Sunday, January 8, 2017

Meat Loaf - Bat Out of Hell

Approximately forty years ago, Jim Steinman and Michael Lee Aday, better known as Meat Loaf, set out to create the ultimate motor cycle crash song. They succeeded.

When I was a child my parents owned a copy of “Bat Out of Hell” on vinyl, and I remember looking at the cover art and being fascinated by what I saw. Some muscular biker dude was bursting out of the ground of a graveyard on a motor cycle ready to confront a giant bat. I remember my older brother and I wanting to hear this record and learn how this biker was going to fight the giant bat. Despite that story not existing in any context on the actual content of the music, when we finally did listen to it the narrative stories therein did not leave my young mind disappointed. The music was so epic that it satisfied my youthful wild imagination, even though I was too young to fully appreciate the social dynamics of a song like “Paradise by The Dashboard Light.”

“Bat out of Hell” is a one of kind album, even though there are now three albums by that name by Meat Loaf. Despite reasonably revisiting the general and vague album concept of bat out of hell twice more there could not be a real recreation of the original. A perfect storm of creativity was unleashed when “Bat Out of Hell” was produced. The two men involved Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman were both extremely eager to explode onto the music scene and their combination of talents was exactly what the world needed.

Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf.
Jim Steinman was a marginally successful screen writing for a handful of musicals, and Meat Loaf was a virtual unknow who’s primary body of work consisted of playing a supporting role in the musical “Hair.” Both men were eager to break into the mainstream, Steinman was a methodical thinker and had a masterplan all sorted out, meanwhile Meat Loaf was a force of nature, a powerful singer who presumed he would charge his way to success with sheer force of will. Their chance meeting came when Steinman was looking for a unique singer with an unique presence, someone possessing something special, an edge, a certain grit. Steinman was hoping for a handsome young man, who would sound and look the part of a Hollywood star, what he got instead was a powerful fat man who sang perfectly for his ambitions but looked nothing like what was expected. While uncertain at first if Meat Loaf was the right choice for this project, Meat Loaf successfully charged his way into Steinman’s life.

It should not have worked. From a business perspective, the concept album of “Bat Out of Hell” should not have been a commercial hit. The forty-five-minute album had only seven songs on it, making the average song length six and half minutes in length, typically far too long to be pop music radio friendly. Grandiose epics about motor cycle crashes and trying to hook up with the head cheerleader were in theory too aggressive and uncouth for the late seventies and arguably still now. Also instead of a young pretty boy as the front they had this berserking fat man singing his heart out. In theory that should not appeal to the simple-minded masses, but magically this is one of the those times when something totally awesome was deservedly well received by everyone.

Effectively “Bat Out of Hell” is one of those rare perfect albums, and a persistent candidate for my list of ten albums to include on a deserted island.

My favorite song on this album has change about six times in my life but I have found in recent years the title track has persistently stood out to me the most.

As stated in the opening sentence of this review, “Bat Out of Hell” is the greatest motor cycle crash song ever recorded. The opening is over two minutes of instrumental, which is one of the many reasons this album should not have had much success with pop radio. However, this serves multiple purposes, beyond simply being fantastic. Steinman having trained himself to write full musicals is presenting his overture in this opening two minutes. The pace and tension is set for high drama without a word being uttered.

With out first verse the scene described in the beginning of “Bat Out of Hell” is one of violence and danger:

“The sirens are screaming, and the fires are howling
Way down in the valley tonight.
There's a man in the shadows with a gun in his eye
And a blade shining oh so bright.
There's evil in the air and there's thunder in the sky,
And a killer's on the bloodshot streets.
And down in the tunnels where the deadly are rising
Oh, I swear I saw a young boy down in the gutter
He was starting to foam in the heat.”

Street and gang violence is what is present here. This fits perfectly with the motor cycle theme but also with Steinman’s interests, the man always seemed fascinated with gang warfare, leather jackets, and guitars, this because all too obvious when we discover “Street of Fire” a Jim Steinman musical movie about exactly all these things described just now.

Our rock and roll hero, has come to town for one reason, some babe he is in love with, for she is “the only thing in this whole world, that’s pure, and good, and right.” But like a bat out of hell he’ll be gone when the morning come. Taking off “faster than any boy has ever gone” he with blaze our out of town on his motor cycle.

Steinman had wanted to include the sound of an actual motor cycle in the song, and at the six-and-a-half-minute mark you can hear it, only it is not a real motor cycle but rather guitarist Todd Rundgren mimicking the sound of motor cycle with his guitar. This is made all the more impressive when you discover he had to improvise the sound after the studio disallowed Steinman to use the real thing.

Then it happens, the crash:

“Then I'm down in the bottom of a pit in the blazing sun,
Torn and twisted at the foot of a burning bike,
And I think somebody somewhere must be tolling a bell.
And the last thing I see is my heart, still beating,
Breaking out of my body and flying away
Like a bat out of hell.”

I have never been entirely sure how to take the part about his heart breaking of his body and flying away. I thought it might have been about ascending to heaven after death, a final redemption, where our rock and roll hero’s soul breaks free from hell in the after life. Or perhaps it is meant to simple declare the intensity of his passion and love for the women he is presumably singing this song to.

Epic might an inaccurate description for “Bat Out of Hell,” perhaps over the top would be more appropriate. Everything about Meat Loaf, Jim Steinman, and “Bat Out of Hell” is dramatic. What could be a straight forward song about crashing your motor bike and dying becomes this nearly ten-minute rock opera about gang violence, true love, and possibly salvation. We all seek these things, we want things to be dramatic, and that is probably why the zealous melodrama of “Bat Out of Hell” appealed to so many people, myself included.

In conclusion, “Bat Out of Hell” is a great song. Most of you already knew that, but it bears repeating.

- King of Braves.

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