Monday, September 19, 2011

Batman Theme and 19 Hefti Bat-Songs: Holy Retro-Kitsch, Batman!

Okay, let's get this straight right from the start: This "Batman" album may be the single goofiest, cheesiest album I own of any kind of music at all. Most of it isn't really music that was ever used on the Batman TV show of the 1960s, but Neal Hefti did indeed compose the indelible "na-na-na-na-na" theme and thus must have felt entitled to release a whole album of nutty '60s jazz-pop riffing on its popularity. Batman Theme and 19 Hefti Bat Songs was the result. I picked it up back when I was working for the Bloomington Playwrights Project ten years ago when I needed some silly "superhero" music for a show, and this fit the bill perfectly.

Space age bachelor pad music

Someone on the Amazon page for this album describes the genre of music to which most of this album belongs as "Space Age bachelor pad music," and I'm not sure I can come up with a better term for it. The mainstream jazz-pop of the '60s has largely faded from pop culture memory, thrown over for rock 'n' roll - and for good reason as far as I can tell. While a lot of people seem to have a soft spot for the likes of Bert Kaempfert or Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, I just can't take that stuff seriously. 

While that genre must have been just groovy circa 1966 for some swingin' dude in a mustard-yellow turtleneck and plaid pants bopping to the hi-fi set, it just makes me flash back to KMart or JC Penney in the early '80s, hearing the remnants of that musical style dying slowly over their tinny PA speakers while Mom shopped. I think this genre of music must have been what the Big Band genre of the '30s and '40s eventually morphed into once it ran headlong into the rock era and ran out of creative gas.* It just got . . . silly.

"Hand me down the shark repellent Bat-spray!"

Of course, Batman never took itself seriously to begin with. I'm not sure how I missed it when I was a kid watching Batman reruns. I mentioned already that I took in a lot of these reruns in the Bat-mania of 1989 when I was 10 1/2 and wanted everything about Batman to be Very Serious, and besides, kids generally aren't equipped to grasp tongue-in-cheek humor. I found the action exciting, but I wanted the characters treated . . .well, more seriously, darn it! I'd get my wish soon enough with the movies and the great animated series of the '90s. Meanwhile, I got the camp version.

Even the Batman of the comics was a pale, cartoony version of the original character in the 1960s, in the Comics Code era that followed the EC paranoia of the '50s. That Batman most strongly resembled the incarnation seen on TV in the '70s in Superfriends, smiling and completely non-threatening. Meanwhile, the character achieved a rebirth in the DC comics of the '70s that would lead to the more serious tone of the films that started with Tim Burton. But for a generation, Batman was associated with a slightly out-of-shape guy in an ill-fitting leotard and on-screen sound effects (POW! BLAM!) for fight scenes. It's no wonder, in the interim, why Richard Donner had so much trouble getting the big-screen Superman funded and taken seriously, and why the series took a left turn into absurdity so quickly thereafter.

Now, of course, I can watch the Batman series or the movie from 1966 - the series' pilot episode - and appreciate Adam West masterfully deadpanning his way through lines like "some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!" . . . or Cesar Romero's Joker, with white pancake makeup over his trademark Latin 'stache . . . or the fact that our intrepid hero just happens to carry shark repellent spray in his Bat-copter. It's wonderful stuff that I enjoy in much the same way I love the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons - ever so slightly subversive, campy, and well over the line into self-parody.

"Atomic batteries to power. Turbines to speed!"

It's in that vein that you have to appreciate Hefti's Bat-music, including the dance break on the Hammond organ during the main theme presentation, or the "Batusi (Track 7)," which wouldn't sound all that out of place in a Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach movie from the '60s. Indeed, that '60s surf guitar sound does infect some of the generally jazzy-poppy sound of this album in ways that sometimes threaten to give it a cool edge. Tracks like "The Mafista (Track 4)" and "Mr. Freeze (Track 10)," for example, do have a bit of a sinister aspect -- the former actually approaches a John Barry-like quality that you could almost imagine showing up in one of the later Sean Connery Bond flicks.

Mostly, though, the album swings between things like the retro-exotica-style "King Tut's Tomb (Track 17)" and purely dreadful third-rate Mancini imitations like "Gotham City Municipal Swing Band (Track 13)." It's kitsch, and manages to be pretty fun as such.

Anyway, there's not much more to say about this album, except that I'm glad in a way that I kept it in the collection, if only as a reminder not to take everything so seriously. That will be nice when we move to the next entry and the crushing disappointment of Hans Zimmer's Batman Begins . . .

*In fact, according to Wikipedia, Neal Hefti actually did play with one of the most innovative and entertaining bands of the swing era, Woody Herman's Thundering Herd.

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