The 1970s were a breeding ground for campy rock operas, but Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman saw an opportunity to lead the pack with their big, brassy display of emotions in their most carnal form. Caught somewhere between Broadway musicals and heavy metal, between Richard Wagner and Phil Spector, this unabashed lightning bolt of theatricality would take the world by storm. A sharp departure from Meat Loaf’s debut, Bat Out of Hell would be the moment that catapulted him into stardom and inform the rest of his musical career.
Back when albums were still our defining medium, this record wasn’t just popular; owning it became a necessity. In the United Kingdom, Bat Out of Hell stayed on the charts for a whopping 485 weeks, longer than any album that wasn’t Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Much of its success can be traced to the fact that it is built around topics that are sacred to adolescents, namely, crossing the threshold of sexual encounters. Meat Loaf seemed to be articulating urges that were driving nearly all teenagers, but no one was framing them in such a bold and direct form.
Bat Out of Hell begins with a bang, as the title track thrusts cascading waves of sound against the audience, subsiding just long enough for squealing guitars to shove their way through. Like the rest of the album, the song is motivated by a fascination with theatricality, and it boasts several distinctive movements over its nearly ten-minute runtime, as it spans almost every conceivable emotional response to its central dilemma. It is clear that “Bat Out of Hell” is meant to be visualized, which is why the peel of motorcycle tires parallels the instrumentation. An increasingly relatable piece, the song chronicles the bittersweet cocktail of emotions forged by laying a romance to rest.
Continuing to present the album as a work that goes beyond the reach of popular music, “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night)” begins with a delightfully creepy and overtly sexual spoken call-and-response. The track then blasts into no-holds-barred taste of young love, in all of its awkward glory. It specifically goes out of its way to capture the air of inescapable eroticism attached to the teenage years, recreating the feeling of butterflies in your stomach as your crush would walk past you on the way to third period. The gospel choir of backing vocals only cements the reverence of the experience.
Even as he is belting out lyrics dripping with sexual yearning and leather-clad fury, Meat Loaf has a tender side, as we first see on “Heaven Can Wait.” The sweetness is sold by the infectious string section and also by Roy Bittan (of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band fame) playing the most emotive piano you’ll ever hear (in a style that even sounds a bit like “Jungleland”). It is a spiritual hymn, but one that rejects religion and replaces it with romantic passion, and anyone who has ever been wrapped up in infatuation will be able to comprehend why.
“All Revved Up With No Place To Go” hijacks the mood with blaring horns, focusing on high school lust. The most straightforward song on the album, it doesn’t cling to metaphors. Instead, it uses candid, unequivocal language to address the frustration of a tension that can’t be released. Just when the song appears to be cooling off, it increases in speed, much like the waves of young love it is trying to pin down.
Nowhere on Bat Out of Hell is the influence of Todd Rundgren as a producer felt than in “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” a forceful power ballad made with prime 1970s cheese. Beginning as an addendum to Elvis Presley’s “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” the track takes the basic concept of a love song and spoons in a dose of reality. It is a sweeping declaration of affection, but one with a practical agenda. As a result, the song is corny, but it is far too sincere to be mocked.
One of the most identifiable songs in rock history, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” appears to have more staying power than any of the other songs on the album, still making its way through karaoke bars and theme parties everywhere. Steeped in an affection for doo wop and the early days of rock and roll, the song lightens the emotional weight of sex with humor, using famed radio announcer Phil “The Scooter” Rizzuto to describe backseat fumblings in terms of baseball metaphors. The track is told in three chapters, each laying claim to a different genre as the changes in content affect the stylistic mood. The song doesn’t work without Ellen Foley, who sells every sweat-drenched note.
An absolute powerhouse from start to finish, “For Crying Out Loud” displays Meat Loaf’s incredible vocal range. It thrives with an orchestral pulse, with expert string arrangements by Steve Margoshes performed masterfully by the New York Philharmonic, before letting loose into a complete auditory overload. As the smoke clears, Meat Loaf lets out a proclamation of love modeled after wedding vows. When the last note fades out, it is tempting to burst out of your seat and applaud the theatrical performance that has just been presented to you.
Bat Out of Hell is lavish and self-indulgent, yet somehow it is able to strip away any feeling being manufactured, so much so that it connects with something deep within us all. There is nothing like it, including both of its sequels that failed to capture the same explosive magic. Some may consider it a guilty pleasure, but when you look at the immense talent involved and the fact that the album continues to sell about 200,000 copies a year four decades after its initial release, it’s difficult to ignore its resonance. If only more artists were willing to take a risk this outlandishly audacious.