It's been well documented that when Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman first sought a record label that would be interested in releasing Bat out of Hell, they regularly met with rejection. So when we ask Meat Loaf to tell us about what a struggle it was to finally get the album out, he quickly says, "Oh God, we don't have enough time for that" before launching into a bit of a tirade that touches not only upon those frustrations but also upon his overall attitude toward how people perceive him and his music.
"I could tell you that people just didn't understand it," he says via phone from his home in Austin as he preps for a tour to celebrate the album's 35th anniversary. "There are people today who don't understand it. There are a lot who do understand it. It's funny. You either love it or hate it. I like that. That goes for everything I've done. You either love it or hate it. There's nothing worse than lukewarm. Give me five stars or give me one. Don't give me three. That's boring."
Even though acts such as Queen, David Bowie, and Mott the Hoople had had success with music that was theatrical in nature, most record label execs didn't think Meat Loaf, who had been in plays and films, could make the transition from acting to singing.
"In the words of [Arista Records founder] Clive Davis, 'You're an actor, and actors don't make records,'" he says. "He asked Jim Steinman if he had ever listened to a rock 'n' roll record. At the time, Jim was a walking encyclopedia. He could tell you the B-side of a Del Shannon record — and who wrote it. To be perfectly honest, his favorite band was KISS. His favorite musical that wasn't rock was Wagner."
Meat Loaf did discover an ally in Cleveland International's Steve Popovich, a guy he refers to as a fellow "gunslinger" and "road warrior." Popovich (who died in 2011) signed him to his label and reaped such high dividends that Sony Records even took a big piece of the pie (which resulted in million-dollar lawsuits that returned some of the profits to Popovich).
Once the album came out in October of 1977, Steinman and Meat Loaf had the last laugh. The theatrical songs that showcased Meat Loaf's larger-than-life operatic voice were met with universal acclaim, and the album went platinum. It's now one of the five top-selling albums of all time (Meat Loaf says that although it hasn't been properly documented, the album was at one point selling 800,000 copies a week).
"That album lives," he says. "It's like asking a Shakespearean actor what it's like to play that old Hamlet role. Or asking someone in classical music, 'You still listen to that Beethoven guy?' There are things that just don't get old. You can listen to Joplin singing 'Piece of My Heart' from now to the end of time. 'Born to Run' lives.
Bat Out of Hell lives. You can't consider them old or new. They just are. Bat Out of Hell is in that category. It's in that category of Shakespeare, of Beckett, of Wagner, of Springsteen, of Zeppelin, of Joplin, of Frank Sinatra. Those are things that just are."
And even though the album is now over three decades old, it still gives Meat Loaf a charge every time he performs it live.
"I can still sing the hell out of 'Bat Out of Hell,'" he says. "It's just one of those things. It covers three and a half octaves, and we still do it in the original key. The average person doesn't understand how difficult those songs are to perform. That's why it took Guitar Hero so long to put one of the songs on their thing. They're impossible to play. They're not normal chord structures. They want the songs that are easy."
But after the album's release, all was not well in the world of Meat Loaf. The singer developed a drug problem and had a nervous breakdown. He almost committed suicide.
"What triggered that was that everyone kept calling me a star," he says. "I didn't buy it. People like Madonna live for that and thrive on that. I'm not putting her down for that. That's her choice. My choice is that I don't care about that. I care about the work."
Years later, Meat Loaf then went back to the same musical well that delivered Bat Out of Hell and recruited Steinman to write a sequel. Once again, record label execs weren't in favor of the idea. And once again, the resulting album, 1994's Bat Out of Hell II: Back to Hell, proved to be a hit, delivering the hit "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)."
"Yeah, they told me that people didn't want it," he says. "I was going, 'What, are you people insane?' You wouldn't believe how hard I had to fight to get 'Anything for Love' as the first single. I had to be Khrushchev at the UN and take my shoe off and beat it under the table. I don't think the people even knew what I was doing. They didn't get the correlation."
Now 64, Meat Loaf says he's about ready to call it a day. He says he has gigs lined up through 2013, but after that he plans to focus on his acting career. He's made 59 films to date and he hopes to get to 100.
"You can't be afraid of failure," he says. "I've been in this business for 46, heading for 47 years, and I've failed a lot. I've succeeded and failed. You hear that from entrepreneurs. They make money and lose money and make money and lose money. Me, that would scare the hell out of me. But doing what I do doesn't scare me. I'm always scared and always afraid of the failure, but I don't let that fear hold me back."