SoundTreks | Transformers: The Movie
So the Transformers are still a thing.
As someone who grew up playing with Transformers toys (I was the proud owner of Omega Supreme, the largest of all the Transformers toys), and who would merrily watch the afternoon cartoon show with an undying fervor – I even attended Transformers: The Movie in 1986 – I have to declare that I am utterly baffled by the franchise’s undying legacy. The characters have never been interesting, the premise is dumb, and even the general aesthetic of any of the subsequent TV shows (including the CGI ones) hasn’t been very creative or appealing. The only way Transformers still excels is the gimmickry of the toys themselves. They are robot toys that, through careful manipulation, can be folded into cars, planes, etc. That’s a cool toy. But as a show – or in this case, a movie – it all kinda sucks.
So why do so many older kids (i.e. teens and adults) still have affection for it? Are they blinded by nostalgia? Is there some deep, mythological underpinning to the Transformers that I am simply missing? Is there a general metaphor that I have, as yet, been unable to interpret? As far as I can tell, it’s a shabby TV show from the 1980s that has, through dint of gimmickry and marketing, somehow become a cultural juggernaut both at the box office and in the hearts of its fans.
2016 marks the 30th anniversary of Transformers: The Movie, the theatrically-released animated feature film based on the show, as well as its well-consumed soundtrack record. SoundTreks is going to take this opportunity to listen to that record, and see if A) it can unlock any secrets to the Transformers’ popularity, and B) it’s any good.
Let’s roll out, kiddies, and delve into the world’s most baffling combination of space robots and hair metal.
Track 1. “The Touch” – Stan Bush
Stan Bush is a hard rock musician who began recording in 1979 (as part of the band Boulder), and released a new record as recently as 2014. The bulk of his fame comes from his contributions to movie soundtracks. Not only are two of his songs featured in Transformers: The Movie, but also Kickboxer, Bloodsport, and the TV series Sailor Moon. I cannot speak to Bush’s more recent output, but his recordings from 1986 are… well, very, very 1980s.
Rock ‘n’ roll trends in the 1980s tended to skew demonstrative. Guitar riffs were long and loud, studio production was more complex than it had ever been, vocals were more and more operatic, and lyrics became gigantic and “inspiring.” “The Touch” is an exemplar of these things. It’s a noisy, bombastic hair metal tune of melodramatic proportions. You’re a winner. Something about your will. You got the power. None of these things have any sort of meaning, but they’re certainly evocative.
The song, despite sounding completely dated – these trends in hair metal have not wrapped around to the current music scene the same way ’70s funk has – is still something of a blast. Many of the current pop is either understated, chewy angst ballads, or a little too chirpy for its own good (I’m looking at you, Meghan Trainor). In such an environment, it can be kind of refreshing to hear something so plainly, dumbly forthright as this. Plus, even if you don’t like the sound, this comes from an era of heightened musicianship; that guitar shred takes talent no matter how you slice it.
So enjoy this rips slice of ’80s cheese. It’s still got flavor. Just no personality. It serves the same function as 707’s theme to MegaForce, or any other such comparable songs.
Track 2. “Instruments of Destruction” – N.R.G.
N.R.G. never took off. It’s hard to say why. They seem to be just as good as many of the other hard rock bands of the era. Maybe they were too similar to the scads of Poisons and Scorpions around them. They formed in 1979 and lasted pretty much up to this song. After this, they kind of disappeared.
Ditto what was said above about dated ’80s demonstration. Still a fun listen for fans of ’80s cheese. I think the song could have been improved by an edgier vocal. The Axl Rose imitation isn’t doing the song any favors. Get a James Hetfield type in here. Add some real danger to this slick thing. Dirty it up. Of course, if it becomes too dirty, then it wouldn’t be allowed in a 90-minute cartoon film for 7-year-olds. Maybe it was a blow to N.R.G’s ego that they’re best know for this movie. They’re clearly trying to be dark and scary, but they’re still on a soundtrack for Transformers: The Movie.
This either speaks to the gentleness of the music, or the obliviousness of the music supervisors. I’m beginning to suspect the music supervisors didn’t really give much of a damn.
Track 4. “Dare” – Stan Bush
Maybe it’s my age, but this synth-heavy pop metal sound is the sound of inspiration to me. This is what you want to hear right before your Olympic meet or boxing match. The lyrics in all of these songs are vague, making them offputtingly universal. Stan Bush implores us that we can win if we dare. Win what? Dare to do what? Is this a song meant for sporting meets? For military battles? For relationship?
This vague lyric-writing speaks to the shallow morals of TV shows like Transformers, and the way many young men tend to think about conflicts. “Dare” and “win.” There are battles to be fought. Against darkness. No specifics. But battles. Young men, then, see that the world is vaguely divided into “good guys” and “bad guys” and they must “fight.” Clear morals can be solved with punching. So damn much of modern action entertainment can be boiled down to this little boy mentality.
Stan Bush just codified it in music.
Track 5. “Nothin’s Gonna Stand in Our Way” – Spectre General
“Spectre General” is actually the freshly-minted American name chosen for the Canadian metal band Kick Axe. Kick Axe formed in 1976, rode strong until about 1981, and then slowly dissolved in 1988. They reunited in 2003 with their fourth studio album. They had to change their name to “Spectre General” after some legal troubles with their original name. Neither, I have to say, is a very god band name.
Why did they never take off? Likely because their two biggest hits were both covers. This song is actually a cover of a John Farnham song that had already been featured on the soundtrack to the 1984 Linda Blair flick Savage Streets. Their other big hit was a cover of a Humble Pie song.
Tonight is right for fight. Because it’s midnight. Heart of a lion. Roar your soul into the sun of the sky. It’s surprising how many of these old hair metal songs are about personal achievement. Also how few of the bands actually achieved much in the way of major American fame.
Track 6. “The Transformers (Theme)” – Lion
A lot of the theme songs you know and love – especially the metal-informed songs from 1980s cartoons – were actually performed by established and uncredited bands. They weren’t all studio musicians. The theme to Transformers was performed by Lion, originally Lyon. It’s a catchy enough tune, and sings words like “Decepticons” with total earnestness.
The story of Lion is short and tragic. They were brought together in the early ’80s, having worked with giants like Yngwie Malmsteen. They debuted in 1984 on the soundtrack to Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. They recorded their Transformers theme, got a lot of money, and a record contract. They released two albums in 1987 and 1989. Then their drummer, Mark Edwards, died in a climbing accident. Lion was no more.
Track 8. “Hunger” – Spectre General
Like with N.R.G., I think Kick Axe/Specre General would benefit from a deeper, edgier vocal. The round, easy-on-the-ear poppy rock guitar (as heard on every damn track on this record) was par for the course in 1986, so I can’t fault their basic sound. But the high-pitched squeal – while an impressive feat unto itself; I certain can’t do it – doesn’t do the music any favors. Imagine, if you will, Rob Zombie belting something like this. Even with its bold, dumb major chords. But the tone of the song would change with a deep vocal. I guess this song adds nothing to the soundtrack other than volume.
Track 10. “Dare to Be Stupid” – “Weird Al” Yankovic
The single most baffling – and easily best-remembered – choice on this soundtrack was the inclusion of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Dare to Be Stupid” from his 1985 album of the same name. “Dare to Be Stupid” is, as the trained ear notices, a pastiche of Devo, espousing that band’s aural aesthetic as well as their Devil-may-care punk impishness. Don’t be a normal, Conspiracy-feeding pinkboy. Be weird. Be odd. Be stupid. Dare to be stupid. In a weird way, the song – an awesome monument of silliness – is encouraging rebellion and anarchy. It also uses a lot of language lifted from TV commercials, so there’s also a criticism of consumer culture, which was very in vogue in the mid ’80s. Maybe befriending mashed potatoes isn’t quite the call for uprising that Devo presented, but it’s something.
Wait a moment. Is “Dare to be Stupid” the most sophisticated song on this album? Is the silly, comedy track the best one? Well “Weird Al” Yankovic is considered a comedy icon, and has produced 14 studio albums, and is well-respected to this day as one of the most important musicians in the geek set. His track is more widely sung than any of the others listed here, and his name is better-known than Lion or N.R.G. or Kick Axe. “The Touch” is well-known. It seems “Dare to Be Stupid,” though, has it beat.
So we finish on what was likely intended to be the album’s throw-off comedy track, but are actually facing the best song the collection offers.
Which is Better: The Soundtrack or the Movie?
Well, the movie sucks. It really does. I revisited it as an adult, and it’s baffling, not very well animated, poorly plotted, badly-scripted, and completely unmemorable. It’s a commercial enterprise. Orson Welles’ presence (as the voice of an all-seeing robot deity) is more tragic than appealing. I have heard stories from peers about how witnessing the death of Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots, was a traumatic experience for them. Even as a child, I was unmoved by the death of the man-shaped truck. Maybe I just didn’t take the show as seriously as I ought to have.
So, by that measure alone, the record is better. How does the album stand up as a collection of rock songs? Better than one might expect, but not terribly well. The sounds are, sadly, largely dated, and I can’t imagine the youth of today enjoying it. Even at the time, the songs were only enjoyed for their association with Transformers. But as a time capsule as to what was going on in rock at the time, it stands as something of a fascinating monument.
The test of time toppled most of 1986 metal. The test of time somehow proved the tenacity of the Transformers brand, which continues. There will be a fifth live-action (?) feature film hitting theaters soon. The new movies are just as empty as the old ones, only longer and much, much noisier. The only real champion here is, as in all things, “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.