Power and Grace: Songs By Jim Steinman

You’ve probably never heard of Jim Steinman but if you were born in the 1970’s or earlier you have probably heard him. After all, his music has sold over 190,000,000 records worldwide and he has been responsible for 9 #1 songs. On top of sheer quantity, Steinman is also responsible for records of quality; a certain quality. His music has hallmarks of some of the greatest music ever made but also bears his distinctive and personal stamp. So, what did he sing, you ask? Well, nothing, really. Actually, that’s not right… Well, y’know what? There’s a lot to unpack here so let’s get started.

Born in New York City in 1947, Steinman was a 22-year-old student at Amherst College when he wrote a musical called The Dream Engine. In the audience for one of the on-campus performances was the founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival who was so impressed with the production that, during the show’s intermission, he signed it up for performance at his festival. Jim Steinman’s career had been set in motion although his impact would not necessarily be made in musical theatre.

Jim with Meat Loaf.

In the early 1970’s, Jim began to attract notice as a songwriter, having his songs recorded by Bette Midler and Yvonne Elliman. Steinman was still, however, writing lyrics for musicals and one that bore his songs was produced in 1973 and featured a young actor named Michael Lee Aday – who would collaborate with Steinman in the future – and another musical from 1975 featured Christopher Walken. In 1977, Steinman found himself once again working on a musical with Michael Aday but by this time Aday had changed his name. He now went by Meat Loaf.

“Oh, baby, you’re the only thing in this whole world that’s pure and good and right.”

– “Bat Out of Hell” (1977)

1977’s Bat Out of Hell album was a coming-out party for both Steinman and Meat Loaf. The pair had a time interesting a record company in their symphonic, operatic rock record. Eventually released on Epic Records’ Cleveland International imprint, the stunning album is really like nothing else in rock music. If Phil Spector took a mid-’70’s Bruce Springsteen into the studio to record Andrew Lloyd Webber songs, it might sound like this record. It is a grandiose statement filled with lyrical imagery, lung-busting vocals and stunning musical performances. It put both men on the map and while it was not immensely popular upon release, it has become one of the biggest-selling albums ever and reportedly still sells 200,000 copies per year. While the sound of the record does not really support this, it is a touchstone among heavy metal albums and it has iconic cover art. It spawned three Top 40 singles including the crowd favourite and staple of FM radio, “Paradise By the Dashboard Light”.

“You were licking your lips and your lipstick shining. I was dying just to ask for a taste.”

– “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night)” (1977)

Bad for Good was originally titled Renegade Angel and was prepared as a follow-up to Bat Out of Hell. Unfortunately, Meat Loaf lost his voice and Jim was faced with the prospect of scrapping the album. Wanting desperately for the world to hear the songs he had written, he retitled the album and decided to sing the songs himself. Released in April of ’81, Bad for Good – with another striking album jacket – featured songs that Steinman had written for a proposed rock opera based on the story of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. “Love and Death and an American Guitar” was the story of a young man “who once killed a boy with a Fender guitar” and “Surf’s Up” is larger than life.

“I poured it on and I poured it out. I tried to show you just how much I care. I’m tired of words and I’m too hoarse to shout…I know you’re looking for a ruby in a mountain of rocks but there ain’t no Coupe de Ville hidin’ at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box.”

– “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” (1977)

The Loaf was back in action later that year and Steinman created Dead Ringer for his singer. Hitting the racks in September ’81 and sporting one of the more striking covers of the early 1980’s, Dead Ringer was a smash hit in the UK where it reached #1 on their album charts. The title track featured Cher and was itself a hit in England. It featured another grandiose track that would later become one of the biggest hits Steinman ever wrote.

“I was damned and you were saved and I never knew how enslaved I was kneeling in the chains of my master.”

– “For Crying Out Loud” (1977)

Jim Steinman had a stellar year in 1983. Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler had enjoyed a worldwide hit in 1977 with “It’s a Heartache”, a song that had reached the top 5 in 12 countries. Things had cooled off for her and one day she saw Meat Loaf sing on television. Tyler got in touch with Steinman asking him to be her producer on her next album. Steinman assembled a band and took Tyler into the studio providing her with the song “Total Eclipse of the Heart”. A typically majestic tune from Steinman, it went to #1 in the U.S., the UK, Canada and five other countries. Also typical of Steinman, the album version clocks in at almost seven minutes as Jim always had much to say, with music and with words. A frequent Steinman collaborator joined Tyler on this track. Rory Dodd is a Canadian singer from the town of Port Dover – if you are from my neck of the woods you know how amazing that is. Dodd sang on many of Steinman’s recordings and is the voice singing the “turn around, bright eyes” part of “Total Eclipse”.

“I don’t know what to do and I’m always in the dark. We’re livin’ in a powder keg and givin’ off sparks…once upon a time I was falling in love but now I’m only falling apart…”

– “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (1983)

The Australian soft rock group Air Supply were a couple of years past their best work when Jim offered them “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” and the group released it as a single in the summer of 1983. Based on a theme Steinman had used for his score for the film A Small Circle of Friends (1980), this tune is another epic ballad lamenting the demise of a relationship. It proved to be Air Supply’s swan song and reached #2 in the US. What tune kept it out of the top spot? “Total Eclipse of the Heart”.

Odd video; stunning tune.

One of the highlights of Dead Ringer had been “Read ‘Em and Weep”, a song Barry Manilow later recorded and added to his second greatest hits compilation. It was released as a single by Barry in November of ’83 and reached #1 on the US and Canadian Adult Contemporary chart and #18 US Pop. Another majestic ballad, Manilow’s was produced by Steinman and it was Barry’s last Top 20 Pop hit.

“It’s there in my eyes and coming straight from my heart. It’s running silent and angry and deep. Oh, it’s there in my eyes and it’s all I can say. C’mon and look at me and read ’em and weep.”

– “Read ‘Em and Weep” (1981/1983)

In 1984, Jim contributed “Nowhere Fast” to the soundtrack of the film Streets of Fire. It was a tune that Meat Loaf also recorded the same year for his Bad Attitude album, a record that also featured “Surf’s Up”, a song Jim had recorded and released on Bad for Good. In 1986, Steinman worked with Bonnie Tyler again, providing songs and production for her album Secret Dreams and Forbidden Fire. One of these tracks, the energetic “Holding Out for a Hero” was a Top 40 hit that was also featured in the film Footloose.

In 1993, Jim Steinman created another set of songs for Meat Loaf and the two released Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell. The album was a massive hit and went to Number One in eleven countries including the U.S. and England. The album featured the 12-minute opener, “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)”, a song that won a Grammy and topped charts in 28, count ’em, 28 countries. It also contained “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are” and three tunes from Bad For Good.

Then in 1996, Jim achieved a different type of mainstream success when Canada’s Celine Dion recorded his “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”, a song that hit #2 on the pop charts in the US and #1 in Canada and Belgium while also topping the US Adult Contemporary listings.

Unfortunately, the business end of the music business reared its head and came between Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf when, in 2006, Meat Loaf released the third and final Bat Out of Hell album, The Monster is Loose without Jim’s involvement. The two had a legal dispute that saw Jim, owner of the “Bat Out of Hell” moniker, attempting to prevent the album from using the phrase in its title. Loaf released the record with another producer, Desmond Child, and various songwriters. The Steinman compositions that appeared on the record were written for other projects; they included “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” and “Bad for Good”. The album was a Top Ten hit the world over but it was a sad chapter in a legendary partnership, though the two later mended fences.

Jim Steinman created a unique musical world. His music was cinematic, which makes sense because of his long relationship with theatre; from early days at Amherst College to the mini-movie music videos for 12-minute songs like “I’d Do Anything for Love”. His creations were grandiose and Wagnerian, a phrase Jim himself coined to describe his music; a hybrid of 20th-century rock and 19th-century opera. But the subject matter of his songs was not necessarily as mystical or majestic as the musical settings. In fact, what his songs were about was very basic; boy meets girl, boy and girl hold hands as they move together into adulthood, boy loses girl and goes mad, boy bares soul and tears heart out, proving he is – at best – incomplete without girl, girl returns as an angel from on high, boy rises triumphant from the ashes.

Steinman, though, presents these simple teenage relations as if they are mystical and majestic and deserving of these striking and elaborate settings. Brian Wilson thought growing up and boy/girl relations were substantial enough to warrant serious and thoughtful musical settings and Jim Steinman took this thinking to another level. Steinman, too, felt that the simple business of growing up and falling in and out of love was significant enough that it called for a grand presentation.

The thing I never understood about Jim Steinman’s legacy was the connection critics and fans seemed to make between him and heavy metal. Bat Out of Hell, for example; the cover may be heavy metal but the music is not. Sure, Jim’s records have always featured lots of screeching guitar work by the likes of Todd Rundgren, Davey Johnstone and Rick Derringer. But Steinman’s songs have too much import, too much substance, too much beauty, heart and feeling to be related to heavy metal. They are something else, something more.

Jim Steinman was a storyteller and his tales were ones we could all relate to. I discovered Bat Out of Hell in high school in the late 1980’s, ten years after the album’s release. It spoke to me because Meat Loaf was singing about many of the things I was feeling. Jim borrowed sound from Spector and deep meaning from Springsteen – he was also wise enough to borrow E Streeters Max Weinberg and Roy Bittan, who’s piano sound was utilized through the years as Jim declared the instrument’s significant dramatic consequence. But mostly what he did was “take the words right out of my mouth”, take the thoughts from my head and the feelings from my soul and present them with power and grace. He cut a singular swath through rock music and truly stands alone.

Jim Steinman died from kidney failure on April 19, 2021. He was 73.

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