Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the least likely pop-culture phenomenon of all time. What began life in 1984 as an intentionally stupid comic book about four kung fu-kicking, pizza-loving anthropomorphic turtles named after Italian renaissance painters snowballed into a multi-media powerhouse that has spawned multiple cartoon series, several movies, various games, a breakfast cereal, a rollercoaster and the sort of let’s-slap-the-logo-on-anything branding that Gene Simmons can only fantasise about. Yet there’s one area where the wheels came off the TMNT juggernaut in spectacular fashion: music.
In 1990, the franchise was on a high after the very first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie proved to be a massive hit, bringing in a whopping $200 million. The powers-that-be decided that triumphing on the big screen wasn’t enough: the next step for Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael would be to conquer rock’n’roll.
It made sense. The charts were ruled by hard rock and pop-rap royalty. Why not fuse the two, and get the Turtles to record an album that tapped into both those trends and head out on a no-expense spared tour at the same time? After all, rappers Partners In Cryme had bagged a hit single with Turtle Power!, from the soundtrack to the movie.
On paper, it looked like the perfect plan. Fast-food giants Pizza Hut certainly thought so: they bankrolled the whole endeavour to the tune of a reported $9 million, allegedly buying up three million copies of the album before it was even finished and chucking in another $20 million for a massive marketing splurge.
The resulting album, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Coming Out Of Our Shells, was just as bad as you’d imagine a set of songs designed to target that that hitherto unexplored Vanilla Ice/Poison/pre-teen pizza enthusiast crossover demographic would be.
Mellow acoustic opener Coming Out Of Our Shells set up the Turtles’ backstory over a softly-strummed backing track that sounded like the green, scaly cousin of Extreme’s More Than Words, and it was all downhill from there. Sing About It was cookie-cutter radio-friendly soft rock, Walk Straight and Cowabunga sounded like a Faith No More song written by someone largely unfamiliar with the concept of Faith No More, Skipping Stones was a cringeworthy synth ballad, and Pizza Power was a hymn to junk food with a central message – “eat it any time of day!” – that would make today’s obesity campaigners explode with rage.
Yet the awfulness of the album paled into comparison next to the the accompanying live show. On August 17, 1990, these newly minted musicians – or ‘actors in turtle suits’ as they’re officially known - kicked off the Coming Out Of Their Shells tour and the world got to see just how wrong the whole thing was.
The curtain was raised on the TMNT live extravaganza at New York City’s iconic Radio City Music Hall, recorded for a live pay-per-view extravaganza. It was a cringe-soliciting rock opera that pitted the Turtles against perennial antagonist The Shredder, who spent sections of the show rapping about how much he hated music.
Posterity shows that the storyline was the least of its problems. Even by kids’ concerts’ standards, it was a mess, full of awkward skits, cheap-looking outfits and choreography significantly limited by giant rubber suits (the original plan was to use more pliable costumes, until two cast members passed out in them during rehearsals).
When the actors ‘sang’, their moving mouths refused to close – an effect only marginally less startling than the tiny, black pupils that stared unfeelingly out of each puppet head. During one staggeringly inappropriate moment, The Shredder sneeringly addressed one infant member of the audience. “Is that your mum?” he leered. “How would she like to come back to my Technodrome?” Truly the stuff of which pre-teen nightmares are made.
Despite the high profile fanfare, both the Radio City show and the subsequent mini-tour – which included five dates at the San Diego Sports Arena – were far from sold out. Even in that pre-internet age, word of how bad the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles live experience was spread fast. When they returned for a second round of dates with the following year’s Gettin’ Down In Your Town trek, it was in noticeably smaller circumstances.
Even the people behind the behemoth realised that they were onto a loser with this one, and quietly squashed the Turtles’ rock’n’roll dreams under their boot heels. But the cringe-inducing embarrassment couldn’t stop their onward march – the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been fixed in the popular psyche for the last three decades, beloved by teenagers of all ages. Even Faith No More frontman Mike Patton paid his own tribute recently, lending his vocals to a new video game.
Might the blessing of one of rock’s coolest singers prompt the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to resurrect their musical ambitions? As anyone who has ever heard Pizza Power or watched Coming Out Of Their Shells could vouch, let’s hope not.