How good is the original 1966 Batman theme?
It’s surf music and it’s a spy theme; it’s discordant, it’s the blues, it has primal punk undertones with a chorus that won’t quit. All wrapped up in 41 seconds.
But it wasn’t until my 21-month-old son was running around the house, tea towel as cape, yelling, "Nat-naaaan", that I realised how advanced and gifted he was.
It also made me appreciate that “Batman Theme” composer Neal Hefti might have been the same.
Keep it simple, stupid: Neal Hefti never worked harder than on the Batman theme
Composer and arranger Neal Hefti was a jazz giant. He played with Tony Bennett and Doris Day. He was there swingin’ with Frank Sinatra. Miles Davis once said, “If it wasn’t for Neal Hefti, the Count Basie band wouldn’t sound as good as it does.”
As a soundtracker, Hefti gave us the music to Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple’s signature tune, but “Batman Theme” was his crowning glory. Despite its simplicity, Hefti never worked harder and the song took him weeks to write.
"I tore up a lot of paper," he revealed to Jon Burlingame, author of a 1996 book on television themes, TV's Biggest Hits. "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.”
Son Paul Hefti told The New York Times in 2008, “He had to find something that would appeal to kids, yet wouldn’t sound stupid. What he came up with was a 12-bar blues with a guitar hook and one word.”
Indeed, one cheeky choir member on the recording session wrote on his part: "Word and Music by Neal Hefti.”
That word and music – with those distinctive discordant brass stabs – gave Hefti a US top 10 hit, won him a Grammy and helped him kapow pop culture.
The “Batman Theme” inspired its own urban myth
Batman star Adam West was the Alexander the Great, the Johnny Appleseed and the Ray Manzarek of Batman culture. One of the titbits he dropped in his 1994 book, Back to the Batcave, was the idea that the famous “Batman” chorus wasn’t actually sung, but played on trumpets to sound like voices. The idea even inspired a page on the myth-busting Snopes website, who declared the rumour FALSE.
Everyone has covered the “Batman Theme”, even Sun “Space is the Place” Ra.
Neal Hefti claimed it was the most covered song of 1966. It did sound like any teenage garage band could not only have a crack at it, but master it, too. So it wasn’t such a surprise that ’60s surf bands like The Ventures, Jan & Dean and The Marketts did versions. Moody guitarist Link Wray also had a good go. On the other side of the pond, UK freak-beat bands like The Who, The Kinks and later The Jam produced super-charged renditions.
It was, however, a surprise that eccentric outré jazz avatar Sun Ra was so enamoured with “Batman Theme”. He wrote and released a couple of versions of a single called “I’m Gonna Unmasked the Batman”. He also teamed up with New York's The Blues Project to release a cash-in record, Batman and Robin, billed as The Sensational Guitars of Dan & Dale.
Even The Beatles ripped “Batman” for “Taxman”
You don’t have to bend an ear to hear the “Batman Theme” influence on George Harrison’s rip-roaring Revolver opener. Was it just a two-note coincidence? There was a four-month period between Batman’s US January premiere and the April recording of “Taxman” for George to hear it across the Atlantic. It was later claimed Batman was Harrison’s fave show of ’66.
Even Eddie Vedder and his daughter!
"I always hoped that our group would cover it one day,” Eddie Vedder told Pearl Jam Radio in 2016. Unable to convince his band-mates, Eddie roped in his then-seven-year-old daughter, Harper.
Just when you thought you’d heard the best version, “Batman Theme” has been sung by dolphins
It was 2005 when Florida scientists taught dolphins an extremely high-pitched version of “Batman Theme”. Granted, they did have to wave a Batman doll in front of the dolphin’s faces and feed them congratulatory fish. But still, it was the Batman theme as sung by dolphins.
"If you recall the original Batman TV intro, you'll probably remember the way they sang 'Bat-maaaaaaaan'," Professor Heidi Harley, associate professor of social sciences at Sarasota’s New College of Florida, told the ABC.
"The dolphin was reinforced for producing a specific rhythm to a specific object. For example, when we presented him with a Batman doll, he received a fish for producing a specific rhythm, in this case, a short sound and then a long one."
“Batman Theme” inspired jokes
Jack: Have you heard the Batman theme song?
Alex: The one that goes "NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA Batmaaaan!!!"?
Jack: No, the other one.
LEGO Batman incorporates the 1966 theme song into his 2017 version
In The LEGO Movie, Will Arnett’s Batman was pitched as a super-cool crime fighter with a healthy sense of himself and the composer of his own theme song. (“This is real music, brooding, ground-breaking – darkness! No parents! Super-rich!”)
In 2017’s The LEGO Batman Movie, there’s a new theme song, sung by Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump, that interpolates the ’66 version with some wry observational humour. Is it as good? No. No, it’s not.
"Who is the manliest man? (Batman!)
With the buns of steel? (Batman!)
Who could choke hold a bear? (Batman!)
Nananananana, nananananana, yeah"
For more deep thinking about Batman, listen to our weekly podcast BATMANLAND where we discuss the episodes to air each Friday night on SBS VICELAND.