By now, almost everyone has seen those nauseating beer commercials. They feature twentysomething slackers with thirtysomething memory banks rattling off their favorite TV shows, cultural artifacts and popular music from the Sixties and Seventies, with nary a receding hairline or beer gut in sight. The worst one to date offers several young fresh fellows on a golf course, creaming in their Bermuda shorts at the mere mention of Frampton Comes Alive!, Fleetwood Mac and Meat Loaf. Forget that these kids were kindergarten fodder long after Meat's 15 minutes of paradise by the dashboard light went dim. To them, and to just about everyone else who followed pop music peripherally, Meat Loaf was deader than Disco Tex and the Sex-o-lettes by the time they were in first grade.
But last year, pop music bore witness to the most unlikely comeback since Lazarus when Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell soared to chart heights even the original Bat Out of Hell never reached. The Loaf has reunited with longtime collaborator Jim Steinman, the man who wrote, produced and arranged the original smash.
That's not to diminish the former album's ongoing, somewhat amazing popularity. Since 1989, people have been buying the original Bat Out of Hell to the tune of a million copies per year, enough to keep it permanently in the upper regions of Billboard's budget-price album chart. The first Bat is estimated to have moved 30 million units worldwide, making it the third-biggest-selling album of all time, just behind Thriller and, oh, Barney's Favorites, maybe?
Perhaps teens and twentysomethings, tired of a steady diet of grunge-of-the-month, were primed for something meaty, beaty and bombastic.
You could have seen it coming. After all, hadn't Queen's nearly-20-year-old "Bohemian Rhapsody," a song that featured so many vocal overdubs that the recording heads reportedly broke off the tape machine, bounced back into the Top 20?
But "Mama mia, let me go" to the operatic histrionics of Meat's "I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)" is not that big a leap. Put on the new Meat Loaf CD, shift the balance on your stereo receiver all the way over to one speaker and you'll still hear more musical personnel at work than were involved in USA for Africa and Band Aid combined.
It's remarkable that an album celebrating pre-British Invasion rock n' roll sensibilities (with Seventies excesses) can be embraced so fervently by a legion of new fans. Certainly, Meat Loaf's original, Rocky Horror following came out in big numbers to buy his latest release. But talk about a disloyal bunch--the Loaf people let 16 years and five follow-ups roll past without ever sending one of them into the Top 40! Maybe they just needed a wake-up call.
Or, more to the point, maybe they needed to be hit over the head with a Roman numeral II!
Meat Loaf, midway through a national tour, has his interview armor firmly in place. He's ready with well-worn, Vince Lombardi-style answers to any question you're likely to ask. Yet given the strict 15 minutes Mr. Loaf is willing to allow for a phone interview, it's rather daunting to realize his response to just one question can last longer than the average Jim Steinman song.
But there's one question that demands an answer--what's up with the name of this new release? Isn't Meat Loaf painting himself into a hellish artistic corner by titling this new recording Bat Out of Hell II?
"We named the album Bat Out of Hell II because we weren't Fleetwood Mac," explains the Loaf, long distance from Connecticut. "Did Fleetwood Mac paint themselves into a corner by calling all their albums Fleetwood Mac? How about Bruce Springsteen? Did he paint himself in a corner by calling himself Bruce Springsteen?" Huh?
"If Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac got back together, they're not gonna change their name to the Bubble Puppy," Loaf reasons. "They're gonna be called Fleetwood Mac. And nobody would say anything about it. The only way of describing that it's Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman is to call it Bat Out of Hell II."
Well, they could've called it Dead Ringer II, after 1981's disappointing follow-up to Bat Out of Hell. Dead Ringer was the last time the pair collaborated, although Steinman bolted midway through the sessions and slapped his former fatty front man with a lawsuit. So acrimonious was their split that the "Songs by Jim Steinman" credit, so prominently displayed on Bat Out of Hell's front cover, was buried in a list of credits on Dead Ringer's dust sleeve. What really happened would probably make a better story line for a concept album than the rock n' roll Peter Pan themes that fuel the Bat albums.
Meat Loaf, unable to control the direction of the proposed Bat follow-up, faked losing his voice. Steinman, frustrated by the demons plaguing his portly partner, released the Bad for Good album in 1981 under his own name. Steinman nearly pulled off his Loafish impersonation, except for those moments that required bellowing low notes. Then he sounded more like Bobby Sherman being sucker-punched.
Meat Loaf fared no better on his own, having eventually lost his voice for real, as well as Steinman's production services. When Loaf's voice returned, it sounded as if it had lost some bottom, as if he were now Harry Chapin hyperventilating. Duets with Cher didn't help in the rock-credibility department, either. In Britain, the follow-up album rose to No. 1, and Meat Loaf's European popularity continued unabated. But back in the States, Dead Ringer became synonymous with "flop."
Steinman's post-Meat Loaf career prospered when he wisely quit singing, opting to pen big hits for small voices. Bonnie Tyler shredded her larynx all the way to No. 1 with his "Total Eclipse of the Heart," while Air Supply sounded as if lead singer Russell Hitchcock was indeed running out of oxygen trying to make it through Steinman's helium-filled anthem "Making Love Out of Nothing at All." While those songs were making a mint, Meat Loaf was in the throes of 22 crippling lawsuits, which necessitated his declaring bankruptcy. Meat Loaf has no kind words for his peers' interpretations of the Steinman songbook.
"They don't understand it. They don't get it. No one gets it like I get it. The bottom line is that when other people do [a Steinman song], it never comes off like when I do it," he emphasizes. "I am in that music, and Jimmy is in my vocal style. Everything we do, we still carry each other, whether we work together or not." It's hard to imagine anyone else doing the recent No. 1 hit "I Would Do Anything" and pulling it off the way Meat does. Lyrically, this song is an extreme revision of Little Peggy March's 1963 devotional hit "I Will Follow Him." You'll recall Little P.M. pledging she'd swim the deepest oceans, climb the highest mountains; in short, that she would complete every leg of the love decathlon just to be two steps behind her dream guy.
Like Little Peggy, Big Meat professes his unflinching love in abstract terms. Lyrics like "Will ya hose me down with holy water if I get too hot?" recall the kind of Dating Game questions Jim Lange used to ask bachelors one through three. Having reestablished himself as a viable commercial entity by singing Steinman's words, Loaf again finds himself fighting the notion that Steinman is his Svengali and that he's Steinman's mouthpiece.
"You know why they would say that?" he says, fuming. "Because they're coming from a place of ignorance; because they've never worked with me and Jim Steinman. Jim Steinman's mouthpiece? Here's another fact for ya! I've never asked Jim Steinman what one of his songs is about. I have no idea what he's writing about. I only know what I'm singing about.
"Have I questioned a line? I question them all the time. I rewrite them."
This is true. Compare the three songs from Steinman's solo album that reappear on Bat Out of Hell II. On "Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through," the line "The beat is always new" has been wisely updated to read "The beat is always true." "When you're alone and afraid" has seen equally drastic changes, into "When you're along and afraid." But that may just be a typo. Elsewhere, "Out of the Frying Pan (And Into the Fire)" sports two additional "ands," as well as a couple of exclamation points that weren't in the original.
As Meat Loaf well knows, sometimes it's the subtle tweaking that makes the crucial impact.
And it's not just what he's singing, but how he sings it. Yes, Loaf takes pains to make sure that each and every listener can step right into the imagery channeled by the artist.
"The words singers tend to accent are 'I,' 'me' and 'my'--words that people automatically hear," he explains. "And I never do that, because the minute you accent [those] words, it becomes about you and not the person who's listening to it. It's the words that follow the words that should be accented that I accent."
Accents aside, give Meat Loaf some credit. He sings ludicrous lines like "You're all enlisted in the armies of the night" with a straight face.
Before you get the impression that Meat Loaf belongs in the company of bad actors turned singers like Rick Springfield, David Soul, Jack Wagner and William Shatner, note that Loaf's impressive stage credentials outside of rock include Joseph Papp presentations of "Shakespeare in the Park" with Raul Julia, and the Sam Shepard play Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow.
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But the Loaf is quick to make a distinction between his musical activities and his theatre work.
"Theatre is Cats," says the portly rock thespian, sniffing. "Theatre is Phantom of the Opera. We do a rock n' roll show. The difference is that I have a background in films and theatre. We move in such a way that's always painting a picture. I think that makes it far more interesting to the audience.
"People can say we're guilty of a lot of stuff, but the one thing we're never guilty of is standing still. Because that's what you're there for, the audience. I'm not coming to Phoenix for me. I'm coming to Phoenix for them." And that means you.