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The Long, Strange History Behind Bonnie Tyler’s Epic ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’


Bonnie Tyler performs on the set of the show 'Champs-Elysée,' in Paris, on June 24, 1983.

When people over a certain age are confronted with the latest viral pop or hip-hop sensation, their tsk-tsk is often accompanied by a familiar lament: “They just don’t make music like they used to.” Chances are, they’re harkening back to the rock or soul music of the ‘60s and ‘70s they grew up on — the Rolling Stones, say, Motown, the Eagles: unimpeachable, timeless. But listen closely, and you can find clear traces of those hallowed icons in today’s hits. Want to hear music that they TRULY don’t make anymore? Head to your local karaoke bar, steel your nerves, and fire up Bonnie Tyler’s preposterously epic 1983 power ballad, “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

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The song, a No. 1 hit that ran a heartstopping six minutes and 58 seconds in its full, scenery-chewing splendor, was the brainchild of the late Jim Steinman, a composer and songwriter best known for the high-throttle teen symphonies he created for the beefy rock singer Meat Loaf.

Steiman’s roots, and “Total Eclipse’s,” lay in musical theater: As a senior at Massachusetts’ Amherst College in the late 1960s, he wrote an experimental musical called “The Dream Engine,” which, in addition to featuring loads of nudity, included the lyric “turn around bright eyes,” a reference to the flash from a nuclear explosion (you had to be there) that became the famous refrain in “Total Eclipse.”

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Theater impresario Joseph Papp saw the play, and Steinman came to New York to work with Papp, which is where he met Meat Loaf, a gale-force singer and stage actor who shared Steinman’s love of bombast. Steiman would write the music and lyrics for Meat Loaf’s 1977 debut, Bat Out of Hell. The album, initially despised by its parent label, Epic Records, would eventually go on to sell 43 million copies worldwide, and make Loaf a most unusual rock star and Steinman an in-demand kingmaker.

One fan of the album was a husky-voiced Welsh singer named Bonnie Tyler. Tyler’s distinctive rasp — think Stevie Nicks gargling with razor blades — was borne from surgery to remove vocal cord nodules; the procedure lent her voice newfound character, as evidenced on her 1977 hit single “It’s a Heartache.” But Tyler’s career would flounder, and by 1982, she was on her second record label and casting about for a new sound.

“I’d just signed to Sony and wanted to change from country rock to rock,” she told the Guardian newspaper in 2023. “I’d seen Meat Loaf on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test doing ‘Bat Out of Hell,’ so I told [A&R man] Muff Winwood that I wanted to work with Jim Steinman. Muff looked at me like I was barmy and told me that Jim would never do it. ‘I just want you to ask him,’ I said.”

Steinman initially passed on producing Tyler, but the pair ended up meeting at his New York apartment in 1982, and after he gauged her reaction to a pair of his favorite songs — Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” and Blue Öyster Cult’s “Goin’ Through the Motions” — he agreed to helm her next album. (Tyler would cover both tunes on the resulting LP, Faster Than the Speed of Night.)

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Steinman wrote “Total Eclipse” as a duet, of sorts — another musical theater pal of his, Rory Dodd, sings the “turn around” bit — but mostly as a showcase for Tyler’s gut-punch voice. It “isn’t pure or smooth,” Steinman said in a 1983 interview. “It sounds ravaged, like it’s been through a lot. It’s what rock ‘n’ roll is all about.”

Today, “Total Eclipse” would hardly be categorized as “rock ‘n’ roll,” a phrase that contains multitudes but still cannot contain the bodice-ripping melodrama that Steinman spun for Tyler. Featuring E Street Band members Roy Bittan on piano and Max Weinberg on drums, “Total Eclipse” is, of course, a rumination on lost love: “Once upon a time there was light in my life / But now there’s only love in the dark,” Tyler sings mournfully, a momentary calm before an absolute sh-t storm of love-wracked, ugly-cry emotion:

“And I need you now tonight / And I need you more than ever / And if you only hold me tight / We’ll be holding on forever / And we’ll only be making it right / ‘Cause we’ll never be wrong / Together we can take it to the end of the line / Your love is like a shadow on me all of the time / I don’t know what to do, I’m always in the dark / We’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks / I really need you tonight / Forever’s gonna start tonight”

Steinman didn’t do understated — he authored the deranged opuses “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” for Celine Dion and “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” for Meat Loaf — and for her part, Tyler sings “Total Eclipse” the only way one can: as if her big, poofy, totally-’80s wall of hair was on fire.

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“It’s a perfect song,” says Diane Warren, the power-ballad doyenne who wrote or co-wrote genre classics including Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time,” and Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” “And Bonnie really conveys the drama. That voice brought Jim’s song to life.”

“You’d have to call the ‘80s the high-water mark of the power ballad,” says Tom Breihan, senior editor at Stereogum whose “Number Ones” column reviews and rates every No. 1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 (“Total Eclipse” earned a perfect 10 out of 10). “It’s when nobody felt any shame. Which is why it lives on in karaoke bars. It’s such an Olympian feat to try to tackle it. It might sound so bad, but it feels so good.”

Such shamelessness fuels the dazzlingly absurd music video for “Total Eclipse,” a staple of early-days MTV. Set in an abandoned insane asylum made to resemble an English boarding school, there are slow-motion doves, dancing ninjas, fencers, gymnasts, shirtless boys in swim goggles, and enough wind machines and candles to pose a serious fire hazard. Director Russell Mulcahy recounted collaborating on the storyboard with Steinman in the book “I Want My MTV,” an oral history of the cable network. “I’d say, ‘Let’s set it in a school and have ninjas in one scene,’” Mulcahy said. “And he’d say, ‘Let’s have a choirboy with glowing eyeballs.’ Jim is fabulously, fabulously crazy.”

Tyler, now 72, would only have one more top 40 hit in America, 1984’s “Holding Out for a Hero,” co-written by Steinman. Steinman died from kidney failure in 2021 at age 73. But “Total Eclipse” lives on, with nearly 800 million spins on Spotify and over one billion views on YouTube. And on April 8, when people gather across parts of Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. to watch the ultra-rare celestial event known as a total solar eclipse, Tyler and Steinman’s masterpiece will surely provide the soundtrack.