Friday, August 7, 2015

Meat Loaf: Bat Out Of Hell

In between his own albums and touring behind them, Todd Rundgren got quite a bit of work producing other people’s albums. Wide-ranging examples from a five-year period include The Band, Badfinger, Hall & Oates, New York Dolls and Grand Funk Railroad. But if the money was there, it can be assumed that he’d work with anyone, which is how he ended up with a guy whose claim to fame thus far had been in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and a songwriter with designs to be the rock version of Richard Wagner. Though he says he doesn’t get royalties for it anymore, Bat Out Of Hell is easily the most successful album Todd ever produced.
Meat Loaf’s persona was that of a sweaty fat guy with long hair in a ruffled tux without a tie, clutching a handkerchief. His size and voice were about as overblown as Jim Steinman’s music and ego; therefore they were made for each other. Steinman’s hair was about as long, and his propensity for mirrored shades shouldn’t be construed as a desire to stay in the background. While not as prominent as that of the artist, his name does feature on the cover, directly above the fantasy porn image of a motorcycle emerging from a grave.
To this day it’s easy to recognize a Jim Steinman song on first listen: the title is either lengthy, a corrupted expression or both; the lyrics include at least one repeated phrase that could well be the song title but isn’t; each line of the verse is about 35 syllables and painstakingly rhymed; the musicians feature singer Rory Dodd and members of the E Street Band and Utopia. These elements aren’t limited to this album; “Total Eclipse Of The Heart”, “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now”, “Making Love Out Of Nothing At All” and the two gems from Streets Of Fire (“Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young” and “Nowhere Fast”) all have different singers but might as well have the voice of Meat, who would end up recording some of them anyway.
Nearly forty years on, Bat Out Of Hell reminds us of rainy days during the very hot summer of ’78 at camp, where we failed to learn to swim. In time we’ve learned to appreciate it for its camp value; part of this was helped by the early days of MTV, where the limited playlist included promo clips for this album, featuring backup singer Karla DeVito in that tight white halter top (even though it was Night Court’s Ellen Foley on the recordings themselves). That likely kept boys interested through the ‘80s, and the album’s continual budget pricing meant you could get the cassette for about five bucks and the inevitable CD for as low as ten.
Rundgren’s touch is all over, particularly in the guitars and layered harmonies. On the biggest and longest numbers, the songs ape Bruce Springsteen, from the arpeggiated piano to the saxophone. Did we mention that the songs are long? The title track is nearly ten minutes, with a lengthy overture-like intro and guitars that sound like motorcycles and their eventual crashes. “You Took The Words Right Out Of Mouth” uses the “Be My Baby” beat and Spector percussion, but only after a goofy spoken prologue. “Heaven Can Wait” is a string-soaked clunker that sounds nothing like Springsteen, unlike “All Revved Up With No Place To Go”, which oozes Asbury Park.
What sold the album on AM radio was “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad”, a ballad that gets more depressing the more you hear it, but FM was all over “Paradise By The Dashboard Light”. The cleverest track on the album by far, this three-part epic sports named sections and the pushed metaphor of Phil Rizzuto (of The Money Store) calling the action. The “let me sleep on it” section is well balanced, and the turnaround where he’s “praying for the end of time” is hilarious. The album should have ended there, leaving off the nearly nine minutes of “For Crying Out Loud”, where all the orchestral stops are pulled out.
One of the managers at the first record store where we worked took offense at our scoffing about this album. We said we had no problem with anyone enjoying it, but rather with anyone championing it. When its “sequel” arrived in 1993, consisting mostly of older Steinman songs yet to be recorded by Meat Loaf, its success was not entirely unexpected, while the initial sales of the second sequel only speak to the state of the record industry in 2006. As long as the perpetrators are around to flog it, Bat Out Of Hell may well not be limited to a trilogy.

Meat Loaf Bat Out Of Hell (1977)—3

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