Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark may have left a trail of scathing reviews and broken bodies in its wake, but that was hardly the first time the Web Slinger ventured into the music industry.
In 1975, an obscure slice of licorice pizza came out called Spider-Man: Rock Reflections of a Superhero - a vinyl rock opera that combined jazz, arena rock and tepid Rush rip-offs to tell the story of Peter Parker and his alienated, socially awkward life as a superhero and hopeless romantic.
Yeah, this was a pretty hefty undertaking by Marvel and Winthrop Records at the time, with 23 tracks clocking in at 43 minutes. But somehow this gleefully cheesy LP has been lost to history, outside of a few of us longbox experts that pride ourselves in scouring the obscure corners of the Marvel Universe.
The album begins with some righteously '70s guitar riffs in "High Wire," a song with an obnoxiously hummable chorus that proclaims:
I'm a free-flier/
I'm a high wire/
I'm a man/
The next track features what becomes a recurring theme throughout the album: narration from Stan Lee, because everything with the Marvel banner during the '70s had to be punctuated with his incessant verbosity, apparently. But instead of barking out his usual "True Believer!" and "Excelsior!" schtick, Stan leaves his carnival barker routine behind in exchange for dramatic readings that add connective tissue to the songs, binding the tracks together into a narrative that gives you a glimpse into the Wall Crawler's state of mind. Plus, the dude just loves to hear himself talk.
After a few tracks, you'll likely come to the disappointing conclusion that Rock Reflections is nowhere near the train wreck that you'd hope it is. The tracks, surprisingly, paint Peter Parker out to be a supremely conflicted soul, constantly wrestling with his life as a hopeless young twentysomething while also being the city's most popular superhero, like in "Peter Stays, Spiderman* Goes"
Would somebody call me Peter Parker before I go insane?/
You see this other guy that I've been lately forgot he had a name/
I found super strength and fame ain't all that they're cracked up to be/
Because the only one they don't help is me/
OK, so it's not Lennon and McCartney (or even Captain & Tennille, if we're being honest), but for a Spider-Man rock opera, these lyrics aren't a complete dumpster fire.
Peter's internal struggles don't end at his secret identity - no, no, because he also has terrifying dreams of a world enslaved by Doctor Octopus, who hatches a devious plan to turn Thor and Black Panther into go-go dancers (he actually rhymes 'Panther' with 'Dancers' and it's as exquisite as you'd think).
Back in reality, Spider-Man does battle with the Green Goblin, who actually kills Gwen Stacy in one of the tracks, just like in Amazing Spider-Man #121. But remember, this is an album aimed at children, so Spider-Man seeing the woman he loves die right in front of him is actually pretty ballsy. And of course, ol' Stan is there to narrate the whole thing:
"His hopes and dreams of love are gone.
He kneels beside her lifeless body.
Ignoring the approaching police sirens, Peter Parker whispers gently in her ear, as the echoes of his words carry him to her.
Reaching for her, trying to bring her back, to share life with him again."
This is some twisted, Ingmar Bergman stuff, man. It's a bleak, supremely existential journey through the tortured mind of one of pop culture's favorite neurotics, and once it rises above its natural campiness, you'll realize there's something to Rock Reflections of a Superhero that deserves your attention.
It manages to capture the essence of Spider-Man - the alienation, the brooding, the fleeting moments of hope - better than a lot of adaptations to date, including his last three movies. It's a tragedy wrapped in some '70s grooviness and with a Doctor Octopus that wants to turn the God of Thunder into a stripper. It doesn't always make sense, but outside of one cartoon theme song (and the subsequent Ramones cover), Rock Reflections is easily Spider-Man's most successful foray into the world of music.
Let us hope he never tries another one.
* For some reason the album's track listing spells Spider-Man as Spiderman and it will never not infuriate me.