September 11, 2016

The Greatest Worst Album (Or Worst Greatest Album) Of All Time


Whenever I think of Jim Steinman, the line that always comes to mind is, “He dreamed he was Paul Williams, but woke up Jimmy Webb.” I just keep that one to myself, though, figuring too few people would get it.

            In 1973, songwriter/composer/producer Jim Steinman, then in his mid-twenties, wrote the songs for a musical theater piece called More Than You Deserve, which was slated to be part of that year’s New York Shakespeare Festival. As the production was coming together, he became friends with actor and gospel singer Marvin Lee Aday, a big, burly and charismatic Texan who went by the name Meat Loaf. Steinman was so impressed by Meat Loaf’s audition he wrote a new part just for him. Three years later they would reunite in a workshop to develop a new rock opera inspired by Peter Pan, a story which Steinman admits has obsessed him his whole life. Three of Steinman’s songs for that as-yet-unrealized project would go on to become the foundation for Meat Loaf’s seminal Bat Out of Hell album, written and produced by Steinman and released in 1977. The album only contained seven songs, but each, clocking in at seven or eight minutes, worked as a kind of condensed rock opera. They were grandiose, overdramatic, mythical, Technicolor, pompous, and reeked of teenagedom. Arriving as it did at a point when the pop music world was dominated by disco, punk, and earnest, confessional singer/songwriters, Bat Out of Hell was a complete anomaly, a populist sci-fi Der Ring Des Nibelungen with electric guitars. The album became a touchstone for sensitive middlebrow suburban stoners and metalheads, and to date has sold over forty-three million copies.

            A few short years later, Steinman had effectively acquired the crown once worn by Paul Williams, as perhaps the most popular and influential songwriter of the era. Depending on your taste and perspective, Steinman can be either hailed or vilified as the man who almost singlehandedly defined the often bombastic post-glam power chord theatricality of so much Top 40 music of the 1980s.

            In 1983 two of his songs, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (performed by Bonnie Tyler) and “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” (by Air Supply) spent several weeks battling for the top two spots on the Billboard charts. (My theory has always been since the two sounded exactly alike, no one could tell them apart.) In the ensuing years, as songwriter and producer, Steinman would work with everyone from Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow to Billy Squire, Sisters of Mercy, Boyzone and even (if briefly) the hardcore outfit Iron Prostate. His songs, reminiscent at times of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” tended toward the epic, even Wagnerian in scope, sprawling, bombastic, heavily orchestrated numbers marked by abrupt shifts in tempo and melody, recurring leitmotifs, and high school wordplay. His influence can be seen clearly in the more histrionic bands of the day like Styx, Journey, Survivor and Rush, and even more contemporary acts like Ghost.

            Emerging as he did from a musical theater background (which has always been reflected in his music), he also worked with Joseph Papp, collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber on Whistle Down the Wind, and wrote a rock opera based on Batman, which was set to be directed by Tim Burton until Warner Brothers pulled the plug. His fully staged rock opera based on Bat Out of Hell opens in Manchester, England in February.

             He did some soundtrack work, wrote a theme song for Hulk Hogan, won a Grammy for producing Celine Dion’s 1996 album Falling Into You, was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in 2015 was the subject of a two-night celebration of his work in New York. But he will forever be remembered for his long-time collaboration with Meat Loaf, a partnership that resulted not only in Bat Out of Hell, but also Dead Ringer, Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell, and their latest, Braver Than We Are, which will be released September fifteenth.

            Steinman, it should be said, seems by all accounts to be a very smart, self-effacing and literate guy who knows, and can clearly explain, exactly what the hell he’s doing, and why he’s doing it. It’s a rare collection of traits, I must say, for anyone who’s survived in the music business as long as he has.

            For everything else he’s done, all the notable artists he’s worked with, Steinman only released a single solo album, 1981’s Bad for Good, which marks its 35th anniversary this year. Today the album exists as a kind of fascinating historical document. By stripping away names like “Meat Loaf,” “Air Supply” and “Bonnie Tyler,” Bad for Good becomes a pure expression of the themes, melodies and general sound that lay at the core of what we think of when we think of Eighties pop. It’s excessive, overblown, and insane bordering on the ridiculous. It’s clichéd and predictable and pretentious in a teenage poet sort of way. Diehard Steinman fans, or even those with a working knowledge of the popular music of the mid to late Eighties can even make a drinking game out of it, listening carefully for all the riffs and intros and melodies and lyrics Steinman would cannibalize for other songs. It’s also outrageously catchy. As generic and kitschy as it is, a good two-thirds of the songs on this album have been stuck in my head for seven or eight years now, non-stop.

            The story of how the project came into being is a fairly complicated one. When he graduated college, Steinman had dreams of becoming either a filmmaker or a singer/songwriter. He even had the legendary Robert Stigwood as a manager. Then, noting the huge success of Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, Rocky Horror and others, he fell into writing rock operas, though rock operas that tended to be a bit darker than their peers. But as he mentioned in a 2003 interview, a series of health issues made it physically painful for him to sing. With Meat Loaf, it seemed he’d found the perfect vessel to bring his grandiose and mythical rock dreams to life.

            Following the massive success of Bat Out of Hell, the two began working on a follow-up album. But then Meat Loaf developed vocal problems of his own, and had to drop out. Not wanting to let all that work go to waste, Steinman decided to forge ahead and record the album himself.

            (As an odd little aside, another Meat Loaf album written and produced by Steinman, Dead Ringer, was released the same year as Bad for Good. Several interview requests went unanswered, so I’m not certain what the story was with that.)

            The album opens with the rousing and monumental title track. As a singer, no, Steinman is no Meat Loaf, but his voice is clean and solid (though it tends to gutter out when he aims for a metal howl). If you focus on the monumentality of the speeding guitars, pounding piano and soaring backup chorus and don’t pay too much attention to the silly and painful lyrics themselves, all the better (“I wanna wrap myself around you like a winter skin”?).

            But then the song, like Bat Out of Hell’s title track, simply . . . doesn’t . . . end. It just goes on and on, morphing into six or seven different songs, occasionally returning to the first one or the fourth one, some of them ballads, some metal, some Broadway show stoppers. It’s operatic and cinematic in the most literal of senses. And it never ends. First time I put this on unprepared, I thought it was absolutely hilarious. Nowadays I’ve found I can clean the kitchen and move on to the bathroom before the title track comes to its predictably apocalyptic climax. It’s enthralling and impressive in a way, and equally absurd and silly, jam-packed with adolescent profundities exalted to mythic proportions. More than any other song on the album (or anywhere in the universe), it’s a summation, a sonic political platform, a kind of Eighties rock’n’roll scripture. As one critic has written about Steinman’s compositions in general, he knows how to hit his audience’s buttons, and does so with a sledgehammer. Even if, like me, you deliberately avoided and dismissed the pop music of the day when you were a kid, Steinman has an uncanny ability to tap directly into the subconscious pimply-faced teenager with a bad haircut in all of us—the one who drew band logos with a ballpoint pen all over his notebooks. You may not want to admit he’s hiding somewhere in your head, but Steinman lures him out, all vacant-eyed and fist-pumping.

            Steinman’s deliberate and inescapable celebration of teenagery rolls on with “Lost boys and Golden Girls,” which seems to be another ballad lifted from his Peter Pan project, a canonization of everything adolescence is supposed to be (at least from a Romantic adult perspective), but so rarely is in reality.

            The unfortunate spoken word experiment “Love and Death and an American Guitar” is, yes, another teen fantasy written by some jean-jacketed kid in study hall. Sick thing is, no matter how many times I tell myself to just skip it when I put the album on, I haven’t done it yet. It always makes me cringe, but I always stop and listen for reasons I can’t fathom.

            Let’s see here, skipping ahead a bit, and not wanting to overuse the term “unfortunate,” the unfortunate “Dance in My Pants” (yes, “Dance in My Pants”), despite the clear and obvious echoes of “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” remains the one track on the album that doesn’t for a second sound like it was written specifically for Meat Loaf. What it sounds like, actually, is a chintzy production number thrown together at the last minute by a bunch of wage slave studio musicians for a Seventies variety show, specifically Donny and Marie. It’s a bouncy, empty, vapid and soulless duet in which a horny Steinman plays counterpoint to a female singer who, yes, just wants to dance. Then things take an inadvertently sinister turn. At least that’s the way I always read it.

            Speaking of creepy, there’s a wildly disturbing number here (later covered by Barbra Streisand!) about an angry paranoid confronting his girlfriend about her presumed infidelities. Still catchy, though. There’s also a ridiculously bombastic Broadway-style instrumental overture that sounds like it could be from a rock opera version of Ben-Hur and likely got him that Andrew Lloyd Webber gig. I dare anyone to listen to “Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire” without reflexively making a backup singer gesture (you’ll know which one) whenever the backup singers kick in. And the closer, “Rock and Roll Dreams Come True,” is a clear nod to Phil Spector by way of Rocky Horror.

            Oh, it’s all so dumb and campy and calculated and cynical, a hodge-podge of tired rock opera clichés. There’s nothing here that could seriously be held up as an example of fine and original rock’n’roll songwriting or performance. It’s a big bag of musical Cheetos, a bucket of audio Rocky Road, which may help explain why I simply can’t stop listening to the fucking thing.

            Twelve years after Steinman released Bad for Good, he and Meat Loaf teamed up again to finally get down to recording that Bat Out of Hell follow up, Bat Out of Hell II, which, not surprisingly, contains a number of these songs, including Steinman’s original recording of that spoken word fiasco. Weird thing is, gotta love that Meat Loaf, but I’ll still take Steinman’s versions in the end. As a music critic much more literate than myself puts it, “At a certain point, bad taste and bombast becomes so excessive and so grandiose that they're no longer an easily dismissed irritation but an astonishing monument to the warped imagination.”


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