Few behind-the-scenes figures in 20th century popular music have been unquestionably the greatest in their particular lane — but if you were a powerhouse pop or rock vocalist of the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s looking for a co-pilot for a grandiose and gloriously overwrought megaballad, you went Jim Steinman or you went home.
Rising to fame in the late ’70s alongside Texan theater-rocker Meat Loaf as co-creators of the eventually Diamond-certified Bat Out of Hell set, Steinman was simply without peer when it came to producing (and often co-penning) top 40-ready singles and best-selling albums on a Wagnerian scale. His soundscapes were bombastic, his lyrics were preposterous, and his songs were quite simply unforgettable — anthems of heartbreak and perseverance and lord knows what else that have soundtracked countless film montages and every karaoke night worth a damn for the last four decades.
In tribute to the pop and rock great, who died this week at age 73, here are Billboard‘s staff picks for 10 of the most essential Steinman standards.
Meat Loaf, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” (1977)
A nearly 9-minute mini rock opera with three acts (complete with an almost too on-the-nose metaphorical interlude of Phil Rizzuto baseball play-by-play), “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” builds and builds until it finally combusts into the aftermath of lust, love and regret. Meat Loaf’s groveling and Ellen Foley’s determination bring Steinman’s lyrics to desperate life as a man who knows exactly what he wants, pleading with the only woman he thinks can give it to him. When he capitulates to her demands, and she succumbs to his promises, they are both left in the unforgiving glow of the titular fluorescent bulb. Although Meat Loaf’s character intends to keep his word — unlike others whose oaths of commitment are easily abandoned, post-coitally — his palpable remorse in the climax of the song plays side-by-side with Foley’s own contentedness in her situation.The story-telling progenitor of hot 100 no. 1s “Don’t You Want Me” and “Somebody That I Used to Know” with its push and pull between two strong narrators, “Paradise” lives in infamy as a brilliant rock tune that we will love until the end of time. — DENISE WARNER
Meat Loaf, “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth” (1977)
“On a hot summer night, will you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?” You know the answer’s probably yes regardless, but when the proposal comes alongside production that includes dreamy Wall of Sound production — including an all-time great midsong swipe of the classic “Be My Baby” drum beat — and one of the most (figuratively and literally) breathtaking choruses of the ’70s, said flower-carrying canis lupus is simply making an offer you can’t refuse. Luckily, the U.S. public didn’t even try, making it Bat Out of Hell‘s third straight Hot 100 top 40 hit in early 1979. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
Jim Steinman, “Left in the Dark” (1981)
The GOAT of epic schmaltz rock balladry, Steinman may not have had the vocal chops necessary to sell his cinematic visions of teenage romance to a top 40 audience, but that doesn’t mean he had a bad voice by any stretch. Case in point is “Left in the Dark” from his sole solo album, 1981’s Bad for Good; a characteristic Steinman yarn about a scorned lover, his version lets us hear his lyrics of desperation and heartbreak delivered from a voice that does strain, crack and whisper. Barbra Streisand and Meat Loaf would later lend their more prestigious pipes to this one, but there’s something heartbreakingly fragile about his original. — JOE LYNCH
Bonnie Tyler, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (1983)
One of the defining singles of the ’80s, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is a timeless tale of the shadow cast by unrequited love. A soaring pop ballad that leaves you feeling empty and alone and always in the dark, “Eclipse” nonetheless energizes its listeners into recalling their own pain and frustrations of a romance gone wrong. Tyler’s gravelly voice almost breaks in tortuous distress, begging her lover to appear and make it right. “Eclipse” hit no. 1 on the hot 100 in 1983, and we’ll be holding on to it forever. — D.W.
Air Supply, “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” (1983)
“Making Love” was just an obligatory new track for Australian soft rockers Air Supply’s catch-up Greatest Hits set — but tell Jim Steinman to phone it in, and you’re liable to end up with the most blown-out, overdramatic, tear-jerking five-minute power ballad you’ve ever heard on your answering machine. “Making Love” builds from a spine-tingling piano intro to a gut-punching chorus with such steady acceleration — and an all-time lite-power ballad vocal from singer Russell Hitchcock — that by the time of the late-chorus arrival of the title phrase, it feels like the most profound lyrical turn in love song history, even though you couldn’t explain it if you tried. Brad Pitt likes it, deal with it. — A.U.
Fire Inc., “Nowhere Fast” (1984)
The default theme for 1984 cult classic Streets of Fire, “Nowhere Fast” mixed together all the by-then standard Steinman trademarks — pounding piano, racing drums, a gang vocal chorus and urgent lyrics about running to and/or from oblivion (on a Saturday night, natch) — for an irresistible single that sadly tanked commercially, along with its accompanying film. Meat Loaf, then in the commercial wilderness, recorded the song the same year, but his version lacks just a little of the opening-curtain excitement that comes with what feels like the full-cast singalong energy of the Fire Inc. original. — A.U.
Bonnie Tyler, “Holding Out For a Hero” (1984)
Steinman brought an operatic scope to ’80s Hollywood cheese with his contribution to the Footloose soundtrack. The drums crash in like a surprise swimming pool cannonball, the piano clangs and cascades, and the synth beat races faster than the pulse of a Reagan Era Wall Street bro on coke. It’s borderline absurd and pure bombastic id, but Bonnie Tyler sells the hell out of it, sounding thrilled one second, desperate the next, and giving this wild ride of excess just enough grit to keep this fighter jet from spinning out of control. — J.L.
Sisters of Mercy, “More” (1990)
Alternative rock wasn’t necessarily the most comfortable terrain for Jim Steinman, who fed much more easily and readily off the full-hearted, fuller-throated energy of acts that had absolutely zero interest in seeming any kind of cool. But he was able to find common ground with ambitious goth-rockers Sisters of Mercy, producing their mid-’80s breakout “This Corrosion” and co-helming their 1990 Vision Thing lead single “More,” a dark, imposing nine-minute epic that remained alluring thanks to a smoky, sensual chorus and Steinman’s momentum-maintaining piano hook. The song become the Sisters’ biggest stateside hit, topping Billboard‘s Alternative Airplay listing for five weeks, and proving that Steinman had a third decade of mainstream relevance still in him. — A.U.
Meat Loaf, “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” (1993)
Skeptics predicting that lightning couldn’t strike twice with Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell were effectively silenced by “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That),” one of the greatest Steinman/Loaf pairings of them all. A Springsteenian power ballad that replaces the Boss’ lyrical specificity with a compellingly unanswered question (what is “that”?), this is 12 minutes of motorcycle roars, guitar squeals, tinkling piano keys from Roy Bittan, and sturm und drang vocal lamentation from the Meat, all of which Steinman skillfully deploys to bridge the gap between the arena-rock bombast popular when Bat Out of Hell hit in ’77 and the power balladry palatable to Adult Contemporary radio when the bat bounced back in ’93. So epic that even the single edit clocks in at five minutes; you can’t contain the God of Sex and Drums and Rock n’ Roll. — J.L.
Celine Dion, “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” (1996)
On paper it seems surprising that the same guy could write signature songs for Meat Loaf and Celine Dion, but when you get past their wildly divergent imagery, they both share a push-it-to-the-edge approach to vocal delivery and studio production that Steinman excelled in fostering. “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” is one of his most turbulent widescreen epics, drawing on the dark, obsessive romance of Wuthering Heights to craft a dramatic soft-rock quest that climbs up to a rocky emotional cliff, teeters on the edge and then launches right over it; by the end, Dion sounds irrevocably wounded, but she’s crawling to the finish line undeterred. If you ever for a second forget Steinman’s peculiar brilliance, listening to one minute of “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” makes it all come rushing back. — J.L.