Re-evaluating: Bat Out of Hell
Overblown crap, or a subversive masterpiece with feminist overtones? Shaun Ponsonby takes a look at one of the world’s biggest selling yet critically maligned albums.
I don’t think there is a more singularly divisive album than 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 – an irresistible, surprisingly subversive, unashamedly ridiculous yet wholly intelligent 45 minutes of near perfection. I take no guilt in loving this guilty pleasure.
Without being “that guy“, many of those who dismiss it so vehemently have always struck as people who don’t truly understand it. You can’t really blame them, after all, the whole thing is utterly bonkers. But 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.
Not that there’s anything wrong with being a novelty act. Lest we forget, whether you want to admit it or not, rock & roll was built on novelty. Are we saying Chubby Checker‘s The Twist has any deeper meaning? Or that Rock Around the Clock is a searing intellectual statement? No. Meaning has been applied to these songs retrospectively based on their collective social impact. At the time, they were novelty tunes made to capitalise on a passing fad.
But they underline one key conceit; that rock & roll supposed to be fun and ridiculous. At some point, rock was over-intellectualised by the unfabulous. 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 recall discussing Meat Loaf with a sometime acquiantance 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” in Thunder Road.
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, and unlike Springsteen‘s earnestness, Steinman firmly has his tongue planted in his cheek. As he put it himself; “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, with an opening burst that clearly acts as a homage to Jailhouse Rock.
This should 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.
Further to this, and his high profile role in the notorious musicial Hair, Meat 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. Steinman had been developing a futuristic rock musical based on Peter Pan called Neverland, which featured early versions of the songs Heaven Can Wait, All Revved Up with No Place to Go and Bat Out of Hell itself. Feeling the songs were exceptional, they began to instead consider the set of songs as an album.
They would take the material around record companies from 1974, every single one of them turning them down. For years. As Meat Loaf says in his 2000 autobiography To Hell and Back, Clive Davis at CBS told them; “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… 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 was that they were auditioning with just Meat Loaf on vocals and Steinman on piano. The wall of sound in Steinman‘s head, as commercial as it was audacious, couldn’t possibly come across with an acoustic performance in Clive Davis‘ office. So, they elected to go ahead and make the record.
Somehow, they managed to coax Todd Rundgren into producing. By 1977, Rundgren was already a cult figure, through solo work, his bands Nazz and Utopia as well as producing Badfinger, Grand Funk Railroad and the now-iconic debut from the New York Dolls. He agreed to produce Bat… 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 Steven 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 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.
You have to ask yourself; who is 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 straight faced deadpan was 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 in a song from 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 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. She refuses to be the man’s plaything, a glorified masturbation toy to satisfy his needs. If you want to get with her, it’s on her terms, not yours, thank you very much, and Meat‘s character is rejected and humiliated for his ambivalent attitude towards her.
In that sense, there is a subversive quality to Paradise…for which the record doesn’t get credit. It is played for laughs, but the song goes beyond rock & roll’s clichéd romanticism and comes crashing down in a cold, twisted reality. It is especially aprropriate when you consider that 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.
It isn’t a stretch to argue that Meat Loaf‘s presence subverted the rock star imagery more than punk did around the same time. For all the talk of punk’s dissedence, most of the stars were often merely updated versions of age-old rock archetypes. In reality, there wasn’t much progression from the bad boy rebels that the girl groups sang about 15 years earlier. Meat Loaf, on the other hand, truly looked like no rock star before him.
He sounded different too. The Who‘s Tommy may have been loosely observed as a rock opera, and the similarly critically maligned Queen may have inserted a minute of faux operatic folly in Bohemian Rhapsody, but nobody had married the emotional scales of rock and opera in quite this way before. And you could argue, haven’t since.
Yet a lot of the album isn’t quite as overblown as it’s reputation would have you believe. Sure, there’s the title track, Paradise by the Dashboard Light and the epic symphonic closer For Crying Out Loud, but 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 with an almighty earworm, the real kicker is the spoken introduction. If you were told that it was a surreal comedy sketch you would probably believe it.
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 intense, 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, and Meat Loaf as an actor was able to take on the roles of each of the characters that Steinman had written for him.
Perhaps the best way to describe the intention to this side of Bat Out of Hell is to reference the 1984 movie Gremlins. There is a scene where Kate – the film’s female lead – tells a peculiar 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 Grand Dame David 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 that any more “credible“?
It is knowingly camp, and perhaps this is exactly what rubs people up the wrong way. Indeed, Bat… gained it’s initial cult following in America because Meat Loaf was able to convince Lou Adler, producer of the Rocky Horror Picture Show – in which Meat starred as Eddie and sang the song Hot Patootie – Bless My Soul – to run the promo clip for Paradise by the Dashboard Light as a trailer before the movie. Has any rock album had a camper introduction to the public than to literally be run alongside the campest film ever made?
Steinman has never quite received the popular 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.
There are times when Steinman‘s more human voice works, such as on the closing Left in the Dark where he sounds fragile in a way that Meat Loaf rarely does. But for the most part, Steinman writes about a highly romanticsed (if hilarious) heroism, which requires a certain level of gusto.
Coming four years after Bat…, and without the brand name that fans had come to recognise, Bad For Good floundered in America. However, it was a moderate hit across Europe. It is worth tracking down his promotional appearances for the LP. Especially one performance of Rock & Roll Dreams Come Through on a German TV show, where an audience of teenagers look on bemused as Steinman lip syncs the song as two dancers perform some kind of bizarre, shirtless, horny ballet in front of their eyes.
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).
Perhaps his greatest project in the era was Pandora’s Box, a girl group he put together and released one album, Original Sin. Though a commercial flop at the time, it has become a cult classic, and is significant for containing the original version of the Celine Dion hit It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, which was coupled with an eye-popping Ken Russell-directed music video depiciting a young woman involved in a motorcycle crash, before being ministered to by paramedics and fantasising about sex with a large python before writing around on a bed, surrounded by barely leather-clad dancers, tombstones and cockrings.
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; the Grammy-winning 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 both Original Sin and Bad For Good – including the latter’s Lost Boys and Golden Girls, harking back to the original’s Peter Pan origins.
Bat II isn’t quite as humourous as the original, perhaps missing Todd Rundgren‘s perspective as producer. But the themes of the album could be viewed as the original characters grown up. It is still silly, with songs like Everything Louder Than Everything Else joking “If you want my views on history, there’s something you should know/The three men I admire most are Curly, Larry, Moe“. But it is now off-set by a newfound maturity.
The emotional centrepiece of the album, Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are, may be a mouthful of a title, but it is arguably Steinman‘s most contemplative song. Echoing Sinatra‘s It Was a Very Good Year, it is a three-part narrative, centred upon the seasons of summer, winter and spring, and portraying a man who has overcome tragedies but is still haunted by his memories. It represents the crux of the entire record’s theme; the death of our youthful dreams and fantasies. It wasn’t just nostalgia for the original Bat… that scaled its sequel to multi-platinum success. The LP hit home with the generation who grew up with it.
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…Bat became a trilogy.
Initially intended to be a full collaboration between Meat and Steinman, the latter fell foul of health problems. Whether at Meat‘s behest or the label’s, the singer forged ahead without his partner and recorded 2006’s Bat Out Of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose with Desmond Child, leading to lawsuits and litigations. Steinman owned the rights to the Bat Out Of Hell name – after all, 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 couldn’t carry it off on his own. By God, he tries, and he is in fine voice throughout. But it ultimately ends up sounding like just another Meat Loaf album, one without the scale that only Jim Steinman could provide.
For some reason, Meat and Child decided that it was an absolutely spiffing idea for Motley Crue‘s Nikki Sixx to write some nu metal for the record, and Diane Warren provides some typically pleasant but mediocre balladry. 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, but his direct input is sorely missed. The record has none of the wit that Steinman laces his projects with, and feels forced for the very first time.
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.” Child, meanwhile, recently told Entertainment Focus that “there was so much politics around it that made it a really difficult project to be involved with.”
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 premiered at the Manchester Opera House in February 2017, before moving to the West End. A planned UK tour for later this year is presumably in jeopardy due to the Coronavirus pandemic. In addition, Steinman and Meat reunited for one more album, Braver Than We Are, in 2016.
The musical brings Bat Out of Hell full circle. Unlike most jukebox musicals, it doesn’t shoehorn songs into a convoluted narrative. It is, for all intents and purposes, a realisation of the Neverland musical that gave birth to the songs on the original LP. Over four decades in the making, Steinman finally staged his dream musical. In his typical style, he described it as “Cirque du Soleil on acid”. Having seen it, he isn’t far off the mark.
There are many reasons for the vehement opposition to Bat Out of Hell, but part of 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 I am convinced that some of the detractors would harp on about what a lost classic it is.
But, the LP is a worldwide phenomenon that is as equally recognisable as Meat Loaf himself. Try to think of another album that has launched a bona fide franchise. It is a ridiculous record, but when that is the intention, is that 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.
(Adapted from a piece originally published on Get Into This)
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