On paper, the partnership looks weird. On one side there’s Bonnie Tyler, a pop and country singer and a coal-miner’s daughter from a Welsh village who’d struck global-chart gold with an MOR-tinged singalong in 1977, It’s A Heartache. On the other is Jim Steinman, a composer and record producer from New York renowned for bringing Meat Loaf’s bombastic, sweat-soaked rock theatre to the masses with the mega-selling Bat Out Of Hell the same year.
However, after her fourth studio album Goodbye To The Island in 1981, Tyler was distancing from her manager-songwriter-producers Steve Wolfe and Ronnie Scott (the pop writer, not the jazz club owner), who kept pursuing a soft country rock route.
Tyler had a naturally bluesy, raspy voice – made even more so by a throat operation to remove nodules – and she wanted a change, to “sing more raunchy songs, songs with a bit of energy”. She was impressed with Bat Out Of Hell and asked her record company, CBS, to contact Jim Steinman, with a view to production and songwriting.
“They said, ‘He’s never going to do it, Bonnie, it’s a long shot’,” Tyler told BBC Breakfast in 2021. “and I said ‘Please try’.”
Steinman initially turned the offer down – he’d been knocked back by a fall-out and litigation with Meat Loaf – but after hearing demos from Tyler, said yes. He’d grown up on classical music and opera, and felt Tyler had that in her vocal skillset.
“I was a little bit surprised they would ask me, but my second thought it was a real challenge because of that,” Steinman told Rolling Stone. “And I thought she [had] one of the most passionate voices I’d heard in rock’n’roll since Janis Joplin.”
The two met at Steinman’s penthouse pad in Central Park. “[My manager and I] stepped out of the lift and we were met with a trail of M&Ms leading up to his front door… I knew we were in for a surreal experience,” Tyler recalled in 2020.
Steinman tested Tyler’s music taste by playing her Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Have You Ever Seen The Rain and Ian Hunter’s Going Through The Motions. She loved them both, and the songs ended up on their first album together, 1983’s Faster Than The Speed Of Night.
Steinman’s background in musical theatre, love of classical music and Phil Spector Wall-Of-Sound-style came through on one track in particular that he’d been refining for a long time, Total Eclipse Of The Heart. Originally a song called Come In The Night, from a high school musical he had written and starred in 1969, The Dream Engine, and he revisited it for a concept based on FW Murnau’s 1922 vampire film Nosferatu.
Now titled Vampires In Love, and composed during a lunar eclipse by the nocturnally-industrious writer, Steinman needed someone to do it justice. He later stated: “[Bonnie’s] was the perfect voice for what I was trying to get across… her performance was like an exorcism.”
“Jim never did any demos – I learned all the songs beside him at the piano,” Tyler told Tim’s Twitter Listening Party in 2020 (opens in new tab). “I’ll never forget the feeling when he played me Total Eclipse for the first time. [Regular collaborator] Rory Dodd sang the vocals. I couldn’t believe he was offering it to me."
Like all the songs on the upcoming album, takes were recorded live at The Power Station studio in New York. An all-star line-up surrounded Tyler – The E-Street band’s Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg reprised their roles from Bat Out Of Hell, joined on guitar by Rick Derringer, while Steve Buslowe – who played on Dead Ringer For Love and on Steinman's own Bad For Good – contributed bass.
They’d do nine takes of each track, listen to them at home, then come back the next day and discuss it. Total Eclipse… was Take Two of the session, with overdubbing undertaken on a more-is-more 64-track desk. Later, it would be mixed for over 12 hours by engineer Neil Dorfsman, who recalled to the FT that “Jim wanted the biggest drum sound ever recorded” but faders were at capacity and they “ran out of reverb”.
Everything went into the near-seven-minute album track – Phantom Of The Opera organ, synth cannon sounds, a choir, even sleigh bells. And the legendary supernatural video – shot in Holloway Sanatorium, Surrey, and directed by seasoned pop clip producer Russell Mulcahy, who would go on to Highlander – was even more over-the-top than the track.
At the end of recording, Steinman told Dorfsman, “This is going to be the biggest song you’ve ever recorded.” He was right; and not just in audio terms. At its peak it sold 60,000 copies a day and shot to Number 1 on both sides of the pond, and many other countries across the world.
Tyler’s passionate, powerhouse performance was a triumph, and she still performs the song live today. It’s Steinman’s most-streamed composition on Spotify with nearly 508 million plays, trumped only by the video’s 890 million views on YouTube.
Total Eclipse… made Bonnie Tyler the ultimate power ballad diva, something she couldn’t be prouder of – she’s currently on TikTok inviting users to duet with her (opens in new tab) on the track.
“It is an incredible song. I never get tired of singing it,” Tyler told Rock Cellar in 2021. “Every time I sing it is like the first time. I never would’ve dreamed when it was released that it would sell six million copies worldwide.”
Watch Bonnie and Jim in rehearsal, and lip-synching to Total Eclipse… for TV below.