Jim Steinman, the colourful composer, lyricist and producer has died at the age of 73 in Connecticut. Born in New York on 1 November 1947 (exactly a month prior to my father), Steinman was a master when it came to expansive, overblown rock, with his hand prints all over a long list of convulsive power pop classics, among them Air Supply’s Making Love Out Of Nothing At All, the Sister of Mercy’s This Corrosion and, er, Boyzone’s No Matter What. Andrew Lloyd-Webber, his co-writer on the latter song told the BBC, “To say that he loved [German composer Richard] Wagner would be an understatement. He was kind of the Wagner of rock, if you like.”
Regarded as something of a Gothic post-sixties Spector, Steinman’s catalogue amounts to an alternate-universe Wall of Sound. It put Meat Loaf on the map, being responsible for virtually all of his most famous works (Bat Out Of Hell, Dead Ringer For Love, I’d Do Anything For Love et al), and he was also able to lend his operatic onslaughts to Bonnie Tyler on the album Faster Than The Speed Of Night* (1983) and subsequent single Holding Out For A Hero (1984), where, to my ears at least, his high camp aural panoramas made more sense with a female voice.
Either way, their collaboration generated Bonnie’s biggest hit, the perennial powder-keg that is Total Eclipse Of The Heart. A love song for a vampire, it’s Jim Steinman at his most sparkly bombastic, the song we reach for when we have grown tired of exhibiting graceful restraint. And if I crank the volume up, the song’s powerhouse of emotion can reduce me to a quivering wreck. This is why…
There’s a brand new myth, sorry, theory, doing the rounds these days. Apparently, the song that was Number 1 on your 14th birthday is the one that defines your entire life. Why? I’m not entirely sure, but someone on the internet said it does, so, hey, let’s roll with it.
What was the single topping the American Billboard Hot 100 on 26th June, 1983, four days before a certain Girls Aloud vocalist named Cheryl was born? Well, it was that Irene Cara post-disco soundtrack thing, Flashdance…What A Feeling. Of course, you don’t need me to remind you that Giorgio Moroder had produced better work.
What about in the country of my birth, the ‘United’ Kingdom? That musical honour went to that limpid radio behemoth, the stalker’s very own “our tune”, Every Breath You Take by The Police, which was the year’s biggest seller in the US. Hmm, the bitter Sting of tears indeed. It’s decent, but how about I put through a quick call Down Under to my adopted homeland, Australia, to see if they have anything better?
I knew the Aussies wouldn’t let me down because reigning supreme on the incongruously titled Kent Music Report for a whopping six long weeks, from May through to July 1983, was Total Eclipse Of The Heart, by the queen of eighties poodle perms, Bonnie Tyler.
Epic, dramatic, volcanic and lots of other words ending in ‘ic’ too, it also happened to be the fifth largest selling single in Britain that year, just behind a certain song called Let’s Dance by David Bowie. I don’t mind telling you, I absolutely lurve its Wagnerian-like onslaught of sound and emotion, written and powerfully produced by Jim Steinman.
One could almost call it an aria.
After hearing his work on Meat Loaf’s multi million-selling Bat Out Of Hell, raspy Welsh vocalist Bonnie Tyler approached the New Yorker to collaborate. Total Eclipse Of The Heart was originally conceived by Steinman for a musical about vampires, but he re-worked the track for Tyler, bringing in a set of ace musicians: Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band on piano and drums, Rick Derringer on guitar and Larry Fast on synthesizers. Rory Dodd, a frequent Steinman collaborator, sings the choral-like “Turn around, bright eyes” refrain, which had been recycled from Steinman’s 1969 college musical The Dream Engine.
As usual with Steinman’s work, the arrangements are operatic and ornate, but Tyler’s ferocious vocal power is such that she’s not overwhelmed by the deliciously grandiose mania surrounding her. Crikey, I don’t know that a person enjoys Total Eclipse Of The Heart so much as submits to it. It’s that devastating.
But if you’re wondering what the song is about — the particular story it tells — I can’t really help you, except that like the natural phenomenon itself, the lyrics are rather dark. “I always laugh when I hear people play Total Eclipse Of The Heart and Paradise By The Dashboard Light at their weddings,” Steinman once said. “I wonder if it’s grim foreshadowing.”
“With Total Eclipse Of The Heart, I was trying to come up with a love song and I remembered I actually wrote that to be a vampire love song. Its original title was Vampires In Love because I was working on a musical of Nosferatu, the other great vampire story. If anyone listens to the lyrics, they’re really like vampire lines. It’s all about the darkness, the power of darkness and love’s place in dark.”
The song pulsates with heartache, passion, and mystery, communicating great anguish over some unspecified romantic loss: “Once upon a time there was light in my life, but now there’s only love in the dark,” she rasps and gasps, her three packs a day voice helping to legitimise the melodrama inherent in the lyrics. You might be thinking that love in the dark doesn’t sound so bad. Yet to hear Bonnie sing it—and her voice is capacious, emotive, truly unwavering in its sincerity—is to recognise that something good has collapsed. Perhaps Steinman’s narrative is purposefully nonsensical, an homage to the ways in which we gabble and rant when deeply wounded.
Who else can write melodies like this nowadays? Steinman gave the Welsh windbag a chance to belt, with a mini opera that spirals through about six climaxes, key changes and hailstorms. It was a committed rendering. Like the Loaf before her, Tyler seemed to instinctively understand that the best way to animate a Steinman song is to sing it like a crazy person—red-faced, flinging your arms every which way, single-handedly sucking each molecule of oxygen from the room. To perform it properly means that by the time a singer gets to the end—to that final, shredding “I really need you tonight!”—she should be in a state of complete psychic collapse. Her audience should understand on a cellular level that she is not fucking around. In this way, Total Eclipse Of The Heart offers the gift of release, a chest-beating and emotionally exhausting exercise in psychodrama before bedtime.
We salute you Jim, and anyone who steps into the karaoke spotlight to try and emulate the Welsh wonder’s pipeage on this mega-bombast classic has my undying respect. And while rock critics often looked down upon his extravagant and excessive style, the composer remained defiant: “If you don’t go over the top, how are you ever going to see what’s on the other side?” he once asked.
Bonnie concurred wholeheartedly, and recently, the singer told the BBC’s The World At One she was “so privileged” to have Steinman’s songs in her repertoire.
“Jim writes these very bombastic sort of Wagnerian kind of music. When you see him play the piano, he starts with his hair all lovely and dry. By the time he is finished it’s dripping with sweat and it’s all stuck around his face because he plays with such vigour.”
A wrenchingly dramatic rock ballad with a darkly fantastical and sublimely subversive video that became an MTV staple, Total Eclipse Of The Heart spent four weeks atop the American Billboard charts, at its peak selling around sixty thousand copies a day while another Steinman writing credit, Air Supply’s Making Love Out Of Nothing At All, sat at number two. In Britain the song knocked Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean off her perch and kept Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) in runner up position. It would be deposed after a fortnight by Duran Duran’s Beatles-esque Is There Something I Should Know?
Steinman was beaming.
“That song never goes away. It’s the biggest karaoke song in the world and it’s been covered dozens of times. It’s one of my children and I’m as proud of it as I am the others. I try not to play favourites but yeah, it’s special. I was primarily known for doing records for Meat Loaf and my own records, which were these thunderous, Wagnerian, almost heavy metal, epic, stormy records. I was a little bit surprised they would ask me, but my second thought it was a real challenge because of that. And I thought she had one of the most passionate voices I’d ever heard in rock and roll since Janis Joplin.”
The only thing more spine-tingling than the song itself, which was edited from its fully unexpurgated seven minutes down to 4:33 for single release, was its music video. And yes, if you didn’t already know, the promotional extravaganza is glorious in its ridiculousness. To emphasise just how ridiculously glorious, Total Eclipse was conceived by Russell Mulcahy, the quick-cut gay Aussie director of Highlander I will forever give a pass to. Not because he worked with Sean Connery and Queen in one fell swoop, but because just prior to this clip he was the man responsible for putting Ultravox in Vienna (literally), and a shirtless John Taylor from Duran Duran being squirted at on an elephant in Sri Lanka. Cue freeze frame.
A masterpiece of overblown emotion, the film for Total Eclipse takes its cue from the song by reminding us that pop music should involve fantasy and a keen sense of the ridiculous. It’s certainly one of Mulcahy’s most elaborate videos in terms of production value, artistic flourish, and high camp pretentiousness. Embodying if not enhancing the lush, epic grandeur of the song, the film’s opening shot gently moves us towards a softly lit window of a room at an imposing, castle-like prep school at night. (In real life, the disused Holloway Sanatorium, a Victorian Gothic hospital in Surrey that had already been the scene of Adam Ant’s Goody Two Shoes and The Cure’s Charlotte Sometimes clips.)
The ’80s Hogwarts is ready for her close up, Mr. DeMille.
A shadow moves across a full moon. Inside that room our Bonnie looks plaintively out the window from underneath seven tons of eye shadow. She stares blankly, impervious to the gentle breeze blowing against her, while the room boasts a bunch of stuff that was apparently stolen from Stevie Nicks’s dressing room: fans, a gauzy bandana, and a shitload of candles. Empty crystal decanters sit next to — bizarrely — an empty toilet roll flaps in the wind, rising like a benzedrine puff adder or maybe just an engorged manhood. It all hints at her sleepless agony, or possibly just a runny bottom. This video is nothing if not meaningful, but please don’t stare directly at it for too long or you will go blind.
A white dove — or perhaps Stevie Nicks’s own cockatoo from the Bella Donna album cover — flies out of a bright room into a dark hallway and flaps its wings, oblivious to the fact that the song is telling it to turn around. Perhaps it doesn’t speak English.
What should be a romantic image, then—soaring and dreamy—is in fact a frustrated one, because the poor bird is struggling to fly, flapping about at the bottom of the screen. Would it be gauche to call it a symbol of Tyler’s own frustrated desire? I hope not, because that’s totally what it is.
Amidst these shots of an amorous Tyler brooding at night, the video shows a series of quick, dreamlike shots representing the stirring of her forbidden fantasies coming alive at night. Even though there’s no sign of Sia, chandeliers swing ominously in a grand hall full of dark wood panel frames and musty old bricks. Some serious moonlight — representing madness, desire, and transformation — casts an eerie glow through the school’s gymnasium like in a horror movie. The lighting contrasts that of light and dark, its radical juxtapositions, and Mulcahy’s use of smoke and mist to create moody atmospheric effects.
The camera cues up a close up of Tyler looking sad and scared as she sings the lyrics echoing those emotions. During the song’s first “Turn around bright eyes” line, double doors bathed in dark greenish light slowly open, revealing a weird young man wearing a prep school uniform. I told you this was eighties Hogwarts. Except this kid is definitely not a Hufflepuff. He has scary, glowing blue eyes because Mulcahy and his team were like, “Let’s take the part where she sings about bright eyes extremely literally.”
We see the world through her eyes. Tyler looks forward, as though at him, or perhaps this is a dream or a fantasy or a nightmare. Like a restless ghost, this adolescent student haunts her subconscious. Or perhaps he just wants to roger her.
Haunted and tormented by her overwhelming desire for her all-male students, she is the only woman in the entire video. Mulcahy’s camera objectifies, displays, conceals, and reveals the lithe young bodies in strikingly artful and erotic ways. The Gothic atmosphere of the school, with high ceilings, stone walls, and burning candles, hints at secretive rituals and adds to the video’s decadent tortured elegance.
As the song builds, the visuals get more dazzling in their contrasts of light and darkness. Our Bonnie walks down the dark hallway, lit from behind angelically. A door opens to her right, and we get a quick peek of male students sitting at desks as though attending class (despite the late hour, suggesting this is probably a dream or memory). They wear ties and white dress shirts. Then, suddenly, a breeze blows, parting open the barely buttoned shirts of the young men, revealing tantalising glimpses of their smooth, nubile, bare chests. It happens so fast you are not sure if you really saw it or just imagined it, putting you further in the mindset of Tyler and her rapturous subconscious torment. Much of video dwells in such a dreamlike subconscious state. Thanks to YouTube, I can confirm that yes, not only do the shirts blow open, but they do so in slow motion, making the scene vaguely pornographic. But it’s so quick that if you blink, you miss it. More‘s the pity.
As she proceeds down the hallway, the next door flies open to reveal a younger boy sitting on giant wooden chair. He’s sporting slicked back hair and made up to look like a girl, adding a dimension of gender bending to the video’s homoerotic visual aesthetic. The boy-girl wears angel wings and hurls a white dove into the air. His face is bathed in bright white light, the school uniform in darkness. But this may not be the last of him-her.
The next door reveals a group of goggle-eyed swimmers in speedos, carefully posed for the camera, their firm bodies on full display, however brief. Suddenly, they are drenched by water that comes from off camera. Slow motion, of course. They stand in close proximity to one another in a tiled locker room.
All of this student activity is incongruous—it’s late at night, the kids should be in bed—but this one carries with it the idea of some kind of secret society that meets at midnight when the moon is full. Something is definitely going on.
Mulcahy was cleverly subversive in providing his audience quick, forbidden glimpses of male sexual desire that hasten the heartbeat and elevate the pulse, and given the previous shot of the students’ shirts flying open, the sexy shot that conjures up images of ripening tuck boxes that dramatically elevates the video’s homoeroticism. The homoerotic vibe seems to add to Tyler’s torment because it suggests that, while she cannot have them, they are probably all having each other in these secretive corners of the vast school. Such is certainly the cultural lore of male boarding schools: that these students would be fooling around with one another due to the absence of girls.
Certainly, Mulcahy was aware of this, the blunt homoerotic subtext characteristic of his other videos of the time such as Elton John’s crotch-heavy I’m Still Standing or Billy Joel’s bare assed Allentown. These promotional devices have imagery that grabs the attention of any gay boy watching MTV at that moment, while Eclipse’s use of a female protagonist inverts the music channel’s usual pattern of gender objectification. With a disproportionately male audience in mind, videos tended to feature objectified “hot babes” to amp up the heterosexual charge.
Many female performers such as that two-bit tart Madonna were eager to exploit this hegemonic heteronormativity by slutting themselves up for the cameras. But this video is different, and it also brushes up against taboos about intergenerational sex. Bonnie, then 32, is a mature woman and these athletic supports look to be in their late teens, making them dangerous bait with her professional obligations, like male femme fatales, luring her to certain doom if she succumbs to her desires. But in resisting her desires every day, she suffers an equal torment. The video gives us a front row seat to her torment and longing for something she cannot have. Any gay man can identify with this scenario, especially in Thatcher-Reagan’s 1980s.
In this story, Bonnie Tyler is not turned into meat or eye candy, she is elegant, classy, and restrained, evoking 1930s Hollywood glamour. She wears a flowing dress that covers almost all of her body, making her the MTV equivalent of a nun, and its blinding whiteness hints at virginity. In other words, she’s not the usual “rock chick,” and the video is a forewarning of what Meatloaf would return with in the nineties. Even so, the possessed choirboys in thong-like undies dancing around Tyler is pretty astoundingly out there, even for the ‘80s. There would be screams of sexual exploitation of minors if they attempted it now.
After our trip through the homoerotic hallway, we see a bunch of dancing ninjas in black robes performing martial arts in the grand hall, followed by a scene of five young men in formal evening clothes sitting around an elegantly made up dinner table. They raise up their shining goblets into each other for an aggressive toast as red wine spills in all directions. The toast is marvellously synchronised with a cymbal crash in the song. It is decadent, bacchanalian, and orgiastic. Things are getting out of control. As the chorus commences, we see more male athletic elegance in the form of fencers, sword fighters, half-naked cartwheelers and football players wearing shoulder pads but no shirts, which, in the ’80s, is how you knew a Gothic pop-ballad party was really getting serious. Dynasty this ain’t.
These successive images become increasingly improbable: the teacher is mentally undressing her charges. And getting increasingly agitated while she’s at it. The meaning here seems pretty straightforward: Bonnie‘s battling repression, because all of these boys are but illusions, and any attempt to actually grab them will result only in the lady grabbing herself. (Ahem.)
Despite the out-of-control wind machines, her layered haloed hair still looks amazing. Eventually she bursts onto a ledge overlooking an arched hallway, bright blueish light drenching her in religious hues, singing passionately about torment and desire as a group of leather jacketed street tuffs make their very carefully choreographed way up a flight of stairs. Each of these images—the athletes, the street gang— represent icons of masculinity, yet all have gay inflections. The way the younger children are juxtaposed with the older teens further suggests a possible pedophiliac reading, since the cutting directly associates the two pairs of youngsters (see in particular the cuts at 4:06, 4:15, 4:20, and 4:24).
The street toughs shake their hips in a decidedly feminine fashion while ramming their fists in their hands, foreshadowing violence or maybe just a spot of kink. When the football players reappear and crash into each other, one seems to quickly grab the other’s crotch. The vision of masculinity derives from gay fantasy, from the sort of overstated and campy masculinity displayed in the infamous Tom of Finland drawings or by the Village People going west to their YMCA utopia.
Eventually things quiet down. Flashing forward, Tyler is embraced by a muscular blond lad in angel wings, nurturing and protecting her from the violent sexual chaos in her mind as only a guardian angel can. He saves her from the night of her dream, his wingspan allowing her to wake up.
She sings alone, exhausted, her silhouette profile voicing her final words as the film concludes with a daytime scene. Things are “normal” again.
The young men line up for some kind of ceremony on the school steps. Tyler, accompanied by an older professorial looking master in mortarboard hat and black robe, walks down the row shakes each of their hands. It‘s not entirely clear if it’s an introduction or a graduation. Most observers opt for the latter but the lads aren’t wearing graduation mortarboards themselves, and Tyler’s body language and facial expression doesn’t suggest she’s congratulating them, more of a polite hello. The emphasis is entirely on restraint, on decorum.
Either she is new to the school, or these boys are a new intake. The latter reading makes more sense: Tyler’s frustration seems a product of her already being a teacher at the school. What’s more, if the students are new, that would match the way the video began — with invasion from the outside. Each new school year brings new students, and the chance to start anew—and to lust after a new crop of boys, who are ignorant of Tyler’s deeper desires.
But something has changed.
One boy isn’t standing in the line—he rushes up from behind and sneaks in to greet her. Now, unless I’m mistaken, this is the younger lad in the big chair who was holding the dove, just minus the hair gel and the Boots No.7. For the sake of economy, he could be playing a completely unrelated character.
Seen in the light of day, little Emo Kid is cheeky and cheerful, and riddled with freckles. But see what happens next. She affectionately ruffles his hair (alarm bells should be ringing), then moves down the line, perfunctorily shaking hands with the other students. One of them doesn’t release her hand, prompting Tyler to look him in the face, conveying alarm or confusion.
Hello, fantasy! The eyes have it, and this must be the youth Tyler first imagined visiting her at night — he’s even singing the line that played when he first appeared: “Turn around, bright eyes.” Her fantasies, which should be confined to nighttime solace, are now happening in public in the daytime.
We have two possible readings here. First, there really is some secret Children Of The Damned type conspiracy among the students, and they’re now collectively in on Tyler’s secret. But given all the other elements of the video (in particular the enveloping angel), I think the more likely scenario is that she is still imagining all of this. Having succumbed to her fantasies, she will now live lost in them at every hour of the day.
A reverse shot reveals what she’s seeing. As “turn around bright eyes” is sung yet again, we see that his own bright eyes have gone, and he’s facing the opposite direction. This might be a simple continuity error, but it contributes to the feeling that Tyler’s own vision can’t be trusted. Mind you, she’s not the only one.
The chap looks remarkably like an effete stage school version of the footballer Gianfranco Zola but the similarity ends there. The rumour turned into something of an urban legend and in a 2012 interview, the Italian even went on record to deny he ever appeared in the video.
Our girl reacts with vague shock, but then the camera shows us the young man again with normal eyes, as if she had imagined it. Even in the bright light of a sunny day, her late night fantasies continue to haunt her.
What’s more, his singing continues as the kids move past Tyler and up the stairs and into the school, suggesting that whatever she’s seen and heard, it’s all in her head. No one else has noticed anything amiss. Even she herself doubts it — we see her blinking in a pair of reaction shots. This woman is batshit crazy!
Maybe that’s what this story is telling us: that if you don’t turn around and avoid staring directly at a total eclipse, you’ll wind up with a case of the ol’ radioactive eyeballs. And just like that, the video for Total Eclipse Of The Heart proved it wasn’t just a music video, it was actually a public service announcement all along.
The students shuffle past her. She lingers on the stairs, looking stunned and a bit afraid.
Regardless of whether the encounter is real or imagined, in the end, we’re left with Bonnie Tyler standing, shaken, alone on the stairs. As she turns around to walk inside, the screen fades to black. The nightmare is over.
Sources: New Yorker, Vulture, Videoclosetblog, Htmlgiant
*Steve Day, my bestie at the time told me he thought Bonnie Tyler “looks really juicy” on the cover of Faster Than The Speed Of Night. Nevertheless, I remained steadfastly dry.