Thirty-five years ago, a 300-pound musical-theater rock singer known as Meat Loaf released a record called Bat Out of Hell. There had never been anything like it in the history of pop music. It was a grand, operatic concept album, obviously influenced by the teen angst anthems of Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run, but it shot so far over the top that it practically ended up in orbit.
Many people didn't know what to make of Bat, but rock critics were pretty united in their assessment: They despised it. Dave Marsh praised the musicians (among them members of Utopia and Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band) but concluded, "The principals have some growing up to do." Robert Christgau summed it up more sternly: "Bruce Springsteen, beware — this is what you've wrought, and it could happen to you."
But what the rock critics didn't know, the 14-year-olds understood. Bat Out of Hell spent 82 weeks on the Billboard albums chart, eventually selling over 43 million copies worldwide. And at the age of 64, Meat Loaf — who will be appearing at the Ryman on Aug. 29 — is still blasting out mini-operas of teenage sex with the subtlety of a back slap from the Incredible Hulk.
Most of what Bat Out of Hell was criticized for — its locker-room view of sexual relations, its histrionics and bombast and juvenile sense of humor — is exactly what makes it a great rock record. At its heart, Bat Out of Hell was about one thing (i.e., gettin' some) sung and performed with a grandiosity and sense of self-importance that was more suited for worlds in collision than the bumpin' of uglies. But just like Ramones or AC/DC's High Voltage, both of which were released the previous year, Bat Out of Hell was a brilliantly dumb rock record, released at a time when pop music desperately needed less "art rock" and more "Awop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-wop-bam-boom!"
Although the sexual revolution had been humming along for 15 years or so, for most of rural and suburban middle-class white America it was still a conflict in a faraway land. This was the age before VCRs made every TV room in America a potential porno grindhouse/home-study sex-ed classroom, and for many teenagers, sex wasn't just their No. 1 obsession (as it has been for teenagers since the first adolescent homo erectus snickered at his own name) — it was also the greatest of all mysteries, with a potential payoff of heaven or hell, all based around the slip of a condom. In 1977, at my high school in rural Kentucky, a teenage pregnancy still meant one thing only: a hurry-up trip to the altar. The concept of a "baby daddy" was as far removed from anyone's mind as say, oh, two guys (or girls) getting married.
So tearing into this stew of middle-class Puritanism came Bat Out of Hell, driven by its three masterminds. Producer Todd Rundgren considered the whole album a satire of Springsteen, but whatever chuckles he was enjoying behind the production board, he never cracked a grin in the music, as he expanded the Phil Spector-ish "wall of sound" to the outrageous proportions of a Tex Avery cartoon.
The intentions of songwriter and behind-the-scenes Svengali Jim Steinman are a little harder to gauge — was it supposed to be a joke or a dead-earnest symphony of teenage Sturm und Drang? My suspicion is that Steinman actually embodied both attitudes, and in light of his spotty and lackluster follow-ups over the years, Bat Out of Hell was that special moment where he captured the perfect balance between the two.
And as for The Meaty One himself, his intentions don't matter. Why? Because the man is an actor. While you may debate his skills or even ridicule his lack of subtlety, the fact is, just as there were only certain actors who could shout, "Goddamn you all to hell!" at a broken Statue of Liberty, or whose scream of "KHAAAN!" could be heard across the depths of space, Meat Loaf is the only man that can sing couplets like, "We were barely 17 / And we were barely dressed" with all the passion and decibels to make a classic.
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