“Hi, Prince? It’s Warner Brothers. You know, the record company that signed you as an unproven teenage musician over ten years ago? The record company that pulled your already pressed record from distribution channels last year when you decided it was evil? The record company that really needs a commercial success from you after your last album, Lovesexy, failed to capitalize off the critical momentum you gained from Sign O’ the Times? The record company that helped pay for your amazingly elaborate, yet wildly expensive, Lovesexy tour? We sort of need you to record the soundtrack to this upcoming reboot of the Batman franchise we’re releasing. Oh, you like Batman? That’s great! The director will be the guy who made the Pee Wee Herman movie a couple years ago and it will star the guy from Mr. Mom as Batman. I’m sensing some concern Prince….are you still up for it? Please?
So Prince’s follow up to Lovesexy, his spiritual awakening album, was a blockbuster commercial movie tie-in. That may seem like a bit of an odd choice on the surface, but Prince clearly liked making music for films. He just hadn’t done so for a film that he wasn’t appearing in himself. So even if the Batman soundtrack wasn’t his original plan for his Lovesexy follow-up, he still agreed to do it. Now he just needed to come up with an album’s worth of material to be released alongside the Batman movie during the summer of 1989. One can deduce the project was a bit of a rush job considering the majority of the tracks were recorded in less than two months in the late winter/early spring 1989, but plenty of high quality Prince albums past were written and recorded quickly. Prince did snag a few tracks he had recorded earlier for other projects (Electric Chair, Vicki Waiting, Scandalous) that he either changed the lyrics slightly to fit the film (Anna Waiting became Vicki Waiting in order to name check the film’s leading lady, Vicki Vale) or he felt could already fit the narrative as is.
Several of these newly created tracks were sample filled affairs, a much different sound than the organic collection created for Lovesexy. Prince sampled his own music (e.g. the then unreleased Crystal Ball) but primarily incorporated samples from the movie into the songs, none more memorable than for the lead single, Batdance. Batdance was a frenetic, odd, disjointed, but totally thrilling track that wound up going to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Filled with dialogue samples from the movie (“This town needs an enema!”), it acted as both a funky dance number and the perfect advertisement for the film.
Two of the other original compositions created specifically for the Batman movie, Partyman and Trust, were also heavily featured in the film itself. Partyman, also the second single released, was featured during the scene where the Joker (Jack Nicholson) and his henchmen deface multiple works of art in a Gotham museum. Trust, is also used for a key scene involving the Joker (the Joker is apparently a huge Prince fan) as he literally parades down a busy Gotham City street tossing money in the air to expose the greed and corruption of the city’s inhabitants while plotting to kill them all. Thankfully, these two upbeat tracks are two of the best on the album and well represent the quality this project had to offer. As the Joker so eloquently stated in the film, “Hubba-hubba-hubba. Who do you trust?” Prince to make a great record, that’s who!
Despite the energy and excitement that those two songs bring to the film and the soundtrack, the best offerings are book-ended on the album’s track listing. Batman kicks off with strings from the Danny Elfman composed film score along with a snippet of a scene where Batman introduces himself to a scared villian (“What are you? I’m Batman.”) before jumping into the funky but ominous The Future. The Future uses bleak synth chords combined with a skeletal, distant sounding drum track while Prince’s lyrics expand on the vision of an alternate dystopian future where the movie seems to take place. The sum is definitely greater than the individual parts and The Future tends to be a grower of a song for many listeners, myself included. I thought it was a solid enough track initially but the more I listened to it, the more I appreciated what Prince came up with for this album opener. “I’ve seen the future and it will be.”
Changing gears for the second song on the album, Electric Chair, Prince incorporates a catchy rock guitar riff and an ultra-funky bass line to grab your attention away from the spooky soundscape of The Future. Electric Chair, as meant to be sung by the Joker, introduces one of the cleverest catchiest choruses on the entire album. “If a man is considered guilty for what goes on in his mind, give me the electric chair for all my future crimes.” This phrase is so good, Prince used it again during the Batdance sample hodgepodge later in the album. Prince deserves the electric chair for making a song so good that you can’t forget it, even when you want to. This song has always been one of my favorites from the album since the first time hearing it many years ago and along with The Future, it’s aged incredibly well.
On the back end of the album’s bookend highlights are Scandalous and the previously mentioned Batdance. Unlike Batdance, which is chock full of film dialogue samples that permanently attach this creative song to what is now a nearly 30 year old movie, Scandalous is a complete stand-alone track. With zero references to the Joker, Batman, Vicki Vale or Gotham City in the lyrics, it is clear this was one of the songs Prince had already written and then chose to use for this project after the fact. Scandalous can be heard during the film’s end credits but considering that it doesn’t begin playing until one of Danny Elfman’s compositions ends halfway through the credit sequence, means that many film goers were already out of the theater by this time and have no connection between the song and the film.
Scandalous was the fourth and final U.S. released single from Batman (The Future was released only in Europe as the 5th single) and was a modest success on the R&B charts. It’s a classic Prince ballad in the same vein as Do Me, Baby or Adore, in which Prince expresses a combination of love, lust and sexuality through his lyrics and most importantly, through his vocal delivery. On Scandalous, Prince’s vocals sound strained, as if he’s fighting a bit of a cold. It comes across as raw and sensual, just like the music video that accompanied the song. It’s just Prince in a dark room, singing, dancing and grinding with his microphone stand for 6 minutes. Needless to say, I don’t recall it getting a lot of MTV airplay at the time. Prince also used Scandalous as the basis for an EP that he titled, The Scandalous Sex Suite, which featured Batman star and rumored Prince girlfriend, Kim Basinger. The two of them spend time flirting over re-imagined versions of the song with titles such as The Crime, The Passion and The Rapture. It may just be the best thing about the whole Prince/Batman collaboration.
The middle five tracks on Batman are a roller coaster of quality. The standout, Electric Chair, is followed by arguably one of Prince’s least interesting songs of his career up to that point. The Arms of Orion, whose lyrics were co-written by his duet partner Sheena Easton (the lyrics aren’t very good by the way, sorry Sheena) is boring, lengthy and trite, an adjective rarely used to describe a Prince song. It was inexplicably chosen as the third single off the album over Trust or Electric Chair and was DOA on the charts. The less said about this song, the better.
Partyman follows Arms of Orion on the track listing, so the energy and quality pick back up only to put back down again for the next song after Partyman. Vicki Waiting isn’t necessarily a bad song, its just one of those tracks that doesn’t seem to add a lot of interesting musical or lyrical ideas. Prince (or Bruce Wayne if you believe the liner notes) plays hard to get with Vicki but its all very ho-hum. Nice, but forgettable.
The same can be said for Lemon Crush, the track that comes immediately after Trust on the album’s second side (if you have the record). Musically speaking, Lemon Crush has a lot more going for than Vicki Waiting, with its up tempo music track and catchy chorus (“ready for the crush”). However, the lyrics in the verses leave much to be desired as Prince appeared to have whipped them out with less time and consideration than normal. “If I’m workin’ at my jobba. I’m the victim, you’re the robba.” Err, ok then….let’s move on to Scandalous and Batdance please.
Memory Bank Withdrawal
By the time of Batman’s release, I was still a big Prince fan but no longer to the extreme levels that I was during the 1999 / Purple Rain / Around the World In a Day era. I remember seeing the Batman movie in the theater that summer (who didn’t?) and I knew going into it that Prince was involved in creating music for the film. I remember liking Batdance while others found it odd and a bit off-putting. Since I was also listening to hip-hop at the time, including sample-heavy offerings from artists like Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, and LL Cool J, Batdance simply felt like a pop music extension of that aesthetic. For me, it always was and always will be a winner of a song. I can see how introducing new Prince listeners to Batdance may be a bad idea and I can understand how it may be difficult for anyone who didn’t have memories of the song and the movie together may have a hard time connecting to this track, but for me, it’s a peanut butter and chocolate combination. Prince and this particular Batman movie will be forever intertwined in my mind. Oh yeah, the music video is equally bonkers and amazing. Thanks to the Prince estate and Youtube, all of these old Prince videos are finally available in HD quality!
Beyond Batdance and to a lesser extent, Partyman, the rest of the album made no impression on me and I never even bothered to own a copy until a few years after its release, once I found a used CD for sale. Unfairly ridiculed for being a blatant corporate synergistic sell-out, Batman was not a half-assed Prince offering (well, with the exception of maybe Arms of Orion and the lyrics for Lemon Crush). Prince did what was asked of him, providing songs that fit the mood of the film. In spite of the inherently dated nature of film soundtracks, especially ones that rely heavily on dialogue samples, imagery and lyrics that time stamp it, Batman still sounds good 30 years later and should not be considered a lesser Prince album.
My order of preference of Batman tracks from most favorite to least favorite with personal ratings next to them.
- Batdance 5/5
- Scandalous 4.5/5
- Partyman 4.5/5
- Electric Chair 4.5/5
- The Future 4/5
- Trust 4/5
- Lemon Crush 3/5
- Vicki Waiting 3/5
- The Arms of Orion 2.5/5
Overall Score: 4/5