Ahead of its 40th anniversary and official musical adaptation, Getintothis’ Shaun Ponsonby offers a defence of one of the biggest selling, but critically panned albums in rock history.
We don’t think we can think of a more singularly divisive album as Bat Out Of Hell. Meat Loaf, writer Jim Steinman and producer Todd Rundgren created a record that is interminably unfashionable, but always popular. An uncommercial behemoth that somehow managed to shift well over 40 million copies worldwide, despite being routinely derided by the self-appointed Kings of Music who write for smarmy, self-righteous publications (people like us, basically).
For this writer, the album has always been a joy – a surprisingly subversive, unashamedly ridiculous yet wholly intelligent 45 minutes of near perfection. I take no guilt in loving this guilty pleasure.
I have often viewed many of those who dismiss it so vehemently as people who don’t “get” it. You can’t really blame them, after all, the whole thing is utterly bonkers. But ultimately, if you do not have a sense of humour when it comes to music, you should avoid Bat Out of Hell as much as you should avoid Frank Zappa or This Is Spinal Tap.
Obviously, this is why so many critics, and by extension those pretentious worshippers at the critics’ altar, have such a hard time with it. If you’re not a tortured artiste crying into the barrel of a shotgun a la Kurt Cobain, you are basically dismissed as a novelty act.
Well, balls to that. Ya’ll have forgotten that rock & roll was supposed to be fun and ridiculous. In the words of David Lee Roth; “The reason critics love Elvis Costello and hate me is that most critics look like Elvis Costello”. When did happiness cease to be an acceptable emotion? Why is the overblown production of Bat Out of Hell monstrous when the over the top production of Pet Sounds is a stirring work of genius? Is it because it doesn’t take itself completely seriously and you don’t get that?
I was talking with a sometime Getintothis contributor who is a confessed Bruce Springsteen fanatic. He dismissed Bat Out of Hell as being overblown and preposterous, as if The Boss’ Jungleland isn’t. Tellingly, Todd Rundgren agreed to produce the record because he thought it was a Born To Run parody and E Street alumni Max Weinberg and Roy Bittan play on the record.
Even looking at the lyrics of the opening title track, it feels like it is echoing Springsteen’s lyrical style on Born To Run. Bruce painted a vivid, almost cinematic picture in your mind’s eye, where you can literally see Mary dancing “across the porch as the radio plays”.
But if Springsteen and the E Street Band were cinematic on Born To Run, Meat Loaf and Steinman were all theatre on Bat Out of Hell. Whilst subtle movements are all well and good on screen, on stage every movement has to be bigger.
On inspection, this is the key difference between Steinman’s lyrical approach and Springsteen’s early verses. Really, this isn’t too much more preposterous than Born To Run;
“The sirens are screaming, and the fires are howling
Way down in the valley tonight
There’s a man in the shadows with a gun in his eye
And a blade shining oh so bright
There’s evil in the air and there’s thunder in the sky
And a killer’s on the bloodshot streets
And down in the tunnels where the deadly are rising
Oh, I swear I saw a young boy down in the gutter
He was starting to foam in the heat”
But then this isn’t surprising given both Bruce and Jim’s (and also producer Todd Rundgren’s) influences either. Listening to both The Boss’ early records and Bat Out of Hell, Phil Spector is in there, The Shangri-Las death discs are in there, British invasion bands are in there, Motown is in there, Chuck Berry is in there. They quite clearly share their inspirations.
Of course, Bat… also adds the theatrical and operatic influences. As Steinman himself put it; “If there is a market for a 350 pound guy singing Wagnerian ten minute rock & roll epics, we got it covered”. Sure enough, Bat… opens with a two minute instrumental overture very much in Wagnerian tradition by way of Elvis Presley (the opening is clearly a Jailhouse Rock homage).
This is to be expected given the album’s back story. The former Marvin Lee Aday auditioned for a part in Steinman’s More Than You Deserve, a typically bizarre 1973 musical set in a United States Army base in Vietnam where an impotent Major falls in love with a nymphomaniac reporter (of note, Meat recorded the musical’s title track for an unreleased single in 1974, and re-recorded the song for his 1981 album Dead Ringer).
Despite this, and his high profile role in the notorious Hair, Meat Loaf had also sought a music career. He had in fact been signed by Motown’s subsidiary label Rare Earth with his Hair co-star Shaun “Stoney” Murphy on a duets album imaginatively titled Stoney & Meatloaf [sic]in 1971.
The two men hit it off famously, with Steinman finding a vocalist who could encapsulate his work and Meat finding a songwriter who knew how to best utilise his talents. They began working on songs for a rock & roll album immediately.
They would take the material around record companies from 1974, every single one of them turning them down. For years. Then as now, the record companies weren’t willing to take a chance on something that so was different from everything else on the radio.
As Meat Loaf says in his 2000 autobiography To Hell and Back, Clive Davis at CBS told them; “Do you know how to write a song? Do you know anything about writing? If you’re going to write for records, it goes like this: A, B, C, B, C, C. I don’t know what you’re doing. You’re doing A, D, F, G, B, D, C… Have you ever heard any rock & roll music… You should go downstairs when you leave here… and buy some rock & roll records.” Meat Loaf was particularly pissed off as Steinman “knew every record ever made. [He] is a walking rock Encyclopedia.”
Part of the problem, of course, was that they were auditioning with just Meat Loaf on vocals and Steinman on piano. So, they elected to go ahead and make the record. Somehow, they managed to coax Todd Rundgren into producing, who agreed to do so because, according to him; “I thought it was a parody of Bruce Springsteen. Oddly enough the world took it seriously. There’s this big, fat, operatic guy doing totally over the top, over-wrought, drawn-out songs. All this bombast. It was like Bruce Springsteen squared. I was just chuckling the whole time, and I’m still chuckling. I can’t believe the world took it seriously.”
Ironically, it was Springsteen’s right hand man Steve Van Zandt who got Meat Loaf and Steinman signed to Epic – the first label that turned them down – apparently because head Steve Popovich thought You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth had the greatest rock & roll intro he had ever heard.
And this is what many of the detractors miss; the humour of the whole project. Robert Christau – the self-crowned Dean of American Rock Critics (a sad title if I’ve ever heard one) – said; “Occasionally it seems that horrified, contemptuous laughter is exactly the reaction this production team intends”. Well, no fucking shit! Just look at the last verse of the title track;
“Then I’m down in the bottom of a pit in the blazing sun
Torn and twisted at the foot of a burning bike
And I think somebody somewhere must be tolling a bell
And the last thing I see is my heart
Still beating, still beating
Breaking out of my body, and flying away
Like a bat out of hell”
Let us unlock this. What we have here is a situation where, at the end of a ten minute song which pushes all the rock & roll clichés beyond the point of parody (bikes, rock & roll, sex, gothic imagery), is Meat Loaf – a guy then most known for playing Eddie in the Rocky Horror Picture Show – crashing his bike in such a violent way that it has pierced his chest, and as he draws his terminal breaths he sees his heart fly out of his body and he watches it beating next to him before he dies.
We really have to ask; what fucking critic was taking that completely seriously? Who thought that this wasn’t supposed to raise a twisted smile?
Perhaps this is why Britain was the first country to “get” the record. Like Alice Cooper before them, Meat Loaf and Steinman’s brand of humour, that straight faced deadpan, seems far more suited to the British psyche than it does the US.
The BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test broadcast the promotional film for Bat Out Of Hell, and the audience response was such that they were forced to re-show the clip the following week. Meat Loaf was then invited to perform live on the show, in what would become one of the show’s benchmark performances.
For the appearance, they performed Paradise By The Dashboard Light, probably the best title for a car sex song in history. Mimicking the then-Lords of Prog, the song is in several movements; (i-Paradise, ii-Let Me Sleep On It, iii-Praying For The End of Time). It starts off romantic, wistful and nostalgic. They could be lyrics from a song in Grease; “Baby don’t you hear my heart, you got it drownin’ out the radio”.
But this is Jim Steinman, so it isn’t going to end well. Just when most songs would leave us with a happy ending (in a manner of speaking), the Loaf is well and truly cock blocked when his girlfriend stops and asks him
“Do you love me?
Will you love me forever?
Do you need me?
Will you never leave me?
Will you make me so happy
For the rest of my life?
Will you take me away
And will you make me your wife?”
Meat isn’t quite so keen. “Let me sleep on it, I’ll give you answer in the morning”. The argument continues until they reach breaking point, and Meat is descended into madness “I swore I would love you til the end of time/So, now I’m praying for the end of time”. What is kind of interesting is that in the annals of rock history, during the macho posturing of the 1970s and 80s, is that it is the female character who is the assertive one in the story. Though neither character could be considered a winner, Meat Loaf is definitely the loser.
In that sense, there is a subversive quality to Paradise… for which the record doesn’t really get the credit. It is played for laughs, but the song goes beyond rock & roll’s romanticism and comes crashing down in a cold, twisted reality. And lest we forget, Meat Loaf’s sole pre-Steinman album was the pretty nondescript Stoney & Meatloaf record mentioned earlier, which was full of the kind of male/female duet that Paradise… was almost parodying.
The other obvious subversive quality is Meat Loaf himself. This was the era of the Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey brand of Rock God. Then along comes Meat, overweight, dressed in a flamboyant ruffled shirt, a tuxedo, carrying a red scarf and howling for ten minutes at a time about angst ridden teenage sex. This wasn’t what people had been pre-conditioned to believe rock & roll should look like.
For all the talk of Bat Out of Hell being overblown, other than the epic symphonic closer For Crying Out Loud, the rest of the album’s songs are pretty mild in comparison, though most of them carry the same amount of Steinman wit.
You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night) is the most outwardly pop song on the record, right down to the Be My Baby-inspired drum beat. As much as the song is a pretty perfect wall of sound pop song, the real kicker is the spoken introduction. If you told us that this was a surreal comedy sketch we would probably believe you. We beg you, watch the version in the song’s music video. It is different from the one on the record, and features Steinman doing an even more over the top reading than on the album.
Surprisingly, the album’s big commercial hit was one of the ballads – Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad. Over familiarity with it makes it easy to overlook the wry lyric; “I want you, I need you, but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you/Don’t be sad, cos two out of three ain’t bad”. Aside from the fact that the whole concept is equally heartbreaking and hilarious, let’s be honest – we’ve probably all been on either side of this conversation.
The song itself was written when a friend of Steinman’s commented that everything he wrote was too complicated for a wide audience. He ended up basing the song on Elvis Presley’s I Want You, I Need You, I Love You. Of course, he couldn’t help but put the twist in there.
It is on songs such as Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad and Heaven Can Wait where we most see how Meat Loaf comes into his own as a vocalist. Despite all of the silliness on most of the album’s tracks, Meat manages to embody this whilst also finding the emotional core. No doubt this is due to his and Steinman’s background in theatre. Meat Loaf as an actor was able to take on the roles of each of the characters that Steinman had written for him.
Bizarrely, the best way we have been able to describe the intention to this side of Bat Out of Hell is the 1984 movie Gremlins. There is a scene where Kate – the film’s female lead – tells a bizarre story of her father’s death, in which he dressed as Santa Claus and tried to come down the chimney, only to get stuck and die, leading her to discover not only her father’s death, but “that there’s no Santa Claus”. The studio hated the scene, as they did not understand it. Was it supposed to be tragic? Funny? Horrific? It was ambiguous, but represented the movie itself pretty well. Bat, and Steinman’s work in general, walks a similar tightrope.
When the record was finally released, it was met with either a resounding “Meh”, or complete animosity depending on which publication you frequented. The record company didn’t get behind it, the music press didn’t understand it, radio certainly wasn’t going to play a ten-minute epic. To this day, any sense of theatricality scares a lot of fans and critics. Traditionally, people who came from a theatre background are frowned upon. If it isn’t the romantic idea of a gang of kids against the world, then the critics don’t care, as if those kinds of influences have no place in rock & roll. But, I got news for you, baby; rock & roll is all theatre. It ain’t nothin’ but shoes and haircuts.
Do you think all of your favourite rock stars walk around like that 24 hours a day? Do you think even the down to Earth ones are giving you a 100% accurate depiction of themselves? Naw…they’re giving you a version of themselves. Any vaguely successful musician is an actor as much as they are a musician to some degree. Take Our Lord David of Bowie – I heard he never even went to Mars. Ziggy Stardust was as much theatre as Bat Out of Hell, it just took itself way more seriously. Why is Tom Waits‘ equally theatrical act any more “credible“?
Steinman has never quite received the recognition for Bat Out of Hell in the way that Meat Loaf has. When Meat’s voice gave out during the recording of the proposed follow-up (as evidenced by the Paradise clip above, the Bat tour took its toll on his voice, from which it never fully recovered), he ended up releasing the tracks as the solo album Bad For Good. Much of the material was a worthy successor to Bat… in its eccentric make-up, but the importance of Meat Loaf as an interpreter to Steinman’s work is as evident as the importance of Steinman to Meat Loaf’s recorded output.
Steinman did hit on a few successes in the 80s and 90s, most notably with Bonnie Tyler on the likes of Total Eclipse of The Heart and Holding Out For a Hero. He also worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber on the musical Whistle Down The Wind, which featured the song No Matter What (famously covered by Boyzone or Westlife or someone or other).
Meat Loaf similarly floundered for a long time, especially in the States. He fared better in Europe; when his voice recovered, his second album Dead Ringer (a record of Steinman cast-offs) reached #1 in the UK, and he achieved two more Top 10 UK albums in the 1980s (Midnight at the Lost and Found and Bad Attitude).
But it was clear that both men needed each other. When they reunited in 1993, they produced the official follow-up; Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell. Selling around 20 million copies worldwide, and featuring the worldwide smash I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That), the album also included several of the songs Steinman had recorded on Bad For Good. Both men then settled into their elder statesman roles taking on odd projects, released the odd album, Meat Loaf became surprisingly respected as an actor. And then…
It seems Meat Loaf wanted Bat to be a trilogy, and Steinman disagreed. Meat went on without him, recording 2006’s Bat Out Of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose with Desmond Child, leading to lawsuits and litigations. Steinman owned the Bat Out Of Hell name, which is fair enough – he was responsible for the music and concept, even if Meat Loaf gave voice to it.
When the album was finally released, it was pretty clear that Meat Loaf couldn’t carry it off on his own. By God, he tries, but whoever thought it was not only a good idea for Meat Loaf to tackle nu metal, but that it belonged on a Bat album needs some schooling. There are several Steinman compositions on the record – including covers of Bad For Good’s title track and It’s All Coming Back To Me Now (originally recorded by Steinman’s Pandora’s Box project, but made famous by Celine Dion), but his direct input is sorely missed. The record has none of the wit or humour that Steinman laces his projects with.
Meat Loaf has since agreed with this consensus, telling Rolling Stone in 2016; “I wanted to strangle somebody, but not Jimmy, trust me. There is no Bat Out of Hell III. That should have never happened. To me, that record is non-existent. It doesn’t exist.”
Part of the deal struck with Steinman for the release of Bat III was that he could finally begin work on his much mooted Bat musical. Right in time for the album’s 40th anniversary, it is premiering at the Manchester Opera House this February before moving to the West End. Little is known about it at this point, but Steinman, in his typical style, has described it as “Cirque du Soleil on acid“.
All things considered, it is almost as if Bat Out Of Hell has come full circle.
Part of the opposition to it is undoubtedly its success. Had it not sold 40 million copies, it would be this odd little cult record, and the detractors wouldn’t bat an eyelid. In fact, it is so wildly eccentric that this writer is convinced that if it wasn’t such a huge success, some of the detractors would harp on about what a lost classic it is.
But, as it stands, it is a worldwide phenomenon that is as equally recognisable as Meat Loaf himself. It is hard to think of another album that has launched a bona fide franchise. It is a ridiculous record, but when that is the intention, that surely can’t be deemed a valid criticism. Taking a step back, even its biggest hater has to admit that it achieves every single thing it sets out to do. And if you can ever bring yourself to laugh and dance simultaneously, one day you might just enjoy it.
- Jim Steinman’s Bat Out of Hell: The Musical runs at the Manchester Opera House between Friday February 17 and runs to Saturday April 29.