The Selling Of Meat Loaf - What Makes Meat Loaf
Rolling Stone Magazine
November 16, 1978
By Michael Segell
"The songs are myths, panoramas, vistas, voyages - voyages to a country
of lost girls and golden boys who refuse to grow up. It's a land everybody wants
to get to, a rock kingdom in which the major theme is: all revved up with no
place to go."
- Jim Steinman, director/songwriter
"All I can say is: you can't take this shit seriously."
- Meat Loaf, actor/singer
The 400 or so record-industry types assembled beneath the canopied tent could
have been heroic couriers in one of Jim Steinman's fantasy epics: earlier in the
day they had mounted giant birds and flown thousand of miles to Cleveland,
bearing glad tidings to the mythical rock & roll giant, Meat Loaf.
But they weren't. These were mere mortals who had helped sell a few million
copies of Bat Out Of Hell, an album that is the collaborative vision of Marvin
Lee Aday (Meat Loaf to you) and Jim Steinman. The executives, promoters, flacks,
regional salesmen and assorted company minions assigned to the case by the
CBS/Epic Records machine had come to bask in the glow of an unusual success
story that was a still happening and that was being celebrated in a giant tent
overlooking an outdoor amphitheater somewhere in the Cleveland-Akron-Canton
Earlier in the evening, Walter Yetnikoff, the natty lawyer who presides over
CBS Records, had jetted in from New York lugging a platinum-plated copy of Bat
Out Of Hell, a debut album that has defied all marketing odds and is now, a year
after its release, beginning to probe the sales stratosphere. After awarding the
coveted prize to the grunting, sweating Meat Loaf during his tour-ending
Cleveland performance (his 170th date in less than eleven months), Yetnikoff
danced a stockholder's jig before 19,000 devotees of Fat Rock while the band
serenaded him and officials from Meat Loaf's label, Cleveland International
Records, with a roily version of "River Deep, Mountain High."
But the news that Bat Out Of Hell had been inducted into the American Hall Of
Platinum seemed almost lost in the buzz of statistics that resonated throughout
the canopied tent after the show. Regional battles broke out between national
and international account executives: Platinum in the States? Big deal, the
album is Epic's largest Canadian seller ever. Oh yeah? What about Australia?
Knocked Saturday Night Fever off its perch when the band toured down under this
summer. Oh yeah? Sales outside the U.S. - a million and a half total. Oh yeah?
The States are right in there: a million-four by early September, with 800,000
in the past three months. Oh yeah?
The corporate gloating continued into the early morning. Paeans were sung to
the CBS research team that had determined that two out of every three Meat Loaf
albums are sold to adult females, that Meat Loaf fans range in age from thirteen
to thirty-five, that Kiss fans are Meat Loaf fans. Ingenious marketing and
packaging skills were hailed, while everyone carefully avoided the word 'hype.'
The irony of it all is that, two years ago, CBS showed Meat Loaf and Steinman
the door when the pair was looking for a label to back their unholy marriage of
theater and rock. The arguments against the duo were formidable: the
appropriately named Meat Loaf, who weighs something in excess of 250 pounds, was
hardly the stuff of which groupies' dreams are made; much of the material -
ranging from existential motorcycle ballads to graphic narratives of sex in a
car- smacked of exploitation; eight-minute songs with two-minute instrumental
overtures were not commercially viable; and the immense production schemes made
Phil Spector's ideas sound austere.
"We had everything going against us," says Meat Loaf. "It took
us three years, but we've vindicated ourselves."
Meat Loaf dumps his girth into a chair in his New York hotel suite and opens
a can of diet soda. It is a few days after the Cleveland bash. Next to him,
slumped in an over-stuffed chair, is Steinman, the brainy
composer/pianist/choreographer who left the tour a month early to work up the
songs for the next album (targeted for a spring release). For Steinman, whose
schedule reverses night and day, the late-afternoon hour is less than godly.
Looking something like a wizened teenager with his long gray-flecked
hair, blue jeans and football jersey, Steinman stares out the window in
foggy-eyed silence while Meat outlines the familiar tribulations suffered by
musicians in search of a contract.
"We did thousands of voice and piano sessions," says Meat in his
slightly oily Texas drawl. "We rehearsed at the Ansonia Hotel [in New York]
for a year before we got sophisticated and brought people into a studio. People
either loved or hated the music - most of them hated it."
Executives from RCA were apparently in the minority. They signed Meat and
Steinman, only to have the pair walk out after the label refused to include Todd
Rundgren's production skills in the package. (Rundgren had attended one of their
rehearsals and agreed to produce and play guitar on the album.) "When we
played the material and discussed the project with Todd, we knew we had to have
him or nobody as producer," Meat says. "But RCA said, 'No Todd,' so we
were back to singing duets at the Ansonia."
But production seed money was subsequently granted in spurts by Bearsville (Rundgren's
label), by Rundgren himself and finally by Warner Bros., which agreed to release
the album, but without promotion. Desperately, manager David Sonenberg played
the tapes for Cleveland International, a fledgling production company composed
of three former industry pros who agreed to swing their weight behind the
project and hawk its potential to Epic Records.
"Very few people understood the scope of the project," says
Steinman, shaking off his gray funk. "Even fewer seemed to be able to deal
with the narrative."
To better understand Steinman's visionary wit, it helps to know that he lived
in the same Amherst College fraternity house as David Eisenhower, whose
ubiquitous bodyguards made the dorm the best-protected drug conduit in the
Northeast. To understand Steinman's infatuation with teenage dreams, it helps to
know that his apartment on New York's Upper West Side is decorated by a single
snapshot of TV nymphet Kristy McNichol. To understand the dialect between the
ordinary and the heroic that informs Steinman's songs, it helps to know that his
favorite moment in all of rock & roll is Roger Daltery's stutter in the
Who's "My Generation."
"My songs are anthems," Steinman says, "to those moments when
you feel like you're on the head of a match that's burning. They're anthems to
the essence of rock & roll, to a world that despises inaction and loves
passion and rebellion, They're anthems to the kind of feeling you get listening
to 'Be My Baby' by the Ronettes. That's what I love about anthems - the fury,
the melody and the passion."
Delivering the passion is primarily Meat Loaf's job. Meat, who was granted
his ignominious moniker in junior high school when he squashed his football
coach's foot, has a soaring, screaming tenor that is equal to Steinman's and
Rundgren's cathedral-like production of the album. And on-stage, Meat Loaf
assumes even more heroic dimensions, conjuring up images of the Incredible Hulk,
as during 'Paradise By The Dashboard Light,' he mauls his female counterpart,
singer Karla DeVito. The image becomes frighteningly real when Meat acts out the
show's "speeches" - vignettes written by Steinman to tie the songs
together like a series of wildly irreverent dreams. One such speech directs Meat
to bludgeon a varsity cheerleader and then his parents with a guitar that has a
"heart of chrome and a voice like a horny fucking angel."
In Toronto, Meat got so carried away that he tumbled over the edge of the
stage and tore ligaments in his leg, ending up in a wheelchair and off the road
for a month. A legend has also been cultivated - and countered with accusations
of hype - about his propensity for passing out after performances.
"The major thing that's happening there," Meat says, "is that
I get so possessed by the songs, so wrapped up in the show, that it's like
withdrawal when it's over. It's like I have to be exorcised from these Steinman
demons. I get tired during the show, but I can't stop - and sometimes it gets
fucking painful as hell." It sure looks it as Meat Loaf, his long, sweaty
hair dripping onto his shoulders, stalks about the stage with the rage and fury
of an Ajax, transforming a concert hall into the mise en scene of a
mythic rock opera.
This blend of theater and rock & roll came naturally to Steinman and Meat
Loaf when they hooked up in 1973. Meat, now thirty, had left his parents'
comfortable home outside Dallas in 1966 and struck out for California, where he
formed a band called Popcorn Blizzard (originally Meat Loaf Soul). The band
stayed together for three years, opening for the Who, Iggy Pop, Johnny and Edgar
Winter and Ted Nugent.
By 1969, Meat was living - sans band - in a communal home in Echo Park. He
was looking for a job as a parking-lot attendant at the Aquarius Theater in Los
Angeles when he met the lead in Hair, who suggested Meat audition for the show.
"It was like a cattle call," Meat recalls. "But I found out
later that I looked like a guy named Joey Richardson, who had just left the
show, so I got the part."
Hair brought Meat to Washington, Broadway and then Detroit, where he paired
up with a soul singer named Stoney, who was in the production there. As Stoney
and Meat Loaf they cut an album for Motown and toured with Rare Earth and Alice
Cooper before Meat returned to theater in New York. In 1973 he appeared in
Rainbow In New York and sang a gospel song from the show as an audition for More
Than You Deserve, a play written by a Joseph Papp protege named Jim Steinman.
"The first thing I thought when I heard this voice," Steinman says,
"was get this Negro music away from him. He should be singing Wagnerian
Steinman's background is a similar crisscross of theatrical and musical
paths. A New Yorker who spent his junior-high-school years in California, where
his father relocated his steel distribution warehouse, Steinman studied
classical piano for four years before leaping into rock & roll. He played in
high-school bands, and then while studying drama at Amherst, formed a group
called the Clitoris That Thought It Was A Puppy. In his senior year, Steinman's
play, Dream Engine, caught the eye of producer Joseph Papp, who brought the
young playwright/composer back to New York to work for the Shakespeare Festival.
Dream Engine was presented at the Newman Theater, the workshop that later
launched A Chorus Line. By the time Meat auditioned for More Than You Deserve,
Steinman had written and presented several plays and was considered a hot
prospect in the New York theater world.
Over the next two years, Meat worked with Steinman and the Shakespeare
Festival, sung one side of Ted Nugent's platinum album Free For All, and played
the part of Eddie, the lobotomized Fifties degenerate, in The Rocky Horror
Picture Show before hunkering down at the Ansonia to work up the material for
Bat Out Of Hell.
Many of the songs had originally been written for a Steinman musical called
Neverland, a futuristic version of Peter Pan that was presented at Washington's
Kennedy Center last year and which Steinman is now talking to Universal Pictures
about turning into a movie.
"It's about chemically mutated teenagers who can never grow up,"
Steinman says, "lost boys living in an antiseptic village who have never
before seen a girl. Neverland is a place where being all revved up with no place
to go is the excitement; the end product isn't important. Meat will play Tinker
Bell, a barbaric, marauding mute, the image of pure physical power. Peter Pan is
a fifteen year old John Travolta."
The second Meat Loaf album "will complete the vision of Neverland,"
Steinman says with a devilish sparkle in his eye that lends credence to what an
astrologist once told him: that he has an overwhelming desire to astonish
Despite the mutual backslapping at CBS' bacchanalian feast in Cleveland, the
credit for Meat Loaf's success properly goes to Cleveland International Records.
"Sometimes those parties can be a little self serving," said Steve
Popovich, president of CI, as he recovered in his office from the previous
night's orgy. "Hardly anybody makes it through the evening without being
told how successful he is."
Popovich knows whereof he speaks. He and his two partners, Stan Snyder and
Sam Lederman, are refugees from the CBS executive infrastructure who decided a
year and a half ago to forsake six-figure salaries for the opportunity to work
the corporation from the outside. Popovich moved to Cleveland and set up
headquarters in his new house in Willoughby Hills. Snyder and Lederman remained
in New York as liaisons to the corporate network. With over thirty years
experience in the record business among them, they have a three-year contract
whereby Epic retains their talent-scout services for what Popovich called
"a modest figure."
"We weren't interested in wooing away major talent," said Popovich,
the former head of A&R at Epic, as he stoked a bleary-eyed Snyder with
coffee. "We just wanted the opportunity to work one album, not thirty at
"We decided on Meat Loaf because we were impressed with Steinman's songs
and Meat Loaf's voice," explained Lederman. "We saw him at a live
audition and it blew us away."
Record buyers in Cleveland and New York rallied immediately, but other
markets were more difficult to penetrate. The plan was not unusual: get the band
on the road, promote the hell out of the gigs and follow up performances by
inundating local radio stations and record stores with picture discs, cassettes,
acetates and posters. The only thing unusual about the campaign was its
"Most new records get six weeks promotion if they're lucky," said
Snyder, a former vice president of national accounts marketing at CBS. "We
decided to push Bat Out Of Hell for a least a year, or for however long it took
CBS to sink extra bucks into the project. But, hell, they were clamoring for the
second album after Bat had sold 200,000 copies."
Meat Loaf, Steinman and the other seven members of the band peddled their
operatic rock from city to city - and slowly the cities fell. Record sales in
Toronto jumped from 2,000 to 26,000 in one week following a Meat Loaf
performance. CBS saw fit to proffer more bucks. Shrewdly, CI had Meat Loaf play
at the CBS convention last winter in New Orleans. CBS responded by commissioning
promotional films of "Paradise," "Bat Out Of Hell," and
"You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth" for use in England and
Australia. London fell, then Melbourne. The CBS machinery then moved into high
gear and saturated the media with advertising. By the night of the Cleveland
performance, Bat was still racking up impressive weekly sales.
"It's not over yet," said the roly-poly Popovich. "The record
will top out at over 5 million and "Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad" [the
album's first hit single] is destined to become a standard sung in every Vegas
nightclub by Jerry Vale and Steve Lawrence, and on the Tonight Show three times
Aside from a few protests by isolated radio stations in the Bible Belt that
"Paradise," the latest single, is too sexy for airplay, the album is
getting maximum exposure in almost every major market except one: Los Angeles,
city of 7 million. Three of the top album-oriented stations there have refused
to play any Meat Loaf at all, claiming he's not for their audience.
Which makes Steinman pretty pissed off. Not because he stands to lose a few
thousand bucks (he does) but because the whole objective of Bat Out Of Hell is
to reestablish the distinction between rock & roll and passion and posing -
and it is precisely the poseurs of so-called L.A. music that he wanted to
obliterate. At the top of Steinman's list of frauds are Rod Stewart, Fleetwood
Mac and the Eagles - the guardians of mid-Seventies rock.
So even though he has resolved not to slander L.A. radio while this
jingoistic battle between the East and West Coast is being waged, Steinman
decides to tell his L.A. story. Like the sagas in Bat Out Of Hell, it is not so
much the retelling of an event as it is the description of a hallucination:
"I awoke about three a.m. on a floor littered with unconscious bodies in
a hotel above Sunset Strip. It was at a time when the deal with Warner's was
about to fall through. Earlier in the day, Meat had picked up these two
identical twins - human surfboards with hair - and bought them back to the
hotel. They cooked this huge duck in white wine sauce for dinner and when I woke
up, the room was fairly dripping with it.
"I was looking out at the vista of violence that is L.A. - except out
there they call it romantic violence - thinking about how I'd like to wipe away
the stagnate dross of Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles with a single stroke. Then I
saw this chemical fire in the distance. It was eerie - a blue and red haze
everywhere. I felt like I was trapped in a jukebox. About ten minutes later all
the smoke was absorbed into the valley and the network of city lights molted
into electrical strings and veins. I thought: 'L.A. is a total junkie, the rouge
on a scar. And Fleetwood Mac is the rouge.'
"Then Sam, the only other conscious person in the room, said he'd like
to levitate. I said, 'Just stay where you are, because everybody else is
sinking.' Suddenly the image dawned as a powerful metaphor for rock & roll:
when everybody else is sinking and going the way of L.A. music, when fever and
passion become an air-conditioned thrill and fantasies become cluttered by
tax-returns, rock & roll dreams come through."