The Burt Ward and Frank Zappa Musical Team-Up
“Batman” actor Burt Ward was 21 when he recorded the song “The Teenage Bill of Rights.” It’s a surprisingly stirring number, which decried the second-class treatment of American teenagers and was composed at the height of the nation’s battle over civil rights. “I don’t suggest we march all day and picket every night,” Ward proclaims with the utmost conviction. “I just propose the following: a Teenage Bill of Rights.”
The music swells behind Ward as he launches into the first amendment. “Nothing we do so go unnoticed, not even the smallest deed. And no one should even question our color, race, or creed.” The track’s guitars bear the jingle-jangle of the Byrds or maybe the Youngbloods, an undeniable product of their era. The snare drum surfaces and retreats, with glimpses of a Revolution War battle field, an image only compounded by the presence of a trumpet adopting a distinctly bugle-like riff.
For a moment, Ward seems convinced that, in the proper hands, his words might possibly change the world. The music climaxes toward the end of the track in a cacophony of instruments, the track’s background singers belting out the song’s title with the sort of convinction that might bring tears to the eyes of a weaker man. If there’s irony in the track, it’s hidden deep below a solid foundation of earnestness.Given context, however, it becomes nearly impossible to take such a track seriously. Recorded in the summer of ’66 for MGM records, the unreleased track marks one of the strangest team-ups in musical and comics history. The sessions were helmed by none other than Frank Zappa, roughly around the release of his debut double album, Freak Out! (Zappa was on conducted and arranging duties, with Freak Out’s Tom Wilson producing the track). He filled out the track’s roster with musicians from that album, effectively turning “Teenage Bill of Rights” into the work of Burt Ward and the Mothers of Invention.
It’s hard to say exactly what Zappa was thinking at the time. Perhaps it was an honest attempt to capitalize on the success of Ward’s role as Robin in the hit series, “Batman.” The composer had yet to make a name for himself as one of music’s most idiosyncratic geniuses — had, say, “Willie the Pimp” already been unleashed on the world, it’s hard to imagine executives at ABC being too keen to entrust the image of their squeaky clean Robin to Zappa (though Zappa was, for the record, jailed for “sexual perversion” back in ’63, after opening his own adult movie studio).
Whatever his motivation may have been, Zappa and Ward actually teamed up on several occasions, beginning with “Boy Wonder, I Love You,” the first single credited to Ward, recorded earlier in the year. Unlike “The Teenage Bill of Rights,” the track was actually released, though it never really went anywhere. The song was more obviously tongue-in-cheek, with Ward reading the text of a “fan letter” over a bed of music that employed Zappa’s undying fascination with 50s doo-wop.
“It’s me, your pal the Boy Wonder,” Ward begins cheerfully, greeted with a wall of canned applause. “Even as a Boy Wonder,” he continues, “it’s really hard to read all the tons of fan mail I get.” Ward goes on to read the entirety of a “happy letter” sent in by a fan. The piece of mail begins by referring to Ward as exquisite, soon devolving into near stalkerdom. The writer of the letter describes a wall in its bedroom dedicated to Ward (nee Robin), adding:
“Oh, Boy Wonder, I’m making a gum wrapper chain to symbolize my love for you. It’s going to be as long as I am tall, and I’m 5 foot 10 inches in stocking feet. Please, Boy Wonder, PLEASE, come next Saturday and sleep for a week or two. I will feed you breakfast in bed, I will make your bed for you, and I like you so much that I want you to spend the whole summer with me.”
“I hope you know,” concludes the writer, “this is a girl writing.” The composition carries Zappa’s name, and also bears his unmistakable influence. Perhaps it was his sensibilities that doomed the record, or maybe it was the fact that, in spite of all of Ward’s numerous talents (the actor was both a black belt in Taekwondo and was named “the world’s youngest professional ice skater” at age two), he couldn’t carry a tune to save his life.
The aforementioned tracks consist largely of Ward reciting text over a bed of music. For the b-side of “Boy Wonder,” however, the actor tackled the Nat King Cole classic, “Orange-Colored Sky,” ripping into the standard with the reckless abandon and squeaked equilibrium of a relapsed alcoholic. Zappa and his team followed suit with an equally off-key arrangement. While the argument can perhaps be made that Ward wasn’t quite in on the joke for “The Teenage Bill of Rights” and “Boy Wonder, I Love You,” it’s hard not to imagine him soldiering his was through “Orange-Colored Sky” without a wink and a nudge.
The bulk of the idiosyncratic duo’s collaborations don’t feature Ward on vocals. Perhaps they were intended to pad out the never-released LP, or maybe Zappa was just using the getting the most out of the free studio space. Whatever the case may be, it’s a damned shame that Ward wasn’t able to more fully pursue his musical ambition. Given the proper nurturing, perhaps he could have followed in the footsteps of fellow Zappa collaborator, Captain Beefheart, rather than taking roles in films like the 1991 raunchy sex comedy American Virgin (which, incidentally, also marked the debut of Judd Apatow wife and collaborator, Leslie Mann).
But Ward, who turned down the role in “The Graduate” later given to Dustin Hoffman, knows as well as anyone that life is full of regrets.
Brian Heater is the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Cross Hatch.