Crate-Digging: Sun Ra and The Blues Project – Batman and Robin

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

(1966)

So … anybody care to take a crack at this one? It seems there’s quite a bit of unresolved history surrounding this release, and I like a good treasure hunt. And it involves Batman, so what could possibly be more fun? Mystery, intrigue, the Caped Crusader … sounds like a job for The Critical Masses!

I discovered this little gem on WFMU’s Beware of the Blog, and most of the information to which I refer comes from that site. But because there’s so little out there, I’m relying on a small blurb and user comments for the back story. Good thing there’s more to go on than back story alone, as members of Sun Ra’s Arkestra and Al Kooper’s Blues Project make up the session band that rips through these Batman-inspired tunes. Emphasis on inspired.

Turns out this record was a cash grab by a children’s toy company back in the 1960s, who hoped that the popularity of the Adam West/Burt Ward vehicle would propel sales of a miscellaneous collection of rock, funk, and blues numbers to the unsuspecting public. The record, credited on the sleeve to “The Sensational Guitars of Dan and Dale” (your guess is as good as mine), contained very little actual Batman music however – most of the compositions were warmed-over public domain fodder, such as “Chopin’s Polonaise Op. 53, the horn theme from Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and the love theme from Romeo and Juliet, [as well as] generic rock riffs.”

What kid wants that? Turns out the unsuspecting parents buying this record at the gas stations and grocery stores where it was primarily sold ended up with upset children when it was discovered that the TV theme song wasn’t even included on the tracklist. Sure, track 1 is “Batman Theme” and kind of sounds like the version on TV, but it’s gussied up in go-go theatrics and coated with a film of grime and filth that’s more appropriate for a nightclub than a six-year-old’s record player. (And by that I mean it’s awesome.) Commenter “Marc” sums up the experience of a subsection of the audience: “I got this album when it first came out. I was a kid of five, maybe, and I was devastated that it didn’t actually have the Batman theme song as heard on TV. My dad went back to the record store with me, and as I bawled my eyes out (I wasn’t faking), he convinced the record store clerk to exchange it for a nice Flintstones record.”

But 5-year-old Marc’s loss is our gain, and the pedigree of the session players seeps into the performances of this technically masterful and aesthetically enjoyable trip through the technicolor backtreets of Gotham. And even though the songs themselves have very little to do with Batman besides their titles, at least most establish a tone reminiscent of their descriptions. For example, “The Penguin Chase” is a high speed Hammond B-3 pursuit, “The Joker Is Wild” rouses the Arkham residents to a dance party, and “Batman and Robin Over the Roofs” stretches out and allows the individual instrumentalists soloing room, able to do their own thing throughout a long night on patrol.

“Robin’s Theme” features an uncredited vocalist who sings variations of “Robin, hey / Robin, yeah” throughout. Intrepid researchers have identified June Tyson as the likely vocalist, an Arkestra regular. (This, and “Batman Theme” are the only songs to feature vocals.) But even as certain tunes sound like they should, “Robin’s Theme” and others, removed from the context of this album, could be from any 1960s instrumental album. “The Riddler’s Retreat” borrows from The Beatles’ “She Loves You,” a saxophone mimicing the “with a love like that, you know you should be glad” vocal melody. “Batmobile Wheels” somehow manages to wrangle “Gloria in excelcis deo” into tight slacks and boots. And “Batman’s Batmarang” could be used as a weapon to fight crime. I guess.

And it seems that no collection of poorly paid session players (I’m speculating), regardless of talent, could co-exist without a bit of drama. Commenter “michael” offers this tidbit, presumably about the “Dan” in “Dan and Dale”: “For what it’s worth, I asked Blue Project [sic] guitarist Danny Kalb (he lives in my neighborhood) about the great Sun Ra/Blue Project [sic] collaboration and he said how much he hated those sessions. He seemed genuinely pissed off about it.” I laughed out loud at that, but it’s no joke – apparently the animosity brought out the best in Dan, as he (if in fact it’s Dan and not Dale) absolutely dices the scale with his fretwork on tracks such as “Batman’s Batmarang” and “Batman and Robin Over the Roofs.” Indulge me as I inject the present, but I haven’t seen that much effective and artistic maneuvering since Roy Halladay’s cut fastball danced around the plate in Game 1 of the 2010 NLDS. (Hi-O!) The guitar licks weave in and out of rhythm and perfectly set up blues runs that defy gravity. At any rate, Batman and Robin is freely available for download, so I suggest you adequately prepare yourself with some new theme music before suiting up to fight crime in your town.

RIYL: The Mothers of Invention, The Meters, The Beatles, Otis Day and the Knights

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3 responses to “Crate-Digging: Sun Ra and The Blues Project – Batman and Robin

  1. Pingback: Critical Masses All-Time Crate-Digging Top 50, part 3: 30-21 |·

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