Number Ones: Meat Loaf’s epic rock opera

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I’D DO ANYTHING FOR LOVE (BUT I WON’T DO THAT)
– MEAT LOAF
#1 IN 1993 THROUGHOUT SEPTEMBER AND OCTOBER

A weekly series highlighting unusual singles that hit #1 in Australia.

It scarcely seemed possible. Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman, the big hitting duo who blended rock, opera, musical theatre, ‘50s greaser culture, and everything else unfashionable* on their 1977 opus Bat Out Of Hell, had actually managed to not only repeat the same feat more than 15 years later, but in fact totally topple that album and its bloated singles in terms of drama, size, muddy concepts, and being utterly out of step with everything else going on in popular culture. Yet in 1993, this twelve-minute epic with a six verse coda, Broadway-style vocal performances, five minute motorbike intro, and a video clip that makes Dune seem subtle, hit #1 on the Australian singles chart – staying there for two months and becoming the highest selling song that year, a year ripe with huge hitters like Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’, Snow’s ‘Informer’, Inner Circle’s ‘Sweat’ and Sonia Dada’s ‘You Don’t Treat Me No Good’.**

It’s an odd, but not entirely unexpected #1 if we stop to survey the landscape at that particular point in time. The early half of the ’90s has been retrospectively cast as a lazy, sun-speckled, angry, sarcastic, anti-corporate, Winona-filled, needle-loving time, but the un-speckled truth is that, back then, the world was totally open to big, pompous rock ballads: the likes of Guns N Roses were purportedly shooting up in alleys off Sunset while simultaneously crafting nine-plus-minute piano ballads such as the tender ‘November Rain’, which sat on the Australian charts for an entire year.*** Put simply, counter-culture rebels Axl and Slash (and Duff) set the tone for Meat Loaf to release the highest-selling, most motorbike-heavy single of 1993.

Two decades later, it’s still easy to see the appeal of this track. It exists entirely in a world of its own, not tethered to trend or tact; wholly uninterested in restraint. Like most interesting art, a list of criticisms directed at this song would roughly line up with a list of its most thrilling, silly qualities: it goes for exactly 12 minutes****; it hit number one in 28 countries; the guitars are meant to sound like motorbikes; there is a six-verse coda duet with a woman mysteriously credited as ‘Mrs Loud’ (who is a completely different person to both the woman lip-syncing the part in the video, and the one who sang the part live during the promotional tour); the video casts Meat***** as a mashup of the Phantom (of the Opera) and the Beast (from Beauty and the) ; Meat dramatically emoting the words “sex and drums and rock and roll” as if they weren’t the words “sex and drums and rock and roll”; and this phrase from the song’s Wiki-page – “The [US] single version was edited down to five minutes and 25 seconds, where the entire motorcycle introduction is omitted”.

But the song’s real ace in the hole was the existence of the unspecified ‘that’, the one thing Meat Loaf will not sacrifice for love. There is a line drawn in the sand, and listeners went crazy speculating as to where that line was. Possible interpretations include(d) anal sex, oral sex, regular vanilla sex, killing someone, cheating on someone, moving past a deceased lover, performing euthanasia, and choosing between Kelly and Brenda. There is a section on the song’s Wikipedia page entitled Perceived ambiguity of “that” – which is hilariously thorough and entirely serious in its examination on the topic.

Luckily, Meat Loaf’s take on things clears this mystery up nicely.

“It sort of is a little puzzle and I guess it goes by – but they’re all great things. ‘I won’t stop doing beautiful things and I won’t do bad things.’ It’s very noble. I’m very proud of that song because it’s very much like out of the world of Excalibur. To me, it’s like Sir Lancelot or something – very noble and chivalrous.”

Excalibur. In case you think this is Meat being either coy or crazy (crazy), this track, as with all Meat Loaf songs, and this secretly amazing Celine Dion track, was written by mastermind Jim Steinman. In other words, assuming Steinman never slipped him the meaning, Maharishi-style, Meat’s guess is as good as ours.

Despite the eternal mystery, endless debate, and Loaf’s****** clumsy reading, as Steinman has stated in the past, all you need to do to decode this mystery is actually listen to the lyrics, which literally spell the meaning out several times.

Also, he just straight out recycled them from this Bonnie Tyler song he wrote back in the ’80s.

Of course, what the actual meaning of ‘that’ is scarcely matters. The point is there are limits to his love. Meat Loaf can be all yours, but his love for you will forever be conditional, capped, and come with an eighty-piece string section.

 


*The idea that Saturday Night Fever, Nevermind The Bollocks, and this album co-existed in a single year is amusing.

**In 1993, the highest-selling singles of the year were ‘I’d Do Anything…’, Whitney/Dolly’s ‘I Will Always Love You’, and then:

3: ‘You Don’t Treat Me No Good’ – Sonia Dada 

4: ‘Sweat (A La La La La Long)’ – Inner Circle

5: ‘(I Can’t Help) Falling in Love with You’ – UB40

6: ‘Informer’ – Snow

Yup, that’s four Jamaican influenced/bred tracks in the six top selling singles in Australia during 1993. The likes of Peter Andre even got involved in this trend, something that definitely needs to be explored further in a future article. Stay tuned.

***’November Rain’ never rose higher than #5 on the ARIA charts, yet was the second highest-selling single of 1992, staying in the top 50 for over a year, landing on the end-of-year top fifty ARIA sales chart in ’92, ’93 and ’94. This ‘good things come to those who wait’ theory unfortunately cannot be applied to Chinese Democracy.

****Even in its label-edited 7:52 incarnation, this single was the longest #1 ever in the UK for a while, toppling ‘Hey Jude’ -although Oasis’s ‘All Around The World’ won back the crown in 1997.  

*****In this video from ‘Celebrity Apprentice’, in which Meat Loaf flips the fuck out over some minor incident, Mark McGrath from Sugar Ray is trying to calm him by repeatedly and un-ironically referring to him as ‘Meat’, therefore so shall this article from here on in.

******It felt like ‘Meat’ was being overused – Marvin Lee Aday is his actual name by the way. Future columns will refer to him as Big Marv A.

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