Paradise by the Dashboard Light

Written by Christian James Hand

It was his High School football coach who christened Marvin Lee Aday “Meat Loaf” due to his weight and general physical attributes. Little did his coach know, he had created an iconic nom de guerre for one of music’s most unlikely leading men. Before we go any further, just watch this video. THAT’S who we are talking about. That’s Meat Loaf. That’s the name he performs under. That’s what people call him. I’ve often wondered if those who are familiar get to use the abbreviated “Meat” when heralding him. That’s some weird shit. Even WEIRDER is that that bloke went on to co-create the 6th BEST SELLING RECORD IN MUSIC HISTORY! You can’t make this stuff up, man. You just can’t.

My man has EARNED it.

Bat Out Of Hell started as a series of songs that Jim Steinman had written for his futuristic re-imagining of the story of Peter Pan. Wow. Sounds absolutely AWFUL. We may have dodged a bullet there, people. He and Meat (I’m gonna do that for the whole piece, JSYK) had met while touring with the National Lampoon show and felt that the songs were magnificent and should be the back-bone to an album. Unfortunately, nobody else shared in this conviction. No label wanted to touch it with a ten-foot barge pole. Industry legend Clive Davis even went as to ask Steinman:

“Do you know how to write a song? Do you know anything about writing? If you’re going to write for records, it goes like this: A, B, C, B, C, C. I don’t know what you’re doing. You’re doing A, D, F, G, B, D, C. You don’t know how to write a song…Have you ever listened to pop music? Have you ever heard any rock-and-roll music…You should go downstairs when you leave here…and buy some rock-and-roll records.”

Meat waited until he was down on the street to yell “Fuck you, Clive!” up at Davis’ office window.

Todd Rundgren is a bonafide genius. That moniker gets thrown around a lot in this day and age, but it applies to THAT guy. In interviews after-the-fact, he mentioned that he thought the album that Steinman and Meat Loaf wanted to make was a Springsteen parody and that it was so OUT there that he just HAD to make it. Oh, and the lads told a LITTLE porky-pie (Cockney rhyming slang for “lie”) to the producer and mentioned that they had a deal with RCA. They didn’t.

The song itself is divided into three parts.

Part I. Paradise:
The song opens with the characters reminiscing about days as a young high school couple on a date. They are parking by a lake and having fun, experiencing “paradise by the dashboard light”, until the male character insists they’re “gonna go all the way tonight” (the audio track suddenly cuts out, quickly pans through the left and right channels once, then slowly returns to both channels).

Baseball broadcast:
His pushing the matter is mirrored by New York Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto, who is broadcasting a portion of a baseball game that serves as a metaphor for his attempts to achieve his goal, accompanied by funk instrumentation and the two characters talking in the two individual left and right channels.

Rizzuto’s baseball play-by-play call was recorded in 1976 at The Hit Factory in New York City by producer Todd Rundgren, Meat Loaf, and Steinman. Rizzuto publicly maintained he was unaware that his contribution would be equated with sex in the finished song, but Meat Loaf asserts that Rizzuto only feigned ignorance to stifle some criticism from a priest and was fully aware of the context of what he was recording.

Part II. Let Me Sleep on It:
Just as the boy is about to score (via the suicide squeeze), the girl bursts out telling him to “Stop right there!” She refuses to go any further unless the boy first promises to love her forever and marry her. Reluctant to make such a long-term commitment, the boy repeatedly asks her to continue on for the time being and promises to give his answer in the morning. However, she is not giving in that easily, so he finally cracks and gives his promise: “I started swearing to my God and on my mother’s grave/That I would love you to the end of time”.

Part III. Praying for the End of Time:
Back in the present, the male character can no longer stand the woman’s presence. As the man cannot break his vow, he is now “praying for the end of time” to relieve him from his obligation. The song fades out on the situation, juxtaposing his gloomy “it was long ago, it was far away, it was so much better than it is today!” in the left channel with her nostalgic “it never felt so good, it never felt so right, we were glowing like the metal on the edge of a knife” in the right channel.

The Players:

In 1975, the above musicians all gathered in Rundgren’s Bearsville Studios, in Woodstock, NY, to begin the lengthy process of committing the myriad of ideas and layers to tape. The Springsteen reference is supported by the usage of a couple of The East Street Band in the tracking. “Mighty” Max Weinberg on drums and Roy Bittan on keys and piano. The rest is a drafting in of blokes from Todd’s band Utopia, a motley crew of complete fucking BADASSES! There is no way that you play with Rundgren if you AREN’T one. Nope.

Let’s get to the tape!

Max Weinberg. No joke. Swagger. His friggin’ hits are SO consistent. He’s like a machine back there. If you’ve never seen Bruce live, then I encourage you to as soon as possible. MMW is the heartbeat. On this track you can hear the precision. For over 8 minutes. And it’s not just that the hits are balls on, it’s that KICK. Holy moly. Swing…swung, but with force and finesse. The kick pattern in the verses is one that would drive me NUTS when I have been asked to play it. There are so many sections on this thing and each one requires a different feel and personality. All accomplished flawlessly. The fill at the 4:20 (naturally!) mark is the one. That ending bit where he’s gone to 64th’s?!?! Come on now. He drives it all. This song is almost a Max Weinberg/Springsteen Feel Primer. In the 8:30 minutes you get all of Bruce’s Greatest Hits EXCEPT for the “Bum-Bum-Bum-Blap” beat of “My Boyfriend’s Back” that Springsteen employs often; they waited until “You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth” to use THAT trope. The rest? Classic Weinberg. And he does it without ever breaking a sweat. In a suit. I do not know how he does it.

THIS dude. The part, I mean, PARTS that he constructs for this track are absurd. Kasim Sulton was Rundgren’s guy in Utopia, and you can see why in the bass track for “Dashboard.” The entire song is based in this pseudo Rocker-Billy feel and then runs all over the place. But, the Engine Room of Weinberg/Kasim gives it the rich foundation that is needed to hang a song of this ridiculous a nature on. At the 3:16 mark, we are off to a land of Bootsie Funk and some MAJOR slappin’ and octave jumps. Gorgeous. In the middle of this mini Rock Opera. I particularly enjoy the way that Kasim is all over the neck of his instrument, and Max is just KICKING it behind him with a Rock Solid Back Beat. The funk is alive and well for the ensuing minute. All of that work for ONE MINUTE of song time. Epic. He also smashed the build with Mighty Max. Dammit this band was sick. After the last build, the rhythm section just gets down to business and it’s some fantastic Smashy Bashy for two minutes, and then Kasim just RIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIDES a two note part as the whole thing comes to a crescendo. The arrangement is inspiring to listen to. Every part has been clearly, mathematically, worked-out to accomplish the goal of telling this story. When the foundation tracks are this strong then, as a Producer, you can just exhale and start to fuck around…I imagine that being Todd’s fav thing to do. And “Do It” he does.

The KEYS!:
Steinman wrote this thing on the piano, that much is obvious. However, it is interesting to note that the Ode to Springsteen breaks down on this track. It’s WAY more Elton than Bruce. Springsteen never really went with this level of Musical Theater in his writing. It should be remembered that Steinman and Meat met doing a stage show and proceeded to spend many hours “plying the boards” together. I wish that I could have just played the entire keys track for everyone. The “Phantom of the Opera” organ? The clav bit during the Baseball Announcer section? And then the culminating hony-tonk jam for the last 2 minutes? The climb at the 6:50 mark? There’s more than a passing reference to “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”, and the Broadway’ish aspect of Billy Joel’s writing is also evident. However, it’s once he plays the signature riff that you can here the Springsteen in it. The bloke manages to play an 8-minute-long part that references some of the greatest piano players, and writers, of modern music. Good grief. Anyone who talks shit is not listening correctly. At all. Steinman pulls of a magic trick. Kudos to him. But, the credit for the performance goes to Bittan. A “Tour-De-Force” of an ivory tinkiling. It’s one thing to write this, it’s a whole OTHER to execute it. It would make sense that it’s Roger Powell who comes correct on the clav when it cranks up. Steinman is credited with “Keys and Lacivious Effects”, which i believe is the bunch of sexually peculiar silliness on the weird track UNDER the baseball section. That’s a LOT of hands-on-deck/keys to make it through the opus that is “Dashboard.” ALL OF THEM!

The Todd:
The riff. Nailed it. We’re rocking, that much is for sure. It has always felt, to me, like the American version of Elton’s “Saturday”. It had to be BIGGER! The guitar track and the bass together are ABSURD! Man, I could’ve spent an hour on all of this. So damned good. There is more than a passing reference to Utopia when it comes to the spidery guitar lead that rides under the “Glowing like the metal on the edge of a knife” part. Everyone is working. And then the high pitched Morse Code bit that announces the arrival of The Funk?!? These dudes got to throw it ALL at this song. What a pleasure it must’ve been to orchestrate all of these parts. Right up Todd’s alley. If there isn’t an alley named “Todd’s Alley”, there should be. In the audio of the radio show, I mention Todd’s Faithfully album where he remade some of his favourite songs, playing all of he parts, and recording them, and engineering them, and mixing them, HIMSELF. Solo! Listen here to his version of “Good Vibrations”…it’s shocking. All him. The dude is a LEGIT Genius. And is as grumpy, ornery, individual, and exasperating as someone with that level of intellect and creativity SHOULD be. He can be a real bastard, by all accounts, just ask Andy Partridge of XTC. But, most times, I have discovered that the level of madness is commensurate with the level of genius. Every time. Oh, and the original mix of the ALBUM was done in ONE night. The WHOLE ALBUM. Some of them didn’t make the cut so Jimmy Iovine, Rundgren, and John Jansen are credited with the album mixes in aggregate. But, to even ATTEMPT to mix a whole album in a night is madness. Or…is it Genius?

The Vocals:

Meat Loaf has a BIG voice. He’s a BIG bloke. And you can hear the volume he creates when he’s singing. Don’t forget, he’s a Musical Theater Guy so he’s used to projecting and singing from inside a character. Steinman had said that he wanted to write “the ultimate car/sex song in which everything goes horribly wrong at the end”…Mission Accomplished. The female voice on the album is that of actress Ellen Foley; she and Meat had sung together in a number of productions for the Lampoon. She went on to star in Night Court, Married To The Mob, Fatal Attraction, and Cocktail. She was ALSO the inspiration, I recently found out, behind The Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now?” When the band went out on the road, and appearing in the music video, it was Karla DeVito who played the role of the female character fighting off Meat’s advances. That is the first time THAT sentence has ever been written, I’ll put money on THAT! At the 7 minute mark, Meat Loaf goes Full Beans and just carries the emotion. Amazing. His whole run from here to the end of the song is sick. And then the call & response that the track concludes with. And if you listen on headphones, the two start hard-panned to each side and then slowly move across the field top and finally end up at different sides of the center of the mix. It’s almost as if they are walking around on the stage as you “watch” the song come out of the speakers. Every aspect of this recording is theatrical. And it’s only 8:30 of Bat Out Of Hell!! WTF?!?!

Phil Rizzuto was the New York Yankees announcer at the time and his part was specially written for him using a bunch of his “catch-phrases.” He has said in interviews since that he had been unaware that his V/O would be used in a sexual manner, but Meat Loaf and Steinman reject this saying he knew full well and only changed his tune after receiving blow-back from a priest that he knew. Come on now, Riz. And I love that the whole V/O is done with the Funk Jam happening behind it. The absurdity is World Class.

In a SHOCKING turn of events, upon completion…no label wanted to put the record out. None of them got it. Rundgren paid for the recordings himself, and his label wouldn’t release it without more money being assigned. Finally, another East St Band member, Little Steven, contacted Cleveland Records owner, Steve Popovich, who was blown away and agreed to put the album into the world. Bat Out Of Hell went on to sell 44 million copies world-wide, making it the 6th highest selling record OF ALL TIME! Only goes to show that this shit ain’t a science and you cannot quantify art. I will say that the band worked their ASSES off and basically hit the road for two years, playing almost every night, to convert crowds, almost one person at a time, into fans. As Todd has said on a number of occasions “Put something on the road for long enough and it’ll find an audience.” All bands should adhere to that rule. But, it’s hard graft, as we would say in the U.K.

The best part of the ENTIRE story of this EPIC song and tale is that when finished…it almost didn’t make it onto the record. Can you imagine?!? Craziness. Cooler minds prevailed and it has gone on to become a signature song for Meat Loaf. And one of the three big hits that carried it to the massive sales it has accrued. I remember seeing the video for “Paradise” on MTV as a teen and being VERY confused at what I was seeing. Sweat, skin-tight cat suits, ruffles, the LICK?!? I could make neither head nor tail of it. If you need a refresher then take a look. It’s QUITE something. But, be warned…there is SOMETHING about it that doesn’t quite sit well. Just saying.

Bat Out Of Hell is an album that reached a place in the musical pantheon that few records have. It put Meat Loaf on the map and proved the critics and labels COMPLETELY wrong. It stayed on the Album Chart in the U.K. forever. There has not been a record like it since, I don’t think anyone has the BALLS to even try it, let alone the talent. But, a note-for-note remake MIGHT be AWESOME!! Anyone?!?!

Oh, and Meat Loaf was AWESOME as The Bus Driver in Spice World The Movie.

Arite, I’m out. Los Angeles is FREEZING right now and I gotta go warm my hands. If you would like to know more of the stories and meet the character who conspired to create this masterpiece then I urge you to hunt down the Classic Album Series DVD on it. So good. Rundgren, man, Rundgren.

See you at the next one.


PS – You can find me on IG, Facebook, and here if you want any info about The Sessions and where to catch me live.

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