Sunday 17 March 2013

MEAT LOAF: Dead Ringer

(#251: 12 September 1981, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Peel Out/I’m Gonna Love Her For Both Of Us/More Than You Deserve/I’ll Kill You If You Don’t Come Back/Read ‘Em And Weep/Nocturnal Pleasure/Dead Ringer For Love/Everything Is Permitted

The songs were still written by Jim Steinman, but it was not a sequel. Steinman had begun to write a sequel to Bat Out Of Hell but halfway through recording it, the singer’s voice disappeared. No one knows whether the loss was psychosomatic but he had fallen offstage in Ottawa and broken his leg, developed a taste for cocaine, entertained suicidal ideations and was generally exhausted and close to broken, not to say broke. Steinman therefore had no alternative but to sing and record the songs himself, and the resulting album, Bad For Good, came out in the early summer of 1981, and did reasonable business, although many critics pointed at vocal inadequacy, and many of the record’s songs would subsequently reappear on Bat Out Of Hell II.

While making Bad For Good, however, Meat Loaf’s voice returned, as mysteriously as it had vanished, and so a slightly annoyed Steinman had little alternative but to write a completely new album for him to sing. One of its songs, “More Than You Deserve,” had been the title song for a 1974 stage musical in which Meat Loaf had played a small part (although in the original show the song was sung by Fred Gwynne) and there may be some evidence of leftover songs being reheated and reworked. In any case, apart from writing the songs and producing (with Jimmy Iovine) the backing tracks for all but two of them, Steinman had very little to do with Dead Ringer; the “Songs By Jim Steinman” co-credit from Bat Out Of Hell was demoted to the rear cover, and Meat Loaf himself, with Stephen Galfas, oversaw the production.

What all this meant is that the follow-up to Bat Out Of Hell has remained under something of a cloud; it is not easy to find on CD – at the time of writing, anything by Meat Loaf that isn’t Bat Out Of Hell-related or a compilation is hard to come by – and its appearance here is perhaps more indicative of fans’ immediate clamouring for something, anything, to come after Bat Out Of Hell, than genuine popularity. Actually it did comparatively well in Britain, staying on our charts for almost a year – largely because of the video-aided popularity of its chief hit single “Dead Ringer For Love” – but elsewhere it generally flopped. People were disappointed, and Meat Loaf himself was probably amongst the disappointed, hence the rather grumpy and truculent singer whom Morley met for the NME in December 1981; the interview took place a day after he had changed his entire management team.

Moreover, Dead Ringer is a markedly gloomier and more downbeat affair than its predecessor. The effect may have been all smoke and mirrors, but it should be noted that shortly before its release – in the chart week ending 22 August 1981 - Bat Out Of Hell rose to number nine in the UK, its only week in the top ten out of the nine or so years that it cumulatively spent on our charts between 1978 and 2003 (474 according to Guinness and Wikipedia, 469 according to Chart Stats; at the time of writing this did not include the more recent redux reissue, which peaked at...#9).

It is a remarkable and probably unique achievement, to prove so popular a record over such a sustained period of time – whilst at the same time going fourteen times platinum in the States – while almost wholly remaining in the chart’s midriff, a consistent but never spectacular seller. In fact Bat Out Of Hell was very likely the most successful word-of-mouth album there has ever been, a record whose seven songs – only seven, but all are very long – were hardly ever played on the radio or mentioned in the press (none of its three UK singles broached the top ten, and only the title track went as far as the Top 20, at least until 1993) by an artist who, if mentioned at all by critics, was usually mentioned with ridicule, yet whose reputation steadily grew in a systematically increasing V-sign to critics and trendsetters. People heard of this record, maybe from friends, or perhaps they watched the video of the title track broadcast more than once on The Old Grey Whistle Test, and they wanted more; they felt something in its grooves which couldn’t readily be met by, or on, other records.

Why was this? One projection is inescapable. Bat Out Of Hell appeared, with no fanfare, in November 1977, featuring on its Richard Corden cover a mysterious figure on a motorcycle, roaring out of a cemetery and blasting through his gravestone. The picture of a soaked, shocked and artificially blue-eyed Meat Loaf on the rear of Dead Ringer heightens the intrigue, and the timing of Bat’s release must have underlined this – we are looking at the resurrection, or at least the posthumous revenge, of Elvis. Look at the picture on the rear of Bat with the singer, motionless and expressionless in shades, covering up the cavorting couple next to him with his scarlet cummerbund, or the other picture of him, seemingly lying in rest in his casket, but with open, aware eyes; he looks like the 1977 Presley, coming back to life.

Furthermore, the traditions of Bat Out Of Hell reach back to the earliest days of this tale, the times of Carousel and West Side Story. This is hardly surprising, given Meat Loaf’s background (and continuing parallel career) as an actor; three songs from the album began life as numbers in an off-Broadway stage show by Steinman about Peter Pan called Neverland. The setting was updated to futuristic science fiction; the title song is a sort of rock ‘n’ roll projection of Peter flying so fast and serenely that he fails to notice the bars on the closed window, and crashes straight into them (the other two were “Heaven Can Wait” and a song called “Formation Of The Pack” which eventually became “All Revved Up With No Place To Go”).

The setting and sound of the album, when released, were inevitably reminiscent of the Born To Run Springsteen – indeed the record’s producer and effective co-conspirator Todd Rundgren says that the main reason he took the job on was because he thought Bat was an extended Springsteen send-up – a comparison strengthened by the involvement of two E-Street Band members (keyboardist and co-arranger Roy Bittan, and drummer Max Weinberg). Springsteen himself was out of action at the time of the record’s release, for legal reasons, and by the time he came back the following year, with Darkness On The Edge Of Town, people felt confused and alienated by the darker world Springsteen now seemed to be portraying. So they went for the brighter and “easier” option of Meat Loaf.

Yet although Alan Partridge would doubtless say, as he did about Wings and the Beatles, that Meat Loaf was all Bruce Springsteen could have been, careful side-by-side listening to Bat and Darkness - records both, lest we forget, released under the overall aegis of CBS – suggests that the two worlds were really not that different. They share the common urgent need to escape, to find some kind of absolute and ideal love, with or without inverted commas, and the underlying knowledge that it may all be for nothing. If anything, Meat Loaf and Steinman’s is the darker world; yes, Springsteen appears to be saying across Darkness, we’re all getting older, and is everything that we promised to ourselves on Born To Run still going to matter to us, when set against the general closing down of the world we see all around us – what if “we” were born to run into a brick wall?

The difference is the shared romance of the notion of rock ‘n’ roll as deliverance, or even escape; Meat Loaf is immersed in that romantic notion, so deeply and blindly that perhaps he cannot see how the world around him has changed until it is too late for him to do so. Whereas Springsteen can’t let go of that romance, the rock that rolled him fifteen or twenty years earlier, before he “grew up” and had to accept “responsibility.” Even in the encroaching bleakness of “Racing In The Streets,” where ghosts of old pop songs rustle around his muddy feet like tumbleweed, or sidewinders, he can still glimpse that hope, the promise, and convince his lover to view the dream with him. He knows it is all half truth, half bullshit, but he still loves the lies enough to want to turn them into the truth.

Meat Loaf, in contrast, finds it hard even get past the idea of “love.” In “You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth,” he is “just about to say ‘I love you’” when he gets distracted by sexuality; in “Paradise By The Dashboard Light,” he is goaded by Ellen Foley and other angels over several minutes, and almost beyond endurance to say that he loves her, and at the moment he does, he immediately sees their ultimate ruination (“So now I’m praying for the end of time”). In the song where he owns up, “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad,” he admits that there was once a girl – in these songs, nothing ever goes beyond “boy” and “girl” level, not even when they are clearly grown up (though still, essentially, acting like children) – who left him because she couldn’t say that she loved him, and that lack has carried on to his own subsequent first-hand rejections. He doesn’t say whether she was a white goddess but I think we can take the inference. And, for a song cycle, “For Crying Out Loud” – a song which, significantly, he has not, until now, performed on stage – is a conclusion which initially seems bleak enough to stand next to Marvin Gaye’s “Just To Keep You Satisfied” yet ultimately also a redemptive one; the man from Dallas “sinking deeper and deeper in the chilly California sand,” who almost wills himself to another planet, finally turns, thanks his lover for everything she’s done for him – and the final words of the record are “You know I love you.”

Those last words are notably absent from Dead Ringer. The cover, drawn by Swamp Thing co-creator Berni Wrightson, finds him as a frozen Neptune, with an equally frozen party, sailing through a storm on a grotesque ship-cum-sea monster. He is soaked on the rear cover, but has clearly made it back to land, although his mouth is agape with shock.

On Dead Ringer there appears to be no easy way out. Opener “Peel Out” is very Springsteen-esque in its frustrated, expectant desire to escape a dead end – Weinberg’s drumming is particularly animated – and the song is a more impatient “Born To Run” variant (“We’re sick and tired of waiting in line!,” “Nobody’s taking our time!”). But, as the song progresses, or runs on the spot, it becomes clear that it does not really sound particularly like Springsteen; its rushing tempo is actually more predicative of “Holding Out For A Hero”; it’s as if Meat Loaf isn’t prepared even to hang around for the “1-2-3-4” count.

And, if and when he does break free, what is he escaping into? “I’m Gonna Love Her For Both Of Us,” over seven gruelling minutes, details how he’s noticing that her lover is treating her like shit, and that he is sure that he can give her what she wants, and so, rather than a casual “You’re Going To Lose That Girl”-type warning, he tries to make the man – who, he makes clear, is like a brother to him – see his reasoning. He’ll try and make them both happy by making her happy, even though he gives no guarantee that this will last beyond one night. He’s doing them a favour, making it easy on themselves. Like the rest of his work with Steinman, Meat Loaf benefits from having a relatively limited vocal range – ranging between hysterical and stentorian – and a markedly theatrical vocal range at that; he comes at these songs as an actor first and singer second. He wants to make you believe in what he is singing, that he is this person, this protagonist (which is why, for instance, as Ken Bruce correctly pointed out on Radio 2 last week, “MacArthur Park” works so well as a pop record; Richard Harris would have been the first to admit that he was not exactly the world’s greatest singer, but his actorly approach to Webb’s songs – and he believed in them enough to record two albums of them – worked because technical mastery would have shifted attention away from the song and towards the singer. But here, the song – and perhaps even the record – is dominant, and works as both song and record for precisely that reason. That also explains why I can also believe the Richard Harris who in 1974 sings “My Boy” more readily than the 1974 Elvis who also sings the song, even though its subject matter was probably truer to Presley’s life*).

(*and isn’t this secret late sixties history of avant-MoR the unacknowledged road that leads, in one part, to Meat Loaf and Steinman? If you’re nagged by the thought of who the hell does Meat Loaf’s voice remind you of, then think…Barry Ryan? He who, with his twin brother, made every song nothing less than an epic of emotion drawn out and magnified to gloriously absurd extremes? Try “You Don’t Know What You’re Doing” from 1969’s Barry Ryan Sings Paul Ryan for starters).

But where does this selfish selflessness get him? In “More Than You Deserve” he finds that the girl he loves is doing it “to my best friend,” and by the song’s end he ups the ante quite dramatically (“to TWO of my best friends,” and finally “To a GROUP of my best friends/So I looked them right in their eyes and I said/Listen here, GROUP…” With exasperated resignation, he tells them to get on with it, enjoy themselves (“Won’t you take some more, boy? It’s more than you deserve”); the tables have been turned. Actually the original musical, More Than You Deserve, was set in a US army base in Vietnam, and Gwynne’s commanding officer takes in a visiting reporter, only to discover her making whoopee with the rest of the troops (in the show they do reconcile). Placed in this context, however, it plays as a suggestion that the singer just doesn’t know what love is; I am reminded of one of the extended one-sided monologues Altman gives Beatty to say in McCabe & Mrs Miller; outwitted by Julie Christie’s authentically South London madam and procurer, who embodies all that he only pretends to be, he says this:

“Just freezing my soul, that’s what you’re doing. Freezing my soul. Well, shit, enjoy yourself, girl, just go ahead and have a time with it. It’s just my luck, going with the one woman who’s ever been something to me ain’t nothing but a whore. But what the hell – I never was a percentage man. I suppose a whore’s the only kind of woman I’d know.”
(Quoted by David Thomson in his remarkable biography/sci-fi mashup Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes: A Life and a Story. New York: Random House, Inc., 1987)

Something of that preternaturally doomed self-awareness also crops up in the long, meditative and very striking passage that comes in the midst of the agonised “I’ll Kill You If You Don’t Come Back.” He rescued this “girl” and what has she brought him but pain and grief? So he’s had enough – “Go on and take your stuff – don’t even bother to pack,” but he makes it clear that this is a test and he wants her to come back.

Then he damns himself by looking out towards the rest of the world, and all the other girls he might have met, or known, or even loved, or loved him, everywhere he looks in America, and wonders why he settled for so much less (“But damn me and curse me for still needing you”). It’s a chilling choke of self-hatred, and maybe not really what the record buyers of 1981 were, in general, looking for.

“Read ‘Em And Weep” is one of only two songs on the record that I can truly say has stuck with me, as a song rather than an extended recitative. Clearly the record’s big ballad, its “Two Out Of Three” – so strong a song that Barry Manilow recorded it, with only minor lyric changes, two years later – the song again offers a list of alternative futures for the singer and his now estranged lover that won’t ever come true. It is as coruscating as anything in late Abba (“But now the rooms are all empty and the candles are dark”) and builds up to a collapsing crescendo – there is something in him that he doesn’t like (“It’s running silent and angry and deep”) but deep down he knows that there is something missing that he just doesn’t have – some mysterious or not-so-mysterious quality or attribute – and that will preclude him from the reality of “love” forever. He sounds beaten, bruised, baffled and enraged (“Now the present is nothing but a hollowed out dream”); all he wants is for you to look in his eyes and…understand.

Following an enigmatic spoken interlude which lasts barely more than half a minute but which seems to picture a post-apocalyptic society tearing itself apart (“And they’ve blown up the YWCA like a giant balloon/And sent it out to sea full of screaming, lovely, lonely girls”), the record immediately launches into “Dead Ringer For Love,” which, both in terms of the record and its video, seems, like “Atomic” to take place after the apocalypse; he is in this dead-end bar, or truck stop, or wherever; he is Desperate For It, knowing just enough to know that what he knows isn’t enough (he sings “Rock ‘n’ roll and brew” as though it were “Rock ‘n’ roll is through”), and whom should he be infatuated with and run into but Cher, making her very belated Then Play Long debut with an amused and very cynical but also highly vulnerable performance. She is a lot more realistic and dismissive towards him – “I don’t have to listen to your whimpering talk!” – but in the end, more out of loneliness than anything else, she agrees to go with him, even though they both know it’s not what they are looking for (Cher sings, “I’m looking for anonymous and fleeting satisfaction” and apparently has a “daddy” – Sonny Bono? Gregg Allman? – to whom she wants to teach some kind of lesson). It’s a “dead ringer for love” – in other words, it’s the look of love - but not the thing itself. Even so, it might be the nearest thing to love that he may ever understand. The music itself is terrific and purposeful; if it sounds a little like “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” then that’s Davey Johnstone himself on guitar (earlier, “More Than You Deserve” benefits from excellent work by those very 1974 support players, Mick Ronson and Nicky Hopkins; Ronson’s solo, echoing and articulating the singer’s despondency, stands up to, and may well surpass, anything on The Next Day).

But then the coldest of closers, a simple twist of Situationist fate. The singer finds himself in the middle of a static nowhere. Like Cliff Richard, he has come to the conclusion that escape merely means a subtler imprisonment. The idea of “love” being fundamentally incompatible with the reality of love, he is alone, without even the partner vital to “For Crying Out Loud,” and realises that without something to contain and hold all of this spilling angst, there is nowhere to direct it. He sings, as though singing from the end of the world:

“And all the clocks are showing zero
And all our parents must have fled
And we just never had no heroes
And all our enemies will soon be stone cold dead.”

It is an unutterable hopelessness; there are not even streets to go racing in, let alone a shoreline, Jersey or otherwise, to go and stare at in hope of something better. He is still in a bedroom in Kensington; perhaps it’s the one in the Palace. The record will hardly be heard anywhere apart from in Britain. But there is, nonetheless, the continuing feeling that all of this is building up to something. Even with Dark Side Of The Moon, there is enough spectacle and inverted flash to retain an audience’s extended interest; but, as Springsteen already knows, the public will always go for the lies over the truth if their colours are louder and brighter. Or, as in Meat Loaf’s case, paradoxically darker.

Next: the art of hiding behind song structures.