Jim Steinman: The Beat Is Yours Forever

A look at the superstar songwriter’s life (and hits) outside of the Loaf

Jim Steinman (Art: Ron Hart)

Songwriter Jim Steinman, who died April 19 at the age of 73, will forever be linked to Marvin Lee Aday.

Every one of Meat Loaf’s seven top 40 hits were written by Steinman. Both came out of musical theater, their gloriously excessive styles influenced by musicals–but a certain kind of musical. Steinman’s songs are unmistakable. He brought the grand piano back from the early Little Richard/Jerry Lee Lewis days of rock and roll, with songs that were invigorating and revelatory, meant to roust an audience out of their chairs before the curtain falls on the first act–and to keep them revved up through intermission so they return excited for the rest of the play.They both lived in the world of the belted-out anthems of Kurt Weill or his future collaborator Andrew Lloyd Webber. To put it most cornily, the makers of Bat Out of Hell were a match made in Heaven (or, as at least one writer speculated, Hell).

While that 1977 album would spawn three classic singles, is 14x platinum in the U.S. and had the longest run of any record on the UK charts, when Epic sent it out nationally in October 1977, it was already a national joke, the label execs notoriously hated it. Producer Todd Rundgren called out Epic for purposely dropping the ball on promotion. Rumor has it, label execs declared that no one wanted to hear these pompous overwrought 5-10 minute epics. It was neither the first or last time “experts” would underestimate Steinman. Then, in March of 1978, “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” started its slow ascent up the charts, peaking just outside the top ten by July. It wound up the 30th biggest hit of 1978 according to Billboard, and the little (but also huge) album that supposedly couldn’t was the 13th biggest album of the year.

Meat Loaf Bat Out Of Hell, Epic 1977

However, this is not about the Steinman songs that Meat Loaf did record. We’re here to celebrate the Steinman songs Meat Loaf did not record (at first). This is about the time Steinman became so tired and enraged with his first attempt to recreate Bat that he decided to keep the songs himself and found himself on Casey Kasem’s countdown. This is about the time he wrote an angry eight-minute operetta with the lead singer of one of Britain’s top goth bands and it became the biggest song on Alternative radio for over a month. Mainly, this is about the crazy time that for three weeks, Steinman’s songs–creations both Meat Loaf’s management and record label considered radio un-friendly- held the number one and number two positions on the Billboard Hot 100 for three consecutive weeks, performed by two different non-Meat Loafs.

It happened in October 1983. Late-era Cold War nuclear tensions are building. It’s a month from “The Day After” making it clear that it was a matter of when, not if, we would die on a political whim. People were still lining up to see a movie about a dancing welder. PBS was trying to figure out how to break it to the kids that Mr. Hooper had died. Meanwhile, Hooters was being invented at about the same time. And I was 10, sneaking listens to Casey Kasem on a churchbound Sunday morning. It was a weird time.

And so it goes on the pop charts. The newly minted top two songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 for the week of October 8. 1983 are two of the most hyper-passionate songs you’re ever going to hear on the radio. Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler, at this point a one-hit wonder, famous for the countrified “It’s a Heartache!” However, by 1982, she was looking for a new, less country sound.

Meanwhile, Aussie duo Air Supply ruled the early-1980s with their unabashedly cornball heart songs made for doctors’ waiting rooms and telephones’ hold music. However, by 1983, their moment too seemed to have passed. Their last two singles missed the top 30. Yet that week, they were back. Tyler perched at #1 for a second week with “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Air Supply leaped into the #2 slot with “Making Love Out of Nothing at All.” Both songs were written by the same man–Jim Steinman.

VIDEO: Air Supply “Making Love Out of Nothing at All”

It wasn’t supposed to play out this way. These songs are only as we remember them today because of a rift between Steinman and Meat Loaf–a blow-up straight out of Steinman’s songs. Steinman was taking his second pass at the planned Bat sequel and the evidence is there that it was going well on his side. As for Meat Loaf, it’s unclear. He may have been losing his voice and/or mind or he may have been angry at not yet seeing royalties from his mega-successful album. 

A brilliant 1993 article by Q’s (not that Q) John Aizlewood contains a Rashomon-level exchange between Loaf, Steinman, and manager David Sonenberg. Whatever the story, Steinman and Meat Loaf ultimately agreed that the former was told that no one wanted to hear these songs, his songs, on the radio. Steinman either left in anguish or was dismissed. Meanwhile, Meat Loaf released the Steinman-less (and aimless) Midnight at the Lost and Found, while Steinman gave “Total Eclipse” and “Making Love” to people who had already shown him more appreciation.

To add another layer to the blurring of the story, Steinman will argue he always wrote the song for Tyler. The two did indeed meet in the summer of ‘82 to discuss whether they meshed as a fruitful singer/songwriter team. Furthermore, both would go on to say they felt a mutual spark. Who knows? Perhaps he first offered it to Meat Loaf out of a sense of loyalty, or even compulsion. Maybe he planned that both would record it. We’ll never truly know the timeline, but it would become Tyler’s signature song. 

The iconic “turn around, bright eyes” in “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” made memorable by Rory Dodd, was actually from one of Steinman’s earliest compositions. It hailed originally from a 1969 musical he wrote for college, based of course on a Brecht play, The Dream Engine. He pinched the melody from a score he wrote for the 1980 film A Small Circle of Friends.

As is a recurring theme with his songs, Tyler insisted the original seven-minute version be shortened for radio. While some sources claim it was the four and a half minute version that was a hit, I don’t remember hearing that version on radio. That’s probably the generosity of nostalgia. It’s telling, however, that on Tyler’s 2009 compilation, The Very Best of Bonnie Tyler, the opening version is the radio edit. It’s almost six minutes. The shorter version closes the set with no such reference to the airwaves. 

VIDEO: Jim Steinman and Bonnie Tyler perform “Total Eclipse of the Heart”

Whatever version you heard in 1983, it was a smash. MTV embraced the video where Tyler wandered around a castle and channeled the song with every fiber of her being. It’s no coincidence that the two people who embraced Steinman’s music the most have had multiple throat surgeries. To be fair, Tyler’s 1976 surgery gave Tyler her signature rasp. The song didn’t have a meteoric rise up the charts. It took 13 weeks it reached the number one spot, where it knocked Billy Joel’s “Tell Her About It” off the top of the chart. A week later, in its eleventh week on the survey, Air Supply complemented “Total Eclipse of the Heart” at number two with “Making Love Out of Nothing at All.”

The Australian duo of Russell Hitchcock and Graham Russell were emblematic of a certain part of early-’80s radio. Unfortunately, it’s the sort that can be easily mocked. Their aching, barefaced soft rock was so entrenched and satire-ready that Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan would build a sketch around them 15 years after their heyday. In the 2010s, Parks & Recreation would use their 1980 hit “All Out of Love” as hold muzak that played a key part in the romance of April and Andy. Let’s just say the pair and their pleading love songs are not universally revered.

However, their version of “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” is a wholly different creature. I’ll defend that recording until the end of time–or when the song ends, whichever comes first. And it didn’t happen in a vacuum. Air Supply’s luster was not only ebbing at this point, but Top 40 styles were shifting swiftly and the backlash was real. They were on the decline and to have a hit at this point in a popular artist’s cycle would not be impossible, but it would take one hell of a doing. They asked for a miracle. I give you Steinman and “Making Love.”

The song opens with a gentle repeated piano riff hook–that Steinman also cribbed from his movie score. Hitchcock steps in with repeated list of what he “knows” leading to things he does not “know.” He does this two times, and then the Steinman magic kicks in. Like other of his creations, the song does not hit its stride until the point where many pop songs are starting their fade to black. After those two soft rock verses, the song catches fire with a bridge that leads into an underrated Rick Derringer solo. That then gives way to a level of ferocity that who knew the mopes had in them. Then, even when you think it’s over, it’s still not over. The song switches into a weird choral call & response. Finally, just before six minutes (fairly short for Steinman), it victoriously winds down.

 

VIDEO: Will Ferrell SNL Air Supply sketch

Radio starting spinning the track in July and never stopped until it got to the top–or near it. By October, both of the two top spots were occupied by five-minute-plus songs with shameless orchestral rock opera flourishes. And the songs remained there for three weeks. Now, it’s not uncommon over history for the same songwriter to own the top two hits with different artists. This is especially true now as two Swedish songwriters appear to pen half of the pop hits, and have done so for the last couple decades. It is remarkable though for a songwriter as against-the-grain (or the prevailing pop winds) as Jim Steinman to do so.

In fairness, late 1983 was about the friendliest terrain for Steinman’s particular style to flourish. We were in a bit of an anything-goes phase before drum-machine R&B and hair metal made a push. If you look at the rest of Billboard’s top ten, you’ll see Men Without Hats’ synth pop song about pogo’ing against the crowd, The Police’s dirge about decaying life, The Fixx’s jagged ode to paranoia. Again,  it was a pretty weird time.

The best ending of Meat Loaf losing his hold on a Steinman song came from the pair’s first failed attempt at the Bat sequel. Ironically, it was overpromotion of its predecessor that did in their efforts this time. At that point in 1980, Bat II was to be titled Bad For Good. Steinman had the music where he wanted, but three years on the road had ravaged Meat Loaf’s voice.

Frustrated, he pivoted; he vowed to create another album for Meat Loaf when the singer recovered, and to simply record the songs he had under his own name (well, Dodd sang). Steinman even scored a top 40 hit when “Rock & Roll Dreams Come Through” sneaked up to #32. History would come full circle when the real sequel, now simply called Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell came out in 1993. Meat Loaf not only included his version of the song, but it would become Meat Loaf’s third biggest hit of his career.

The album Steiman did actually put out with Meat Loaf, 1981’s Dead Ringer was decidedly not meant to be a successor to Bat I, and while it wasn’t an abject failure, reviews were meh, and it did not produce any top 40 hits… well, for Meat Loaf at least. A couple months after the Loaf had to see two Steinman songs his company had rejected become the top two songs in the land, one of the tracks off Dead Ringer would become the final hit for yet another polarizing, often mocked, rock idol.

Do we really need to go through the history of balladeer Barry Manilow? He started as bathhouse pianist for Bette Midler, then wrote the songs that made the whole world sing (but oddly enough not that one). By the end of 1983, he had not had a top 10 hit in three years. He had one last gasp with Steinman’s “Read Em & Weep.” While it is subdued to fit Manilow’s style, by the third verse as it picks up, you can recognize it as thoroughly Steinman.

 

 

 

Steinman even crossed over into the dour modern rock world. This is a musical excursion that at first seems weird until you think: darkly musical, over-the-top and grandiose, bemoaning ennui and lost love. Yes, that ticks a lot of boxes for both Steinman and goth. So it was in the late-’80s that Steinman paired up with Andrew Eldritch, frontman of the British goth stars Sisters of Mercy. They wrote a few songs and one of them, “More,” a slowly building eight-minute ode to passion, desire, and wanting, would become the band’s biggest hit, spending five weeks atop the Billboard Alternative charts in 1990 and 1991.

To call him a genius lyricist (as some have) may be a bit much. Steinman excelled with deft, if sometimes silly plays on words. The title “Rock & Roll Dreams Come Through” is either cringeworthy or rapturous; I’d contend both. Every Steinman song title had to have double meaning and often encroaching 10 words long. Sometimes his most powerful images could be obscured by being so tongue-twisted as to be incomprehensible. Honestly, I had no idea what Tyler was singing with “living in a powder keg and giving off sparks” until years later. It’s such a perfect image for the song and loved it when I got it, but still.

As a songwriter, Jim Steinman had to fight A&R at every turn, or at least enough that his story reads that way. At the center of most of these stories is Steinman being told that no one wanted to hear his songs–not on the radio, not in their homes. He had to continuously prove himself, even as multiple artists took his songs to soaring heights on the Hot 100, and the Adult Contemporary and Modern Rock charts.

 

VIDEO: Sisters of Mercy “More”

Steinman’s songs were hits for the very reason some people doubted them. They were so unapologetic, so grand, that they would not conform to pop’s time constraints. And this is what his adherents love about them. This is why people who claim to hate “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” or “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” will find themselves (after a few pints at least) singing the song, and singing it with feeling (including the Phil Rizzuto parts). There’s a fire, a life that echoes through every line. Steinman’s songs take themselves too seriously, very seriously, and they know it and that’s… well, it’s not ironic, but it’s something.

And, yes, he’ll forever be connected with Meat Loaf. That said, it’s the rest of his songs that arguably SHOULD define him. Despite all the ridicule, doubt, and rejections, his songs popped up all over the place and in every decade since. He had six top 40 hits outside of Meat Loaf, only one fewer than with him–and while Meat Loaf only hit the top ten once, with the #1 smash “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That),” four other artists took his creations to the top two. That does include two versions of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” as Nicki French would return it to the higher reaches of the UK and US charts with an NRG dance version. That only bolsters the point.

While Jim Steinman is tied to Meat Loaf, it’s when you dig into his extensive career beyond his main connection that Steinman truly gets the warts-and-all tribute the singular songwriter deserves. Maybe my judgment is clouded by the fact that October 1983 is coincidentally the month I got a radio in my room. Maybe it’s that his songs peaked just as I fell in love with pop music and Casey Kasem’s countdown. But it’s more than that!

We doubt he was thrilled that his muse and friend had to watch as his record barely made a whimper of an impact and the two songs someone rejected for his return to glory were all over the radio for two different artists. However, as Steinman exits this world for whatever comes next, it’s not crazy to feel his square-peg-in-a round-rock-world songs will clearly live on for decades more. After all, they did persist against the odds during his life. Above all else, Steinman will always have those three weeks in October of 1983 when the charts absolutely vindicated his rejected songs. 

 

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Jason Thurston

Jason Thurston is an NYC-area based writer and editor who has contributed to All Music Guide, the late GetGlue, TV Guide, various Virgin entities, Muze, CMJ, Artvoice, DJ'd for Invisible Radio and co-operates his own pop-up TV site called Screen Scholars.Follow him @jasethurst44.

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