By Jon Hotten
'Bat Out Of Hell' creator Jim Steinman is back. He's back and he's bad and he's bad for good. He's got a big budget, bigger ideas, four girls known as Pandora's Box, an LP called 'Original Sin,' lots of songs about sex and excess coming out of his ears. Jon Hotten, vampire bat perched on his shoulder, gives a gargantually gothic account of the garishly gory gospel truth on Jim's background, on Meat Loaf, Bonnie Tyler (eek!), Mutt Lange, Def Leppard, and...Ken Russell.
"Remember: only undulate on 'Baby, baby.'" Ken Russell - fiftysomething-terrible of the British film industry, director of 'Tommy,' 'The Devils' and 'Gothic' - is making a video for Jim Steinman, creator of "Bat Out Of Hell," "Total Eclipse Of The Heart' and now Pandora's Box; four tough girls in a hot-wired Shangri-Las for the '90s, a fuel injected, gothic wet-dream of a band.
On a large soundstage at Pinewood Studios, dancers from the London production of 'Cats' have been strapped into bondage gear at Russell's direction. Studded codpieces, tight leather jockstraps and dangerously spiked brassieres abound.
Softened up by months of jumping around to Andrew Lloyd Webber, Ken and Jim have come as something of a shock to them.
A complicated series of choreographed jumps are supposed to take them up to an imposing plinth, inset with powerful lights, where they're to surround Pandora's Box singer Elaine Caswell.
Elaine, who is wrapped only in a thin gauze sheet, is suffering without complaint a painfully burned backside every time the plinth lights are switched on. She is due to be surrounded by the bondage-freak cats who, for the purposes of Steinman's script, are to kiss and caress her back from a self-imposed coma.
Easy , eh?
"FOR F**K'S SAKE," roars Ken, not happy. "Just cut this prancing around. I don't want that. Remember: only undulate on 'Baby, baby.' And...PLAYBACK."
Pandora's Box debut single, 'It's All Coming Back To Me Now' powers from the monitors once again. This time the bondage freak cats curl gracefully and sexually around each other. Russell is finally happy. Jim rocks contentedly back in a director's chair.
Now, just the motorcycle blazing on graveyard railings, a horse in a ring of fire and the snake crawling across the unfortunate Elaine's stomach remain to be shot from Steinman's typically lavish video script.
But even the meaty budget Virgin (Steinman's new label) have slapped behind this first single from the 'Original Sin' album won't extend to Steinman's original plans for the denouement.
These called for a motorcycle to be ridden madly up a church belltower until it reached the top and burst through a stained glass turret window, Elaine still astride...
Steinman, you see, thinks big and works his way up from there.
Jim Steinman is a man who accepted excess into his heart the way a Christian must accept God into his soul. He is the self-defined 'Little Richard Wagner' of rock 'n' roll; wine connoisseur; architect of 'Bat Out Of Hell'; probably the ultimate definition of the genius-as-madman producer since Phil Spector; a man who as a child dreamed of how motorcycles would sound as they reproduced in nocturnal alleys and who later blew up a studio trying to re-enact it; creator of the most gloriously pounding, emotionally derailed, headily deranged, chrome-hard, wildly demented madly powerful, too real, wholly unreal, sexually monumental, totally melodramatic all-time masterpiece albums ever made...and if they're not they damn well should be.
So now they've let him loose with four girls, Deliria Wilde, Elaine Caswell, Ellen Foley and Gina Taylor, and he has not disappointed.
'Original Sin' is a remarkable thing to behold. The sexual excesses of the '60's and '70's shackled back by the spread of AIDS in the '80's, perfect subject matter for the full Steinman widescreen, Technicolor treatment.
"I wrote the title-track trying to cross the '60's girl groups with Marlene Dietrich. Y'know platinum blonde hair and a long nightgown! From that it was an easy leap to the Shangri-Las. I wanted this project as though 'Clockwork Orange' was about girls. The idea was never to have three back-up singers, but four girls, all singing," he asserts.
With the germ of an idea, he first tracked down Ellen Foley, whose association with Steinman goes back to 'Bat...' and the duet she sang with Meat Loaf on the ultimate teenage-sex-in-cars anthem, 'Paradise By The Dashboard Light.'
Steinman found Elaine Caswell singing in a New York new wave bar-band where he was "blown away" by her voice and "the looks of an avenging angel."
Gina Taylor was performing as Tina Turner ("as well as Tina ever did it") in a sleazy club show called 'Beehive.'
Deliria Wilde, a singer of "Cuban, French, Italian and German descent in that order" who was thrown out of a nunnery five years ago "for something so shocking I can't bring myself to tell you what it is..."
Thus dubiously assembled, Steinman cemented his sexual themes with the vast but delicate rock 'n' roll operettas that remain exclusively his territory.
"I think rock music hasn't been reflecting current sexual attitudes. Rockers are still coming out with the same macho, party-down bullshit," he says.
"I wanted to write an album that sums up the last 10 years. What I saw coming out of the AIDS epidemic, as with all plagues, was a plus side. This one is that it's restored sex as something dark and magical and terrible.
"I was a teenager right when sex was going from being overtly repressed in the early '60's to totally free in the '70's and it was very confusing.
"Shit, I remember shaking like a leaf the first time I was having sex. Terrified I was doing everything wrong, and a little bit horrified."
Steinman's themes are recurrent throughout 'Original Sin': sex as a magical, dark, scary but seductive power; the attraction of sin; the confusion and power of love; the dirt once it's all over.
The stately power-ballad 'Safe Sex' is a case in point.
"I hate the term 'safe sex'," Steinman asserts. "Sex has never been safe. It's about having the heart, the brain and the body totally exposed, and that's f**king dangerous."
"The girl in 'Safe Sex' is saying, 'you can't fool me. I don't believe in these absurd little fairy tales about love'."
Recorded in New York this year, 'Original Sin' is certainly Steinman's most cohesive and powerful album since 'Bat Out Of Hell'. It's a comparison Steinman himself has learned to make. As the man responsible for the biggest selling debut album of all time - 17 million copies sold in the 12 years since its release, 850,000 of those last year alone - it's a yardstick he must constantly be judged against.
"Every time I finish a record, I always play it back to back with 'Bat...,' he says.
"This is certainly the most committed and unified since 'Bat...' It's also much darker than anything else I've done and it's very intimate.
"I think it's real smoky, a pagan album. I didn't want the girls to be hyperactive like all the girls in HM bands. They look like they've got a ferret in their trousers, just trying to imitate guys. I wanted them to be real still and powerful, like Ice-Goddesses."
"There are so many girly girl singers now. I wanted this to be majestic and soaring."
'Original Sin' is majestic and soaring...and it's more. Apply all of the usual Steinman adjectives and double them. Monumental, dark and coldly seductive, nothing exceeds like Steinman's excess...
Born in California, Steinman was raised in New York. His childhood was a strange clash of Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler and rock 'n' roll.
"I never really saw classical music and rock 'n' roll as different. I still don't. I grew up liking extremes in music - big gothic textures. I never have much regard for more subtle stuff. Dire Straits may be good, but it just doesn't do it for me.
"I was attracted to William Blake, Hieronymus Bosch, I couldn't see the point in writing songs about ordinary, real-life stuff."
Steinman was the classic teenage misfit. Kicked out of numerous schools, unwilling or unable to rise before mid-day, he was a badly misunderstood kid.
"I always wanted to sweep in, speaking in German, with a bat on my shoulder. You couldn't do that where I was in New York!"
Eventually, Steinman attended Amherst College, Massachusetts as a drama major.
"It was probably one of the most exclusive colleges in America, harder to get into than Harvard," he recalls.
"I was a farce that I got in. The people at my high school were horrified. But the Dean of Admissions had this policy of trying to sculpt a class together. He put in about 50 high risk people, who could totally f**k up, but we were good for friction.
"I did f**k up many times, too. But I was good for friction!"
Steinman devoted his final year at college to one project, a rock-opera he'd written called 'The Dream Engine'.
"I was flunking all over the place. I had to convince the college governors that I could do this project. So I went to see them, and they were very impressed by my idea. But the main guy reaches behind him for this folder and says: 'Well it's all very interesting this stuff, but we do have to deal with reality. The facts show that you have 19 per cent in physics and 32 percent in calculus. How do you explain this?'
"I thought...well, I'm basically f**ked here. So I said, 'I guess I'm better at maths than I am at sciences'!
"Then they all broke up laughing, and I'm convinced that's why they gave it to me."
'The Dream Engine' was successful enough for Steinman to take the play to New York, where he spent four years trying to get it staged to his satisfaction.
"It was censured a lot by the city," explains Steinman. "They kept saying it was too dirty."
He occupied himself with other plays in the meantime, and it was while he was directing, that Meat Loaf auditioned for a walk-on part.
"He came in and sang 'You Gotta Give Your Heart To Jesus' and he clenched his hands and his eyes went up into his head. I thought he was great! Everybody else hated him. But I wrote him a part in."
The pair renewed their partnership in a stage version of 'National Lampoon,' where they replaced Dan Ackroyd and Bill Murray.
"While we were on tour with that, I started writing the songs for him that ended up as 'Bat Out Of Hell'. I never intended to do music, I didn't think I was a good enough musician. I was gonna do film and theater, but I figured, 'this is fun, let's do this'."
'Bat Out Of Hell' was a staggering debut. Laden with the passionate intensity, from the ferocity of the title-track to the aching power-balladry of 'For Crying Out Loud,' it was an album packed with teenage sex and angst, searing, tender and fiery.
"All I can say is thank God we knew nothing about making albums," says Steinman "because otherwise it couldn't have happened. I wanted to make an album that sounded like a movie."
The ultimately overwhelming success of 'Bat...' made household names of both Steinman and Meat Loaf. Steinman began work on a follow-up, 'Bad For Good,' but before recording could commence, Meat Loaf lost his voice.
"It was the weirdest thing," says Steinman. "It was like 'The Exorcist.' One day he was fine, and the next it was literally like hearing a dog barking."
Steinman felt that the songs were too good to waste, and recorded 'Bad For Good' as a solo project. He was therefore contractually obliged to write another album for Meat Loaf, 'Dead Ringer'.
The albums were poorly marketed and released within a couple of months of each other. Both contained some of Steinman's finest, most emotive material, but US radio stations were reluctant to play them.
"They've even done surveys that have proved that after listening to one of my songs, people don't take note of the adverts immediately afterwards because they're too involved in the song. The radio programmers are very blatant about stuff like that. They'd rather have Madonna.
"What all that proved to me was that I was right. There was a world out there waiting to hear operatic, gothic stuff! At the time, I was real disillusioned though."
Resurrection came from an unlikely source: 'Total Eclipse Of The Heart' with Bonnie Tyler. The song was the biggest selling single of 1983, and Steinman followed up with two albums, 'Faster Than The Speed Of Night' and 'Secret Dreams And Forbidden Fire.' Both were wonderfully overblown in parts, flabby and unbearably hammy in others.
It was a total eclipse of the charts, and Jim Steinman, the hotshot hitmaker reborn, was chosen to produce Def Leppard's follow-up to their multi-platinum 'Mutt' Lange-produced monster 'Pyromania.'
"It was a weird time," says Steinman. "Mutt Lange is totally insane. He has nervous breakdowns as part of his process of making records! He mixes, remixes and has a nervous breakdown. That's why they're always finished up by his engineers, Nigel Green or Mike Shipley.
"I went to Dublin to meet the band, where they were living in tax exile. They're great kids, but they were like little boys lost."
"While I was talking to them, Rick Allen came up behind me and said, 'I really want to be on this record.'
"I said, 'Hey! You're the drummer, you'll be on the record!' And then I found out he isn't even on 'Pyromania', it's all machines. He isn't on 'Hysteria' either.
"So we get the drum machine out, like Mutt says, and program it. Rick starts to play along, and he's really good! He was as good as any rock 'n' roll drummer I've ever worked with. So we use all live drums.
"Mutt comes down two weeks into recording, (He had helped the band during pre-production but originally opted out of producing. - Ed.) listens to a little of the drums, which sound perfect to me. And he goes, 'What are you doing? You're gonna throw these poor kids careers' in the toilet!' This was with the drummer right there! So we have to do the drums his way.
"Joe Elliot was the hardest to get along with. He's got a great really low voice, and a great high voice, but he has a real problem in the middle registers. So we start on a verse, and it's in the middle registers and he's having trouble."
"So I said, 'Let's skip onto the chorus to get you going,' because that was higher. It was good, so I say, 'Lets do another track,' and after a while he comes storming in the control room and says 'What the f**k are you doing?'
"It turns out that when Mutt does vocals, he uses one track and he won't let him go on to the second line of the song until he has the first line right! And he keeps erasing the first line till it's right! Joe was going, 'How am I supposed to feel the song if I'm jumping to the chorus!'
"It's a very bizarre set-up there. I got sick of it after about four months. Mutt did almost everything. He created them, and they were lost without him."
"I knew I was in trouble when we were in Amsterdam recording, and Joe comes in the studio going, 'Hey Jim! I saw a really f**king brilliant film last night, man.' I asked what it was and he said 'Police Academy III'!
"I said, 'Oh, God. Great, was it Joe?', and he said, 'Oh yeah, much better than 'Police Academy II'! Then it was just a question of - if I quit then I wouldn't get paid any money...So I held out until they canned me! That was the best thing for them. It was clear that Mutt was gonna end up doing the record. It was a four year project, costing a million and a half pounds, and I couldn't accept that."
After Steinman departed, some wild stories began to circulate. One claimed that Steinman hired a taxi to take him from Amsterdam to Paris to his favorite restaurant because he was bored with the sessions, and another that he had the entire floor and lobby of his hotel redecorated at Leppard's expense because he didn't like the color scheme!
"It was crazy! I'd love to know where this stuff comes from. The latest on the taxi story is that someone heard that it was really a plane I chartered! I said, great, I like that one. We'll say that's true!"
That particular brand of madness now behind him, Steinman's immediate future will be taken up by Pandora's Box, which he sees as a long-term project which will tour depending on the success of the album.
Also, he plans to write a new album for his erstwhile partner, Meat Loaf, for release through Virgin in 1990.
"I always said I'd work with him again as soon as his voice was back, and he's singing real well now," confirms Steinman.
"I'm gonna write him the ultimate teenage car-crash death song, which will probably be called 'Renegade Angel."
"It's gonna be wild!"
You can bet your life on that one.
Hits Out Of The Box
Meat Loaf 'Bat Out Of Hell' - 1978
What more is there to say about Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf's 1978 debut album that 17 platinum discs doesn't put most eloquently? The world could never be the same again...
Jim Steinman 'Bad For Good' - 1981
The Meat Loaf album that wasn't. Steinman's vocals can't match the big man's, but the quality of the songs, from the title-cut to the delicate romance of 'Surf's Up' and the Steinman trademark power-ballad 'Left In The Dark' (covered by Barbra Streisand), are equal to anything he's produced.
Meat Loaf 'Dead Ringer' - 1981
Another blockbuster set, spoiled by Steinman's lack of involvement in arrangement and production. Still, 'Gonna Love Her For Both Of Us,' 'I'll Kill You If You Don't Come Back' and 'More Than You Deserve' really hit the spot. Steinman later collaborated with Barry Manilow on his reworking of this LP's 'Read 'Em And Weep.'
Bonnie Tyler 'Faster Than The Speed Of Night' - 1983
Produced and directed by Steinman, who also wrote 'Total Eclipse Of The Heart' and the title-track. After the worldwide hit of 'Total Eclipse...' the rest sound ropey. Steinman also produced her follow-up 'Secret Dreams And Forbidden Fire' (1986), which spawned the hit 'Holding Out For A Hero' and not a lot else.
Pandora's Box 'Original Sin' - 1989
Due through Virgin October 30, Steinman produces his finest work since 'Bad For Good,' and the four female vocalists turn in incredible performances on the years most outrageous album! Standout cuts are the title-track, 'Safe Sex' and the single, 'It's All Coming Back To Me Now.'
Steinman has also produced hit singles for Air Supply 'Making Love Out Of Nothing At All' and the Sisters Of Mercy 'This Corrosion' and 'Dominion Mother Russia.' He has also worked on the film soundtracks 'Footloose' and 'Streets Of Fire.'