An Enduring Musical Legacy
“ ... I don’t think any greater impact has happened in music in probably three hundred years than the advent of the synthesizer, because when its used as an instrument unto itself and doing what it does best, which is to create unique musical sonorities, I think it has an aesthetic impact on all of music, not just film music.” — Gil Melle, composer of The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Dark Synth Rising . . .
Three years ago I did a radio special dedicated to the filmmaker John Carpenter on a friend’s Sydney radio show. Having composed most of the soundtracks to his own films, the two-hour show looked over John Carpenter’s musical career, also exploring many of the electronic musicians who had been influenced by him from the early eighties onwards.
After that program — and the few intensive weeks leading up to it — I thought to myself, “That’s it . . . I’ve really had enough of John Carpenter. I’m literally Carpentered out!”
But like any good planet or star sign, Carpenter’s constellation of sinister low notes has made its way into our night-time skyline once more. In fact, 2015, has almost been his year, in terms of a musical legacy.
In March, Sacred Bones Records released John Carpenter’s first solo album, ‘Lost Themes’, a collection of instrumental pieces developed with his son Cody Carpenter, who records as Ludrium, and his godson, Daniel Davies, singer and guitarist from the stoner rock band Year Long Disaster.
The album was a high impact mix of some of his old themes with new elements brought in by his two younger collaborators, and was generally enjoyed by critics and fans alike.
One thing I noticed while listening to Lost Themes — particularly on the track ‘Obsidian’ with its gothic pipe-organ riff — is a Goblin influence, the Italian prog-rock band who scored most of Dario Argento’s giallo slasher films. Of course I wasn’t alone in thinking it; plenty of other horror nuts had picked up on this too.
But in terms of horror music history, both Goblin and Carpenter have been the two consistently dominant musical forces over the last thirty years; they’ve influenced a new generation of creative people, both in filmmaking and music — making Lost Themes a kind of best of both worlds.
For a moment, I thought that it might have been Cody Carpenter who was responsible for this Goblin connection, having read that he’s a fan of prog-rock — but after contacting him, he was able to set me straight.
“We all love Goblin!”
Interestingly, on an obsessive musical point, Daniel Davies in his band Year Long Disaster recorded a cover of ‘Running Free’ for an Iron Maiden tribute album. Iron Maiden are one of those bands who have often intersected with horror soundtracks; Goblin were influenced by them (and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in general) — and Iron Maiden’s ‘Flash of the Blade’ was included on the Creepers (1984) soundtrack.
But there are also great parallels between some of Iron Maiden’s musical motifs, and Carpenter’s, where the downward arpeggio in Hallowed be Thy Name is very similar to the main theme of The Fog. But the common denominator here is that they both go back to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, which knocked everyone’s socks off at the time when it was used as The Exorcist (1973) theme— including Goblin (listen to Profondo Rosso.)
Anyway, enough of that!
A film legacy partly forged in fear
Carpenter’s name has also popped up in many interviews with film composers talking about their work — Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury recently spoke in a FACT magazine interview about how their earlier project, ‘Drokk: Music Inspired by Mega-city One,’ was drawing on the sound of John Carpenter, a project that lead up to their work together on Ex Machina.
His music is iconic: that low pulse, simple melodies, repetitive arpeggios, downward chromatic notes, long drones, and sudden stabs of sharp whiney synths, are instantly recognisable. Of his 21 or so feature films, he has composed music for 17 of them — a remarkable achievement.
As a film director he also acutely understood the vital role that music plays in the success of a film, particularly in a genre like horror. In the book The Films of John Carpenter author John Kenneth Muir wrote how Carpenter had shown his first cut of Halloween “minus a film score” to studio executives around Hollywood — and the “unanimous conclusion was that it was not scary.” Spending the next two weeks writing the score, he created something absolutely memorable, completely transforming his film.
In fact, the Halloween theme has become almost inseparable from Halloween the holiday and lurid grinning jack-o-lanterns, inspiring kids the world over to reverse-engineer his Halloween theme on the family piano, a kind of horror badge of honour to impress their friends.
‘Carpenter’ and the synthwave scene
Anyway, some of those kids are grown up now, and last month a special John Carpenter tribute album was released simply called ‘Carpenter’, a compilation of twenty electronic musicians released through bandcamp on the New York label Retro Promenade.
Synthwave is a genre of music that wears its eighties influences proudly on its sleeve (rather than concealing them as something new, as much pop music does now), finding inspiration in the electronic soundtracks of the 1980s, and drawing on films like Blade Runner, The Karate Kid and Pretty in Pink; TV shows like Miami Vice; classic synth-pop bands, and iconic computer games like Outrun and Ghosts’n’Goblins.
Marko Maric, host of Synthetix Sundays, a weekly synthwave radio show broadcast online on Radio Free Gently, has watched the scene grow since first noticing this kind of music around 2009. He was also one of the judges in selecting tracks for the compilation. I had a chance to talk to him about the appeal of John Carpenter’s music.
“His particular style of building atmosphere, his dark settings . . . just his style of music was very different to what anyone else was doing. It really stands out,” says Marko.
“But there are certain soundtracks that are really quite exciting that do stand on their own such as Big Trouble in Little China. A lot of songs on that you can actually listen to without watching the movie.”
One of the contributors, Irving Force — Adam Skog from Stockholm, wrote the track ‘Back Alley Creepers’ for this compilation.
“I sat around and watched John Carpenter movies for a week for ‘research’ . . . usually I’d feel guilty about that much couch time!” confessed Adam.
“‘Back Alley Creepers’ was mainly inspired by Prince of Darkness and Escape from New York — but really I just wanted it to have a general Carpenter feel, as if it came from a Carpenter movie that we haven’t seen.”
One thing that is not so well known about John Carpenter is that he never completely composed his scores in isolation; he had two talented off-siders at different stages of his career who helped him to achieve his musical vision.
While working with fellow film student Dan O’Bannon on the sci-fi film Dark Star in 1974, Carpenter was lucky enough to access a Moog modular synthesizer kept on campus of the University of Southern California. His music professor, Dan Wyman, helped Carpenter with that score, as well as Assault on Precinct-13, Halloween, and The Fog.
But during the eighties, it was Alan Howarth who acted as his musical and technical co-pilot. After playing in Cleveland psych-rock bands Pi Corp and Braino during the early seventies, and then programming synths for Weather Report in the later part of the decade, Howarth became involved in Hollywood as a special sound effects designer around 1979. One of his first creations was for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the sound of the Starship Enterprise leaping into warp speed.
In fact it was Star Trek’s picture editor who put Alan in touch with John Carpenter for his upcoming film, Escape from New York. Both of them hit it off, being the same age, outsiders to Hollywood (Carpenter was from Kentucky), and having a shared love of rock’n’roll. While working on the soundtrack, Howarth was able to contribute his own musical elements to the score as well as supplying the equipment and introducing a special synching technique of playing back to video. Escape from New York would be a landmark soundtrack album, selling over 80-thousand copies. Here is Alan talking about his time with John Carpenter:
The sinister low note goes on . . .
Carpenter wasn’t the only one to use synthesizers during the seventies and eighties: there were many composers who also produced amazing scores using similar equipment — but his soundtracks managed to have the greatest impact, perhaps by the sheer diversity of his films and the addictive and entertaining nature of his stories; it would be impossible to find anyone from the eighties who has not seen at least one of his films.
And between these two albums, ‘Lost Themes’ and ‘Carpenter’, a special musical phenomenon has been captured and acknowledged — the fandom around John Carpenter’s music; but also the powerful creative force that a shared heritage of childhood memories and popular culture can take on.
“We’ve gotten a ludicrous amount of attention for Carpenter,” explains Mike Mendoza, the head of Retro Promenade. “Compared to all the other releases, it was by far the most successful.”
“John Carpenter is such a staple of lots of people’s lives growing up, a lot of people have written in tiny comments with their downloads about how much he means to them,” he adds.
And it’s true. John Carpenter’s sinister low note continues to haunt us and excite us and be reworked well into the 21st century.
IJ Wilson runs the Halloween Listening Party, a streaming radio channel sprouting up each October. More info at www.halloweenlisteningparty.com.