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A total artist – in memoriam Meat Loaf

21 January 2022

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

Wagner used the phrase gesamtkunstwerk in 1849 to describe the bringing together of all the arts in the theatre to reach an apotheosis of performance. While the philosophy behind the idea reached something of a dead end in lavish stagings of 19th-century opera and theatre and in the socialism of William Morris, in the 20th century there is one artist who has consistently shown how theatricality, design and music can come together to create a body of work that far exceeds the sum of its parts. His name was Marvin Lee Aday, better known as Meat Loaf, and Rakewell is saddened by the news of his death this week.

The Loaf’s first album, Bat Out of Hell (1977), had its roots in a planned musical called Neverland, written by Jim Steinman, who has cited Wagner as an influence. The famous cover of the album is, in an act of some modesty, credited as being ‘conceived by Steinman’ and executed by illustrator Richard Corben whose work included the comic book Den, which is not renowned for its restraint.

The combination of fantasy artwork and a heavy metal aesthetic with music that might be described as Broadway Punk defined Meat Loaf’s career. The hellish iconography and the enormous sound of his masterpiece unleased an emotional intensity that returned his audience to the passions of their youth. It would be impossible to enjoy the music without envisioning the Meat Loaf aesthetic; they are inseparable and the perfect expression of all the art forms coming together. The narrative of young love foundering in disaster has kept fans entranced since its debut in 1977. It has sold more than 43 million copies worldwide and is the third bestselling album of all time.

Rakewell wonders if what Meat Loaf really represents is an artistic achievement that has not been fully acknowledged. This is perhaps the artist who has most successfully brought together art forms to create a work of such originality it transcends its origins. Is Meat Loaf, in fact, the defining artist of the 20th century? And if he didn’t achieve this accolade with his first album then please look to the next great works in the trilogy, the originally titled Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell (1993) and Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster is Loose (2006).

The growth of music videos only perpetuated the prospect of uniting narrative, visual and musical art into something new – nowhere can this be better seen than in the video for the single ‘I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)’. Chandeliers tumble, gothic arches are destroyed by motorbikes, baroque paste-jewellery appears – the loneliness of lovelessness is given its full expression. The softness of romance is given form in the guise of endless, well-lit chiffon. It is a lesson to us all to lead our lives to their full. As the legend at the start of the video proclaims: ‘Sometimes going all the way is just a start.’

Got a story for Rakewell? Get in touch at rakewell@apollomag.com or via @Rakewelltweets.