So why did people originally buy Meat Loaf’s epic album Bat Out Of Hell? Was it because of Richard Corben’s eye-catching artwork, depicting a bare-chested hunk blasting out of a grave on a phallic-shaped motorcycle while a gargoyle-like bat looks on? Or was it the music which might well be classed as a pastiche between Phil Spector and Broadway? I personally bought it on the strength of hearing the second single, Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad, which perhaps is not a typical indication of the entire album’s content.
As big (literally) as Meat Loaf was and as powerful and incredible his voice maybe, a large percentage of the credit has to go to Jim Steinman, the man who arranged and wrote all the tracks, which, in their own right, are all masterpieces. Meat and Jim met in 1974 when Meat was appearing in his stage musical More Than You Deserve. They later appeared together in the National Lampoon Roadshow. They hit it off immediately and soon found a sympathetic producer in the shape of Todd Rundgren. Between them they concocted an idea that seemed to camp up Bruce Springsteen in the same way that Kiss did with the New York Dolls and Alice Cooper did with Iggy Pop. Either way, Todd’s master productions, Jim’s epic stories and Meat’s mammoth voice was a recipe for a massively successful concept album.
The title track, in its 9 minute and 40 second aggressive entirety (and the longest track) opens the album. With its predominant piano and guitar-led intro it hooks you in immediately and you can’t wait to hear what the track is about, but you have wait one minute and 54 seconds for that to happen. If you’re impatient, then you best listen to the single version which was cut down to six minutes 40 seconds but only an eight second intro. Evil, knives and blood shot streets is an image you get as the scene is set by the opening lyrics – The sirens are screaming and the fires are howling way down in the valley tonight.
Jim Steinman is also a pianist and said he wrote this to be what he called “The ultimate motorcycle crash song.” The sentiment is a fast biker being thrown off his bike in a wreck and his organs end up exposed. Steinman continued, “The last thing I see is my heart still beating / Breaking out of my body and flying away / like a bat out of hell.” The motorbike revving was inspired by The Shangri-Las’ hit Leader of the Pack, but the sound was not a real bike, it was Todd Rundgren on electric guitar. Todd hated the idea at first, but Steinman begged him until he did that and the subsequent solo in one take. The other inspiration was Ricky Valance’s 1960 number one Tell Laura I Love Her which was the first single Steinman ever bought. Clearly a lover of teenage death songs! The lyrics also describe how the biker is riding so fast that he never saw the sudden curve ’til it’s way too late and its drums and a roaring guitar that indicate the crash.
Todd explained in an interview with Mojo magazine in February 2009 of Bruce Springsteen’s influence on him. “Jim Steinman still denies that record has anything to do with Springsteen. But I saw it as a spoof. You take all the trademarks – over long songs, teenage angst, handsome loner and turn them upside down. So we made these epic songs, full of the silly puns that Steinman loves. If Bruce Springsteen can take it over the top, Meat Loaf can take it five storeys higher than that – and at the same time, he’s this big, sweaty, unappealing character. Yet we out-Springsteened Springsteen. He’s never had a record that sold like Bat Out of Hell, and I didn’t think that anyone would ever catch on to it. I thought it would be just a cult thing. The royalties from that album enabled me to follow my own path for a long time after that.” What is not so well known is that a number of the musicians on the track were members of Todd’s own group Utopia or members of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band.
Interestingly, Meat Loaf has a different explanation of the roots of the song. He claimed in an interview that, “The song is constructed from a shot near the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in which the viewer looks down a valley and sees the lights of a city. He says all the clients in the Bates Motel wish they would have left like a bat out of hell… It had nothing to do, believe it or not, with Bruce Springsteen. It had to do with Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho.”
Steinman also claimed that Rundgren pooh-poohed a couple of his ideas, one being that Steinman wanted a boy’s choir in the soft section but he said “Todd wanted to do it with the existing vocal backup section and then speed up the tape and use other technical tricks to get the boys choir sound. I said that we needed a real boy’s choir but he insisted. But it didn’t work out so we weren’t able to use it. You see, I’d heard this symphony by Mahler and I really wanted a boy’s choir. There’s nothing more beautiful than the sound of 20 boy sopranos singing.”
The whole album seems to contain the type of music that doesn’t date and is subsequently finding new audiences all the time which probably explains its 475 weeks on the chart to date with its most recent appearance being in 2003, the year it celebrated its 25th anniversary. Having said that it re-appears this week in a special packaged edition which means it’s accompanied by a DVD which was first available in Europe in 2006. More interestingly it enters at number nine, the same position as its peak in 1978. To date it has sold around 43 million copies worldwide, 15 million in the first year which might explain why the singles didn’t perform particularly well with the title track only reaching number 15, You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth peaking at number 33 and Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad only one place higher.
Meat and Steinman parted company after the 1981 follow-up Dead Ringer, but clearly needed each other so were reunited for the 1993 album Bat Out Of Hell II – Back Into Hell which paid off and rewarded with his only UK number one single I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That). Two years later Steinman trademarked the name Bat Out Of Hell and they fell out again years later when, in 2006, Meat Loaf sued Steinman because he wouldn’t let him use the title Bat Out Of Hell III for an album. Meat Loaf then sought to cancel Steinman’s trademark and use the title. An out-of-court settlement was reached and the title was used by Meat Loaf as Bat Out Of Hell 3 – The Monster Is Loose. It was produced by Desmond Child.
Bat Out Of Hell was featured in Top Gear’s Ultimate Driving Songs, as voted by the audience of the show. It was ranked third behind Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now at two and Golden Earring’s Radar Love at number one.