The Avengers’ Age of Analog: The Power Records Story
In the 1970s, heroes came alive through vinyl adventures that would later be sampled by hip-hop greats
Today’s younger generation will never know a time period in which Captain America, Hulk and Spider-Man weren't big screen icons with accompanying cartoons, action figures, and video games. However in the early 1970s, these and other classic comic book characters came to life outside of their pop art medium only through a series of analog vinyl releases. Unleashed by Power Records, the vibrant cover artwork promised “The action comes alive as you read!!” These 7" and 12" records would sometimes be accompanied by a comic book, while other times kids would simply have to use their imaginations. The line would later become rich sample sources for everyone from Cut Chemist to Eminem to the Geto Boys.
The story begins in the late 1920s, when Daniel Kasen founded the Synthetic Plastics Company, which initially supplied the garment industry. Over time, SPC expanded into poker chips, dice and other molded products. According to the official history on their website: “Following World War II, Kasen discovered that his presses could be adapted to make phonograph records. With this as inspiration, he and his brother, Louis Kasen, founded Peter Pan Records, which eventually became the largest manufacturer of children’s records in the U.S.”
Billboard magazine reported that Peter Pan Records released their first “seven-inch vinylite” on 25 March 1948 for 25 cents plus tax. These ten-inch, 78 RPM singles were a mixture of children’s songs and narrated “musical stories,” and were heralded as “Non-Breakable (With Normal Use)” on the label. By the early 70s, Peter Pan had introduced their “Book and Record” series and began licensing popular characters such as Bugs Bunny, The Flintstones and G.I. Joe. Sometimes these recordings would even feature the original voice cast from the television shows, as everyone from Mel Blanc to Casey Kasem has a Peter Pan Records credit to their name.
As Daniel’s son Donald Kasen told collector Barry Sandoval for the February 6 edition of the Heritage Auctions newsletter: “We were actually the first company to do books and recordings of licensed characters. We started out with King Features: Popeye, Betty Boop, and then we went on to some of the classic characters, the Peter Pans if you will — Snow White, Cinderella, the Gingerbread Man, etc. Then we started licensing other children’s characters: Scooby Doo, Flintstones, etc. Because I guess superheroes were hot, we got into some of them, and we just kept going. Spider-Man was the most popular, because we did more than one book.”
Power Records was an offshoot of Peter Pan Records that focused on the more adventurous properties, such monsters, superheroes, and Star Trek.
“I had several of them,” recollects rapper Esoteric, who joins Wu-Tang’s Inspectah Deck and DJ 7L to form Czarface, a group that drew inspiration from these comic books and records. “From Captain America vs. Red Skull, to Batman, to the Fantastic Four, on to the Star Trek ones. They've all made subtle appearances throughout my music career, whether it be the dialogue, cutting at live shows, sound effects, or even the art. They've followed me my whole life — that label is stained on my brain.”
Rob Kelly, who describes himself as a “writer, illustrator and comics historian,” has run a stack of different comic-related blogs since 2007, including one dedicated to the Power Records comic and record sets. “I had them as a kid — the superhero ones, the Star Trek, pretty much all of them,” recalls Rob. “I never really forget about them — they sort of fell out of favor. I’ve been reading comics since before I can remember, and my parents just bought them because they were like the comic books. My parents had a room where the record player was and I remember just laying in there and playing those records over and over. The Captain America one I remember very distinctly.
“Years later it dawned on me that there wasn’t a lot of fan stuff around them on the internet. The fact that you can’t get them anywhere other than on vinyl, I was like, ‘Let me start this blog and see if there are other people out there who like ‘em like I do.’ It’s a tiny little niche thing, but people remember them very fondly. I’m constantly getting emails saying, ‘Thank-you for this blog. I had them and now I’m playing them for my son.’ I feel like I’m doing a public service.”
Initially adapting existing comic book stories, Power Records soon started to produce original comic books to accompany the recorded performances, and utilized the talents of legendary comic artist Neal Adams’ new independent studio which he’d formed with Dick Giodarno — Continuity Associates. “It seems as though for Marvel they adapted the stories that were already done in the comics and for D.C. they mostly created their own. Pretty much all the Superman’s and the Batman’s were original. Either Power Records made them themselves or they hired Neal Adams and his Continuity Associates studio to do a lot of the stuff,” enthuses Rob. “So those DC ones look pretty much exactly like DC comics of the time, because they were done by the same sorta personnel.”
“It happened from — I think — Conan,” continued Donald. “I actually went to Neal’s studio and met Neal, and used to fight with him in a nice way. Banter is probably a better word than fight. We bantered back and forth, and he was quite a character. I was a kid, and I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know who Neal Adams was, he was just another artist! It was kind of funny. I loved his work… who didn’t? The guy’s a really talented artist.”
“At that time I didn’t take note of who drew them,” notes Esoteric. “I just appreciated the characters and how the colors popped — I was just a kid. The covers were just as impactful as the sounds in most cases, and [are] locked away in a happy place in my brain. In retrospect, the art Adams contributed is a real cool corner of his legendary career.”
Many future hip-hop recording artists were also fans of the Power Records discography, whether they’d enjoyed them when they were kids or just stumbled upon them on crate digging missions. Prince Paul was the first producer to include some of the Power Records magic over a beat when he utilized the 1974 release The Amazing Spider-Man: Bells of Doom!► for Stetsasonic’s 1988 album cut “Musically For The Stetfully Insane”► — an early peek into the mind of an eccentric musical genius who would later give us De La Soul, The Gravediggaz and Handsome Boy Modelling School. It was also sampled for MF Doom’s “Bells of Doom,” naturally.►
Prince Paul also adapted the ‘Read-Along-Storybook’ format for the De La Soul Is Dead album, which featured a comic strip that prompted you to turn the page when you heard an audio cue on the record. In 1994, Marvel enlisted KRS-One to record three songs as Big Joe Krash for their Break The Chain comic, which shipped with a cassette soundtracking the pictures (perhaps due to its sticker price of $6.99, sales weren't strong enough to warrant a second issue).
The most memorable use of a Power Records sample on a rap record is surely on “Watch Out Now”► by The Beatnuts, who grabbed a snippet from Wonder Woman: The Secret of the Magic Tiara► to create an irresistibly catchy hook. “I was never a fan of the comics and all that shit,” says Psycho Les when asked about the connection. “I sit at home and I just listen to records from beginning to end and find little words that could be hooks. That’s what I do. My beats always got little [snippets of] talkin’ on them.” The Geto Boys also made great use of a Power Records sample when they grabbed a snippet of Batman: Stacked Cards► for 1989's “Mind of A Lunatic.”► “These people are about my age,” comments Rob. “So these guys obviously grew up with them too and they remember them pretty fondly! A Conan sample in the middle of an Eminem record? That’s the craziest thing I ever heard!”
Eminem has in fact made it a habit sampling from the Power Records catalog, borrowing bits for his songs “Groundhog Day,”► Slaughterhouse’s “Get Up”► and most notably “Rap God.”► Each pull multiple samples from two primary sources, The Fantastic Four: The Way It Began and Captain America and the Falcon: And the Phoenix Shall Arise. One can surmise that these two particular releases influenced his childhood.
“Spider-Man: Invasion of the Dragon-Men is probably one of my favorites for two reasons,” offers Esoteric. “After hearing it on vinyl way back, my father had me read the book on a tape recorder when I was just learning to read. It’s my son’s favorite too. I’ve converted most of these Power releases to MP3 and we listen to them on road trips, they hold his attention pretty well and makes him ask questions and expand his imagination, and also keep me on my toes for inspiration. As many times as I’ve heard them, you never know when a certain piece of dialogue is going to tie-in to what you’re doing now musically.”
“I think their best one in terms of quality is the Conan record,” suggests Rob. “They did a Conan The Barbarian LP with four stories on it, and there’s one where Conan meets some creepy oogly monster, and to me it’s genuinely frightening. It’s much more intense than something you expect for a children’s record. The guy that plays Conan sounds exactly like I would picture Conan to sound like.”
When asked why the Power Records comic and record packs eventually fell out of favor, Rob offers the following: “There was a company called Mego Toys which had all the licenses that Power Records had, except they made action figures. Like Power Records, they did not pick up Star Wars. Both companies got into the licensing thing in the early 70s, had big hits with all of these sci-fi properties, both of them skipped on Star Wars and both of them went out of business around ‘81, ‘82. They have a very parallel existence.”
Donald Kasen stated that he’s “In the process of cataloging all my stuff: 25,000 recordings and the books with the recordings, going back to the 1930s, getting them and digitizing them. In today’s world it’s converting to CDs, MP3s, and mobile apps.” There are also the ever-present complications of Marvel and D.C. Comics licensing issues. “Part of the fun of Power Records was they had all the characters mixed in,” concludes Rob. “On the inside flaps of all the records they had the Planet of the Apes characters standing next to Superman, and that will never happen again! I’m shocked that nobody at D.C. or Marvel has dug them out and put them out on iTunes. It’s a license to print money.”
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