ROCK / Mad, bald and highly dangerous to know to know

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The Independent Culture
LAST SUNDAY at the Albert Hall, Elton John was playing yet another bombastic ballad. The big, fat voice and big, fat piano arrangements are admirable but, as he wanders through the back catalogue, your mind begins to wander elsewhere. You ponder how much he looks like David Mellor MP in a pink plastic suit; you guess at the source of those female vocals and those strings, swelling like a hammered thumb, when there is no one on stage but John and his joanna; you consider how generous it was of him to give a billing on the poster to his percussionist, Ray Cooper, especially as he hasn't turned up.

But the music becomes increasingly baroque. It's sinister and cinematic. John builds up to that moment in the film when the scientist's creation comes to life and - with a boom of kettle drum - a ray of light strikes Ray Cooper. He teleports around an assault course of tubular bells, bongos and glockenspiels, a mad, bald and dangerous-to-know creature in a three-piece suit and dark glasses. David Mellor and Richard O'Brien: this is more like it.

Cooper's reputation is built not only on his ability to shake an orchestra of sounds from a tambourine but also on how he acts as he does it. He moves like a robot and poses as a sorcerer casting spells and, when not playing, he fixes the audience with a grin that is either beatific, malevolent or just plain potty. Then, before the end of each song, he melts into the darkness, and Elton is left thumping away by himself.

Cooper's percussion can be heard on Let it Be and Goat's Head Soup, and during the Seventies and Eighties he played along with Eric Clapton and tonight's sparring partner: always upstage of them, always upstaging them. It's about time he had his half-share of the limelight. He used to be a minor Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre thespian, and would make a great Richard III. As for you, young Elton, you shouldn't be wasting your time on syrupy Tim Rice-pudding like the The Lion King: you should have composed the score for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

But the master of gothic theatre is Meat Loaf. At the start of his Wembley Arena show on Friday the stage had a gauze painted as castle gates before it, at the end it had a giant inflatable bat behind it. In between were fireworks, flame jets, Loaf perched on a promontory like a gargoyle, and a psychotic roadie ranting through one of Jim Steinman's more deranged ``poems''. Every element is larger than life. Except the lead vocals.

On the ``93-94-95 Everything Louder Than Everything Else tour'', the ``Everything Else'' in question appears to be Loaf's voice. When Bat Out of Hell came out in 1978 he toured so extensively that he couldn't sing for months. Now that he has remade history with Bat Out of Hell II (Virgin), he seems determined to take the reprise to its logical conclusion by wrecking his larynx again. For all his sweating and straining and suffering, he can't find the high notes, and has to leave his band, particularly Patricia Rousseau, the latest in a long line of sexy Loaf maidens, to fill in the gaps. It is only in the ballad ``Heaven Can Wait'' that his quavering tenor approaches full strength.

It's depressing to watch a man discover that sheer effort is not enough to kickstart your voice, but the show revs up for the last four songs: two minutes worth in a Ramones concert, 90 minutes tonight. In all, there are nine songs in a two-and-a-half-hour show, an average of 16 1/2 minutes per song. However, this is not because the high-octane rock band are jamming to their egos' content. It's because of Loaf's beloved dramatic set pieces. He reproaches the women in the audience for failing to take him to the top of a UK magazine's recent World's Sexiest Man poll. In America this summer, he claims, he reached 10th place in a Playgirl equivalent. He expands the high-school-car-date-marriage-life-of-misery epic ``Paradise by the Dashboard Light'' to a playlet with a surreal flamenco dancing interlude. It's been 17 years since he first sang that he was ``barely 17 and barely dressed'', and he was far from teenaged even then. He revels in the irony. Patricia: ``Will you love me for ever?'' Meat: ``I'm too young to make a decision that important!''

His acting ability is wasted on Wayne's World cameos. He can invest such lyrics as ``Objects in the rear-view mirror may appear closer than they are,'' with such emotion that you forget their absurdity. He may not be able to sing the phone book, but he can make a good job of the Highway Code. He has bawled ``Bat Out of Hell'' more times than he has had large dinners, and yet he still does it with such coronary-tempting enthusiasm that you would think it were new. Which is why, even with his vocal chords out of order, Meat Loaf is one of the best rock perfomers there is.

Pato Banton, aka Patrick Murray, aka that Brummie with the black-and-white cap who got to No 1 by rapping - or ``toasting'' - over the top of an Eddy Grant song sung by UB40, was in festive mood on Thursday at London's Jazz Cafe. First he was Panto Banton: organising a singing contest between sections of the audience, giving a free hat to the crowd's best rapper, asking us to shake hands with each other and make new friends. His continual talk of ``positive vibrations'' would be hard to take were he not absolutely quaking with them himself. He must be the cheeriest man in the world of popular . . . no, make that the cheeriest man in the world. It's a feel-very-good show. (Never a lyrical genius, his song about niceness is called ``Niceness''. Equally abstruse are ``Never Give In'', ``Stay Positive'' and ``Don't Sniff Coke''.) His laid-back but polished band, the Reggae Revolution, join in the fun.

After the panto comes the Christmas service. Rather than just performing religious reggae, Banton does more preaching than toasting. The atmosphere cools. Finishing a concert by thanking ``the angels who surround us day and night'' is one thing, but stopping mid-song to recite the Lord's Prayer is a bit much. There's a time and a place. Advent may be the time, but the Jazz Cafe is not the place.

Elton John: Royal Albert Hall, SW7, 071-589 8212, tonight, Mon, Wed, Thurs, Sat, Sun 11, Mon 12. Meat Loaf: Wembley Arena, 081-900 1234, Mon; Glasgow SECC, 041-248 3000, 13 Dec; Aberdeen Exhibition Centre, 0224 824 824, 14 Dec; Birmingham NEC, 021-780 4133, 16 & 17 Dec; Manchester G Mex, 061-832 9000, 19 & 20 Dec.