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Comic-Con Special Reissue Theory: “Jan and Dean Meet Batman”

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Welcome to another installment of Reissue Theory, where we take a look back at notable albums and the reissues they could someday see.  2011 marks 41 years of Comic-Con International, and record labels like La-La Land and Shout! Factory are joining the traditional publishing houses and film studios this weekend on the show floor.  But the comic biz and the music world have long been intertwined, on screen, on stage and on record.  Today’s Reissue Theory spotlights one of the most bizarre albums ever based on a comic book!

In deference to my fellow funnybook fans, I’ll resist the urge to begin this column with the hoary “POW!  BAM!  ZONK!” cliché.  But let’s face facts.  Those three words – and others like them – instantly conjure up the visages of Adam West and Burt Ward, sliding down the Bat-pole, encountering guest stars ranging from Ethel Merman to Eli Wallach, and fighting a campy Joker, squawking Penguin and sultry Catwoman.    The 1966-1968 ABC network television Batman, for better or worse, defined the character for a new audience and exposed Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s famous creations to a wider base than ever before.  The pop art-influenced show’s influence on pop culture was felt not just in the comics, where Batman wouldn’t return to his dark detective roots until after Batman went off the air.   Prior to Batman, Neal Hefti was best known as a top-flight jazz arranger, providing charts for Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Harry James, Count Basie and even Frank Sinatra.  Little did Hefti know when he composed “Batman Theme” that he was creating what would become one of the most recorded songs of 1966, and one of the most recognizable TV themes of all time.

Enter Jan Berry and Dean Torrence.  The surf-pop duo had their first taste of success in 1958, when Batman was fighting monsters and solving crimes with the aid of fantastic gadgets designed by legendary artists like Sheldon Moldoff and Dick Sprang.  Though “Jennie Lee” was a hit, the following year’s “Baby Talk” really took off, and in the next few years, Jan and Dean carved out a niche in the burgeoning surf music world.  They went No. 1 in 1963 with “Surf City,” a collaboration with wunderkind Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who in turn counted Jan and Dean among his early harmony heroes.  Like Wilson, Jan Berry was constantly pushing the envelope in the studio as a producer, and also like his friend Brian, had an interest in bringing comedy to music.  (See many of Wilson’s concepts for the still-unreleased-but-hopefully-soon SMiLE!)  In early 1966, nothing was hotter than Batman.  And the Batman show was nothing if not irreverent.  So why not produce an all-out comedy-meets-music extravaganza about, well, Batman?  Jan and Dean Meet Batman was born!

What is The Fireman’s Flaming Flourish?  Who is The Boy Blunder?  And just how wild is the Joker, anyway?  Stay tuned after the jump – same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!

With approval of National Periodical Publications (the future DC Comics), Jan and Dean began work on their sonic salute to the Caped Crusader.  The album is a musical collage, incorporating dialogue, spoken-word comedy bits, musical gags, and original songs into something resembling a, well, batty radio show.  The opening track, “Batman,” liberally borrows the riff from the Hefti theme as it recounts the crimefighter’s origin to a chugging melody (“Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot/So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts!”).  It’s adorned with irresistible falsetto and the duo’s surf-sound harmonic hallmarks.  (Hefti’s original theme is reprised later on the album in a straightforward fashion.) “Robin, The Boy Wonder” takes a similar tack, musicalizing the story of Batman’s partner (“He’s Bruce Wayne’s young ward/Dick Grayson by name/But he and the Boy Wonder are one and the same!”) with television-inspired exclamations throughout: “Holy You-Asked-For It!,” “Holy Rodent!,” et cetera

Things get weirder from there!  Though the opening track takes us to the familiar environs of Gotham City, we’re soon whisked away to “a secluded recording session in one of Hollywood’s finer recording studios” where we meet “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena” herself.   Apparently Granny has the ability to bequeath “mystical powers” on our young stars.  When we hear the title phrase of their hit song (their musical equivalent of Billy Batson’s power-granting “Shazam!,” perhaps?) Jan Berry is transformed into “Captain Jan” and Dean Torrence into “The Boy Blunder.”  Go, Granny, go!  (“Holy sprinter!”)  The album humorously tracks their exploits defending Surf City from the villainous likes of Dr. Vit-A-Man and his “wretched wife” Hypo, who plan to poison the water supply of that famous home of two girls for every guy!  Jan and Dean must take to their atom-powered woody in time to stop their vile plan!

Jan and Dean capture the zany, campy tone of the television series, even including cliffhangers with the heroes caught in death-defying situations.  There are plenty of in-jokes to go around including friendly jabs at the Beach Boys, who apparently couldn’t save the day because “they don’t know anything!”  The brassy, spy-meets-surf instrumental “Mr. Freeze” is named after an actual Batman foe, but we soon meet another of Captain Jan and the Boy Blunder’s custom-made villains in the form of that “foul fiend of fragrance,” The Garbageman!  In “A Stench in Time,” he apparently has brought his unique brand of villainy to the Bel Air Botanical Gardens, home of the palatial estate of Jan and Dean! His rank odor is so overwhelming that the heroes must withstand perpetual nausea to fight him! 

Another encounter is with The Fireman, who (cue gasp here!) has scorched Surf City!  But what Batman story could be complete without an appearance from The Joker, “that green-haired crime clown, clever and witty?” first seen in 1940’s Batman No. 1?  With requisite hysterical cackling, the foremost member of Batman’s rogues’ gallery is the subject of “The Joker is Wild.”  (This isn’t to be confused with Bobby Russell’s similarly-titled “The Joker Went Wild,” a hit for Brian Hyland!)  Even the Batmobile itself is found worthy of an ode from the California boys.  “The Flight of the Batmobile” doesn’t just recall Rimsky-Korsakov but also Herb Alpert playing “Whipped Cream!”  Jan and Dean Meets Batman is nothing if not eclectic, and needless to say, it’s musically top-notch.  After all, Berry had the studio wizards of the Los Angeles “Wrecking Crew” working their magic under his direction!

Unfortunately Jan and Dean Meet Batman would be Jan and Dean’s final album before Berry’s near-fatal accident of April 12, 1966, so eerily foreshadowed in their song “Dead Man’s Curve.”  The road to recovery wasn’t an easy one, but Berry continued to write, produce and perform in the face of adversity, until his death in 2004 at the age of 62.  Dean Torrence founded the successful graphic design firm Kittyhawk Graphics, and still performs his classic hits today.

Though the album made its biggest impression during those few heady months of Batmania, it hasn’t been completely forgotten over the years.  It’s even a footnote to The Who’s discography!  Keith Moon was famously a surf aficionado, and The Who’s Ready Steady Who! EP, released in November 1966, contained a cover of Hefti’s “Batman Theme” – credited to Jan Berry, Don Atfeld and Fred Weider!  (Hefti has been properly credited on CD appearances of the song.)  The same EP included the band’s take on Berry’s “Bucket T” (co-written with Roger Christian and Atfeld) which was the flip side of Jan and Dean’s “Batman” on Liberty 55860!

Jan and Dean Meets Batman and Robin has even been released on CD once before in all its surreal glory.  One Way Records’ 1996 edition (One Way S21-18687) paired the album with the 1965 LP Command Performance: Jan & Dean Live in Person.  Disappointingly, that reissue had all of the Batman artwork blacked out.  As a note included in the booklet explains, “we wanted to include the original cover for Jan and Dean Meets Batman.  Unfortunately, after exhausting all efforts to obtain permission, our request was denied.” 

Our Reissue Theory edition will, of course, reinstate the terrific front and back artwork to the LP (I can dream, can’t I?) and present all fourteen tracks in crisp mono sound.  We’ve also added “Bucket T,” the B-side of “Batman” and very much in the same musical vein, to the track listing.  Dean Torrence has mentioned an earlier version of the album which was scuttled due to copyright issues with the television program’s production company, 20th Century Fox.  Ironically, issues still rage today between Fox (owner of the show) and DC Comics (owner of the characters) that have prevented a much-in-demand DVD release.  “Work in progress” tracks do circulate from Jan and Dean’s early attempts at the LP, and they’re not as difficult to find as you might think!

Well, Batman survived the television show, and the power of the character first introduced in 1939’s Detective Comics No. 27 has never diminished since.  DC Comics is launching a major overhaul of its entire DC Universe line in September, but the Batman family of titles is among the most unchanged.  Writers like Grant Morrison, Scott Snyder, Peter Tomasi and Tony Daniel will continue the intricate Bat-mythos they’ve been developing in the recent past.  And over 45 years after the debut of the Batman show, Neal Hefti’s music is still inextricably linked to the character, much like Danny Elfman’s or Shirley Walker’s.  But Jan and Dean’s fun, fast and loose take on Batman and Robin deserves at least a footnote in that canon.   Jan and Dean Meet Batman may not be as enduring as the duo’s biggest hits or as fascinating as their lost masterworks (Berry’s Carnival of Sound, Torrence’s Save for a Rainy Day) but as a time capsule of two carefree artists sending up pop culture and musical conventions, it’s simply a retro blast.  

Jan and Dean, Jan and Dean Meet Batman: Mono Edition (Liberty LRP-3444/LST-7444, 1966 – “reissued” EMI, 2011)

  1. Batman
  2. The Origin of Captain Jan and Dean, The Boy Blunder
  3. Robin the Boy Wonder  
  4. A Vit-A-Man a Day
  5. Mr. Freeze    
  6. The Doctor’s Dilemma  
  7. A Stench in Time
  8. Batman Theme
  9. A Hank of Hair and a Banana Peel  
  10. The Fireman’s Flaming Flourish 
  11. The Joker Is Wild
  12. Tiger, Tiger, Burning  
  13. Flight of the Batmobile
  14. A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight
  15. Bucket T (Single, B-side of Liberty 55860, 1966)

Written by Joe Marchese

July 23, 2011 at 09:54

Posted in Features, Jan & Dean, Reissues

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