I really do remember every little thing as if it happened only yesterday. It was 1980, I was at boarding school and my friend Elly came back from half-term with a couple of vinyl LPs belonging to her older brother. One was Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, and the other was Bat Out of Hell by Meat Loaf. Both had been out for three years or so but were not known to us — this was the post-punk era, when interesting music was coming out of the London club scene, you got your clothes at Kensington Market and boys were starting to wear eyeliner at parties (apart from the ones who wore cummerbunds). We didn’t know what Bat Out of Hell, which eventually sold more than 40 million copies and became one of the top ten albums of all time, even was.
It didn’t look promising. The grossly unappealing sleeve, drawn in the fantasy-gothic style, featured a muscular, naked, grimacing blond-haired man leaning right back on a massive, rearing motorbike as he rides out of hell.
You can tell it is hell because the whole thing is orange and red and in the background there is a gigantic bat with leathery wings and horrible teeth perching atop some sort of spire (which suggests the bat does not in fact get out of hell, but let’s not be niggly).
On the back of the LP was a photograph of Meat Loaf himself, far from lithe, hair unfashionably long and rat-tailsy, head thrown back, wearing shades and a frilly shirt and holding a red silk scarf. His hand was on the bottom of a woman in a white dress who was herself embracing a man with frizzy hair, this being the great Jim Steinman, who conceived and wrote the album.
The effect was thrillingly unwholesome: sort of gross, but also sort of fascinating. In those days our schoolgirl idea of America still involved soda fountains, high school jocks and a certain buttoned-up-ness, not the unrestrained imagery of bats and bum gropes.
Meat Loaf, whose physical presence had a hint of heavy metal and/or biker gangs about it — perhaps a hangover from his performance as Eddie in The Rocky Horror Picture Show a few years before the release of Bat Out of Hell — was both faintly threatening and hypnotically intense.
I am writing this 40 years later, and I haven’t had to look up either of these record sleeve images because I know in my bones that they’re right. I can also still sing Bat Out of Hell in its entirety, word perfect, including the spoken bit in Paradise by the Dashboard Light.
And then we played the album. And played it and played it, obsessed by its genius. The songs were like perfect short stories, vignettes from the dark side. We memorised all the lyrics. And although it was clear even to British girls aged 14 or 15 that Meat Loaf was theatrical, faintly absurd and deeply, desperately uncool, he was also so intensely sincere, uncynical and heartfelt, so inside his own storytelling, that every word he sang got you in your gut.
Steinman’s lushly operatic melodies were irresistible, and his lyrics stuck in your head, immediate, poignant and full of longing. Never have a bunch of public-school girls in the home counties identified more profoundly with the frantic, groin-led tribulations of male American blue-collar youth.
It didn’t end at school, though — how could it? The album was too good. By the time I got to university, I pretended that my love of Meat Loaf was ironic, which enabled me to listen to him in peace; by the time I had children I presented my occasional urge to sing from Bat Out of Hell late at night as an accidental, random choice of tune. By the time, years later, that we got a home karaoke machine, the game was up: you can’t sing something ironically if it sometimes makes you choked with emotion.
These days I am upfront in my love of Meat Loaf, whose entire oeuvre I admire, though Bat Out of Hell remains my favourite. If Steinman was the musical and lyrical genius, Meat Loaf was his perfect interpreter.
He sang about the poetry and yearning inside even the most basic and unpromising-seeming sort of man as though he understood, because that man was him (the best country music does the same thing). That he sweated like a pig during his stage shows and grew increasingly corpulent for a while only added to the power of the songs, which are exhilarating but also tragic and in which dashed dreams feature prominently.
In 1993, when I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That) was at No 1 in the singles charts, I was a feature writer on a Sunday tabloid and rang various impeccably cool arbiters of taste to ask them what it was they thought that Meat Loaf wouldn’t do (forget the woman he is singing to, is the answer, but it’s not immediately clear). I got the very shortest shrift for my temerity. One person in particular was absolutely incensed that I’d even said “Meat Loaf” to them and hung up on me, but not before saying, “Do I look like the sort of person who likes Meat Loaf?”
Now that he has died, I note with delight that nobody thinks he’s too uncool to pay loving tribute to. Meat Loaf seemed to embody at least three of the seven deadly sins — gluttony, sloth and lust — and somehow, through his extraordinary abilities as a performer, managed to turn them into, if not quite virtues, then unforgettable expressions of the complicated business of being human. He was the soundtrack to so many people’s lives, my own included. Rock on, sir.
India Knight writes a weekly column in The Sunday Times and a beauty column in The Sunday Times Style. Her celebrated fiction and non-fiction books have been published around the globe in many languages.