Folk 'n Symphony . . .
Part 4 of 4
1966 -- To the Atom-Powered Woody!
n January, Liberty released "Batman" -- Jan's nod to the campy new television series of the same name. In an effort to capitalize on the show's popularity, the "Batman" concept (penned by Jan, Don Altfeld, and Fred Wieder) shut down the release of "Norwegian Wood." The arrangement for "Batman" was vintage Jan Berry -- a killer combination of a strong instrumental track and complex harmony structure (particularly on the Intro). The tune, with hilarious lyrics, assured us that Batman and Robin were here to save the day -- and Jan cleverly incorporated a variation of the highly recognizable eighth-note guitar groove from Neal Hefti's instrumental "Batman Theme." This riff was played during the chorus, and between the lead lines in the verse -- on top of which the backing harmonies intoned, "Gotham City, here they come!" In competition with Hefti's original theme, and a cover by The Marketts, Jan & Dean's "Batman," scored a modest #66 on Billboard.
In February, the guys shot their pilot for director William Asher's Ashmont Productions, in association with Twentieth Century-Fox Television. Furthering the concept of the Beatle movies, A Hard Day's Night and Help!, the new Jan & Dean vehicle would follow the antics of Jan & Dean as they traveled to new concert destinations each week -- a sort of Route 66 takeoff.
Next Step . . .
Primetime on the Small Screen
In March, JAN & DEAN MEET BATMAN debuted, featuring absolutely hilarious comedy skits. In the guise of "Captain Jan," and "Dean, The Boy Blunder," the guys fairly savaged the already goofy television series. Originally recorded in the guise of Batman and Robin, the skits had to be redone because of licensing issues. In fact, scarcely three weeks after the single was released, Screen Gems notified Jan's lawyer that National Periodical Publications considered Jan's use of the "Batman" name and concept to be unauthorized. Screen Gems would have to obtain a clearance and a license. Jan's lawyer retorted that the title was not subject to copyright, but that they'd be happy to settle accordingly.
With a combination of songs and comedy sketches, JAN & DEAN MEET BATMAN was brilliant. Singing the Intro to "The Little Old Lady (from Pasadena)," the boys morphed into their crime fighting alter egos -- the Titanic Twosome. Dean Torrence was his typical, over-the-top comedic self. And he provided many of the character voices, including the villains -- Dr. Vi-Ta-Min (the Cong Doctor), the Garbage Man, and the Fireman. Jan (no longer the "straight man" as portrayed on "The Submarine Races") was also hilarious as the lead super hero. Borrowing from the series (in order to sufficiently savage it), Jan's character rolled out his lines with ample use of alliteration:
"The Milkman?" asks Boy Blunder.
"No!" retorts Captain Jan. "It's our arch rival, that wretched refuse collector, that rogue of rubbish! . . . the Garbage Man."
"That ludicrous litterbug has struck again," proclaims Jan. "I wonder what he's up to this time, Creen!"
"Holy coffee grounds, Ban! Maybe there's a clue among this refuse!"
The boys soon transform into the Titanic Twosome. "To the atom-powered Woody!" commands Captain Jan. "Who, me?" asks Boy Blunder.
The skits were strung together with narration from deep-voiced Roger Christian, and Don, Fred, and Jill Gibson each contributed various voices to the backgrounds. The pieces were also smoothly connected with authentic "Bat cues" that Jan produced with arranger George Tipton. These snippets had a very "Batman" feel to them, featuring guitar, horns, and harpsichord.
This approach to comedy was indicative of the new direction in which Jan & Dean were heading -- a direction certainly more to the liking of Dean Torrence. And it was a concept that would only be enhanced by the new Jan & Dean television series. The BATMAN album, explains music critic Dave Marsh, was "a precursor of some of the brilliant stuff that Firesign Theatre, Richard Pryor, and Lilly Tomlin (more often) did later . . . really intricately worked out sketches, descended from [Stan] Freberg and Dickie Goodman but going way past them." Amazingly, JAN & DEAN MEET BATMAN failed to chart nationally.
But by this time Jan & Dean were glad that the contract with Liberty was coming to an end. The manufacturing agreement between Screen Gems and Liberty (undersigned by Berry and Torrence) was set to expire on March 31. It would not be renewed. And Jan was bound and determined to end his personal agreements with Screen Gems. By March 10, Jan's attorney had reached an understanding with legal counsel for Screen Gems, who agreed there was "little advantage in continuing the relationship." And the company finally agreed to come up with an agreeable solution.
Undaunted, despite the commercial disappointment of BATMAN, Jan -- in his final dealings with Liberty -- pushed a project that he and Dean had been working on since late the previous year. The next album (the original concept for FILET OF SOUL) would be heavy on comedy, and light on music -- a project that would carry the comedic angle to even greater heights. Typically, however, executives for Liberty did not agree with the new concept, and it made for one last battle with the record company.
By early April, Jan was busily making plans to start his own record company. And he'd been working on a new song (written in collaboration with Fred Wieder and Don Altfeld) called "Only A Boy" -- a sad and patriotic celebration of a young American soldier lost in Vietnam. This effort stood out in sharp contrast against the zany comedy of BATMAN, and offered yet more proof of Jan's multifaceted vision for his career.
Jan was looking toward the future with great anticipation. The new television series would provide phenomenal national exposure for Jan & Dean. And he would soon be free from the clutches of Screen Gems. He missed Jill Gibson terribly, and tried without success to get her back. And Jan's situation with medical school had also become unsettled (but that's yet another story).
Jan reached out to Liberty one last time in April, in an effort to save his prized version of "Norwegian Wood." He was ready to issue the cut as the next Jan & Dean single, backed with (of all things!) "Gonna Hustle You." Once again, the terse correspondence flowed between opposing legal teams. Liberty claimed that the company was hesitant to proceed in light of the "impending conclusion of the contract." Steadfast to the last, Jan's side made it clear that he wanted to purchase the song outright from Liberty, "for release by another record company." His own record company.
Things were finally falling into place. Fate, however, dictated that Jan's future would not sustain the solid life he was building for himself. The structured goals of Jan Berry's youth, the professional automomy that now seemed within his grasp -- indeed, life as he knew it -- would be wiped away in an instant one fateful April morning.