Whoa-oh-oh na na, whoa-oh-oh na na
Perhaps it was the counterculture, or having parents who were born well before WWII. As a kid, I was very turned off by all Marvel’s 70s gimmicks like Superman vs. Spider-Man, the Spider-Man car, or weird toys like the thing where you put the thing in Spider-Man’s mouth. The cheap plastic never got the four-color newsprint red right. Most of it was terrible schlock, easily breakable, obviously made of the same lame crap as 50-cent squirtguns. Worse, I was a purist. At age 12, I did not think it was right at all for someone to wear a Marvel-emblazoned t-shirt or sip from a Hulk Slurpee Cup if they didn’t actually read the comics and know the character’s origin story. No one should make, buy, or by God touch such a thing who did not know and respect the material as I did (for instance, in case you need a gold standard). As this modest requirement was not met, mock all that junk freely, go right ahead.
You will, however, keep your disgusting filthy mouth off the most excellent original round of action figures and the sacred artifact that is Spider-Man: Rock Reflections of a Super-Hero, which are totally different. (glares) Wanna make something of it?
The latter is a record album. “Gee Papa, why were they called ‘albums?'” Because they came in a package made of two connected record sleeves, which opened up into an actual book thing, with lots and lots of words and pictures, and often, a booklet attached in the middle or hooked in some way. There were either one or two 33 rpm vinyl discs included, and the idea was, you loaded up the very fancy stereo in the way which suspended the two records and dropped them onto the moving turntable, automatically (yes!) placing the needle … which is why one of the discs has sides 1 & 4 and the other has sides 2 & 3, so they’ll drop on the turntable 1-2, and then you flip them manually as a stack to set them up again, so then you hear 3-4. In the untrammeled privacy of your home, you listened to the music and read the album at the same time. See? Record. Album. Record album. This production model lasted for a short while, and then the wretched, evil record companies just put the records into standard sleeves and discontinued the extras, sometimes shifting some of the printed material onto the back cover, but a hell of a lot of it was lost to the ages. Sometime along the way people started calling any record an “album,” but this is how that got started.
This particular example included a comic, naturally, and much other material to peruse and ponder. You might want to click on that back cover for a closer look. It’s … not very normal. Here’s one of the songs you’d encounter too:
Listen! And wipe that look off your face, don’t be stuck-up, and stop pretending you’re too smart for this. If you’re not pleasantly humming the background vocals (see the post title) sometime later today, then repeat the instructions and do it again.
I will now explain what the fuck is this thing?!! which I concede is a valid question.
Spider-Man was the breakout character: the first Marvel superhero Saturday morning cartoon in the late 60s, and the first newspaper strip. By the early 70s, Stan Lee had stopped having much to do with the comics at all, and was now the “publisher,” an undefined term considering that Sheldon Feinberg of Cadence Industries and his hatchet-men, first Al Landau and then Jim Galton, took the whole thing over from the Goodmans in stages and were all the
mob publisher any comics company could expect. What it really meant was that Lee was to do the newspaper strip and to promote the brand in other media. He hit SoCal with who knows what visual aids (a stack of comics?) and immediately hit a wall.
The cartoon had made it to syndication, the newspaper strip was syndicated coast-to-coast, and everyone under a certain age knew who Spider-Man was. On a bet, one might think the friendly, articulate, and mildly-connected Lee would have done pretty well. The reason it stalled out so hard probably lie in a larger conversation about Hollywood culture and its sea-changes at the time which are way too big to go into here. Suffice to say that by the mid-70s, the biggest thing he’d managed was to organize a concept album. It looks like someone threw everything they had into it: the included comic and libretto, Lee contributing as narrator, the Romita painting, and just about every instrument and recording technique available in the studio at the time.
Did I say “concept album?” It had to convey all the content of the origin and the current big-hit story, the death of Gwen Stacy, so the songs had to tell a story, more or less, which most people didn’t already know. It had to convey the core marketing content of Spider-Man, who is admittedly a pretty complex character, including his mix of raw tragedy, contemporary alienation, and unbelievable snark. It had to get across the physical excitement of comics action. It had to be the sound of today, squared, when “today” meant the impossible demands of rock, glitzy hit, and schmaltz – i.e., it had to out-compete Grease. It had to inspire twelve-year-olds to want more Spider-Man, to turn on twenty-year-olds to be as cool as Spider-Man, and to satisfy the humorous but deadly earnest aesthetics of a particular man in his fifties. This is the very avatar of concept albums. Here you go.
Various accounts describe the musical contributors dismissively as “session musicians” (a term which incidentally isn’t dismissive at all in the biz), but even cursory internet inspection quickly yields that the lead instrumental musicians were some members of Crack the Sky, a respected prog-rock, emphasis on the rock, band of the time, which like so many happened not to get elevated to arena rock by five years later. Whether the listed people were also the vocalists isn’t clear from the credits, and if they were, then we have some serious imitative abilities to respect. Otherwise, a discerning listener might wonder whether some rather known names stopped by and belted out a song or two each, possibly kept anonymous (if this happened at all) due to contractual and agent considerations. I’d be interested to know whom you think you hear in there, to compare with my list of suspects.
I loved it. I was the target audience in spades, at age 11, and unknown to myself and certainly unknown to Stan, was probably its only representative … unless some oldie among the pack of you reading will confess as well. I played it all the time and recorded it on my portable tape player. I didn’t know it was to become my last “kid record,” before we all suddenly had to name “our” bands in order to position ourselves, when the bands available for public mention and air play shrank to perhaps 1% of the current existing music, and as we hit 12 and 13 years old, when everyone’s kids’ records fell silent.
Links: Comics Alliance (I defer the discussion of the front & back covers to this gentleman, as he clearly understands what to say), Gone and forgotten (a good example of ironic snark bereft of history and possibly humanity), Prog Archives entry for Crack the Sky (which fails to mention this album)
Next: Cloaky Spookydark
Posted on July 28, 2015, in Commerce, The 70s me and tagged Cadence Industries, concept album, Crack the Sky, Rock Reflections of a Superhero, Spider-Man 1975 song, Stan Lee, stereo. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.