Mark of the Beast

THE CONFERENCE ROOM at Wan Chai's Grand Hyatt Hotel has been made to measure for Meat Loaf. Befitting the big man's brand of theatrical, epic rock, there are velvet curtains draped behind a small stage. A selection of his pulsating greatest hits spanning more than 30 years is booming out from a huge video screen. And those gathered have been urged to pull on feather-coated masquerade masks in an effort to join in the show as an overexcited MC calls him in to the room.

It turns out that no urging is needed. Storming in, yelling at the top of his voice, Meat Loaf charges to the stage, grabs a mic and commands those present to put their hands together. 'How y'all doing?' he blasts into a chorus of cheers (and some nervous, startled shuffling from those who have opted for front-row seats).

He's in town to promote his latest album, Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster is Loose. And what follows over the next 30 minutes or so is a lesson in pure, old-fashioned showmanship. Meat Loaf engulfs the crowd, darting out to sit next to a questioner whose query gets a little personal, dramatically acting out conversations he has had while he traces his history, getting right in the face of everyone and anyone.

It might be - by its end - exhausting. But it's also thoroughly entertaining.

'It's painful, singing these songs, because you're giving so much energy,' Meat Loaf says later, once we've retreated to another room and he's had time to calm down. (Well, a little).

'And if you're giving that much passion, why would you want to come out here and not give the same passion when you're talking about what you did. You want people to feel what you feel.' Meat Loaf's music is certainly all about feeling. The two previous editions of his Bat Out of Hell series swept around the world, thanks to a series of operatic chart-toppers that were as much cool as they were kitsch.

Back in 1977, it was You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth and Two Out of Three Ain't Bad. Sixteen years later, it was I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That). They were dramatic, over-the-top passion plays. The two Bat Out of Hell albums sold almost 50 million worldwide.

'[Those songs] are all renegades - it's that simple,' says Meat Loaf, by why of explaining their success. 'There's definitely a touch of tongue-in-cheek about them, for sure. But they're timeless. There's nothing funnier than [the topics of] teenagers and teenage emotion.

'The Bat Out of Hells aren't planned. The only thing I said is we can't do the next one too soon. And we didn't. Sixteen years later, we came back, and now 13 years later we're back again. The albums are renegade albums. They're about being different to anything else that's going on.'

The first Bat Out of Hell emerged as disco was in its death throes and was like chalk to that dance craze's cheese. Written by Jim Steinman and produced by Todd Rungren, it gave Meat Loaf's soaring vocals full rein. And its richly layered production was like nothing that had been heard before.

Meat Loaf (born Marvin Lee Aday) and Steinman had met while the singer was playing in an Off-Broadway musical and - after he had made a memorable debut as biker Eddie in The Rocky Horror Picture Show film (1975) - they had hit the studio with thoughts of updating Peter Pan. But those songs soon morphed into what would become Bat Out of Hell.

'On a Bat Out of Hell album no one is in control,' Meat Loaf says. 'On Bat Out of Hell, myself and Jim Steinman got on the Todd Rungren train and went on a ride. Suggestion? Yes. Idea about how it should sound? Yes. We put some of those things in place. But if I showed you the original reels and then showed you what Todd did, you'd know what I was talking about. The problem is that the world has never heard the original demos and heard what he did with our ideas.'

The first Bat was recently listed by a British magazine as the top 'guilty pleasure' in musical history. The kind of album everyone bought, but few will now admit to owning. And that last fact is something that brings Meat Loaf's 'passion' back to the fore.

'Fifty something million people bought the two Bats. So they should come out of the f***ing closet. Jerks. But it's good to be listed No1.'

Meat Loaf toured relentlessly in the years that followed the first Bat and then released a series of solo albums, with mixed results. His health suffered - his weight has always fluctuated and the constant touring began to damage his vocal cords.

'It's easier when you're 22, obviously,' he says. 'You know you hear the phrase, 'God, he makes it look so easy'. Well I'm the opposite. They say, 'God, he makes it look so hard'. Why? Because I try to deter people from going into the business.'

In 1993, he reunited with Steinman for Bat II, this time with Steinman writing and producing. It was as if time had never passed. Charts were topped and the touring began again in earnest.

'Bat Out of Hell II was a Jim Steinman train,' says Meat Loaf. 'We discussed, we talked. And then I got onboard the Steinman train. I became a spoke in the wheel. My job is to make the emotion connection with the listener. It's not about my connections to the song, it's about the listeners. When you listen to it, it belongs to you.'

Again, as if following some predestined plan, Meat Loaf's life followed a familiar path: solo albums, less success, health concerns after heavy touring. But Bat II's success allowed him to spend more time at what he says is his first passion: acting. And although it trimmed his public profile, he says the experience has made him a happier man.

'People ask what have I been doing in recent years,' he says. 'Well, three studio records, one live, one greatest hits record, and 22 films and four tours. That's all I've done in 13 years. Just a little bit of work. Things like Fight Club [where he memorably shares screen time with his man boobs] were some of my best work as an actor.'

He continues to scout film work and says he recently finished an independent production that will 'probably never see the light of day. But who cares?'

'I much prefer dealing with the film industry,' says Meat Loaf. 'I learned a long time ago that the entertainment industry is a river of snakes and everyone loves you while your record is selling. But while it's selling, they try to take over your boat. So I just learned to pat the snakes on the head, and there are a few less venomous snakes in the film business. The whole river is venomous in music.'

Still, he jumped at the chance to return to battle when the idea of a Bat III started to be thrown around. The first problem was that reports had also circulated that Meat Loaf and Steinman had ended their friendship.

'The truth is that I think Jim's manager is the devil and Jim thinks my manager is the devil,' says Meat Loaf, who turns 60 next September 27. 'I had always promised Jim we would do this record together. But his health wasn't up to it now. And if you look at my life as a gas tank on an automobile, I've got a quarter of a tank left. So I have to work.'

Enter writer/producer Desmond Child - who has written hits for the likes of Aerosmith, Cher and even Ricky Martin. The result is an updated Bat album, but a Bat album just the same. The single - on which Meat Loaf is joined by former M2M singer Marion Raven - is a Steinman-written epic called It's All Coming Back to Me Now. First time round it was a hit for Celine Dion, but, Meat Loaf says, it was always meant for him.

'It was planned for the last Bat, but we already had a ballad on that,' he says. 'Celine Dion is a smart woman. She knew how good it was and so she took it. But now we've made it what it was meant to be.'

He says Child's presence on the album has left him reinvigorated - and he welcomed the challenge of working with someone new. 'He wanted an old dog to learn tricks and I was open to that,' says Meat Loaf. 'He wanted to get rid of my vibrato, which was difficult. So it's a Bat Out of Hell album, but it's very different. But it holds true to the whole ethos of a Bat record.

'Producers should take great singers and make them aware of lyrics. That's what a Desmond Child or a Jim Steinman does.'

The record company publicists begin circling, but Meat Loaf - ever the showman - asks for a few more questions before he's taken off to prepare for the night's flight to Australia, where his publicity tour will continue.

Somehow, the conversation turns to MP3 technology. And the singer pipes up once again. 'MP3s piss me off,' he says. 'The only thing they're good for is to hear a melody or to get the lyrics. You've gone through years and years of technology for someone to record this stuff and make it sound like it does, and then somebody goes and squashes it down and puts it on an MP3. You might as well go back, cut 45s and drop a needle on it. It's a piece of s***. But it's cheap, that's the problem.'

Money is the problem, he says. 'The integrity of the piece doesn't matter. And then all that matters is that somebody buys it. And that's not all that matters. It's like you take Van Gogh - he never sold a painting while he was alive. Never sold a painting while he was alive, but it doesn't stop the integrity he had for what he was doing. For me it's about integrity.'

He takes in a yawn and a dramatic stretch and with that, the publicist steps in and calls the interview to an end. But Meat Loaf gets in one last shot. 'When it comes to entertainment, I'll do anything. I've failed so many times it really doesn't make a f***ing difference any more.'

And with that, he's out the door.

Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster is Loose is released on October 31