Tuesday, June 15, 2010

45s: Rasping for air

"Total Eclipse of the Heart," by Bonnie Tyler (1983)
Written by Jim Steinman

Having moved on from man-mountain mouthpiece Meat Loaf, Jim Steinman took his Wagnerian aesthetic and compellingly weird sentence structures into the larger pop world and entered an alliance with then-forgotten Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler.

Tyler (nee Gaynor Hopkins) had scored a hit in 1977 with the roots rocker "It's a Heartache," and at the time DJs and unimaginative journalists had labeled her "the female Rod Stewart" because of her raspy voice, a product of vocal cord surgery and Tyler's subsequent refusal to rehab her voice by not using it. Her timing was perfect even if her pitch was not. Tyler happened along when the world needed a new Rod Stewart, for the old one had already begun one of rock history's longest descents into perdition, a journey he continues today like a fright-wigged Dante trapped on a treadmill.

By the early 1980s, though, Tyler was already rooted in history as a one-hit wonder. Enter one of the most distinctive plaintive piano intros of the era.

Steinman, the mad Prospero behind Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell, once more conjured a ballad powered by gigantic choruses, seismograph-shattering percussion, and a level of overwrought emotion that outside of the music industry gets one committed for observation. Never one to skimp, Steinman added extra sorcerous juice by employing pros like Rick Derringer and various E Street Band members.

Steinman (left): always subtle

What hooked the public on "Eclipse" remains a matter of speculation. But that Turn around, Bright Eyes refrain is so strangely hypnotic that it must be at least part of the answer. No recording exec in his right mind would have approved a five-minute single with that kind of bizarre and lengthy intro, had Steinman and Meat Loaf not scored with similar material already. I'm not even sure it could get onto Broadway.

Tyler, meanwhile, attacked the lyric as gamely as one could ask. And you better be game because Steinman stacks his trademark drama-by-opposition sentences higher and higher (and higher):

Once upon a time I was falling in love
Now I'm only falling apart

Okay, that's really good. But:

And we'll only be making it right
'Cause we'll never be wrong together

And:

Once upon a time there was light in my life
Now there's only love in the dark

These are simply lines no one else would write (for better or for worse, depending on your point of view). Indulge me, one more:

I don't know what to do and I'm always in the dark
We're living in a powderkeg and giving off sparks

Ho, man.

To say nothing of the title. Virtually any other songwriter, or writer in any medium, would reject that outright. But if you know who wrote it, you're not surprised. You might even grant that it works. I give him credit for taking the chance. Like him or hate him, Steinman would never write a song called "Partial Eclipse of the Heart."

Tyler did not quite have Meat Loaf's powers of projection, alas. Not surprisingly she labored to stay a recognizable part of the proceedings as the song whipped itself into a hurricane. No matter. "Total Eclipse of the Heart" topped the charts anywhere people spoke English and became one of the monster-selling singles in a decade known for generating unheard-of sales figures. It's lengthy encampment in the Number One position also kept another Steinman extravaganza, Air Supply's "Making Love Out of Nothing at All," from the top spot.

A featured performance of "Eclipse" on Glee introduced the song to new listeners, no doubt guaranteeing more work for the still-trouping Tyler and an injection of cash for Steinman's Bat Out of Hell IV: I Am Wheezing and In Pain.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

45s: Spoken word glory

"Big Bad John," by Jimmy Dean (1961)
Written by Jimmy Dean and Roy Acuff

Of all the people who have risen to Top 40 glory, none to my knowledge went on to make a far bigger fortune selling sausage except for the now-late Jimmy Dean.

Dean had been in the sausage factory known as the music industry for years when, with his label itching to drop him, he came up with a tall tale straight off a Johnny Horton* B-side. "Big Bad John" used a classic trope of fiction--a stranger comes to town. John, like Gatsby, provoked dark whispers involving murder, in John's case of a guy who had fallen out with our titular hero over the affections of a Cajun Queen.

The song's pop success exceeded even that of its run on the country charts. Yes, in the early 1960s, a spoken word tale could break the bank, and "Big Bad John" would not be the last. Lorne Greene, sideburned patriarch of the Bonanza gang, scored another a couple of years later.

Why "Big Bad John" (or for that matter Greene's "Ringo") captured the public imagination remains a question for anthropologists. It's got a sort of ominous tone, and Dean's winsome drawl. I believe it moved units foremost because it's a good story but also because it busts the good rhymes:
And a crashin' blow from a huge right hand
Send a Louisiana feller to the Promised Land
(Big John)
A welcome shift in public taste toward actual music ended the spoken-word trend, but Dean's career lived on. Topping the charts always proves one's worth to the Moguls of Showbiz, and those mysterious poohbahs slathered the affable Dean in some of the greatest show business gravy our pop culture can provide.

He guest-hosted The Tonight Show. Headlined in Vegas. Was handed a couple of TV variety shows in an era when country-and-western artists rarely received such an honor (?). And, in a real coup, played the Howard Hughes knockoff in Diamonds Are Forever, a Bond film chock full of features as mythic as Big Bad John: high-kickin' bikini-clad bodyguards, Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, and of course, the moon-buggy.

By then Dean had broken with music industry tradition and actually found a way to avoid penury. Fame provides a hell of an entrepreneurial edge, as does the production of highly-processed meat products, and Dean parlayed his advantages into a brand of tasty sausage and an empire of indifferently-staffed restaurants. In doing so he accumulated a sizable fortune and a wife twenty-five years younger. As a bonus (as if the man needed more!), he kept a bit of a public profile via ads for his products.

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* Though a rockabilly pioneer, Horton made his biggest splash singing folk novelty songs about the Battle of New Orleans and the need to sink thyroidal German battleships.