This is the 61st post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
The character of Batman, created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, first appeared in “Detective Comics #27” in 1939. Originally called The Bat-Man, he was the alter ego of billionaire Bruce Wayne. By day, Wayne was a Gotham City philanthropist; by night, he dressed up in a bat-inspired costume and fought criminals.
The character became popular enough to get his own comic book title in 1940. Later in the decade, he would be featured in two movie serials: “Batman,” in 1943, portrayed by Lewis Wilson, and “Batman and Robin,” in 1949, with Robert Lowery playing Batman.
In 1966, ABC premiered the television show, “Batman,” with Adam West in the title role and Burt Ward as his sidekick Robin. Though the character had been around for almost three decades, this show was responsible for introducing much of America (and the world) to Batman.
In comparison to the portrayals of Batman that came before and after the TV series, this version of Batman is considered silly, campy, and hokey. He inhabited a world of bright colors, corny one-liners, and cartoonishly one-dimensional depictions of morality. All of his action sequences were punctuated by onomatopoeia such as “Pow!” and “Bam!”
The soundtrack of the show highlighted the camp aesthetic, drawing upon surf music and the film scores from spy films. Neal Hefti composed the theme song, which consisted of “Batman!” being shouted several times over a blues progression.
For as simple as the theme sounds, Hefti said it was the hardest song he ever wrote:
I tore up a lot of paper… It did not come easy to me… I just sweated over that thing, more so than any other single piece of music I ever wrote. I was never satisfied with it…
…I was almost going to call them and say, I can’t do it… But I never walk out on projects, so I sort of forced myself to finish.
In the years since the show’s end in 1968, it’s been rumored that the shouts of “Batman!” in the theme song were not voices, but brass instruments. West himself seemed to confirm that in his 1994 autobiography, “Back to the Batcave”:
Everyone was talking or writing about us, wanting an interview, trying to understand and explain the appeal, raving about the innovative camerawork — tilted angles for bad guys — or the lavish sets or Neal Hefti’s catchy jazz score. Old pals would call to congratulate me and also to ask, “Are those horns or voices saying ‘Batman’ during your theme song?” (They were horns.)
I say “seemed to confirm” because Hefti himself disputed this claim. In Jon Burlingame’s 1996 book “TV’s Biggest Hits,” Hefti detailed the way the theme song was recorded:
Hefti recalled the makeup of the band: two trumpets, four trombones, two keyboards, four guitars, a bass, and two drums. The eight singers (four sopranos, four tenors) “sang in perfect unison, not octaves apart,” Hefti said. “The tenors were up there screeching, so they sounded like boy sopranos.” He offered to create separate tracks, so that [producer William] Dozier could eliminate the voices if he desired, “but he liked the idea,” Hefti says, so the chorus stayed.
Both the show and the theme song were successful. The theme won a 1966 Grammy Award for best instrumental theme, and that same year, Hefti’s “Batman Theme” became a Top 40 hit.
The instrumental pop group The Marketts also had a Top 40 hit with “Batman Theme” in 1966. Though faithful to Hefti’s original, this rendition took some liberties with the horn and keyboards in the middle, sounding more upbeat than the already cheerful original.
That same year, members of the Sun Ra Arkestra and The Blues Project released “Batman and Robin: The Sensational Guitars of Dan and Dale.” Other than a cover of “Batman Theme,” the song had no other songs directly about Batman (though the other tracks were given Batman-inspired names). For only having one lyric to work with, these singers hit a home run. You’ll probably never hear a more soulful, emotive delivery of the word “Batman.”
The TV show spawned an official soundtrack, to which Nelson Riddle contributed a polished, jazz-tinged version. The chorus and main riff were pretty faithful to the original, but he diverged a little to make it a little more, well, jazzy.
On his album, “My Father The Pop Singer,” Sam Chalpin yelled out “Batman” several times over what sounded like a tuba. He sounded like a drunk guy singing to himself on the train. And it was delightful.
Did you listen? Good. I told you it was delightful.
Jan & Dean’s 1966 album “Jan And Dean Meet Batman” not only featured a “Batman Theme” cover…
…but also included a separate song called “Batman,” which was a poppy ode to the caped crusader.
By the end of 1966, nearly a dozen artists had recorded “Batman Theme.” In hindsight, they all sounded similar, and most of the ones that do stand out only do because of who recorded the cover, including this version by The Ventures…
…and this one by The Who…
…and this recording by Link Wray and The Raymen.
The Kinks’ 1967 album, “The Live Kinks,” included a medley of “Milk Cow Blues,” “Batman Theme,” and “Tired of Waiting for You.” The Batman part was brief, and functioned mainly as a transition between the two songs. But it was fun, particularly because it was messy and noisy compared to the studio recordings.
The emergence of punk colored the way many other artists would interpret the surf-inspired “Batman Theme.” A decade after the Kinks’ medley, The Jam covered “Batman Theme” for its 1977 debut album, “In The City.” The Jam kept the surf style of the ’60s versions, but also kept the messy garage band style of The Kinks’ medley. Only a minute and a half long, this version sounds like a bunch of friends just goofing around. Which is probably true for many of the covers of “Batman Theme,” but none of them felt as fun as this one.
The Spitballs was a one-off project comprising artists from the Beserkley label, including members of Earthquake, The Greg Kihn Band, Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers, and The Rubinoos. The band’s one LP was basically a covers collection. Just like The Jam’s version, this cover felt like a bunch of friends just goofing around. But this version switched up the lyric, such that it had lyrics plural: whereas the other versions had only mentioned “Batman,” The Spitballs included “Batgirl.”
English band Guana Batz’s 1986 single “Seethrough” had a live version of “Batman Theme” as its B-side. If you’ve never heard of the term “psychobilly,” this cover will help illuminate that style of music, which combines rockabilly with the spirit of punk.
Canadian metal band Voivod covered the “Batman Theme” for the CD version of its fourth album, “Dimension Hatröss.” It took almost a minute for the song to even sound like the familiar theme, because even though it had Hefti’s riff, it had a lot more layers (and lot of crunchy guitars). But then the “Batman” chorus kicked in, which built up until a very metal screeching of “Baaatmaaan!” As one does.
Tim Burton’s 1989 film, “Batman,” was first movie depiction of the caped crusader since “Batman: The Movie” in 1966. It was darker, and truer to the comics than the TV series had been. As such, it did not include Hefti’s theme. The score was a sweeping orchestral piece by Danny Elfman.
But Hefti’s theme was worked into “Batdance,” a song Prince recorded for the soundtrack. This was not a straight cover, but rather a sample. But it was good, and managed to have some of the camp of the original series.
R.E.M. recorded a song for the second Burton Batman movie, 1992’s “Batman Returns,” but it was not included in the final film. But that song was later released under the name “Winged Mammal Theme,” as a B-side to “Drive.” Like Prince’s “Batdance,” “Winged Mammal Theme” was a sample rather than a cover.
Saxophonist John Zorn opened his 1990 album, “Naked City,” with a horn-driven interpretation of the “Batman Theme.” The most iconic part of Hefti’s song – particularly the sections where you’d sing along “Batmaaan” – were secondary in this cover, with Zorn instead focusing on the more surfy parts.
Iggy Pop’s “We Are Not Talking About Commercial Shit!” included a live version of “Batman Theme” that sounded what you’d expect a live version by Iggy Pop to sound like. But the best part was the beginning, which included lot of Iggy swearing. That is, if you’re into that kind of thing (and let’s be honest: if you’re reading this, you probably are into that.)
In 1998, UK duo Well Paid Scientists released an acid techno remix called “To The Batrave……Let’s Go.” At more than seven and a half minutes long, the track was a slow burn. Over that time, it built up until the parts of “Batman Theme” were recognizable.
In 2002, The Flaming Lips released “Finally the Punk Rockers Are Taking Acid,” a compilation comprising the band’s first three albums, a previously released EP, and a bunch of other material. Among the tracks was a cover of “Batman Theme.” It was like much of the early Flaming Lips catalog: noisy, messy, and loud. And delightfully so.
In 2016, a version of the “Batman Theme” that Eddie Vedder and his 7-year-old daughter Harper recorded appeared on the Pearl Jam Radio broadcast on SiriusXM. It was a straightforward cover that wasn’t earth-shattering, but try not to smile when listening to young Harper sing “Batmaaaaan!” I dare you.
Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump lifted parts of “Batman Theme” for his song, “Who’s the (Bat)Man,” which appeared in “The Lego Batman Movie” in 2017. This ode to Batman called out some of his best traits, including:
Who’s the manliest man? (Batman!)
With buns of steel? (Batman!)
Who could choke hold a bear? (Batman!)
Na Na Na Na Na
Who never skips leg day? (Batman!)
Not sure how much of that is in keeping with the overall Batman canon, but I’ll take it.
It’s a big deal for a modern Batman movie to acknowledge the history of the TV show, let alone embrace it. From the ’80s onward, the comics, graphic novels, and movie versions went for a dark aesthetic. It was as if the ’60s TV show was the black sheep of the Batman canon.
When reviewing “Seven Nation Army,” I quoted Jack White as having said, “Nothing is more beautiful than when people embrace a melody and allow it to enter the pantheon of folk music. As a songwriter it is something impossible to plan. Especially in modern times. I love that most people who are chanting it have no idea where it came from. That’s folk music.”
That same quote could apply to Hefti’s “Batman Theme.” It’s been recorded and sampled multiple times, in multiple ways, every decade since its release. Even if you’ve never seen an episode of the TV show or seen any depiction of Batman on film, you’ve probably heard Hefti’s song, or at least some variation of it. In that regard, Hefti’s song is at least as well known as the character it described. At least as well known, if not better known. Though Hefti’s theme was absent from many portrayals of Batman post-1968, these covers show that the song could not be scrubbed from pop culture consciousness.