Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

If you want to get technical, Bat Out of Hell wasn’t Meat Loaf’s first album per se – just his first as a solo artist. (Really!) He’d previously served as one-half of the duo Stoney & Meatloaf (who recorded one album for the Motown subsidiary Rare Earth) alongside future Little Feat vocalist Shaun Murphy. But we’re only interested here in Meat Loaf’s work on his own – both with and without his creative soulmate, songwriter/producer Jim Steinman, who’s issued two discs himself (one as a solo artist and one as the sole full-time instrumentalist in the short-lived band Pandora’s Box), both of which we’ll also examine here alongside Meat Loaf’s work. As you’ll see from reading below, neither man is as quite as good on their own as the two are when they work together – theirs is truly a magical partnership, although to Steinman’s credit, he weathered the long gap between Bat Out of Hell discs in the ‘80s nicely by penning and producing hits for other artists like Bonnie Tyler (including “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “Holding Out for a Hero”) and Air Supply (the surprisingly forceful – at least by that band’s standards, anyway – “Making Love Out of Nothing at All”). But that would come later, and let us first go back to where it all began for the pair …  

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Bat Out of Hell (1977, Cleveland International/Epic)

A +

Meat Loaf’s work from the Eighties and onward generally disappoints most listeners already familiar with this album, but that’s pretty much inevitable: there was simply no way that he was ever going to top this album. It’s an acquired taste, to be sure – this is larger-than-life Wagnerian pomp-pop, a hybrid of Phil Spector-sized production, Springsteen-esque arena rock, and musical theater, with tongue planted firmly in cheek – but those who get the joke and don’t mind the completely gonzo-styled arrangements should adore the disc. What makes this disc Meat Loaf’s finest hour is more than just the caliber of the material (Bat Out of Hell II, in terms of sheer songwriting, is nearly just as strong, even if the songs on that disc go on for much longer than necessary) – it’s the melding of talents first and foremost. Couple Meat Loaf’s sheer vocal power and Jim Steinman’s dramatic epics with the musical chops of everyone involved here – particularly E Street Band members Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg, Utopia members Kasim Sulton, Roger Powell and Willie Wilcox, and Edgar Winter (who seldom gets noted for appearing on the disc but plays sax on several cuts here) – and the production efforts of Todd Rundgren (an absolutely ingenious choice of producer for a disc as unorthodox as this; strangely enough, he’d never again helm a Meat Loaf disc, though he’d show up on several to sing and arrange backing vocals), and you simply can’t go wrong. The infamous “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” (sung as a duet with Ellen Foley) – complete with a play-by-play narration from the legendary Phil Rizzuto – is the one that pops up most often at weddings and parties, but there are even superior songs to be found here, from the lovely ballad “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” and the highly infectious “You Took the Words Out of My Mouth” to the irrepressible stomp of “All Revved Up and No Place to Go” and the manic theatrics of the title track. Much like Boston’s self-titled debut from a year earlier, this disc got rejected by every label in the business on first go-around, and it’s easy to see why – it was simply too unlike anything that preceded it to seem like an easy disc to market to radio, no matter how catchy the songs may have been – but if you can warm up to the rock-theater stylings of this admittedly very weird but lovable album, you’ll keep coming back to it time and time again.

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Bad for Good (1981, Cleveland International/Epic)

B –

The one and only solo album ever released by Jim Steinman is every bit as deliciously berserk as Bat Out of Hell and is much more of an obvious sequel to that disc than Meat Loaf’s actual second album, Dead Ringer, would turn out to be, even bringing back nearly all the same players, including Rundgren (who co-produces) and all of Utopia, Weinberg and Bittan, and Ellen Foley. (This disc – begun under the working title Renegade Angel – technically was meant to be a Meat Loaf album, but Steinman was itching to get the material out and couldn’t wait until Meat Loaf – who had lost his voice during the making of the disc – was sufficiently healed and ready to sing again.) While it’s true that the set of songs isn’t quite as good (“Dance in My Pants” is particularly excruciatingly embarrassing), the ultimate problem with Bad for Good (its silly, over-the-top, harlequin-novel-like album cover aside) isn’t so much the material so much as it is that Steinman really has no business making a solo album – he’s just not a particularly good vocalist, and the album is largely salvaged by his willingness to let other, better vocalists – namely Rory Dodd (best known as the male vocalist featured on Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”) – sing the occasional tune, and it’s Dodd who sings lead on the only cut here to see any significant chart action, “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through” (which isn’t even technically featured on the album itself but on a bonus two-song seven-inch EP that came packaged with the original vinyl). There are some genuinely good songs here – namely, “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through,” “Surf’s Up,” and “Left in the Dark” (later made a minor hit by Barbra Streisand) – but there’s simply no getting around the fact that the album would have been unquestionably superior if Steinman simply had let this material sit until Meat Loaf was ready to work again. Even at its absolute worst moments, though, the disc never ceases to be amusing (not in the least since Steinman is free here to indulge his every last over-the-top idea), so, although it’s possible to call this a bad album, Bad for Good is one of those rare records that might be so bad that it’s actually good.

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Dead Ringer (1981, Cleveland International/Epic)

B –

It’s not Bad Out of Hell, no, but this album isn’t nearly as forgettable as many critics might have you believe, and it’s no more flawed than Bad for Good. What most keeps this disc from reaching the same heights as its predecessor is that the pool of talents just isn’t the same – Steinman once again supplies all the songs (though he provides none of the instrumentation this time around), and Bittan and Weinberg thankfully return as well, but Ellen Foley, Edgar Winter, Utopia, and most importantly, Todd Rundgren himself are all missing here, and their absence is very much felt. Without Rundgren around, the production is left to Meat Loaf, Steinman, Jimmy Iovine, and Stephen Galfas, and though they do an adequate job, the personality of the previous album is lost in the process, and it just doesn’t have the same magic – whereas Bat Out of Hell simply felt gonzo, this disc seems a bit restrained in comparison, and it works against the tongue-in-cheek nature of Steinman’s best work. But there are certainly some good and too-easily-overlooked moments here: “Dead Ringer for Love” is one of the greatest Meat Loaf songs you’ve almost certainly never heard, even if Cher isn’t really the ideal substitute for Ellen Foley, while “More Than You Deserve” and “I’m Gonna Love Her for the Both of Us” are both minor classics in the Steinman canon. “Read ‘em and Weep” might actually be the most underrated Jim Steinman composition of all, but it’s telling just how weak the production of this album is in comparison to the first album that the definitive and most truly Meat Loaf-esque version of this song was cut by not Meat Loaf himself, but – believe it or not – Barry Manilow (really!) with Steinman (and, thankfully, only Steinman) producing. (Seriously, go check out the Manilow version if you’ve never heard it. It might be the coolest thing Manilow has ever made and is a must-own for any Steinman buff.) You could make a valid case that this album, if judged purely on the songwriting, is actually better than Bad for Good (certainly nothing on Bad for Good is as masterful and ingenious as “Read ‘em and Weep”), and it probably is (it certainly helps that Meat Loaf, unlike Steinman, is a strong singer), but it’s never as bona fide crazy and, perhaps for that very reason, just doesn’t feel nearly as interesting.

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Midnight at the Lost and Found (1983, Epic)

D

Meat Loaf’s commercial standing had fallen substantially in the six years since Bat Out of Hell, so this album may have still sold poorly regardless what was on it, but allegedly, if the stories are to be believed, this album was originally meant to include the songs “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (which would go on to hit Number One and become the biggest hit Bonnie Tyler ever had) and “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” (which would be a Top Three smash for, of all bands, Air Supply, and do wonders to shake up critics’ preconceptions of that group as nothing more than a fluffy soft-pop duo), but business disputes prevented Steinman from being involved, and so we’re instead left with a disc helmed by, incongruously enough, Tom Dowd (best known for his work with Eric Clapton) and featuring no Jim Steinman songs at all. Instead, we get a Chuck Berry cover, some outside material, and several tunes largely penned by Meat Loaf himself, who, by his own admission, is not much of a songwriter. Skip.

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Bad Attitude (1984, RCA)

C –

Only marginally better than Midnight at the Lost and Found, there are some mildly redeeming moments here. Roger Daltrey duets with Meat Loaf on the title cut; the Clare Torry duet “Modern Girl” is reasonably good and was a sizable U.K. hit, though it bombed Stateside; and there are two Steinman songs included here, “Nowhere Fast” and “Surf’s Up,” the latter a re-recording of the Bad for Good cut of the same name. But the rest of the material is too spotty; the production is lackluster; and the disc noticeably plays up Meat Loaf’s hard-rock side, which is not a wise move since Meat Loaf thrives best in a more theatrical setting and is much less credible as the metal type.

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Blind Before I Stop (1986, Atlantic)

C –

Sounding like less old Meat Loaf than it does synth-laden lite-metal, if there was any doubt that Meat Loaf had thoroughly lost the plot during the ‘80s, this was it. Helmed by Frank Farian (the same guy who masterminded Milli Vanilli, if you can believe it), there are actually some pretty good pop songs here. [Billy Rankin’s “Burnin’ Down” is a great, great song (in the form of Rankin’s original version, at least) and “Special Girl” is penned by Eddie Schwartz and David Tyson, both very underrated songwriters. (The former wrote Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” and Paul Carrack’s “Don’t Shed a Tear,” among other songs, while the latter wrote Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet.”)] It’s just highly debatable whether or not any of this material is really right for Meat Loaf, who never used to be quite so traditional as he is here. “Rock and Roll Mercenaries” – a duet with John Parr of “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)” fame – was a moderate U.K. hit, but otherwise, most people have long forgotten about this disc and for good reason.

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Original Sin (1989, Virgin)

B –

The closest thing Jim Steinman has ever made to a second solo album was this disc, issued under the moniker Pandora’s Box – basically himself on keyboards, while four female vocalists (including Ellen Foley – returning to music after a long hiatus that saw her branch out into acting on TV’s Night Court and big-screen pictures such as Cocktail – and former Joe Jackson backing vocalist Elaine Caswell) take turns singing lead. Strangely, Steinman has opted not to write all the material here as he usually does – he’s instead included covers of The Doors’ “Twentieth Century Fox” and Burt Bacharach’s “My Little Red Book” (both sung by Foley) – but the originals he has included are fairly solid. (Indeed, he’d end up re-using or re-writing much of this material for other projects – in fact, Meat Loaf’s next album would incorporate both “It Just Won’t Quit” and “Good Girls Go to Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere).") There’s also one very familiar tune here – the Caswell-sung “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” would later become a massive hit in the late ‘90s for Celine Dion. The album was a huge commercial flop, but it’s every bit as fascinating as Bad for Good; like that album, though, better versions of most of these songs do exist, and the disc ultimately feels like just another stopgap project until the inevitable full-length reunion with Meat Loaf, so it’s debatable just how often you’ll actually go back and listen to these particular renditions, wildly intriguing though they are the first time you hear them.