Rock and Pop: When dinosaurs walked the stage

Say what you like about knowingly ludicrous, 50-year-old heavy- rock gargantuans, but they didn't get where they are today without knowing how to put on a show. Meat Loaf's latest tour could have done with a bigger special effects budget - the inflatable bat that wobbled to life for the finale was as menacing as a bouncy castle - but there were thunderclaps and dry ice aplenty, and "Paradise By the Dashboard Light" was staged as a bedroom farce, with Loaf in a tuxedo and Patti Russo, his duettist, in a wedding dress. Meat Loaf is nothing if not a ham.

He had already starred in productions of Hair and The Rocky Horror Show, back in the early 1970s, before Jim Steinman wrote Bat Out Of Hell for him. Steinman, more recently Andrew Lloyd Webber's lyricist, had a theatrical background, too, and Bat is really just a musical on vinyl. It's a very clever homage to the archetypes of high-school rock'n'roll, somehow linking motorbikes, cars, girls, the beach and Phil Spector-style bubblegum pop with two of Steinman's other obsessions: Peter Pan and Wagnerian opera. Meat Loaf was cast as a larger-than-life, adolescent misfit, halfway between Pavarotti and Jerry Lee Lewis. It's a role he's still playing.

His current tour promotes a new Very Best Of album, but the fact is that "The Very Best Of Meat Loaf" was released over 20 years ago and called Bat Out Of Hell. Loaf has tried for much of his career to recreate that original masterpiece - most blatantly on 1993's Bat Out Of Hell II - but it's been as futile as writing Hair II or The Rocky Horror Show II. Like Loaf's other dramatic roles, Bat Out Of Hell was a one-off. And on Tuesday, it was all too plain that most of the post-Bat songs lack the original's wit and - believe it or not - snappiness: they are inferior sequels to a blockbuster movie.

Nowadays, one of the buxom rock-chick backing vocalists is Loaf's daughter, and he has cut his hair short (to quote the title of his new single: is nothing sacred?). But he's still stuck in the part which Dr Franken-Steinman created for him long ago. Imagine if David Bowie, say, were still being Ziggy Stardust: the Bat is an albatross.

Towards the end of the concert, the band lined up on stools for an "Unplugged" segment, and had a bash at the Rolling Stones's "Honky Tonk Woman", Prince's "1999", and Loaf's own "Midnight at the Lost and Found", a Southern truckstop groove which is notable for not being Steinman-like. Loaf seemed so relieved to ease off with material that wasn't straining to be epic that it seemed a shame he hadn't done so a decade or two earlier. He could have tried country or soul or blues - or better yet, concentrated on the theatre and his sporadic film career. This may seem an odd thing to say after a two-and-a-bit hour show of 10-minute songs sung by a man who has shifted 50 million albums ... but Meat Loaf has been selling himself short.

We don't need to have any such concerns about Kiss's unfulfilled potential. Their music has never been better than primitive, and if they hadn't hit on the idea of dressing up as intergalactic superheroes, it's likely that their tinny trash rock would have long been forgotten. So you can't blame Kiss's stalwarts, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, for ditching the band's newer members a few years ago, reinstating the founding 1970s line- up, putting their costumes and make-up back on and pretending that the previous decade never happened. Not even black-and-white Hallowe'en greasepaint can fully disguise Kiss's age, though. Stanley is in enviable shape for a man half his age, and shows off that shape by performing topless. But the knock-kneed Ace Frehley sags under the weight of his Flash Gordon epaulettes, and Simmons's spiked rhinoceros armour seems designed to hide his torso's state of repair.

Are Kiss just a cabaret act now? Are they in it for the money? Well, yes on both counts - but what's new? It's a wide-open secret that Kiss's primary raison d'etre was always the acquisition of money, with the acquisition of groupies finishing a close second. The question is whether they earn their money and whether their cabaret act is any good. And on Thursday's evidence, Kiss are not just unsurpassed in the field of pyrotechnic rock panto, they're also unsurpassable. They spew blood, they breathe fire, their guitars fire rockets and belch smoke. Before "King of the Night Time World", Frehley's guitar flies to the ceiling. During "God of Thunder", Simmons takes flight, too; and then before "I Was Made For Loving You", the whole drum-kit levitates. What is there left for the hedonistic glam-metal behemoths of the future to accomplish?

As for the money, Kiss could have left out one of the flying stunts, two of the three video screens, a couple of flame-throwers, a dozen fireworks, half of the confetti bombs, and the whole of their latest gimmick - 3D glasses, no less - and they'd still have made Marilyn Manson seem like a shoegazing indie band rehearsing in a shed. But Kiss didn't stint, and special effect followed special effect, right up to the end. Over the top? Oh yes. Over the hill? Never!

Meat Loaf: Wembley Arena, 0181 900 1234, tonight, Tue & Thurs; Cardiff International Arena, 01222 224488, Fri; and touring.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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