Take me to your leader

Dec 13, 2000 at 12:00 am

What’s up with Rhino Records and its wonderfully bent box sets? Must be something in the Southern California water supply. For years the label has distilled pop culture’s murkiest (and often delightfully shallow) musical trends into cardboard-covered time capsules. And now it has created its most elaborate offering yet — Brain in a Box: The Science Fiction Collection — the strangest assortment of space-age musical minutiae ever assembled.

The collection is divided into five loosely categorized discs — including “Movie Themes,” “Incidental/Lounge” and “Novelty.” But in truth, this is all novelty fare. And that’s why it’s so fun. What self-respecting sci-fi fan could resist the Five Blobs’ (really Burt Bacharach and Hal David) obscure 1958 single “The Blob” or the Berlin Symphony Orchestra’s creepy score to ’60s TV classic “One Step Beyond”? And then there’s the box itself — a 6 inch-by-6 inch metal crate that really looks like it’s saving Hitler’s brain.

The best thing about Rhino collections is they pay A-list homage to fringe movements that never really existed — or at least never mattered much. For example, Rhino’s exhaustive Hot Rods & Custom Classics gave obscure muffler-rock gems such as Duane Eddy’s “Forty Miles of Bad Road” the same culturally reverent treatment you’ll find in any Beatles anthology (or even a Rod Stewart retrospective). Brain in a Box is no different — resuscitating previously submerged “classics” such as the Rubinoo’s 1970 surf-rock “Star Trek” theme and the Ran-Dell’s goofy “Martian Hop.”

Of course, as every resale shop sci-fi collector knows, this sort of prepackaged pop cultural nirvana comes at a price — in this case, about a hundred bucks. But when you buy a Rhino box set, you’re not just purchasing the tunes … you’re buying an experience. With Brain in a Box, it’s a rocket-ship ride to a weird America that only exists in our collectively geeky imagination — where every toy store sells wind-up robots and every TV set plays “The Outer Limits” in endless black-and-white.

And for some of us space cases, that’s a bargain that’s out of this world.

E-mail Adam Druckman at [email protected].