Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Spider-Man: Rock Reflections of a Super-Hero

The theoretically still-upcoming and terminally ill-fated Broadway musical disaster porn Spider-Man:Turn Off The Dark has taken on the comic proportions of a Max Bialystock production, particularly as no sign has yet been given that they’re going to call it off. One imagines Bono and Julie Taymor are probably creeping through the theatre’s basement with sticks of dynamite cradled in their arms, amazed that no one’s called their bluff before now.

With the dogged determination driving forward the debut date, you’d think Marvel had never had a successful musical theatre property before. Long-time comic fans (i.e. “old people”) may remember that Captain America had been slated for a Broadway musical way back when dinosaurs were only available on cassette, and don’t forget that Marvel scored Tony and Academy Award success with their production of Kiss of the Spider-Woman, a musical rom-com about Jessica Drew’s topsy-turvy love life. Sort of a super-powered Bridget Jones’ Diary (PS I just saw this movie last Friday and, no, that’s not what it is about).

Of course, way-y-y-y back in 1975, Marvel (and Lifesong Records, a company which couldn’t sound more like a front for the kind of skeevy cult you’d find on episodes of The Streets of San Francisco or ChiPs if it had a permed guru in a white dashiki and Italian sunglasses talking to the cops at poolside), there was Spider-Man: Rock Reflections of a Super-Hero! An admittedly impressive – if inordinately obnoxious – rock opera based around the life and hardships of Peter Parker, narrated in intervals by Stan Lee and featuring the musical stylings of the Marvel Universe, if the flipside of the album art was to be believed (I bet The Falcon rocks the handclap. I seriously bet he does).

The irony is that if he did
this while he was flying,
he'd fall to his death.
The album was largely put together by assorted members of West Virginian prog-rock combo Crack The Sky, a well-received Seventies debut who – through a series of circumstances so sad and strange and grimly amusing that I can’t help but wonder if I made it up – never made it big outside Baltimore. No joke, I send thee to their Wikipedia article, if you can Adam ‘n’ Eve it.

As for the album itself, it’s twelve(ish) tracks of original songs recounting in what certainly feels like painstaking detail the origin and general big-event storylines of Spider-Man.

In-between the tracks, Stan “The Man” himself tacks on handy narration in a surprisingly deliberate and clearly enunciated tone so very unlike every other narration, interview or audio track I ever heard the guy put together. He’s enunciating so clearly and speaking so deliberately that, after the second or third narration track, you can’t help but suspect that he’s being held captive somewhere and is sending coded messages through the dialogue tracks. Let’s see, if we take the first letter of every stressed word from alternate sentences, and omit proper names whenever Stan rattles his gold-link necklace ... yes, I think Stan’s telling us the cross-streets near the building where his kidnappers have taken him! Let’s roll, team!

"But Mom, all the other
Gods are outside playing
stickball! Why do I have to
stay inside and practice?"
It's legitimately strange to listen to Stan in remastered audio, speaking with such broad spaces that you have to assume someone told him that the album was falling a little shy of the proposed running time. I also learned that - at least back in 1975 - Stan is very selective about his "R"s. Sometimes - like in Peter Parker - he hits them like an ESL student with a grudge. Other times, they're non-existent - he pronounces "Murder" as "Muhdeh", as a for instance. If you listen to the tracks, pay close attention, it'll drive you nuts.

The songs are performed in a variety of styles, starting with "High Wire" - a celebration of web-swinging and definite gender assignment (chorus lyric: “I’m a man – I’m a Spi-i-i-i-i-ider-Ma-a-a-a-n!!”), the intro of which sure keeps you guessing. There’s a touch of Diamond Dog-era Bowie, but then there’s some classic R&B-influenced guitar, so maybe there’s a dash of Jeff Lynne and ELO? But wait, maybe it’s a little more … yeah, Meat Loaf. This could be Meat Loaf. Except the singer sounds like Neil Diamond. ANYWAY THERE’S YOUR FIRST TRACK.

He's actually quite skilled,
but it was still a mistake to
have let him play a drum
memorial at Captain Mar-
Vell's funeral ...
Following that is a wistful reflection on dual identity, “Peter Stays and Spider-Man Goes” (Think “Too Old To Rock ‘n’ Roll” era Jethro Tull, maybe) followed by the INCREDIBLY OBNOXIOUS “Square Boy”, the first of two songs on this album that do their goddamndest to get stuck in your fucking head until you Jesus Christing die. In fact, I waited until this point to direct you to Amazon’s MP3 album Download page – where you can hear short samples of each of these tracks (although do keep in mind that they’re out of order for some reason or another) – so that I could warn you that “Square Boy”, some strange homage to the Andrews Sisters recapping Peter’s encounter with the radioactive spider, is highly toxic ear candy. No need to thank me, it’s my civic duty.

From there, it’s an upbeat and peppy “New Point of View” with the Sears-bought synthesizer set to “reggae” and the songwriting tuned to “primetime Gabe Kaplan vehicle theme song” (Here’s a second one for free: It sounds like the Starlight Vocal Band haunted by ghosts). Then comes the eponymous “Spider-Man” (which starts with a Who-like riff and makes the most advantage of the lead vocalist’s Neil Diamondesque qualities by sounding exactly like a Neil Diamond song), and “No One’s Got a Crush on Peter”, which has a bit of a Wild Cherry sound to it BUT keep in mind, too, that the backup singers who carry this piece are supposed to be the Fantastic Four. The Seventies were a goddamn mess.

Surprisingly, Ben Grimm is
an alto.
Now: I don’t know if this has ever come up in these pages before – and I don’t see why it should have – but I feel now’s the time to mention that I am of the opinion that any musicians after, say, 1965 producing or performing a doo-wop song should be punished by Face Murder. This is a type of murder I invented which is entirely face-centric. It takes an artist’s touch. Sorry Sha-Na-Na. I mention this because of “Gwendolyn”, the doo-wop diddy meant to capture Peter’s sudden head-over-heelsness with poor, doomed Gwen Stacy. If this really is her theme, though, I feel like she deserved getting her neck broken.

Following “Count on Me”, which sounds like the Partridge Family, frankly, we get to the first song dedicated to Spidey’s impressive rogues gallery: “Dr.Octopus Pt 1” and “Dr.Octopus Pt2”.

You might remember his
long-running team-up
book, "Power Man and
The MGs"
You may be aware that the only superhero property to legitimately get to Broadway was in the form of “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s … Superman!”, a critically celebrated but unfortunately unpopular 1966 offering from the team of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams.

Now, the thing with this musical is that, however trite and reedy some of the songs were, everything the villains sang was pure gold. The villainous genius Dr.Sedgwick sings “Revenge”, a delightfully funny song of exceptional value to anyone who cares to remember the billing order of all the Nobel Prizes given out for science in a particular decade. Gossip columnist Max Mencken attempts to seduce Lois Lane with a nihilistic ballad about man’s existential irrelevance in “We Don’t Matter”, while the pair of them team up for the very catchy “You’ve Got What I Need” ode to evil bromance. On top of this, there’s salacious secretary Sydney (played originally by Linda Lavin) trying to steal Superman away in his identity of Clark with “Possibilities”, a song which has had legs outside of the musical.

So where I’m going with this is that – no matter how bad the hero’s musical material – you should expect that the villains might have the GOOD parts, the songs that really rock. THIS IS NOT WHAT HAPPENS WITH DOCTOR OCTOPUS, because he instead gets a very weird, bombastic version of The Who’s Tommy with maybe the most obnoxious chorus in musical history:

“We love Doctor Octo-
Doctor Octo-
Doctor Oc – To - PUS!”
(repeat til dead)

"...And to hear the
lamentations of their cellos."
The song takes place during a dream Peter has in which Doctor Octopus has conquered the world and turned all of its citizens into mindless slaves. A dream. This happens in a dream. Keep in mind that one of the benefits of having super-powers in an imaginary world of a made-up record album is that you don’t have to have incredibly weird, stupid things happen in dreams. Doctor Octopus can actually conquer the world and turn its citizens into mindless slaves! He can! And then you can have them fight! Someone tell the world of music publishing!

The coda to Doc’s braggadocious rap is this series of threats offered to the world of super-herodom:

"Captain America, The Avengers, you will fall at my feet, you will all surrender /
Fantastic Four, and you, the Hulk, you’re gonna cry like a baby and you’re gonna sulk /
Power Man, and you Silver Surfer, you messed with me long enough and I’m gonna hurt ya /
Thor, Black Panther, I’m gonna turn you all into go go dancers"
He says something after that, but I can’t make it out (anyone?), but also I don’t care because I’ll still smarting that he rhymed “Surfer” with “Hurt Ya”.

Anyway, following that is “Green Goblin”, a narrative piece spoken over music and a song I hope to have played at my funeral, then two forgettable outros in the form of “A Soldier Starts To Bleed” and “Time Will Show Me The Way”, and what I hope you take away from this article is that while Turn Off The Dark is going to be a mega-disaster, I sure hope you take a moment to realize that it’s not like it’s gonna be the first bad Spider-Man musical. Now. What do we have to do to get Adam Warrock to cover this album?


By the way: I don't know why I never thought of doing this before, but if you'd like to share the pain and also contribute back to this site a little bit, you can download a digital copy of Rock Reflections of a Super-Hero from Amazon here, or order a real honest-to-goodness CD here. Proceeds go to my subsequent therapy.


Johnny Bacardi said...

It's Crack the Sky, not Crack in the Sky.

-Mr. McPickyPants

Calamity Jon said...

Whoops, fixed! Thanks for the correction (it keeps Your Humble Editor humble).

-Your Humbled Editor

Unknown said...

According to $6.98 plus $0.39 S&H is $29.06 in 2009 money.


I'm glad that I paid a bit less than that when I stumbled across a copy a few years ago.


More awesomeness, I laughed till my ears bled...

Wilgus said...

I'm not old but I actually bought this thing on CD when I was 16 (in '03 maybe?) from a Wal-Mart for something obscene like $10. I was an odd sort of lad. It seemed to combine two of my favorite things: comic books and rock 'n roll, which is sort of like putting corned beef on your PB&J. I think it was the Romita album art that made me do it. I still think it's kind of cool. But of course if I bought albums based on the art I'd have a horrible music collection. So the purchase is getting harder and harder for me to rationalize. It remains an anomaly. I'm glad someone called attention to it.

Brad said...

I fear you are too kind to the Superman musical. Have you seen the TV broadcast version? During "You've Got What I Need" Max and Abner actually mime being a pitcher and a catcher. And that's far from the worst or most embarrassing part.

Enjoy, and have a drink handy. You'll need it.

Charles said...

Very, very late to the game here, but I just had to say that "The Starland Vocal Band haunted by ghosts" is the greatest description of a sound I've ever heard. Carry on.

vilstef said...

I remember that album-which I once had on vinyl. Several years before that, there was another Spider-Man themed album called Spider-Man a RockComic. Had it on vinyl too which I bought from the dollar bin still shrinkwrapped from a record store.

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