Tuesday, October 27, 2009


"Total Eclipse of the Heart" / Bonnie Tyler

If we have the Bee Gees to blame for Air Supply, then I think Stevie Nicks should have to take credit for the new breed of rock chicks that started yelping all over the airwaves in the 1980s. I didn't mind the New Wave girls, like Debbie Harry of Blondie, Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics, or Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders -- at least they had saucy wit and girl-power toughness. (Hooking up with Ray Davies, though, Chrissie -- I'll never forgive you for that.) No, the ones I really couldn't stand were the Top-40 belters -- Pat Benatar, Laura Branigan, Irene Cara, and Welsh rocker Bonnie Tyler. Long before the term "diva" was co-opted to mean any female singer with a big voice, these babes were tearing out their vocal cords on every speaker within earshot.

Maybe it's no coincidence that at the dawn of the 1980s, just as working girls in power suits were striving to shatter corporate glass ceilings, the women of rock set out to kick the asses of their wimpy soft rock male counterparts. All these babes cultivated the hard edges of their voices -- no soft-focus girly sopranos here. Bonnie Tyler's first hit, "It's a Heartache," paid tribute to Rod Stewart, and her voice, like his, is equal parts grit and sob, perfectly calculated to sing about desperation and desire. In fact (fun facts to know and tell), Tyler's distinctive voice developed after an operation for nodules on her vocal cords; apparently she violated doctor's orders and started singing too song after the operation. At first she thought that huskiness was the end of her singing career. She was wrong.

What really made Tyler's 1983 album Faster Than the Speed of Night a megahit, though, was the no-holds-barred arrangements of her producer, Jim Steinman, the guy who made Meat Loaf a star. The album version of this song clocked in at 6:58 -- nearly seven minutes -- though it was truncated to four-and-a-half minutes to get radio play. Of course I'm giving you the unedited version here, for total schlock effect, as well as the cheesiest dissolve effects available on my moviemaker program. Might as well go whole hog.

Building a song to a bombastic climax was de rigueur in the 1980s. Steinman, however, was crafty enough to know that a song couldn't sustain that level of intensity for seven minutes; the song keeps retreating to wistful interludes where it's just Bonnie and her piano (well, really Roy Bittan's piano), before rolling back in with the Rick Derringer guitar licks, a tsunami of synths, a thunderstorm of percussion (hi there, Max Weinberg!). How to funny to find all these Springsteen sidemen here, since IMO Bruce himself is still addicted to those 1980s overblown endings.

How could this song fail to be a hit? It's got not one but three addictive hooks. The first is the call-and-response duet with Rory Dodd, as she babbles about her emotions ("Every now and then I get a little bit helpless till I'm lying like a child in your arms") while his distant voice nobly exhorts her, "Turn around, bright eyes!" Ah, there are those strong, understanding arms she can collapse into. I read somewhere that Steinman was inspired by the Heathcliff-Cathy romance in Wuthering Heights. Oh, yeah, Emily Bronte was totally thinking of this song when she wrote that book.

Next Bonnie launches into a Meat Loaf-style voice rip, declaiming "And I need you now tonight / And I need you more than ever /And if you only hold me tight / We'll be holding on forever." Yes, "hold me tight" -- wink wink -- that's always been pop-speak for "screw my brains out." Then (the Steinman touch) things suddenly hush up as she ruefully sings, "Once upon I was falling in love / Now I'm only falling apart / There 's nothing I can do / A total eclipse of the heart." Wipe a tear away and start it all over again -- you've got four more minutes to fill up.

The lyrics paint her as a needy, pathetic mess, but those bulldozer vocals send the opposite message. If I were a guy, I'd be terrified of this chick. This song may have single-handedly set feminism back 20 years. And Bonnie Tyler followed it up with the even more desperate "Holding Out For A Hero," featured in the film Footloose, which served as an anthem for an entire generation of love-starved single gals in the Looking for Mr. Goodbar era. Oh, man, am I glad the 80s are over.


Alex said...

Thanks for the reminder of another great 80s guilty pleasure.

J-Money said...

This song is the ultimate earworm. I'm pretty sure that once it's in your head, it cannot be removed without trepanation.

Holly A Hughes said...

I have to admit, I felt conflicted about dissing this song when I learned that Bonnie Tyler is Welsh. Surely that should earn her a free pass for the full-throated passion of this song. And that story about the nodules -- suddenly I'm turning into Bonnie's biggest fan.

wwolfe said...

Let's listen to Lulu when we want to pay tribute to deserving Welsh women. Her original version of "Here Comes the Night" hasn't left my turntable (OK - disctable) since I discovered it late last year. As far as Bonnie goes, you nailed it with this: "If I were a guy, I'd be terrified of this chick." Speaking as a guy - amen. Excellent point about how the rise of big-voiced singers cojncided with the arrival of the Career Woman. Of those you mentioned, I'd give Benatar some credit for getting better over time. Starting with "All Fired Up," she actually managed to make some decent records. ("Every Time I Fall Back" is a nice one, for example.) The fact that this improvement coincided with her commercial decline probably says a lot about what her audience wanted from her, and from her other loudly singing sisters.