It would tell you a lot about a person if you could see what popped into their mind on hearing Meat Loaf’s lyric “I would do anything for love but I won’t do that”. I know what I imagined as a sniggering adolescent.
In fact, it is one of rock’s great misunderstandings. What Meat Loaf would not do is mentioned explicitly a few bars earlier in the song, and it’s quite boring. But trammelled up in the obfuscating clauses of his swashbuckling melodrama, the line became a filthy playground talking point. The question is, is that bad writing – or fantastically good writing?
The composer Jim Steinman, who wrote the lyrics for Whistle Down the Wind, is responsible for most of Meat Loaf’s hits: he calls his genre Wagnerian rock. Meat Loaf, meanwhile, has always felt less like a rock star and more like a condition – fitful, apoplectic with love or rage, valiantly shouldering an operatic frame.
A journalist friend of mine once asked him about a difficult court case during an interview, and he got so angry that he disappeared for a cold shower right there and then. Someone has finally made a “jukebox” musical of his stuff, and it’s going down a treat at the London Coliseum, a place usually reserved for opera.
Crotchless tights, underground caverns and Eighties hair are prerequisites for any rock musical set after an apocalypse (and after The Rocky Horror Picture Show). The plot for the Queen musical, We Will Rock You, involved a guitar trapped in a lump of “rock”, which the kids had to “break free” in order to save the world.
In Bat Out of Hell (this show, and the 1977 album) something bigger languishes – songs from an unmade musical called Neverland, featuring Peter Pan and killer nuns, which Great Ormond Street Hospital (the owner of the rights to J M Barrie’s book) never granted Steinman permission to make.
Meat Loaf may have been a manufactured response to Bruce Springsteen, the open highway and the anthropomorphic motorbike; the E Street Band even played on the Bat Out of Hell album. Yet before that, he was Marvin Lee Aday, appearing in Hair on Broadway and in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. So any stage show using the music of Meat isn’t a spin-off project but a return to source.
In Bat Out of Hell two priapic couples – one young and pure, the other old (forties), debauched and mainly undressed – learn lessons, find love, overcome evil, etc. They are appropriate vehicles for Meat Loaf’s romantic psychodramas – more appropriate perhaps than the Loaf himself, who often seemed to be “duetting” on his own in the original songs.
Steinman’s unwieldy lyrics (remember “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are”) seem less flatulent as stage dialogue spoken by a cast of dozens. And the bike crash described in the lyrics of the title track – Meat watches his heart flying out of his body on impact – seems less histrionic when there’s a real bike crash to watch on stage. A Cadillac is pushed into the orchestra pit and various musicians emerge bearing bent trombones. It’s impressive.
Meat once said he struggled so hard to be taken seriously in the music industry, largely because of the way he looked, that he felt like a circus clown. Sadly, even when he appeared in the film Fight Club, his character made reference to having had hormone treatment in order to explain his natural “bitch tits”. The jukebox musical – in which the spirit of a legendary act infuses a show that is generally ridiculous of plot and thrusting of crotch – is the future of classic rock music: the destination for young singers who may once have formed Def Leppard or Poison, and the cash cow for the ageing band.
Bat Out of Hell is the most successful yet because – unlike with David Bowie’s Lazarus or the Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon – you don’t wish that Meat Loaf was in it. Which made me think about the curious nature of Meat: a conduit, an actor, a human theatrical concept, fighting to be taken seriously. Ahead of his time, a blueprint for the future of rock.
This article appears in the 28 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague