A long, long time ago, I started a short-lived series I called “Friday Flashback,” wherein I looked at things released in the past. Kind of obvious. I decided it was time to bring it back, and so today I take you back to 1977. Which obviously isn’t a personal flashback because I was very, very far from being born, but it’s still a flashback. Deal with it.
Did you know that Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell is one of the best-selling albums in history? Maybe you did. Did you know that it is, in fact, Meat Loaf’s second album? Unless you’re a die-hard Meat Loaf fan, you probably didn’t. Bat Out of Hell was his major label debut and the album that made him famous, but he did actually release a duet album earlier. It didn’t sell very well and didn’t really do much for his career. I don’t think it fared any better when it was re-released, either. To be honest, I haven’t heard it and didn’t really do much research into it other than determining whether it was of particular importance to Bat Out of Hell.
It isn’t, as far as I can tell. For all intents and purposes, Bat Out of Hell is Meat Loaf’s debut album. And what a debut it is.
Now, if you’re not familiar with his work, the title and (amazing) cover art will probably lead you to think this is a very different kind of album.
Honestly, even having heard some of his work, including quite a few of the tracks off this album, I was still expecting something else when I finally listened to it fully. The title and cover just scream “heavy metal” and you go into it expecting low-pitched chugging guitars and fast-paced drums full of blast beats and a double-bass pedal that threatens to take off like a helicopter at any second. But what you get is so much better.
The list of personnel on the album is astonishing; when I saw it after listening to the album a few times, it just clicked, like “Yeah, that explains everything.” You can see the full list at the album’s Wikipedia page, but to drop a few names, Todd Rundgren produced the album and played guitar, among other things; Roy Bittan, of the E-Street Band, contributed on piano; Max Weinberg, also from the E-Street Band, played drums; Edgar Winter provided saxophone; and, of course, Phil Rizzuto, of New York Yankees shortstop and broadcasting fame, provided the (in)famous play-by-play in “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” (more on that later). As if Bittan and Weinberg weren’t enough E-Street connections, Steve Van Zandt is partially responsible for getting the album accepted by Cleveland International Records, a subsidiary label of Epic Records. Additionally, Jimmy Iovine, who had mixed Springsteen’s Born to Run, provided additional mixing for the album. All of that becomes even better upon learning that Rundgren joined the project because he thought it sounded like a hilarious parody of Springsteen’s work.
Although it’s not a concept album, the best description I can give for Bat Out of Hell is that of a rock opera; all of it, especially the title track, has a very broad theatrical scope. And historically, that actually makes sense, since Jim Steinman developed it from three songs from a musical he wrote which he and Meat Loaf were touring with. It was called Neverland and was described as a sci-fi update of Peter Pan. The songs, by the way, were “Bat Out of Hell,” “Heaven Can Wait,” and “All Revved Up with No Place to Go,” formerly called “The Formation of the Pack.”
One last thing I want to note before I start the breakdown is the general organization of the album. I can be really uptight about the order of songs; I’ve spent far too much time agonizing over what order songs should be in on a playlist. And I’ll be damned (pun half intended) if this album doesn’t nail it. I mean, sure, with 7 tracks it’s not like there’s a whole lot of material to juggle, but still. You never get two ballads in a row slowing the album down, which is a problem I’ve encountered on other albums — and if it’s not one you’ve seen me come across on this blog, you’ll see it very soon. And even though “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” feels like a great way to end an album — “It was long ago and it was far away and it was so much better than it is today…” fading into silence just feels like a way to end something — I wouldn’t dare suggest switching it with “For Crying Out Loud.” It’s really very easy to see why this album continues to sell so well, nearly forty years after its release. It’s about as close to perfect as you can get.
Ok, here’s the breakdown, I know you’ve all been waiting for it while I went on and on about the behind-the-scenes stuff:
- “Bat Out of Hell” — There’s an insane amount of information about the production of this song on its Wikipedia page. Like, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this much about a single song. I don’t even know how I could address everything were I interested in trying to. But the important things to note are: that Steinman wrote it inspired by songs like “Leader of the Pack,” which has always been a personal favorite of mine, with the intent of being “the most extreme crash song of all time;” and that Todd Rundgren played the motorcycle sound on his guitar, an achievement which I can’t even comprehend. And to top that off, he went straight into the solo after somehow making his guitar sound like a freaking motorcycle. All that aside, this track really defines what I said before about the album being very theatrical. It’s ten minutes of pure rock opera bliss. And it contains what may well be the best line in all of rock and roll: “Then like a sinner before the gates of Heaven, I’ll come crawling on back to you.” I challenge anyone and everyone reading this to give me a better line from a rock song. Post it in the comments.
- “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night)” — When I typed that I thought this was a good song, the album came to life and said “I bet you say that to all the boys.” If that joke went over your head, you need to stop reading and go listen to the start of the song. Don’t skip the creepy spoken intro (the male voice is Jim Steinman by the way, in case you were wondering what the mastermind writer behind the album sounded like). I don’t really get the point of that intro, but it’s fun, so whatever. From what I’ve read, this was intended to be written like a pop song, but aside from the lyrics, I think it’s pretty clear that it’s more of a rock song than anything else. And it’s a good rock song. It’s catchy and up-beat and just feels right. Lyrically, it’s about as sappy as you can get — painfully and unbearably so, in any other context, but easily forgivable here.
- “Heaven Can Wait” — This is the first ballad on the album, and I have at times thought it to be the weakest of the three. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an absolutely beautiful song musically, vocally, and lyrically. But there’s a problem with it — and that problem influenced my initial thought, and it took closer inspection for me to see how good it is. And really that problem comes down to the context of the song in the album as a whole. It has a very unfortunately placement — right between “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth” and “All Revved Up with No Place to Go.” These are two pretty darn solid rock songs, and a song like “Heaven Can Wait” doesn’t stand out when put between them. There’s not really any place to put it that would mitigate this issue, unfortunately, without putting it next to another ballad, which would slow down the pacing of the album. But it’s unfortunate that it gets overshadowed like this, because on it’s own it’s a fantastic track. I recommend listening to it outside of the context of the album to really get a sense of how good it is.
- “All Revved Up with No Place to Go” — Edgar Winter contributed the saxophones to this track, as well as “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth” and “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” And of course they sound great in all three tracks — how could they not? — but they stand out the most here. They probably make the track, to be honest. It’s not a bad track, but it’s a little slower than you’d expect from the title. It really kicks into high gear at the very end. I’d kind of like to hear a version of the song based off of the high-speed ending. But on the other hand there’s something about the ending that works as a metaphor for the content of the song itself, a build to this point of explosion from whence there’s no place else to go. I mean, listen to that ending. Where can you possibly go from there? It really captures the irony the song is about.
- “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” — Ballad number two. Though as far as being a beautiful track “Heaven Can Wait” far surpasses this one, lyrically I think this might be superior. Because it’s not a love song, which is unusual for a ballad. It tells a story, too, which is also less than common, in music in general. Harry Chapin was the master of the story song, but he wasn’t a rock artist. As far as rock goes, it’s not common, especially in modern times, to find a song that tells a full story. But this one does, as does “Bat Out of Hell,” of course. Actually, “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” does too. Three of seven ain’t bad? Overall, “Heaven Can Wait” might actually be the better song, the more I think about it. Aside from the unusual content of the song, there’s not really anything that stands out. It’s a solid track, but it’s not terribly special I guess. But in the context of the album it stands out more than “Heaven Can Wait,” for some reason.
- “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” — It’s hard not to love this song. It’s feels very theatrical and very fifties-inspired, musically. You could almost expect to hear it in a Broadway show — and this wasn’t one of the tracks cribbed from Neverland. It’s a duet featuring Ellen Foley as the girl in the song, and it’s about having sex in a car. And it’s suitably hilarious. Phil Rizzuto’s play-by-play is definitely the highlight of the song, no matter how catchy the second half of the song is (“Let me sleep on it/will you love me forever?”). Rizzuto has sworn up and down that he had no idea what his part was going to be used for, but Meat Loaf has said he absolutely was aware and was a good sport about it — but claimed otherwise when he came under fire for it, as he was a devout Catholic. You can see how his double entendre laden play-by-play could be an issue for Catholics. That aside, everything about the rest of the track works wonderfully. It’s a really great track, and arguably the one that stands out most on the album.
- “For Crying Out Loud” — The final ballad and the final track. Personally I think it’s a bit longer than it needs to be. But it’s tender and has some beautiful pianos, which later swell into fully orchestrated music. It’s a good track, but it does drag a bit, and the ending is almost annoyingly long. It feels more like poetic wedding vows than a song. It’s undeniably a love song, but at least it doesn’t feel sappy. Actually it feels insistent, like someone who just got accused of not loving their partner or something. So it’s a little odd in that respect, that it’s both tender and… not angry but maybe almost frustrated? It’s the phrase “for crying out loud,” of course — I can’t think of a single instance where that phrase was used in a way that wasn’t expressing frustration. But it’s definitely the way to end the album. It builds to a massive crescendo, drops back down, and then builds again to the ending. It’s dynamic and heartfelt, and I can’t fault it for that. Just… damn, Steinman, why are all of your songs so freaking long?
All in all, there’s clearly a reason the album is such a beloved classic, and from the first play through you can tell that it deserves this status. I haven’t listened to any of Meat Loaf’s other albums (yet), but from all the evidence he never quite matched Bat Out of Hell. And that’s ok. He still has a career in music — in fact, he’s supposed to be releasing an album this year. If he never recaptures the magic of this album, at least he’ll always have its legacy.
Let’s end on this, possibly the greatest commercial ever despite how damn corny it is:
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