In Random Tracks, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.
Bonnie Tyler- “Total Eclipse of the Heart”
HIT #1: October 8, 1983
STAYED AT #1: 4 weeks
Jim Steinman was one of pop music’s greatest maximalists. He used his influences of musical theater and rock and roll to expand upon Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound in creating his own mini symphonies. Steinman was someone who’d do anything to make his songs sound massive. He wasn’t afraid to get silly and melodramatic, use atypical song structures, write lyrics that don’t make sense, and make his songs sound as grand and loud as possible. Even if you’ve never heard of Jim Steinman, you can get a good understanding of his style through the many big songs he created where everything is turned up to an 11 and are essentially musical numbers in pop song form.
If there’s one song that greatly exemplifies all of these qualities that Steinman brought to music that people still widely remember today it’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” the massive 1983 #1 hit from Welch singer Bonnie Tyler. Steinman had already made his name in music when he wrote the songs for Meat Loaf’s classic 1977 rock opera Bat Out Of Hell which became a slow-growing but major success. But by 1983, he and Meat Loaf were estranged creatively and Steinman wasn’t making much in the way of hits. But through his partnership with Tyler, Steinman set himself up for a great moment of pop chart success producing the top two songs in America with Tyler’s song leading the way. It’s also an absolutely great song at that.
The origins of “Total Eclipse” go back to 1969 when college student Jim Steinman was working on a dystopian musical he’d written while a senior at Amherst College called The Dream Engine. In one of the songs, “The Formation Of The Tribe,” a little vocal motif shows up “Turn around” with an early draft of the melody appearing. Eleven years later while writing the score for the movie A Small Circle of Friends, Steinman reused some of that melody that would sound very familiar in a few years’ time. If there’s anything about Jim Steinman is that he’d never let go of a melody always keeping it for when the moment is right.
Eventually, all those ideas began to morph into a song Steinman was writing about vampires in love even titling it at first “Vampires In Love.” When asked years later to Playbill after his song was reused in the musical Dance of the Vampires, Steinman said, “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 the dark.” But soon after, “Total Eclipse” was turned into a grandiose power ballad with the voice behind it being a raspy-voiced singer born Gaynor Hopkins who grew up in a council house in the town of Skewen, Wales who’d only had one prior worldwide hit to her name.
At 18, Tyler decided to pursue singing after coming in second at a local talent show becoming a backing singer before branching off and fronting several local bands. She also recorded solo demos that got her noticed by RCA Records who she eventually signed with. Her debut single, 1976’s “Lost in France,” did OK going Top 10 in the UK but a subsequent single and her debut album didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Soon after, Tyler had surgery to remove nodules from her vocal cords. As a result, her voice developed a distinctive raspy quality that set her apart from most singers and soon helped her break out worldwide.
In 1978, Tyler garnered her first big hit with “It’s A Heartache” a nice little folky country ballad. The song became a major hit worldwide breaking her through in the US where the song managed to fit with the pop-country that was doing well on the charts in the ‘70s peaking at #3. (It’s a 7.) But that success wouldn’t last. Her next two albums after “It’s A Heartache” didn’t make much impact. After 1981’s Goodbye To The Island, Tyler’s contract with RCA was done and she switched over to Columbia where she knew just what she needed to get back on top.
Now having more freedom over her music, Tyler was adamant about working with Jim Steinman when asked which producer she wanted to work with. Tyler was blown away by Meat Loaf’s performance of his Bat Out of Hell album on the British music show The Old Grey Whistle Test and knew that Steinman’s grandiose style on tracks like Meat Loaf’s would be a perfect match for her howling rasp. Steinman was busy at first but eventually agreed to work with Tyler setting up a meeting where he played two of his favorite songs, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen The Rain” and Blue Oyster Cult’s “Goin’ Through The Motions.” Tyler liked both songs which were required or else they wouldn’t have collaborated.
Not long after, Tyler and Steinman recorded “Total Eclipse” with his own backing band that included prior #1 hitmaker Rick Derringer on guitar as well as two members of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band with Roy Bittan on piano and Max Weinberg on drums. (As a solo artist, Rick Derringer’s highest-charting single, 1973’s “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo” peaked at #23.) The story goes that “Total Eclipse” was gonna go to Meat Loaf for his 1983 album Midnight at the Lost and Found but Loaf’s label Epic wasn’t willing to pay Steinman in wanting Loaf to write his own songs. Because of that, the Steinman/Loaf collaboration didn’t happen. But in a 2006 interview, Steinman disputed that story saying that Bonnie Tyler was the sole person “Total Eclipse” was written for.
Regardless of the story behind it, it’s hard to imagine anybody doing “Total Eclipse” better than what Bonnie Tyler did with it. It’s a perfect song through and through. Tyler manages to pull off the different emotions of the song from fear to frustration to resignation. She just doesn’t let up pushing her raspy voice to the limit at certain moments in matching the intensity of Steinman’s production. And she also has a nice interplay with session singer Rory Dodd who sings the “Turn around bright eyes” part creating a fun back and forth that works greatly at karaoke. Like with all of Steinman’s work, it’s silly and overwrought but it all works to create a monster of a song.
Musically, “Total Eclipse” is the very definition of a musical rollercoaster. It starts out quiet with a grand piano riff introducing the song as Tyler and session vocalist Rory Dodd sing past each other. After the first verse, the rest of the band comes in building up throughout. Then after the second verse, BOOM an explosive drum fill leads the song into its chorus with the drums doing its own take on the famous “Be My Baby” pattern over oohing backing singers and Tyler wailing about needing someone forever. Then it picks up in intensity as we get to the climax “I really need you tonight!” before it all calms down and it’s just Tyler wistfully singing over the piano. And just when you thought it was done BAM it goes back to the explosive intensity with a droning organ solo before the structure starts over again. Naturally, due to its long length parts were cut out for radio play and the video but for me, the long version is what counts. That’s the good shit right there.
In terms of its lyrics, “Total Eclipse” is basically about someone worried that their relationship is losing its spark. Tyler expresses loneliness and worries that the best of all the years have gone by causing her to fall apart. Once upon a time she was falling in love but is now falling apart. She wants her partner to know that she needs him more than ever and together forever will start tonight. But as with Steinman songs, a lot of these lines like, “Every now and then I get a little bit tired/Of listening to the sound of my tears,” “Forever’s gonna start tonight” and the title all don’t make much sense on paper. Despite this, it all works together to where it’s probably best not to think too much about what the lyrics mean. As Stereogum’s Tom Breihan put it best in his review of the song in his Number Ones column, “Who the fuck cares what it’s about?”
If you thought the lyrics didn’t make any sense then the music video is something else. Tyler managed a big get for the music video with Russell Mulcahy coming on to direct. Mulcahy was one of the big music video directors at the dawn of MTV before going into movies and TV directing the cult classic Highlander and is still getting work today directing, for instance, two episodes of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why last year. In the oral history book I Want My MTV, Mulcahy described him and Steinman trading ideas for the video back and forth describing Steinman as fabulously crazy. Filming at England’s Holloway Sanatorium, an old mental hospital, Mulcahy manages to translate the incoherent nature of the lyrics into its own spectacle.
Really, what is going on in this video? It starts out fine enough with Tyler in a white dress in a white room looking like a perfume ad before we see her as the head of some boys boarding school. From there, the ridiculousness goes way up: a boy and a choir with glowing eyes, a boy releasing a dove, a swim team wearing Speedos with water splashed at them, ninjas, fencers, greasers, angels in underwear?! At the end when we see daylight, Tyler is performing some sort of graduation ceremony when one of the boys sings “Turn around bright eyes” with his eyes glowing. It’s a video that’s become so known for not making sense that there’s even a literal video version with the lyrics describing the video.
The success of “Total Eclipse” helped her Columbia debut Faster Than The Speed Of Night go Top 5 on the album charts to an eventual platinum status but it did not lead to more pop hits for Bonnie Tyler. She wouldn’t release a song as big as this again with her highest-charing single since being the 1984 Jim Steinman produced classic “Holding Out For A Hero” which despite its inclusion on the mega-successful Footloose soundtrack only peaked at #34. But Tyler is still active today releasing a new album just a few months ago and still performs. She also continues to entertain us with her big hit joining Joe Jonas’ group DNCE to sing “Total Eclipse” on a cruise ship during what else the August 2017 solar eclipse. (DNCE’s highest-charting single, 2015’s “Cake By The Ocean,” peaked at #9. It’s a 4. Joe Jonas will eventually appear in The Ones of the ‘10s as a member of the Jonas Brothers.)
Jim Steinman made a lot of musical magic over the years but none that ruled quite as “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It’s a song that will outlive us all.
BONUS BEATS: In 1995, Nicki French managed a big international hit with a Euro-house cover of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” produced by Stock and Aitken of the famed Stock, Aitken & Waterman production trio. Here’s the video for French’s version:
(The Nicki French version peaked at #2. It’s a 5.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: As Breihan’s review points out, there’s a weird trope in movies where women will commit violence and listen to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” while driving. Here’s a few of those scenes from 1998’s Urban Legends, 2001’s Bandits, and 2018’s Gloria Bell:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the hilarious performance scene from 2003’s Old School where the Dan Band performs an expletive-laced version of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” at Will Ferrell’s wedding:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 2010’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid where a group of kids sing “Total Eclipse of the Heart” during a school play auction with Greg Heffley becoming the big standout: