May I have this Batdance?Written by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | email@example.com
Jim Beard, who writes about comics for us and is racking up industry credits faster than you can say “Shazam!” approached me two years ago at a Mud Hens Opening Day party and asked if I would be interested in contributing a 10,000-word chapter about “Batman music” to a book he was editing.
I thought, “That’s easy. Prince, Danny Elfman, U2, lots of people have contributed to Batman soundtracks and scores.” Jim said, “No, I mean the ‘Batman’ TV show theme.”
“You mean that 45-second ‘na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na’ theme? 10,000 words?” I asked.
I grew up on the graphic novel “Dark Knight” Batman who was grim and bloody and used scary versions of Joker and the villains. But being a father has led to my rediscovering the 1966 TV show as a way to introduce the character to my kids in a gentle, humorous way.
The best thing about the book Jim has assembled, “Gotham City 14 Miles,” is that it offers a critical eye, not just a love-fest. For my chapter, I had to listen to a lot of cheesy, poorly produced music, and Jim gave me the freedom to be critical when it was called for.
Listening to Burt Ward, who played Robin, warbling Nat “King” Cole’s “Orange-Colored Sky” was a unique punishment. But I also discovered versions of the theme recorded by The Who, Sun Ra and Peggy Lee. By the time I was done, I had an iPod file with nearly 300 “Batman” tracks from 1960s.
The driving theme from “Batman” symbolizes the best of the 1966 TV show if you are a fan and the worst if you are not. It evokes and summarizes every climbed wall, every Joker laugh, Riddler giggle and Penguin quack, every Pow! and Biff! and Bam! It can sum up the middle of the decade as well as any quote or image. The theme echoes and drives with the insistence of a right hook from Batman himself.
It leaps forward with an unhinged whirling-cyclone string introduction and segues to a Duane-Eddy-on-speed guitar assault; brass accentuates the kinetic rhythm in tuneless bursts, a “Ticket to Ride” drumroll kicks into a chanting chorus, and the production builds to a “na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na” climax. It lasts barely 50 seconds, but it has defined a character for more than 40 years.
The recording of “Batman Theme” won Neal Hefti a 1966 Grammy for Best Instrumental Theme, placed versions by two artists in the Billboard Top 40 (Neal Hefti reached No. 35 and The Marketts placed No. 17), inspired complete albums of original music and the creation of one-shot groups (The Sensational Batboys and Bruce and the Robin Rockers) and was named the fifth-best TV theme by rock critic Dave Marsh’s “Book of Rock Lists.”
In its heyday, music legends as disparate as Mel Torme, Frank Zappa, Link Wray, Sun Ra and Peggy Lee would toy with the “Batman Theme,” and musicians continue to be fascinated with it; Iggy Pop, The Jam, and the Smithereens have all recorded it, and Prince, who would have his own 1989 dance with Bat-music, has said Neal Hefti’s theme was the first piece of music he learned to play on the piano.
That is a heavy, serious legacy for such a modest composition, but equitable to the effort Neal Hefti said it took to create it.
The night the series premiered on ABC, January 12, 1966, Hal Lifson was 5 years old. Lifson, author of “1966! A Personal View of the Greatest Year in Pop Culture History,” said in a Sept. 3, 2009, interview for the book that promos for the show had run for months and caught his attention.
“I watched that first night,” Lifson said. “There had been nothing like ‘Batman.’ There were old ‘Adventures of Superman’ reruns with George Reeves, ‘Zorro’ in reruns, ‘The Lone Ranger,’ but no modern superhero like Batman. It took pop art and TV to a new level; it was existential and existed with no apology or explanation.”
Lifson credits the show’s theme song for much of its pop culture impact.
“It was brilliant music, the ‘Batman Theme.’ What made that song was the drumbeat, that go-go flavor with the chorus of women and horns mixed,” Lifson said. “It set the mood of triumph and fun. It was magical when you heard it. It was like blowing a bugle and you knew Batman would come rushing out of the Batcave. I would use The Ventures’ version as the soundtrack when I played Batman with my buddies. It was great background music for capturing arch-villains and staging mock Bat-fights, which included jumping off my bed into the melee.”
Helping the “Batman Theme” thunder roll was Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer Hal Blaine, who played on tracks with Elvis, Simon & Garfunkel, the Beach Boys and on more than 30 No. 1 records. Blaine sat behind the kit for Neal Hefti on his original “Batman Theme” album.
In a Sept. 14, 2009, interview for the book, Blaine said he played drums on a number of different versions of the song.
“Batman was a stellar classic,” Blaine said. “As far as fitting into my legacy, it was one of the great sort of novelty albums that I had the pleasure of doing during my fortunate career.”
There was one unforeseen side effect to living with all this Bat-music; once my 2- and 4-year-old sons heard the TV theme, they demanded to hear it on car rides again and again and again. That song is drilled into my brain like my own name; it’s enough to drive you batty.
“Gotham City 14 Miles” is available to order through Monarch Cards & Comics, (419) 382-1451.