Transcript 124–Paradise by the Dashboard Light

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.

Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.

My name is Claude Call, and it’s the show’s third birthday this week!  

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[TRIVIA]

Today’s trivia question came to me rather by surprise, and I’m not sure I’m framing it the best way for you, but let’s have at it. What do Michael Jackson and Billy Crystal have in common? They have an interesting connection, and I invite you to figure it out.

I’ll have the answer to that at the end of the show.

And just like last week, this week’s show was the result of a request by friend of the show and Patron Jeremiah Coughlin, who’s been bugging me for awhile to cover a Meat Loaf song. And it’s his anniversary this week as I’m recording this, so I can’t let the guy down. Or can I? Let’s find out!

Let me tell you something about the Bat Out of Hell album. I was in high school the year it was released, and while it’s sold about 41 million copies worldwide, I’m pretty sure that about 20 million of them were purchased by the Kings Park High School Class of 1981, because that thing was absolutely everywhere for a while. Our school held a lot of dance nights as class fundraisers, and one of the highlights of those events was the DJ firing up “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” while a couple of students would lip-sync the song in the middle of a big circle. I wouldn’t be surprised if school administrators just kind of gave up and started handing out copies of the record to new enrollments. Ah, memories.

Bat out of Hell was born from the ashes of a musical called Neverland, which was a futuristic rock opera based on Peter Pan. Neverland was a workshop that Jim Steinman had created in 1974, and which was performed at the Kennedy Center Music Theater Lab a couple of years later. Steinman and Meat Loaf were touring with the National Lampoon show around that time, and they pulled three songs from Neverland which they thought were especially good, and began to develop them a part of a longer set of songs that they hoped to turn into an album. Those songs were “Bat Out of Hell, “Heaven Can Wait,” and a song called “The Formation of the Pack,” which eventually became “All Revved Up and No Place to Go.”

But we’re not talking about those guys, so let’s move on. “Bat Out of Hell,” the opening track, was Steinman’s attempt to write an extreme Splatter Platter. And if you’ve heard some of this show’s recent episodes, you know that a Splatter Platter is one of those songs like “Leader of the Pack,” where some youngster dies an untimely death, usually in an auto accident. And Steinman has acknowledged that the next track, “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth” is basically the chords from The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” with a Phil Spector melody overlay. That spoken word introduction to the song, the whole “on a hot summer night” bit comes from Neverland, specifically a set of wedding vows. And in fact, when Bat Out of Hell became a Broadway musical, it was again used in the same way.

[PARADISE]

OK, let’s zero in on “Paradise,” shall we? About half the songs on the album—three out of seven—are basically about a teenager’s view of life and sex, including unrealistic views of romance mixed with strong physical urges, and while the track “For Crying Out Loud” has a line about Levi’s bursting apart, it’s pretty clear that “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” is the most upfront about its theme. But we not only get the romantic longing and the sexual tension, we’re also treated to the consequences of that combination. Steinman has said that he wanted to write a car sex song in which everything goes horribly in the end, and that’s exactly what happens here.

One of the backup singers on the album was Ellen Foley, who had worked with Steinman and Meat Loaf on the National Lampoon tour, but most people remember her today as the public defender on the TV show Night Court, during that program’s second season, before Markie Post took over the role permanently. At any rate, Foley was tapped to take on the female portion of the song.

The song is broken into four sections, although if you look at the lyric sheet on the inner sleeve, it’s divided into three, basically combining the first two together. But I’m separating those two for our purposes today.

The first one has the characters thinking back to their high school days and hanging out in his car by the lake, and things start escalating until we hear the boy saying over and over, “We’re gonna go all the way tonight, we’re gonna go all the way and tonight’s the night.” The vocal cuts out suddenly and the music takes on a bit of a funk breakdown, at which point we move into part two. We’re still in the car, but there’s a baseball game on the radio, and Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto is calling the ballgame, which is obviously a metaphor for the boy’s attempts to get the girl to give in. have a listen to that segment…

[BASEBALL CALL]

…Rizzuto recorded his portion of the record at the Hit Factory in New York City with Jim Steinman, Meat Loaf and the album’s producer, Todd Rundgren, at the controls. Now, according to Steinman, it was his idea to use the baseball metaphor in that part of the record, but he and Meat Loaf came around to using Rizzuto at pretty much the same time, because they were both huge fans. Rundgren, on the other hand, thought it was a pretty ridiculous idea, but he ultimately ran with it. Rizzuto was paid a flat fee of $1000 to record his bit, and what you hear on the record is something like the ninth take, because Steinman felt he wasn’t sounding excited enough and needed coaching to get into the spirit of the nonexistent game.

Now, also according to Steinman is the fact that Rundgren forgot to bring any of the existing tapes to the recording session, so they didn’t have the song for Rizzuto to hear, or for him to record against, so they told him they’d just wild-track the recording and make it fit later on. Steinman also said that Rizzuto asked them it if was somehow dirty, and they told him that it wasn’t.

This mostly matches up with Rizzuto’s later version of the story. He said in a radio interview that he had his suspicions, especially because every play was a very close one, plus some of the language didn’t make sense, for instance when you have two outs, no baseball team is going to use a squeeze play. In a squeeze play, there’s a runner on third and the batter bunts the ball expecting to be thrown out at first, but this gives the runner a chance to score. If there’s two outs, then the throw to first ends the inning and it doesn’t matter what the runner does. Anyway, Rizzuto recorded the piece, collected his thousand dollars and that was that. Except…when the record came out, someone got a hold of it and took a copy down to Rizzuto, who was working with Spring Training for the Yankees, played it for him and asked him what his reaction was. Rizzuto was upset, especially since he was a religious fellow, and sure enough he got flack from conservative fans of his. So he was forced to distance himself from the record afterwards.

Some time later, Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf were invited to Yankee Stadium to present the team with a platinum record for the album, and they were in the dugout waiting to be called up, when Rizzuto spotted them from the field. And here’s Steinman’s account of that meeting:

[STEINMAN interview–no transcript available]

Now, Meat Loaf has said that Rizzuto knew exactly what he was recording, but I’m buying Steinman’s account because it matches so well with Rizzuto’s.

After the baseball call we move into the third segment of the song, where the boy and girl are in a debate, and this is where Ellen Foley takes greater prominence in the song. The boy wants to go further, but the girl refuses unless he promises her his forever love. Naturally, he’s stalling for time so he tries to tell her that he’ll give her an answer the next day, which she’s not buying. The discussion goes back and forth and keeps escalating until finally he cracks and offers up the promise, swearing to god and on his mother’s grave that he would love her till the end of time.

And that carries us directly into the final segment of the record, “Praying for the End of Time”. At this point we’ve moved back into the present and the couple basically can’t stand each other, but he’s an honorable man and he’s not going back on his promise, so he’s just waiting for the sweet release of death to get him out of his vow. And the song fades out, again playing with the stereo channels by having him singing on the left side and her on the right.

There are three versions of the song out there: the full album length is eight minutes and 28 seconds, but on the 45, it appears almost in its entirety, fading out almost immediately after Meat Loaf sings “end my time with you.” Still, at about 7:57 it’s one of the longest songs to appear on a single side of a 45 RPM record. And then in some countries the song is cut down to about five and a half minutes, which includes the entire baseball segment being cut out.

Before I move on from the recording of the record, it’s worth noting that there are a few prominent musicians on this song. I noted before the Todd Rundgren produced the entire album, but he also provided some backup singing and guitar work on this track. That’s Edgar Winter playing the saxophone. Roy Bittan did all the keyboard work, and that’s definitely worth noting, because there’s an organ in the mix that’s doing a lot of heavy lifting, and I’d call that the stealth MVP of this record, making the whole thing just a little more soap operatic. Bittan, you may recall, is a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, as is Max Weinberg, who did the drumming. So it’s small wonder that the album’s overall sound was compared to that of Springsteen’s work, and Rundgren has admitted that the songs “Jungleland” and “Thunder Road” may have influenced him a bit. But he’s also suggested that, at the time, he viewed the project as almost like a parody of Springsteen, because it was so operatic and over the top.

Now, Steinman and Meat Loaf had a tough time selling the album to a label, ultimately getting onto Cleveland International Records, which was a division of Epic. The problem was that everybody at Epic kind of hated it, so it was a minor miracle that they were able to talk the label into letting him make a video of the song. It’s a simple performance clip with some clips of vintage baseball plays intercut during the Phil Rizzuto portion of the record. Karla DeVito is seen lip-synching the girl’s part to Ellen Foley’s vocals, because Foley, by that time, had other commitments and had moved on, so DeVito would usually be the on-stage performer for the song anyway. But the fact is that the video was very effective, and for a couple of reasons. First, Meat Loaf was an actor first and a musician second, and so he had a great way of playing to the camera when he needed to. The other thing that made it successful, though, was that he managed to market the video in a clever way. Remember, this was 1977 and MTV wasn’t a thing yet. Meat Loaf convinced movie theaters to run 35-millimeter prints of the film before the midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was starting to take on cult status and in which Meat Loaf had appeared as Eddie. Today those prints are extremely rare and only a few of them are still in playable condition. At any rate, the video proved popular enough that it managed to get decent airplay on MTV a couple of years after the record’s release.

Now, here’s the part that most people forget. The song peaked at Number 39 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, partially because it was classified as a novelty record. In Belgium the song went to Number Two and stayed there for FIVE weeks, held out of the top spot the entire time by the Village People’s YMCA, and I’m a little bit sorry that I didn’t mention that when I talked about that song back in Episode 80. But in the Netherlands—oh, the Netherlands! The song became Meat Loaf’s biggest hit, making it all the way to Number One by the end of 1978, and became a hit all over again ten years later. And in the UK the song, although it’s well-known, didn’t chart at all at the time, but when rock stations over there do special Top 3000 of all time or whatever lists, the song shows up consistently near the top.

I don’t know of any serious covers of the song, though it was used in the TV show Glee, but it has been used a couple of times in commercials. In 2003 General Motors used the song to promote a 24-hour test drive campaign, called “Sleep On It”, but the slightly crazier one is from 2008, when the song was reworked to sell AT&T’s GoPhone. The ad involves Meat Loaf himself as a father whose son has asked for this specific phone. Partway through you’re going to hear a female voice, and that would be Tiffany Darwish, usually known as just Tiffany, pop star from the late 80s. And while you have to see the video for yourself, I am going to play part of it here. This was a 90-second commercial and I’m only playing the first minute.  

And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you what Michael Jackson and Billy Crystal have in common. This is, I admit, a tenuous connection, but the answer is composer Rod Temperton. If you remember alllll the way back to Episode 15, then you remember that Temperton was the composer of Jackson’s biggest single, “Thriller”, from 1982. Temperton wrote a lot of hit songs, and a few of them wound up in movies, including E.T The Extra-Terrestrial and The Color Purple. But Temperton also wrote almost all the music for the film Running Scared, which starred Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines as a pair of cops who are out to make one last big bust before they retire. That soundtrack resulted in multiple charting hits, *two of them written by Temperton.

[MAN SIZE LOVE]

…The first was “Man Size Love” by Klymaxx. The video for this song features the band at a drive in theater, and Running Scared is the film they’re there to see. At the end of the video, it’s edited to look as though Klymaxx is performing in the movie itself, with the band performing in a corner of a bar that’s designed to look like the one in the film, interspersed with shots from the film that take place in the bar.

[SWEET FREEDOM}

…and the other song would be “Sweet Freedom” by Michael McDonald. Now, the video for that song has Michael McDonald performing the song in a tropical bar, but while it also features clips from the movie, it’s got a lot of footage that Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal shot specifically in character for the video. First it opens with their characters reading postcards from Michael McDonald, then they’re down in Key West, dancing and clowning around with the bar patrons, and singing backups for McDonald. So Billy Crystal AND Gregory Hines, if you want to be more specific, are tied to Michael Jackson in that they appear in videos for hit songs written by Rod Temperton. And all of this came about because I was watching Running Scared the other night for maybe the hundredth time, and I suddenly recognized Temperton’s name appearing in the opening credits.

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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we meet up with a Psycho Killer. Wait, what?

Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.