Behind every successful, fat American rock star there's a thinner, less successful, but equally deranged American mastermind. Such a person is Jim Steinman and in the course of this fab, hilarious and terrifying interview, you'll gasp and scream as Slim Jim comes out at Pudgy Peter Owens like a bat out of hell. Porky Colm Henry took the pix.
Some months back I was living briefly with some people whose musical tastes were doggedly ascetic - nothing but a diet of Throbbing Gristle, Glaxo Babies, and Crispy Ambulance. But came one night when appeared on the TV screen an unworldly apparition, what appeared to be a buffalo in a tuxedo, bellowing forth a Cecil B. de Mille-scale outrageously over-the-top rock song, and I rose to change the channels, knowing full well that such wanton displays of pathetically out-moded American notions of rock would be as appealing to my companions as dog diarrhea, akin to playing the Cockney Rejects to a Nolans fan.
But was I mistaken. "Hey, who's that? - That's really good" was the consensus. "Leave it on." "But that's Meat Loaf," I explained. "the ultimate American gross-out - that's 'Bat Out Of Hell'. You won't like that."
But they did, and that's precisely the reason why "Bat Out Of Hell" has gone on to become one of the largest selling records in history, selling around eight million copies worldwide to date and still selling almost as fast as it ever has over three years after its release. Every track has been released as a single, and every track has been a hit somewhere. As I write the album has just gone back up from 25 to 21 in the MBRB chart, and it's rarely slipped below 40 since 1978. To a hell of a lot of people it is the rock album, and its strength lies in its ability to appeal to virtually all sections of our sadly fractured rock consciousness. It's an outrageous, defiantly epic, brilliantly filibustering album of gargantuan excess throttled out of an eighteen stone plus sweating slab of Dallas lost youth called Meat Loaf, and now there's a sequel.
But it's the sequel to the album, not the singer; Meat Loaf is nowhere to be seen, and the entire album is credited to one Jim Steinman, who wrote and sang it. And Jim Steinman just happens to be the man who wrote "Bat" as well, though you'd be forgiven for not knowing. And now Jim Steinman, an older-looking Paul Williams, is in London, and eager to cement the connection between "Bad For Good" and "Bat Out Of Hell". He is every hack's dream interviewee because he's voluble and he talks in quotes, so let's take it from the top.
Jim, the only comparable figure in terms of ability to wrench every last dram of drama from a song must be Bruce Springsteen, and yet your music is in a totally different sphere.
"That comparison's been made a lot - I always think the main difference is reflected by the covers. His covers are always black and white, I always see his covers sorta like Martin Scorsese movies, gritty and urban even though they're operatic. My covers are always these outlandishly vivid colors, hallucinatory cine-rama fantasy, more epic. Mine are dream operatic, his are street operatic. He's more 'West Side Story' and I'm more 'Clockwork Orange'."
How do you feel about being bracket in the general arena of heavy metal?
"The imagery is heavy, maybe heavy metal, but I don't know that the music is - heavy metal music as I see it has always been much more in the tradition of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, less melodramatic than my stuff. I'm trying to incorporate the mythical imagery of metal with more of a variety of musical styles.
I like a lot of mythology, the resonance of H.M., but I get bored with the music real quick. And it's the opposite with Springsteen, I really love his music, the street quality, but I really like more flamboyant fantasy qualities too. I like adding Wagner to everything, a little bit of dramatic Gothic never hurt anyone."
Your albums are like sound-tracks to Ken Russell movies.
"Ken Russell is great, he's always talked about doing Wagner. But I thought Lizstomania was terrible. But I love his instincts and I think he's great at making musical rhythms and imagery. I thought 'Tommy' was ridiculous and I loved it - I never thought Townshend's original held together too well anyway, so it didn't matter if it fell apart in the film. I've always thought 'Quadrophenia' was stronger.
"But I'm working on a couple of films in connection with this album, and the directors I always think of are Francis Ford Coppola and Brian de Palma. De Palma is the only director I actually know, but because of that I don't feel that I can ask him. Polanski also, maybe.
"Didn't think much of 'Rocky Horror Picture Show' (which of course featured Meat Loaf as Eddie, the early mutant rock 'n roller experiment of the evil Frank N Furter) - I mean I loved the show, though it had gotten diluted by the time I saw it in L.A. - Tim Curry spent a lot of time telling me what was missing.
"It's hard to do musicals on film - so I do it on record. Musical films on record - that's how I conceive these records."
Isn't that an excuse for saying that you don't think they can stand up on their own, that they have to be supported within a wider context?
"No, my hope with these records is that if you sit down and close your eyes and play them in the dark that you can create the film yourself. I want it to be less a bunch of songs than a series of adventures, connected and getting more intense - to have some of the feverish intensity that a film can have.
"When I start writing, I always start with a visual image, and the visual image I had in mind when I started this album was very much connected with and idea for a film I've had floating around for a couple of years called 'Neverland,' a rock 'n roll sci-fi version of Peter Pan, and half the songs on this album were written with that in mind. And now I'm taking it one stage further and working on the screenplay."
The album is therefore and aural preview to the film.
"Yes, its a trip to 'Neverland', but most of the songs may not end up in the film at all, it's just that I can't write without a visual and that was the visual.
"Peter Pan seems to me a very rock 'n roll idea because it's a gang of lost boys who never grow up - that's 'Clockwork Orange' too, by the way.
"And this guy Peter is like sixteen for thirty or forty years, and it's like Caligula - every day he's gotta seek out some new sensation, some new rush, something just to keep that feverish high going. I think it's a great concept staying that young forever, and implies a great effort on his part.
"In the film genetic mutation is the cause, and the other lost boys are constantly looking to Peter to provide the excitement, and the film starts off with him trying to seduce Wendy - they've never really had a girl as part of the lost boys, or seen a girl like that. She's Captain Hook's daughter, he's the military commander controlling this huge fortress built on the ruins of Los Angeles after the city is destroyed after earthquake and chemical war. It has a lot in common with the fifties horror movies, radioactive monsters etc., there's all sorts of incredibly mutated creatures running around outside this city which is encased in your usual great dome. And it's Captain Hook who created the genetic mutation, trying to create the perfect army, just to make matters worse, so he wants to recapture the lost boys and dissect them to see what went wrong with this process.
"And it's full of scenes like - the other night I was working on this one where Peter and the boys hole up in the automobile graveyard, like in 'Night Of The Living Dead', when at night all the cars start up by themselves and prowl the streets without drivers.
"The one song from 'Bat Out Of Hell' that I am going to use is 'All Revved Up With No Place To Go' - that still has the feeling of it perfectly."
What did you mean to imply by the title "Bad For Good"?
"'Bad For Good', a double pun, not just bad for a little time, like the James Dean black leather jacket defiant rallying cry, not just bad for all time but bad for specific things, the moral equivalent of Robin Hood.
"The first title for this album was 'Renegade Angel', and that's the cover - the devil is really a fallen angel, on the downward path which is really where the excitement is. Whereas Springsteen in 'Blinded By The Light' has something to the effect of - it's terrible to paraphrase badly - 'Mama said don't look up into the sun/Cos you'll be blinded by the light,' and I said 'mama that's where the fun is.'
"I think my songs often have a violence, but it's not a cruel violence, it's the violence of tearing something down."
But the Steinman mode isn't without its ambiguities. Is he conscious of the possibility that his imagery might be construed as an unhealthy fixation with Aryan ideals?
"I'm not at all cautious about it, otherwise I wouldn't put these two amazing Aryans on the cover, with wings and a tattoo. It's like people who don't like Wagner because they associate him with Nazism, it doesn't even matter, it's an unfair thing to do anyway. The fact is that Wagner probably had Nazi tendencies, and was probably anti-Semite, it's not important, or not as important as what he created. The world he created was a world of gods, ecstasy, power, magic."
Who have you in mind to play Peter Pan?
"He's gotta look like the album cover and he's gotta dance great. As it's a film, I can dub in the singing voice if I have to - but he will have to act. I have no idea as yet. I know that Captain Hook and his wife Emily Hook, I want to be Laurence Olivier and Better Midler. And if I couldn't get Laurence Olivier I'd definitely want John Cleese - but if it was John Cleese I'd want him to play both parts."
Jim has no plans to appear in the film himself - "There's just no suitable role," he says sadly - but of course he doesn't have to try too hard anymore to grab a piece of the lime-light in his own right, now that "Bad For Good" is headed firmly upwards and more and more people are realizing his pivotal role in the creation of "Bat Out Of Hell". How does he react to being the focus of attention for a change?
"Well it always was an equal partnership on 'Bat Out Of Hell', I was always a little pissed off whenever I was treated like a sideman. When it started out it was actually 'Meat Loaf And Jim Steinman' but that sounded too like a bizarre luncheon menu so....
"And then it was going to be 'Meat Loaf', but representing the two of us, and just to be sure it would have 'Songs By Jim Steinman' in equal letters right by the title - and there it ended up at the bottom.
"I always think the songs are the most important thing, so I wasn't thinking 'Oh they're looking at Meat Loaf', I was thinking 'Oh, they're listening to my songs'."
Given the album's phenomenal success, are you sorry in retrospect that you didn't do the whole thing by yourself?
"At the time I couldn't have done it anyway, partly for an absurdly practical reason, because right before I met Meat Loaf, when I'd already conceived and written the album, I got into a really bad bar-room brawl, and I got destroyed by a 300-pound lady biker. It was like being attacked by a Buick - she broke my nose in about eight places. And I went to see this doctor who must have been a very close friend of this lady biker because he broke it just about everywhere else - I'm convinced to this day he went to K- Tel School Of Speed Surgery, he did a horrible job. I think he dropped his credit card inside! so I couldn't sing for almost two years after that, and it was almost like someone sent Meat to me as a substitute voice. And the strange thing is the reason I ended up doing this one - because I was going to do Meat Loaf's second record and then this one - was because Meat Loaf couldn't sing after the tour, he lost his voice totally.
"So 'Bad For Good' is definitely written, conceived and produced as 'Bat Out Of Hell Pt. 2', just that I'm singing it.
"Meat's new record, which I wrote and produced as well, is different - it's less heroic, less epic."
Because he didn't want it anymore?
"I think one of the reasons he wanted me to make this one was to take the pressure off him, he was so scared about trying to outdo 'Bat'. Also I decided that most of the qualities in 'Bat' apart from Meat's voice were my qualities more than his - I mean Meat doesn't know who Wagner is, he's really just an innocent southern kid from Dallas. And he'd never even sung rock 'n roll when I met him.
"So his new record, it's still big-sounding, but it's on a little more intimate scale."
Was Meat on 'Bat' just as a substitute voice or as a whole substitute persona?
"No, Meat's 'Bat' persona is totally created, he's really 'Hi Y'all'. It was my idea to put him in this black tux, give him a handkerchief...I had two images for him - one was of Siegfried the Dragon-slayer, the other image was like a really horny Falstaff.
"Meat is basically and actor, not a creator, so I created that album for him to act out."
How did you meet, and how did you persuade him to get into rock 'n roll?
"He auditioned for a musical I'd written for the New York Shakespeare Festival; he'd mostly sung blues and gospel before, but he was in 'Hair', although that's not real rock 'n roll. But he'd never sung material like mine, and I just took him aside and convinced him that he would be amazing singing this kind of music with this huge operatic voice. It wasn't hard to talk him into it because in that musical he had one song that I wrote for him and used, and no-one had ever really applauded for him up to then, and I remember the first time he cried about it, he was so amazed."
All of which is fine and touching but there have been numerous stories of bickering and dissension in the Steinman-Meat Loaf camp. After the album's giddy ascent to all-time mega-status, were there problems with Meat believing it was all down to him?
"It's always been a stormy relationship. He's a madman, he's tried to strangle hundreds of people around me - he tells me I'm the only person he's scared of, because I intimidate him because I write the stuff. He gets horrified whenever anyone mentions Frankenstein, but there are times when humorously I'll mention that. He threw a top of a piano at me once, but he got frightened when I didn't flinch at all.
"There was a little friction about the relative placing of our names on the album, but that wasn't Meat's fault at all - in fact he was very upset, nervous even, about it. But then going on tour, he did start to think, because it's Meat Loaf on the record, Meat Loaf on the posters, Meat Loaf on stage being cheered at, he thought, 'It's me, it's me', and his ego did get a bit out of control.
"Because his voice, without singing those songs, would just be a blasting voice, I mean, you can hear him on Ted Nugent's 'Free For All' and it's not impressive at all."
How will you react if "Bad For Good" has only light-weight success?
"I'd never lose confidence because I know it's a better record. A bit disgruntled maybe. But someone said to me, you worked two years on that record to achieve complete anonymity, and yet it's one of the biggest sellers of all-time. I'm convinced that if everyone knew that this was the guy who wrote all those songs on 'Bat' they would want to buy this record, it's just getting that across to them - it's just a communications problem if this doesn't succeed. I have total faith that nobody who heard this record would be disappointed if they like 'Bat'. It's just letting those eight million people know that they didn't just go out and buy a fat singer.
"Meat sometimes says 'hey, we're in competition now Jimmy', and that's ridiculous, I say, because your record, I wrote it as well, and produced it too."
Who would dominate the conversation if Meat were here now as well?
"The sort of questions you're asking, I would, but it depends. Doing 'Bat' interviews, Meat would barge into the room, 'Hi, how are ya!' and he'd babble on for twenty minutes, and I'm not interested in sticking in my two cents worth - I either want to talk about it or I don't, so I got the reputation of being the quiet, serious one, which wasn't true at all, as you're finding out.
"But then they'd go, 'Hey Meat, what are you trying to say in your songs?', assuming he wrote them, and he'd go 'Aaaah, hey Jimmy', like Fozzie Bear, 'tell him what we're trying to do in our songs.' In any case, he's not very articulate."
A lot of people might be surprised at the presence of people like Ellen Foley and Todd Rundgren on the albums, not to mention the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. These are not the sort of projects these people would normally get involved in; how were they roped in?
"Ellen worked on the National Lampoon tour with me and Meat, that's how I met her, and we really got on, and she certainly doesn't see my stuff as out of line for her to sing on.
"Todd, well we were turned down by twenty producers for 'Bat', I couldn't even get near the top of my list. Top was Bob Ezrin, I couldn't even get his phone number. I never even thought of Todd, and when we eventually played it to him, he was simply the first producer who said, 'I see no problems here, let's go do it'."
Most to Todd's productions end up sounding more like his own work than that of whoever he's working with, probably the best recent example being last year's Tubes album "Remote Control", but although you can hear him on your albums, he hasn't taken over.
"Mixing Todd's sensibilities with mine was a really combustible combination. He didn't get along with Meat at all, but we got on great, I think he's phenomenal and I think he's in awe of my excess - he couldn't believe there's someone far more excessive than he will ever be.
"My manager was really incensed - he played Todd the demos for the new album and he wanted Todd to be wildly enthusiastic, and Todd just went 'Same old usual epic shit, let's get started', and my manager asked me, was I upset, and I said 'No, I don't need to be complimented by my producer, that's not what he's here for'. Todd understands more than any other producer how to get drama onto a record.
"But he's playing as well - I don't think I would have been interested in him if he was just producing, but he played, got involved in arrangements - I'd say 90% of the background vocals are Todd, he's incredible, it's like a ghostly choir throughout 'Bad For Good'. The second song, 'Lost Boys And Golden Girls' has one of my favorite back-up parts I've ever heard, and he just wrote it on the spot, twelve different parts.
"I know what you mean about the Tubes, but their particular form of excess is more amenable to Todd's influences, I think. The Tubes are abstract, intellectual, conceptual excess, whereas I'm physical, emotional, romantic excess, and the surge that produces probably has more it's own momentum."
Jim has every intention of bringing his own album on the road, and sees no problem in being overshadowed by Meat Loaf comparisons. A slighter figure than Meat, he's nevertheless no featherweight, and his own voice has quite enough resonance of its own to carry his poetic paeans to a lost vision of pure rock 'n roll.
"Meat barrels around the stage like a bull; I just stand there like a knight," he shrugs.
He even intends to temp providence by teaming up with Meat who should be on tour at around the same time, in the autumn, and the two will probably appear on stage together. He's thought about, and dismissed, the idea of doing a token track from 'Bat' on his own tour to help the association, insisting that clarifying the position in interviews is quite sufficient.
Steinman is a wordy lyricist, and happily not an obtuse one. Never one to use a mere word when panegry will do, the themes on "Bad For Good" are as he says a direct extension of "Bat", titles like "Stark Raving Love" and "Dance In My Pants" every bit a match for "Bat's" "Paradise By The Dashboard Light" and "Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad". He disdains direct discussion of his lyrics, confining himself to:
"I think 90% of rock lyrics are total bullshit, abstract. The best rock lyrics are purely physical.
"I'm not out to intimidate, my main concern is to astonish and if possible to enthrall, cast some sort of spell, mesmerize. Intimidation to me is the easy way out."
They do seem to be a rallying cry to a lost age of energy, of power - do you think they're political?
"I think the album is political in that it's a call to action, creating action where there is inertia, a vacuum.
"I made a statement that got the Clash real pissed off, I'm sort of a fan of their music but not at all of what they say - especially in an American context I thought their politics came off incredibly boorish and naive.
"I said something to the effect that Chuck Berry in one bar of music was more political than the Clash would ever be, because he created energy where there had been inertia, whereas the Clash simply babbled on and weren't reaching the people in front of them. And it also seemed to me that if you were writing anthems for the working class, which I actually heard them refer to once, your first responsibility was to write an anthem that the working class could sing along with, and move to, and they don't achieve that a lot either."
A statement that displays a surprising ignorance as to their effect here; kids did and still do sing "White Riot" in the streets. And yet Jim Steinman's triumph is to achieve the great crossover that is the prerogative of so few Americans these days, now that the Atlantic separates wider differences of taste than ever before.
"Which is funny because my records are so quintessential American, quintessential teenage in an American way.
"But a lot of my ultimate heroes are English, I'd give anything just to shake hands with Peter Townshend, and Ray Davies too."
In rare moments when Steinman is neither working on, nor talking about, his own projects, he listens to things like early Spector - "'River Deep Mountain High' is my all-time favorite single," he says. I remember Spector saying once when he as asked what he thought it sounded like, he said:
"It sounds like God hit the world and the world hit back', and that's partly what I'm trying to do as well.
"And of course that's why I like the Doors, my favorite group of that period. I love the dark underside of violence they had."
An affection vividly demonstrated on his Morrison-esque monologue on "Bad For Good", "Love And Death And An American Guitar", a narcissistic tribute which lays bare all the faults of a complete lack of restraint.
But then, restraint is not a word that features in Jim Steinman's vocabulary.
"The record company asked me had I any special marketing ideas for this album, and I said, rather than just press it on vinyl, is there any way you can press it directly onto black leather, put zippers on it, put an exhaust pipe on the label and just send it racing into the street by itself."
And that has to say it all.