Happy 40th Anniversary to Meat Loaf’s second studio album Bat Out of Hell, originally released October 21, 1977.
Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell is outstanding in every sense of the word. Produced in 1975, released in 1977, it went on to become one of the best-selling albums of all time. It sits neatly in the cross-hairs of all major rock music trends of the 1970s: teen angst storytelling, reverberating guitar shreds, and smooth soft-rock vocals. And yet, Bat Out of Hell is a complete oddball. It is an epic unto itself: a seven-track album averaging six minutes per song. The lyrics are kitschy and the song structure is intentionally inconsistent. It was a rock opera parody often taken a little too seriously. It was misunderstood, underestimated, and almost never released.
Bat Out of Hell plays like the soundtrack to a musical that would be cost-prohibitive and very dangerous to make: a tale of brash and intense young love, with motorcycles and fire strewn about. It’s intentionally over-the-top. The title track opener is an eight minute, 784-word opus that tests the limits of endurance from both a performer and listener’s perspective. It tells the story of a man who has crashed, is hurt and presumably dying (“Oh, like a bat out of hell / I'll be gone when the morning comes”). What ensues in the album is the flood of memories of his life with love: “If I gotta be damned, you know I want to be damned / Dancing through the night with you.” The subject is recklessness and the lyrics are carefree. As a whole, the album opener is turbo-charged and makes you want to move your feet at 158 bpm. The beginning of this album sounds like any other musician’s closer.
Though it was Meat Loaf’s second album, it was his first collaboration with writer/composer Jim Steinman. Meat Loaf has a reputation for incredible vocals and passionate delivery, but Steinman represents the “signature sound”—a fact not lost on either party since the album’s release four decades ago.
Steinman shows strength in creating legendary singalongs without subscribing to pop music norms. One of his influences was 19th century opera composer Richard Wagner; Steinman described Bat Out of Hell thematically as Wagnerian Rock. One notable aspect of Wagner’s was his “through-composition”—that is, he set lyrical stanzas to different music for each verse, rather than relying on a more traditional “strophic” form which repeats the same music for different stanzas. Most songs on this album subscribe to this through-composed structure. “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” covers the whole arc of a teenage relationship in iconic micromovements, re-lived clumsily on most wedding dancefloors in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
According to Meat Loaf’s autobiography, producer and lead guitarist Todd Rundgren joined the project because he thought the concept was “just so out there.” It’s the exact reason label executives rejected the album left and right. Clive Davis of CBS famously lambasted Steinman on his inability to write music that fits into the pop music formula.
After at least two years of shopping it, Bat Out of Hell was ultimately picked up by Cleveland International Records, a subsidiary of Epic Records. According to Frederic Dannen’s book Hit Men, Cleveland International President Steve Popovich “did not care much for it” upon first listening but solicited feedback from two women whom he trusted: his ex-wife and sister-in-law. They both loved it. Ultimately the album grew on him and he thought the uniqueness of the sound could work to its advantage. After Cleveland/Epic picked it up, it took a few years of local radio play and a live performance or two before the album finally took off to the success we associate with it today. It has now sold over 43 million copies worldwide.
Unfortunately, the success of Bat Out of Hell is one that very few people shared in. According to a 1993 article by John Aizlewood in Q Magazine, after its release “Steinman hadn't been paid for Bat Out Of Hell. He sued Meat Loaf's publishing company, who hadn't been paid either. Everyone seemed to sue Meat Loaf, who filed for bankruptcy.” Steinman and Meat Loaf collaborated on follow-up projects but continued to wage subsequent legal battles (most recently over the use of the “Bat Out of Hell” name). Popovich sued Epic (now Sony) Records for lost royalties as record sales continued to soar and Sony hid behind a cross-collateralization clause, claiming that the costs of the album’s production were still not covered. Popovich passed away in 2011 in the midst of legal battles. Seemingly most important was his desire to restore the original “Cleveland International” logo to the album cover as his legacy.
As someone who hails from Cleveland, who grew up listening to this crazy album, I’m sending sincere thanks to Mr. Popovich for listening to the ladies in his life.