For a very long time, rock ‘n’ roll was intended for young people. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones — they were kids celebrating this revolutionary, electric new music that shook off the conservative constraints of their parents, reveling in sexual liberation and a newfound freedom the old-timers never knew. Rock and pop have evolved since then — great artists of any age are now making great music for an audience that spans the Boomers to Gen-Z — but there’s still something beautiful about a song that captures the passion and exuberance of Being Young. You get older, but those songs never do — they cement a feeling that doesn’t diminish.
In the history of popular music, there are countless songs about those fleeting, powerful feelings, but few artists made their entire career out of expressing those sentiments as shamelessly and sincerely as Meat Loaf, who died Thursday at the age of 74. And he sang specifically for every red-blooded young man both terrified and excited at the prospect of finally getting laid. He was the voice of horny teen dudes everywhere, and Bat Out of Hell was his gift to the world. It’s teen angst encapsulated — raging hormones, bad poetry, melodramatic flair, SO MUCH BOMBAST. The album is pretty stupid because teenage boys are pretty stupid, but it’s also kind of beautiful because teenage boys — at least the good ones — possess an awkward beauty buried underneath all that pimply awkwardness.
Born Marvin Lee Aday, he grew up in Texas playing football and appearing in school theater productions. When he moved to L.A., he was in a band that opened for everyone from the Who to the Grateful Dead, but he found success as a performer in Hair, eventually hooking up with Jim Steinman, a composer who’d written a musical, More Than You Deserve, which featured Meat Loaf. “Everybody was saying to Jim, ‘You have to work with Meat.’ And everyone was saying to me, ‘You have to work with Jim,’” Meat Loaf recalled upon the passing last year of his longtime collaborator. Initially, Steinman was interested in collaborating with another singer, Kim Milford. “He was good-looking and skinny with long, blond hair,” Meat Loaf said of Milford. “He looked like a rock star. I didn’t look like a rock star. Jim initially wanted to work with him, but he was eventually talked into working with me.”
The project they conceived together, written by Steinman and performed by Meat Loaf, was a concept album of sorts, the kind dreamed up by theater kids. “I was always so fascinated with the idea of gangs,” Steinman once explained. “Peter Pan is nothing but a battle of gangs: Indians, mermaids, pirates, Lost Boys… They’re all fighting over turf, which is Neverland. And these boys don’t grow up, which is the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll mythology. Bat Out of Hell is a mosaic, but if you put it all together it’s part of the world of Lost Boys and Peter Pan and Neverland and a place where kids don’t grow up.”
Opening with an overblown symphony of guitars, piano and drums, Bat Out of Hell, which came out in October of 1977, felt more like a rock musical than an album. Merging the pyrotechnics of metal with the balladry of Broadway, the record’s seven songs in 46-and-a-half minutes aspired to the epic grandeur of a Phil Spector production and the West Side Story-esque teen drama of Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 breakthrough Born to Run. (In fact, a few members of Springsteen’s E Street Band show up on the album.) Bat Out of Hell’s operatic quality would be ludicrous if it wasn’t for Meat Loaf’s equally full-throttled vocals, which felt like he was belting them from the stage of a legitimate theater, making sure he reached the cheap seats. Meat Loaf took Steinman’s adolescent romances seriously. “I sang every song we ever did in character,” he once said. “I left me. I was not method. I didn’t have to find something in my past life to be able to sing his songs. I became the song.”
The characters on Bat Out of Hell are young dudes, their hearts inflamed because of a transfixing woman. And the scenarios are straight out of corny Hollywood love stories or half-true locker-room talk. In the opening title track, the narrator only gets one night with his true love — then, he has to hop on his motorcycle and ride off down the highway, forever thinking about her. “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night)” is about an epic first kiss. The syrupy strings-and-piano “Heaven Can Wait” is the embarrassing love note you write too early in a new relationship. “All Revved Up With No Place to Go” concerns a football player and aspiring rock star who gets his head turned by a beauty: “I was nothing but a lonely all-American boy / Oh, looking out for something to do / And you were nothing but a lonely all-American girl / But you were something like a dream come true.” “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” focuses on a breakup, the romantic anguish cranked up to 11. (It’s also the song in which Meat Loaf tearfully declares, “There ain’t no Coupe de Ville hidin’ / At the bottom of a Cracker Jack box.”) “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” is a sex comedy, told in three acts, in which our hero’s trying to hook up in his car when his sweetie starts pestering him about whether he loves her. And, lastly, there’s “For Crying Out Loud,” where the narrator makes one last plea for his girl to stay with him.
Many of the songs are over five minutes. Some are closer to nine or 10 minutes. They go on forever, because young people have endless time to ponder their broken hearts.
Meat Loaf was always self-conscious about his larger frame — he wasn’t a dreamboat or a sex machine like so many rock singers — but that only made the pain he captured in his songs that much more potent. Bat Out of Hell felt like it was sung from the perspective of every acne-scarred dork whose adolescence was doing a number on him both physically and spiritually. Steinman’s songs were grandiose, but as much as Meat Loaf sang about rock ‘n’ roll, his badass bike and the Gates of Hell, there’s something deeply nerdy about the album’s blatant emotionality and high-school vision of adult relationships. On Bat Out of Hell, Meat Loaf was very rarely the cocksure stud — more often than not, love doesn’t work out. And all the guitar solos and theatrical flourishes in the world can’t compensate for how insecure his characters feel.
It’s very easy to roll your eyes at Bat Out of Hell’s unsubtle romantic sturm und drang. The lyrics are often pseudo-profound, the spoken-word intro to “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth” is laughably bad, famed New York Yankee broadcaster Phil Rizzuto shows up at one point and the album’s notion that love is a passion play that’s most dynamic when it’s utterly overdone is, to put it charitably, charmingly naive. But it’s also exactly how teenagers feel about these things, perpetually overreacting to every tremor of their nervous system if, say, their crush notices them or their girlfriend starts making out with another guy. Delusions of grandeur have made both teendom and rock ‘n’ roll wonderful (and wonderfully painful) for generations, and if it’s true that we outgrow the emotional theatrics, there’s nonetheless also a part of us that pines for anything in the world to mean as much to us as that stuff did back when we were adolescents.
Meat Loaf’s debut was a massive hit, and he made subsequent albums — including two Bat Out of Hell sequels — but like the rest of us, he and Steinman couldn’t recapture that first blush of teenage innocence. These guys were around 30 when Bat Out of Hell came out, and yet they crystalized a sense of being young that’s eternal. This wasn’t the cool teendom of James Dean — it was the awkward, yearning youth of misfits and late bloomers who knew they had poetry in their souls, if only that beautiful classmate would notice.
There’s not much sex on Bat Out of Hell — the closest any of the characters comes to getting laid ends in a (vaguely sexist) punchline — and there’s an occasional resentment that pops up, the male protagonists viewing their objects of affection with bitterness because they won’t love them back. That’s part of teen masculinity as well, and one hopes the listener will grow out of it even if the characters never do. But on the whole, the album has remained a fairly wholesome expression of the hormones and romantic longings that ensnare boys once they stop thinking girls are gross.
Meat Loaf didn’t play the perfect teen, but on Bat Out of Hell he may have been the most honest teen — and the one that’s the most relatable to a lot of boys struggling through their own emotional/sexual minefield. As the song says, two out of three ain’t bad.