The Dark Knight Returns


It's all coming back to me now. The graveyard being ripped apart by a bronzed Schwarzenegger anti-hero on a Harley Davidson. The warm taste of Woodpecker cider on her lips.

Jim Steinman The speakers blaring as a cohort of spotty geeks moved in for the kill: "like a bat out of hell I'll be gone when the morning comes..."

And the lights coming on, and the parents shaking their car keys and heads in disapproval. "I don't know, the youths of today..."

Yes, I remember everything. Party-pooping parents, prepubescent purgatory and Meat Loaf's epic 'Bat Out Of Hell', the biggest selling debut album of all time.

Except is wasn't Meat Loaf. Sure, he was providing the same satanic growl and shaking his bottom like a giant aspic out of the abyss, but it was the good looking chap on the back of the sleeve who was pulling the strings.

Jim Steinman was no Boy Wonder. He wrote it, he produced it, he edited it. He was Bat Man.

And in a decade of remakes, reissues and reformations, it seems only right that, in the last gasps of 1989, the dark knight should return...

Not that Steinman's ever really been away. Since the split with Meat during that difficult second album, 'Dead Ringer', and his first solo endeavor 'Bad For Good', he's been otherwise engaged, living up to his reputation as "the Phil Spector of the '80s" with not so much a wall of sound as a mausoleum.

Just think of the most grandiose, overblown masterpieces of excess - Bonnie Tyler's 'Total Eclipse Of The Heart', The Sisters Of Mercy's 'This Corrosion' and, er, Barry Manilow's 'Read 'Em And Weep' - and in the small print you'll find Jim Steinman's production and or writing credit.

It's been costly. Physically, Steinman's body has grown to the proportions of his records, and time has streaked his mane with swathes of gray. His songs may still have the mental age of 19 - dark fantasies about living and dying in the fast lane on a black Harley, riding pillion behind a lusty libertine - but, by his own admission, he is rapidly "becoming Meat Loaf."

In the suitably loud Halycon Hotel in Holland Park - fake open fire, stuffed hummingbirds in the fruit bowls, and all the usual five star trimmings - Steinman philosophizes over the factors that have motivated him into creating a new band, Pandora's Box, and writing and producing a new album 'Original Sin'. But first he takes off his biker's gloves and shades.

"I was a little gun shy after 'Bad For Good' about doing such a huge undertaking, and it seemed easier to make singles. But about two years ago I got really sick of it, because I would give songs to like Donna Summer and I'd get letters from her saying, This is a great song but it's not Christian enough, please make it more Christian.

"And for Diana Ross, nothing could be negative. It was, This suggests that all life is horrifying and dark. What could you say that's positive? I said, Well, I'm positive everything is horrifying and dark."

Others were more satisfied. Steinman gave 'Making Love Out Of Nothing At All' to Air Supply - "two boring idiots from Australia" - Barbra Streisand 'Left In The Dark', and Bonnie Tyler the cataclysmic 'Total Eclipse Of The Heart'.

"It was a mad scene," Steinman recalls. "I mean, that woman was mad singing - her voice sound like she's been put on the rack."

But not as mad as Steinman's aborted production on Def Leppard's follow-up to 'Pyromania'.

"That was bullshit, like working with blanks. I've come to believe that Def Leppard is basically like George Bush, a package item with an amazing amount of confection and no content.

"They're just like Spinal Tap. It's really all the producer - a Mutt Lange creation. They come out as great records, beautifully layered technically, but so empty.

"One of the first conversations I had with Def Leppard was in Dublin during pre-production. I was so excited to be in Dublin and I said, This is great for me. I'm finally in the land of James Joyce and Yeats. These guys are idols of mine. You guys feel that at all? And they said, No, we haven't had a chance to meet any of the local musicians.

"It was like that from beginning to end, it was one absurdity after another.

"We tried over 200 amps and every guitar amp they'd say, Ugh, that's too squawky. So finally I sent away for the multi-tracks of 'Pyromania'. And I was playing it one day - and the two guitarists come into the studio and say, It's still not right, it's still too squawky!"

Stories about what finally brought the deal to a close, vary from camp to camp. One rumor suggests it was Steinman's decision to take an evening off to visit his favorite Amsterdam. But for Steinman it was a different night out.

"The final straw was when Joe Elliott went into town to see a movie. When he came back I said, Joe, how was the movie? And he said, F***ing brill, f***ing brill. I said, What did you see? He said, Police Academy III."

'Original Sin' is Jim's "blue album" - 'Bat Out Of Hell' was his red and, no, he won't be doing a green one. And it lives up to all of the wildest Steinman dreams.

It's a collection of crazed, hooked-on-classical instrumentals, enchanted spoken word recitals, epic rock songs for which the word crescendo was coined, and even an outrageous cover of The Doors' 'Twentieth Century Fox' that would have Jim Morrison turning in his bathtub.

Shangri-La's intros, Beach Boys harmonies, Wagnerian orchestrations, sounds from heaven to hell and larger than life are shredded and reassembled, as four female singers of operatic disposition pay homage to the danger and darkness of sex, with rampant, hysterically crass metaphors like, "Is it richer than diamonds/Or just a little cheaper than spit/ I don't know what it is/But it just won't quit."

Mad, bad, chart compatible and the perfect compliment to Steinman's fairytale fantasies - everything from motorbikes crashing through church windows to magical ceremonies involving seductive, dominant women and willing acolytes.

Appropriately, Ken Russell was commissioned for the video of the first single 'It's All Coming Back To Me Now'. The magnitude of the director's gothic extremism was only matched by the fee - an estimated 125,000 pounds, plus 1,000 pounds per hour overtime - which was paid for by the sale of the instrumental 'Requiem Metal' to Ford for an ad.

But, hell, a Sierra's almost as impressive as a Harley and, anyway, it's all the same to Jim cos the man who "hit the highway like a battering ram on a silver black Phantom bike" can't even drive.

Still, as he says, "It's not necessary having it, it's just a presence that's always there. I mean I don't play guitar but Fender guitars have real magical power in them, they all have little gods in them. I don't believe in one god but there's a line in the play 'Equus' where the guy says he believes in millions of local gods. That's what I feel like.

"There's so many things that have beautiful gods in them - y'know, amplifiers, guitars, motorcycles, girls' eyes, screams in the middle of New York City some nights, moons, there's millions of them."

It's about this time that I begin to worry that Jim's isolated life on a farm outside New York may have had severe, adverse effects on his psyche: a combination of Wagner records and the banjo playing 'Deliverance' extras who run the local village store. But behind Steinman's frequent references to "magic" and "darkness" there's a mind thoroughly in gear with the music industry, its values and its limitations.

"In a sense it's all show business. The most real, powerful, confessional rock 'n' roll is still showbiz. I don't think there's any difference between Barry Manilow's candelabras and Axl Rose's chains and leathers and, er, needles.

"That's why I've always been a fan of Queen. Much closer to Liberace than Guns N' Roses."

And the Jim Steinman gothic tour?

"It wouldn't be Guns N' Roses... or Liberace. I think it would be fair to say it's a combination of the two - y'know, Guns N' Liberace."