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Before he passed away on January 20th at age seventy-four, singer Michael Lee Aday had never quite been able to successfully quell the common misconception that his stage moniker, Meat Loaf, was the name of a band (within days of his death, the “People also ask… ” feature on Google revealed there had been numerous online inquires about “the lead singer from the band Meat Loaf”). Fortunately, the musical legacy left behind by the solo artist Meat Loaf – including his 1977 release Bat Out of Hell, one of the most successful and popular rock albums of all time – will always outweigh any such confusion.
On the subject of weight, the massive, 300-pound physical frame that Meat Loaf occupied during his heyday stood out for rock n roll, which has generally always preferred its frontmen to be svelte or even gangly (though Meat Loaf would eventually slim down quite a bit). That physical appearance was matched by his equally powerful voice, a booming-but-controlled almost opera-like force (which still maintained an everyman essence). Though technically a solo artist, Meat Loaf did owe a great deal of his success to his partnership with songwriter Jim Steinman.
Marvin Lee Aday (he later changed his first name to Michael) was born and raised in Dallas, Texas (his father supposedly gave him the nickname “Meat” as a child, which then evolved into “Meat Loaf” when the boy was in high school). Meat Loaf began fronting rock bands in Los Angeles in the late ’60s, and within a few years he would record for Motown – even scoring a minor hit (“What You See is What You Get”) – and provide about half the lead vocals for Ted Nugent’s 1976 album Free-For-All.
The early and mid-’70s were also a big period for conceptual rock musicals – on stage, for film, and recording – for which Meat Loaf’s voice and persona proved to be a perfect fit. The singer appeared in productions of the groundbreaking show Hair in both Los Angeles and New York City (“Meat Loaf wasn’t yet a star, but he already was shining like one,” Hair co-writer James Rado recalls. “The chubby cat with the gorgeous pipes.”). He also landed a small but memorable singing role in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, making him a recognizable presence to the 1975 movie’s legions of cult fans. It was on the theater circuit that Meat Loaf would also meet his future collaborator, keyboardist, and songwriter Jim Steinman.
Meat Loaf and Steinman began work on what would become Bat Out of Hell in 1972. The title – from a phrase that means rapid acceleration – would prove ironic, since making the project a reality would prove to be a long, drawn-out process. Several record companies rejected it, claiming that the music was too hard to categorize (and therefore sell). However, musician Todd Rundgren (at the time enjoying his own success as a solo artist) heard the potential in the songs and agreed to produce the album. It was also decided for Meat Loaf to have sole billing (although the words “Songs by Jim Steinman” would appear clearly on the cover).
All the waiting and planning ultimately paid off. Released in October of 1977, Bat Out of Hell would eventually sell an astronomical forty-five million copies worldwide. The album was a tight mix of styles (hard rock, early rock n roll, and Springsteen-type bar band) which offered something for almost everyone. Teenagers who smoked in parking lots were no doubt drawn to the b*tchin’ heavy metal-like cover artwork by Richard Corban, while ballads like “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” could be enjoyed by the whole family (even grandma). The overall sound, which Meat Loaf and Steinman approached with a theatrical sensibility, instantly became their trademark.
Nowhere on Bat Out of Hell was that more apparent than on “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”, the highlight of both the album and Meat Loaf’s career. There’d been numerous rock songs before which were also lengthy and consisted of various, distinct sections. However, many of those had seemed like musical patchworks, while the eight-minute-plus “Paradise” sounds like a singular work. Thematically, the song was a risque, humorous, and poignant yarn about teenage deflowerment – and its potentially life-altering consequences – told from the perspective of the girl (performed by the great Ellen Foley) as well as the male protagonist. Though the song just barely made the US Top 40, it would quickly become a staple on AOR and later classic rock radio.
The ’80s, then, would not be particularly kind to Meat Loaf. His first starring film vehicle (Roadie) bombed and temporarily losing his voice delayed a follow-up to Bat Out of Hell. When Dead Ringers was finally released in 1981, it didn’t make the US Top 40 and never even achieved gold certification. Not long after, Meat Loaf and Steinman dissolved their partnership, and while the songwriter was able to successfully permeate the distinct sound through other artists, such as Bonnie Tyler (“Total Eclipse of the Heart”), several of Meat Loaf’s subsequent albums – done mostly with new collaborators – didn’t even chart in the US (although at least in the UK, where Dead Ringers went to No.1, he did enjoy Top 10 status through much of the decade).
Despite his difficulty on the charts, Meat Loaf continued to act in movies (including Out of Bounds, Wayne’s World, and Leap of Faith) and toured regularly, mostly playing small clubs. In 1993, after not releasing a new album for seven years, he reunited with Steinman to make Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell. As suggested by the title, the album closely reflected the sound of the original 1977 classic (with a few songs just a bit harder-edged, possibly a reaction to grunge). For whatever reason, the time was just right: the album went to No.1 in the US, as did the first single “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That).” All told, it would be one of the biggest comebacks in rock history.
In the wake of Bat Out of Hell II, Meat Loaf would enjoy a few more commercial successes, including – not surprisingly – Bat Out of Hell III (the 2006 album was appropriately subtitled The Monster is Loose). In 2011 he collapsed on stage on at least two separate occasions but continued to perform live as late as 2016 (the same year he released Braver Than We Are, which would be his final album of all-new material and as well as the last major project for Jim Steinman, who died in 2021). Openly defiant of recent COVID restrictions and measures (such as wearing masks in public), Meat Loaf would, ironically, die of complications from the disease.
Unlike, say, Alice Cooper (his co-star in the movie Roadie), who constructed a nuanced stage persona, Meat Loaf managed to create a character just by being himself, and it was a character he always seemed comfortable with (even in those periods when the record-buying public failed to take notice). He showed that rock stars come in all shapes and sizes, and rock ‘n’ roll itself could be larger than life while maintaining the human factor (possibly even enhancing it). His biggest hit mentions a car dashboard in the title, and as long as those dashboards have a radio, there will always be a place in the world for Meat Loaf.