Farewell to Meat Loaf, the rock powerhouse who spoke to an audience of millions

The ‘Bat Out of Hell’ artist has died aged 74, leaving behind a legacy of performances driven by the pomp and drama of a Wagnerian opera, the voice of a soft metal Pavarotti, and 265lb of quivering, wild-eyed lust. Mark Beaumont pays tribute

Friday 21 January 2022 13:24

Even among the titans of rock’n’roll showmen, Meat Loaf was larger than life. His entrances were spectacular: he first burst onto the big screen in 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show by riding a motorbike out of a block of ice. For one playback of Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster is Loose in 2006, a cloud of dry ice dissipated to reveal him sitting on a grand gothic throne. His exits were just as dramatic: in 2003 he collapsed on stage at Wembley Arena after suffering from heart problems. In Newcastle in 2007, battling a cyst in his throat, he declared the show to be the last of his career and left the stage a few lines into “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”, with a tearful “goodbye forever”.

In between, his performances were stupendous three-hour hurricanes of noise and energy, driven by the pomp and drama of a Wagnerian opera, the voice of a soft metal Pavarotti, and 265lb of quivering, wild-eyed young lust. Whenever the spotlight hit, Meat Loaf – who died today aged 74 – was a force of nature, a walking wind tunnel of a man, rock’s Brian Blessed in a Byron shirt, turned up to 11. “Even though I have the name Meat Loaf and I appear to be a clown, over the top, it’s persona,” he told me in 2010. But when coupled with the bombastic Broadway rock of Jim Steinman – a match made in …Hell – it was a persona that struck a 43 million-selling chord with a generation hooked on the largesse of prog, the theatricality of metal and the street race velocity of Springsteen’s souped-up rock’n’roll.

Meat Loaf was also one of rock’s greatest survivors. Born Marvin Lee Aday in 1947, he almost didn’t make it through his teens, after his alcoholic father – a Second World War vet and former policeman – tried to stab him with a butcher’s knife in a drunken rage. Another time, a schoolmate almost killed him with a badly aimed shot put. Moving to Los Angeles in the wake of his mother’s death in the mid-Sixties and adopting his high-school coach’s nickname for him, his early forays into music with bands Meat Loaf Soul and Floating Circus and in partnership with Shaun “Stoney” Murphy (the last on the Motown label) weren’t taken seriously by the industry; his monumental stage presence found him more success in acting.

In 1968, he joined the LA production of Hair, which later moved to Broadway. It was at a 1972 audition for the musical More Than You Deserve that Meat Loaf first met Steinman. As he made his name as crazed ex-delivery boy Eddie on the stage production of The Rocky Horror Show in 1973 (reprising the role in the 1975 film adaptation), he and Steinman worked on what would become 1977’s iconic Bat Out of Hell.

Amazingly, the project was rejected by record labels for several years before Todd Rundgren came on board as guitarist and producer, and the tiny label Cleveland International Records took a punt. Those majors looking for a cosy genre record, which Bat Out of Hell decidedly wasn’t, missed its zeitgeist appeal: that the fantasy gothic aesthetic and overblown dramatics of the burgeoning heavy metal scene were perfectly suited to grandiloquent songs about the emotional enormity of teenage passion and rebellion. Make-out epic “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” and the title track’s operatic motorcycle tragedy, based like much of the album on the Peter Pan story, spoke to an audience of millions trying to find a relatable path through the aggression, anger and pretension of much punk, new wave and prog music in the late Seventies. The record would become one of the best-selling albums of all time – currently joint fourth with Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits.

With great success so often comes great animosity, of course, and the relationship between Meat Loaf and his songwriting foil swiftly soured. With Meat Loaf exhausted from touring and developing drug and alcohol problems, the mooted follow-up Bad For Good became a Steinman solo album and the pairing only produced 1981’s Dead Ringer, featuring the UK Top 5 Cher duet “Dead Ringer for Love”, before falling into acrimonious legal disputes over rights and royalties which would keep them from collaborating fully for over a decade. “I never made anything off of Bat Out of Hell,” Meat Loaf told me, claiming he’d only been able to buy a modest house from his share of the proceeds. “I’ve gotten cheques for maybe $600,000 for Bat Out of Hell, everybody else has made millions. Millions.”

Though his subsequent 1980s albums had moments of brilliance – the title track of 1983’s Midnight at the Lost and Found and 1984’s “Modern Girl” stand out – Meat Loaf’s chart career largely stalled and he fell into bankruptcy and breakdown, making two suicide attempts. “The bankruptcy wasn’t about me spending money,” he said, “it was about our suit for $100m from a guy who eventually went to prison for six years in Sing Sing, and the judge who ruled against me wound up in prison for taking bribes.”

Inevitably, it was a reunion with Steinman and a sequel to their breakthrough hit which saved him. 1993’s Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell gave Meat Loaf his biggest chart hit with “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” and revived a career that would see out almost 30 more years, including such highlights as the UK No 2 hit “I’d Lie For You (And That’s the Truth)” from 1995’s Welcome to the Neighbourhood and the effervescent “Los Angeloser” from 2009’s Hang Cool Teddy Bear. His renewed profile also led to major film cameos in movies such as Spiceworld: The Movie, Fight Club and The 51st State, and then a sideline as a louder-than-life TV personality delivering what he’d call his trademark “Meat-isms” on the likes of Ghost Hunters, The Celebrity Apprentice and Popstar to Operastar.

Meat Loaf performs ‘I’d Do Anything For Love’ live

In 2006, amid fresh legal wrangles with Steinman over the trademark, the Bat Out of Hell trilogy was completed with Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose, featuring covers of seven Steinman songs. Meat Loaf claimed Steinman’s lack of involvement was due to ill health, but it was his own medical issues that were coming to the fore. His 2003 collapse onstage at Wembley from undiagnosed Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome resulted in heart surgery and the limiting of his legendarily energetic live performances to under two hours. His walk-off in Newcastle in 2007, though heralding only an eight-month break from the stage, was an early sign of the vocal issues that would plague his later years. But this was a rock powerhouse with no intention of shutting down: he’d planned to record a new album this very month. Rock music just got a whole lot quieter.

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