Who wants Meat Loaf in a time of BSE?

THE FILM montage which preceded Meat Loaf's entrance at Manchester Arena on Wednesday told you to expect debauchery and perversion in the extreme. What it didn't warn you about was the really shocking stuff - the shrill guitar solos, and the enormous blow-up doll with breasts like two small planets; the inflatable vampire bat, and the tiny mock-up Chevrolet which unhappily recalled the Stonehenge episode from This is Spinal Tap. If Lionel Blair and someone who used to be in Home and Away had wandered on stage, it could have been a smashing pantomime. But as a rock gig it left something to be desired. Namely desire.

The show kicked off with "Where the Rubber Meets the Road", a rollicking lament for a pre-Aids era, and the best track from one of Meat Loaf's worst albums, Welcome to the Neighbourhood (Virgin). With its stuttering rhythm section and the gospel-tinged vocals of rock'n'rollerskating Patti Russo, it was a rousing opener. But the sense of caution in the lyrics ("Yes means no means yes means no," complains Meat, all of a tizzy) infected the rest of the set, and you sensed an uncharacteristic restraint about this master of American excess.

It wasn't all Meat's fault. His songs last longer than most people's careers; as such, they demand to be interpreted by musicians who have passion to match their proficiency, who are inventive rather than inert. It wasn't so. The band ended up being thrashed in the charisma stakes by the inflatable vampire bat.

And if Meat's voice was rough enough to turn "Life is a Lemon" sour, then his memory was sometimes even rougher: when he sang the wrong lyrics to "Paradise by the Dashboard Light", he started cursing and flapping and generally acting like he was a few slices short of a loaf. Sadly, he remembered the words, and "Paradise... " struggled on for a hellish 27 minutes, distended by a mid-song skit in which Meat and Patti played a squabbling married couple. It was so dire that Carlton are rumoured to be developing it into a 26-part sitcom as I write.

There remained some dumb little pleasures which suggested that rock'n'roll could yet be the new comedy: the daft guitar duel between Meat and fellow axe-man Pat Thrall, for example; and some monkey business involving a pair of prosthetic legs wrapped around Meat's neck (which was his stab at Madonna-esque simulated raunchiness, not a plea for sexual equality for amputees). But he only made the earth move when he mentioned Manchester United. So how was it for me? Well, let's just put it down to experience and try again another night.

Terrorvision attracted a far smaller crowd than Meat Loaf when they played at Bristol University. But then it's what you do with your audience that counts. And these effervescent pop-metal rockers, whose jaunty new album Regular Urban Survivors (EMI) sounds like the Beach Boys duffing up Faith No More, whipped theirs into a sweat-drenched, pogoing frenzy. All without once mentioning football.

However, the mousy singer Tony Wright did mention Kafka in "Superchronic", which is a transparent way of getting critics to quote your lyrics. But the allusion has a sweet resonance, because Wright recently awoke to find himself transformed into a giant rock star. Being called an ordinary bloke might be an insult, but that's exactly what he is (only a penchant for ridiculous trousers betrays showbiz genes). He has the coarseness of a brickie about him ("This is about giving your dog something to chew on," he said before "Dog Chewed the Handle", proving that he's more literal than literary). He'd look equally at home with a trowel instead of a microphone: the first rock singer who would rather lay your patio than your daughter.

The songs are similarly innocuous, but it's the triumph of pop over pomp on "Middleman" and the recent hit "Perseverance" which makes them so easy to warm to (and so hard to wrench out of your head). With Wright playing air guitar, air drums and air glockenspiel, Terrorvision are sometimes merely Queen minus the poodle-perms, which makes them difficult to defend. But numbskull rock'n'roll can be an energising, uplifting force: it makes you lob TV sets out of windows, or at least not pay your licence fee on time.

Last in descending order of slickness is the American singer-songwriter Beck, whose ramshackle shows make Richard and Judy look professional. You go to a Beck gig for the cock-ups and the fact that you can call out any word in the English language and the chances are he'll have written a song with it in the title (though don't call out for his big hit "Loser" - he performed songs he didn't know the words to but still refused to play that). His music reaches us by way of Seattle, Nashville and Cloudcuckooland; he's a mish-mash of Dylan, Prince and Jonathan Richman, and was recording loopy 4-track albums before Baby Bird's first tweet.

Last Sunday in London it was business as usual: a fan rose to Beck's request for a human beat-box, hardly suspecting that the 10-minute rap would require him to possess lungs the size of Goodyear blimps; there was yodelling, and a stomping harmonica solo, and another which was aborted because he couldn't get the right key. You'll find more of the same on the dazzling new album O-de-Lay (Geffen), out in June. It's music for people who are proud to wear their shirt untucked.

Nicholas Barber is on holiday.