At a time when the dull throb and vapid lyrics of disco ruled the popular music scene, record company executives had no interest in long, bombastic musical melodramas sung by some sort of sweaty giant and composed by a songwriter whose biggest influence was Wagner.
Songwriter Jim Steinman and singer Meat Loaf went round all the major record labels with their collection of wildly overblown songs, which by this time was entitled Bat Out of Hell, though it had started life as a musical reworking of Peter Pan called Neverland. But JM Barrie’s estate put a stop to that.
After several years of rejections, they finally linked up in 1977 with a new independent company called Cleveland International, which was desperately looking for material.
But Bat Out of Hell made little impact, either in the US or UK, until several months after it came out, when Meat Loaf appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test. He sang the title track and duetted with Karla DeVito on Paradise by the Dashboard Light, which remains one of the raunchiest, sweatiest and most memorable performances on British television, of anything, ever.
A relationship in three musical acts, the song runs from young lust – “We were barely seventeen, And we were barely dressed”; through promises of eternal love – “I swore that I would love you to the end of time”; to bitter disillusionment – “Now I'm praying for the end of time.”
Disco and glam rock were looking jaded and the public were ready for something new. That something was punk rock. And Bat Out of Hell made Bohemian Rhapsody seem like punk. Nobody knew what it was, but it was not cool.
And yet they wanted more. Sales took off, first in the UK and then the US. And an album that no label wanted to release and no one admitted to liking went on to sell around 50 million copies, making it the second highest-selling album of all time behind Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Bat Out of Hell was dark and sexy, a strange mix of the Gothic and the contemporary, cars and motorbikes mixed with bats and damnation. And it had a wonderful sense of theatre about it – it would eventually be turned into a stage show.
Steinman described his songs as “heightened, oversized, gigantic, thrilling and silly”. And it was that refusal to take himself too seriously that made it difficult for critics to acknowledge the genius in the work.
Andrew Lloyd Webber wanted Steinman to write the lyrics for The Phantom of the Opera, but at the time Steinman was committed to working with Bonnie Tyler. He wrote Total Eclipse of the Heart for her and it reached No 1 in 1983. Lloyd Webber and Steinman eventually collaborated on Whistle Down the Wind. The original novel was written by John Mills’s wife Mary Hayley Bell and a 1961 film version starred their daughter Hayley Mills as one of three children who mistake a fugitive from the law for Jesus. Steinman and Lloyd Webber relocated the story from Lancashire to the American Deep South. The rather gooey No Matter What was recorded by Boyzone, who were scarcely older than the children in the story. It sold more than a million copies and reached No 1 in the UK singles chart in 1998.
James Richard Steinman had always loved the theatre and preferred opera to pop – he claimed to have first listened to Wagner’s 15-hour Ring Cycle in a single sitting when he was nine. He was born into an intellectual middle-class Jewish family on Long Island, New York, in 1947. His father was a businessman, his mother a teacher.
He became involved in theatre a t Amherst College, a private liberal arts college in Massachusetts, where he played in a band called The Clitoris That Thought It Was a Puppy and wrote a musical that attracted the attention of legendary impresario Joseph Papp.
Papp commissioned him to write a new show. Entitled More than You Deserve, it was set on an army base in Vietnam; Steinman himself was turned down for military service after being diagnosed as borderline schizophrenic. He suffered from chronic depression.
The then-unknown Meat Loaf was cast in a leading role, beginning the long association between singer and composer. “He was huge,” said Steinman. “All my heroes were larger than life.”
The two fell out over royalties from Bat Out of Hell and wound up in court, but they eventually reunited for Bat Out of Hell II – Back into Hell. Q Magazine described it as “a marriage made in Hell”. Interviewing Steinman in a restaurant, the reporter noted that he tried every starter and dessert on the menu and that his dirty, long grey hair repeatedly ended up in the food. Bat Out of Hell II provided Meat Loaf with his only UK and US No 1, I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That) in 1993. There was a Bat Out of Hell III a few years later, but by that time the relationship had deteriorated further. Steinman wrote only some of the songs and tried to stop Meat Loaf from using the title Bat Out of Hell.
Steinman had found a new outlet for his Grand Guignol storytelling in Celine Dion, who reached No 3 in the singles chart with It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, a long power ballad about the pain of love recalled, with motorbike accompaniment.
Living up to the image of the mad, reclusive genius, Steinman squirreled himself away in rural Connecticut with his music and wine, waking like a vampire at dusk, going to bed at dawn, and passing weeks without seeing another living soul. He never married or had children.
He died of kidney failure, leaving behind a unique musical legacy, which, as he said, was gigantic, thrilling and just a little bit silly.
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