Music

The greatest power ballads ever written

Posted by
Dave Fawbert
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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– celebrates its tenth birthday; a decade spent pumping out songs that others dismissed as naff, cheesy, too slow and out-of-date to thousands upon thousands of people across the UK unashamed to admit that they worship at the altar of Meat Loaf, Bonnie Tyler, Phil Collins, Bon Jovi,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 

Aerosmith - I Don't Want To Miss a Thing

You may not have heard of Diane Warren, but you sure as hell will have heard one of her songs. She is the reigning queen of the power ballad, responsible for nine US No 1 singles, including Aerosmith’s biggest hit, the titanic I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing. “You just have to have a song with a great melody,” she says. “They’re just fun songs to sing. The ones that have lasted are really good songs, you can’t take that away.” And that certainly applies to this track, which features a towering vocal performance from Steven Tyler – “this gruff, macho rock star; this amazing tough guy, it just brought a whole other dimension to it” – and which Warren rates as the best-ever recording of one of her songs. If you can hold yourself back from screaming along to the climax of the middle eight – Tyler’s anguished ‘Yeah, yeah, yeaaaaah!” – then you do not have a single emotional bone in your body.

Read more about the making of I Don't Want To Miss a Thing here

Bonnie Tyler - Total Eclipse of the Heart

Bona fide genius producer and songwriter Jim Steinman has said that he wrote this song for Bonnie Tyler “to be a showpiece for her voice”. Mission accomplished. The bombastic production features choirs, explosions, organs of doom, cymbal crashes and giant drum fills all over the shop. Few people have ever sung a line with such true belief as the way Tyler sings, “I really need you tonight” – with nothing short of total emotion and longing. A 2013 UK survey declared the song the nation’s favourite to sing in the shower – you simply can’t argue with a fact like that.

Journey - Don't Stop Believin'

Four piano chords, a tale of two starry-eyed dreamers and a whole lot of emotion combine to make this one of the most anthemic songs ever made. The true genius of this song lies in the way it makes you wait for the pay-off: its title – and, indeed, the actual chorus of the song – is not heard until three minutes and 21 seconds into the track. Incredibly, the song peaked at just No 62 on the UK chart when it was first released in 1981, before enjoying a merited second coming in 2009 after featuring on The Sopranos finale and on The X Factor (back when people watched it). So, if at first things don’t go your way, remember: don’t stop believing.

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Heart - Alone

Billy Steinberg, together with his Eighties songwriting partner Tom Kelly, was responsible for some of the biggest hits of the era, including this epic ballad. Originally recorded for his own project, Steinberg says he didn’t think the song “was going to be a big hit”, mainly due to not liking the chorus’s opening line. “I thought it was very poorly written, both in melody and in lyric, and so Tom said, ‘Well why don't we just rewrite it?’ and I said ‘OK, let's give that a shot’. The new, improved version was given to Heart and it became a huge global smash, with a chorus that smashes you round the face, a powerhouse vocal performance from Ann Wilson and practically the definitive pre-chorus power ballad drum fill. Whether your instrument is air guitar, air drums or simply an out-of-tune but passionate vocal, this song has something for you.

Read more about the making of Alone here

Maria McKee - Show Me Heaven

A chart-topper in 1990 and her first hit as an artist (she’d written one for Feargal Sharkey), McKee almost never sang the song. “They sent me this song called Secret Fire and I said, ‘These lyrics are just appalling – I’m not doing it, I can’t sing these lyrics. If you want me to do it let me rewrite the words,’ and they responded, ‘Yeah yeah yeah, OK, but you only have 24 hours to do it…’ So I scrawled out the lyrics to Show Me Heaven in an evening and they said, ‘Ooh these are pretty good.’” The song was propelled to number 1 off the back of a tour de force live vocal performance on Top Of The Pops – a rarity at the time – as well as the sheer quality of the track. And did she know it was going to be a hit? “I was surprised, yeah, it was exciting. But you know, I'm an old punk so, for me, it was sort of like, 'Whatever, I hope this doesn't wreck my street cred". And then when NME gave it single of the week I was like, "OK, I'm gonna be OK!"

Cutting Crew - (I Just) Died In Your Arms

Cutting Crew lead singer Nick van Eede recounts how the title came about, “After getting back together with an old girlfriend. [It was] scratched down on a bit of paper… two or three days later I thought "that's a good title" …One of the things about these big power ballads, there's some cracking titles in there. I think the Eighties were very good at titles! ‘I Just Died In Your Arms" - love it or hate it, it's one of those, it's a title you're gonna go: "well, what the fuck's this all about?" As well as that title, the song was aided by an utterly giant chorus, some incredible guitar work from Kevin McMichael and an MTV-destroying video. Taking four different attempts to produce the song to the band’s liking – “the most painful thing I've ever done in my life!” - it was worth it, as the song hit number one in the US in 1987, becoming an instant classic.

Read more about the making of (I Just) Died In Your Arms here

Foreigner - I Want To Know What Love Is

“It sort of [wrote] itself,” admits guitarist and songwriter Mick Jones. “When I hit on the idea it sounded like magic to me, even though I only had the first three chords of the song.” Magic it was, with the hymnal, hypnotic chorus, sung with pure soul by Lou Gramm, shifting on to a higher plane with the addition of a gospel choir; at the time – pre The X Factor – a revolutionary idea. “The leader of the choir said, ‘We should stand around in a circle and hold hands and say the Lord’s Prayer and then we’ll do it,’ and – bang - the goosebumps, tears in my eyes, unbelievable. It was really, a trip, of emotion.”

Read more about the making of I Want To Know What Love Is here

Bon Jovi - Always

Originally written by Jon Bon Jovi for the 1993 film Romeo Is Bleeding – hence the opening lyric in the song – it was forgotten about after the band disliked the film and declined to let it be used. It became the song – as if they needed another one – that propelled their Cross Road greatest hits compilation into the stratosphere. “I will love you: always.” Has there been a more simple and direct message of devotion uttered by any man? Even one who has “made mistakes” and says he’s “not that good any more”? We think not. Put aside your cynicism and sing your lungs out to that chorus and you will discover the secret of pure joy.

Meat Loaf - I'd Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That)

Another Steinman epic, this 1993 smash is regularly introduced to the Ultimate Power faithful as ‘the greatest song ever written’, and if you disagree, you’re basically just wrong. The Loaf himself even expressed surprise when he was told that the full, 12-minute-long version was being played at the club, saying “We don’t even do that at our own shows!” An epic journey – in the true, non-reality show sense – this is a song that twists and turns, rises and falls, is bombastic then gentle, then bombastic once more, transporting you to another place. It’s a mini movie of a song, held together by the astonishing, dramatic vocal performance of Meat Loaf, singing like his very life depends upon it. And before you ask – ‘That’ refers to the previously sung line each time. So now you know.

The Bangles - Eternal Flame

Co-written by Billy Steinberg, it wasn’t until we spoke to him that we realised that this track – a No1 in 1989 – breaks songwriting rules. “When we wrote Eternal Flame we didn’t really feel we had a chorus,” he says. “It was one of those very melodic, poignant Beatle-type songs where the title would have been interwoven into the verse, but not with a chorus unto itself. But at the end it’s as if the verse transforms itself into a chorus.” With the best use of a triangle in musical history and an outro snare drum recorded in an aircraft hangar, this song truly lifts you into the emotional stratosphere. We’ll leave it to Billy to explain why the power ballad has endured: “I guess they're more dramatic and they're more emotional and people feel them perhaps more intensely. Uptempo songs inspire people to dance and they emphasise the rhythmic qualities, while ballads tend to emphasise the sentiments and the emotions that are being conveyed. I guess that's the best answer.”

Read more about the making of Eternal Flame here

Cutting Crew's 'Add To Favourites' is out now, for tour dates visit cuttingcrew.biz

For the latest Foreigner info and tour dates, visit foreigneronline.com

Maria McKee stars in and provides the soundtrack to 'The Ocean of Helena Lee' (out now), for more info visit theoceanonhelenalee.com & mariamckee.org

For more info on Diane Warren visit realsongs.com, for more info on Billy Steinberg visit billysteinberg.com 

(Image: Rex)

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Dave Fawbert

ShortList.com staff writer Dave’s primary passions are pop, prose, punning and power ballads (and alliteration). A lower division football enthusiast and long-suffering cricket fan, he is one of only 110 people followed on Twitter by Chas Hodges from Chas ‘n’ Dave. Follow Dave on Twitter like Chas: @davefawbert

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