❉ While Tyler needed a different artistic approach to make a true breakthrough, the talent displayed here is obvious.
Whatever a critic’s best intentions, the temptation to judge an artist’s work based on what it isn’t rather than what it actually is can exert a powerful pull. This pull can be especially strong when the point of comparison is a blockbuster song. Not merely a big hit but rather a song that becomes a cultural institution in its own right. The RCA Years, Cherry Red Records’ newly released collection of singer Bonnie Tyler’s first four albums, serves as a textbook example.
Though many of the songs on these albums are enjoyable in their own right, perspective on Tyler’s early work is inevitably warped by the first single she released after changing record labels, 1983’s Total Eclipse of the Heart. When the epic ballad hit #1 in the US and UK – and several other countries as well – Tyler hadn’t achieved a true hit in either county since It’s A Heartache reached the top five in 1978. Covered to comparable effect by artists ranging from country singer Juice Newton to former New York Dolls singer David Johansen, It’s A Heartache is a great single that also encapsulates the limitations of her early work.
Even the stronger songs rarely felt like they truly belonged to Tyler. This held true not just of covers like (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman or Tom Petty’s Louisiana Rain but also the originals, most of them written by Tyler’s then-producers Ronnie Scott and Steve Wolfe. Where Jim Steinman tailored his writing and production on the album Faster Than the Speed of Night to complement Tyler’s talents, Scott and Wolfe seemed to take the opposite approach, pushing Tyler to bend her voice to their artistic choices.
What Steinman understood that her earlier producers missed is that, while Tyler’s voice was a pretty good instrument for country-tinged crossover pop, it was a transcendent one for operatic balladry. In that light it’s unsurprising that the highlights the RCA albums are the songs that convey a sense of drama. Tyler’s debut album, The World Starts Tonight, stands up the best in this respect for both covers and originals. Her rendition of Piece of My Heart might not make anyone forget Janis Joplin’s version, but she’s more than up to the job on Love of a Rolling Stone, previously recorded by Tanya Tucker. And though More Than a Lover didn’t make the same impression on the singles charts as Lost In France, it also deserved to be a hit.
Natural Force was the commercial peak of Tyler’s early career, but it’s generally a weaker album than her debut. The covers don’t suit her especially well, and other than Blame Me and It’s a Heartache the originals are less engaging. The next album, Diamond Cut, also felt underwhelming, with the non-album soundtrack single (The World Is Full of) Married Men and a live version of Sitting on the Edge of the Ocean being much more interesting than the album itself.
The studio version of Sitting on the Edge of the Ocean, which won Japan’s World Popular Song Festival, is arguably the best song on Goodbye to the Island, the set’s final album. Positioned between an appealing performance of A Whiter Shade of Pale and the album’s first single, it helps end the album on a strong note. The next stage of her work could hardly have been more different stylistically, but the talent displayed here is obvious. While Tyler might have needed a different artistic approach and new collaborators to make a true breakthrough, on balance The RCA Years shows that her later success was hardly a fluke.
❉ ‘Bonnie Tyler: The RCA Years’ (CRPOPBOX201) was released August 30, 2019 by Cherry Red Records, RRP £19.99. Click here to order.
❉ Don Klees has spent many years in the video business. This continues to enrich his life in many ways, chief among them being able to tell people he watches television for a living. An avid consumer of pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture, Don is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.