The songs are myths, panoramas, vistas, voyages — voyages to a country of lost girls and golden boys who refuse to grow up. It’s a land everybody wants to get to, a rock kingdom in which the major theme is: all revved up with no place to go.
—Jim Steinman, director/songwriter
All I can say is: you can’t take this shit seriously.
—Meat Loaf, actor/singer
The 400 or so record-industry types assembled beneath the canopied tent could have been heroic couriers in one of Jim Steinman’s fantasy epics: earlier in the day they had mounted giant birds and flown thousands of miles to Cleveland, bearing glad tidings to the mythical rock & roll giant, Meat Loaf.
But they weren’t. These were mere mortals who had helped sell a few million copies of Bat Out of Hell, an album that is the collaborative vision of Marvin Lee Aday (Meat Loaf to you) and Jim Steinman. The executives, promoters, flacks, regional salesmen and assorted corporate minions assigned to the case by the CBS/Epic Records machine had to come to bask in the glow of an unusual success story that was still happening, and that was being celebrated in a giant tent overlooking an outdoor amphitheater somewhere in the Cleveland-Akron-Canton vortex.
Earlier in the evening, Walter Yetnikoff, the natty lawyer who presides over CBS Records, had jetted in from New York lugging a platinum-plated copy of Bat Out of Hell, a debut album that has defied all marketing odds and is now, a year after its release, beginning to probe the sales stratosphere. After awarding the coveted prize to the grunting, sweating Meat Loaf during his tour-ending Cleveland performance (his 170th date in less than 11 months), Yetnikoff danced a stockholder’s jig before 19,000 devotees of Fat Rock while the band serenaded him and officials from Meat Loaf’s label, Cleveland International Records, with a roily version of “River Deep, Mountain High.”
But the news that Bat Out of Hell had been inducted into the American Hall of Platinum seemed almost lost in the buzz of statistics that resonated throughout the canopied tent after the show. Regional battles broke out between national and international account executives: Platinum in the States? Big deal, the album is Epic’s largest Canadian seller ever. Oh yeah? What about Australia? Knocked Saturday Night Fever off its perch when the band toured Down Under this summer. Oh yeah? Sales outside the U.S. — a million and a half total. Oh yeah? The States are right in there: 1.4 million by early September, with 800,000 in the past three months. Oh yeah?
The corporate gloating continued into the early morning. Paeans were sung to the CBS research team that had determined that two out of every three Meat Loaf albums are sold to adult females, that Meat Loaf fans range in age from 13 to 35, that Kiss fans are Meat Loaf fans. Ingenious marketing and packaging skills were hailed, while everyone carefully avoided the word hype.
The irony of it all is that, two years ago, CBS showed Meat Loaf and Steinman the door when the pair was looking for a label to back their unholy marriage of theater and rock. The arguments against the duo were formidable: the appropriately named Meat Loaf, who weighs something in excess of 250 pounds, was hardly the stuff of which groupies’ dreams are made; much of the material — ranging from existential motorcycle ballads to graphic narratives of sex in a car — smacked of exploitation; eight-minute songs with two-minute instrumental overtures were not commercially viable; and the immense production schemes made Phil Spector’s ideas sound austere.
“We had everything going against us,” says Meat Loaf. “It took us three years, but we’ve vindicated ourselves.”
Meat Loaf dumps his girth into a chair in his New York hotel suite and opens a can of diet soda. It is a few days after the Cleveland bash. Next to him, slumped in an overstuffed chair, is Steinman, the brainy composer/pianist/choreographer who left the tour a month early to work up the songs for the next album (targeted for a spring release). For Steinman, whose schedule reverses night and day, the late-afternoon hour is less than godly. Looking something like a wizened teenager with his long, gray-flecked hair, blue jeans and football jersey, Steinman stares out the window in foggy-eyed silence while Meat outlines the familiar tribulations suffered by musicians in search of a contract.
“We did thousands of voice and piano sessions,” says Meat in his slightly oily Texas drawl. “We rehearsed at the Ansonia Hotel [in New York] for a year before we got sophisticated and brought people to a studio. People either loved or hated the music — most of them hated it.”
Executives from RCA were apparently in the minority. They signed Meat and Steinman, only to have the pair walk out after the label refused to include Todd Rundgren’s production skills in the package. (Rundgren had attended one of their rehearsals and agreed to produce and play guitar on the album.) “When we played the material and discussed the project with Todd, we knew we had to have him or nobody as producer,” Meat says. “But RCA said, ‘No Todd,’ so we were back to singing duets at the Ansonia.”
But production seed money was subsequently granted in spurts by Bearsville (Rundgren’s label), by Rundgren himself and finally by Warner Bros., which agreed to release the album, but without promotion. Desperately, manager David Sonenberg played the tapes for Cleveland International, a fledgling production company composed of three former industry pros who agreed to swing their weight behind the project and to hawk its potential to Epic Records.
“Very few people understood the scope of the project,” says Steinman, shaking off his gray funk. “Even fewer seemed to be able to deal with the narrative.”