23 Apr Main Course: Meat Loaf
His friends and musical associates call him “Meat” and when you first set eyes upon him in the flesh – all 260 pounds of him – it’s not hard to understand why. In the realities of the vinyl world, his name is Meat Loaf and right now, he’s a very hot property indeed. His debut CBS album Bat Out Of Hell (produced by veteran rockster Todd Rundgren and featuring the songs of Jim Steinman powerfully performed by Meat Loaf) caused a minor sensation throughout the music industry when first released. After all, it’s been quite a while since any album dripped with the guts, gusto and dramatic overdrive so evident on Bat Out Of Hell.
As I’m ushered into a suite high in the Harbour Castle Hilton, beams of afternoon sunshine glitter off the swell of Lake Ontario far below, and it soon becomes obvious that Meat Loaf is really two people. There’s this huge bulk of a man with a voice like a lion and there’s this other guy – a sort of Renaissance man, a literate composer whose songs have found a home in the heart of Meat Loaf. The music they produce is heaving, fire-breathing hard rock featuring – of all things – operatic overtones with Wagnerian origins. Meat Loaf, in short, is the medium for Jim Steinman’s grand design. The combination is obviously stunning.
Jim Steinman first met up with Meat Loaf in the National Lampoon Show and their partnership flourished in no uncertain manner. Steinman had the extraordinary songs which Meat Loaf needed in a music scene bogged down in a morass of mediocrity, jaded from green to gray by the format-minded radio programmers. Meat Loaf, on the other hand, possessed a superb voice sufficiently endowed by intuition and experience to rise to the dramatic dashes and strokes of Steinman’s remarkable songs. They were, in short, a perfect match, one which has certainly succeeded in capturing the attention of the public at large.
The Bat Out Of Hell album has taken off in the United States, Australia, Britain, Holland, New Zealand, France and Germany. CBS Canada were deservedly delighted at being the first market in which the album hit the platinum sales mark, and when Meat Loaf played two SRO gigs at Toronto’s Massey Hall recently, a surprise platinum presentation took place on stage.
As I’m setting up the tape machine for our interview, the hotel phone rings and Meat Loaf rips off a quick rap with some anonymous media person. “Other than being on the verge of a nervous breakdown, I’m fine,” Meat Loaf’s saying into pieces of plastic which seems exceedingly small in the confines of his huge fist. His scowl indicates that he is quickly becoming irritating by the line of questioning.
“Yeah, that’s right, I take oxygen on wheels. It’s not unusual. When I was playing football, I did it. Go to a basketball game. They all do it. When you put out that much energy, it’s not such a spectacular thing to take oxygen. I don’t think it’s surreal. It’s just a process. It just helps me maintain my energy in my show. It’s only oxygen. It’s only oxygen…no fantastic thing…you just breath it. Yeah, OK, bye.” Meat Loaf slams the plastic back on its holder.
He laughs loudly. “Boy, they really freak out over the oxygen trip. They really think it’s a big thing, they must think it’s some kind of big hype. It’s just a tank of oxygen. I can’t believe it.” He looks over at Jim Steinman who’s intimately immersed in a club sandwich. “Tell me Jimmy,” wonders Meat Loaf, “what’s so bizarre about a tank of oxygen? They really go on about it.”
There can be little doubt that Meat Loaf deserves his shot of oxygen since he does indeed throw himself into his highly convincing concert act. The night after our interview, during a typically intense performance at Ottawa’s Civic Centre, he fell offstage and tore several ligaments in his leg. His doctor ordered him to take three week’s rest nursing his injuries prior to plunging into the keenly anticipated European invasion.
Q. I gather that your album Bat Out Of Hell has now topped the gold and platinum figure in Canada, and that this was the first country to register such impressive sales figures?
Meat Loaf: That’s right. We’ve also gone gold and platinum in Australia now, and we’re real close in the States. Plus our single Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad is breaking big in America – it’s already around number 40 on the national charts. I’ve lost track of how many different versions of the single are around. There’s the original 5 minute 17 second album version, there’s a special edit 3.20 version for AM stations that don’t like long records, and there’s also a 4.26 version. The public is actually buying the shortest AM version but we’d obviously prefer them to have the 5.17 original. You know, why complicate everyone’s life?
Q. How do you view this whole editing of singles for AM radio compromise?
Meat Loaf: We don’t like it. We could argue all day up one side and down the other. But out first US single only got on about three stations. Whereas in Australia, they put our the album cut as it is and it went to number one.
Q. I gather you’ve been on the road for quite a while now?
Meat Loaf: Seven months. And I’ll tell you what – mentally it’s been as tiring as hell. Today I simply had to take a break. I shut off the phone, put out the Do Not Disturb sign and tried to get some rest. The thing is that this schedule isn’t stopping – it just keeps continuing. Our album is not top 20 in Britain and we’re going over there at the end of May for some gigs and TV appearances in Germany, France and England.
Q. You were at one time one half of a duo called Stoney and Meat Loaf, and you cut an album for Motown in the late 60’s. What’s the story behind that?
Meat Loaf: The whole scene goes back to around ’68 when I was in a band and we wanted to put out a record but we didn’t have a label affiliation. So we made up our own label, copyrighted the name, went to a studio and made a record and then pressed and distributed it to all the record stores within a 200-mile radius. We also sent copies to radio stations in the area – Flint, Saginaw, Lansing and into Detroit. We got some airplay too. In fact, I made more money off that record than any other record I’ve made prior to the current CBS album. It sold something like 6,000 copies and we wound up getting about $900 each. The groups name was Popcorn Blizzard.
My first label affiliation was with Motown, but I didn’t really have anything to do with the making of that album so it doesn’t really count for anything. The Motown people just called me up and told me when I’d be going into the studio. They sent over a tape of the backing tracks, which they’d already cut, and copies of the lyrics. The producer was singing the rough melody on the backing tracks for me to copy.
The only creativity involved came when Stoney and I got together and decided how we were going to do each song. Mostly I did that because I’m good at figuring out who sings where. Stoney could sing her ass off – I’m sure she can still out sing the best of them. She could sing as well as Streisand and I think Streisand is amazing. Stoney later changed her name to Smokey and now she plays in bars somewhere.
Q. Tell us something about your musical roots.
Meat Loaf: My roots were in the Kingtson Trio, the Limelighters, Bob Dylan and people like that. Back in the 8th and 9th grades, I had a friend who was a real folkie. He turned me on to the first Dylan album which kind of freaked me out – Dylan was out of tune, his guitar was out of tune, his harmonica was out of tune. I didn’t like the Beatles but I liked the Stones – the Stones were the first rock ‘n roll act I really liked. I’d listened to a lot of music through my childhood – my mother was a singer and a schoolteacher for about 25 years. Jim Steinman has a whole other story about his influences…he’s the weird one, not me.
Jim Steinman: I grew up studying classical music and even before I heard any other kind of music, I’d been exposed to all sorts of classical things. The style I was most heavily drawn to was German romantic music, especially opera. When I was 14, I became an incredible Wagner freak. And my other favorite kind of music was Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. I used to listen to Wagner and rock back to back.
I’d listen to an entire Wagner opera and be totally paralyzed by it – I literally wouldn’t move an inch because I was afraid I might upset something. I was somewhat insane in those days. So I’d be virtually paralyzed there listening to these five-hour operas in complete form. Then when it was over I’d sit in awe for an hour or so and then I’d put on Little Richard and it would be a magnificent combination. The more I listened, the more I was convinced that Wagner and Little Richard came from the same place. Even though Wagner elevated me to a point that Little Richard couldn’t achieve. Little Richard wasn’t so much elevation as revitalization.
The thing is that they both amplified human beings. The Wagner material was about God and Little Richard sounded like God. It made me realize that you don’t have to remain a human being – that one of the great uses of art (which I’d only heard talked about as some valuable cultural asset that meant nothing to me) is that it was like taking a pill and you were no longer just a human being. That’s how I perceived the situation when I was 14 anyway. I just never thought of rock ‘n roll and classical music all that differently – to me they were essentially the same thing.
Meat Loaf: Jim has got this old book of reviews of Wagner operas, and they all panned the hell out of Wagner’s work. The critics hated it.
Steinman: Yeah if you take out the names, the original reviews of Wagner’s operas read exactly like rock ‘n roll reviews. Wagner’s arch enemy – who was like Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone to my way of thinking – was a guy named Hanslick who wrote for a German paper equivalent to the New York Times in America. His reviews were the most vicious slurs on the greatest operas ever written.
When Wagner premiered his opera Tristan and Isolde, Hanslick wrote that it was ‘a barbaric savage assault on the ears.’ He said it was ‘nothing but noise.’ He noted that the next day he felt sick and his ears were still ringing from ‘the primitive, dissonant cacophony.’ It was, he said, ‘sexually lewd and designed to arouse people into a frenzy.’ It just went on and on. And it’s still the same nowadays. It just shows that there’s really nothing new under the sun.
Meat Loaf: The Rite Of Spring by Stravinsky actually caused a riot, didn’t it?
Steinman: Yes, and that’s one of my favorite things in history. When The Rite Of Spring was performed, in Paris in 1913, it caused one of the major riots in history. The entire audience tore the Paris Opera House apart and it had to be rebuilt. Police were called in, three people were killed, it was amazing. I remember discovering the story behind it when I was 14 and I thought, “What a magnificent power.” If a work of music could actually cause people to riot, that is astonishing. It’s destructive but it’s also magnificent. So I always think of that as one of the great moments in history.
Stravinsky was savagely attacked by the media. They wanted to deport him because he wrote dissonant music. They couldn’t believe that someone would put those particular ten notes together. They considered it sacrilege. Now those same chords that Stravinsky put together are used in every Starsky and Hutch episode on TV. They’ve been totally assimilated into movie music and everything.
So that’s how I became aware of the incredible power of sound, as well as its function as an art form. So I was fascinated by Wagner and Little Richard, and later in the early 60’s, by the production techniques of Phil Spector. There was a four year period during which I lost interest in rock ‘n roll but the obsession returned through the records Phil Spector made with the Ronettes. The first time I heard Be My Baby I had chills. It’s still basically unexplainable to me.
Q. I gather that the odd critic has put down the Bat Out Of Hell album for being over-produced. How do you both feel about that?
Meat Loaf: It’s bullshit. I was at Motown so I know what over-produced really means.
Steinman: I don’t think that our album is over-produced at all. But even Todd Rundgren, our producer, felt it would be viewed as such by some critics. Todd was very reluctant to do a lot of the things we wanted to try. He said at the beginning his job was to get our vision onto the record and he really did succeed in doing that. I suspect that he probably disagreed with about 60% of it, but he brilliantly captured it, nonetheless.
Anyway, anyone who thinks the album is over-produced should hear what I had to leave out. For instance, in Bat Out Of Hell (the title track) I had to delete two of my favorite things. In the soft section, I wanted to have a boy’s choir. I argued with Todd about it and he wanted to do it with the existing vocal backup section and then speed up the tape and use other technical tricks to get the boy’s choir sound. I said that we needed a real boy’s choir but he insisted. But it didn’t work out so we weren’t able to use it. You see, I’d heard this symphony by Mahler and I really wanted a boy’s choir. There’s nothing more beautiful than the sound of 20 boy sopranos singing.
I also wanted a choir in the motorcycle section of Bat Out Of Hell. Just like in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, they used a choir sounding like it was singing whole clusters of notes. I wanted to use an entire orchestra, and I wanted to use them viciously. Procol Harum have done some of the best things in that vein in the past. Giving an orchestra special parts to play rather than simply supplementing the band.
Q. Could you elaborate further on your working relationship?
Meat Loaf: Basically Jim and I work together and I do the vocals. Essentially the conception of the record and how it’s done are his gig. He doesn’t tell me how to do my stage show. When we go into the studio, I interpret his songs because he feels I can do that. We talk about the songs between ourselves and we work back and forth. But in the studio, Jim worked with Todd and I played cards. I made occasional suggestions and several times I got my way because I threatened to kill them! And I’m bigger than both of them.
Steinman: The most important thing is that Meat supports me in my vision of the album. There has to be a vision, you know. The thing that makes Phil Spector operatic is the way he used the vision. The real thrill of a voice is how it plays against the instruments. It’s almost a battle…existing between the instruments and the voice. Wagner used it with spectacular effect – it’s extraordinary to see one woman on the stage of an opera house with no amplification rising above a 120-piece orchestra. I regard it as one of the heroic feats of humanity.
When you hear the Ronettes’ Ronnie Spector singing the lead vocal on Be My Baby, there’s a sense of a surging wave of sound. I hate those LA-styled records with the wimpy studio players and the voice way out in front. You get the feeling that the musicians came in and said ‘Oh what a wonderful voice’ and they sat down and played prettily behind it.
Q. I gather that you went through quite a swag of famous producers before you finally connected with Todd Rundgren?
Meat Loaf: Yeah it was a regular let’s-audition-record-producers session. And a lot of them – some the sort of people who have 27 gold records stacked on the their office wall – were simply afraid of Jim’s songs.
Steinman: When I was writing the record, I’d say my major influences were the key things I’d grown up with – Wagner, The Who and Alfred Hitchcock movies. Those songs are cinematic. But producers are a bit like critics. I’m sure you’ll recall that great line that Frank Zappa came up with: ‘Rock critics are people who can’t write, writing about people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.’ It’s hard to generalize but I’ve read some brilliant writing about rock ‘n roll and I’ve also read Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone who I think is a complete fool. I’m astounded that he has the power that he possesses on that platform. He regularly reaches the heights of lunacy. His review of the latest Patti Smith album was the worst piece of rock ‘n roll writing I’ve ever read.
Meat Loaf: Jim has got the rock ‘n roll recipe pinned down to six key ingredients. He views it like a menu and we’ve gone all the way with it. He’s the Julia Child of rock ‘n roll.
Steinman: Well, it’s just that the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are really only six essentials, beyond the obvious requirements of melody rhythm and lyrics. I think the art of creating great rock ‘n roll comes down to:
5) rebellion and
It’s how these six things are interplayed that makes a record magnificent. To me the greatest rock ‘n roll is both romantically violent and violently romantic. It’s not one or the other. It’s just that the romance should be desperate. Be My Baby is desperately violent – it’s a cry of desperation. Whereas the Sex Pistols are transparent.
Q. Let’s rap about the future of rock ‘n roll in general.
Steinman: I don’t think that records have begun to scratch the surface of what they can do. The more Fleetwood Mac’s there are, putting out albums of ten short and cute little cuts, the more it hurts music in general. I worry about the effects of formats and such in the long term. Rock ‘n roll and TV are the two most powerful art forms the world has ever seen, yet they are probably the two most misused mediums. I mean, think of what TV could do.
Q. Your point is well made, what can you tell us about the next Meat Loaf album?
Meat Loaf: Well, we’ve got one song called Everything Is Permitted which is real good. It’s along the same theme as the first album. Plus there’s a tune called More Than You Deserve which we’ve been doing for a long time on stage. In a way, it’s become a sort of theme song, but we’ve never had the right arrangements for it. Jim has worked on it a lot and I now think we’ve gotten it down.
Q. In closing, I’d like to get your comments on isolated critical complaints that Bat Out Of Hell as an album is too obsessive.
Steinman: The title song is the least understood element of the entire album. I’m continually amazed at how ineptly some people – rock critics in particular -are able to deal with humor. Bat Out Of Hell is a song about obsession and about going as far as you can possibly go. Anybody who’s obsessed is funny. But it’s also a noble sentiment. It’s about the most noble thing one can do – to be obsessed by a belief.