I’d do anything for a music DVD, but I won’t do that.
Then I’m dying at the bottom of a pit in the blazing sun
Torn and twisted at the foot of a burning bike
And I think someone somewhere must be tolling a bell
And the last thing I see is my heart
Breaking out of my body and flying away
Like a bat out of hell
In the mid-to-late ’70s, the music scene was dominated by disco, funk, and, um, the Eagles. In this setting, Meat Loaf’s debut album Bat Out of Hell, with songs by Jim Steinman, was a surprise to everyone. The longer-length songs combined hard-rocking guitar with concert piano to make a grand theatrical wall of sound, while the lyrics spoke of universal themes like love, sex, and Heaven versus Hell. Making the album even more of a surprise hit was that all the songs were sung by a 350-pound sweaty guy wearing a Seinfeld-esque puffy shirt.
Unlike a lot of stories of this type, Bat Out of Hell‘s out-of-nowhere success didn’t originate in a garage or in some underground rock club. Instead, it was born out of New York’s theater scene. Steinman originally wrote most of the songs for use in a never-produced off-Broadway show he was creating at the time. This is also where he met Meat Loaf, who was acting in The Rocky Horror Show at the time—note that this was before Meat Loaf reprised his role in that show for cult phenomenon movie version, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. So the struggling actor and the budding songwriter teamed on a demo tape, which was universally rejected throughout the music industry. The album wasn’t made until after the two teamed with guitarist and record producer Todd Rundgren, who brought both of those roles to the project, making it a little less Broadway and a lot more rock and roll.
The 60-minute documentary, part of a “Classic Albums” series from Eagle Rock Entertainment, chronicles the creation of the album, interviewing most of the key participants, along with vintage footage from Bat Out of Hell’s glory days. Meat Loaf (the hell with it, from now on I’m just calling him “Meat.” Try not to giggle.) comes across as slightly soft-spoken but still enthusiastic about the album. Similarly, Rundgren discusses his involvement in a matter of fact style. Steinman, on the other hand, is just batty. He’s got long graying hair, his eyes are hidden behind some oversized sunglasses, and he’s got this goofy and slightly creepy smile on his face throughout. He’s not the rocking rebel his songs make him out to be; instead, he’s more like the guy who’s always wished he was a rocking rebel.
Although a lot of musicians get sick and tired of fans asking about their early material instead of the newest stuff, these guys are clearly all having fun reminiscing about their road to fame. Meat and Rundgren play around with a soundboard, isolating certain sections of songs while they play, pointing out a lot of little details in the song not immediately apparent. Steinman, meanwhile, sits a piano, playing out the songs in simple notes, breaking each tune down its basic elements. This makes this documentary as much about the creative process in general as it is about a specific album.
Each song on the album is talked about in some detail, with the exception of “For Crying Out Loud,” which, sadly, is demoted to the closing credits. We also get glimpses of performances of the title track and “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” from the legendary British live music show The Old Grey Whistle Test, and sound bites from all the songs serve as the overall score. The disc then concludes with a very nice modern-day live performance of “Heaven Can Wait,” in which Meat invites the crowd to sing it along with him.
The technical specs are decent. This is not a documentary with a lot of flashy visuals, but the picture looks fine nonetheless. The 2.0 audio sounds great, but I can’t help wonder how greater it would’ve sounded in 5.1. A Meat biography and discography are the only bonuses.
On the negative side, this isn’t really a disc for newbies hoping to learn what Meat is all about. The entire documentary relies on viewers already being familiar with Bat Out of Hell. Also, if you’re looking for the real juicy gossip, you won’t find it here. Meat and Steinman’s rocky friendship and their eventual falling out aren’t mentioned here. Finally, if they could get clips from The Old Grey Whistle Test, why not have the entire performances as extras?
I’ve encountered quite a few Meat Loaf naysayers in my travels over the years, who have accused me of being a dork (or worse) for enjoying his music. As a result, I usually keep my fandom a secret, but after rediscovering Bat Out of Hell courtesy of this disc, I have no problem standing up and saying that yes, it is a classic. So if you too secretly love Meat (stop giggling!), then give this disc a try.