At the very height of the New Wave, post sympho-glitter, retrogressive minimalist nihilism and spiky-haired boom of the later seventies, some magnificent twenty stones of heaving, quivering and sweating Florida foodstuff stirred its vocal chords and let rip with one of the fattest, fullest and fieryest albums ever to be squashed on to two sides of vinyl!
If that introduction seems somewhat over the top, try lending an ear - or better still both ears - to the album in question: Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of Hell. Defying all the trends of the time Bat Out Of Hell cruised the world charts like an elephantine Giant Haystacks of the airwaves, knocking up some esoteric records en route: third biggest selling album in Australia (behind Saturday Night Fever and Grease) and the best selling album in the history of Holland! And now, four years later, it still makes regular entries into the UK charts.
Meat Loaf toured the UK and Europe some years ago although the title song "Bat Out Of Hell" is a perennial favorite of the Old Grey Whistle Test. And, stuffed somewhere in the background, on keyboards, was Jim Steinman, the author, creator, arranger and mentor of every single second of the album's incredible content. Steinman's role was played down, almost to the point of non existence (we tried, for example, to get a live color shot of him for this issue, but none were to be found).
Steinman, however, has now released his own debut album, Bad For Good, and recently came to the UK on a solely promotional visit, which took in a few minutes inane conversation on the said OGWT, although no live musical performances were included due to his lack of a work permit - he skirted the rules and recited some poetry on The Box instead. His visit also took in a stay at the Atheneum Hotel in Piccadilly, near Hyde Park Corner - an establishment more suited to returning colonial colonels' concubines than the perpetrator of the most over recorded, over dramatized collection of songs since, yes, that dreaded Bat Out Of Hell.
Bad For Good not only made the UK charts itself, it revitalized interest in Steinman's original work, and so, at the time of writing, the man has two possible passages to that great bank balance in the sky. I turned up one morning at the hotel, and ended up enjoying myself immensely - for the man turned out not only to be articulate - a rare enough commodity itself in the rock business - but also to be totally unrepentant for turning the sounds of the seventies upside down!
If one is to believe the biography sent out by his record company, Jim Steinman didn't exist at all before writing Bat Out Of Hell, and so my first task seemed to be to fill in the background.
"It's all a vague blur, really," he began, before wondering whether I was interested in his primary school experiences! "So you're just interested in the interesting parts - well, it was all interesting to me, but then I hadn't anything else to do at the time."
Hell, methinks, another of the bright ones! It transpires that he majored in drama at some American college and then moved to New York. "I worked at the New York Shakespeare Festival, at the time I was more interested in writing, acting and directing. I was working on something called "More Than You Deserve" which was kinda like a musical version of M.A.S.H. and South Pacific; a wonderful musical, romantic comedy set in South Vietnam!"
I guess you could say that my eyebrow raised slightly both at the idea in itself, and at whatever possible relevance the tale could have to his current success but the answer came in the next sentence: "Meat Loaf auditioned for that." The story turns loose here as Steinman had another project going for a somewhat audacious rock play to be presented in an open-air theater in NYC, for which Meat Loaf also auditioned as an actor.
"He was a real primitive, Southern kind of kid, real innocent, he'd only sung gospel and blues in his whole life, very shy and never really sung rock and roll (are we talking about the same man???). It was great for me too because I'd never really been interested in singing my own stuff, but there wasn't anybody around I felt could sing it for me. My manager at the time, Robert Stigwood, kept hassling me to sing, but I couldn't, not then anyway.
"Anyway, I'd got into a really heavy bar room brawl, the end result of which was I got punched out by a lady biker, which bust my nose in about eight or nine spots, and the doc I saw must have been taking a course in speed surgery 'cos it still hurt like hell after he'd patched it up in about five minutes. Of course the relevance of this is that I'd got those songs, which turned into Bat Out Of Hell, but even if I'd wanted to sing them myself, I couldn't, 'cos of this damned nose, see?
"So along comes this big guy, Meat Loaf, like some gargantuan messenger from the Gods who could actually be my voice. I was so excited that I'd actually found someone who could sing them, because they're not the easiest songs in the world to sing - know what I mean? He had (has) one of the most amazing voices I'd ever heard, real operatic, and that was my favorite music. I grew up listening to opera and rock and roll together. Like I used to listen to Wagner and then Little Richard, and somehow the two influences sort of merged together! I used to get mental images of Jerry Lee Lewis riding around like a Valkyrie in Germany and Little Richard in the middle of Valhalla, so I wanted to write these rock 'n roll pieces with that sort of influence, and Meat Loaf seemed something like a Southern Seigfried - so I started working with him.
"We did that show More Than You Deserve, which was the first time that anyone had ever cheered for him, and he hardly coped with it - so I worked with him for maybe a year and a half teaching him my songs line by line, and then did the National Lampoon tour with him, and then in '77 we started recording Bat Out Of Hell, although we'd sort of been rehearsing it for maybe a couple of years first."
The Bat Out Of Hell concept had been rejected by just about every record company in the States, to say nothing of every producer who wants to be recognized as such; Meat Loaf and Steinman toured the companies auditioning the songs on the album.
"My trade mark is playing the piano so hard that we both bleed! He used to stand in these little offices sweating and swaying, fainting like some bulbous whale, and I'd sit there screaming, 'look at my hands bleeding,' but everyone said it was too theatrical and oversized and anyway, how could it be done by a band? None of the producers could see it either.
"Todd Rundgren was about the twentieth producer we'd been to and we played the whole album through, and he just sat there and said, 'I see no problems here, let's get started.'
"A the time we were with RCA Victor records, and they were just about the biggest company of idiots I've ever come across. I mean there was not one person in the company with one half the intelligence of their trademark - that little dog. They were just total arseholes and refused permission to work with Rundgren because he was 'uncommercial.' So we bought and fought our way out of the contract, so by the time we started recording we were heavily in debt anyway and went over to Rundgren's Label Bearsville.
"We done the whole record, then right as it was being remixed, and it was basically finished, Warners stepped in and said it's too expensive for Bearsville and would we like to go and audition it for the parent company? So we trekked out to California, played the whole damn thing again and got rejected! By this time, right, we had the entire record!
"So there we are with and enormous debt, a record, and nowhere to put it out. So eventually we get through to some subsidiary of CBS, Cleveland Records...and hence the world heard Bat Out Of Hell."
Ironically, CBS had already rejected the record three times in one or more of their various associated companies. The moral of this story is almost certainly that perseverance eventually will succeed. As Jim puts it, it turns out that the very reasons the record was rejected by so many record companies were the self same reasons it became such a monstrous hit:
"Everyone told me that it was too dramatic, too theatrical, too bombastic, it goes too far, too raunchy, too violent, too sexual - all the things, in fact, which I thought were compliments." Even once it did get itself pressed, it received the same sort of backdoor ushering out from the radio stations that it had got from the companies in the first place. Steinman and Meat Loaf then toured the album across the world, and on returning to the States he started writing the sequel to Bat Out Of Hell, and sitting with the Loaf and Rundgren and a piano it turned out that the Loaf's voice had completely gone.
Steinman elaborated at great length the vocal treatments that the monster has had to go through to get his chords working again including some sessions with a strange west coast practitioner which involved, amongst a myriad of other things, continual beatings with large implements and injections with his urine! However, that is indeed another story, and one which may be better suited to a medical journal than the pages of this esteemed paper! The net result, of course, is that Steinman felt that if he were to continue a career in music in the then foreseeable future, it would be necessary for him to sing his own material, rather than wait for the large man's voice to miraculously return.
"I'd always intended to do a solo album anyway, although I'd planned to let Meat Loaf do a follow up to Bat first, before doing my own, but Meat suggested that I might revise the schedule which would take the pressure off him anyway. Hell, I'd been sitting around for almost two years by then going crazy. It turned out then that I ended up singing the sequel to Bat Out Of Hell because Meat Loaf couldn't sing, when he'd sung the original because I'd bust my nose and couldn't sing that...such is the irony of existence."
As it turned out, however, Loaf's voice returned during the writing of Bad For Good, and Steinman ended up writing another album for him at the same time, which should be released in the "fall". The trouble was, though, that as Bad For Good was originally conceived as a sequel, Steinman had deliberately set out to "make them the most difficult songs to sing in the history of rock 'n roll" without, at the time, knowing that it was he that would have to go through the trauma of actually singing them!
I wondered what had taken him so long to get in the business of singing and playing: after all, he's no young man, and even in '77 he could hardly have been described as a youngster.
"I played in school in a lot of bands, and after that I did theater mostly: I wanted to be a screen writer, film director or playwright: the reason I got in to music was that a: playing's a lot of fun, and b: I got to thinking that no one would want to see the sorts of plays I was into unless they had some musical interest as well. It seemed to me that every play should have a good beat, so to speak, so I tried to combine the two.
"But when I started writing, I wanted to do musicals - it was all theater oriented. I guess I got frustrated with the theater really, for the audiences were somewhat staid for the sort of material I wanted to get across. I mean I'm no young man but we're talking about the theater audiences that can sleep in formaldehyde (n. a colorless poisonous irritating gas with a pungent characteristic odor etc...), so I decided to get out of that and concentrate on rock 'n roll.
"It's this combination of theater and music that makes me write the way I do. When people say my songs are too long I tell them I spent my life listening to six hour long German operas for Christ's sake. I mean six minutes to me is just an idea, right, it's nothing, no time at all, to get across what you're really trying to do."
It's no surprise, bearing in mind the structure of his songs, to learn that the lyrics invariably come first, seeming, in many instances, to start life with a cliché, and then building layer upon layer of music and words on top of the original truism.
"The first album, that was very much like that," he replied. "With the second album I tried to actually create the phrase in the first place, to try and create a cliché if you like: Bad For Good is an example, and Stark Raving Love is a play on a clichés: they're more playful, and more clever variations. I love those phrases. Clichés are ultimately like magic spells of language, they have a universal effect. I mean the one straight cliché I used on Bad For Good was Out Of The Frying Pan And Into The Fire - it amazes me this power of language. Like some two year old kid growing up now, you somehow know that by the age of sixteen he's gonna know that phrase, he's gonna have heard it maybe a hundred times, like it's there, in his memory, unconscious, if you like, but there all the same. He's going to recognize my song - it doesn't matter if he likes it or not but there must be something familiar about it from the very first moment he hears it: even if he only says, 'Oh shit, that's a cliché!'
"I always start with two things: a title and a visual image. I've never written a song which I couldn't visualize on the screen in some cinematic context. I write for the title, and finish all the words, and not until I've finished the lyrics completely do I even think about the music to go with them. I mean the lyrics will sometimes take weeks or months to complete, and the music just a couple of hours."
Those familiar with his style of songwriting will have noticed that while he applies a somewhat cliché approach to his lyrical content, there's little clichéd about the actual song structure. He's most certainly not in the hit single camp of verse, verse, chorus, middle eight, verse, chorus, fade. Very far from it:
"I write cinematically. I visualize it as a film, and see how it would develop in a visual narrative form. I don't care at all how it fits together, technically. I mean the first time I was rejected by a record company was by Clive Davis at Arista in New York: he said, 'Don't you realize that people want a certain structure: they want verse, a, b, the second verse, c is the bridge, and d the chorus/fade. No-one cares about abc, they all want dddddd! Just get to D real fast. But your songs,' he said, 'they go all the way up to W!' I said, 'Well, that's the way I write.!'"
In some instances Steinman repeats the whole song - viz, Crying Out Loud on Bat Out Of Hell - "Yeah, but with variations" he relies smugly, "I just let the music go wherever the story goes. Somebody asked me once who my greatest influence is, and I reckon that far greater than any songwriter or musician, the one man who I reckon has influenced my work in all forms more than anyone else is Alfred Hitchcock! He's my favorite film maker, and I've seen every one of his movies at least fifteen times, and I still watch Psycho at least once a month now. I'm really influenced by the way Hitchcock structured his films. He directs like a voyeur, coming in slowly, setting his scenes, giving all the peripheral information that most other directors just refuse to let you have. I like to start my songs with a kind of broad landscape, and then focus in closer and closer."
He finds extraordinary the criticism that Bad For Good sounds exactly like Bat Out Of Hell, for that is exactly what he wished. "Hell, I wanted it to be Part 2. I like writing like this. I mean people used to ask Hitchcock why he always directed thrillers and horror movies, and didn't he want to do something like great art? He always replied, 'Bullshit, it is art anyway.' That's the way I feel about it myself: it's creating passion, fear, tension. I like writing real visceral stuff!" Steinman seems able to continue to create his images without remorse or repetition, as he consistently shys away from anything which could remotely be construed as being autobiographical.
"Yeah - I'd rather be shot than write something 'from the road', you know? I hate those songs where you know the guy's writing from his own life which is really boring, and who gives a shit? I think it's far more important to create a life that is much more heroic and mythical and then write about that. It's still totally real because every one of them's a fantasy, which to me, like a dream, is totally real. I've always found that I trust people's dreams a lot more than their lives, because people can do a lot of faking in their lives and be real boring, but even boring people's dreams are pretty exciting to me. I'm more interested in concentrating on the dream aspect."
He writes all his music from a start on the piano: "It either comes or it doesn't. It's terrifying at first, but it usually takes just an hour or so: I mean a song as complicated as For Crying Out Loud took just about half an hour to get the music sown up. I don't have any formal musical training, and I don't know much about composition."
Given the raw ingredients - the song and the words - the next step to producing that enormous sound on record lies in the hands of Todd Rundgren.
"His contribution is enormous - I'm in awe of the guy. It's a privilege working with him, even though he does have the shortest attention span in the history of the world! Basically all he's interested in doing is, well, he loves playing the guitar - although a lot of the guitar parts are actually written on the piano first as I'm something of a frustrated guitarist - and he's also an outstanding rhythm guitarist as well. He integrates guitar right into the song, makes it a part of the orchestral arrangements, and he does all the beautiful background vocals and arranges the harmonies.
"I also don't think I could get that huge sound without him, as he's such a brilliant engineer. I was going for an even bigger sound than on Bat Out Of Hell - like this record has just about more music on it than any other album I know, and the more music you have the harder it is to get the highs on the sound. Like there's a lot of records that come out with fifteen minutes per side, but this one's like around the twenty-seven minute mark.
"We used forty-eight tracks - it was a very complicated technical job - but we tried to make sure there wasn't an inch of tape to spare anywhere."
Jim has an idea that it was just about the most expensive record ever made: "It's not actually a money making project for me at the moment," he commented wryly, adding that it would have to sell something like two million copies before he ever even saw his first dollar from it. Part of the deal on the album involved Steinman having to take on Meat Loaf's debts before he could release his first, and so he reckons something like $200,000 was down the proverbial drain before a note was sung! With the longer songs, more rehearsal and demo time was required than is normal, and then some of the musicians weren't cheap; like the New York Philharmonic Orchestra - all one hundred and two of them! "They cost a lot of money: I mean, they don't do a lot of sessions!"
In keeping with his theatrical background, much of this new album is connected with a project entitled Neverland and the theme is, again in keeping with his outrageous character, somewhat over the top!
"Well. I started getting the idea when I was writing Bat Out Of Hell, and it really is a rock 'n roll science fiction version of Peter Pan!!! If you look at the story for a certain angle, I see it as being basically about a gang, or a band, that never really grow up (like Status Quo???). All Revved Up With No Place To Go on the first album was also part of the Peter Pan trip. Like think about being sixteen years old for about thirty five years, hell you'd be totally out of your mind: stuck every day trying to think of something new again, every day.
"On this album the title song is the song that Peter sings to Wendy when he's trying to seduce her (can you hear Barrie turning in his grave yet?...Ast. Ed.). Captain Hook is the military commander of this fortress in the city of the future who protects all his children from dreaming and music. Several of the songs are from this project."
He hopes that eventually it will be made as a film by CBS films, while another project he's involved in, a poetic history of a Fender guitar from the time it was originally purchased through its various owners to some as yet untold eventual ending some time in the future. Take a listen to the extract on Bad For Good - after all, amongst all the heaviness, a little humor is welcome relief.
Plans for the future then are pretty clear cut - finish writing Neverland, and the guitar story, and then get back to "going for the epic jugular" with a tour later in the autumn with the bulbous Loaf back to full singing strength.
Breaths of fresh air in the business don't come often, and they certainly don't come more outrageously packaged than the Steinman/Meat Loaf combination. Steinman's individual style, his view from the stance of a theatrical character caught in music instead of on the stage or cinema screen, and his determination to see projects through while the entire record corporation of the world stands back in sheer amazement and disbelief should guarantee him eventually, a financial return on his endeavors. And while he continues to plunder the Oxford book of clichés, pile track upon track of vocals, guitars, orchestras, and just about anything else that can make a noise, there's bound to be an individual niche for him in the annals of rock music.