Everyone has their musical obsessions. The one act or performer they hero worship and will do anything to own a complete set of everything they ever created. It may not be the coolest thing in the world, but I've made no secret in the past of my love for Jim Steinman.
Maybe it is all the late nights I’ve been working but lately, I’ve developed a fascination for one of his most obscure and all but forgotten musical creations. Fire Inc. were a studio creation, a name attached to his most commonly used musicians and who recorded just two tracks for the soundtrack of the 1984 movie Streets Of Fire.
The story of the film is a tale and a half in itself, intended as one of the summer blockbusters of that year but ultimately something of a box office disappointment and which would torpedo plans for an entire franchise centred around hero Tom Cody, as portrayed by Michael Pare onscreen. I first saw the film on television sometime in the late 80s, acknowledged it as a bit naff in places but was utterly captivated by the musical soundtrack. The most famous song from the film is I Can Dream About You which composer Dan Hartman turned into a moderate hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Far and away the highlights though are the two Fire Inc. tracks which bookend the film and which are portrayed as the work of Ellen Aim and the Attackers, the rock singer whose kidnap is central to the plot of the film.
Nowhere Fast opens the movie but is easily eclipsed by the second track Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young, a six-minute epic which is unashamedly and avowedly the work of Jim Steinman. If I’m being honest, as a production it doesn’t quite hit the mark. As I’ve written before, Steinman’s desire to throw the kitchen sink at a track production-wise means many of them walk a fine line between genius and ludicrousness. Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young possibly strays on the wrong side of that line, the vocals by Holly Sherwood just a little too strained, the heavenly backing vocals just a little out of place and the pace and structure of the song lacking quite the same magic as some of the other tracks he made around the same time such as Holding Out For A Hero. Released as a single in early summer of 1984 and credited to Jim Steinman and Fire Inc., Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young limped to a miserable Number 67 in the charts and fared little better in America.
Yet put it in the context of the movie and somehow it all starts to make sense. Have a look at the way it is portrayed in Streets Of Fire and I’ll break it all down.
The women in Jim Steinman songs generally fall into one of two categories. They are either lost in gothic fantasy, forever stood in front of billowing curtains in flimsy night attire, contemplating the wild night below them and aching for the dashing prince to be their salvation or else they are wild, raucous and horny creatures, in thrall to their uncontrollable lust and determined to make the most of the opportunity which life presents to them.
Uniquely the singer of Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young falls into both categories, a dreamer with a fire in her loins and a healthy dose of reality. Hence when the song starts she is giving vent to her innermost fantasies:
“I’ve got a dream ‘bout an angel on the beach, and the perfect waves are starting to come. His hair is flying out in ribbons of gold, and his touch has the power to stun.”
It is like every trashy chick-porn novel ever written isn’t it? Accompanied by Roy Bittan’s piano and the odd shimmering effect, she continues to describe her angel, her perfect man in loving and longing detail. Only then she breaks the reverie and becomes something entirely more sensible – pragmatic:
“…if I can’t get an angel, then I can still get a boy. And boy would be the next best thing to an angel.”
At this point, the whole of the band wakes up and the second verse sees our heroine in a frenzy of metaphorical clothes-ripping as her real-life hero hoves into view:
“He’s got the fire of a prince in his eyes, and the thunder of a drum in his ears”.
And yet the Prince is quite possibly someone just like her, dreaming of perfection and ready to grasp whatever fate decides to offer him:
“He’s there all alone and dreaming of someone like me. I’m not an angel but at least I’m a girl.”
The drum reference in the previous line is a typical Steinman touch. In his world rock and roll music and sex are merely two different manifestations of desire and the passion for one can be expressed through the other. In a Peter Pan world where everyone is seventeen forever, and what we do at that moment has the power to define us for eternity, Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young explodes into a four-minute frenzy of joy, an unrestrained celebration of the two dreamers coming together to make the most of their opportunity, and naturally to be the shining example for young lovers across the world:
“Let the revels begin, let the fire be started, we’re dancing for the restless and the broken-hearted.”
To me that is a magical piece of poetry, smashing together fantasy and reality to create the perfect excuse to celebrate life, love and everything that flows from it.
Due to the production flaws I mentioned above, by itself, the song simply doesn’t work. Yet it doesn’t exist by itself, it is after all the emotional climax to a movie. All Jim Steinman productions are done with a sense of grand theatre in mind as if begging for each one to be made into a performance movie. Which is exactly what Streets Of Fire director Walter Hill gets to do. Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young is the valedictory performance of Ellen Aim and the Attackers after her kidnap nightmare is over and the gang who tormented her have been run off into the night, so he gets to stage it as a fantasy vision of what a rock concert should be. Diane Lane gives it her best rock chick in a ludicrously impractical dress, joined in stages by her band (complete with ridiculously overactive lead guitarist) and backing group The Sorels who take on the role played by a multi-tracked Rory Dodd and Eric Troyer on the actual recording. It is all at once ridiculous, bombastic and somehow extraordinarily entertaining and needless to say serves as the perfect backdrop for the movie’s final twist as hero Tom Cody slips out of the arena and drives off into the night with the feisty lesbian in search of new adventures (which were to be portrayed in the sequels that were never made).
Yet extraordinarily this isn’t the best performance of this otherwise obscure song on YouTube. That honour must surely go to a Glee-style choir from Sri Lanka called Soul Sounds whose rather badly mixed live performance of the song has in the past two years attracted over 34,000 views and numerous comments from admiring fans, not least one purporting to be from original singer Holly Sherwood who thanks them for a wonderful rendition and reminisces about recording the 72 track original. Is there any finer praise than that?