Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Spider-Man: Rock Reflections Of A Super-Hero

A while back, I wrote this for a friend of mine to use in his magazine. It ended up not running, and it's sat on my hard drive for a while. Then I remembered, hey, I have a blog for stuff like this. So, here ya go, my review of one of the weirdest comic book tie-ins of all time.

I’ve hunted for Spider-Man: Rock Reflections of a Super-Hero for over ten years, ever since first reading about it in the pages of Wizard Magazine. Finding an obscure novelty record from 1976, though, is harder than it sounds. It wasn’t until 2000 that Reflections was released on CD, and it took me another five years before I tracked down a copy at the Big Apple Convention in New York.

In the mid-60s, Marvel took briefly to calling its publications “Marvel Pop Art Productions.” While the gimmick described the comics well enough (especially the trippy work of Jim Steranko), it fits Reflections far better. The album styles itself a rock opera; think “Hair” or “Godspell” with spandex. Producers Terrence Minogue, Marty Nelson, and William Kirkland envisioned a musical version of the classic foundation of the Spider-Man mythos, as told by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and John Romita. Lee himself provided interstitial narration between the tracks, while Romita contributed art for the front and back covers.

That back cover, by the way, is a hoot-and-a-half. It casts Spidey as the lead vocalist, and his fellow Marvel superstars as backup. The Incredible Hulk pounds away on drums, Captain America cheerily bangs the tambourine, and the Fantastic Four covers background vocals. Conan and the Barbarians have come in all the way from the Hyborean Age to cover strings. No stranger to diversity, Marvel managed to sign black superheroes Luke Cage, Black Panther, and Falcon to bass guitar, electric guitar, and handclapping respectively. 

Poor Falcon. His smile hides centuries of seething racial bitterness.

The album itself starts off strongly with “High Wire,” a rollicking boogie-style number narrated by Spidey as he swings through the steel canyons of New York City. It’s a standard seventies rock piece, but it captures the free-wheeling fun style of Spider-Man. After it comes Lee’s first narration, which is jarringly low-key throughout. “The Man” is known for his bombast, and the even, somber tone he takes doesn’t fit with the public image; the material, which is actually a cut above his work from the comics, is weakened. 

The next number, “Peter Stays and Spider-Man Goes,” covers the other iconic aspect of Spidey’s character: angst. Peter Parker’s dual life and responsibilities weigh on him, prompting the line, “Will somebody call me Peter Parker before I go insane?” The lyrics are a cross-section of Lee’s standard overwrought dialogue, a pre-Emo Emo. At this point, the listener has to accept the inherent camp. There’s some hand-clapping in the chorus that doesn’t quite fit, but I suppose the Falcon had to earn his paycheck somehow.

The next two pieces cover Spidey’s origin; the radioactive spider-bite is covered in the 1950s bebop-style “Square Boy,” which contains such phrases as “A good old American U.S. Male” and “We’re goosin’ up the juice on the atomic ray!” The second half of the origin, “New Point of View,” conveys Peter’s astonishment at his new powers, but as a song, it’s a mediocre Bee Gees pastiche rendered irrelevant by the much superior “High Wire.” “Spider-Man” is equally weak, and hampered further by a cheesy lounge-style intro by a performer who sounds like Paul Schaffer on quaaludes.

Oddly enough, the pivotal moment of Uncle Ben’s death and Peter’s subsequent capture of the killer is handled entirely in narration. I can only assume that the producers couldn’t find a suitable beat to fit around “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility.” Me, I would’ve gone with something pseudo-Eagles.

The next song fits nowhere in the narrative, and was actually cut from the original release. “No One’s Got A Crush On Peter” focuses on the high-school-nerd ground covered briefly in the first verse of “Square Boy.” Since I always identified with this part of the character, it was a treat for me. When a female backup singer (presumably the Invisible Girl) sings “Peter eats lunch all alone,” you can see him sitting at an otherwise-bare table, tears falling into Aunt May’s chicken noodle soup.

The next two songs shift to Peter’s first great love, the beautiful blonde Gwen Stacy. “Gwendolyn” again turns back the clock to the decade of hula hoops and bobby-soxers with a doo-wop style declaration of love from Peter that echoes combos like The Temptations or Frankie Valley and the Four Seasons. Such a style fits the innocence and charm of Peter and Gwen’s romance perfectly. In comparison, “Count on Me,” which sounds like it came out of Billy Joel’s garbage, falters. What the hell does “every land has a sky above her” even mean, anyway?

Following this, we have, not just the oddest track on the album, but perhaps the oddest track in pop music history. In “Doctor Octopus,” Peter falls asleep after a hard day of web-slinging and has a nightmare of his eight-armed foe conquering the world and then, as far as I can tell, turning into Freddie Mercury. I’m not making this up. As his conquered minions chant “Hey-la, Dr. Oc-to, Dr. Oc-to-pus,” Ock taunts the Marvel Universe champions with such hideous rhymes as “Avengers/surrender,” “Silver Surfer/hurt ya,” and “Black Panther/go-go dancer.” If Reflections is a pop cheese wheel, then “Dr. Octopus” is some sick fusion of brie and limburger.

The album closes with the grand tragedy of Spider-Man’s career: Gwen Stacy’s death at the hands of the Green Goblin. Once again, the tragedy itself is handled in narration (“play with a fear; roll it around on your tongue”), leaving a heartbroken Peter to sing “A Soldier Starts To Bleed.” Sadly, what should be a heartfelt elegy is instead a nonsensical guitar piece that reminds me of Simon and Garfunkel, only not good. “I fall behind this mask of insufficient tears?” “In time our times will meet?” These are the kind of lyrics that got hippies beaten, and with good reason. I take it back; this is the pre-Emo Emo, and I do not like it one bit.

Thankfully, the last track, “Time Will Show Me The Way,” saves the album somewhat, bringing out Peter’s boundless optimism, even in the face of his worst nightmare come true. It’s something Elton John or Paul McCartney might have written, bridging the final step Peter takes from the “timid teenager” he was in the beginning to being, in fact as well as name, Spider-Man.

Reflections is just what you’d expect from a comic book tie-in album from the mid-1970s: uneven, often campy, but honest and unpretentious. It couldn’t get recorded today; comics and rock have both matured too much for either audience to accept it. But back in the day, when counterculture couldn’t be bought at Hot Topic, Spider-Man: Rock Reflections of a Superhero had a place, right next to the lava lamp and the Farrah Fawcett poster.

1 comment:

elron said...

"Spider-man: Rock Reflections Of A Super-Hero" Great review. I happened to come across this record album in a thrift store about a week ago and bought it for 99 cents. The cover artwork really caught my eye and reminded me of reading Amazing Spiderman comics as a kid. Is this record album really that rare or worth anything? I can't even find a copy of it on E-bay.