Sex, Lies & Videotape
By Sylvie Simmons
Few people in the Rock world can claim to have worked with such a diverse collection of talents as Jim Steinman. From Meat Loaf to Barry Manilow and from Ken Russell to Def Leppard, Steinman has indeed established a reputation for...surprise! Now, as his latest project Pandora's Box unveils the album 'Original Sin', Steinman takes the opportunity to put the record straight. Mad genius? Svengali figure? A leathered Byron? You decide...
He likes motorbikes as sex objects, leather as art, religion as designer-accessory, and poetry, pomp and Opera (before he discovered Jim Morrison and The Doors he was impersonating Opera singers in front of his mirror); he likes blood, Bach, Bronte and the Shangri Las he loves to death.
Jim Steinman - the man behind Meat Loaf, who back in 1978 wrote and co-produced (with the similarly-legendary Todd Rundgren) the ultimate epic Rock album, 'Bat Out Of Hell' (17-million copies sold and still in the charts; end of ad.) - is, on the inside, a leathered Lord Byron, a spotty teenage boy with a Gothic teenage vision.
On the outside, his body swollen to accommodate such huge, panoramic imaginings (wrapped in a leather jacket I'd kill my mum for!), he looks more like Meat Loaf. Still, it could have been worse. He could have turned into Barry Manilow, Barbra Streisand, Bonnie Tyler or (heaven help us) Air Supply, some of the strange creatures (Def Leppard and the Sisters Of Mercy excepted) he's worked with since.
A mere glimpse at this strange resume will tell you why Steinman decided to create his own group to sing his songs and subjugate themselves to his productions (overblown? Like Phil Spector directing 'Zulu'). He uses four girl vocalists - the reason's far too complicated to go into, something to do with church-choir fetishes, actress Marlene Dietrich, '40s private detective movies with the tough-bitch clients, and "An organic reaction to all the Debbie Gibsons and Tiffanys" clogging up the charts. Oh, and of course the Shangri Las, though Steinman's four girls - Ellen Foley (former Meat Loaf backing singer, solo artist and Broadway star), Gina Taylor (ex-Tina Turner night club impersonator) and newcomers Elaine Caswell and Deliria Wilde - are "Older, a little bit weather-beaten, raw and battered-up. They've got more of the kind of Gothic quality I was going for."
They're called Pandora's Box (which must make Steinman the King Of The Gods who gave them the box full of sins that legend speaks of), they've got a toy-boy backing band (I'm saving myself for the "21-year-old identical twin guitarists who look 17"), they'll probably tour, with Steinman on piano, and they've made a video for the first single 'It's All Coming Back To Me Now'.
Steinman wrote the script (inspired by director Ken Russell's segment in the compilation Opera movie 'Aria') and Russell himself directed. There's leather and snakes and tombstones and cockrings with shrunken heads on, and a glorious, erotic ceremony on the fantasies of a girl near death from a motorcycle crash being ministered to by paramedics. "My manager saw it," laughs Steinman, "and goes 'It's a Porno movie!'"
There are some (well, me) who would call Steinman an utterly perverted genius. There are others (Meat Loaf lost his voice and went bankrupt, Billy Squire's career went right down the toilet, after once being Steinmanned on the 'Signs Of Life' LP in 1984) who might call him something quite different. Def Leppard implied he was certifiably insane after five months at the production helm of their current 'Hysteria' LP. There were tales of him Laura Ashley-ing the Dutch studio before he'd set foot in it, flying off to gourmet lunches when he should have been huddled over the console...
"These are some of the ones I've heard: I supposedly took a taxi to Paris - and then that became a chartered plane to Paris - to my favorite restaurant and back again and charged it to Def Leppard. I just like the idea of me in this grand restaurant going, 'Charge it to Def Leppard!' Then there was the re-upholstering of the studio and it's redecoration. Apparently, I offended quite a few people in Holland because another variation of the tale says that I decided the Dutch had no taste and ordered the hotel where I was staying to redecorate the lobby, my room and the entire floor it was on!"
Any of it true?
"Absolutely NONE of it. And the engineer on the project Neil Dorfsman, can back me up if I'm ever called upon in a tribunal. He thinks it all started because he and I did some work to improve the acoustics in the studio, it was a terrible sounding place."
And flying off for gourmet lunches?
"I never eat lunch! But I did have some great dinners in Holland. I would have gone crazy if I hadn't. I was going out of my mind. There was nothing to do in the studio. It was the craziest experience.
"When I arrived, Leppard had no guitar amps and they didn't know where to get them. They look at you like these little puppies, 'Ooh, what are we going to do? We thought you'd have them?' In Holland? If I was in New York maybe, but...Anyway, we had every HM band in Holland bring down their amps, and every amp we tried, we'd play a chord, and I'd say, 'What do you guys think of that?' And they'd go 'Sounds squawky, hard and edgy, not creamy enough. What do you think?' 'I don't think it's great, but I think we can start with it, build on it, layer it'. 'We can't, it's too squawky!' And we went through hundreds of amps.
"And they had to be Marshalls, they wouldn't even consider anything else. In fact, it ended up with Jim Marshall himself on the phone, ranting and raving from his factory, because he'd gone through this with (producer) 'Mutt' Lange on the 'Pyromania' album.
"So I'm going crazy at this point; I send off for the multi-tracks of 'Pyromania' and they walk in as I'm listening to the guitar solos, and Phil (Collen) goes, 'That's a little better, but it's still too squawky, too harsh'. And I said 'But that's your guitars!'
"So we couldn't do guitars because we were still searching for amps, so I started doing drums. And 'Mutt' insisted that the drummer (Rick Allen) couldn't play live, although I thought he was very good. 'Mutt' wasn't involved in this record (although later he took up the production reins), but he was still dictating the methodology; he dropped by for one of his four or five visits and said, 'Jim, Neil, you're going to throw these poor kid's career into the toilet! You can't put something like that out! Please don't have Rick Allen play!'
"This poor kid. When I first went to Dublin for pre-production, he sat behind me and kept whispering in my ear, 'Jim, I really want to play on this record'. And I'm thinking, 'Well we do intend to have drums, I suspect.' But he kept saying it. Turns out he felt guilty because he won the Playboy poll as 'Drummer Of The Year' and he wasn't even on 'Pyromania', it was all samples!"
The bass and vocals were no easier; Leppard, Steinman reckons, only knew how to work a bar or two at a time - 'Mutt' Lange's slow and meticulous way of producing.
"'Mutt's just like Frankenstein, he pieces little bits of skin together. I'm a big fan of the guy, I think he's one of the most brilliant producers in the world, but I was sick of him and his little visits, and I had no idea how to proceed. It was defiantly the closest I've come to hell. They'd already wasted a year-and-a-half before I arrived, and after I left they spent another two years working on it."
And that Billy Squier album? What was the story there?
"Well, strangely enough that was another 'Mutt' project - I really learned a lesson that year! 'Mutt' was supposed to be producing Bill, but he was having his nervous breakdown from the Cars and their 'Heartbeat City' album; that pushed him off schedule. The two major problems here were that Billy co-produced - which he didn't originally tell me he was going to do, and it just limited my abilities - and the fact that he insisted on getting in engineer Tony Platt, whom I didn't agree with at all.
"But the really annoying thing was what he did with the video (for the track 'Rock Me Tonight'). That really just killed his career."
If you haven't seen this particular clip, it has Billy wriggling around on pink satin sheets, and is generally regarded as a good example of how not to make a video.
"That's the trouble working with other artists," says Jim. "Even if the relationship is amicable, ultimately you just don't have the control."
The Meat Loaf story's got to be the worst one, though. Apres-Steinman "he lost his voice for ten years. There's only one way to describe it, which is that he sounded exactly like actress Linda Blair in 'The Exorcist' movie -blghghghghg! I was eight months in the studio with him sounding like that - I was required too be there, I couldn't get out of the contract, eight hours minimum every night with him going blghghghghg! And it was just like the Emperor's New Clothes: Cleveland Records wouldn't say anything - they'd sold ten million copies of 'Bat Out Of Hell' at that point, and they figured that even if the new LP was horrible they'd still sell five million - but he couldn't sing at all!
"I visited 20 or 30 doctors with him. And not only doctors. We went to an alchemist, a sorcerer and at least one voodoo guy, and I'm there like his parent, filing out the forms and giving him a lollipop. I'd hear chanting from the back room, and every now and then I'd hear Meat Loaf going blghghghghgh!
"He ended up seeing a guy in California whom Jackson Browne had recommended. I remember saying to Meat 'You don't want to sing like Jackson Browne!' This guy had this wild system where he finds out what you're allergic to and then he makes a potion of it in a test-tube and you sniff it and you're supposed to get a horrible allergic response. And then he takes urine from your body and injects it back into your body. It's supposed to create some sort of antibody.
"Plus, he puts you nude on rubber mats - come to think of it, this sounds like fun! - and then puts another rubber mat on top of you, and takes Black & Decker power-tools and just bashes while you scream.
"And Meat comes back to New York after all this and says 'Jim, you've got to hear me sing. I know it sounds stupid but it worked'. So I went down to hear him sing and I hear blghghghghg! And I say, 'Meat, it sounds the same to me.' They should have injected him with Jackson Browne's piss!"
Whatever rifts there were between the two have now been healed (Jim did, after all, save Meat from the Ghost Of Woodstock that supposedly haunted the house they were staying in during the 'Bat Out Of Hell' sessions; there he'd sit at the end of the bed, pouring Meat cocoa and lulling him to sleep telling him what a nice ghost it was, while Meat's then-girlfriend, Ellen Foley, snored unperturbed beside him) and Steinman starts work soon on the next Meat Loaf album.
"I always told him I'd work with him again if he could sing. He's amazing."
Sisters Of Mercy was "Great fun. Andrew (Eldritch) and Patricia (Morrison) were magnificent." He'd have done the whole album ('Floodland', 1987) rather than just two tracks ('Dominion/Mother Russia' and UK hit 'This Corrosion'), but "I didn't have time. I think they're great."
"I don't really care about credibility. I hear people talking about how you've got to be open to new experiences, yet somehow that eliminates things like working with Barry Manilow. I thought it was a very interesting experience.
"I don't listen to Barry Manilow, however. I think he's ridiculous. But I thought it was NOT ridiculous to produce him. They asked me if I could produce this song that had already been on a Meat Loaf album ('Read 'Em And Weep' from the 'Dead Ringer' LP or was it 'Nose Out Of Hell'? -Ed.), and they said they were going to do it whether I was involved or not. And I hate the idea of one of my songs being done without my control, and I knew what a Manilow version of the song would be like if I didn't produce it. Plus, they offered me lots of money, which I used to finance other projects.
"The version I did unfortunately never got heard - he refused to release it, and I had to remix it. It was very powerful, though, some of the best guitars and loudest drums I've ever put on."
The Australian Pop combo "Air Supply was a different thing entirely, almost an accident. When I took that I didn't have any other work at all - that was before Bonnie Tyler. I didn't have a reputation and I needed the money. So I did this single ('Making Love Out Of Nothing At All') with Air Supply and they split up afterwards!"
"I think she's got a spectacular voice, but I don't think she knows what to do with it. They wanted me to do a kind of Linda Ronstadt album and I said 'No, let me come up with something else.' Look at it this way: If I hadn't done that record the world might have had a Ronstadt-style record from Bonnie Tyler, and instead you got the 'Total Eclipse Of The Heart' hit single (nominated for a Grammy in America as the top song of '83) and the 'Faster Than The Speed Of Night' LP (1983)!"
As for future plans, fantasies and ambitions...
"When I was seven years old I had this fortune-teller who turned out to be a hooker disguised as a fortune-teller, so I don't know how valid it was! - read my fortune in Times Square, New York. And she said I would spend my whole life in an ultimately self-destructive drive to astonish people. So every ambition I have is to keep astonishing and amplifying normal life!"