Bat out of Hell had a famously troubled history that eventually became a triumph. Not only was it at least arguably an artistic triumph, but it became one of the best-selling albums of all time.
In 1973, Jim Steinman was working on music for More than You Deserve, a musical play at the New York Shakespeare Festival, when Meat Loaf auditioned. The meeting quickly became a long-term partnership that eventually resulted in the Bat out of Hell album when the pair worked on the National Lampoon tour and Steinman came to the conclusion that it might be easier to bring musicals to rock than the reverse had been so far. He and Meat Loaf essentially both considered Steinman to be a genius whose work needed to be heard, so they went to work trying to sell a label on the album.
It didn’t work. Everyone rejected the album. It was a legendary slog that resulted in a slew of insults from every album and producer they could find, with Clive Davis apparently even going so far as to write down “proper song structure” for Steinman. No one knew what to do with it and no one had any interest in it.
Except Todd Rundgren. While Rundgren’s name is not terribly well-known now, he is one of the most astonishing talents in the history of rock music. Jim Steinman would regularly call him “the only true genius I’ve ever worked with” for a reason. He played every instrument in every style in every mood in every situation possible in rock and roll at some point in his career, and careened between artsy progressive rock and radio-friendly (and successful–his solo career produced four top 40 and one top five hit on the Hot 100) pop. He heard the songs (I’m guessing in performance–I’ve never found exactly this part of the story.) and couldn’t stop laughing, so he felt that meant he had to produce the album. He had Steinman, Meat Loaf, and co. (including backing vocalist Rory Dodd, E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg, E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan, and vocalist/then-Meat Loaf-girlfriend Ellen Foley, all of whom would be long-term Steinman cohorts) in his studio to record the album, and then went about trying to sell it, starting with the label for which Rundgren himself worked.
That label also rejected the album, and there was another round of rejections throughout the entire music industry. So, Steinman, Meat Loaf, new sign-up Karla DeVito (who replaced Ellen Foley on stage, Foley being busy with other work), and their band just relentlessly flogged the album live. They played rough, passionate concerts over the next year that would often involve multiple instances of Meat Loaf passing out on stage until they could convince Cleveland International Records to release the album.
Jim Steinman famously quipped that, “If there’s an audience out there for Wagnerian mini-rock operas sung by a 350-pound linebacker, we’ve got them!” And even when Cleveland International released the album, it seemed that audience might be just as small as it sounds in the United States, but Australian and UK sales were brisk. But then, it started getting attention in the US, and it just never stopped, anywhere. It spent nearly 400 weeks on the UK charts and sold a claimed 50 million copies worldwide (worldwide album sales are very difficult to assess even for people inside the industry, let alone for an amateur like me, so that claim should get a healthy dose of sodium chloride, but it’s not necessarily untrue). The audience turned out to be every bit as large as Meat Loaf himself.
I was originally planning to write one insanely long post about the album going track-by-track, but I’m going to try to finish some things by writing individual song posts. I’m including the title track here and there will be some finishing thoughts after “For Crying out Loud.”
“Bat out of Hell”
Todd Rundgren opens the title track with a short riff of electric guitar chords, and then Roy Bittan’s piano immediately hits the highway like a battering ram on a silver-black Phantom bike, joined by a mass of chunky guitar chords and wailing leads. The rhythm section is oddly unimportant in this high-pace opening, carried by piano and guitar and punctuated with what sounds like church bells. Motorcycles and religion, two of Steinman’s career-long obsessions, are here from the start.
When the intro ends, it’s almost a relief as we explode into the open space for the lead guitars and Meat Loaf’s voice, which is relatively subdued in its first appearance. Sonically, “Bat out of Hell” remains something of a car-chase among Bittan’s piano, Rundgren’s guitars, and Meat Loaf’s voice until the guitar turns into a literal motorcycle that revs up and takes off before Meat Loaf narrates the story of a literal motorcycle crash.
The crash is punctuated by more church bells and quieter guitars up until Meat Loaf defiantly announces that his soul is “breaking out of [his] body and flying away like a bat out of hell” and everything kicks back in for one last blast of noise: choir, lead guitars, rhythm guitar, drums, bass, Meat Loaf shouting his lungs out—that whole glorious cacophony is bursts forth one last time, seemingly giving our motorcyclist a hero’s death. The bass guitar even plays his heartbeat as his soul escapes.
Or, is it a literal motorcycle crash? Steinman would call this song his attempt to write “the ultimate car-crash song” for the rest of his life, but it strikes me that he might have been emphasizing a surface-layer interpretation of a song that’s actually about more than it first appears.
“I never see the sudden curve ’til it’s way too late,” screams our protagonist as he rides into his crash. The phrasing “I never see the sudden curve” suggests that it’s repeated. He doesn’t miss the curve once; he misses it repeatedly. Is this a dream? And once we start down this road, isn’t it a little weird that “[He] can see [himself] tearing up the road/Faster than any other boy has ever gone?”
I think instead we are seeing this motorcyclist’s fantasy. In reality, he is in a committed relationship (“I come crawling on back to you” at the end of the verse and the mention of “the final crack of dawn” suggest that he’s spending his nights with an unnamed other) whom he “can’t stop thinking of” whenever he tries to “make [his] escape.” He hates the place where he lives, seeing death and danger crawling out of its tunnels and gutters; but he can’t leave this other person behind. He fantasizes about the riding his motorcycle out of town on his own but even in his own fantasy he sees it resulting in his death.
How does our protagonist react to the idea of his death? A Freudian interpretation of the song up to this point would suggest that he is recognizing his own death instinct. And when he triumphantly shouts “like a bat out of hell!” repeatedly with every instrument blaring at full blast immediately after the crash, it sounds like that’s right on the money. But then, we have a slow, funereal outro of choir and bells.
In a very Edgar Allan Poe touch, the church bell sounds that seemed to ring for joy and freedom early are now somber laments. As Poe wrote, “Iron bells!/What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!/In the silence of the night/How we shiver with affright/At the melancholy menace of their tone!/ . . . To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.” Are they lamenting his death? Or the death of his dream–the dream of endless freedom that raging testosterone brings as it gives way to domesticity?
Steinman would employ the teenaged fantasies that rock and roll so often embodies and take them so over-the-top that sometimes it was difficult to tell whether he was joking or really believed it. Many listeners over the years have been people who are primarily engaged through their enjoyment of those themes. But there is often something deeper in his songs, and we see that here, in the first song of his that people actually heard: as much as he is taking the excesses of rock and roll and saying, “I’ll show you real excess,” he’s also suggesting that the celebrated rock and roll lifestyle is entirely a fantasy. There’s a shocking undercurrent of mundanity to “Bat out of Hell”–he’s almost telling us that the fantasy is great only as a fantasy.