The new “remix” of the celebrated Cadbury’s Drumming Gorilla advert currently screening on television has inevitably prompted a surge of interest in the music used for the new version – ‘Total Eclipse Of The Heart’ from Bonnie Tyler. The direct result is of course a surge in downloads for the track and an appropriate march up the singles chart, even if Top 40 success looks unlikely for the 25 year old recording.
Still, I’m watching its progress with no small measure of delight as it remains one of my favourite ever songs. This sentiment was hammered home to me just before Christmas last year when I attended a karaoke party thrown by one of the TV Cream gang. One of the girls chose Total Eclipse Of The Heart to perform and I gamely stepped up to be Rory Dodd, crooning “turn around” into the microphone at the appropriate moments and chipping in with harmonies on the chorus. It was during this that I found myself caught up in the moment, swept along by the sheer intensity of the song and how it is all but impossible to sing without discovering that you really mean every single lyric.
It was Total Eclipse Of The Heart that inspired my lifelong appreciation of the man who both wrote and produced it, the great Jim Steinman.
Steinman is of course one of the few producers to have created and defined an entire genre of music for himself, with a style that is so unmistakeably his that any attempts by others to copy it end up sounding a poor and rather pale imitation. Steinman has never stepped into a studio with the intent of making a pop record. His vision instead is that of Wagner, making music that is grand and epic in scale, awash with spectacle and emotion and designed to leave the audience breathless and exhausted at the end of the journey. Steinman songs have very few quiet moments. High drama is conveyed with crashing chords, impassioned vocals and thundering drums. Sadness means layers of heavenly choirs as if to portray the sound of a thousand angels weeping.
His style is of course most synonymous with the work of Meatloaf, even if the seminal “Bat Out Of Hell” album was only composed by Steinman himself, Todd Rundgren the man who produced the legendary album. It wasn’t until a decade and a half later that we really got to hear just what it was like when artist and producer worked in perfect harmony. Yes, Steinman was at the controls for the “Dead Ringer” album but the often fractured relationship between the pair was starting to take its toll and all Steinman’s best songs had been used up on his own “Bad For Good” album that he made while Meat was busy drinking his own piss to try to save his voice. No, “Bat Out Of Hell II” from 1993 was the work that showed what they could do together and it contained some of the biggest hits of Meat Loaf’s career. Indeed that is what made “Bat III” such a disappointment when released two years ago. Some of the songs may have been Steinman’s but the pair had fallen out once more and the album was a pale shadow of what it could have been. Producer Des Child tried his best to be Steinman but his work just didn’t have the same sense of flair and the sheer sense of flirting with danger when you know that adding just one more harmony to the track could transform it from a work of genius into something ludicrous.
Not that Steinman can’t work with others. He of course revived the career of Bonnie Tyler with “eclipse” and went on to create her second most famous hit “Holding Out For A Hero” which remains to this day his most breathtakingly ludicrous production. Taken separately every element of the song is just wrong. The thundering drum machines, the pompous sounding brass, the keyboard line that sounds like a thousand five year olds all thumping randomly and most of all the backing vocal that spit lines about “the fire and the flame” as if they are desperate goths at a role playing society. Yet mixed together it all sounds like the work of a genius, an unhinged genius around which you only use plastic cutlery admittedly, but a genius all the same. That’s why the song works. He knows how to cross the line and get away with it every time.
Then there are the acts who you would never expect to have worked with him. Ever wondered why “Floodland” propelled the Sisters Of Mercy from a few candlelit bedrooms to the mainstream? It was Jim Steinman at the helm, crafting singles such as “This Corrosion” and “Dominion” and making them for an all too brief moment sound like the greatest band on the planet. He’s done pop music as well, taking Take That’s “Never Forget” and transforming it from a rather flat and lifeless album track into one of their most memorable singles ever, a six minute epic that could so easily have been their defining moment had Robbie Williams not flounced out just two weeks before it was released and so instead grabbing all the headlines. I remember once reading an interview with Gary Barlow where he described the recording process of the single as the strangest experience of his life, recounting how it ended up with 96 tracks and was being mixed in two studios simultaneously as it would not otherwise fit on the desk.
As I’ve mentioned, the best Jim Steinman works are not just those he has helmed in the studio, they are the ones he has also penned himself. The story often told is that the songs on “Bat Out Of Hell” were supposed to form the core of a stage musical, a retelling of Peter Pan with motorbikes. Whilst he never did stage such a production, his songs ever since have always sounded like the show stopping highlights of a musical libretto, each one meant to be sung by a character whose thoughts, emotions and whole life purpose are wrapped up inside the lyrics. Steinman’s songs are from a world where you are eternally seventeen, filled with a sense of anticipation for life ahead, slightly scared of unknown challenges and most of all frustrated and horny and never quite managing to make it with the woman of your dreams. Listen to any one of his songs and he paints for you a vision of hot carefree summers, shiny but noisy motorcycles, long lost passion and makes you long to be a part of the climax to the best movie you have ever seen.
For the ultimate combination of songwriting and production, most Steinman fans will agree that the album “Original Sin” by Pandora’s Box remains his masterpiece. It is probably the only work over which he had total creative control, the songs sung and performed by a supergroup of his favourite session singers. Described by one reviewer as “four women singing the soundtrack to Armageddon”, it ranks for me as as one of my favourite moments in music. I bought it the moment it came out in early 1990 and listened to it so many times as a teenager that I know every musical cue before it arrives, every lyric backwards and yet still never tire of throwing it on just to be part of the moment again. Just like Phil Spector before him however, his masterwork turned out to be his greatest ever flop and the one that almost ruined him forever. The album remains a lost classic as far as the mainstream is concerned, although a core part of the collection of any true Steinman aficionado. The songs may have since been recycled as part of other projects, but for the most part the Pandora’s Box renditions remain the definitive versions. Celine Dion and later Meat Loaf himself may have had the hit versions of “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” but neither of them sang it like Elaine Caswell did or had a video to compare to the epic, erotic and gloriously tasteless K
en Russell work that accompanied the original single release.
So there you have it, the tale of one man and his work. All inspired by a gorilla thumping away to what I suspect the ad agency just regards as a small piece of 80s rock naffness. Jim Steinman apparently spends a great deal of time in Germany these days, possibly the natural home for a man who idolises teutonic maestros such as Wagner. The long running success of his “Tanz der Vampire” musical production there and the fact that it flopped on Broadway after the producers decided to play it as a comedy indicates that not everyone entirely gets where he is coming from. I’m just very pleased to be one of the ones who does.