The people behind the big hits and the bigger hair on how they penned a genre that outlasted a generation
You can mock the hair. You can laugh at the overblown videos, the ludicrously self-indulgent guitar solos, the throw-the-kitchen-sink-at-it production and the shoulder pads. But when you look down the karaoke list for a song to sing, or you’ve had a tense argument near a wind tunnel, there’s only one genre of song that you want to hear, and that’s the power ballad.
Reaching peak ‘power’ during the Eighties, there was a brief period in music when artists couldn’t look rock bands in the eye until they too had an anthem of heartbreak, complete with a face-melting guitar solo, end-of-the-world drum fills and a key change or two. Sure, the late Nineties saw them fall out of fashion, pushing them to the realms of guilty pleasures, footnotes in a pop culture guidebook, but they never truly went away. Below the surface they bubbled and they postured, like great, wild-haired titans.
This year, Ultimate Power – a club night that plays nothing but power ballads – celebrates its tenth birthday; a decade spent pumping out songs that others dismissed as naff, cheesy, too slow and out-of-date to thousands upon thousands of people across the UK unashamed to admit that they worship at the altar of Meat Loaf, Bonnie Tyler, Phil Collins, Bon Jovi, Queen, Whitney Houston and all the other titans of power, singing their hearts out to every word.
The fact is, regardless of their cool points, we need power ballads. They unite us. From the delicate opening notes of Total Eclipse Of The Heart, or the unmistakable chords of Don’t Stop Believin’, they arrow towards your ears and burrow, wormlike, into your head for the rest of the week and they make you feel great.
Perhaps it is the sheer honesty of the songs that people respond to. Feelings, failings, heartbreak, desperation, longing and regret are all laid bare for the world to see, something which is all too rare in these times of irony and archness. KISS frontman Paul Stanley once told ShortList of Phil Collins’ classic Against All Odds, “It’s all emotion, and it’s all vulnerability and in that track he eviscerates himself. It’s pretty stunning how he just tears himself open. That kind of desperate vulnerability... to be able to pull that off is terrific.” It’s hard to find a better summation of the strength of the power ballad than that.
But still, what is it about these songs? Why, despite everything, like cockroaches after the nuclear fallout of all the ‘cooler’, ‘superior’, ‘more authentic’ music that has come since, are they still here – and, arguably, just as popular as ever?
We spoke to the people behind some of the biggest and most enduring power ballads in history to try to find out.
Ultimate Power hosts nights in London, Manchester, Bristol, Glasgow, Brighton and Cardiff; ultimatepowerclub.com