In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
From its very inception, pop music has been an ideal vehicle for melodrama — for heartbreak, anger, lust, obsession, and naked, near-religious levels of need. Consider the wave of dead-teenager story-songs that briefly besieged the Hot 100 in the early ’60s, a clear expression of a pan-generational hunger for big, outsized emotions. But there’s melodrama, and then there’s melodrama. “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” is melodrama.
Nobody’s entirely sure what “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” is about, and nobody needs to know. “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” overwhelms the idea of songwriting specificity in the same way that a tidal wave overwhelms a rowboat. Spend enough time with “Total Eclipse,” and you might find yourself wondering if that isn’t the only way to write songs.
The term “power ballad” doesn’t adequately describe “Total Eclipse Of The Heart,” if only because the word “power” just doesn’t have enough power. “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” is an extinction-level event rendered in musical form. It’s pop music as heart-pounding, chest-thumping, blood-gargling, heavens-falling passion explosion. It’s sheer spectacle. It’s fireworks and lasers and lightning and thunder. It soars and swoops and barrel-rolls. The song flies along from one fiery climax to the next, and right when it seems like it’s about to end, it takes off again and somehow becomes even bigger. Who the fuck cares what it’s about?
Jim Steinman, the writer and producer of “Total Eclipse Of The Heart,” originally came from musical theater. But you knew that. Even if you didn’t know that, you felt it. Only someone from musical theater could’ve gone for that level of cheap-seats bombast.
Steinman, a New Yorker, started writing music for stage plays when he was in college at Amherst in the late ’60s. In the ’70s, Steinman moved back to New York and made a career out of it. While working on the musical More Than You Deserve in 1972, Steinman met a big-voiced Texan actor who’d already been in Hair on Broadway and who called himself Meat Loaf. Together, Steinman and Loaf started working on a vast herd-of-stampeding-elephants song-cycle called Bat Out Of Hell.
Todd Rundgren produced Bat Out Of Hell, and Loaf and Steinman spent years shopping the album to labels, getting turned down all over the place. Loaf has said that Clive Davis told him that Steinman didn’t know anything about rock music. I think Davis was right, and I think that’s why Jim Steinman fucking rules. Here’s this aspiring Broadway guy who doesn’t come from the rock ecosystem and who nevertheless uses every tool at his disposal to achieve full Spector/Springsteen grandiosity. Jim Steinman is the man.
Anyway, Bat Out Of Hell finally came out on the small Epic subsidiary Cleveland International in 1977, and after a slow start, it sold many millions of copies. (The highest-charting of the Bat Out Of Hell singles, the ballad “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad,” peaked at #11. Meat Loaf will eventually appear in this column.) While Loaf was out promoting Bat Out Of Hell, the Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler saw him performing on the BBC show The Old Grey Whistle Test and was transfixed. A few years later, Tyler was switching record labels and managers, and when asked what songwriters she wanted to work with, she said she wanted whoever wrote the songs for Meat Loaf.
Bonnie Tyler, born Gaynor Hopkins in a Skewen council estate, had already been on a music-business ride by the time she found Steinman. The daughter of a coal miner, Hopkins had been working in a local grocery store when she came in second in a local talent contest and decided that she wanted to try to make a living out of singing. She started out performing in nightclubs and got invited to record a demo in London. When RCA signed her, she started calling herself Bonnie Tyler, the second stage name that she’d tried.
“Lost In France,” Tyler’s second single, made the top 10 in the UK. A year later, she had a global hit with the hardbitten, country-ish ballad “It’s A Heartache,” which made it to #3 in the US. (It’s a 7.) The song itself was pretty good, but what really stood out was Tyler’s voice, a powerful and emotive rasp. Early in the ’70s, Tyler had needed surgery on her vocal nodules, and the operation gave her voice a roughed-up, bluesy quality that set her apart. (Like Kim Carnes before her, Tyler always used to get compared to Rod Stewart.)
For years after “It’s A Heartache,” Tyler went hitless in both the US and the UK. When her contract at RCA was up, she jumped to CBS and tried to align herself with Steinman. At first, Steinman, who working on the score for the 1980 movie A Small Circle Of Friends, turned Tyler down. A while later, though, he called Tyler up and invited her to meet with him in New York. There, Steinman played Tyler two songs: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen The Rain” and Blue Öyster Cult’s “Going Through The Motions.” Tyler liked the songs, which was a requirement for Steinman. So Steinman played her “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” on his grand piano.
Here’s how Tyler describes Steinman in Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of No. 1 Hits: “When he plays, he practically knocks [the piano] through the floor. He’s incredible! He won’t give [the song] to you on tape. He has to tell you the big story and play it for you with Rory Dodd singing and the whole thing.” (Rory Dodd was the backup singer who Steinman used whenever possible. He’s the guy who sings the words “turn around, bright eyes” on “Total Eclipse.”) Tyler was gobsmacked. The record was a go.
In writing “Total Eclipse,” Steinman used some of the melodies he’d written for the Small Circle Of Friends score. Meat Loaf has said that Steinman originally wrote the song with him in mind but that his label wasn’t willing to pay for more Jim Steinman songs when Loaf was making his 1983 album Midnight At The Lost And Found. But Steinman has said that he wrote the song specifically for Tyler, or at least finished it for her, specifically to showcase her voice. Years later, Steinman also said that he started writing it as a vampire love song for a musical adaptation of Nosferatu. (When he said that, he’d just used “Total Eclipse” in his 1997 musical Dance Of The Vampires.)
Ultimately, it only seems appropriate that “Total Eclipse” should have a misty and confounding backstory. It’s a misty and confounding song. Talking about “Total Eclipse,” Steinman once described the song like this: “It was an aria to me, a Wagnerian-like onslaught of sound and emotion.” That’s pretty fucking good. Maybe Jim Steinman should be writing this column.
Steinman produced Tyler’s whole CBS debut Faster Than The Speed Of Night, which included Tyler’s covers of those Creedence and Blue Öyster Cult songs. Steinman picked out the whole backing band, too. He recruited the guitarist Rick Derringer, a guy who’d already made #1 singles as both a singer and a producer. (Derringer’s highest-charting single as a lead artist, 1973’s “Rock And Roll, Hoochie Koo,” peaked at #23.) Steinman also brought in pianist Roy Bittan and drummer Max Weinberg, two members of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band who’d also played on Bat Out Of Hell.
With “Total Eclipse Of The Heart,” Steinman got these musicians to play Born To Run as wind-blown gothic opera. Everything about “Total Eclipse” sounds colossal. The pianos are stuck on triumphant-soar mode. The drums hit like some unholy fusion of Hal Blaine and Phil Collins. Everything — the castanets, the backup-singer wails, the churning organ-drone — lands at just the right moment, with just the right level of blood-pounding intensity. The song stretches out to seven minutes. Halfway through, “Total Eclipse” sounds like it’s winding down, and then it suddenly surges upward again — a beautiful no, motherfucker, we’re not done yet move. There are shorter edits of the song, but who needs those? You need to behold this thing in its full majesty.
A huge part of that majesty, of course, is Bonnie Tyler herself. Tyler perfectly matches the tone of this thing, pleading and wailing and howling and screaming like she’s standing on a mountaintop and demanding answers from God. Tyler’s voice is perfect for this thing. She sounds wrecked and destroyed from the jump, but she still summons the strength to leap from one huge note to the next. There are goosebump moments all over “Total Eclipse,” but my favorite is the “living in a powderkeg and giving off sparks” bit. She doesn’t just sing those words. She exorcises them from her body and casts them out into the world.
The lyrics are something like gibberish: “Listening to the sound of my tears”? Like, the spak when they hit the ground? That’s what you’re tired of listening to? But Tyler sells those lyrics as if they’re towering profundities. And if you sing nonsense koans with enough passion, then those nonsense koans become towering profundities. Witness: “Forever’s gonna start tonight,” a phrase that means nothing and everything, all at once.
“Total Eclipse” owes some of its mystique to its deranged video, which, decades later, remains absolutely stunning in its nonsensical majesty. Ninjas! Angels! Doves! Evil choirboys with glowing eyes! Robotic greasers dancing on staircases! Bonnie Tyler, backlit and feather-haired to perfection, emoting in the face of gale-force wind machines! It’s the best! The clip makes no narrative sense whatsoever, and yet it still has a disturbing coda, suggesting that Tyler is a teacher who suffers from internal apocalypses because she’s too horny for her glowy-eyed young students. All of this is to say: The 2009 Literal Video version of the “Total Eclipse” video might be the masterpiece of the form.
Russell Mulcahy, the mad Australian who’d already directed Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” video and who would go on to make Highlander and The Shadow, storyboarded the video with Jim Steinman, the two of them coming up with the most ridiculous ideas that they could conjure. They filmed the clip at an abandoned mental hospital in London, and Mulcahy then refused to work with Tyler again because she’d called him a pervert on set.
The video is the apotheosis of early-MTV cocaine excess, and it’s hard to overstate how influential it’s been. There’s a whole school of fantastical, narratively incoherent ’80s and ’90s Hong Kong action movies, for instance, that pretty much took the “Total Eclipse” aesthetic wholesale. A movie like The Heroic Trio probably couldn’t exist without it. Also, I guarantee you that John Woo fucking loves the “Total Eclipse” video.
The “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” single came out in the UK first and debuted at #1 there. It took months before Columbia released the record in the US, but it dominated here, too. For one week, Jim Steinman held down the #1 and #2 spots on the Hot 100, as he’d also written “Making Love Out Of Nothing At All,” the #2 hit for fellow musical theater refugees Air Supply. (“Making Love Out Of Nothing At All” is a 6.)
After “Total Eclipse Of The Heart,” Bonnie Tyler went on to a long career of howling power ballads, and she’s still doing it now. But Tyler never made it into the US top 10 again. Her biggest post-“Total Eclipse” — the Steinman-written “Holding Out For A Hero,” from the soundtrack of 1984’s Footloose — peaked at #34. (The Footloose soundtrack will eventually appear in this column.) But people will always need songs to dramatically bellow when they’re drunk, which means “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” will live on forever. Jim Steinman, meanwhile, will appear in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: In 1995, the English singer Nicki French had a huge international hit with her Euro-dance cover of “Total Eclipse Of The Heart.” Here’s the video:
(In the US, French’s version of “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” peaked at #2. It’s a 7.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: For whatever reason, there’s a cinematic mini-trope of automotive violence in scenes of women tearfully singing along with “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” while driving. Here, for instance, is Natasha Gregson Wagner tearfully singing along with “Total Eclipse” and then getting decapitated in 1998’s Urban Legends:
And here’s Cate Blanchett running over Billy Bob Thornton while tearfully singing along with “Total Eclipse” in 2001’s Bandits:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the extremely funny bit in 2003’s Old School where the Dan Band performs “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” at Will Ferrell’s wedding:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2010, One Direction, who’d only just been assembled at the behest of the show’s judges, sang “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” on an episode of the UK version of The X Factor. For some reason, they were made up to look like vampires. Here’s that performance:
(One Direction’s highest-charting single, 2013’s “Best Song Ever,” peaked at #2. It’s a 6. At least one member of One Direction will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s footage of Bonnie Tyler and DNCE performing “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” on a cruise ship during the 2017 solar eclipse:
(DNCE’s highest-charting single, 2015’s “Cake By The Ocean,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7. As a Jonas Brother, DNCE’s Joe Jonas will eventually appear in this column.)