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power-ballad chronicles

Do You Have ‘The Touch’? Learn the Bizarre History of the Greatest Transformers Song Ever

Last week, the Transformers Hall of Fame — which is, believe it or not, a real thing — inducted two fictional robots, but only one human: a 60-year-old Los Angeles resident named Stan Bush. When the emcee uttered that human's name, cheers and applause erupted from the throngs of Transformers fans in the audience at the Pasadena Convention Center. Bush was brought on stage and he wore a grin of elation and surprise. "You're the best," he said, gesturing to the crowd. "You got the Touch!"

That capitalization is intentional, because Bush wasn't referring to just any touch. He was talking about the Touch: a metaphorical blessing of strength that is the central topic of a song Bush wrote and recorded nearly 30 years ago, a power ballad called, simply, "The Touch." It's undoubtedly the greatest piece of music to come out of the Transformers franchise, and it's had a truly bizarre pop-culture journey.

Even if you're not a Transformers diehard, there's a very good chance that you've heard this strange musical artifact. To jog your memory, here's its extremely low-budget official music video:

As you might infer from the video's green-screen mise-en-scène, the track originally accompanied 1986's animated, feature-length The Transformers: The Movie. In fact, it's much more likely that you visually associate that song with the way it was used in the film (or the way it was used in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights, which we'll get to in a minute). It provides backing music for a knock-down-drag-out between Optimus Prime and Megatron — the show's paternalistic hero and bitter villain. It's sublimely ridiculous and instantly memorable:

Listening to it, one might think, With lyrics like "it's in the mighty hands of steel," this must be a song written about Optimus Prime. But no. Bush says he had never even heard of the Transformers until after the song was already finished. Bush had written it with visions in his head of other iron bodies: Sylvester Stallone and Lou Gossett Jr.

In the mid-'80s, Bush was a musician and guitarist with a couple of albums to his name and no breakout hit. Inspiration struck when Bush and the song's co-writer, Lenny Macaluso, found themselves discussing Iron Eagle, a better-off-forgotten Gossett Jr. vehicle about jet pilots.

Bush recalled the origin story to me in an interview: "There's a scene in the movie where Gossett turns to this young pilot and says, 'Kid, you've got the touch,' and we were like, Yeah! What a great song idea!"

They wanted to write something anthemic enough to meet one goal.

"We wrote the song with the Stallone movie Cobra in mind," Bush said in his amiable southern drawl, picked up during his childhood in northern Florida. "We wanted to get it on the soundtrack. But the record label, they got it in the Transformers movie instead. We thought, What in the hell is that? An animated movie about robots? Really?"

Nevertheless, the song is adaptable to any of the aforementioned movies. The lyrics are emotive, but vague:

After all is said and done
You'll never walk, you'll never run
You're a winner

You got the moves, you know the street
Break the rules, take the heat
You're nobody's fool

And the chorus:

You got the touch
You got the power
When all hell's breaking loose
You'll be riding the eye of the storm

You got the heart
You got the motion
You know that when things get too tough
You got the touch

The song (also released the next year on Bush's album, Stan Bush & Barrage) didn't top the charts, though it did get airplay on rock radio. It fit right in next to other wailing guitar releases from acts like Rick Springfield or Survivor. But its most important legacy was making an impression on a soon-to-be-powerful generation of nerds.

I talked to Randall Ng, a 42-year-old animator who was a teen Transformers fanboy when the 1986 movie came out. "You'd hear that song and your blood starts pumping," Ng said. "I bought the cassette. You just had to have it." If he'd wanted, he could have also picked up a Transformers figure that would play "The Touch" when you pressed a button, or a copy of the song's release as a single.

Some of Ng's peers would go on to be filmmakers and game-makers in the decades to come, and would respectfully resurrect "The Touch" in their own narratives. Outside the entertainment industry, it still provided inspiration. "I still listen to it often," said Ng. "I hear it and it still gives me goose bumps." Bush told me of a recent letter from a fan who said he was a lawyer and listened to the song on headphones before each trial appearance.

But while Ng's generation was drooling over "The Touch" in both VHS and cassette form, Bush had already moved on. In 1988, he got one step closer to his beat-'em-up action-movie dreams when he got to record songs for the Jean-Claude Van Damme flicks Bloodsport and Kickboxer.

Bush's career then encountered a bumpy few years. He released five albums that received little to no attention. "The '80s rock thing had fizzled out with the grunge movement," Bush recalled with a sigh. In 1997, he had the boon of winning an Emmy for "'Til I Was Loved by You," a song he recorded for the TV show Guiding Light. But no matter where he thought he was heading, it seemed to him that "The Touch" was just a distant, decade-old memory.

That's when the song got an extremely high-profile second chance through the combined efforts of Mark Wahlberg and Paul Thomas Anderson. In 1997, Anderson released Boogie Nights, his critically beloved tale of the rise and fall of Dirk Diggler, a fictional porn star. Anderson had been fascinated by "The Touch" since its early days. In 1988, he had made an extremely low-budget early version of Boogie Nights, a half-hour-long piece called The Dirk Diggler Story. In it, he'd depicted Diggler attempting to branch out into music by (terribly) performing "The Touch." When it came time to make the big-screen version nearly a decade later, Anderson kept the scene almost entirely intact. Bush, however, had no input about its use.

"Boogie Nights, that was all set up through the publisher," Bush said. "It was an after-the-fact thing on my end. I just went to the theater and saw the scene. I guess it's the old axiom about any exposure being good."

The scene is certainly memorable. After his porn career collapses, Diggler (played by Mark Wahlberg in a career-altering performance), tries to pay for his coke and meth habits by recording a vanity single. The song he anachronistically picks (given that the scene is set in 1983, three years before the song's real-life origins in 1986) is none other than "The Touch." Wahlberg has claimed Anderson wanted to accentuate the actor's inability to carry a tune, and the scene certainly bears that assertion out:

(And thus, you have proof that Wahlberg's starring role in this weekend's Transformers: Age of Extinction is, in fact, the second time his fate has been intertwined with the Transformers.)

By sheer coincidence, that same year, Bush was invited to the fourth-ever "BotCon" convention for Transformers fans, held in Rochester, New York. To his surprise, fans had been revering "The Touch" for more than a decade, and he was asked to perform at the convention. At first, he was a little thrown off and irritated that everyone was focusing on this one-off song from so long ago.

"It's a double-edged sword," he said. "You have to thank goodness that there's something you're known for, I suppose. At least it's a positive song."

But he quickly made his peace with it and threw himself into the loving arms of his fans. He started to become a regular at BotCon, doing shows to bigger and bigger crowds as the convention became more of a destination.

"I know the song's right on the line of cheese and corniness and whatever, but I started to get all this fan mail and messages from fans saying these songs really helped them as kids," he said. "It helped them face adversity. There's enough negativity out there, so it's nice to have something that's just uplifting."

The song started popping up elsewhere in pop culture too, as the geeks of the '80s started infiltrating the entertainment industry. It was used in an episode of the NBC action-comedy Chuck. It was featured in an episode of American Dad. It even made it into Guitar Hero.

But then came the great change, something Bush could never have anticipated: the high-profile 2007 reboot of the Transformers franchise at the hands of Michael Bay. That's when Bush embarked on an odd, unprecedented attempt at recapturing his cinematic glory — with varying degrees of success.

In 2007, he rerecorded "The Touch" (with almost identical instrumentation). He says it was at the behest of Paramount, the studio behind the movies, and that they were planning to put it on the official soundtrack. I contacted Paramount and they couldn't independently confirm that, but an email thread Bush showed me seems to suggest that there was at least some communication with executives. Either way, Bush was left in the lurch: The song never made it into the movie or the soundtrack.

Undaunted, Bush tried another angle. In 2009, with the release of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on the way, he rerecorded it again, this time as "Sam's Theme" (referring to the protagonist, Sam Witwicky). It was a strange re-envisioning of the song: It was done in a mournful minor key and featured, of all things, some random rapper doing a verse in the middle.

"I wanted a more Linkin Park–ish, modern thing," Bush recalled. "A dark sound, really. We thought that might possibly be more in line with what [the studio] would want."

Bush self-released the song, but the call from Paramount never came. "It's one of those things where it's hard to find and reach out to these people in charge," he said.

But all was not lost. Bush's loyal Transformers diehards started using "Sam's Theme" (as well as the original "Touch") in fan-made music videos incorporating footage from the movies. They made high-energy remixes of the track. And finally, he made his triumphant return to official Transformers merchandising in 2012: a remixed version incorporating the original and minor-key renditions was used in the video game Transformers: Fall of Cybertron.

And now Bush has a new dream about the next step. He wants to perform a duet of the song with a man whose fate is uniquely interwoven with Bush's, despite the two having never met: Mark Wahlberg.

The odds aren't in Bush's favor. Wahlberg has occasionally made references to the song and sung it in public, but always with tongue placed firmly in cheek. In a January 2013 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, for example, he did a piss-take performance of it at Jimmy's behest. In the interview afterward, he was a real jerk about the song.

"When Paul Thomas Anderson sent me the song, he actually sent me the original, along with the lyrics, and I was like, 'This is really bad,'" Wahlberg said on the show. "For Boogie Nights, it was an intentionally terrible song. But I don't think it was for the original Transformers ."

But Bush remains optimistic, even tweeting the following at Wahlberg a few days ago just before this year's BotCon, where — unbeknownst to him at the time — he was about to get his Hall of Fame induction:

Hey @Mark_Wahlberg, how'd you like to join me onstage at Universal this Friday to sing "The Touch" for Transformers fans?

— Stan Bush (@Stan_Bush) June 19, 2014

Alas, when Bush took the stage for a BotCon concert last weekend, Wahlberg was nowhere to be seen. But it didn't matter. "Throughout the show, everyone was like, 'Is he gonna play it? Is he gonna play it?'" recalled Ng, who was in the crowd at the show. "And then he finished up the show by playing it. It was so wonderful to be part of that positivity and togetherness."

"I know people say, 'Oh, it's such '80s rock, but for me, if it's good music, it just inspires," Ng said. "'You got the touch, you got the power.' Why not be empowered by those things?"