening/buying public must have really bought into this sound in a big way; it’s likely that a Top 40 radio station would end up playing the songs within ninety minutes of each other all day, every day, for weeks. Given the two songs’ great similarity, that’s a double-barrelled test of staying power. If Meat Loaf had recorded both tracks, they would not have been released simultaneously, so this little Steinman combo punch would have not had the opportunity to be tested in this way.

    Second, the two songs provide wonderful commentary on each other. They even both use the I-vi-IV-V chord progression so common in the 50s songs Steinman worships; it’s the chorus of “Total Eclipse” and the verse of “Making Love.” One song scales the manic heights of infatuation; the other plumbs the depths of despair, with one of the most tersely evocative images of heartbreak ever penned. Both songs pile on the instrumentation from solo piano ballad to rock orchestra as they escalate in pitch through successive degrees of the scale, and the emotions build into a banshee wail of either bliss or torment. Take “Total Eclipse” for instance. At the beginning of the first verse, it seems she’s just lonely, a little blue about the present. Then she’s crying– no, sick of crying. Then she’s anxious about the future, then terrified, and then we finally get the truth. She’s utterly demolished and would make any compromise to get the past back. But it’s not coming back. Failed love is like that, and nobody would risk it, if not for the payoff so ably described by Air Supply.

    The album version has an extra verse after the instrumental section, which I kind of like. But it pushes the song from 5 minutes to 7, and I can see why the radio edit chose to avert risk with the shorter version. Either way, a tour de force in how to write one (or rather, two) for the ages.

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