The more you look at Marvel’s output in the second half of the 1970s, the more you see a company clutching desperately at new trends in the hope of staying relevant to the ever-changing youth market. Superheroes like The Human Fly and the (Disco) Dazzler, both of whom had real-life equivalents; comic books featuring Kiss and Alice Cooper; and this project, a bizarre rock-opera LP that tells the story of Spider-Man, narrated by Stan Lee.
Spider-Man already had form on vinyl. In 1972, Buddah Records released The Amazing Spider-Man: From Beyond the Grave – A Rockomic. With vocals by Ron Dante, and music by ‘The Webspinners’, the album came complete with a gatefold cover and free poster by John Romita, and was an oddball audio adventure that has a strangely nightmarish atmosphere, crowbarring as many villains as possible – The Vulture, The Green Goblin, The Lizard and The Kingpin all turn up in the first five minutes. Interspersed with the story are four songs, with lyrics describing Spider-Man as a “sex machine who makes all the little girls sigh”. It’s quite something.
And of course, there were a few Spider-Man audio adventures released as 7 inch singles by Power records, who specialised in such things. But there had never been an attempt to produce a Spider-Man themed rock album. Possibly with good reason, you might think.
Lifesong Records (set up by Tommy West and Terry Cashman, and the home to some terrible, terrible music in the 1970s) did a deal with Marvel after being approached by an unnamed executive with the idea for a concept rock album that distilled the Spider-Man story onto two sides of vinyl. The result was the pompously titled Rock Reflections of a Superhero, released in 1975, and which is probably one of the weirdest and yet most desirable comic book spin-offs that you’ll ever encounter.
As a kid, I lusted after this in a way that only an eight year old in Britain, with no chance of ever finding a copy, could. the relentless advertising and hype in US Marvel comics suggested that it would be the greatest thing since music was invented, and who was to doubt them? Inevitably, when I finally got to hear the album many, many years later, I was somewhat baffled by the whole thing – yet there’s no denying that this is a curiously wonderful, mad musical folly.
The music was produced by Terence P. Minogue (no relation to Kylie, we assume), Marty Nelson and William Kirkland, and performed by musicians from the Lifesongs stable – Nelson himself provided vocals for Spider-Man while the long-forgotten Crack the Sky were the backing band. I wonder if they ever imagined that this would be all that they were remembered for? Not that most listeners knew who the band was, as the album cover credits the music to assorted Marvel superheroes (poor old Captain America is reduced to playing the tambourine).
The story covers Spider-man’s origins and his battles with Dr Octopus and the Green Goblin, including the death of Gwen Stacey and Peter Parker’s struggles with his alter-ego – the song Peter Says And Spider-Man Goes inspiring the iconic cover by (once again) John Romita, which I would go as far as to say is the classic Spider-Man image – and somehow suggests a maturity to the project that the comics might have seemed to lack to college age audiences.
As for the music – well, it’s a bizarre mix of styles, from typical mid-Seventies American AOR to bubblegum pop to funk to doo-wop to country rock to folk. At its best, it’s oddly entertaining – Spider-Man (also a single that, bizarrely, achieved some level of airplay by all accounts) might have been the greatest song ever sung about Spider-Man if no one else had ever recorded one. There are several other amusingly eccentric tunes on here as well. The album highlight, though, must be the truly deranged Dr Octopus, which is a heady collision of Tommy-inspired glam rock and wild pomp. Whether any of it this warrants repeated listening depends on taste, but who wouldn’t want a copy of this LP in their collection?
The world would be a duller place without eccentric and opportunistic projects like this – and I’ll take this over the genuinely embarrassing Spider-Man stage musical any day. Connoisseurs will be glad to know that the CD reissue of this is still fairly easy to find at sensible prices.