The Meat Loaf Phenomenon

One reason that Meat Loaf fell to earth is that his other records, outside of the Steinman collaborations, are regular rock and roll records.

by Marshall Bowden

Meat Loaf was an alternative take on the heroic rock of Bruce Springsteen, rendered in comic book colors and the melodrama that can only occur when someone’s body is coursing with hormones. Meat Loaf was the Pavarotti of rock and roll, the supreme interpreter of the Wagnerian composer, arranger, and producer Jim Steinman. Steinman’s compositions demand an outsize performance to put them over, and Meat Loaf could provide that every time.

Meat Loaf/Bat Out of Hell

Meat Loaf had a background in theater, and he knew how to put over a solid pastiche of a song with an energy that could reach them all the way in the cheap seats. Of course he attracted and was attracted by a subset of composers who were themselves in the thrall of the rock and roll of the fifties with its street corner doo wop and its dramatic girl group set pieces. Richard O’Brien, who wrote Rocky Horror Picture Show, wrote a great song for Eddie, the character that Meat Loaf ended up immortalizing in the film version of the alt musical. 

“Whatever happened to Saturday night?” was the first line of that song, “Hot Patootie–Bless My Soul.” and Meat Loaf sings it like he lives there, and his scenery-chewing performance as he sits astride his motorbike, serving stark raving cis male, Teddy Boy realness, being chased and ultimately murdered and hacked up by an axe-wielding Tim Curry. Eddie is a juvenile delinquent rock and roller, and Meat Loaf gives him a life of his own rather than making him just another Elvis take that derives all its jolt from our memories of Presley himself. 

Jim Steinman, who was like Meat Loaf’s other half, was working on songs that would become Bat Out of Hell and as he and Meat toured together as part of the National Lampoon show. They developed a set of seven songs that they hoped to record as an album–the album that would become Bat Out of Hell. No one liked what they were doing. Record companies wouldn’t touch it for a variety of reasons–not in touch with what was happening, songs too long and too weird. And then there was Meat Loaf himself. 

It’s worth noting that Bat Out of Hell was released two months after Elvis Presley died, because while writers say a lot about how Bat Out Of Hell was influenced by Springsteen, much to Steinman’s puzzlement, there is not a lot about how Presley was an influence, not so much directly on Meat Loaf, but rather on the public’s overwhelming acceptance of Bat Out of Hell, and of Meat Loaf in particular. When Elvis died, there had long been a public perception of him as ‘Fat Elvis,’ and while Fat Elvis was something of a joke, most people were able to feel the inherent tragedy beneath the joke, and understood the way the the system grinds people down–normal people, famous people. There was affection for Fat Elvis because that is where we were all headed, one way or another.

Meat Loaf was, for some listeners, a symbol of an outsider, someone who was, by conventional standards, not attractive and not likely to draw attention from the opposite sex, but at the same time he is a deep font of passion, lust, and even tenderness. That’s not always a winning combination, but it did contribute to the mythological, quest-like atmosphere that Jim Steinman was creating. That mythological character that Meat portrayed  had to overflow into his regular life, as it did on Season 11 of Celebrity Apprentice, where he nearly started a physical altercation with actor Gary Busey.  He later admitted that he had long had an issue with anger management and that he had gone to counseling for it. 

Whenever people would compare Bat Out of Hell to Springsteen, Jim Steinman would always be a bit confused. There are musical similarities (not to mention the appearance of Springsteen’s pianist Roy Bittan and drummer Max Weinberg) between the two, but there is a huge difference that Steinman instinctively understood. Springsteen’s work gave a mythological sheen to a portrayal of real people’s lives and things that went down on the streets of New Jersey every day, while Steinman’s is set in a different reality altogether. Remember that Steinman wrote the opening and closing tracks for the movie Streets of Fire. The movie sought a joining of fifties style, fashion, and music with the modern (80s) style, which is a pretty good description of what Steinman and Meat Loaf were doing on Bat Out of Hell. In 1989 Steinman told NME, “I think that so much rock’n’roll is confessional. It’s like black and white film. That’s what a lot of people think rock’n’roll should be … I just see it as fantasy, operatic, hallucinations, stuff like that … I kinda think rock’n’roll is silly, in the best way. The silly things are kinda the things that are alright.”

Indeed, Todd Rundgren, who was hired to produce Bat Out of Hell, thought it was a ridiculous romp, a joke, even: “This big, fat, operatic guy doing totally over-the-top, overwrought, drawn-out songs … I can’t believe the world took it seriously”.  I won’t go into a diatribe here about how Rundgren regularly produced acts that he didn’t really understand, often with middling results, because his production work on Bat Out of Hell was near-perfect. Rundgren even played guitar on the title track, including the guitar part that sounds like a revving motorcycle engine. 

I mean, Rundgren’s reaction was no different than that of many rock music fans, especially as disco faded into a sharper new rock sound defined by punk and new wave bands, ultimately morphing into synthesizer-based rock, both on the dance/pop side and the arena rock side. But one thing he underestimated is that Meat was a likeable guy, a guy you wanted to root for, no matter how knuckleheaded he may have seemed at times. Witness his role as double-decker bus driver for the Spice Girls in their one and only girl power movie. He’s the tough, action guy when that’s called for, but he has a tender side, at times becoming almost a den mother to the pop group.

It has been said that Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf relied on each other in order to reach success, and that one without the other wasn’t really anything. That is borne out somewhat by the fact that Bad For Good, Steinman’s only album released under his own name, which was written as the follow-up to Bat Out of Hell, failed miserably despite every other element being in place. Likewise, when Meat Loaf was forced to work with other songwriters his records were nowhere near as successful. But while it’s true that the non-Steinman Meat Loaf albums are an acquired taste, so is Meat Loaf in the first place.

One reason that Meat Loaf fell to earth is that his other records, outside of the Steinman collaborations, are regular rock and roll records. They are influenced by Meat Loaf’s influences from the past (‘Hot Patootie’) and by the pop/rock music of the period. The Steinman records, especially Bat Out of Hell, present a rococo run through pop music history, with hard rock and classical-inspired arrangements thrown in for spice, an incredibly passionate and sincere singer, and otherworldly fantasy cover art. They were the total package, and they delivered.

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