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DC’s Musical History Compiled

by  in Comic News Comment
DC’s Musical History Compiled

For many superhero fans, comic books aren’t the only outlet or even the biggest one through which they get their fix. And for them, just as ubiquitous as “Look! Up in the sky…” or “In Brightest Day, In Blackest Night” are the opening bars of music from one of the dozens of TV and film adaptations surrounding comic book characters over the years.

Those musical highlights are earning a new spotlight in honor of DC Comics 75th Anniversary as the publisher announced today in conjunction with its corporate partner WaterTower Music the arrival of “The Music of DC Comics: 75th Anniversary Collection” to music outlets in the coming months. As unveiled on DC’s The Source blog, the CD features 31 tracks spanning the history of the DC Universe in film, 21 of which have never been released for sale before now.

“The initial idea I had before this all came together was to make ring tones out of the old Super Friends themes,” the album’s Executive Producer Peter Axelrad told CBR News. “From ‘Super Friends’ to ‘The All-New Super Friends Hour,’ everybody remembers those. ‘Here in the Hall of Justice!’ and all that. I thought, ‘I would buy ten of those ring tones!’ Then it came to the idea that there was so much more out there. Those are so iconic, and there’s just more to be had.”

Axelrad serves as Director of Finance for Warner Bros. Pictures’ music department and tears up Hollywood parties as “DJ Axel” (whose latest mix tape, “Breakin The Law,” has gone “street platinum” selling over 10,000 units), but when it came to the creation of the DC 75th Anniversary Collection the piece of Axelrad’s resume that mattered most was his status as a member of the fanboy nation. “The 75th Anniversary of DC came up with this company-wide initiative of ‘Let’s do something to celebrate it.’ At WaterTower, I was the biggest comic book geek in the room, and I thought, ‘I don’t think the theme from either of the Super Friends shows has ever been released. Maybe I should look into this.’ I started doing research from all the different cartoons and shows over what’s never been released and came up with a huge list of songs we could put out. I’ve been collecting comic books since I was seven or eight, so I came into this from the comic books. A lot of these shows were before my time, but I’m a huge fan. I still collect comics, and I still watch the cartoons even - I still watch ‘Batman: The Brave & The Bold’ and I’ve loved the characters in all forms.”

After combing through the Warner archives and more, Axelrad had compiled a massive list of tracks ranging from classics like the ’60s “Batman” theme to the iconic John Williams and Danny Elfman superhero scores to the early themes of DC film serials and cartoons including the disc’s kick-off track: the theme from the famed Fleischer Brothers Superman cartoons by Sammy Timberg. “It wasn’t really about the style of music, it was about ‘What music represents the character?'” Axelrad explained. “The basic idea was to cover the last 75 years of music relating to the DC Comics characters. There were a few songs that were kind of pop songs like Remy Zero’s theme from ‘Smallville,’ and that was on the original list. But then we got thinking that it wasn’t really a song written with Superman in mind. What we needed this to be was songs that were written for the characters specifically, dating all the way back to the first song we could find, which was the 1941 Superman theme, and then covering the entire 75-year DC Comics history and all these characters - showing the development of them musically. Like, there was the ‘Green Lantern’ theme from 1967 which was a narrated piece through the ‘Green Lantern: First Flight’ theme from a few years ago which was a big orchestral piece.”

Playing DC musical detective came with its own set of of challenges as well from finding proper master tapes for each track to securing rights to the pieces of music Warner Bros. didn’t own outright. “It was actually pretty difficult. We had to go through the archives to find the original tapes of these things, and sometimes they weren’t even available, which oftentimes meant it wouldn’t be on the record. But as a backup, if the DVD was available, we would record it off the DVD until we could find the actual master just to keep it in there as a placeholder. We wanted everything to be as high-quality as possible, and finding a master from 1941 in the archives was very difficult. So it was quite a long search process to find all this music and to find what was available.

“Originally when I put together the list, it was over 40 or even close to 50 songs, but then figuring out the ownership on some of this stuff was tough. You think that Warner Bros. has owned DC Comics for decades, so it would be easier, but all of these different shows were produced by different companies, and properties change hands and get sold and rebought. Some songs we couldn’t even find the master owner for. Other ones we had to go out after. Swamp Thing is kind of an obscure DC character, but I knew there was a TV show, and I wanted to have as many DC characters represented, so I had to license that from a third party.”

Axelrad admitted that some found tracks provided a measure of excitement as a comics fan while others were almost comically frustrating to work with. “And also, the 1943 Batman track was hard to find because I didn’t even know it existed. I kept doing research and research, and then one day I found it and went, ‘What’s this 1943 Batman?’ What’s amazing about that video if you get it is that nowadays, the Bat Cave is a state of the art crime lab, but in 1943, the Bat Cave was a desk and two chairs. But the instrumental intro to that is really dark. And Batman’s always been dark, but when the narration comes in and they talk about how he’s ‘America’s #1 crime-fighter taking down the Axis Powers’ it really sort of touched me because it was the first filmed appearance of Batman, which is pretty epic.

“The 1943 Batman and the 1960s Batman TV shows are also owned by different studios, so there was a lot of clearance work and figuring on tracing ownership. On a funny level for Supergirl, we did have the theme from the movie licensed, but then the licensor said, ‘Actually, it turns out we don’t own this. We thought we did.’ And ultimately, we couldn’t find out who owns it. We couldn’t figure out the master owner in time to clear it, and so it got dropped. A lot of this stuff is obscure and hard to find, so even the ownership chain is hard to determine.”

Once the 31 tracks were decided on, the work of organizing the track listing came next. “It’s not necessarily about what’s recognizable. It’s about the characters,” the producer said. “I had a debate about whether I should organize the track lists by year or by character. By year, I was a little bit concerned because the older stuff is all so low-fi compared to the new stuff. So I thought it wouldn’t quite sound like a full listen going from crusty old ’40s masters into brand new masters. So I thought I’d do it by character and a little by year; Superman was the first character, and then Batman was the second. That’s how we had things, and then after it it moved around from Superman to Superboy and from Batman to the Justice League which comes shortly after. The rest of it had to do with what sounded good together. I didn’t just want this to be a historical piece. I wanted it to be fun to listen to. I break up a lot of the ’60s era stuff, which is all big narration and introductions, with the newer stuff, which is all orchestral, so you’d have a good back-and-forth and it wouldn’t be the same kind of track over and over again.”

With the completed collection in hand, Axelrad did what any record producer will do with a new CD: find an audience. “My first response was from DC. They were the guys I was most concerned about, and when I sent it to them, I said, ‘You’re the source. What do you think about this compilation?’ And they were wowed by it. They really liked it, so I felt if I got DC on board and they think I did a good job, then all the comic book followers will fall in line.”

Fans can let their ears judge the final product in the coming weeks as the CD lands in stores and for sale online, and if there’s anything they’re missing in the collection, Axelrad hasn’t quite ruled out a follow up. “There’s more material out there. In the sense of a volume 2, we’ve got as much iconic stuff on here as possible. It would be hard to find enough iconic stuff. This album has 31 tracks, and from my original wish-list I dropped about ten. Ten isn’t quite enough to make up a whole ‘nother album, but if I could find some more iconic themes to match this first round, I’d definitely do a volume 2.”

“The Music of DC Comics: 75th Anniversary Collection” hits stores later this year. For a full track listing, check out The Source.

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