Unknown Pleasures Chapter 18: As Seen On TV!

A continuing series exhuming, exploring and exalting the “lost” treasures scattered in the sands of music history. Because it’s never too late.

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Sun Ra & The Blues Project [dba: The Sensational Guitars of Dan & Dale] – Batman & Robin [Tifton 1966/Universe Italy 2001]

People say character is what you do when you know you can get away with it.  All the guys at Tifton toys in Jersey probably wanted to get away with was a few easy bucks off the popularity of ABC’s “Batman” TV show. Knocking out a quickie twist record with a picture of Batman on it must have seemed as good a way as any. The toy guys likely didn’t care who DJ/Entrepreneur Ed Bland hired, as long as he brought it in cheap:  No original songs; nothing under copyright at all, save Neil Hefti’s “Batman” theme song [which has to be the most successful one-word lyric ever written]. All they wanted was 30 or so minutes of non-union rock/blues jamming, hip-sounding and danceable. Here in the 21st century, when movies and TV shows are subject to industrial grade synergism, this sort of slapdashery is inconceivable, but in 1966, rock’n’roll was still regarded [along with TV for that matter] as disposable kids’ stuff that only received mainstream attention when an article on the Twist or the British Invasion appeared in Look or Life or the magazine section of the Sunday paper.  This was not intended to be an Art Project of any kind; just business, nothing personal.

Producer Tom Wilson with the future Bob Dylan
Producer Tom Wilson with the future Bob Dylan

The Tifton suits probably didn’t consider the presence of producer Tom Wilson to be any big deal either:  How were guys from a Jersey toy company to know this tall black guy with a Texas accent had been behind the desk for any number of legendary sessions?  Look, they hired these guys to do a job – as long as they got it done…whatever.  When Sun Ra and his sidemen arrived at the studio along with the band that would soon be known as the Blues Project, the toy company guys probably didn’t even know who they were.

And so, because nobody was paying attention, a non-union gig for a Newark toy company turned into one of the greatest studio jam sessions since Basie met Duke:  A roomful of legendary jazz, rock and blues players, helmed by possibly the most unsung studio genius ever, fake-booking their way through a gig for a toy company ripping off a TV show based on a comic book.  Submitted for your approval, The Sensational Guitars of Dan & Dave playing Batman & Robin.

It’s easy to believe most 7 or 8 year olds who got this for their birthdayChristmas/Hanukkah/whatever played exactly

The former Herman Poole Blount...
The former Herman Poole Blount…

the first song, jumped around the room singing “na-na na-na na-na BATMAN!!!” and then took it right off the turntable when the band launched into the rest of the record.  Can’t blame him for loving the opener:  A thundering hammond chord smashes the tune open like a hammer while the rest of the band remix the Hefti theme as a double-time shuffle with a strong whiff of “Night Train” to it.  The [uncredited] female vocals burn down the lyrics and add some extra spicy melisma to the last verses.  If Hefti had ever heard it, he’d likely have swiped the arrangement for one of those “club au go-go” scenes they were always writing into the TV scripts to show what a straight arrow Batman was.  

The rest of the record is a monster mash of root-five blues, surf safari guitars, funky horn charts and tasty hammond fills – all stickered with suitably silly mock bat-titles.  Just for fun, the crew bites some recognizable  tunes; “The Penguin’s Umbrella” nicks the hook from Chopin’s Polonaise while “Batman’s Batmorang” [sic] swipes from Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.  “The Riddler’s Retreat” rips the Beatles with a smirk and a wink…Not close enough that they could sue, just enough so we know what they’re on about. The head charts that make up the rest of the album are the real attraction though.  “Joker’s Wild” rocks a nasty harmonica riff on top of a hot Ventures beat.  “Robin’s Theme” is a funky, organ-fueled strut with a blistering female vocal [complete lyric: “Robin hey hey/Robin, whoa”] that pairs nicely with the brittle, sputtering guitar breaks of Steve Katz and Danny Kalb. “The Batcave” samples Booker T’s “Jellybread” and sports a growling sax break that would sound like Ace Cannon if not for the stomping blues it lands in.  

The Blues behind the Project...
The Blues behind the Project…

The centerpiece of the record is undoubtedly “Batman and Robin Over the Roofs” – nearly seven minutes of soul stew built on a riff that feels like a Skatalites tune.  Everyone in the room gets to shine on this one – , especially Sun Ra’s horn men [John Gilmore, Marhsall Allen, Jimmy Owens and Tom McIntosh].  It’s likely this was the last thing they recorded because the “anything goes”  feel is practically audible.  If players of this caliber got together in a New York club, the crowd would be on their feet the whole time, totally losing their shit.  It’s the sort of boozy, smoky fun that only happens when great players aren’t worried about what people will think.  It’s on here because they were sure they could get away with it, because who was ever going to hear this record?  Nobody, that’s who..  Good thing they were wrong.

To this day, nobody still living lists this album on their official resume.  Al Kooper still swears he wasn’t even there [nobody believes him].  Rumors abound about Frank Zappa being there too [nobody disbelieves them]; Wilson is credited with signing the Mothers of Invention to Verve records as well as producing the Freak Out! album, so he’d certainly know how to get in touch with Zappa for a favor under the table.

Out of print for decades,  TSGODDBM has enjoyed the sort of cult status reserved for the likes of Trout Mask Replica, Song Cycle or Pet Sounds [while being more fun to listen to]..  Not everyone is convinced of it’s merit:  While enthusiasts thrill at the rollicking first-take feel of these tunes as well as the sheer frisson of so many legends showing up in one place to play on a date nobody expected anything from detractors write it off as rote fake-book jamming not worth discussing as more than a curious footnote, all but irrelevant to the respective bodies of work of the geniuses involved.  Despite every cool person in the world being familiar with it, the record is so obscure its Wikipedia page is in Italian [probably the doing of the label that reissued it].  Nobody knows how many copies Tifton originally pressed, but it seems to be a fixture in every dollar-bin, garage sale, flea market, and estate sale.  I have no clue where the copy in my house came from, but I remember making a gift of it to a co-worker whose face lit up when they saw it and remembered the copy they had [and lost in a move].  Much like Batman himself, the record seems to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.  Universe Italian finally reissued it in 2001, complete with the piecework cover art and no visible mention of the musicians involved, but almost nobody who’d buy it wouldn’t know the backstory already.  Vinyl copies are around priced in upwards of $200 but I just can’t imagine anyone seriously paying that much – like I said, everybody already seems to have a copy…somewhere around here…

The irony of all this is that the people who actually had the rights to put out a “Batman” album did just so…but those records are pretty much lame.  Neil Hefti repackaged a couple of his instrumental albums, stapled the “Batman” theme onto them and put it out as The Batman Theme and 11 Hefti Batman Songs, an album of middling instrumentals that owe more to Muzak than the Batusi.  There are a few decent tracks, but nothing to compare with the “Dan & Dale” album.  Worse still is the “official” release, Batman – The Exclusive Original Television Soundtrack Album.  While it’s credited to Henry Mancini, it’s make up of poorly transferred audio clips from the actual show that don’t fare well in a decontextualized state.  In this era of multi-leveled merchandising and cross-collateralization, t’s kind of bizarre to think the people with the legal rights to the Batman name didn’t care anymore about putting out a decent product than the shady ripoff artists did.  Much like the Jersey toy guys, the ABC suits knew they could get away with putting out crap because Batman was so popular that they didn’t worry about it. That the Tifton guys made the record people still care about is mostly down to luck, but sometimes it’s better to be lucky than legal.

accept no substitutes
  accept no substitutes
must to avoid...
must to avoid…


NEXT:  Back to School Special!

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