You took the words right out of my mouth
I was surfing on Google recently, just doing some research into various artists and albums, when I came across a most fascinating interview with Todd Rundgren, conducted in 2017 for a Billboard Magazine article.
Rundgren had been a critics and fans favorite since he first showed up on the charts in the early ’70s with hit singles like “We Gotta Get You a Woman,” “I Saw the Light” and “Hello, It’s Me.,” and the tour-de-force LP “Something/Anything?.”
The focus of the article was on Meat Loaf’s 1977 LP “Bat Out of Hell,” then celebrating its 40th anniversary. It’s an album that was rejected by dozens of producers and dozens of record labels but went on to become one of the biggest-selling albums of all time, with more than 43 million copies sold worldwide. Rundgren had been the album’s producer, and he was asked how he happened to get involved with the project.
Said Rundgren, “Well, I had a friend and occasional bandmate named Moogy Klingman, and in the mid-’70s, I was getting a lot of production work — Hall and Oates’ ‘War Babies’ and Grand Funk’s ‘We’re an American Band’ and ‘Shinin’ On,’ to name a few. It was probably more production work than I could handle, because I was still doing my own albums (‘Todd,’ ‘Initiation’) at that time, and the first two albums with Utopia as well.
“So Moogy approached me and said, ‘Well, if I find a band or an act that you think is worth producing, I’ll do the legwork on it, and that’ll help me get into the production game.’ So I said, ‘Okay, that’s a fine idea. If I hear something, sure, we can give that a try.’ A couple weeks later, he came to me with this act. It was Meat Loaf, and it was also this guy Jim Steinman, who wrote all the material.”
A little background: Steinman was an up-and-coming musical playwright who had been working on “Neverland,” a futuristic rock musical about Peter Pan, but despite earlier success as a playwright, this one faced challenges in getting made. Steinman had been working with Meat Loaf, known primarily for his work in “Rocky Horror Picture Show” on Broadway and in film. The two had also been touring together as part of the National Lampoon stage show.
Steinman and Loaf had been particularly jazzed by three of Steinman’s compositions — “Bat Out of Hell,” “Heaven Can Wait” and “All Revved Up with No Place to Go” — and they became the anchor pieces to the seven-song set that would later become the “Bat Out of Hell” album.
“I never intended to do music,” Steinman said. “I didn’t think I was a good enough musician. I was gonna do film and theater, but I figured, ‘This is fun, let’s do this,'” Steinman said. “I didn’t want it to be just a bunch of songs. I wanted it to feel like you were entering a cinematic or complete theatrical environment. No one could deal with it. They couldn’t figure out what it would sound like finished.
“All I can say is that thank God we knew nothing about making albums, because otherwise it couldn’t have happened. I wanted to make an album that sounded like a movie.” But they could find no financial backing nor a label that showed any interest in the concept, which was ‘admittedly overwrought and pretentious,” said Steinman.
Rundgren picks up the story: “The only way that these guys would demo the material was to do it live. They didn’t have a demo tape, or they didn’t want me to have a demo tape, because they thought that was not representative of what they were trying to do.
“So they set up in a rehearsal studio, Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf and (singer) Ellen Foley, just the three of them, and they essentially performed most of what turned out to be the first record. They did it all live, with all the familiar tropes that would become the video later, the whole ‘Paradise By the Dashboard Light’ thing, that whole part of it. They told me that they’d essentially done this for any producer who would entertain coming to see them, and that they had been essentially turned down by everybody. I could certainly understand why, because it didn’t have an obvious commerciality.”
But here’s the surprise nugget from the interview: “I saw the whole presentation as a spoof of Bruce Springsteen.”
That made me sit up and take notice. I had been a Springsteen fan since his early albums, and had fallen head over heels in love with the “Born to Run” song and album. And when the “Bat Out of Hell” LP came out two years later, I really enjoyed that too, but it never occurred to me it might be related to Springsteen’s opus in some way.
“In 1975, the mid-’70s, the themes were kind of nostalgic,” said Rundgren. “Even though Bruce Springsteen would represent them as still being real, the iconography was still out of the ’50s, you know? It was switchblades and leather jackets and motorcycles and that sort of junk. It was so annoying to me personally that Springsteen was being declared the savior of rock and roll. You know, he was on the cover of Time and Newsweek, and I thought, ‘You know, this music is going nowhere.’ He may have represented the image that people wanted, but from a musical standpoint, I thought it was going backwards. So I thought he needed to be spoofed. I saw the whole ‘Bat Out of Hell’ concept as being a parody of Bruce. That’s why I decided to get involved.
“There was a lot of interesting stuff in there. Jim Steinman kind of wove this sense of humor into the material in a way that Springsteen never did. I was rolling on the floor laughing at how over-the-top and pretentious it was. I thought, ‘I’ve got to do this album.’
“We had the guys from Utopia playing on it, and also Edgar Winter on sax. And as it turned out, you know, Max Weinberg and Roy Bittan from the E Street Band wound up playing on the record, so that kind of made it even spoofier. I recruited them to work on it, but I don’t think I instructed them to think of it differently than they would have otherwise. But quite obviously they were cast because they could bring that ‘Springsteeniness’ to the whole project.”
Rundgren added, “Everyone kind of puts the focus on Meat Loaf, but the reality is, everything’s coming from Steinman. Meat Loaf is essentially someone that Steinman cast in an imaginary musical. So it isn’t like a calculated attempt to break into radio or anything like that. It’s really Steinman trying to realize his vision of a musical, albeit somewhat compromised from the original, because his original idea was to retell the story of Peter Pan. So just imagine Meat Loaf as Peter Pan.”
Rundgren claims to barely know Springsteen and has never spoken to him about the fact that he always envisioned “Bat Out of Hell” as a Bruce spoof. “I have not really had any communications with Bruce. I’ve run into him once or twice in backstage situations, but we haven’t had much to talk about. As far as I know, he’s unaware of the fact that it’s a spoof of him. That’s how I regard it anyway.”
Apparently, when the operatic “Bat Out of Hell“ hit the radio airwaves in 1977, only a few critics saw the Springsteen comparison. “Every track sounds like a fever-dream rendition of ‘Thunder Road’ or ‘Jungleland,'” said Rolling Stone. “Some of the people who bought it might have just gotten sick of waiting for ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ (whose release had been delayed and wouldn’t finally occur until the following summer).”
Steinman concedes that he shared some of the same influences as Springsteen — ’50s rock and roll, Chuck Berry, the “wall of sound” approach of producer Phil Spector, the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” tragedy, the Motown sound. “They’re all in there,” Steinman said, “but then I also added in Wagner and the drama of opera music. I was quoted at the time as saying, ‘If there’s a market for a 350-pound guy singing Wagnerian ten minute rock & roll epics, we’ve got it covered!’”
The album proved the classic “sleeper.” It was ignored in most U.S. markets and in England for the first six months after its release, but then “The Old Grey Whistle Test,” a British music TV program, took the ambitious step of airing a film clip of the live band performing the nine-minute title track. Response was so overwhelming, they screened it again the following week. Soon enough, “Bat Out of Hell” was an unfashionable, uncool, non-radio record that became a “must-have” for everyone who heard it, whether they understood Steinman’s unique perspective or not.
Eventually every track on the album became a hit single in England, and even “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” snuck into the U.S. Top 40. The album became a phenomenon, the most profitable release in Epic Records history, beating even Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” which had cost ten times as much to make.
Steinman described Rundgren as “the only genuine genius I’ve ever worked with.” AllMusic calls Steinman “a composer without peer, simply because nobody else wanted to make mini-epics like this.” AllMusic praised Rundgren’s production on the album, claiming, “It may elevate adolescent passion to operatic dimensions, and that’s certainly silly, but it’s hard not to marvel at the skill behind this grandly silly, irresistible album.”