When producer Todd Rundgren first heard Bat Out of Hell, he thought it was a parody of Bruce Springsteen. In fact, many years later, he remarked, “I can’t believe the world took it seriously.”
Indeed, the world did take Bat Out of Hell seriously, in all its faux-Wagnerian glory. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, the “teenage symphony to God” that Brian Wilson had searched for all those years.
With respect to The Boss, I think Bat Out of Hell is probably better than anything he ever did, save maybe that sprawling “get ready to kill the bulk of an afternoon” live box set he put out. This isn’t to take anything away from Jersey’s favorite son — or, for that matter, to give any undue credit to Meat Loaf. Herr Loaf is the archetype of the artist who strikes gold once but can’t ever find his way back. (See also: Bret Easton Ellis.) But for one perfect and shining moment, he and Jim Steinman put out the soundtrack to working-class rock & roll rebellion for a generation.
Best of all, it holds up. The opening title track succeeds at its mission — to create the biggest, baddest, most tear-jerking teen tragedy crash song of all time. I can’t respect anyone’s opinion on music if they don’t get chills when Meat Loaf wails to his girl that he can’t stop thinking of her so he misses his turn and ends up a soup on the side of the highway. This is what great rock & roll often aspires to but frequently fails to achieve.
“You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night)” might not best Phil Spector at his own game, but it comes damn close, and it’s the best slice of Spectoresque girl pop to come out of a man’s mouth ever. The opening exchange never quite seems to wear out its welcome, as the male protagonist insists on romantic fealty, only to reject it when he gets it with “I bet you say that to all the boys.”
“Heaven Can Wait” is a bit of a drag, but “All Revved Up With No Place to Go” picks up where the album left off, demonstrating Robert Paulson’s ability to turn a clever phrase that’s at once groan-worthy and insightful in its simplicity. If you don’t know what it’s like to be all revved up with no place to go, I daresay you weren’t a very exciting or imaginative teenager.
“Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” along with “Heaven Can Wait,” demonstrate where Steinman's talents fall short: He can’t really write a power ballad to save his life. All the steps are there, all the notes are right, but he gets too lost in the swamps of schmaltz to write a killer track that will have you hand-drumming on your steering wheel as you remember early makeout sessions and school dances where you left room for the Holy Ghost.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” I don’t know if this is a New England thing or what, but when I was in high school (the mid-'90s), if you wanted to make a room full of teenagers erupt into shrieks, you spun this banger. Girls lined up on one side, boys on the other. The two sing the important points to each other. I have no idea if this ritual still exists, but that it existed two decades after the song first came out impresses and confuses me.
It also speaks to the near-universal quality of the tale told. Boy meets girl. Boy wants to bang girl. Girl wants to bang boy but doesn’t want to feel like a Fleshlight. Boy proclaims his love and neither is terribly happy with the results. And in the middle some Phil Rizzuto. There’s a little something for everybody.
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The album goes out on a ballad, which somehow fits better than the rest, giving the listener an easy landing. But it’s the ragers on Bat Out of Hell that make it so memorable. It’s a damn shame that Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman never got it together to make anything this great again. I like to imagine that in an alternate universe they scored the entire Streets of Fire trilogy, which was the biggest thing since Planet of the Apes.
A guy can dream, I guess.