I heard the sequel to Bat Out of Hell before I had ever listened to the original. I suppose this is akin to watching Batman Returns first, but I was born two years after the 1977 album came out. I know I bought the cassette at the mall, despite it sounding wildly different than everything else I was playing on my Walkman. Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Snoop Dogg, PJ Harvey, Wu-Tang, and the Breeders were all over MTV and the radio, but Meatloaf’s brand of operatic burners and power-ballad-show tunes weaseled their way in and seeing the video for “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” at the start of every screening for Rocky Horror Picture Show at a local theater sealed the deal (and no, I won’t repeat those callbacks here).
As it turned out, there was very much—and still is—a secret musical theater enthusiast burrowed deep inside my record collection.
Last week, Meat Loaf, born Marvin Lee Aday, passed away due to COVID-related complications. The singer and star of stage and screen doesn’t need much in the way of biography from us. But his album Bat Out of Hell, written by composer and lyricist Jim Steinman (who also passed away last April), is one of the best-selling albums of all time, moving well over 40 million copies and sitting comfortably between the likes of Thriller and Rumours. Part of the allure of that Todd Rundgren-produced Bruce Springsteen parody (a fact I recently learned in an interview with the producer himself), was the physical record itself.
Designed by the late illustrator and comic book artist Richard Corben, the cover for Bat Out of Hell is an orgiastic ode to fantasy and sci-fi pulp paperbacks, a fever dream blown up to LP-size in hulking, Conan the Barbarian-style proportions, and a beloved piece of rock and roll iconography. On the cover, a naked man riding a motorcycle with a horse skeleton erupts from the grounds of an apocalyptic-looking cemetery; in the background, a screeching bat sits perched atop a mausoleum. It also looks like the biker is doing a little more than just rocketing from the crypt, but I digress.
As the story goes, Jim Steinman caught Corben’s work in the pages of Heavy Metal (or as it was called in France where the publication originated, Metal Hurlant) By this time, the magazine had already made its way to the states, but Corben’s work in the world of underground comix in publications like Creepy and Eerie was generating buzz for the artist, and he would eventually land gigs at DC and Marvel, in addition to starting how one comic imprint, Fantagor Press. Steinman gave his concept to Corben, and the rest was history.
In an interview with Heavy Metal, Jim Steinman positively gushes about the album cover. “Certain words immediately come to mind in regard to Corben’s art—heroic, majestic, multidimensional, tactile, cinematic, erotic, obsessive—but for me, most of all, his images seem not so much created as ‘unleashed.’ They possess the muscular density and abandon of rock ‘n’ roll as well as the formal stylization and luxuberant turbulence of opera. In Corben’s worlds, the ‘acoustic’ has been banished—everything is gloriously amplified. Every frame seems to be born either directly before, during, or after an ecstatic moment of action—and the specific nature of the action is ultimately far less important than the explosive release it provides.”
“The sexual richness of Richard Corben’s work is overwhelming—this is a world that is endlessly horny for wonder and magic,” Steinman added for good measure.
Corben would also design the record cover for Jim Steinman’s Bad For Good, an album that was slated to be the follow-up to Bat Out of Hell but didn’t come to fruition because of Meat Loaf losing his voice (though he would sing many of those songs on later records).
Though he recorded a handful of albums with other Steinman originals, it would take 16 years for Bat Out of Hell II to materialize. Meat Loaf and company turned to artist and Science Fiction Hall of Fame inductee Michael Whelan to create a cover that felt very much in line with its predecessor. Whelan has created hundreds of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy book covers, creating works for Anne McCaffrey, Isaac Asimov, and even some of Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels.
Again, Meat Loaf gets spelled out in a gothic type, but this time out, the biker and bat return to do battle at the New York City Chrysler Building. An angel is held captive and tied to the top of the building as the biker flies across a skyline of maybe-burnt-out buildings to save her, though they could also just be steampunk-style creations bathed in the fire of would be demons or looters below. According to a recent Instagram post from Whelan, Meat Loaf and Steinman both had opposing ideas on what should be on the cover. Meat wanted the Chrysler building and the bat, but Steinman insisted it should instead be New York rendered as a hellscape, with the “motorcycle heading down into the fire.”
Regardless, there’s a very purposeful feeling of continuity between the covers, as if the record execs are saying, Hey, remember that one Meat Loaf album? Well, here’s the sequel, and will you get a load of this totally choice bat? Also, you don’t know this guy Michael Bay yet, but we tapped him to direct some of the music videos, and we think you’re going to see a lot more of this young auteur.
Several Whelan illustrations also make their way into the liner notes of the booklet, and there are plenty of orbs, austere hallways, and skeletons driving muscle cars. According to Whelan, Meat Loaf came to his house and pointed out several of his favorite paintings, many of which were book covers, like Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince and Joe Haldeman’s All My Sins Remembered. I don’t know if there’s a story one can piece together from the entirety of the images, but it did make my 13-year old brain string together the threads of some story about a mutant biker.
Whelan would also get tapped to create the artwork for one of Meat Loaf’s greatest hits compilations, The Very Best of Meat Loaf. Again, the biker character returns sans motorcycle, standing on the remains of a burnt-out bridge while the bat hovers below. Though maybe we shouldn’t say the bike is completely gone, as you can see an outline of the biker and his trusty steed in the clouds—or is it smoke? Either way, the promised future of the Meat Loaf Universe is a bleak one.
The trilogy concludes with Bat Out of Hell III, and fine artist and illustrator Julie Bell takes the reins, with our dearest biker racing once more unto the breach to defeat his winged nemesis. The artwork strikes a more similar tone to the Whelan cover from 1993—now, the biker multitasks from his motorcycle and wields a sword as he tries to save the angel from a fire-breathing bat.
Bell is an award-winning painter and former bodybuilder widely recognized for her wildlife pieces, but she has also imagined hundreds of book covers across the sci-fi and fantasy genres. Lest you think she’s only worked on one meat-related saga, she illustrated the poster for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film along with her husband, Boris Vallejo. Bell would also create the artwork for the “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” single, which just so happens to contain zero bikers and bats but does have a woman pouring water from a vase while standing atop a pile of skulls, so there’s that.
Musically, though, the third entry in the series is a lackluster affair. Jim Steinman was not on board as a producer, and his seven songs on the album are from other projects, including one pretty famous take on its Wuthering Heights-inspired showstopper. But it’s still Meat Loaf; you’re getting one more heaping dose of operatic stadium rock, and if the cover was any indication, it felt very much like a final stand.
Everything about Meat Loaf was over the top. Let us not forget that this was the same guy who proposed to his wife, not with a ring, but a whole salmon (really, you need to read this Todd Rundgren interview). But the album covers for his beloved trilogy cranks the amps well beyond ten for Caligula-level rock action. He certainly wasn’t the first musician to use sci-fi or fantasy imagery to sell records, but the artwork for his albums gave promise to a world beyond the music itself, a place of “wonder and magic” you could dream on. In an interview from 1978, Jim Steinman said that he envisioned the first Bat Out of Hell album as “seven visions or dreams,” a romantic adventure set in a world of teenagers that’s full of motorcycles and sex, one of excitement, violence, and chills.
“It beats Perry Como, doesn’t it?” he joked.
In the end, Bat is everything it promised to be and more, from the grandiose sound of the records to the very artwork itself. What’s more, it’s a romantic celebration of swole dudes beating on evil, fire-breathing bats and a pitch-perfect example of rock and roll dreams coming through.