Epic. Operatic. Bombastic. Over-the-Top. Bonkers. Those are just a few of the words that recur in reviews and discussions of the work of the late composer, producer, and performer Jim Steinman. Though he’s most well-known as the composer of one of the best-selling albums in history, Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, Steinman had a career that encompassed rock, film, and musical theater. He wrote classic hits for the likes of Bonnie Tyler, Air Supply, and Barry Manilow, and his work with Meat Loaf plays endlessly on classic rock radio. Steinman died in 2021; today, on what would have been his 75th birthday, we look back at the Wagner, vampires, and velocity of his timeless brand of symphonic rock.
15. “No Matter What” by Boyzone (1998)
Like Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jim Steinman has never been beloved for his subtlety. In 1998, the pair collaborated on the musical Whistle Down the Wind. As a further collaboration that tied in with the musical’s premiere, the popular boy band from Ireland, Boyzone, recorded their version of the track. It went #1 in the U.K. and was the group’s only tune to crack the U.S. Top 40. The gentle ballad is a positively restrained version of Steinman, but the lyrics incorporate his usual swooning romanticism.
14. “Read ’Em and Weep” by Barry Manilow (1983)
Over his long career, Steinman would frequently reconfigure or rewrite old songs or ideas for use by other artists. This song originally appeared on Meat Loaf’s 1981 album Dead Ringer, but Steinman made some alterations for Manilow. Whatever Steinman did, it worked; Manilow took the song to #1 on both the Canadian and U.S. Adult Contemporary Charts. It was also Manilow’s last U.S. Top 40 hit to date.
13. “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night)” by Meat Loaf (1977)
When Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman got to work on Bat Out of Hell, they had the odds against them. They’d faced rejection from a number of labels and stinging rebukes from the likes of Clive Davis, who didn’t get Steinman’s orchestral approaches. Nevertheless, when they got their chance to make the record, they made the most of it. The album features several legendary rock talents in key roles: Todd Rundgren produced and played guitar on five tracks; Edgar Winter played sax on three; and Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band contributed on keyboards and drums, respectively. The whole album is an ode of sort to teenage love, lust, and motorcycles, and this track typifies that. It was the first single from the album, and didn’t make the Hot 100. However, after two other tracks were hits (just wait), it was re-released and made the U.S. Top 40.
12. “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” by Meat Loaf (1977)
Another from Bat Out of Hell, this was Meat Loaf’s biggest single until the next item on the list arrived over 15 years later. Rundgren and Bittan also played on this tune. Though it’s a bit simpler than other Steinman tunes, it’s got his patented subversive wit with lines like, “I want you/I need you/There ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you/Now don’t be sad cause two out of three ain’t bad.” “Two” spent almost six months in the Hot 100, hitting #11 and selling over a million copies.
11. “I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” by Meat Loaf (with Lorraine Crosby) (1993)
Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf worked together on six albums, but it wasn’t until 1993 that they officially “sequelized” Bat Out of Hell with Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell. Steinman saw the lyrical territory as a definitive continuation of the themes of that album. Other musicians returned, like Bittan and Rundgren (though this time Steinman produced and Rundgren arranged the background vocals while also performing them on eight tracks). The song is a duet between Meat Loaf and Crosby, credited on the record as “Mrs. Loud.” It plays with many of the same dynamics as the original Bat tracks, including driving piano, defined movements between musical sections, and dueling dynamics (loud/soft/loud). Those sweeping sections that roar up out of almost nowhere have gotten Steinman compared to the German composer Richard Wagner, best known for The Ring Cycle, particularly “Ride of the Valykyries.” The verses of the final two minutes are mostly sung by Crosby.
10. “Good Girls Go to Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere)” by Pandora’s Box (1990)
Another tune recorded by multiple artists, “Good Girls” was first done in 1986 by Japanese artist Megumi Shiina. In the late 1980s, Steinman assembled what was considered a “girl group,” Pandora’s Box, which featured a number of vocalists whom he’d worked with before. They included Ellen Foley (featured on Bat Out of Hell), Holly Sherwood (from the group Fire Inc.), Elaine Caswell (The Dream Engine), Gina Taylor (Musique), Deliria Wilde, and Laura Theodore. Sherwood took the lead on this track, which careens between the frenzied bounce of Steinman’s piano and the guitar of Eddie Martinez. Meat Loaf would record the song again for Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell.
9. “Nowhere Fast” by Fire Inc. (1984)
Director Walter Hill’s cult classic film Streets of Fire is identified as “A Rock & Roll Fable” right on the poster. The movie follows singer Ellen Aim (Diane Lane), who is kidnapped by gang leader Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe); Aim’s ex, soldier Tom Cody (Michael Paré) leads the effort to rescue her. The soundtrack is suffused with great material, including Dan Hartman’s huge hit, “I Can Dream About You.” Lane visualizes two different Steinman tunes in the film, including opening number “Nowhere Fast.” To record the two songs, Steinman put together a group, Fire Inc., which included a number of his usual suspects (Bittan, Weinberg, Sherwood) and Laurie Sargent, who handled lead vocals.
8. Bonus Pair: “This Corrosion” (1987) and “More” (1990) by The Sisters of Mercy
The English rock band The Sisters of Mercy formed in 1980. Their one constant member has been lead singer Andrew Eldritch, and he’s always resisted the “Gothic” label that has followed the band. Nevertheless, those trappings frequently appear in the band’s music, including two collaborations with Steinman. Steinman produced the Eldritch-written “This Corrosion” from 1987’s Floodland, and he wrote More for 1990’s Vision Thing. The two tunes are a perfect marriage for Steinman’s approach (there is no such thing as “over the top”) and Eldritch’s dark aesthetic. “Corrosion” in particular features a 40-piece choir.
7. “Bat Out of Hell” by Meat Loaf (1976)
The epic title track from the album that sold 40 million copies, “Bat Out of Hell” takes listeners on a journey through streets of terror on the back of a motorcycle that’s destined for a fiery end. You can understand comparisons that the record drew to Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” but Meat Loaf’s ride has a much more fatalistic bent. Whereas Springsteen implores his song’s Wendy to “get out while we’re young,” Meat Loaf expresses the belief that if he “gotta be damned, you know I want to be damned, dancing through the night with you.” You know the crash is coming, but the ride there is exhilarating.
6. “Holding Out for a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler (1984)
The Welsh wailer Gaynor Sullivan is better known by her stage name, Bonnie Tyler. She would put her distinctively smoky voice to many Steinman tracks over the years, but one of the best known is this part of the Footloose soundtrack. Steinman wrote the song with Dean Pitchford (the writer of the Footloose screenplay and co-writer of hit songs like “Fame”) and produced it for the soundtrack. Tyler took the song Top 40 in the U.S. and to #2 in the U.K. That same year, E.G. Daily did a version that was used for the TV series “Cover Up.” It’s since appeared in a number of other films, including Shrek 2.
5. “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” by Air Supply (1983)
Graham Russell of England and Russell Hitchcock of Australia formed Air Supply in 1975. Beginning in 1979, they had a string of hits around the world with songs like “Lost in Love,” “Every Woman in the World,” and “Even the Nights Are Better.” They’ve racked up a number of gold and platinum albums and had 11 Top 40 hits in the U.S. “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” went all the way to #2 in 1983 and sat there for three weeks, denied the top spot by . . . just wait. While the soaring vocals of Hitchcock fit right in with the tune, Steinman brought in Bittan, Weinberg, and guitarslinger Rick Derringer to up the epic quotient.
4. “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” by Celine Dion (1996)
Determined to top himself with the “most romantic, most passionate” song he was capable of making, Steinman composed “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” for Pandora’s Box. The composer was inspired by the novel Wuthering Heights and its themes of love surviving death. Elaine Caswell sang the version on the 1990 Pandora’s Box album, Original Sin. A few years later, Celine Dion would cover it for her album Falling Into You. Dion, who often shows the same disdain for subtlety as Steinman, embraced the song’s epic nature and let fly for nearly eight minutes. The tune stayed at #2 for five weeks in the U.S., held back by (regrettably) “Macarena” and (we’ll let this slide) “No Diggity.” The single sold more than two million copies. In 2006, Meat Loaf covered it as a duet with Marion Raven on Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster is Loose.
3. “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young” by Fire Inc. (1984)
The climactic tune of Streets of Fire, “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young” was sung by Steinman’s frequent collaborator Holly Sherwood. The song wasn’t released as a single and wasn’t a hit, but it’s an outstanding example of Steinman at the height of his powers. It’s become a beloved cult tune, reappearing in Fire’s low-budget sequel, Road to Hell, and has even been covered by show choirs. It’s also the final song in a very special stage musical, which we’ll address in a bit. The song is quintessential Steinman with its long build, revving engines, and increasingly explosive vocal heroics.
2. “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” by Meat Loaf with Ellen Foley (1976)
Without a doubt, this was late New York Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto’s finest musical hour. The Hall of Famer makes an immortal appearance in the middle section of the song, giving a play-by-play that mirrors the male protagonist’s attempt to “score.” Meat Loaf sang his part at full tilt, while Ellen Foley provided the alternately encouraging and suspicious female lead (Karla DeVito, who sang with Meat Loaf live on stage for the tour, is seen in the video). The song went Top 40 in the U.S., and then basically never left rock radio. It’s widely regarded as one of the great duets in rock and has certified sales of a million singles. Of course, it’s one of the engines that drove Bat Out of Hell to 40 million copies sold. It’s epic structure and length, Todd Rundgren’s terrific guitar, and the last minute narrative twist make it a stone-cold classic.
1. “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler (1983)
The following is one of this writer’s favorite bits of music trivia: “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was originally written for Steinman’s long-gestating vampire musical. Steinman wanted to do a musical based on the F.W. Murnau silent horror film classic, Nosferatu (itself an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula). For various reasons, that would never come together.
Bonnie Tyler entered the picture in 1981. She’d already had hits like 1977’s “It’s a Heartache,” but she wanted to work with Steinman after seeing Meat Loaf live. The third song that Steinman pitched to her would be “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Tyler recorded it for her album Faster Than the Speed of Night. Among the musicians were, no surprise, Derringer, Bittan, and Weinberg.
The song was a worldwide smash. The aching ballad hit #1 in the U.K. and the U.S., where it topped the charts for four weeks. Its stay held “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” to #2, but put Steinman in the rarified company of writers (like Lennon/McCartney and Barry Gibb) who got to hold #1 and #2 simultaneously. The single sold more than six million copies. It’s been covered numerous times; in 1995, English singer Nicki French stormed the U.S. charts with her hi-NRG cover, taking it to #2.
Like other Steinman songs, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” has never gone away. It’s stuck around in films, commercials, and on the radio. And though the lyrics could clearly be interpreted as having more than a little to do with vampires, many people dismissed the song’s origin as an urban legend. It seemed like that story would eventually fade, even though it certainly inspired the Dracula musical that’s a running bit in the 2008 comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
Steinman realized a different version of his stage musical dream in 1997. With German writer Michael Kunze, Steinman took part in mounting a vampire musical in Vienna. Tanz der Vampire was adapted from the classic Roman Polanski film The Fearless Vampire Killers, also known as Dance of the Vampires (the musical’s name was the German version of that title). Steinman included a number of his songs, with a German twist, in the production. The closing number was a version of “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young.” But the mid-point showstopper, the first song of Act II, was “Total Finsternis,” the adapted version of “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
The musical was a big hit in Europe. An attempt to bring the show to Broadway was botched by too many parties that wanted it to be too many things; the compromised English version closed in January 2003 after fewer than 56 performances. But overseas, the show endured, and through 2020 many productions were mounted across a number of countries. Steinman would fare far better in 2017 when Jim Steinman’s Bat Out of Hell: The Musical launched. The show features most of Steinman and Meat Loaf’s classic tunes; the show has a residency in Las Vegas and is set to tour Europe and Australia through 2023.
Obviously, the music of Jim Steinman isn’t for everyone. Yes, it’s operatic and melodramatic and occasionally the finest type of cheese. But it’s emotional, swooningly romantic, and shot through with the spirit of rock and roll. Though he died last year, Steinman achieved the kind of immortality that eludes all but the most supernatural of talents. The songs broke out of his body and flew away . . . like a bat out of hell . . . and popular music was all the better for it.
Having performed in both the touring and London productions of Hair in the early 1970s, Richard O’Brien combined his love of science fiction, horror, and comic books with his stage background into writing the musical The Rocky Horror Show. The play rapidly grew in popularity, moving from theatre to bigger theatre in England. When the opportunity came to take the tale to the screen in 1975, little did anyone involved know that their film would still be playing around the world 45 years later. I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey . . . this is the story of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
O’Brien was born in England in 1942 and moved to New Zealand with his family in the 1950s. After college, he went back to England in 1964 and began working on stage and in film. O’Brien played both an Apostle and Leper in the London production of Jesus Christ Superstar; the director who cast him was Jim Sharman. Sharman would cast him again, and O’Brien shared his idea for They Came from Denton High, a musical send-up of the things that he loved, like 1950s science-fiction movies. Sharman came on board as director and gave O’Brien the idea for a new name: The Rocky Horror Show. In June 1973, the show kicked off at London’s Theatre Upstairs; it quickly became a hit, moving to bigger venues until making it to the U.K’s equivalent of Broadway, the West End.
Lou Adler was already a big name in American music when he saw Rocky in London. Adler had produced Carole King’s Tapestry, the Monterey Pop Festival, and six hits for The Mamas and The Papas, including “California Dreamin’.” He bought the U.S. theatrical rights, taking the show to the Roxy in L.A. Soon after, Michael White, who had produced the London shows, Adler, O’Brien, and Sharman were collaborating on a film version. Adler and White produced with Sharman directing and co-writing the screen adaptation with O’Brien.
In terms of casting, several members of the London cast made the jump to screen. Tim Curry (Dr. Frank-N-Furter), O’Brien (Riff Raff), Patricia Quinn (Magenta), and “Little Nell” Campbell (Columbia) had all been in productions in England. The ostensible lead roles of Brad and Janet were trickier, as studio 20th Century Fox wanted American actors in the parts; those ended up being filled by Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon. Charles Gray, a two-time Bond villain, played the criminologist/narrator and Jonathan Adams was cast as Dr. Scott. Marvin Lee Aday, better known as Meat Loaf, was a veteran of Broadway’s Hair and had played Eddie in the L.A. cast; he reprised Eddie for the movie, two years before the release of his massively successful Bat Out of Hell album. Background character Betty Munroe (whose wedding Brad and Janet attend early in the film) was played by Hilary Labow, which was the screen name of Hilary Farr, known today as the designer on the long-running renovation series Love It or List It.
Much of the Gothy, classic horror mood of the film came from the location at Oakley Court. The estate had been used in several Hammer Studios films, including The Brides of Dracula and The Plague of the Zombies. In Sharman’s direction, you can occasionally note some of the same wide angles and sudden zooms prevalent in Hammer features, which were meant to echo styles prevalent in the genre. Richard Hartley produced the soundtrack and handled musical arrangements on the songs that O’Brien had written. The soundtrack lists 21 official numbers, although “Once in a While” came from a deleted scene and “Super Heroes” was only seen in the U.K. until the eventual video release.
The film opened 45 years ago this week in London, with the U.S. opening a few weeks later. It was not an immediate success. Outside of L.A., it was quickly pulled from theatres. Tim Deegan, a Fox executive, suggested an alternative strategy; figuring that the film might do well on the midnight circuit, as John Waters films had, Deegan got the ball rolling in New York. The Waverly Theater became ground zero for a cult phenomenon, fostering audience participation in the form of recited remarks and props. Audience members began coming to the show in costume, and screenings started to have live casts that would act out the film as it ran on the screen. Within a couple of years, the movie had become a legit cult sensation and defined the notion of the “Midnight Movie.”
The movie has actually never closed, making it the longest-running release in the history of film. Some fans and film history buffs were concerned about the status of the film when the Walt Disney Company finished its acquisition of 20th Century Fox in 2019. However, even though Disney “vaulted” a number of Fox titles, they were conscious of Rocky’s status and fandom and decided to keep it in release so that the screenings would go on.
So, just what has made it endure? At the top, the music is insanely catchy, particularly “The Time Warp.” The notion of attending a movie as a sort of costume party is fun, and the props and interaction make it a shared experience that you can join in over and over. But a deeper undercurrent is that Rocky Horror celebrates the outsider. It’s been embraced by the LGBTQ+ community, theater kids, punks, goths, comic book fans, horror and science fiction fans who get the in-jokes, and more, all of whom find connection to the film. Its influence has reverberated through the years, turning up in sitcoms like The Drew Carey Show or a 2010 episode of Glee or in films like The Perks of Being a Wallflower or Fox’s 2016 TV remake. It has endured for four-and-a-half decades, and there’s no sign that it will go away anytime soon. One supposes that it’s comforting to know that as much as some cult phenoms come and go, there will always be a light over at the Frankenstein place.
Featured image: UA Cinema Merced. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, opening night, January of 1978. (Photo by Robin Adams, General Manager, UA Cinema, Merced California, 1978. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.; Wikimedia Commons)