June 14, 2009

Sun Ra Sunday

The Sensational Guitars of Dan & Dale: Batman and Robin (Universe UV016 CD)

Originally released as Tifton S-78002 LP (1966)

In a discography defined by indefinable strangeness, this has to be, on the surface anyway, the weirdest record of them all. In January, 1966, producer Tom Wilson cooked up yet another quickie cash-in attempt, this time based on the campy hit television show and aimed squarely at the children’s market. Wilson again enlisted Edward O. Bland to churn out some slapdash arrangements to be played here by the Greenwich Village-based acid-rock band, The Blues Project (billed as “The Sensational Guitars of Dan & Dale”), plus Sun Ra on occasional Hammond organ, John Gilmore on tenor sax, and Pat Patrick on baritone sax. The band is filled out with studio session stalwarts, Jimmy Owens on trumpet, Tom McIntosh on trombone along with some anonymous female vocalists. Sounds like a sure thing, right? What do you mean, “No?”

The Blues Project consisted of Danny Kalb on lead guitar and harmonica, Steve Katz on rhythm guitar, Andy Kuhlberg on bass, and Roy Blumenfeld on drums. They were hailed as New York’s answer to The Grateful Dead, after picking up organist Al Kooper during their short-lived stint on Columbia Records. Kooper, of course, was originally a guitarist, but became better known as an organist after his impromptu appearance on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” – a session, not coincidentally, produced by Tom Wilson in 1965. The Blues Project made a couple records for Verve before disbanding in 1967. But in 1966, they were at the height of their powers and hungry enough to take a gig making a pseudonymous, one-off kiddie record.

It is puzzling why Wilson felt the need to add Sun Ra and his core musicians to the mix – on first listen you would never know it’s them. On the other hand, they do provide a certain big-band, jazzy √©lan that The Blues Project could never have pulled off on their own. Ra can be heard playing some bumptious organ on four of the twelve tracks, his “space-age barbeque” style contrasting with Al Kooper’s more conventionally rock-ish approach. Gilmore and Patrick are clearly audible in the ensemble passages and Gilmore even takes an appropriately glib solo on “The Riddler’s Retreat.” (It is unclear who is playing the loopy slide-whistle on “Flight of the Batman” or the boing-boing-ing jaw harp on “Joker is Wild.”) Kalb peals off a number of stinging electric guitar solos that might have seemed pretty groovy in a different context but, despite the musical firepower at Wilson’s disposal, Bland’s “compositions” are nothing but laughable arrangements of material lifted wholesale from the public domain (and elsewhere). As Prof. Campbell explains:

Except for the Batman theme [composed by Neil Hefti], nearly all of the music on this album was plundered from various sources. “Batman’s Batmorang” uses the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, “Penguin’s Umbrella” takes over Chopin’s A-flat Polonaise; “Batman and Robin Swing” is based on the love theme
from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet; and “Batmobile Wheels” makes do with Bach’s Minuet in G, already recycled as “I Hear a Symphony” by the Toys. “The Riddler’s Retreat” lifts its guitar licks from “She Loves You” by the Beatles.
(Campbell & Trent, p. 125)
One can only imagine a child’s disappointment when, after begging his parents for the Batman and Robin record, he discovers only a raggedy, ersatz rendition of his favorite TV theme and a bunch of hokey tunes punctuated with incongruously psychedelic guitar solos. Needless to say, the record sold poorly and only became a pricy collector’s item due to Sun Ra’s (un-credited) involvement and the connection to The Blues Project and Al Kooper. In 2001, the Italian label, Comet/Universe, issued the album on CD, complete with deluxe, gatefold mini-LP packaging, along with several other gray-market Ra reissues. While Batman and Robin is a fun bit of commercial ephemera of interest to hard-core Sun Ra fanatics, Blues Project aficionados (and, I suppose, comic book geeks), it is pretty much worthless musically beyond its value as pure sixties kitsch, a strange and curious artifact from a far-gone era.

1 comment:

Sam said...

Yeah, this one's a bit hard to listen to, although I do take a perverse pleasure in slogging through "Robin's Theme." Yes, pity the poor kids' disappointment.