In Random Tracks, I review a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.
Meat Loaf- “Paradise By The Dashboard Light”
PEAK: #39 on September 23, 1978
SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: A Taste Of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie”
When looking at Bat Out of Hell, it’s easy to imagine it existing today as a major flop. Here were two guys who were largely known for working on musicals and together making a seven-song rock opera epic inspired by the maximalist Wall of Sound styles and teenage lyrical themes of Phil Spector and Bruce Springsteen in an era when disco and soft rock was dominating the charts. For songwriter Jim Steinman and performer Meat Loaf, getting Bat Out of Hell into the world was a hugely difficult task as all of the major record labels rejected it for what they thought was its uncommercial nature including a particularly funny rejection from mogul Clive Davis who questioned Steinman’s writing abilities and Meat Loaf’s singing.
With the eccentric artist and recent Rock Hall inductee Todd Rundgren producing, Bat Out of Hell was finally released in October 1977 on Cleveland International Records, a subsidiary of Epic Records, but even then it wasn’t a smashing success at first. Critics were mixed and the label wasn’t interested in promoting it. On the album chart, it debuted very low at #185 and wasn’t moving much in its early months. Television performances on the British music show The Old Grey Whistle Test and in America on Saturday Night Live would finally break Bat Out of Hell into a major sleeper hit where in the US it peaked at #14 in September 1978. Despite that chart placement, the album has continued to sell like crazy over the years where it has currently sold 14 million copies nationally and 43 million copies worldwide making it one of the biggest selling albums of all time.
Singles-wise, Bat Out of Hell was not as big of a hit largely due to the long lengths of the songs and their lack of a traditional song structure which made radio hesitant to play them. The first hit single was the one that was as mainstream accessible as the album could get which was the ballad “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.” After debuting on the Hot 100 in March, it peaked just outside of the Top 10 in July at #11. That song is fine enough but my personal favorite from Bat Out of Hell is its next hit, the duet about a teenage sexual experience that turns into a lasting relationship gone wrong.
As with most of Bat Out of Hell, “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” was originally written by Jim Steinman for his Peter Pan rock musical Neverland before he and Meat Loaf decided to use it for their rock opera album idea. According to Steinman, his idea for the song was to write “the ultimate car/sex song in which everything goes horribly wrong in the end.” In an interview last year with Rolling Stone, Meat Loaf said “Paradise” was based on his experiences with a woman he had dated and later told the story to Steinman while sitting in front of his apartment giving him the inspiration for the song, “We’d park somewhere and she’d, in so many words, say “stop right there.”
To give the song greater effect, Meat Loaf invited Ellen Foley, an actress he met while performing together in a National Lampoon Road Tour, to perform the female vocals. According to Foley, she recorded her part in one take after Meat Loaf recorded his vocals but joined Foley in the studio so she could sing to him in character. Despite being integral to the song, Foley didn’t go on tour with Meat Loaf but has stuck around since as an actress and singer. She was also the inspiration for the Clash’s 1982 classic “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” which was written by member Mick Jones about their relationship. (“Should I Stay Or Should I Go” peaked at #45.)
Also brought in to the song was none other than New York Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto. It’s Rizzuto who provides us with the middle section where he speaks as if he is announcing a baseball game only he’s announcing Meat Loaf and Foley’s narrators attempt to have sex. In the years since Rizzuto tried distancing himself from the song saying he didn’t realize his dialogue was going to be used for a song about sex with his priest expressing shock at his involvement with the song. But Meat Loaf dismissed any ignorance on Rizzuto’s part saying he knew very well what the song was about.
“Paradise By The Dashboard Light” is, true to the album’s theme, a song about good old teenage melodrama. Structured into three parts, the song is sung from the point of view of a couple remembering their time together in high school out on a date one night parked by the lake as they begin to lose their virginities. Things seem to be going good until Foley’s narrator stops and asks the Meat Loaf’s narrator if he really loves her and will make her happy for the rest of her life before going any further with the sex. They each go back and forth with the Meat Loaf not wanting to answer right away wanting to sleep on it til the morning but Foley isn’t having it leading Meat Loaf to proclaim his undying love swearing on his mother’s grave even though it’s obvious he doesn’t like this relationship. Now Meat Loaf is hoping that the end of time will come along to take him with his past being so much better than it is today.
As with all of Steinman’s songs, “Paradise” is a song that’s proudly silly and campy with its melodrama complete with lines that don’t make much sense but sound cool like the title and “We’re glowing like the metal on the edge of a knife.” (I’m sure I’ve seen the metal on the edge of the knife shine but I’ve never heard anyone use that to describe anything.) But true to Steinman, the song rules because he had the genius and execution to justify his grand indulgent musical vision by taking the kind of teenage situations popular in pop music and making them feel big and powerful. Because of that, the song never drags throughout its eight-and-a-half-minute run time.
Of course, what has helped in making the song what it is is the performances of everyone involved. Bassist Kasim Sulton said to the New York Times that Meat Loaf loved “Paradise” more than any other song he did because he got the opportunity to act in the song. You can hear that on record. Meat Loaf sounds like he’s having a blast and given that he had mainly done theater acting before Bat Out of Hell, it’s only right that he would deliver the song with such theatrical flair fully inhabiting the role of a horny teen too scared to commit. She may not be as well known but Ellen Foley is also great here having lots of chemistry with Meat Loaf as she belts out her lines with lots of intensity in wanting Meat Loaf to commit to her. I also like the outro where Meat Loaf and Foley sing over each other on their differing perspectives with Meat Loaf feeling miserable while Foley has a more romantic and nostalgic look back.
Like the rest of the album, Todd Rundgren plays guitar while his Utopia bandmates Kasim Sulton and Roger Powell play bass and synth respectively. There are also two members of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band on the song which are keyboardist Roy Bittan and drummer Max Weinberg. Together, they create a fun epic from beginning to end. It starts with a Rundgren guitar lick going into a driving ‘70s take on the boogie-woogie rhythm present in a lot of ‘50s rock and roll. From there, they shift their playing with the various shifts in the song like going into a funk like break during Rizzuto’s skit before playing with a hard-rocking urgency and slamming away at the end where Weinberg points out, “By the end of it, I’m just slamming away at the cymbals.” The musicians play in a lot of the ways a band plays during a musical adjusting the sound and playing to the action of the song. “Paradise” may have been recorded it as a parody of Spector and Springsteen but the song like the rest of the album is able to transcend its influences and be great in its own way.
After the success of “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad,” “Paradise” was put out as the third single. For the radio, the song was cut from its original eight and a half minute length to five and a half minutes which even for radio was still long. The song’s #39 peak might seem a bit unrepresentative of the song’s legacy now but considering its length, unconventional structure, and what was topping the charts in the fall of 1978, it’s impressive that it got as high as it did. Soon after, Epic re-released “You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth,” a song that has a more pronounced Springsteen and Spector influence. It was originally the album’s first single but flopped initially before “Paradise” led to a new wind of interest helping “You Took The Words” peaking just like “Paradise” at #39 in January 1979.
Another major impact of “Paradise” came in its promotion with a full-on music video made for the song well before MTV existed. As Meat Loaf explains in the 2011 book I Want My MTV, he convinced Epic to give him $30,000 to make performance clips for several songs from Bat Out of Hell to play as trailers at midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. “Paradise” was one of the songs filmed with Karla Devito singing Ellen Foley’s part. As a live performance, it’s a fun video to watch especially in the second part when Meat Loaf and Devito are all close up with each other amid old baseball footage while singing back and forth together making it look like you’re watching a musical number. When MTV premiered in 1981, Meat Loaf videos like “Paradise” were put into heavy rotation given the lack of music videos in the beginning of the network. In the MTV book, Meat Loaf remarks how important the video for “Paradise” came to be noting Bat Out of Hell became the biggest selling album in Holland, a country he never toured, all because people were seeing the video.
Even up to his recent death, Meat Loaf never let go of his love of performing “Paradise” live with Devito saying Meat Loaf had called her less than a month before about going on tour again. Meat Loaf was already in failing health but according to Devito that didn’t deter him from doing what he did best, “He really did not stop thinking, and this is the thing that kills me about losing him—he was always inspired to do more.”
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the 2003 General Motors ad which advertises letting customers test drive a car before buying using the “sleep on it” part from “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” as its soundtrack:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: For a 2008 AT&T cell phone commercial, Meat Loaf and ‘80s teen pop star Tiffany teamed to sing “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” turning it into a song about getting their son a new phone. Here’s that commercial:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2012 romantic comedy This Is 40 where Paul Rudd sings along to “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” while driving and eating: