It’s easy to laugh at some of the worst excesses of the 1980s. The size of the hair! The size of the shoulder-pads! Huge mobile phones! Mountains of cocaine! Well, at least two of those things are in play for our next #1: hair and shoulder pads. (I wouldn’t rule out the cocaine, either…)
Total Eclipse of the Heart, by Bonnie Tyler (her 1st and only #1)
2 weeks, 6th – 20th March 1983
Like I said, looking back, it’s common to sneer at certain aspects of the 1980s – in a way that doesn’t seem to happen with any of the other decades currently within human memory – but when they combine to produce something as outrageous as ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’, then you’ve got to be glad they happened.
First things first: this is a duet. Kind of. There’s a significant, if uncredited, male voice throughout – one Rory Dodd. Make no mistake, though. This is Bonnie Tyler’s song. She sings it like she’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown, like she’s just downed that third glass of wine, like her very life depends on belting these lines out. And there are so many great lines. For a start: I’m living in a powder keg and giving off sparks! (For many, many years I had no idea what she was singing here. It wasn’t a misheard mondegreen; I simply had no idea what a ‘baldergag’ was…) Or the howled: And I need you now tonight…
Then there’s the classic chorus line: Once upon a time I was falling in love, Now I’m only falling apart… It’s the musical equivalent of a telenovela actor’s slow-motion swoon, but it works. What is a total eclipse of the heart..? It’s madness brought on by love. It’s poetry, that’s what it is. This was a bit of a comeback for Bonnie Tyler – her first real hit for six or seven years – and you feel that she could sense this as she recorded it. She leaves nothing behind out there, as they say on ‘Match of the Day’.
But actually, Tyler is only 50% responsible for this record’s brilliance. The rest lies with Jim Steinman’s writing and production. The moment when those enormous eighties drums come thumping in – like Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound on steroids –is actually hair-raising. Later on there are explosions, thunder and lightning… and sleigh bells. Was this originally meant to be a festive release? Or did Steinman simply see nothing wrong with sleigh bells in a February release? I hope it’s the latter…
This is a power ballad. It’s probably the ultimate power ballad. It’s certainly the first ‘modern’ power ballad to top the charts. (Honourable mentions to Nilsson’s ‘Without You’, and Babs’ ‘A Woman in Love’.) And though it’s a genre synonymous with ‘80s excess, there aren’t too many of them that will top the UK charts in the coming years. In fact, the next #1 to rival ‘Total Eclipse…’ for first-clenching pomposity might well be the next one written and produced by Steinman, which won’t be for another decade…
We can’t finish this post without mentioning the video. Bonnie Tyler is a teacher in a boys boarding school, who spends her nights prowling the corridors in a white negligée, imagining boys at their desks having their shirts ripped open by wind-machines, fencing in the halls and, by the end, prancing around her in loin cloths a la ‘Lord of the Flies’. Well, a song like this couldn’t have any old, common-or-garden music video, could it…?
‘Total Eclipse…’ offers a different side of the eighties to our previous #1, ‘Billie Jean’. One is slick and modern; the other completely OTT. If I had to choose which side of the decade I’d like to remember, and which song I’d like to come on towards the end of a night out, then it would be this one. And the British public agrees. Sort of. ‘Total Eclipse…’ was voted as the 3rd best #1 of the ‘80s (with ‘Billie Jean’ in 2nd) but, much more importantly, it won a 2013 poll of ‘Best Songs to Sing in the Shower’.