Whatever artist Jim Steinman is writing for you pretty much always know when it’s one of his songs. Whether it’s Meat Loaf, Celine Dion, Air Supply or this week’s entry Bonnie Tyler, Jim Steinman songs always sound like Jim Steinman songs and nothing else really does. He’s practically a genre unto himself. You can expect big, operatically over-the-top production. Whatever the song is it will be bombastic in the extreme. There will be a sense of things moving very quickly, even in slow-moving power ballads (which is quite the trick). As often as not the song will incorporate a catchy, easy-to-remember phrase that’s either lifted from somewhere else (“bat of out hell” perhaps being the most obvious) or put together to make it sound like it might have been but you just haven’t come across it yet. Like, for example, holding out for a hero. I mean, it’s kind of an expression but it’s not exactly in everyday use.
But it is unambiguously the sort of phrase that ends up as the title of a Jim Steinman song. He has a knack of putting together a song which follows a basic pattern – and if you want to call that formulaic then sure, that’s not exactly unfair – and running with it all the way up the charts. Or, in this case, almost all the way up the charts. “Holding Out For A Hero” got to Number 2 in the UK, though only 34 in the US, and was written for the film Footloose. It may not be the best-known song from that movie but that didn’t prove a barrier to how well it did and it’s singer, Bonnie Tyler, already had near-unprecedented success two years earlier with the indelible “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” under her belt. That single, a power ballad that is pretty much the peak of the power ballad genre, shifted six million units and drove the accompanying album to the top of the charts. So why mess with something that working? Operating in exactly the same register as “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” – bombastic, tick, over-the-top, tick, none-more-80’s production, tick – but obviously a different sort of song, “Holding Out For A Hero” pulls absolutely every trick there is to sound energetic, full of life and passionate.
And no trick is quite as effectively pulled as Bonnie Tyler herself. Tyler is an easy figure to mock, not least because there are few people who manage to embody the 80’s – or at least the particular strand of the 80’s that is regularly featured in nostalgia fests and tired memes – more than she does. There’s the massive hair. The diaphanous dresses. Lots and lots of backlighting. Wind ruffling flaxen locks in even the most remote of locations or the most airtight of rooms. Music videos that make absolutely fuck all sense at the best of times.
And yet it’s not remotely fair. It’s true, of course, that Tyler embodies that particular stand of the 80’s, that’s absolutely an inescapable fact. And yet… and yet. The truth is no matter how naff the video, no matter how silly the song, no matter how cheesy the lyrics she has to sing, Tyler gives it her all and in the process somehow overcomes all the worst instincts of her era. There’s simply something irreducibly good about how she performs that manages to overcome all the fashion horrors of the age. And a huge part of that is her voice. Bonnie Tyler has the sort of leatherlungs voice that could break glass – not, as with a trained soprano, because of a long, sustained high note but simply because Tyler has enough power in her voice to fuel about half of Wales. Given a song like this she can belt it out harder than Meat Loaf, she can out-camp Cher, she can out-warble just about anyone.
But there’s something incredibly sincere about the way Bonnie Tyler performs. The excesses of this song – indeed of all of her big hits – ought really to drown the song in irredeemable cheese, and while there’s no denying just how cheesy this is there’s something about the way Tyler delivers it that means it doesn’t just descend into unreconstructed camp. The sincerity she brings to everything she does rescues the material in a way that really ought not to work yet absolutely does. Sincerity in the face of knowingly tacky, poor-taste material is one of the defining elements of camp. And look, nobody’s going to argue that there’s nothing camp about this song, because of course there is. It’s Bonnie Tyler belting out a Jim Steinman song. Of course it’s going to be camp. But “Holding Out For A Hero” exists in a sort of quantum state, simultaneously as camp as tits and yet also overcoming its own innate campiness to push through to something else. Not “good”, exactly. But… something.
And it does keep coming back to that voice. No matter how much make-up gets smeared across her face, no matter how many candle-lit cathedrals she visits, nothing will define Bonnie Tyler more than her voice. Even in 1985 she sounds like she’s smoking about 60 Silk Cut cigarettes a day, a rasping yet powerful voice that just doesn’t sound like anyone else. And that’s the thing about Bonnie Tyler. She really doesn’t sound like anyone else. Cher can belt out torch songs. Meat Loaf can, as is his wont, rock away in the background. Big-hits female singers can smash their way through the glass ceiling. Whatever. Tyler has not only a better voice than any of them, she has a better voice than all of them combined.
Which is just as well as far as this song goes, because there’s very little of quality elsewhere. There’s cheap but over-excited percussion, hammering away relentlessly to try and convince us that any of this is thrilling, with limited success – it even pans across the stereo picture numerous times to try and get its point across but it doesn’t work. The backing vocals are tremendously uninspired, of the do-do-do-doooo variety, and hilariously brought to life in the video by a few models in “choir” outfits (seriously. I challenge you to watch the video and not laugh. It’s even funnier than “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” and that’s saying something). The whole thing sounds rushed and is, naturally, extremely over-produced as if cramming one more effect, instrument or vocal in there might be the final thing that convinces us of how much energy there is. Nope.
Despite that over-production, it still sounds like the music was knocked off during a busy afternoon then just walked away from, with little effort to polish it or improve it. It feels factory-manufactured. Steinman produced the song, so it’s not hard to find where the blame lies, but the entertaining, knowingly-tacky over-the-top production of “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” has been replaced with something that sound very nearly like desperation. If it wasn’t for Tyler’s all-consuming lead vocal one could be fairly easily convinced that this was thrown together on a couple of Casio keyboards and then just walked away from. Job’s a good ‘un.
The other thing that’s worth noting about Our Bonnie is that when “Holding Out For A Hero” hit the Number 2 spot she was thirty-four years of age. Thirty-four! In an industry that prioritises youth almost over everything, which values appearance and glamour over age and respect, Tyler was able to knock it out of the park while being practically Jurassic in chart terms. By comparison Annie Lennox was 29 when “Sweet Dream (Are Made Of This)” was released, Suggs was 25 when Madness ended and Paul Weller was 24 when The Jam split up. That means there’s a decade between Weller and Bonnie Tyler. In pop chart terms that’s practically a century, and watching Tyler in the video – in fact, in any of her videos – there’s no denying she looks more like she’d be dropping the kids off at the disco rather than going herself. There’s always been a touch of the mom about her, and no amount of dry ice or rouge can quite get away from that.
Yet that’s exactly why her success should be celebrated. She isn’t a bog-standard rent-a-model. She’s not one of the whippersnappers. She is, at least by 80’s chart standards, an older lady with a belter of a voice who just keeps having hits, and the improbability of that is what makes it so endearing. The fact that she looks like a hot mom while doing it is a mark in her favour, not a demerit, and the way she comes across as sincere, genuine and likeable are all just more ticks in the box. Clearly the outrageous camp and silliness of “Holding Out For A Hero” isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and the song itself isn’t close to being her strongest but her career, and the unlikely success it gave Tyler, deserve to be celebrated, not mocked. She deserves real credit for her achievements in the face of the most facile and image-obsessed decade where someone like her simply shouldn’t have hits, yet does. We salute you, Ms Tyler. Good on you.
What Else Happened in 1985?
Previous entry runners-up Dire Straits hit the top of their career with the unstoppable force that is Brothers In Arms and, with MTV firmly on-side, “Money For Nothing” will go to become their defining hit. Speaking of MTV it’s big brother, VH-1, debuts and aims itself at a slightly more mature audience. Madness release their final album Mad Not Mad, bringing to an end one of the best single-runs of all time. Of course what 1985 is largely remembered for now is Live Aid, That means big-ticket headliners (Paul McCartney, David Bowie, The Who, Led Zeppelin) and the career revival of some otherwise has-beens (hey, Queen). It spanned the globe, or at the very least America and the United Kingdom, with the need to raise money for famine relief in Africa or at the very least gain unprecedented global exposure for their songs. No actual African musicians featured at all. Along similar lines the second-biggest song of the year is “We Are The World”, beaten to the top spot with Tears For Fears’ rather brilliant “Shout”. Madonna informs the world that she’s a “Material Girl” (it’s the fifth biggest seller of 1985) and Michael Jackson buys the Beatles back catalogue, stopping Paul McCartney getting it. Kate Bush releases her meisterwerk, The Hounds Of Love, Whitney Houston releases her debut and so do Dinosaur Jr. Both Guns’n’Roses and Radiohead are founded and Mick Jagger releases his first solo album. Better late than never…
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
In the UK, lots of electronic bands, actually. Tears For Fears got to Number 2 with “Everybody Wants To Rule The World”, Duran Duran had “A View To A Kill”, Frankie Goes To Hollywood had their last significant hit with “Welcome To The Pleasure Dome” and last but
not least A-ha’s simply dreadful “Take On Me” peaked at Number 2 in the UK at the end of the year, held off Number 1 by the equally appalling “The Power Of Love” by Jennifer Rush. Duran Duran also qualify on the US chart with “Wild Boys” but the Duran boys shall not be detaining us further (or ever), and Madonna qualifies three times, with “Material Girl” in the US, “Crazy For You” in the UK and a re-release of “Holiday”, also in the UK. But the only serious other contender was Prince, with “1999” getting to Number 2 in January of 1985. And what kept Prince off the top spot? “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Foreigner. Shudder.
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”
3. The Kinks – “Lola”
4. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
5. Eurythmics – “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”
6. Ultravox – “Vienna”
7. Elvis Costello – “Oliver’s Army”
8. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
9. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
10. Adam And The Ants – “Antmusic”
11. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
12. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
13. Queen, “Killer Queen”
14. Blondie, “Denis”
15. Dire Straits – “Private Investigations”
16. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
17. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
18. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
19. Cyndi Lauper – “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”
19. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
20. Bonnie Tyler – “Holding Out For A Hero”
21. Wings – “Let ‘Em In”
22. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
23. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
24. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
25. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”