Imagine a world where an unknown musical performer partners with an unknown lyricist…and has the good fortune to get produced by Todd Rundgren. The result? A stellar seven-track album that covers all manner of musical ground: hard rock, gentle ballads, operatic satire, and spoken word asides with an overlay of squirmy teen lust. The songs run long for conventional radio airplay, yet damn near all of them become hits and remain in the public consciousness to this day. It sells over 43 million copies globally and becomes an album that nails down a time and place with great specificity.
That album is 1977’s Bat Out of Hell, with lead vocals by Meat Loaf (born Marvin Lee Aday) and lyrics by Jim Steinman; sadly, both have passed. It’s riddled with hilarity and heartbreak. The cover art, conceived by Steinman and executed by illustrator Richard Corben, holds up as one of the most compelling in rock history: a fire-red background and a longhaired, bad-ass biker bursting forth from a cemetery like the titular bat out of hell.
The album became an enormous hit during the late ‘70s, but some early reviews ranged from mocking to baffled. Meat Loaf seemed an unlikely-looking rock star, with his girth and greasy hair and the rumpled, ruffled suit he wore. But his charisma was undeniable and his range, extraordinary. He was one of rock and roll’s great voices, filled with power and, where necessary, stunning gentleness.
Bat Out of Hell toys with our expectations by opening with its title track which might seem better suited to the end of the album. It depicts a life screeching to a violent conclusion as the hero wraps up his intended last night with the woman he loves before a needed escape. He goes over a cliff and watches his heart emerge from his body as he flames out. The track features instrumentals that replicate the sound of a motor and soaring vocals. There’s a whiff of Bruce Springsteen on steroids here, with its motorcycle themes and conjuring of a bleak nighttime landscape. It’s a combination of testosterone and tears.
The next song is an upbeat ode to teenage lust that hints at something even better: love. “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night)” opens with a spoken word riff between Jim Steinman and actress Marcia McClain followed by an invigorating downbeat that swings into the story of young lovers on a beach, so wrapped up in their task that they don’t quite get around to saying “I love you.” It’s loaded with tender lyrics (“When I listen to your heart I hear the whole world turning/I see the shooting stars falling through your trembling hands”) and delivers a tasty vintage pop feel.
“Heaven Can Wait” didn’t receive the radio play of the other tracks, perhaps due to its lower-key demeanor. But it warrants kudos as a reverent song that celebrates earthly love with gentleness and an air of mystery. Then comes the head-banging teen horniness of “All Revved Up and No Place to Go,” which bemoans a young man’s inability to score with his crush despite his adolescent egotism (“I was a varsity tackle and a hell of a block, when I played my guitar I made the canyons rock.”). His frustration builds with the music, as both come to a screeching halt.
Side Two opens with “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” a piece of full-circle poignance. The keyboard lead-in is by the E Street Band’s Roy Bittan (another nod to the Springsteen inspiration that permeates the album). Here, the narrator tells his girl that he’s walking away from their relationship. He regrets this, but the missing component of love can’t be forced. He tries for a sad joke: “I want you, I need you, but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you/now don’t be sad…’cause two out of three ain’t bad.”
The penultimate piece is the album’s best-known track, “Paradise By the Dashboard Light,” eight and a half spectacular minutes of growing sexual excitement. It’s a mini-rock opera about a young couple parked in a car, getting increasingly hot and heavy as the man pushes for the final intimacy.
The girl (Ellen Foley, in a fabulously fearsome turn) puts a halt to the proceedings, demanding that he marry her and love her forever. It’s the last thing our hero wants and he puts up a weaker and weaker fight as she grows more insistent and he gets more desperate. “Paradise” is rock at its prurient, ballsy best. The poor guy doesn’t have a prayer. Then he starts “praying for the end of time to hurry up and arrive,” because he knows that their marriage won’t work.
Legendary sportscaster Phil Rizzuto was enlisted for a genius “play by play,” calmly delivering the “rounding the bases” format in a context completely devoid of its original meaning.
Bat Out of Hell concludes with “For Crying Out Loud,” a lushly orchestrated ode to a woman who has dedicated her life to a troubled man. It’s his vocalized thanks to the lady who has given up so much of her life to make his a better one, and he wants to make sure she knows it before his days are over.
With Bat Out of Hell, Meat Loaf, Jim Steinman, and producer Todd Rundgren handed us all a world of memorable music that begins with treachery and death but finishes unjaded and profoundly human. We owe these gents an enormous debt of gratitude.
Photo: Jim Steinman, Meatloaf (Getty Images)
PS — While we’re on the topic of Rock History, you might enjoy our YouTube series of daily one-minute nuggets of memorable moments…