In 1977 an unknown, seemingly unmarketable man who insisted on being called Meat Loaf was performing in a similarly unknown, seemingly unmarketable Peter Pan-based musical called Neverland. The musical’s principal songwriter Jim Steinman had worked closely with Meat and the rest of the cast to create an over-the-top performance about youth, love, and extreme manliness. It wasn’t like the Peter Pan everyone knows so well; this version involved knives, blood, motorcycles, and electric guitars.
It was an interesting time in rock n’ roll. Operatic performances, epic songs, and fantasy imagery were popular. Queen was getting ready to release “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions.” Cheap Trick were about to drop their debut album and go on a world tour. Broadway favorite Annie opened on April 21st to immediate acclaim. The world was ready, Steinman proposed, for the “most extreme crash song of all time.”
In the 1950s and 60s, as cars became faster and more powerful, a car crash epidemic began to emerge. This resulted in dozens of pop and rock songs romanticizing the phenomenon that proved especially popular with teenagers. Steinman loved the mix of power and romance, love and tragedy. It was his destiny to pen the genre’s ultimate achievement.
One day, after an especially strong performance of Neverland, Meat Loaf and Steinman had a simultaneous epiphany.
|Steinman and Meat Loaf|
“Recorded the motorcycle song as a single?” Meat finished.
“Absolutely! It would be...”
“THE GREATEST CRASH SONG OF ALL TIME!” they both grandly announced at once.
But they didn’t stop there. They pulled three songs from the musical and combined it with four new tracks to create Meat Loaf’s debut album. But the real story lies behind the rewriting of that crash song, a single that would become known as “Bat Out of Hell.”
The two paired up with an eccentric producer named Todd Rundgren who was skeptical of the two at first, thinking they were ridiculous theatre idiots. But after listening to Steinman’s unique beyond-description vision of power and excess, he joined in for the humor of the whole thing. Rundgren told some of his bandmates the idea for the song, and they agreed that it would be funny to record it, and then he grabbed Bruce Springsteen’s drummer and pianist to complete the musicians who would go on to write history.
As Jim Steinman assembled the musicians on the morning of the first sessions, he briefed them on what they would expect in the following hours. “You all have been chosen to participate in something so ground-breaking, so spectacular, that you’ll be remembered for the rest of time as the musicians who performed it,” he said, hands folded behind his back as he paced back in forth in the front of the studio’s control room. “This will be the apex of your careers.”
A young Max Weinberg spoke up. “Really? Me and Roy recorded Born to Run with Springsteen two years ago, and...”
“DESTINY!” Steinman shouted as he turned and glared directly in Weinberg’s direction. “It begins with dark streets, hoodlums everywhere, someone being knifed in a corner!” he excitedly described while waving his hands wildly and looking up to the ceiling. “Suddenly, a man—a real man,” he motioned in Meat Loaf’s direction, “comes riding in on the most badass Harley you’ve ever seen, with a giant hairy skull mounted in place of the windscreen.”
Meat stepped forward sheepishly with an embarrassed grin on his face, kicking the ground. “Gosh, Jim, do you think he needs to be that manly? I’m not exactly a superhero.”
“HE WILL BE THE MANLIEST MAN OF ALL TIME!” Steinman shouted, unable to keep froths of saliva from being projected out of his mouth. His eyes began to roll back in his head, but eventually settled back into position. “Let’s do a take!”
The band burst forth an explosion of sound lead by a frantic piano and played nearly two minutes of instrumental music before Meat joined in on the vocals. He set the initial tone of the song, describing a dirty, dark city full of dangerous characters:
“The sirens are screaming and the fires are howling way down in the valley tonight. There's a man in the shadows with a gun in his eye and a blade shining oh so bright. There's evil in the air and there's thunder in the sky and a killer's on the bloodshot streets. And down in the tunnel where the deadly are rising, oh, I swear I saw a young boy down in the gutter, he was starting to foam in the heat.”
The recording stopped. “Jim, are you sure these are the lyrics?” Meat asked.
Steinman calmly walked over to the vocal booth and looked in at him. “Meat,” he softly cooed, “You’ve just got to trust me, okay? We’re about to make history.” He then walked back into the control room, and with his back to the window, punched himself in the side of the head three times, took a deep breath, and turned around. “Let’s try that again!”
“What’s so funny, Todd?” Steinman sharply inquired.
Rundgren sat up and leaned forward, removing the sunglasses from his face. “It’s too much, JIm,” he responded. “No one’s going to buy this record. It’s just too ridiculous.”
“People come to Neverland. What makes you think they won’t buy the greatest crash song of all time?”
“Okay, man, do you what you will. Just remember what I said.”
The band blew through ten more takes before the late afternoon approached. Steinman just wasn’t quite getting the feel he wanted from the song. It wasn’t loud enough, big enough, or remotely as epic as he had hoped. Steinman called it quits for the the day and sent the band home. He asked Meat and Rundgren to stay behind.
“You know what the song needs?” he said. The two sighed and shook their heads.
“A boy’s choir right when Meat starts singing. I think that would add the level of beauty and innocence that we’re looking for.”
Rundgren spewed water out of his nose and jumped to his feet coughing. “What? A boy’s choir? Isn’t this already crazy enough?”
“I kinda like it,” Meat Loaf quietly chimed in.
“Yes, a real boy’s choir. Let’s not do any weird vocal tricks or tape effects, let’s bring in an entire choir and have them sing during the section where Meat first comes in.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Rundgren asserted.
“Well why not?” Steinman asked. “There’s nothing in this world more beautiful than the sound of twenty boy sopranos singing,” he said as he began dreamily waltzing himself around the room with his eyes closed, humming quietly to himself. Meat and Rundgren looked at each other.
I think he's crazy, Rundgren mouthed to the obese singer.
“Look, let’s worry about that later. We’ve got a lot of post production to do anyway, and we’re already at close to four minutes by the time we get to the end of the first chorus anyway, so we’re going to want to wrap it up soon,” he said aloud.
“But that’s just when the bike is first introduced!” Steinman protested. “The story’s only getting started.”
Rundgren looked at him, disappointed. “Look, let’s just go home and regroup tomorrow.”
They split up and, took another crack at the song the next morning, moving into the second verse where Meat sang about the motorcycle’s introduction.
“I'm gonna hit the highway like a battering ram on a silver black phantom bike. When the metal is hot and the engine is hungry and we're all about to see the light,” he belted out over the roar of the band.
Steinman stood in the control room, banging his head furiously, tears flying onto the mixing board from his face. “Yes, YES, YES!!!” he shouted, “THIS IS THE BEST THING EVER!”
Meat Loaf put his full soul into the lyrics as he progressed through the verse.
“GET TO THE PART ABOUT THE DAMNING!” Steinman shouted through the glass.
“And I know that I’m damned if I never get out, and maybe I’m damned if I do. But with every other beat I got left in my heart you know I'd rather be damned with you. If I gotta be damned you know I wanna be damned, dancing through the night with you.”
“OH MY GOD THIS IS SO GOOD!” Steinman shrieked with incredible furiousness.
“If I gotta be damned you know I wanna be damned, gotta be damned you know I wanna be damned, gotta be damned you know I wanna be damned, dancin’ through the night, dancin’ through the night, dancin’ through the night with you!”
“GAaaAAAaAAHHH!!!” Steinman shouted as he fell to the floor and began openly sobbing. “That was... the most amazing... thing I have ever experienced,” he quietly whispered. Two shoes appeared in front of his face. He looked up to see Rundgren towering over him as he lay underneath the control panel.
“You ruined a good take with your shouting,” he said. “We were picking you up in the vocal mic. Just chill, baby. We gotta get through this song, and it’s already beyond what most radio stations will play. We haven’t even hit a second chorus yet.”
They worked into the later afternoon to perfect the second chorus to the high standard of Steinman’s expectations of ultimate epicness, with the end of this chorus seamlessly moving into a powerful bridge with a sudden, jarring ritard.
“Then like a sinner before the gates of heaven I’ll come crawling on back to you,” Meat Loaf crooned. Steinman stopped the recording and sat back on the couch, weeping. Rundgren walked into the studio.
“Is he okay?” Roy Bittan asked.
“Yeah, he does this all the time,” Meat Loaf confirmed. Everyone waited patiently for the eccentric songwriter to get his wits back together to continue beyond the bridge, but he never came out of his sobbing bundle. The recording session ended for the day.
Finally, Rundgren entered the control room again to reason with Steinman. “What’s the problem, man?” he asked as he began to try a different approach with this clearly tortured genius.
Between gasps of breath, Steinman finally began to become intelligible again. “It needs...” he began. The sobs choked out his words.
“What? What does it need? More guitars?” Rundgren asked.
“No... it needs a crash, but I don’t want to see this glorious man die,” he softly revealed. Rundgren cocked his head to the side and looked directly into Steinman’s face.
“Are you shitting me?” he asked. “We’re almost six minutes in and you want to do a crash now?” he angrily shouted.
“I have an idea. Let me think about it tonight and we’ll start again tomorrow.”
In the morning, Steinman arrived slightly hung over but fully ready to work. He assembled the entire band and asked Meat to come stand next to him.
“I want you all to imagine this,” he began. “Our protagonist is riding his phantom bike with its skull windscreen’s hair flapping in the wind. He’s going fast. Faster than you can imagine.” He looked up to the ceiling.
“Faster than any boy’s ever gone before.”
The band looked around at each other. Meat, generally a pretty easy-going guy, became defensive.
“Wait, this song keeps going? What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about the crash,” Steinman responded. “And he never sees the sudden curve until it’s way too late. He’ll lay torn and twisted at the foot of the burning bike, but that’s not all. Meat’s got the lyrics; everyone else just play the music.”
Everyone headed back into the studio. “Todd, I need the sounds of a motorcycle in this section. Can you handle that?”
Rundgren looked at him as if he was crazy. “You want me to bring a motorcycle in here and record it? I think we might all die.”
“No no no NO! Use your creativity, man! We need a freaking motorcycle! It’s a MOTORCYCLE CRASH!”
The band struck up again and Meat took to narrating the story.
“I can see myself tearing up the road faster than any other boy has ever gone,” he read off the lyric sheet.
“Yes! Feel the speed!” Steinman shouted.
“And I never see the sudden curve until it's way too late,” Meat continued.
“Feel the danger!” a frenzied Steinman interjected as the music barreled on.
“And I never see the sudden curve 'til it's way too late!” Meat screamed.
Steinman abruptly halted the recording and turned to Rundgren.
“Todd! We need that motorcycle NOW!” he demanded.
Rundgren sighed, walked into the studio and plugged in his guitar. “Cue up the bridge,” he said. The engineer rolled the tape back and armed a channel. “Hit it,” he said.
Holding down the tremolo until the strings were literally hanging off of the guitar, he struck a low note and whipped the tremolo bar up and down. His guitar growled the sounds of a powerful bike revving up its engine and accelerating, screaming directly into a guitar solo.
“OH MY GOD! THIS IS PURE GOLD!” he could see Steinman mouthing through the control room window. Man, I hope his voice doesn’t come through on this track. I really want to just do this once, he thought.
Meat blinked his eyes. He couldn’t believe what was happening. With no rehearsal, Rundgren had just spewed forth the greatest guitar solo of all time, and he did it directly out of the emulated sounds of a phantom bike. When the solo was done, everyone stood in silence for a few seconds.
“Was that good?” Rundgren asked.
Everyone erupted into cheers. The applause lasted for several minutes as Steinman fainted, Weinberg catching him on the way down. The entire band gave him the thumbs up to come back in for the playback.
“Holy crap, how is that possible?” bass played Kasim Sulton said to him as he patted him on the back. They listened to it and decided it was worth pushing on beyond the eight-minute mark.
Steinman came back to full consciousness. “Meat, we’ve no time to lose. You’ve got that lyrics sheet, right?”
Meat Loaf nodded.
“Get in there! You know what to do!”
The band piled back into the studio and prepared for the most tear-jerking moment in rock n’ roll history. In a quiet lull in the song, Meat sang the tender words.
“Then I'm dying at the bottom of a pit in the blazing sun, torn and twisted at the foot of a burning bike,” he sang, shedding a single tear.
“And I think somebody somewhere must be tolling a bell.”
Rundgren got up off of the couch with a mesmerized stare and stood with his face pressed up against the glass, hands on the mixer.
“And the last thing I see is my heart, still beating, breaking out of my body and flying away—like a bat out of hell!”
Steinman slapped himself in the face to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. “More! Bigger!” he shouted.
“Then I'm dying at the bottom of a pit in the blazing sun!”
Weinberg’s eyes shut and he grit his teeth as he struck the drums with maximum force.
“Torn and twisted at the foot of a burning bike!”
One of Sulton’s strings popped as he struck it with his thumb harder than he’d ever played the bass before.
“And I think somebody somewhere must be tolling a bell. And the last thing I see is my heart! Still beating...” Meat Loaf restrained himself as he built up to the song’s climax.
“Still beating...” he continued, while everyone looked around the room anxiously.
“Oh, breakin’ outta my body, and flyin’ awaaaaaaay... like a bat out of hell!! Like a bat out of hell!! Like a bat out of hell!!”
Steinman and Rundgren turned and grabbed each other in a triumphant embrace. The engineer sat frozen, unable to concentrate on the mixer. Bittan banged his head as he smashed his hands down on the piano keys. Meat Loaf delivered the final notes.
“LIKE A BAT OUT OF HELL!!!! LIKE A BAT OUT OF HELL!!! LIKE A BAT OUT OF HEEEEEEEEEEEEEELL!!!!!!!”
Everyone collapsed to the floor except Sulton and Bittan, who held it together just long enough to finish the epilogue of the song. As they played the last notes and the song came to a close, no one spoke or moved.
Finally the engineer shut his open jaw and stopped the tape reel. “I think that’ll do, guys,” he said through the studio monitors.
No one spoke as they left the studio. They knew what they had done. There was nothing to be said.
The single failed miserably on release.
Thirty-four years later, the album Bat Out of Hell has sold more than 43 million copies, solidifying it as the fifth-best-selling album ever. There’s something to be said about creating the most epic crash song of all time.
This story is factual to the best of my knowledge and is therefore proclaimed as “true.” Any embellishments are added purely for satirical purposes. This story used the following references with the purpose of being as accurate as possible:
Classic Albums: Meat Loaf - Bat Out of Hell
Jim Steinman's Bat Out of Hell
Neverland by Jim Steinman
RIAA: Sales data for "Bat Out of Hell"
Songmeanings: Meat Loaf - "Bat Out of Hell"
The Julia Child of Rock and Roll
To Hell and Back: An Autobiography by Meat Loaf
Youtube: Meat Loaf - Bat Out of Hell Follow @torqtorq