"There's an opera out on the turnpike/There's a ballet being fought out in the alley." That's a line from Bruce Springsteen's ambitious "Jungleland," the West Side Story-like tale that closes his 1975 album Born to Run. That couplet's oversized romanticism serves as a pretty good jumping-off point for this massively successful record first released in 1977. Where the Boss sang of midnight gangs meeting beneath giant Exxon signs to explore the poetics of the street, Jim Steinman's songs on Bat Out of Hell are about love and hope and sex and dreams, small-scale bedroom dramas blown up to widescreen proportions and leavened with huge dollops of humor. And they're voiced by a guy who shares a name with your local diner's blue plate special, fresh off a stint singing in a Broadway production of Hair and acting in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. All of which is to say that Bat Out of Hell is a thoroughly ridiculous album that also happens to be completely brilliant, the sound of a pop visionary at the top of his game, bravely indulging every instinct without regard to fashion or good taste.
Steinman, who would later apply some of the techniques on display here to Bonnie Tyler's epic "Total Eclipse of the Heart," is Bat Out of Hell's creative driving force. He was inspired by the "little symphonies for the kids" production of Phil Spector, the simultaneously cheeky and deadly serious pop theater of Shadow Morton's work with The Shangri-Las and the emoting-for-the-cheap-seats bombast of the musical. To this mix he added the visceral power of post '60s hard rock (extending the Springsteen connection, pianist Roy Bittan and drummer Max Weinberg from the E Street Band are on hand) and a flair for turning a dorky cliché into a pained expression of longing that also has a good punch line. So the chorus of the mid-tempo rocker "You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth" includes the line, "It must have been while you were kissing me," and then producer Todd Rundgren amplifies the effect by laying the whole thing over a blatantly appropriated "Be My Baby" drumbeat. Three songs extend well beyond 45 length, but radio and fans treated them like jukebox hits anyway, such was their undeniable sing-along intensity. The title track moves between rollicking roadhouse rock and hushed balladry, throwing in the sound of a revving motorcycle, but the most famous of the suites is of course "Paradise by the Dashboard Light". It tells a detail-packed story of teenage lust, offers a concise musical survey of rock'n'roll trends since the 1950s, and builds to an enormous climax. And then, just when it seems it can't get any more over-the-top, Phil Rizzuto, the voice of the New York Yankees, drops in to give the play-by-play of the sexual drama unwinding in the back seat. In this world, it makes perfect sense.