Looks like we’re covering a big one tonight, folks! Every now and then there comes a song that, while relatively new, profoundly creates such a splash, it is instantly memorable and continues to be referenced and remembered years, even decades later. These types are a tad hard to come by these days when so much music tends to sound the same – some may say the most recent example of such is “Uptown Funk”, but we might even have to go back further to, say, “Tik Tok” or even further to “Gold Digger” or “Hey Ya!”. Although it may be an issue of time proximity versus nostalgia more than anything else, the 60s, 70s, and 80s seem to be chock-full of these tracks. While it’s debatable just how good of songs “Can’t Buy Me Love” or “Get Down Tonight” actually are, the ripple effects they’ve caused are certainly undeniable.
And thus leads to one of the biggest staples of my karaoke bar-going experience: Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”. I already wrote a few sentences about it in my overview of 1983’s year-end list (where it charted at number six), but it really deserves some more analysis. But first, background. Most of the record’s prominent elements can be credited to the song’s writer and the track’s producer, American composer Jim Steinman. Steinman, in case you’re unfamiliar, mainly got his start in composing for musical theater, an artistic sphere known for its over-the-top, fiercely dramatic characteristics. It’s not surprising, then, that Steinman would incorporate a healthy portion of these elements in his crossover to pop music. He was also responsible for writing Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All”, as well as Meat Loaf’s 1977 Bat Out of Hell and, later, his hit single “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)”. Eventually he found himself responsible for producing Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler’s fifth album Faster Than the Speed of Night – and here we are now.
Even if you weren’t at all familiar with any of these musical works I have listed thus far, judging by the title alone might give you at least some indication of what direction we’re going here. Steinman’s compositions tend to possess about an equal amount of heartache and bombast in both their lyrics and their arrangements. And yes, they are cheesy as hell. This has often been the cause of a lot of divide amongst more, shall we say, serious listeners. There really is no such thing as subtlety in the world of Steinman. To those who are a fan of over-the-top theatrics, his sound is heaven; to those who are not, his sound is somewhere between annoyance and deep, deep hell.
In case I didn’t make it abundantly clear in my previous brief review of “Total Eclipse”, I fucking love this song. And so did the rest of the country at some point, it seems, considering it spent four weeks in the top spot. During those one of weeks, it should be noted, “Making Love Out of Nothing At All” actually held the number-two spot, which has got to be one of the campiest music weeks in pop music history. Putting those two songs side-by-side actually highlight some of the considerable similarities between the two and, by extension, the aspects that Bonnie Tyler perfected compared to Air Supply’s plain kitsch. Both songs begin with a lone piano piano backing and soft melody that progressively build and build to a gargantuan chorus of relentless passion and emotion, with the title phrase being performed in a relatively softer post-chorus, with added emphasis on one vital line. The final few measures of both are replete with a flurry of bells and whistles, polishing itself off with a clean, cathartic finish similar to how a musical number would tie itself off. Even the “And I know…” motif of “Making Love” builds upon itself in a similar manner as the “Turn around…” pattern in “Total Eclipse”. Steinman seems to be a huge fan of swelling repetition.
I should note at this point that in order to enjoy (or at least experience) “Total Eclipse of the Heart” at its fullest potential, one should give a listen to the album version rather than the chopped up single edit. Four-and-a-half minutes might make the song a bit more palatable to those not used to such extreme pop, but the seven-minute version is really where all the raw emotions are laid bare. There are two separate lengthy verses in the album version, as opposed to only the first verse in the single version. This edit, in my opinion, omits so much of what makes the buildup of the track so delicious. After the first verse, there is a great organ solo that lasts for about half as long as the first verse. In the single version, it transitions to the “Turn around, bright eyes” bridge, and then immediately in the final chorus. With the album version, however, one gets the impression that this is the direction it will lead – only for the “Turn around…” vocals to start back up again and Tyler to continue singing on about her intense emotions. While the first verse focused on her anxieties and fears (“Every now and then, I get a little bit lonely and you’re never coming ’round”), the second verse offers a glimmer of hope in a seemingly dark world (“Every now and then, I know there’s no one in the universe as magical and wondrous as you”). This seems like a bit of a nitpick, but I think it really is important for the duality of the song to be represented and taken into consideration with any true criticism of its material.
As if I haven’t already hammered it in enough, there is so much to love here. Besides Steinman’s contributions (which are definitely a lot), Bonnie Tyler’s performance here is phenomenal. The lush instrumentation ever-present here only builds in intensity with every passing second, and Tyler’s vocals possess the perfect amount of energy to match with every corresponding lift and swell of the arrangements. I initially remarked on her unusually raspy vocals when I discovered her first US hit, 1977’s “It’s a Heartache”, which greatly emphasizes her contributions to the track (one that I find a pretty great listen, albeit way different than this one). Although “Total Eclipse” is a Jim Steinman creation to its core, I can’t imagine anyone else equalling the efforts pushed out by Tyler’s raw and gritty pathos that almost seem entirely an instrument of their own. Although I probably would have enjoyed the track if recorded by anyone who can sing it competently, it’s Tyler who kicks it up to fifth gear and truly makes it a masterpiece. I also have to give it up for vocalists Rory Dodd and Eric Troyer, the two angelic voices who provide the necessary backup to Tyler at the most crucial moments and do so magnificently.
Besides all of these truly kickass elements of the record – many of which you probably already know about – it’s hard to deny how cool and melodramatic some of these lines are. Some of my favorites: “Every now and then, I get a little bit tired of listening to the sound of my tears”; “And we’ll only be making it right, ’cause we’ll never be wrong together”; “We’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks”. And I can’t forget the pre-chorus, which has some of my favorite writing on heartache from any piece of art: “Once upon a time I was falling in love, but now I’m only falling apart… / Once upon a time there was light in my life, but now there’s only love in the dark; Nothing I can say; a total eclipse of the heart”. Simply beautiful. Additionally, although I already mentioned this in my earlier write-up of the tune, I think it’s worth a mention here: while the verses consist of a series of upward key changes that build and build in passion until the passion is almost too much to take… Bam! A downward key change occurs right before the chorus. The move itself seems almost too risky to even consider, as downward key changes tend to fall flat on their face – yet it works here, and the chorus manages to be just as explosive. Unbelievable.
It’s really not hard to see how a song such as this can be so divisive. There are freakin’ explosions during the organ solo. Along with about a hundred other instruments that are present at least some point during the track’s run. Yeah, it’s bloated for sure. But, once again, it’s a pop song that accomplishes what only the best of pop songs can achieve: it keeps people talking. There’s so much about it that is so darn compelling, and its replay value is unbelievable. I listened to the entirety of 1983’s top 100 songs, and I can confidently say that there wasn’t anything else on the radio that sounded remotely like this one… well, except for “Making Love Out of Nothing At All”. But that’s just the Steinman effect working in full gear. This is truly one of the great pop songs, and I hope it outlives us all for at least another century or so.