Spider-Man, Emo Boy
1975 saw the release of Robert Altman's masterpiece, Nashville, the Milos Forman classic One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest, and Steven Spielberg's box-office smash, Jaws. Other films that year included Shampoo, Dog Day Afternoon, Barry Lyndon and Hearts and Minds. Happy Days, M.A.S.H., Starsky and Hutch and Tbe Bionic Woman occupied the TV top 20, while pop music offered classics like Born to Run, Blood On The Tracks, Physical Graffiiti and David Bowie's Heroes.
Smashes and cult items of tremendous importance, to be sure. But none of them, I submit, can match the sheer time capsule quality of that year's true landmark: Spiderman: Rock Reflections of a Superhero . If further proof were needed that the 1970s were culturally insane, I think this album confirms it. Peter Biskind be damned-- this is American art in the Me Decade.
Paging through some old mid-seventies Marvel Comics this evening, I came across a half-page ad for this curio, and immediately felt like Homer Simpson watching the commercials for Gabbo: "I don't know what it is, but I know I have to have it." Part of the joy of 1970s Marvel was its fearless combination of angst, hucksterism, and self-satire: the characters may have taken themselves seriously, but the company gave the impression that it didn't, and that what-the-hell/sell-sell-sell spirit makes those in-house subscription ads, Hostess dessert tie-ins, and, especially, the ultra-cheap-looking full-page ads for Marvel books, toys and records (where the items are crammed on a page like junk in a flea market) pop with a wit and nostalgic sense of fun that today's more self-serious Marvel can't seem to generate.
For all of that kitschy fun, though, I'd never heard of this record. Its John Romita-drawn cover is fascinating in its single-image evocation of all of the Spider-tropes: split personality, shyness v. superheroic cockiness, middle-class domesticity invaded by costumed otherness, and the irony that Spidey fits into Peter's world better than Peter does (look at how, by being placed against the wall, the mirrored web-slinger seems to merge with it, while the sharply-inked lines around Peter's shoulders (and his hidden face) more strongly separate him from the room. The pensive, downward-looking hero combines with the title of the album to call up classic pop songs of loneliness like "In My Room" (The Beach Boys' first single, "Surfin'", charted in 1961, the same year that the first Marvel Age comic, The Fantastic Four, debuted), and reminds the listener that 1960s Marvel shared with the best 60s pop music the ability to sharply portray the joys and pitfalls of teen life. Transferring the Spidey aesthetic from pencil-ink page to painted cover, however, makes the mise-en-scene feel less like Stan Lee's self-reflexive, semi-satiric world and more like Rockwellian kitsch. It's Spider-Man, but it's not, and that conflicted personality seems to carry over into the music.
Yes, suprisingly, you can actually purchase this classic record through Amazon.com, and they even provide snippets from each song for download (sadly, I-Tunes is behind the hipster curve, and has not yet added this to their files). Recorded by the band "Hero" (an ad-hoc one-shot composed of, according to one blogger, "cult band Crack the Sky and some other random musicians from Lifesong Records" that included jazz-pop sax star David Sanborn, the snippets I've heard are enjoyably strange. They include the the erstatz Sha-Na-Na doo-wop of "Gwendolyn" (a tribute to one-time Spider-squeeze Gwen Stacy) , the Wingsy art-folk of "Peter Stays and Spider-Man Goes," the piano boogie of "High Wire" (which includes the great chorus "I'm the man, I'm the Spiii-der-Maaaannn!!"), Randy Newman-like midtempo pop like "New Point of View," and the pseduo-Earth/Wind/Fire of "No One's Got A Crush on Peter." Even noodling prog-rock gets a spin on "Doctor Octopus." Best of all, the album delivers Marvel's ace-in-the-hole: narrator Stan Lee, who rivals William Shatner for his mid-decade ability to draw out a syllable for quivering, maximum emotional impact. Yes, this is a "concept album" of sorts, and I'd love to have been a fly on the wall when it was pitched:
"Y'know, these kids today, they love Marvel! Yeah, yeah! College kids, they dig us! We gotta get our own Tommy, man, our own Quadrophenia! We gotta stay relevant! OK, what's the closest thing we got to a deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizard? Thor? Nah, long-haired hippies are out!...Captain America? Nah, too square, daddio!...No, not the Hulk... I got it! That whiny teen kid, whatshisname-- 'Piderman! Yeah! He's just ripe for a pop opera! We'll knock that Elton John fella right off the charts!"
This Onion article sums it up well: "the Lifesong honchos tried to bring as many of them to the table as possible by throwing everyone in their stable at the project, resulting in a random hodgepodge of Rocky Horror-style camp-rock, with unexpected stylistic nods to Joni Mitchell and Kiss." There's a lot to laugh at-- and rightfully so, I think-- in Rock Reflections of a Superhero , starting with that title. But in its willing swan-dive into foolishness, just for the fun of it, there's a lot to love, too.
Spiderman: Rock Reflections of a Superhero : because Christmas is coming, you know.