There comes a time in everyone’s life where they find themselves looking back on what might have been. Things they should or shouldn’t have done, things they should or shouldn’t have said. Opportunities that passed us by, and sadly, never returned.
Of course, when I say this, the first thing that comes to mind is the Coming Out of Their Shells tour, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles live-action concert experience that traveled throughout North America in 1990 and 1991. For the uninformed, here’s a quick summary: In the midst of putting the world’s pop culture landscape in a chokehold, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles formed a band, wrote some original material, secured a Pizza Hut sponsorship and took their show on the road.
If you weren’t around at the time, it’s difficult to properly convey how massively popular the Ninja Turtles were in 1990, but we’re talking comic books, Saturday morning cartoons, fruit snacks, action figures, breakfast cereal, video games and a live-action movie that took a $13.5 million budget and made over $200 million at the box office. With that kind of momentum, it only made sense that a live action concert tour would immediately follow (just kidding, it doesn’t make sense at all. They weren’t a band and they didn’t sing songs; a live-action concert made no sense whatsoever), and while I enjoyed all of those previously mentioned products as a child, I sadly missed their show when it came to my town.
Fortunately, thanks to YouTube, I can right this wrong just 31 years later, as a kind person decided to take the time out of their day and upload the Ninja Turtles’ performance at Radio City Music Hall (the show was broadcast on Pay-Per-View and sold on VHS as well; he didn’t sneak in with a camcorder and record it himself). I’m finally going to see what I’ve been missing all these years, and in the event that you missed the show as well, I’ll be documenting my experience as I go along. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s turtle time.
The crew jumps straight into “Coming Out of Our Shells,” and I’m a little surprised by how heavy they are in their country-rock vibe. To be fair, I’m not really sure what kind of musical influences I expected from four giant turtles. Hadn’t come up in a while, I suppose
Michelangelo’s on lead vocals and electric guitar (of course he is, he’s the coolest), and as for the rest of the group, you’ve got Leonardo on bass, Raphael in the back playing percussion, and Donatello playing a keyboard, only he’s wearing it with a strap hanging around his neck. What a nerd. It’s 1990, man, how do you not have a keytar? Keytars were incredibly cool back then, and by “incredibly cool back then” I mean “are incredibly cool and always will be.” I just googled “how much is a keytar” and was shocked to see that Yamaha currently sells one for $199, so keep an eye out for the essay trilogy “I Finally Bought a Keytar!” “Man, Why Did I Buy a Keytar?” and “Does Anybody Want to Buy a Keytar?” coming soon to this very Medium page.
As far as band fashion goes, they’ve stepped it up a little from their standard attire. They’re wearing their traditional masks, arm pads and knee pads, but they’re also wearing bedazzled denim vests and arm bands with their first initials on them. Finally, they’ve got color coordinated sweaters tied around their waists, and legwarmers to make the outfit complete. The sweaters are an odd fashion choice, but since the guys don’t wear pants and their costumes don’t seem to have shells, the audience would have inevitably been forced to see whatever it is the turtles have going on back there, and I’m not really sure what a better solution would’ve been. All I can imagine is hour six of a tense production meeting, four stressed-out executives arguing over Ninja Turtle butt cheeks until someone finally yells to just put a sweater around their waists so they can all go home.
Raphael takes over Michaelangelo’s lead vocals at the start of the second verse, which I love because 1) It demonstrates their flexibility as a band, and 2) Those two were definitely the third and fourth in command when it came to crime-fighting, so it’s good to see they’re at the forefront of this particular venture. If Leonardo is the lead Turtle and the lead singer, there’s no way this band stays together. Everybody’s got to have their own outlets, I respect it.
“Once we got started, you knew that we scored,
learning the music and finding the chords.
We just kept practicing, we stayed underground,
’cause singing in the sewer is a wonderful sound”
I don’t know fellas, I feel like I need to question the validity of your statement there. Not only would the acoustics in a sewer be a nightmare, it’s also, you know, a sewer. I mean, there’s got to be a reason nobody’s recording albums in a sewer. Actually, no “there’s got to be” about it, there are several reasons nobody’s recording albums in a sewer, and the first thing on that incredibly long list is because it’s a sewer.
Leonardo closes out “Coming Out of Our Shells” by doing the James Brown “toss the mic stand to your foot and kick it back up to yourself” move, which I didn’t know he, or any Ninja Turtle, had in the arsenal. Color me impressed, a very high-risk, high-reward move from the least prominent Turtle in this show.
Maybe he’s overcompensating for some opening night jitters, but I feel like Michaelangelo needs to tone down the frontman theatrics a bit. He’s screaming “We love you! Thank you!” over and over to a largely silent crowd, and after just one song, his bandmates are clearly displeased. “Dude chill out, I’m totally cool,” He says, “No need to be buggin — that is, unless of course, you’re hungry! Oww!”
I’m not really sure, but I feel maybe he thought that rhymed? You know, I’d never thought about it either way prior to this very moment, but I think Michaelangelo might have a coke problem. Is calling someone a “party dude” late ‘80s/early ’90s slang for “guy who really enjoys cocaine?” The clues might’ve been in the old theme song the whole time.
Once we get some introductory banter out of the way, Michaelangelo goes back to screaming “We love you! Thank you!” Seriously you guys, I’m worried about him.
After a little music and synchronized choreography, we cut to a pre-recorded clip where Master Splinter (he’s their leader, he’s also a rat) is giving the guys a pep talk. He says that music can accomplish more than all the weapons of the world, which 1) Is probably false, and 2) Seems like an angle he probably should’ve started pushing a long time ago. Why’d he spend so much time teaching them martial arts when music was the move all along? Also, the turtles have shells in this clip, and they don’t have vests or sweaters, which means they probably recorded it before the great Ninja Turtle buttcheek debate, as it came to be known, was hashed out for good.
“What do you think the first song we wrote was?”
“That’s right, it’s about the one thing that really gets us going.”
“It gives us our strength, it’s what we devour,
when we eat it, what do we get?
(“Heartburn!” some Dad in the audience surely says while chuckling to nobody in particular.)
“Pizza Power” is an uptempo jam, kind of like some Huey Lewis-ish 80s rock with a little bit of Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” (or the music from Will Smith’s “Wild Wild West,” if that’s more helpful), and it’s definitely going to have the little kids in the crowd breaking out their finest little kid dance, which essentially consists of jumping up and spinning as much as they can before landing, then repeating it over and over again. Add punching and kicking the air to taste.
The guys ditch the handheld mics and use the Janet Jackson/McDonald’s employee headsets for “Pizza Power,” and for good reason — this thing makes you want to dance. Not only are they breaking it down, it looks like they’re having some sort of contest to fit as many different dances as they possibly can in a two minute window. We’re talking the Roger Rabbit, the Charleston maybe twice, a thing that looks like flossing exactly once, you name it.
Okay, I can’t lie: This song is kind of a banger. Granted the man could do no wrong at the time, but if 2015 Bruno Mars drops “Pizza Power,” it’s going double platinum easy. Easy. In the days since my first viewing, I’ve not only gone to sleep singing this song on multiple occasions, but I have woken up singing it as well. And you know what? I’m not ashamed of that, because a jam is a jam. Art can be found anywhere, my friends — If you’re going to disrespect a song just because a Ninja Turtle happens to be singing it, that’s your problem, not mine.
As “Pizza Power” winds down, the Turtles begin throwing foam pizzas into the crowd. Donatello tries kicking one and misses, tries kicking it again, misses yet again, then just ends up stepping on it. Once again, just a colossal nerd.
The trap door under the stage opens, and Splinter rises up. The Turtles fade into the background, and he goes into a monologue about ripples in water, and how your actions cause ripples, so your actions should be good. He ends his speech accordingly (and this is a direct quote): “It is the smallest things that make the biggest difference, Ooooh….yeah,” and his weird vocal cue kicks off some music best described as the generic version of ‘Jeannie’s Got a Gun.’” Like they wanted to use the Aerosmith song but couldn’t afford the rights, so they went out and bought “Jenny Has a Knife” instead.
Wow. This song is as unexpected as it is unpleasant, and I’d sorry to say much of the good faith built up during “Pizza Power” has been thrown right out the window. Not all of the good faith, because “Pizza Power” goes hard as heck, but whew, this song is not great. If you’ve chosen not to listen (and I am begging you, please listen), here’s the best way to describe Splinter’s singing: He kind of sounds like if Bret Michaels and Neil Diamond had a kid, and that kid wasn’t an especially good singer but enjoyed singing anyway, and we saw him at an open mic night somewhere and I told you who his parents were, and you were like “Yeah, I guess I can see that.”
Splinter’s song “Skipping Stones” has lyrics best described as “high school English class” (“Standing at water that looks like glass, a world of blue is what I see. It’s smooth and flat inside my hands, and I wish I could ride as I set it free. I’m standing, skipping stones…”), and it’s accompanied by a grainy music video featuring depressing black and white “busy city” stock footage. Cars go by, there’s people sitting on crates looking depressed, and at one point, it zooms in on a police officer’s gun. Who is this for exactly, children? Adults? There’s no way either age group wants anything to do with this. Honestly, this song may be for literally nobody, especially when you remember that a (I’m guesstimating here) 5’10” rat is singing it. None of this is right — my eyes and brain can’t come to any sort of agreement regarding what’s happening on this stage right now, and I feel like my nose is going to start bleeding or something.
Well great: Shredder (their mortal enemy) is here.
“Finally, I’ve tracked the turtles to New York, New York,” he says. I don’t know where his search began, but the turtles live in New York, so great job “finally” tracking them down, gumshoe. It’s like saying, “Finally I’ve tracked the Chicago Cubs to Wrigley Field!” Like, where did you start looking?
Apparently Shredder has frozen everybody in time somehow, and he’s talking to the crowd about how much he hates music. Considering he hates music and Ninja Turtles, dude must’ve been livid when he found out that four Ninja Turtles started a band. Tough break for that guy. Anyway, he says he hates music because it always talks about being good and doing what’s right (which feels like a bit of a generalization), and he brought a weapon from another dimension that’s going to suck every music note from the Earth (after Splinter’s song, I’m totally on board with this), then enslave the entire planet (I am no longer on board with this).
After Shredder ducks out and the unfrozen Turtles find out what happened, they bless the crowd with some words of wisdom: “When the bad guys like Shredder step to you and want you to walk to their way of thinking, you’ve got to keep your head clear and cool.” “Walk to their way of thinking?” What kind of bad guys are these, exactly? People generally talk about bullying in terms of “taking your lunch money” or “stuffing you in a locker,” but this oddly specific phrasing makes it seem like the turtles are more concerned with brainwashing, or keeping kids out of cults. Communism maybe? I’m really not sure. Either way, the Turtles completely disregard the concept of parents, teachers or anyone in a supportive role at all and hand out the following advice when it comes to dealing with bullies:
“Go straight at em! Be cool, be yourself, and that’s as straight up as it gets — word.”
Considering he just ended that sentence with “word,” which none of them had said prior to this moment, I feel like we’re about to get their first rap-ish endeavor of the show. Yup, one of them just yelled “Yo!” and now I’m pretty sure of it.
“Now word up, I got a story to tell,” Raphael says, and we’re on to “Walk Straight,” which has extremely strong “Looking for a New Love”/“What have you Done for me Lately” vibes. The song is about following your own path, and the chorus goes, “Walk straight, no need to mutate. Mutate, No need to if you’re walking straight.” Pretty basic message, no harm done there, but at 22:44, it’s time for an especially jarring breakdown. The rest of the turtles answer Raphael’s lines, and we absolutely need to discuss what happens here:
“You got to Walk!”
(*Record scratch* I’m sorry what?!)
I’d say I’m not exactly sure what to make of that “be straight” line (did they mean honest? Like, “I’m gonna be straight with you, I accidentally scratched your car door?”), but they turned away from the audience and jumped forward while rubbing their backsides when he said it, so here we are. Also, since they pointed to their ears (well, where their ears would be if turtles had external ears) and heads for the ensuing “hear straight” and “think straight” parts, that window of “maybe it means something other than what you thought it meant” hope has all but closed on the “be straight” section. I legitimately can’t believe what just happened. Is this that “way of thinking” they were warning us about a minute ago? Somebody please explain what’s going on here, because it feels like four turtles preaching heteronormativity in exactly one line of their pizza-branded 1990 children’s rock concert.
We’re going to fast forward a bit, because this is a very long concert, but if you explicitly wanted to hear Ninja Turtles rapping, their song “Cowabunga” begins at 31:00, and features Michaelangelo (aka M.C. Angelo) rapping the following lines:
“Born like a pet, just like the rest of them,
I grew up wild, party with the best of them.”
“Living loose, living large,
with my humor now I’m in charge”
Which are both incredibly telling when it comes to the state of this band. First of all, who are the “best of them” that he was partying with? Was he partying with different people than the other turtles, like he was in Studio 54 while they were hanging out in a sewer? This would really help explain that coke problem I’ve been hearing so much about. Second, he said he’s now in charge, and I certainly hope he’s referring to the band and the band alone, as their cartoon’s theme song specifically states “Leonardo leads, Donatello does machines.” Either way, if you were allowed to wager on this sort of thing, I’d put a few bucks on these guys getting in a fistfight backstage. I’m telling you, he’s tearing this band apart.
Shredder pops back up and says when they play their next song, his music sucking device will kick in. Apparently they didn’t hear what Shredder said, but it doesn’t matter either way, because, wouldn’t you know it, Michaelangelo needs even more attention. “Hey guys, I think I’m getting that feeling,” He says, “I just can’t help myself!” He makes his way to the front of the stage, the others angrily walk to the side, and I finally realize why this all feels so familiar: Michaelangelo is the Bobby Brown of the Ninja Turtles. With the spotlight to himself, he sings a little “That’s Amore” before breaking into an Elvis impression (you know, all the stuff kids used to eat up back in the ‘90s.) Finally, he closes with a Bart Simpson impression I only recognized because he said “Don’t have a cow, man.” Seriously. Guys, if you care about Michaelangelo, you’ll get him some help. There’s no way he’s making it through a 40-city tour in this condition.
True to his word, Shredder’s machine kicks in and starts crushing their life force (I don’t know, I’m not a scientist), so the Turtles run for cover underneath the stage. He thinks that he’s won, so Shredder’s now talking about sucking the music from the Earth and taking total control. Unfortunately, there’s one obstacle he never anticipated — this kid in the crowd:
The Turtles may be out of commission, but my man’s ready to give Shredder that work, somebody just say the word.
Well great, even with That Kid on standby, Shredder has officially taken the crowd hostage. “In case you’re thinking about leaving, I’ve locked all the doors,” he says. “Now, get out!” He’s sending some real mixed messages here. What are they supposed to be doing exactly, leaving the auditorium? You just said you locked the doors — this is on you, buddy.
Meanwhile, back on the stage, Shredder is passing time by heckling the crowd. “I think I’ve seen your face on a milk carton recently,” he says, to a child who was previously having a good time and minding his business. What exactly is that supposed to mean? The kid ran away from home? He was kidnapped but was then returned? He was kidnapped and still missing, and his kidnappers took him to a Ninja Turtles concert? Either way, it’s a pretty heavy joke to toss at a six-year-old, since there’s no whimsical reason a child would be on a milk carton (unless said child is a cow). Shredder follows up by asking if the woman next to him is his mom, and then saying to her, “How would you like a one way ticket to my technodrome (his gigantic mobile fortress)?” I think that means he’s hitting on her, but also threatening to enslave her, or the very least, make her find her own way back home once they’re done with their evening. Either way, it’s a very disrespectful thing to say to someone’s mother.
Clearly feeling himself at this point, Shredder discovers that a boy named Peter is watching the show with his female cousin. “What’s the matter,” he says, “couldn’t get a date?” The crowd clearly didn’t like that one, but Shredder does not care. He yells back “I feel the same way about you! You think I like this?!” And I’m really not sure if that last part was the character or the actor talking. I don’t know, felt a little too real.
Once he’s insulted enough children for the time being, Shredder changes the subject and yells “I hate music,” but apparently he loves irony, because as soon as he says that, he bursts into a song about just how much he hates it. It’s…not great.
The Turtles just popped up on the video screen, and now they’re wearing new outfits. Michelangelo has a glittery star over his right eye, and Leonardo has what looks like the star trek symbol on his left eye. The other two have nothing quite so odd, but they’re all missing their vests. They talk a little trash to Shredder, then cut the feed.
Shredder tells his assistant Baxter, “It’s the turtles, they’re alive! And they have that video camera” and well, yeah of course they’re alive. Did you think you murdered them? He says “I’m going backstage to look for them myself,” and we’re left to hear a Benatar-esque ballad from abandoned hostage/friend of the turtles April O’Neil. Everybody in this thing bursts out into song all the time, with no provocation whatsoever. I feel like this is what going to a performing arts school must have been like.
Hey, the Turtles are coming back up out of the stage! And they’re wearing their old costumes again. What happened to the ones they were just wearing? Did they have different gear for pre-taped vignettes, and they assumed that, at some point, they were going to have a KISS-esque number prior to intermission? Oh, also Splinter’s back. Great. Oh, never mind, they’ve gone back under the stage again. They popped up like whack-a-moles, were like “Yeah, we don’t know how to stop that machine from taking our powers,” and went right back under. And April’s singing again. It’s fine.
Okay, the Turtles have finally returned, just twenty-six minutes (!) after they were last on stage. They notice Shredder’s machine is losing power, but they’re like, “We’ll be back. Be brave, little ninjas!” and they disappear yet again. How is this happening? I can only presume that during another one of their production meetings, there was a conversation like:
“Let’s make sure this Ninja Turtle concert doesn’t feature too much Ninja Turtle music.”
“Good idea, let’s get rid of them for a huge chunk of time.”
“What should we do while they’re gone?”
“I don’t know, make fun of the children in the audience?”
“Absolutely. And their mothers.”
It’s a bold move to have the band everyone came to see leave the stage for this long, and by “bold,” I mean terrible. Who abandons their fans for what’s been, at this point, almost 50% of their concert? This would be like if when you went to a Coldplay show, Chris Martin disappeared after three or four songs, and Jack Penbrooke and Thomas Walters took over without him, one singing a ballad about believing in yourself, the other walking around the stage and being mean to random people in the crowd. By the way, I just made those names up — I don’t know the other guys in Coldplay and I guessed you didn’t either. Was I right?
When the Turtles finally return to the stage, they’re wearing light-up “cloaking devices” that make them invisible to Shredder and his machine. Splinter deduces that the way to beat the music-sucking machine is to play more music (?), so the gang rattles off a few more tunes, and ultimately Shredder returns for the big showdown.
You know what defeats the evil Shredder for good? Nope, not the power of music, not believing in themselves, just plain old violence — they take turns punching and kicking him until he hops in his escape pod (they’ve re-routed it so it takes him to another dimension — look, it really doesn’t matter). After all that “music can do more than any weapon” talk, they ultimately made a special exception for this guy, put down their instruments and just wailed on him until he left. The gang closes out the show with “Count on Us,” a Mellencamp-ish tune about fighting for freedom, and our heroes are lowered under the stage as the show reaches its end. None of those prearranged encores for these guys, they’re old school and I appreciate that.
As the credits roll and the tour dates grace the screen, I notice that this show left my hometown the day before my ninth birthday. My initial reaction was disappointment (that’s an all-time great ‘90s birthday party, right?), but having scanned the crowd, it looks like the audience skewed much younger, and now, after dedicating 90 minutes of my life to watching this video, it finally hits me: Wait a second, did I not go to this show because I didn’t want to go to this show? I feel like that’s a definite possibility, which forces me to ask the follow-up question: Was this all a serious waste of time?
In hindsight, I think there’s about an 80% chance that I never wanted to go to this show in the first place. That said, I’m not going to classify it as a waste of time (Remember: We’re not talking “good use of time” here, we’re talking “not a waste,” that’s an extremely important clarification). Since I’m desperately trying to justify my actions, I looked up the definition of time, and it said, “the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present and future regarded as a whole.” Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, if that’s the case, if it’s all but a series of events leading to other events, don’t you have to consider almost nothing at all to be a waste of one’s time? Is admiring a sunset a waste of time? What about a friendly wave to a neighbor, is that a waste as well? I think not.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that my life would have been equally as productive, if not more productive, had I chosen not to watch a 31-year-old Ninja Turtle concert. I went to see The Nutcracker every Christmas for the better part of the past decade — is Tchaikovsky a waste as well? If you think about it, the two shows aren’t really all that different: Both feature brilliant musical performances, both combine synchronized dancing and fighting, and in both cases, a tall anthropomorphic rodent shows up and ruins everything. As I said before, art can be found anywhere.
If time, and in turn, our lives, are just a progression of events, I have no choice but to say I’ve actually enriched my life by watching this special. Not by a tremendous amount, but by an amount nonetheless. I’ll never have to wonder what happened in this show again (that wasn’t really keeping me up at night, to be fair), I’ve acquired knowledge I lacked the day before, and “Pizza Power” legit slaps, and that’s only the second time I’ve said something “slaps” in my entire life.
If we’re looking at the big picture here, I’d say there’s value in even the most ridiculous of experiences, and we should embrace them accordingly. On the other hand, if we’re looking at the small picture, the exact opposite of the big picture in every way, sometimes you just want to sit back and watch a Ninja Turtle do the running man. If that’s the lesson here, that’s okay too.