It feels strange to be writing this only a couple of days after Meat Loaf died. This bizarre, overwrought, teenage fever dream of an album was originally – in some form or other – intended to be the follow-up to Bat out of Hell, but the project never quite got off the ground (and the reasons given for that are often contradictory and strange). Jim Steinman felt compelled to share these songs with the world nevertheless, and apparently decided to do it himself.
Steinman, who also died recently, had been the creative driving force behind Bat out of Hell. Those were his songs, his words, and his vision. Meat Loaf’s towering voice and Todd Rundgren’s ‘everything including the kitchen sink’ production created an album which was at once a cult classic and the sort of thing everyone felt the need to own, despite – or perhaps because of – it not sounding like anything else on earth.
I liked Bat, but not to the point of the obsession which seemed to grip some people; and not to anything like the same degree I loved this album.
Which is really weird, because in all respects, this is the inferior album – more than one track is just a pale imitation of the formula which had worked so well first time, and – well, let’s not beat around the bush – Steinman can’t really sing. Even the professional singer he brought in (and didn’t really credit) for three tracks doesn’t have anything like the volume, dynamics, range or sheer theatrical presence of Meat Loaf’s voice, and as a result, this album doesn’t really work.
Yet it had me in its thrall from the moment I first heard it, and even after all this time, seeing it for what it is, I can’t shake that sensation of being eighteen, full of hormones, spots and some kind of wild idea of what the world might have in store for me. I had no idea what Steinman was on about half the time, but he was so earnest, so vital, and so over-produced that it had to mean something, and it had to mean something to me.
It wasn’t an album written by a teenager about being a teenager (I’m coming to one of those); it was a fairly cynical marketing exercise by a middle-aged man who invoked Peter Pan as an excuse for his own refusal to grow up and get on with life. But, somehow, he hit that sweet spot; that exact point in my life when everything seemed to be in mad turmoil and needed someone to reassure me that all of this – whatever it was – was normal and everyone went through it.
There must have been a glowing review somewhere (Sounds, I’m looking at you again), because I went out and bought this not having heard any of it. I could just as easily have bought the first Meat Loaf album, and if I’d waited a few months, I could have bought the next one, Dead Ringer, which Steinman was also working on.
But this was the one I bought, and this was the one I got home to discover that it came with a free seven-inch single containing the two tracks which wouldn’t fit on the album. The label on the single explained that side one was the prologue, and that side two was the epilogue, so to hear it as intended, you had to change records over – and remember to change the speed when you did it.
Well, to be honest, if you really wanted to hear this as intended, you’d have to go back in time, resolve whatever the original issues were and have Meat Loaf record these songs – something which he pretty much did eventually anyway, but I digress.
At this point, before we listen to it, I’m going to complain about Spotify. Up at the top of the page, I’ve embedded what Spotify claim to be this album. And, to be fair, it mostly is. It really wouldn’t, I don’t think, have taken much effort to put the prologue, The Storm in first place, and Rock and Roll Dreams in last, and take the time to rename what they call Medley to its actual title, Left in the Dark.
The upshot is that, to hear this the way I first heard it, you have to pay attention and shuffle things round, and maybe that’s appropriate.
To kick things off, then, on went side one of the free single. The Storm is a fairly simple melody, well orchestrated (I don’t know who orchestrated it, but it’s well done) and played by a full orchestra – the New York Philharmonic, it turns out. It is a prologue rather than an overture – it sets the tone, bombastic, full of self-importance and completely over the top as the introduction to anything, never mind a rock and roll album.
Then it’s straight (well, after faffing about with the discs) into the title track. It begins exactly as you’d want it to start, full steam ahead, guitars riffing madly, and then….
And then Steinman starts to sing, and – well, they might at least have multi-tracked him. It’s not that he can’t sing at all – he hits all the notes, and he’s full of enthusiasm, even when some of the emoting is just beyond him – there are places where he needs find a growl or something just out of reach, and he gives it the good old college try, but, honestly, it’s only just this side of laughable.
And yet, the song itself is exactly right, and perfectly sums up what this album is, or should have been. Meat Loaf did eventually record it, but his voice was not quite what it would have been in 1980, and honestly, his version also sounds not quite right, despite having Brian May driving it along.
About six minutes in, you can really hear what Steinman was reaching for – the ‘Godspeed’ section so very nearly works; the production does everything it can, but it can’t quite cover for the reedy voice in the middle of it.
And yet, and yet. Perhaps that’s why it worked then, and why I’m sitting here singing along, word perfect. You couldn’t imagine being Meat Loaf, could you? You could no more hope to hit the notes he hit; make the sounds he made than you could flap your arms and fly to the moon. But you could push your weedy, untrained voice to sound the way this singer does. Maybe that’s why it worked.
Incidentally, my copy had a flaw, and skipped during the first chorus. It still sounds wrong to hear it play ‘correctly’.
Lost Boys and Golden Girls introduces us to Rory Dodd, who can actually sing. I don’t know how much I noticed it back then, but the difference through noise-cancelling headphones is startling. Just the first phrase has all sorts of nuance and subtlety; it’s so much better that it completely covers up the fact that this is a kind of sappy ballad about – well, this is where Peter Pan makes his influence felt. I guess (who am I kidding; I know) I related strongly to ‘We’ll never be as young as we are tonight’ and so on, but it’s pretty inconsequential, despite the neat harmonies at the end.
Love and Death and an American Guitar remains as batshit crazy and oddly terrifying as it was when I first heard it. I had no idea what it was doing here, or that it was based on something which Steinman used to do on stage at Meat Loaf shows; maybe it worked better there. It’s, let’s be honest, a bit daft now, but if you’re eighteen and completely wrapped up in this, it’s profound in some way you can’t explain.
Stark Raving Love starts with that riff which Steinman repurposed for Bonnie Tyler, so it sounds a bit strange to hear it here. I’m not going to belabour the point about the vocals, but it’s fair to say that the backing singers do a lot of the heavy lifting here, especially in the mid section, which goes all 1950s on us for a bit.
I was, I think, just too young to have the same affection for those close-harmony doo-wop things which my musical heroes liked to refer back to; I was generally impatient for the music to go back to loud and modern-sounding. It all makes a bit more sense through the lens of nearly forty more years of music.
I’m just going to point out that the best part of this song is unquestionably the duelling guitar solos which take up the final third. It’s all insanely over the top, of course, but that’s exactly the point – you didn’t go to Jim Steinman music for three minute verse-chorus-verse pop songs. Having said that, the pop song he fashioned out of this for Bonnie Tyler really works, so maybe he should have tried that a little more often.
Side two starts with more of the same; layered guitar riffs, pounding piano and a not-quite good enough vocal. Again, you can clearly hear what he’s reaching for, but he never quite reaches it, and in some of the higher pitched parts, you can actually hear the producer’s hand subtly turning up the backing singers to mask the fact that he’s never going to be able to nail those top notes consistently.
It’s a ‘long hot summer’ bored and restless song, and while it works on that score, it perhaps doesn’t quite sweat the way it needs to. Only now do I hear how much work the outstanding Roy Bittan is doing on the piano (it’s quite the piano-driven album, in truth), and wonder if that needed to be given a bit more support, and allowed to lead the song.
I’m finding this a strange experience; thoroughly enjoying revisiting this and the warm bath of nostalgia I’m wallowing in, but I can’t help hearing all its flaws, which makes me a little sad.
Thankfully, Rory Dodd is back for Surf’s Up; if you’re going to evoke the Beach Boys, your singer’s really going to have to hit all the notes. It’s another slower, piano-led ballad, and while it’s a little too earnest and a little too clunky (“Surf’s up, and so am I”? Really?), it has an irresistible drive to it which brings you along and helps you hit the high notes. I think it even earns the twiddly, Italianate mandolin at the end.
Dance in my Pants is a blatant attempt to recreate or trade off the success of Paradise by the Dashboard Light from Bat. Karla Devito tears up the female part, and it’s all going along swimmingly until – look, even I’m bored of saying it now, but Steinman can’t carry this; it’s not even close, and verges on the cruel exposing his voice to this kind of scrutiny. In addition, the stakes of Paradise are missing; in the end, who cares which of them wins the argument, we know how it’s all going to turn out.
Oh, and I’m not sure which is worse – the cheesy synthesised metaphor for whatever it is the pair of them are up to, or Devito’s forced laugh. The whole thing resolves by about the halfway point, and then just rumbles on, hammering on the somewhat feeble point until even the singers sound bored of it. I think we’re supposed to want it to go on forever, but I’m done with it about four minutes in. Sadly, that’s about halfway.
Left in the Dark,however, may be the best song on here, and even the spoken word introduction works. I’ve heard several other versions of this over the years – Barbra Streisand did a version – but none of them match this. For all my scoffing, Steinman’s weedy, off-pitch voice is perfect for this. It’s quite possible that this is one of those rare songs which suffers for being sung by a professional singer; there’s a vulnerability to this performance which is hard to match if you’re going to hit all the notes perfectly.
Even if this had been the great lost Meat Loaf album (the working title was Renegade Angel), I think I can make the case for letting the author have this vocal. It does threaten to get a bit carried away towards the end; the NY Phil come storming back in and everything is turned up to eleven, but it’s precisely because the voice is so fragile and vulnerable that it works – I’ll even forgive the multiple endings and the way it drags on for another whole minute after it’s actually finished – the spoken outro is a little much, in truth.
The best known song from this collection is, of course, on the B side of the extra single – Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through is perhaps the clearest and most complete example of what all of this was meant to sound like – Rory Dodd isn’t Meat Loaf, but you can hear what it might have sounded like.
And, of course, you can hear Meat Loaf doing it on Bat out of Hell II; the moment had passed (and I’m not crazy about the nineties production), I think, but that version demonstrated, at least, that this was always a song – all these songs were – intended for that particular voice.
I’m not sure I’ve conveyed how much this album meant at a very specific point in my life; how I was able to overlook all its flaws and just wallow in its over-the-top excess and wild teenage angst. Maybe, more than anything else on this list, you had to be there.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Nope. This is it for Jim. There are several Meat Loaf albums, however, which are the product of his fevered imagination, and it’s worth digging into his production and songwriting credits to see, if nothing else, just how often he was able to mine one particular seam.
Compilations to consider?
Not really, but there’s a strange Meat Loaf and Bonnie Tyler compilation called Heaven and Hell which is intended as a kind of ‘Steinman’s Greatest Hits’, although there are a couple of non-Steinman songs on there.
The various Meat Loaf live albums feature some of these songs; Live Around the World might be your best bet.
Anything else? A couple of things to think about – Meat Loaf’s autobiography and the related film In and out of Hell, tell Steinman’s story from someone else’s perspective, and therefore don’t really have any reference to Bad for Good, but are nevertheless worth your time if you want to have some insight into just how music like this got made and got to be so successful.