How many people bought the Meat Loaf album Bat Out Of Hell because of the bitchin’ Richard Corben cover, with its bare-chested hunk blasting out of a grave on a phallic motorcycle while a gargoyle-like bat looks on? And how many were confused by the actual music on the record: a pastiche of Phil Spector and Broadway that barely resembles the screeching, possibly Satanic hard rock the cover promises? There are two ways to read the disconnect between the grim exterior of Bat Out Of Hell and the florid pop music inside. Perhaps the irony is an intentional extension of songwriter Jim Steinman’s exploration—and occasional deflation—of the American masculinity exemplified by B-movies and old 45s. Or perhaps it’s just a chronically unaware nerd’s idea of cool. Either explanation is kind of glorious.
I’ve never been entirely unfamiliar with Bat Out Of Hell. The album came out in October of ’77, a month after I turned 7, and its biggest hit, “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad,” was pretty ubiquitous in the late ’70s, both on the radio and at any place where kids might gather. (Municipal pools, little-league baseball games, amusement parks, church camps, school talent shows… you name it.) Later, when I started listening to album rock, “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” would pop up on the radio late at night, where all long, weird rock songs were consigned after the corporate takeover of FM. Sometimes my fellow pre-teenagers would talk about “Paradise” in the hushed tones of a boy who’d just found a stack of Oui magazines in the back of his dad’s closet. “The whole song’s really about sex,” they’d say, wide-eyed. No… really?
But I never paid much attention to Meat Loaf because he wasn’t canon—at least not among the rock critics that I was devoted to during my formative years. The beefy Texan born as Marvin Lee Aday was regarded as one of the cheesy bastards, who along with Steinman and producer Todd Rundgren had dumbed down and camped up Bruce Springsteen in the same way that Alice Cooper did to Iggy Pop and Kiss did to New York Dolls. (Again: These were the critics’ opinions. Myself, I’m still not a big Kiss guy, but I’ve developed a belated love for Alice Cooper.) So even after I started moving beyond the Bangs/Christgau/Marsh/Marcus-approved listening list, and even after I started getting into musical theater, and even after I married a woman deeply into all things Todd Rundgren, it never occurred to me to listen to one of the best-selling albums of all time from start to finish.
Once I made the leap though, I leapt all the way. I played the record more or less on a loop all weekend, and watched the “Classic Albums” documentary on Bat Out Of Hell. I spent the better part of three days immersed in bombastic teenage sex and death fantasies, scored to pounding piano, girl-group background coos, guitars that growl like revving motorcycles, and the operatic wail of an overweight theater geek. And I dug it; I really dug it. (Though honestly, I pretty much expected to, given the direction my musical interests have taken over the past decade; becoming a Bat Out Of Hell fan was practically a foregone conclusion.)
Here’s what’s awesome about Bat Out Of Hell: Though it comes from the age of the mega-album, when nearly every year saw the release of a Frampton Comes Alive-level blockbuster that the buying public simply had to own, Bat Out Of Hell itself is so stubbornly offbeat that it had no business selling 43 million copies worldwide. Yes, Meat Loaf had appeared in The Rocky Horror Picture Show—on stage and in the movie—but the cult following for that film was just beginning to spread beyond New York in 1977, so while Steinman’s music bears some similarities to Rocky Horror, the connection was hardly a guaranteed path to success. Yet the album caught on, in part because of what Steinman calls the “heightened reality” of the album’s songs, which made the whole seven-song suite play like a full theatrical experience, and in part because of what backup singer Ellen Foley cites as a kind of half-ignorant, kid-friendly sexuality. On the “Classic Albums” doc, Rundgren compares the dynamic between the cocky Meat Loaf and the gawky Steinman as Cyrano-esque. Meat would boast about his days of having sex in cars, and Steinman would write up epic fantasy versions of those exploits, based on a romantic ideal, not personal experience. (And with a few corny jokes worked in, as an escape hatch if anyone mocked Steinman for being un-hep.)
That question of intentionality vs. naïveté has dogged Bat Out Of Hell since before its release. When Steinman and Meat Loaf would play their songs for record executives, they were often met with stunned disbelief. According to legend, Clive Davis skewered Steinman, accusing him of having no idea of how rock ’n’ roll was supposed to sound. In his “C-” review of the finished album, Robert Christgau writes, “Occasionally it seems that horrified, contemptuous laughter is exactly the reaction this production team intends, and it’s even possible that two percent of the audience will get the joke. But the basic effect is grotesquely grandiose. Bruce Springsteen, beware—this is what you’ve wrought, and it could happen to you.”
Rundgren, on the other hand, listened to Steinman and Meat Loaf’s pitch and reportedly said, “Yeah, I get what this is.” He then proceeded to spend his own money to produce Bat Out Of Hell, instinctively editing down some of Steinman’s more stage-bound conceits and replacing others with contemporary-sounding rock ’n’ roll approximations. The finished product is an inspired hybrid of old and new, snark and sincerity, Broadway and prog-rock. This is “let’s put on a show” music, made by guys who believe in the power of pretense to describe what’s pumping out of their hearts. For all the attention given to “Two Out Of Three,” “Paradise,” and the 10-minute car-crash saga of the title track, Bat Out Of Hell’s best song is the relatively simple “All Revved Up And No Place To Go,” which pounds ahead anthemically—a stirring reminiscence of The Battle Of Virginity—and then shifts gears in the final minute to a jumped-up rocker, reflecting the frustration of the sexually thwarted. The metaphor and the arrangement are equally clear and impactful.
But there’s something lovable about all of Bat Out Of Hell (except for maybe the dreary, overlong album-closer “For Crying Out Loud”), especially when taken as the quirky personal project of a handful of unlikely superstars, and not as some classic rock juggernaut. The album was born out of the New York theater scene, where Steinman and Meat Loaf and many of their collaborators were fixtures, albeit mostly on the fringes. Those roots extended into the album’s afterlife. Foley had been in Hair (as had Meat Loaf), and would go on to play The Witch in Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods during its pre-Broadway run in San Diego. She also had a short but formidable career as a solo artist, during which she collaborated with her then-boyfriend Mick Jones of The Clash on the odd-but-enjoyable 1981 album The Spirit Of St. Louis; and she was the pre-Markie Post female lead during the first season of the sitcom Night Court. In fact, Foley’s extracurricular showbiz obligations kept her from participating in either the Bat Out Of Hell promotional films or tour, so she was replaced by Karla DeVito, who had also been in Hair and who also had her own brief solo career, during which she landed a song on The Breakfast Club soundtrack, co-written with her husband, the former teen heartthrob Robby Benson.
This is one of the joys of The Wikipedia Age: finding unexpected facets to an artifact of popular culture that had previously seemed to be completely catalogued and encased. During this year’s Tony Awards, for example, Paul Shaffer introduced a performance of his song “It’s Raining Men” from The Adventures Of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, and talked a little about his own early days on Broadway. I’ve long known that Shaffer co-wrote The Weather Girls’ disco classic, and I’ve long known that he was one of the many future stars who cut his teeth on the Canadian production of Steven Schwartz’s Godspell. But when Shaffer mentioned on the Tonys that he’d worked with Schwartz on Broadway in ’74, I went to Wikipedia and learned about The Magic Show, the breakthrough stage vehicle for beloved ’70s magician Doug Henning, which originated in Toronto as Spellbound, a show produced by Ivan Reitman, with a book by David Cronenberg and a score by Howard Shore. (The production reportedly changed dramatically once Schwartz got involved.) It’s like “Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon,” remade not as a party game but as a way of seeing formerly remote entertainers as enthusiastic artists trying to make the most of their shot in the spotlight.
What I like about these kind of discoveries is that they explain a few half-forgotten mysteries of the recent past—like where the hell Doug Henning came from—and they recontextualize our pop monoliths. Once upon a time, Bat Out Of Hell became an unstoppable bestseller that to some exemplified the worst excesses of ’70s rock and to others represented a powerful escape into the macho romantic games and near-death experiences of adolescence. But the record started with two exuberant, talented, weird-looking guys gathered around a piano, struggling to express what they’ve gotten over the years out of rock ’n’ roll, song-and-dance, lurid pulps, and puppy love. From that perspective, the album is a gift—and one so generous that it’s okay if it risks becoming embarrassing.