NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hello! You’ve managed to find the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and I’m slowly going bankrupt.
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OK, I think this week’s trivia question might be a little bit on the easy side, but I also feel like I say that a lot. What do the following artists have in common:
- The Edgar Winter Group
- Average White Band
- The Tornados
- Herb Alpert
- And…Hugh Masekela.
- Want one more? OK. Vangelis.
Once again, what do those artists have in common? Edgar Winter Group, Average White Band, The Tornados, Herb Alpert, Hugh Masekela, and Vangelis. I’ll have that answer later on in the show.
This week’s song is one that’s been on and off my radar for awhile, and I kept saying to myself “I gotta cover this one” but I’d get distracted, so when I actually got a request from a fellow alumnus of my college radio station—Hi, Dan!—well, you can’t ignore something like that.
[IT’S A HEARTACHE]
So today we’re going to talk about one of the best songs never written for Meat Loaf. Wait, NOT written for Meat Loaf? Yes, indeed, but settle in; we’ll get there.
Up until 1981, Bonnie Tyler wasn’t seeing a lot of chart action in the United States, and only a little more in Canada and Europe. Her 1977 song “It’s a Heartache” was a monster hit internationally, but by 1981 she was considered a one-hit wonder, and she parted ways with RCA Records. So she got herself a new manager, and when she saw Meat Loaf performing Bat Out Of Hell live, she approached his producer Jim Steinman and asked him to work with her. They met in April of 1982 and he presented her with two tracks: one of them was “Have You Ever Seen The Rain”, the old John Fogerty/Creedence Clearwater tune, and the other was called “Goin’ Through the Motions”, which a few of you might recognize as a Blue Oyster Cult song. In an interview with People Magazine, Tyler said that if she didn’t like these suggestions, he probably would have turned down her offer of collaboration.
[TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE HEART]
A few weeks later, they met again and that’s when he not only presented her with “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, he told her specifically who would be playing on the track, which includes that second voice, a guy named Rory Dodd, who’d sung backups for Meat Loaf, Steve Forbert, and Billy Joel, among others.
Also playing on the record—among others—are drummer Max Weinberg and keyboard player Roy Bittan, who are members of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, and Rick Derringer played guitar on the track.
Now, the story goes that the song was originally written for Meat Loaf, and that it was supposed to appear on his follow up album to Bat Out of Hell. It appears, however, that Meat Loaf was the source of that story, saying that both “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and Air Supply’s song “Making Love Out of Nothing At All” were both written for the album that eventually became Midnight at the Lost and Found. What’s more, Meat Loaf said that his record company refused to pay Steinman for the songs, so he wound up writing separate songs on his own. But frankly, that story doesn’t hold up especially since Bonnie Tyler and Meat Loaf were both on Columbia Records-owned labels at the time, and what’s more Meat Loaf only wrote a fraction of the songs on that album, which failed to chart in the US, though it did make the Top Ten in the UK.
In addition, multiple sources have debunked that story. Steinman himself told CD Review magazine in 1989 that after Bat Out of Hell, Meat Loaf went through a bad patch mentally, financially and in terms of his singing ability. He said, (quote) “Basically I only stopped working with him because he lost his voice as far as I was concerned. It was his voice I was friends with really.” He didn’t even finish the song until after meeting Tyler.
“Total Eclipse of the Heart” is one of those songs where the video is not going to help you with interpreting the lyrics, because it’s so weird. The best I can do with describing it is to say that it appears to be that Tyler is a teacher dreaming about her students in a boarding school. The video was filmed on location at the Holloway Sanitarium, which is a large hospital built in a Gothic style, near Surrey, England. Just a couple of years ago, New York magazine’s Jen Chaney wrote a short article about how amazingly ridiculous the video is, and although it was written recently, and therefore has a modern-day lens turned on it, it’s not one of those “Oh, this video could never be made today” kinds of things. The video was ridiculous then and it’s ridiculous now, and I urge you to check out her article. I’ll post a link to it for you on the website.
So what is the song about? According to Jim Steinman, it’s about vampires. No kidding. In an interview with Playbill magazine, he said that he was trying to come up with a love song and his original title was “Vampires in Love” because he’d been noodling around with the idea of a musical based on Nosferatu, the original vampire movie. He told them, “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 he also thought that the song would be a good showpiece for Bonnie Tyler’s voice, thinking that she sounded a little bit like John Fogerty, which also explains why he presented “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” to her, which wound up being the opening track on the Faster Than the Speed of Night album.
Tyler has a slightly different spin on the lyrics, telling Record Mirror shortly after the song was released, that she thought it was about someone who wants to love so badly that she’s just lying there in complete darkness. That has a bit of a shallow feel to it, so I think we can go with Steinman’s explanation on this one.
And while pop radio was used to playing longer songs by this point, Tyler didn’t think the song would get a lot of airplay at its full length, so there’s a radio edit that brings its original 6-minute, 59-second length down to 4:30. The 6:59 version has a very long fade, though, so I’d be willing to bet that very few stations ever played even the uncut version to its full length.
But, short or long, the song was released in the UK on February 11, 1983 and on May 31 in the United States. It entered Billboard’s Hot 100 on July 16 and climbed steadily over the next twelve weeks, not reaching the Number One position until October 1, but it held that spot for four weeks. And it remained on the chart for another thirteen weeks before eventually dropping off. Over in the UK, It peaked quickly, reaching Number One on March 6 of that year after only four weeks on that chart, and holding it for two weeks total. I saw one report that suggested it debuted at Number One in the UK, but this appears not to be the case. What DOES appear to be true, however, is that Bonnie Tyler is the first Welsh performer to reach Number One in the US. I thought that would have been Tom Jones, but it turns out his highest chart ranking was Number Two.
Bonnie Tyler, meanwhile, has re-recorded the song a couple of times, including a 2003 French/English hybrid version where she trades leads with French singer Kareen Antonn, titled “Si Demain…(Turn Around)”…
They also dueted on a hybrid cover of “It’s a Heartache.” Both songs were Top Ten songs in a few spots in Europe.
There was also a dance version recorded by Nicki French that was a worldwide hit in 1994 and made it to Number Two in the US, which I gotta tell you, I only remembered upon re-hearing it.
[BONNIE AND JOE]
Bonnie Tyler continues to sing the song in all of her live performances, but I think one of the most notable had to be on August 21, 2017, when she sang the song on a Royal Carribbean Cruise ship with the backing of Joe Jonas and his band. Why were they singing the song on that date in the middle of the ocean? Because they were in a prime viewing location for the total eclipse of the sun that was taking place while they sang the song. In fact, Spotify and other streaming services h, including YouTube, have noted that the song invariably takes a bump in its streaming rates around the time of solar eclipses. And to date, that YouTube video has over half a billion views.
It is time to answer today’s trivia question.
Back on Page Two I asked what it is that a bunch of artists had in common. And the answer is that they all went to Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 with instrumental tracks.
- The Edgar Winter Group got their only Number one for a single week in May of 1973 with “Frankenstein.” Incidentally, the track got its name not because it evoked the old horror movie but because there were so many edits stitching the master together.
- In 1975 it was the Average White Band spending one week in the top slot with “Pick Up the Pieces”.
- The Tornados spent three weeks in the Number One position beginning in late December of 1962 with “Telstar”. This was only the second British act to reach Number One in America; compare that to the British Invasion of the following year. Coincidentally, the other British act to make it to Number One in the US was also an instrumental, Mr. Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore”.
- 1979 was the year that Herb Alpert returned to the top of the charts with “Rise”. Before that his only Number One hit was “This Guy’s In Love With You,” which was also the only single on which he sang.
- Hugh Masekela spent two weeks in the top spot in the summer of 1968 with this track, “Grazing in the Grass”
- And finally for this list, Vangelis was on the charts with this soundtrack piece for what seemed like forever in 1982, but it only spent one week at Number One in the merry month of May that year. Incidentally, the official title of the track on the soundtrack album is just “Titles”, because it ran under the movie’s titles, but it quickly came to be identified by the film’s title, “Chariots of Fire”.
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Next time around, we’re going to talk about another instrumental, as we find out How Good It Is when you fill up on some Classical Gas.
Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you next time.