With the world of entertainment pretty much locked in a stand-still, many journalists have been forced to turn to the past. It’s why you’ve been seeing inside stories, secret origins and untold histories of everything from the Beatles’ break-up to Bend It Like Beckham to the 1990s Animaniacs cartoon to the highly specific first week of sales of N*Sync’s No Strings Attached album. But there’s one tale so secret, so untold and so inside that I’m the only person on earth who could write it. This is the completely true story of the making of The Secret of the Sword: The Rock Opera, based on the 1980s He-Man and She-Ra cartoons, as reported by the person who created it.
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The odyssey began in February 1995, when Robert Bricken stopped in a Lexington, Kentucky gas station to fill up the tank of his terrible 1986 Chevrolet Celebrity. The 17-year-old, a local high school student who worked part-time at the library, went inside the station to pay for the gas, where he spied a rack of random audio cassettes, much like one might see a bin of random DVDs in a gas station today. Financially strapped, Bricken spun the rack, eying its contents up and down, hoping but not expecting to find an album worth $2.99, like an old-timey prospector panning for gold — and then he froze completely. What he saw wasn’t gold. It was a treasure chest whose contents included a holy grail he never knew he had been searching for: An audio cassette adaptation of the 1985 He-Man movie The Secret of the Sword.
As a child of the early 1980s, Bricken had watched toy-based cartoons like G.I. Joe and Transformers religiously, but He-Man and the Masters of the Universe had been his favorite immediately after it debuted in 1983. “While it was the first cartoon based on action figures, it was the world of He-Man that excited me,” he says. “It was a mix of fantasy and science fiction, so it felt like it had everything! There were barbarians and wizards and robots and monsters, all fighting together. I just loved the variety, and that extended to the action figures as well.”
Many syndicated 1980s cartoons capitalized on their popularity by releasing an animated theatrical movie, and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was no exception. However, the franchise uniquely used its cinematic outing, The Secret of the Sword, to introduce a major new character — She-Ra, princess of power, the long-lost sister of He-Man — as well as serve as an introduction for her spin-off cartoon, which debuted less than six months later.
“The introduction of She-Ra blew my mind on multiple levels,” Bricken recalls, passion still in his voice. “First, it was because this world I loved had essentially doubled in size. There were new characters, places, monsters and toys to discover, and I watched the She-Ra series just as religiously as I did He-Man. And whenever the two made an appearance on each other’s series, I was totally delighted.”
Besides giving him an early education in shared entertainment universes, The Secret of the Sword taught the third-grader a deeper, more important lesson. “Without completely getting into the weeds on this stuff, She-Ra was stolen when she was a baby and taken to another planet, where she was raised to be evil by the show’s villain, Hordak,” Bricken explains. “It made me realize that nature doesn’t matter nearly so much as nurture, to put it bluntly. I realized that the people I was being told were bad at school and Sunday school, well, that maybe they weren’t really bad, someone or something had made them bad, but then they could still be punished for it anyway. It felt like a really profound revelation.”
The Secret of the Sword changed his life in a way the eight-year-old Bricken couldn’t truly comprehend. And then, after the 17-year-old Bricken grabbed the movie’s audiotape at that random gas station, it changed his life yet again.
Bricken bought the cassette without hesitation and listened to it that very night. It turned out to be a vastly abridged version of the movie, using some of the film’s dialogue, but with most of the action replaced by narration. “It was also only 36 minutes long, but it was enough,” he says. “I was delighted. It might be the first time I was truly nostalgic for my childhood, even though I was only 17.”
However, the idea to insert classic rock tracks and other songs into the narration didn’t come immediately. In fact, Bricken may never have had the notion at all if he hadn’t owed Janis [last name redacted], his girlfriend of three years, a new mixtape.
Although cassettes were already on a steep decline, giving mixtapes to significant others was still a common practice in 1995. Bricken had created his first mixtape for Janis in late 1992 in the traditional manner a high school student would give one to a new romantic partner: It was a carefully curated, meticulously crafted work of art that had to define your soul while simultaneously trying to appeal to its intended recipient, and yet also had to show your breadth of musical tastes so you would appear smart and attractive. The first tape, made in 1993, was warmly received. “It was pretty good,” remembers Janis. “It was definitely the ‘Oh gosh would you please like me?’ kind of romance mix.”
But this earlier work had no bearing on the magnum opus that was to be its sequel.
Upon hearing the He-Man/She-Ra audiotape story, Bricken’s first idea was to use it as an introduction to his mixtape. “Hi, everyone. Welcome to your Masters of the Universe story tape,” intones the audio adventure’s narrator, speaking brightly but simply, with the obvious intention of commanding the attention of young kids. “Sit back and relax. It’s time to start our exciting story — The Secret of the Sword!”
“I had originally thought it would be funny to have this clip of this guy introducing his tape be the introduction for my mixtape too,” he remembers. “But since the guy was talking like he was reading a bedtime story to an eight-year-old, I thought it would be really funny to immediately follow it up with some seriously hard rock.”
There was only one place Bricken was going to turn: Led Zeppelin. “Zeppelin has a ton of great music, but a super-heavy one like ‘When the Levee Breaks’ starts with a ponderous intro before it gets awesome,” he says. “I needed something that kicked ass at note one, and ‘Rock and Roll’ was the only way to go.”
The complete contrast between the audio adventure’s serene prologue, immediately followed by Jimmy Page’s blaring guitar and Robert Plant’s screams, remains one of The Secret of the Sword: The Rock Opera’s finest moments. Bricken immediately felt he was onto something. He realized he could take more clips from the He-Man and She-Ra adventure, and use them as connective tissue for the rest of the mixtape’s songs. He could even try to sort out the essential dialogue, so the mixtape could simultaneously tell the epic story of He-Man meeting She-Ra in a comprehensible way in between the songs.
Bricken expected it would be a bit harder to make than a regular mixtape, and take a bit more time. “I had no idea,” he says, chuckling a little ruefully. “No idea at all.”
Work began on the album that would eventually be titled The Secret of the Sword: The Rock Opera in early March 1995. At age 17 (Bricken would turn 18 before the project was finished), his sound studio was located in his bedroom on the lower floor of his parents’ split-foyer house in the suburbs of Lexington. His equipment consisted of a dual tape deck boom box given to him when he was 12, and a combination CD/cassette player, and absolutely nothing else. His producing experience included having made three mixtapes prior, including the first one given to Janis.
Bricken’s first task was to listen to the He-Man/She-Ra tape and choose which scenes he wanted to include in the mixtape, and then decide which ones he felt were essential, and which could potentially be dropped if things started running over the TDK audio cassette’s 90-minute run length (45 minutes on each side). “I started thinking of it like a musical, where there would be bits of dialogue, and then someone would break into a song that represented something important in the story — plot, character development or interaction and action, too,” he explains.
After selecting the audiotape clips, Bricken ran into his first major problem. “I’d had a list of songs I wanted to put on the original mixtape, and I tried to make them fit with the scene,” he recalls. “But some of the songs didn’t match anything at all.” The teen’s solution was to prioritize The Secret of the Sword over the mixtape he had originally intended to make. He decided to utilize his entire musical library, hoping to find songs that fit with the scenes like puzzle pieces.
But Bricken was still hamstrung in two regards. “I remember knowing you’d been formulating an idea of another mixtape for me, and I was like, ‘Uh, would you put this song on it?’ And I was really excited for whatever the heck it was,” says Janis. “Maybe ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ or something like that, I don’t remember what it was.” Thus, some tracks were non-negotiable, leaving Bricken scrambling to figure out which scene they would be most appropriately — or least inappropriately — paired with. Bricken calls his success with this “limited.”
The second and far graver issue was how limited Bricken’s musical tastes were at the time. He was far less knowledgeable about popular and/or cool bands of all genres than his fellow high school seniors, and as such, his musical collection primarily consisted of classic rock of the 1960 and 1970s. These songs started forming the bulk of the album’s tracklist, which eventually led Bricken to dub the project The Secret of the Sword: The Rock Opera.
“Some of the clip-song pairings are tenuous at best,” he admits. “Sometimes I used songs I didn’t particularly love just because they fit the clip, which is how the Doors’ ‘People Are Strange’ comes right after She-Ra says something like, ‘Something strange is going on here!’ Many of these ended up being very on the nose. But some of them?” Bricken smiles. “Some of them I can listen to even now and think, ‘Damn. I nailed it.’”
To make a traditional mixtape, all you would do is simply hit the record button on one cassette, and press play on the CD or second cassette with the music you want recorded, whichever you’re using. When the song (or whatever) is over, stop recording, grab the tape/CD with the next song on it, and repeat. If you’re making a mixtape that you hope will win you respect and/or affection, you might spend additional time making sure none of the songs are clipped off, and the silence between tracks stays a reasonably consistent amount of time, but it’s a process that could still be done in a few days.
The Secret of the Sword: The Rock Opera, however, obviously wasn’t a normal mixtape. First, Bricken’s workload was effectively doubled, because he was inserting clips from the audiotape as well as the songs, meaning he had to do twice the amount of recording. That also meant he had to be far more aware of how much recording he could fit on the two 45-minute sides of the blank cassette. He made some rough estimations and began the methodical process of assembling the rock opera. “I was young and dumb,” he says. “I thought I was invincible.”
The tape’s Side A reached its maximum capacity near the beginning of what was supposed to be its penultimate song. Bricken was shocked at how much more he had planned on including and had the sudden realization than his opus was far too big — both literally and figuratively — to rely on rough estimates. He needed to know exactly how much he could fit in two 45-minute blocks, and to do that, he needed to know the exact length of every song and clip. While CDs provided this info easily, he was forced to time out the songs and clips on cassette with his watch. When he had his complete list, he realized his work had only just begun.
The rock opera he had planned exceeded the boundaries of the 90-minute blank cassette by a significant margin, but there was very little Bricken felt he could lose. Even after getting rid of the few tracks he felt were ultimately disposable, the proposed album was still more than an hour-and-a-half-long; desperate to keep the remaining songs, he transcribed all the audiotape clips he wanted to use, and tried to figure out what, if any, dialogue could be trimmed down or even combined. Once theorized, Bricken would cut the new clip together with his recording equipment to his satisfaction, time it again and incorporate it into the plan. “Essentially, I was taking pieces of a large puzzle, tossing some of them away, and cutting up other pieces in order to make a much smaller puzzle instead,” recalls Bricken.
The process took weeks and many late nights. Once he finally found the perfect combination of clips and songs, it was time for a test-run. Starting from scratch, Bricken assembled the rock opera, piece by piece. After every clip/song pairing, he rewound the tape to the beginning, hit play, and timed everything that had been recorded thus far. Then the ersatz producer compared it to his notes to make sure everything was sticking to schedule. It was a laborious process, but it was the only way his ultimate vision for the Secret of the Sword: The Rock Opera could come to be.
The obsessed high school senior devoted much of his time out of school to work on the rock opera. “It took you somewhere between two weeks and a month [to make it],” remembers Janis. “But not like, over a month.” When he finally finished making the master tape, he set it aside, grabbed a fresh blank cassette, and did it again from scratch. “I had recorded and re-recorded that original tape dozens and dozens of times by that point,” Bricken says, matter-of-factly. “That was fine for the back-up, but not for the finished product. I wanted The Secret of the Sword rock opera to be perfect.”
Below is The Secret of the Sword: The Rock Opera’s full tracklisting, exactly as Bricken presented it to his girlfriend in April 1995. Absolutely no alterations have been made to attempt to make it less confusing. No terrible song has been replaced by a less terrible song to lessen the shame of its creator.
The first part of each listing is Bricken’s title for the rock opera’s “scene” — i.e., the clips from the audiobooks — while the second is the song paired with them. While it’s by no means necessary, if you want to fully understand the scene titles, here’s a tiny bit more Masters of the Universe lore you need to know:
- She-Ra is Adora’s alter-ego, just as Prince Adam is to He-Man.
- He-Man’s home planet is Eternia, while She-Ra was stolen and taken to Etheria.
- Just as Hordak is She-Ra’s main foe and lives on Etheria, Skeletor is Eternia’s biggest villain.
Anyway, as promised, I give you the full tracklisting:
- Overture — Led Zeppelin, “Rock and Roll”
- Adventuring — Kool and the Gang, “Jungle Boogie”
- Inn Battle — The Black Crowes, “Hard to Handle”
- “To Whispering Woods!” — Aerosmith, “Walk this Way”
- Women of Etheria — “I Hope That Somethin’ Better Comes Along” from The Muppet Movie
- He-Man Kicking Ass — Peter Gunn TV theme from The Blue Brothers
- Evil Adora — Tom Petty, “American Girl”
- Adora Exiting for Truth — The Doors, “Love Her Madly”
- He-Man’s Prisoner Song — The Guess Who, “No Sugar Tonight”
- “Gettin’ Loose” Theme — Live, “All Over You”
- Hordak’s Concern for Adora — Led Zeppelin, “Hey Hey What Can I Do”
- A Melancholy Hordak — The Who, “Behind Blue Eyes”
- To the Fright Zone — “Ease on Down the Road” from The Wiz
- He-Man Gets His Dumb Ass Captured (audio scene only)
- Something Strange (drugs) — The Rolling Stones, “Mother’s Little Helper”
- Something Strange (happening) — The Doors, People are Strange
- Adora Gets Smart — John Lennon, “Instant Karma”
- Hordak Waxes Melodramatic Evil — The Rolling Stones, “Paint it Black”
- Hordak Whines — The Beatles, “So How Come (No One Loves Me)”
- A New Beginning — The 5th Dimension, “Age of Aquarius”
- Feelings Awake in He-Man — The Who, “Squeeze Box”
- The Skeletor Incident — David Shire, “Night on Disco Mountain”
- Return to Etheria (audio scene only)
- The Final Battle — Led Zeppelin, “Moby Dick”
- She-Ra Realizes Her True Feelings — The Beatles, “Crying Waiting Hoping”
- The Peasants Celebrate — Original Ewok Celebration Song from Return of the Jedi
- He-Man Waxes Celibacy — Tom Petty, “Last Dance with Mary Jane”
- Finale — Led Zeppelin, “When the Levee Breaks”
“I have some regrets,” admits Bricken.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m still more proud of it than I probably have any right to be,” Bricken continues. “Again, there are still some skit-song combos that delight me every time I hear them. The intro is one of them for sure, but I also love the introduction of Adora/She-Ra, which is followed by Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl.’” He believes one of the Rock Opera’s cleverest moments is “The Skeletor Incident,” in which the two main villains (Skeletor and Hordak) meet up, hatch a scheme, kidnap Adora and then immediately mess everything up. “It’s a fun diversion from the main storyline, but it had too much dialogue to put in front of a single song — but it only deserved a single song.” Bricken’s solution was to break the scene into four parts and insert them individually into “Night on Disco Mountain” from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. “It’s a dark and extremely goofy song that works perfectly for two villainous idiots screwing up.”
That said, Bricken unhesitatingly concedes The Secret of the Sword rock opera has its issues. “Some of the songs are so dated they physically hurt me,” he says. “Then there are super-obvious issues like putting two Rolling Stones songs that close together. There had to have been cleverer, more interesting Beatles songs to use, and cleverer, more interesting other songs, period.”
A few parts of the rock opera have aged poorly, most notably the late-in-the-album insinuation that perhaps He-Man and She-Ra had the hots for each other — Bricken calls it “too lame to be considered a joke even in the 1990s” — and the Muppet song, in which Kermit the Frog and Rowlf the Dog complain about women. (Lest this concern any Muppet fans, Kermit and Rowlf remember women are pretty great before the song ends.)
“They’re definitely my two biggest regrets,” says Bricken. “My third biggest regret is that not only are there four songs from movie soundtracks on there, at least one of them — and more likely two — were used because I played them in my high school marching band, which is excruciatingly embarrassing for me to admit.”
While agreeing that The Secret of the Sword: The Rock Opera certainly has its flaws, the album’s intended recipient has an immense fondness for it. “I thought it was really cool,” says Janis. “Of course, [listening to it] was like, ‘Hey, it’s like we’re riding in Rob’s car because it’s Rob’s music,’ but I thought it was a really cool thing. I remember just wanting to tell everybody about it because it was just such an awesome, weird and fun idea.”
“She’s very kind to say so,” says Bricken, “even though when I interviewed her for this article, I told her she should be perfectly honest, no matter how brutal the truth might be. I even told her that, although I don’t think I consciously realized it when we were young, I ended up making the album much more for me than for her.”
Janis is, unsurprisingly, more forgiving. “The way I view mixtapes is, partially you’re making them for yourself, too,” she replies. “A lot of times I find myself listening to copies of mixtapes I’ve made for other people. If you can make something that’s a gift of yourself but that you also enjoy, it serves both purposes. I think that’s awesome.”
Bricken’s plans to update The Secret of the Sword: The Rock Opera began even before he gave Janis the tape. “I remember after you had made it, you were like, ‘Hmm, yeah, I wanna tweak this some, and like, adjust it to not have the songs you requested on it!’” she laughs.
He never got around to it. On Valentine’s Day 1999, Bricken and Janis broke up. At some point during college, Bricken lost the back-up copy of the rock opera in one of his many moves.
He always regretted never having updated it, a feeling that only grew more over time. “My musical tastes have expanded so much over the last 25 years,” he explains. “I definitely still lag behind most people — even just in terms of classic rock, I’d have a dozen times more material to work with.” Bricken only discovered Black Sabbath, Iggy Pop and David Bowie during college, as well as exploring the Rolling Stones beyond their greatest hits album. He grew into an enormous fan of early 1970s Rod Stewart, as well as the band that propelled him to fame, the Faces. “At the very least, I could finally make [the album] all classic rock.”
For more than two decades, Bricken thought about the rock opera off and on, wishing he still had a copy, wondering how he would update it if he had. Occasionally he sat at his computer, trying desperately to remember all the songs he’d used and what order he put them in, but to no avail. Even when he found an MP3 of the original Secret of the Sword audiotape online, it wasn’t enough to jog his memory — he just couldn’t remember how he pieced it together.
Bricken and Janis had dated for six years, and even though the breakup was acrimonious, as time passed, they began to check in with each other every few years, occasionally over lunch, many times solely over text, always getting more amiable with time. “And I always forgot to ask if she still had the tape,” Bricken remembers. “And I got upset with myself every time after I realized I had missed another chance.”
That was until May of last year, when, on one of those occasional calls, the subject of mixtapes came up organically and he finally remembered to ask. He assumed Janis had lost the tape, just as he had, at some point over the last two decades. He was asking primarily to stop wondering, to finally confirm the rock opera was lost forever.
Except it wasn’t. Janis had it.
Bricken was blown away. “You were blown away,” Janis remembers. “I was surprised at how enthusiastic you were to hear it again and to get a recording of it.” In a fervor, Bricken asked Janis the best, most convenient and fastest way he could somehow get a copy of his lost opus, and they quickly decided that Janis would find a tape-to-MP3 converter on Amazon, and Bricken would PayPal her the money to immediately purchase it. “You were pretty much automatically, ‘Yes! Here! I will throw money to fix this situation!”
The device was ordered and the money sent that same day. A week later, Bricken had The Secret of the Sword waiting in his email; Janis had even sent pictures of the case, its art faded with time, but exactly as Bricken hadn’t remembered it. He was so ecstatic it made Janis smile. “I was very flattered you were excited about it,” she says. “I was pleased because I could give something back to you.”
When Bricken pressed play, it all came rushing back. The memories, the work, the planning. The good, the bad, the compromises. The boom box he used to record it, the pile of tapes and CDs he sifted through, the drawing desk he used to carefully write down the tracking on the cassette lining. His pleasure with what he made and his pride in his accomplishment. It was a part of his youth that he never expected to reencounter.
It was also a chance to fulfill a dream he’s had for 25 years. But now that he has the opportunity, will Bricken finally remake The Secret of the Sword: The Rock Opera? He hopes so, but admits he can’t be sure. “I’ve had a folder with the track listings and all the MP3 files on my computer desktop, so I see it every day, to force myself to think about it,” he says. “But it’s been more than a year, and I still haven’t seem to have the found time…”
If he never does, however, he’s at peace. “The album is important to me, but what’s important is what it was, not what it could be,” he smiles. “And if a new He-Man and She-Ra rock opera never comes to fruition, I will always have the solace that I somehow got MEL to pay me to write 4,000 words about a ridiculous mixtape I made in high school.”