Todd Rundgren Talks Spoofing Bruce Springsteen and Seeing Meat Loaf Propose With a Salmon While Producing 'Bat Out of Hell'
There are two types of people from the late-'70s music business: those who readily admit that they never in a million years would’ve guessed that Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell would go on to be the fifth-highest selling record of all time, and liars.
The album, celebrating its 40th anniversary on Oct. 21, was a hard sell -- a collaboration between Meat Loaf, still at that point in his career primarily known as a Broadway actor, and composer Jim Steinman, based on Neverland, Steinman’s futuristic rock musical about Peter Pan. For two and a half years, no label would touch it. Clive Davis famously hated it, telling Meat Loaf “actors don’t make records.” And yet, somehow, this intensely bizarre, overwrought record of musical theater-rock -- released right in the middle of punk's heyday, the same year as the Sex Pistols' Nevermind the Bollocks and the Ramones' Rocket to Russia -- went on to sell over 43 million copies worldwide, and still moves approximately 200,000 units a year to this day.
Part of the credit for the LP's mega-success certainly belongs to Todd Rundgren, a solo rock star in his own right -- who agreed to produce the record because he thought it’d be a funny Bruce Springsteen parody, and eventually got stuck with the tab after a deal with RCA fell through.
Billboard caught up with Rundgren in honor of Bat Out of Hell’s 40th anniversary to discuss its legacy, how Steinman and Meat Loaf brought humor to their material “in a way that Springsteen never did,” and just who else was in on the joke. (Spoiler alert: no one).
Why don't we start at the beginning? Tell me a little about how you were first approached to produce Bat Out of Hell.
I had a friend and occasional bandmate named Moogy Klingman, and in the mid-'70s, I was getting a lot of production work -- probably more production work than I could handle -- and so Moogy approached me [to say] "Well, if I find a band or an act that you think is worth producing, I'll do the legwork on it, and that'll help me get into the production game." So I said, "Okay, that's a fine idea. If I hear something, sure, we can give that a try."
So a couple weeks later, he came to me with this act. It was Meat Loaf, and he explained it was also this guy Steinman who I hadn't heard of. I knew who Meat Loaf was; I'd seen him in the Rocky Horror show on Broadway. So I said "Okay, interesting enough, let's listen to it" -- and the only way that they would demo the material was to do it live. They didn't have a demo tape, or they didn't want me to have a demo tape, because they thought that was not representative of what they were trying to do.
So they set up in a rehearsal studio, Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf and Ellen Foley and Rory Dodd, just the four of them, and they essentially performed most of what turned out to be the first record. They did it all live, just the four of them, with all the familiar tropes that would become the video later -- the whole "Paradise By the Dashboard Light" thing, that whole part of it. And they related to me that they'd essentially done this for any producer who would entertain coming to see them, and that they had been essentially turned down by everybody. And I could understand why, because it didn't have an obvious commerciality.
But I saw it as a spoof of Bruce Springsteen. Because the songs were sort of very basic changes, the themes were all... [Laughs.] By the time it was the '70s, the themes were kind of nostalgic. Even though Bruce Springsteen would represent them as still being real, the iconography was still out of the '50s, you know? It was switchblades and leather jackets and motorcycles and that sort of junk. So I saw the whole presentation as being a spoof of Bruce Springsteen, and that's why I decided to do it.
And what was it about the idea of a Springsteen spoof that appealed to you?
Well, there was a lot of interesting stuff in there, like the fact that Jim Steinman kind of wove this sense of humor into the material in a way that Springsteen never did. But it was also so annoying to me personally that Bruce Springsteen was being declared the savior of rock and roll. You know, he was on the cover of TIME magazine, and I thought, "this music is going nowhere." He may represent the image that people want, but from a musical standpoint, it's going backwards. So I thought he needed to be spoofed.
Did you discuss the idea of it being a Springsteen spoof with Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf at all? Were they in on it?
Well, I don't know whether I used the term "spoof." [Laughs.] But as it turned out, you know, Max Weinberg and Roy Bittan from the E Street Band wound up playing on the record, so that kind of made it even spoofier. But I don't think I instructed them in any way to think of it differently than they would have otherwise. But quite obviously they were cast because they could bring that Springsteeniness to the whole project.
So the E Street Band guys weren't aware that they were being spoofed at all.
Nobody was aware that they were being spoofed. The reality is that everyone kind of puts the focus on Meat Loaf, but everything's coming from Steinman. Meat Loaf is essentially someone that Steinman cast in an imaginary musical that never got produced. So it isn't like a calculated attempt to break into radio or anything like that; it's really Steinman trying to realize his vision of a musical, albeit somewhat compromised from the original because his original idea was to retell the story of Peter Pan. And that's kind of been the albatross. He keeps retrying to tell the story of Peter Pan in one form or another. And so just imagine Meat Loaf as Peter Pan.
Have you ever heard from Bruce Springsteen about the record? He must have an opinion on it.
I have not. I have not really had any communications with Bruce. I've run into him once or twice in a backstage situation, but we haven't had much to talk about. So, no, as far as I know, he's unaware of the fact that it's a spoof of him.
So there was a deal with RCA, and then there wasn't a deal with RCA. You wound up getting stuck with the bill. What happened there?
Well, I don't know what happened on Meat's end. We went into the project ostensibly with a label to underwrite it, a subsidiary of RCA that was ironically called Utopia Records. And it was the day before we were going in to actually start recording -- we rehearsed for about 10 days, because we intended to do the record as close to live as possible -- and Meat Loaf comes to me and says "My label doesn't understand me, and I want to get off my label." And I said, "Well, I'm not your manager. I may or may not have an opinion about it, but I can't advise you on it. That's something your manager should do."
But he made that decision, and suddenly I'm scrambling to figure out, you know, we're already in the hole. I don't know whether RCA picked up the rehearsal costs, but we're about to go into the studio, and so I went to Bearsville and I said, "If you will pay for the rest of this production, you'll get the right of first refusal, and otherwise you will charge it to me." And in the end, they turned the record down, and Warner who was distributing them also turned the record down. So essentially I had this big red item on my debit sheet, and they went off to find someone to actually pick up the record and distribute it. And that took like six months or so. Just like during the auditions, everybody turned them down because nobody heard it. At least the way I heard it.
But they finally find out a guy with a small label that was distributed by a larger label, Steve Popovich at Cleveland International Records, who was distributed by Epic I think. And he had one other artist -- Ian Hunter, I believe it was. So he was looking to fill out his roster anyway, and for some reason he believed in the idea, and took on distribution of the record. What that meant was that he took over the actual debt of making the record. That's what I was looking for at that point, but didn't expect much more than that. I was hoping that that would be the worst that would happen to me. [Laughs.] So Steve Popovich just believed in the record in a way that nobody else did, and stayed on it and didn't give up on it, and that's ultimately one significant factor in the success of the record.
So those six months of looking for someone to get behind this record, did that change your approach at all, now that you're all of a sudden very invested in its success?
I kind of forgot about it. I moved on to other things. I thought, "I hope they'll find distribution," but I was doing pretty well production-wise, and it wasn't going to kill me if I had to eat the cost of production. But I've never been successful to marketing aspects. There have been bands through the years where I've thought, "It'd be great if I could get this band signed and make a record with them," and almost always I'm unable to get the band signed, because I hear something and the label doesn't hear it. I've never had a lot of luck in that regard.
So I didn't want to be involved in trying to actually sell the record. I thought it would actually be detrimental if I tried to represent the project, so I just kind of put it in the back of my mind and moved on to other things.
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Tell me a little about the story behind your solo on "Bat Out Of Hell." You did it in one take.
Well, we were attempting to do everything in one take. We were trying to do it as live as possible. And I don't remember whether I did it while we were doing the take [or overdubbed it later]. I'm pretty sure that parts of it, particularly the motorcycle-y part of it, that had to be an overdub because we weren't gonna slow the session down for me to start messing around experimenting with my guitar to try and make it sound like a motorcycle. So that aspect of it I'm pretty sure was an overdub. But all the little solo bits through the song, you know, the little punctuating things that came between vocal lines, those were all done live.
Phil Rizzuto claimed that he never knew that his play-by-play part on "Paradise By the Dashboard Light" was about sex. You must've been there when he recorded his part -- did he really not know?
Yeah, well he never listened to the song. He didn't have any idea what the song was about at all, so not surprising that he wouldn't have understood that he was actually narrating something besides a baseball game. [Laughs.] But that again was a perverse idea that Jim Steinman came up with, because I didn't know enough about baseball to think of Phil Rizzuto. I remembered Phil Rizzuto as the spokesperson for The Money Store, and so I didn't understand why Steinman was willing to spend $5000 to have this guy read this play-by-play. But ultimately it was the gag that put the whole thing over the top.
Video's obviously been such an important part of your career, and video is sort of what pushed this record over the edge and got people excited about it. What do you think it is about those visuals that drew people to the material?
Well, the first video was "Paradise By the Dashboard Light." And this was the second factor that went into making the record become such a success. The first factor was of course that Steve Popovich committed himself fully to the record, and since he didn't have a lot of other artists to worry about, he could apply the full force of the label in one record. So he put out a single and nothing happened, then he put out and nothing happened, and it wasn't until the third single that they started to get some radio airplay. So part of it was his persistence -- he didn't give up after the first two singles didn't go anywhere.
The second factor was that MTV [debuted in 1981], and "Paradise By the Dashboard Light" was the longest video on the air. And it was still substantially live, so VJs were just like DJs. DJs would always want to put on like a whole side of Dark Side of the Moon so they could go up to the roof and get high. The VJs were kind of the same way. The longer the better so they could go goof off somewhere and do something for a while. So that "Paradise By the Dashboard Light" video got played endlessly on MTV in the very early days.
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And the third factor was that they toured relentlessly. They just played everywhere, to the point that Meat Loaf actually damaged his voice, and by the time they got to the second album, he couldn't hit the same notes that he was hitting on the first record.
What do you think it is about this record that continues to resonate with people 40 years after the fact?
Well, I think another thing that people overlook is that there's a cultural aspect of it that wasn't as well-represented in the United States as it was in other countries. In other words, Bat Out of Hell eventually went off the charts in the US. Bat Out of Hell stayed on the charts in England for twenty years. And similarly in Australia.
And it seemed like those countries -- England, Australia and Germany -- all have this sort of romantic view of the United States in the 1950s. You know, the teddy boys in England, they dress like Marlon Brando -- they dress up in leather and drive their motorcycles around and dress in that sort of '50s Elvis-style clothes well into the '70s and '80s. And so they sort of glamorized this era in American music in a way that Americans did not. Actually, we were more interested in English music. The Beatles and stuff like that.
So I think those countries just found this romantic vision of America in the '50s in that music, and every time they listened to it, it transported them not back to their own countries, but it transported them to America in the '50s.
Jim Steinman did an interview where he said, "Watching Todd Rundgren create background vocals has got to be one of the most thrilling experiences you can ever have in music. He did complex melodies that intertwined with counterpoints. Everyone was terrified to admit they didn't have a clue what to sing. I think he made it that complicated for perverse fun." Is that true?
[Laughs.] Nah, it's just the way I hear it. Like I say, I was only interested in taking advantage of the fact that Meat Loaf is playing the role of the hunky '50s frontman but he is anything but, you know? He's got that operatic voice that exceeds any sort of gruff rock and roll kind of thing, so that's going in one direction, but the fact that he's so obese and uncharacteristic and sweaty and kind of in a whole other direction that is not what people remember about that genre of music. So it was juxtaposing the two things. The music is supposed to be completely believable. But it's just juxtaposing it with this unbelievable character that Meat Loaf represents.
Do you ever put on the record and listen to it?
Not much. But that's not because of the record itself. I just don't do that a whole lot. I'm always absorbing new influences and looking for ways to re-synthesize those in my own music, so I tend not to look back too much. And an album like Bat Out of Hell that I am constantly being reminded of, it's almost as if I don't have to listen to it because everybody's listening to it for me.
Well, considering how hard it was to even get the record made, you obviously had no idea it would go on to be such a huge success, but after it came out and started gaining traction, was there a point where you thought "okay, yeah, we've actually got something here"?
Yeah, it was when I got my first royalty check. I remember Albert [Grossman, of Bearsville Records] was there because he had -- you know, I had ostensibly a deal with Bearsville if they were to distribute the album, but once it went to another label, I was not part of the negotiation, so my production had to be negotiated between Meat Loaf and Steinman's lawyer and the label. Mostly actually between Meat Loaf and Steinman's lawyer, because I was taking a cut of artist royalties. There was not a separate production royalty cut out of their deal.
So I don't know how many months the record had been out, but it was long after I had finished the record, and we're sitting in the office and Albert's there, and they're going to cut me a check for the outstanding royalties that I hadn't collected in the whole time between when I had finished the record and when we had settled on what my production cut would be. And the check was between $700,000 and $800,000. One check! (laughs) The biggest check I had ever seen in my life. And at that moment I realized, "Wait a minute, this wasn't such a goofy idea after all."
Looking back on the experience, is there a particular memory that you remember most fondly?
Well, one of the things I look most fondly on is unrelated actually to the record. It was Meat Loaf proposing to his wife. We were up in Bearsville, there was a secretary at Bearsville Records, Leslie, and Meat Loaf kind of fell for her. She was a pretty girl, and he fell for her, and I remember when he kind of like did his first big move on her. We were in the Bear Cafe and he had a package that he had brought up from New York and presented it to her, and it was a giant whole salmon. And it was as if a bear had proposed to his mate. Instead of a ring, a salmon. [Laughs.]
And they did indeed get married. They got married in my house, and that's a whole other story -- because it was just a funny scene, in which the priest who married them was so old that he couldn't tell the difference between them. So he looked at Leslie and said "Do you Marvin, take Leslie as your lawful wedded wife?" The guy next to him had to whisper everything into his ear. It was such a sight.