The Number Ones

November 6, 1993

The Number Ones: Meat Loaf’s “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)”

Stayed at #1:

5 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.


Conventional wisdom says that rock music went through a kind of cultural revolution in the early ’90s. The alt-rock explosion of those years is widely considered to be a reaction against the perceived excesses of the glam-metal late ’80s. Suddenly, you had rock stars like Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder who were fundamentally opposed to being viewed or treated as rock stars. College-radio aesthetics started to encroach on AOR stations. As with virtually all examples of conventional wisdom, there’s some truth to this whole narrative, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. If rock ‘n’ roll had fundamentally shrunken itself down, then, why did a towering monolith of sheer bombast become the biggest rock song of 1993? There are lots of answers to that question, but mine is this: Sometimes, even in the leanest years, rock ‘n’ roll dreams come through.

Nobody saw the Meat Loaf comeback coming. Even when it was happening, it all seemed deeply implausible. This guy had made one of the biggest albums of all time, but that album was 16 years old, and the man had disappeared into obscurity in the years since. Meat Loaf’s whole style — gigantically hammy hymns to mythic excitement — couldn’t have been more diametrically opposed to what was happening to rock radio in the early ’90s. But that’s the inherent problem of thinking in narrative absolutes. When you try to impose structure on history, you can lose sight of little things, like the dopamine rush of a thundering, dramatic chord hitting at the exact right moment. “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That),” the only #1 hit that Meat Loaf ever made, is pretty much all thundering, dramatic chords hitting at the right moments. That’s why this ridiculous song is so magical.

In the years that I’ve been writing this column, this is the second time I’ve had to write about an artist in the immediate aftermath of that artist’s death. (The first was Kenny Rogers’ “Lady.”) This time, I’m actually writing about two artists who just died. The first is writer and producer Jim Steinman, the sultan of pop excess, who we lost to kidney failure last April. The other is Meat Loaf himself, Steinman’s greatest collaborator, who left us just a few weeks ago. Meat Loaf’s career was long and unpredictable, but when he died, the song that immediately sprang to mind was the chart-topper that he released when he was a 46-year-old has-been.

Meat Loaf was born Marvin Lee Aday in Dallas. His father, an alcoholic prone to violent rages, had fought in World War II before becoming a police officer. Marvin was a big kid who was self-conscious about his weight. (He later changed his name to Michael because his birth name always evoked memories of a Levis ad about “fat Marvin.”) Legend has it that he got the “Meat Loaf” nickname from his high school football coach, but it seems more likely that it was just the kind of thing that followed this kid around for his whole life, so it’s cool that he took that derisive nickname and turned it into his stage name, owning it completely. As a high-school kid, Meat Loaf did play football, but he also acted in musicals, and that second activity would become his future.

Shortly after his mother died, Meat Loaf used some of his inheritance to move to Los Angeles, where he started a band called Meat Loaf Soul. That band went through a few name changes — first Popcorn Blizzard, then Floating Circus. (This was, obviously, the late ’60s.) Meat Loaf’s band opened for a lot of bigger stars, and they released one single in 1968, but they never became anything more than a regional phenomenon.

Meat Loaf’s fortunes changed when he took a role in the Los Angeles production of Hair. Soon afterwards, Motown signed both Meat Loaf and his Hair co-star Shaun “Stoney” Murphy to the label’s rock subsidiary Prodigal. The 1971 single “What You See Is What You Get,” credited to Meatloaf & Stoney, was Meat Loaf’s debut, and it made the Hot 100, where it peaked at #71. But the song actually did better on the R&B chart, where it peaked at #36. It’s weird to think that Meat Loaf was ever a soul singer, but for a minute there, that was basically what he was.

The Motown deal didn’t last, and Meat Loaf eventually moved to New York, where he took a role in the Broadway version of Hair. Shortly thereafter, Meat landed a role in More Than You Deserve, a 1973 musical co-written by a young man named Jim Steinman. Meat Loaf and Steinman started tossing around ideas for a record, but Meat Loaf was doing just fine for himself as a stage actor. Later in 1973, Meat Loaf played a dual role in the original Los Angeles cast of a musical called The Rocky Horror Show. Two years later, when that play became the hugely successful cult movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Meat Loaf made his big-screen debut as Eddie.

When Meat Loaf was working on Rocky Horror, he and Steinman were also getting more serious about the idea of making an album. Steinman had started writing a rock-musical version of the Peter Pan story at a 1974 workshop. He and Meat Loaf liked some of those songs enough to make them the backbone of a new album that would take Spector/Springsteen emotional maximalism to new levels. Somehow, the two of them convinced Todd Rundgren to produce the album Bat Out Of Hell even though Rundgren thought that the record was a joke, a parody. (Rundgren’s highest-charting single, 1973’s “Hello It’s Me,” peaked at #5. It’s a 6.) Steinman and Meat Loaf also recruited two of the members of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, keyboardist Roy Bittan and drummer Max Weinberg, to play on the album.

Once Bat Out Of Hell was done, Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman had a hell of a time finding anyone to release it. The process took so long that Meat Loaf took another gig, singing lead on Ted Nugent’s 1976 album Free-For-All. This was strictly a for-hire gig; Meat Loaf got paid a thousand dollars for two days of recording sessions. The Free-For-All single “Dog Eat Dog,” which peaked at #91, didn’t have Meat Loaf on it. That one was sung by Nugent’s regular singer Derek St. Holmes, who’d just quit Nugent’s band and who rejoined after the album came out. (The Nuge’s highest-charting solo single, 1977’s “Cat Scratch Fever,” peaked at #30.)

The famous story about Bat Out Of Hell is that Clive Davis threw Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman out of his office, telling them that they didn’t know anything about rock ‘n’ roll. The sheer overwhelming excess of Bat Out Of Hell is, of course, exactly what’s so great about it. It’s like a parody of rock ‘n’ roll catharsis that’s been blown out to absurd, mountain-crushing sizes, and that’s why it eventually became a smash. Eventually, the tiny Epic subsidiary Cleveland International Records agreed to release Bat Out Of Hell in 1977. The album took time to pick up steam, but it eventually became a wild, out-of-control blockbuster — one of the biggest-selling albums of all time in a global scale.

Bat Out Of Hell sold slowly at first, and radio never quite took to it. The album didn’t go platinum for nearly a year, and it didn’t got higher than #14 on the albums chart. (My friend Chris Molanphy just pointed out that Bat Out Of Hell actually reached a new chart peak of #13 after Meat Loaf’s death last month.) The LP had hits, but those hits aren’t really reflected in chart standing. “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” is the Bat Out Of Hell song that everyone knows, but that one peaked at #39. In pure pop-chart terms, the biggest Bat Out Of Hell hit was “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad,” which just missed the top 10, peaking at #11. But Bat Out Of Hell just kept selling. It’s now platinum 14 times over.

When Bat Out Of Hell hit, Jim Steinman started planning a sequel almost immediately. But Meat Loaf, who’d been touring hard and indulging in substances, lost his voice for a while. Steinman wrote songs for the sequel, and he ended up singing many of those songs himself on his 1981 solo album Bad For Good. That LP was a commercial flop in the US, and Steinman never made another solo record. In 1981, Meat Loaf played the lead in the 1980 truck-driver B-movie Roadie, and then he got it together enough to record the 1981 Steinman-written follow-up album Dead Ringer. That album didn’t sell anywhere near as much as Bat Out Of Hell, and its lead single “I’m Gonna Love Her For The Both Of Us” peaked at #84. Meat Loaf wouldn’t return to the Hot 100 until 1993.

In the ’80s, Meat Loaf split bitterly with Jim Steinman, who went on to huge success with other artists. For a week in 1983, two Steinman-written songs, Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” and Air Supply’s “Making Love Out Of Nothing At All,” held down the #1 and #2 spots on the Hot 100. (“Making Love Out Of Nothing At All” is a 6.) Meat Loaf complained that both songs should’ve been his. Meat Loaf and Steinman got into costly legal battles with one another, and Meat declared bankruptcy in 1983. Meat kept cranking out records through the ’80s, working with producers like future Milli Vanilli svengali Frank Farian. Those records did well in the UK, where Bat Out Of Hell was one of the biggest-selling albums ever, but Meat Loaf couldn’t get arrested in America.

Finally, in the late ’80s, Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman made up. Both Meat and Steinman wanted to make another Bat Out Of Hell, but they once again had a hard time finding a label that would be interested. Their relationship remained prickly. At one point, Steinman gave some of the songs he’d written for Meat Loaf to Pandora’s Box, a girl group that he’d assembled. This enraged Meat Loaf. But when Steinman demanded that Meat Loaf fire his manager and find another one, Meat Loaf complied. Steinman and Meat Loaf spent years recording Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell. They brought back many of the musicians who’d been on the first album, including keyboardist Roy Bittan. Steinman produced Bat Out Of Hell II himself, but Todd Rundgren, producer of the first album, came back to sing backing vocals.

Finally, Bat Out Of Hell II came out on MCA in September of 1993. Once again, it was a smash that nobody saw coming, and its opening track has everything to do with that. On the album, “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” lasts an absurd, gratuitous 12 minutes. Meat Loaf egged Steinman on, pushing him to make the song bigger and bigger. (Meat Loaf in Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits: “I made him add verses and instrumentals. I always do that.” This explains a lot, honestly.) Even chopped down to a five-minute single edit, the song is a colossal screaming eagle of a track, an epic that blows past the ridiculous and into the sublime.

The title of “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” wasn’t necessarily supposed to be mysterious. Jim Steinman got that song title from a quick lyrical aside on “Getting So Excited,” a 1983 Bonnie Tyler song that Steinman produced but didn’t write. When “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” came out, there were a lot of theories about what the “that” of the title was supposed to be. Most of the theories were predictably ribald. (My favorite: Anal.) Meat Loaf would always explain that, no, it’s right there in the lyrics. Meat Loaf’s narrator won’t forget the way you feel right now — oh no, no way. He won’t forgive himself if he doesn’t go all the way… tonight. He’ll never do it better than he does it with you. He’ll never stop dreaming of you every night of his life — no way.

Meat Loaf thought this was self-explanatory; when he went on VH1 Storytellers a few years later, he brought chalkboard to illustrate what the title meant. You could argue that the real mysterious part of the title is the “but.” Like: Shouldn’t it be “I Would Do Anything For Love (So I Won’t Do That)”? But that kind of mystery is good for a pop song. If kids on playgrounds are getting into protracted debates over what your song means, then you’re doing something right.

The chest-thumping, garment-rending grandiosity of “Anything For Love” is the entire point of the song. Meat Loaf’s character — in Meat Loaf’s words, “a 14-year-old looking at this girl trying to figure out how to get up the nerve to go over and ask her out” — is so desperate for love that he’ll sing a whole damn opera about it. The song starts out massive — a revved-up guitar noise into Roy Bittan’s rushing pianos, with a whole tempo change before Meat Loaf even starts singing. The tempos change constantly on “Anything For Love.” Anytime the song wants to emphasize its drama, the song slows down or speeds up, and since the song always wants to emphasize its drama, that never stops happening.

There are so many great little moments on “Anything For Love” — the boom of the guitar after that first chorus, the wailing background vocals on the ramp-up to the chorus, the moments where the stormy music drops away and leaves us with nothing but Meat Loaf’s quavering voice. Meat Loaf goes ham all over this thing, belting out every line with overstated brio. The song jumps up a couple of levels near the end, when another singer breaks in.

Lorraine Crosby, a British wailer who was being managed by Steinman, sang the guide vocals on an early version of “Anything For Love,” and after considering some big-name singers for her part, Steinman simply left Crosby’s vocals intact. She matches Meat Loaf’s wild intensity in the same way that Ellen Foley did on “Paradise By The Dashboard Light,” and her insistence that Meat Loaf will inevitably dump her lends the song extra gravity. It makes Meat Loaf’s protests sound sad and maybe hollow. If anything, Crosby is forced to sell lyrics even more ridiculous than anything Meat Loaf has to sing. She needs to know: Can you build an emerald city with these grains of sand? Will you hose her down with holy water if she gets too hot? These are not, in my opinion, reasonable requests, but Meat Loaf says that he can do that. Maybe Lorraine Crosby should’ve asked: “Will you properly credit me for my guest vocals?” Crosby didn’t get royalties for “Anything For Love,” since she’d been hired for those guide vocals. In the liner notes, she’s credited only as “Mrs. Loud.”

It’s not hard to make fun of a song like “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That).” It’s bombastic. It’s ungainly. It’s self-serious. From where I’m sitting, these are all the same reasons that it’s a truly great song — that and the way the hooks just keep slamming home. Even during that early-’90s alt-rock moment, there was plenty of room for rock pomposity if it was done right. A year earlier, Guns N’ Roses had made it to #3 with their similarly excessive “November Rain.” (It’s an 8.) Like “November Rain” before it, “Anything For Love” got plenty of juice from an absolutely insane music video.

Future blockbuster dirtbag auteur Michael Bay, still two years away from making his cinematic debut with Bad Boys, had already made a handful of big videos before taking on the Meat Loaf job. His videos for Donny Osmond, Richard Marx, and Faster Pussycat probably helped turn those songs into hits. But in “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That),” Bay had a song that matched his whole over-the-top style. I really hate most Michael Bay movies, but I’d say that the “Anything For Love” video is Bay’s masterpiece. It’s definitely a clear sign of Bay’s whole vision as a director. It’s got all his trademarks — motorcycles, helicopters, screeching cop cars, golden-hour sunset light, disorienting herky-jerk editing, blue-lit nighttime scenery, clouds of dry ice — in its first 40 seconds.

There’s a story to the “Anything For Love” video, but that story doesn’t make any sense at all. Meat Loaf plays a soulful Beauty And The Beast/Phantom Of The Opera-looking monster, and he’s on the run from police for some unspecified reason. He crashes through a wall on a motorcycle, just like he did in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which I guess causes a chandelier to land on one of the cops who’s chasing him. Meat flees from his gothic mansion into a forest, where he happens across an outrageously hot woman played by the model Dana Patrick who, in a very C+C Music Factory touch, lip-syncs Lorraine Crosby’s vocals.

The outrageously hot woman takes baths and enjoys implied cunnilingus from some other outrageously hot women, but she’s really turned on by Meat Loaf. She doesn’t care about his whole Klingon-forehead situation. She sees the real him. Her passion for him is so great that she magically levitates a sofa. We get a real head-spinning scene of this model telling monster-face Meat Loaf that he’s definitely going to cheat on her, which does not necessarily reflect any reality that I might know. But realism isn’t the point of this video; it’s all operatic sensation. Finally, this couple escapes the cops, riding Meat Loaf’s motorcycle into the sunset together. Love wins.

“I’d Do Anything For Love” was an international smash, the biggest single of the year in the UK. In the US, the song pushed Bat Out Of Hell II to quintuple-platinum sales. The follow-up single “Rock And Roll Dreams Come Through,” which Jim Steinman had originally recorded for his 1981 solo album Bad For Good, got an equally over-the-top Michael Bay video, which had an extremely young Angelina Jolie as a runaway teenager. The song peaked at #13.

Meat Loaf kept working with Jim Steinman on his 1995 follow-up album Welcome To Neighbourhood, but that album’s lead single, the Patti Russo duet “I’d Lie For You (And That’s The Truth),” actually came from Diane Warren. It got as high as #13, and the album went platinum. But second single “Not A Dry Eye In The House,” another Diane Warren song, stalled out at #82, and Meat Loaf never made the Hot 100 again. Jim Steinman, on the other hand, had one more monster hit in him. Steinman had written a song called “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” for his girl group Pandora’s Box, and they’d released it in 1989, but it hadn’t gone anywhere. In 1996, Steinman produced Celine Dion’s version of that same song, and she was fully up to the task of selling its wild-eyed drama. Her version peaked at #2. (It’s a 9. Celine Dion will eventually appear in this column.)

Meat Loaf kept up his combustable on-and-off partnership with Jim Steinman. In 2006, Meat Loaf released Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose after getting into a legal battle with Steinman over the rights to the Bat Out Of Hell name. Steinman wasn’t directly involved with that album, though it did have Meat Loaf covering a bunch of Steinman-written songs, including “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now.” That album bricked, but Meat Loaf and Steinman still kept working together. Meat Loaf’s final album, 2016’s Braver Than We Are, is all Steinman songs.

Meat Loaf also kept acting, including a memorable turn in Fight Club at the end of the ’90s. But Meat Loaf wasn’t exactly a movie star; his last job in that arena was two seasons in the cast of a SyFy show called Ghost Wars. He was also on a season of Celebrity Apprentice, and host Donald Trump apparently made a deep impression. Meat Loaf didn’t maintain too many serious political stances throughout his life, but he went all-in on the Trump stuff near the end. He was big on climate-change denialism; in 2020, he said in an interview that Greta Thunberg had been “brainwashed.” He also hated COVID restrictions. Right now, the causes of Meat Loaf’s death hasn’t been officially confirmed, but it sure looks like he died of COVID last month at the age of 74.

Last year, Meat Loaf announced that he would serve as an executive producer on a new couples’ reality show called I’d Do Anything For Love… But I Won’t Do That. The idea was that couples would compete in physical challenges to see who worked together the best. I don’t know how far they got in making that show, but it’s a testament to the power of Meat Loaf’s biggest hit that the song could still become the basis of a reality show a few decades later. That’s a much better legacy than all the stuff that Meat Loaf was saying at the end.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: The 2016 animated film Sausage Party is a kind of hard-R Pixar parody about anthropomorphic food items who live in a supermarket. The main plot is about how these food items realize that humans want to eat them, but there’s also a love-story plotline about Seth Rogen’s hot dog and Kristen Wiig’s bun. Here’s the heartbreak montage where a meatloaf who looks like Meat Loaf sings “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)”:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 2018’s Book Club where Mary Steenburgen tapdances to “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the deeply, challengingly unfunny scene from the 2021 Netflix film Love Hard where Nina Dobrev sings a karaoke rendition of “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a video of Eric Church, a country star who I really like, covering “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)” after Meat Loaf’s death a couple of weeks ago:

(Eric Church’s highest-charting Hot 100 single, 2012’s “Springsteen,” peaked at #19.)

THE NUMBER TWOS: Ace Of Base’s eerie, weightless robo-reggae seance “All That She Wants” peaked at #2 behind “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That).” It’s going to get you. It’s a 10.

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