“Heavy Metal – Music From The Motion Picture” (1981)

Print may not be dead, but at the very least it’s been in a bad accident and is trying to drag itself away from the wreck before something explodes.  Will it rebound the way vinyl did?  Only time will tell.  But back in the 1980s print was what we had.  If you wanted to learn about something you had to pick up a book, magazine, or newspaper.  There were lots of speciality publications, and as a teen I gravitated towards some of the slick sci-fi rags like Omni and, of course, Heavy Metal.  The latter spun off an animated, rock-soundtracked film that was a frequent rental by people of a certain age, mostly young men, who were attracted to both the imagery and music.  Back then anime wasn’t readily available other than maybe some Sunday morning episodes of Star Blazers (if you were lucky), so this was a whole other world.

A few weeks back I got three big boxes of records from someone at work who was cleaning house.  Most of it was 1960s to 1980s rock, some titles in my wheelhouse, others not.  But one thing I knew I was going to keep as soon as I saw it was the soundtrack to Heavy Metal.

heavymetalsoundtrack

Now you’d think that the soundtrack to a movie called Heavy Metal would be chock full of bands that play, well, heavy metal.  But that’s not really the case.  Yes, there is a Black Sabbath track on here (“The Mob Rules”), but the rest is decidedly un-metal, though Sammy Hagar contributes a song called “Heavy Metal”.  Devo and Cheap Trick, however, are not heavy metal, and Journey is neither heavy nor metal.  That being said, this is a solid record full of artists you know playing songs you don’t.  My favorite hands down is Blue Öyster Cult’s “Veteran Of The Psychic Wars”, a song Metallica recently covered on Helping Hands… Live & Acoustic At The Masonic.

I was going to watch the movie as part of this post, but when I found it on Amazon Prime it was a rental… and somehow it just didn’t seem worth four bucks when I could just play the record.

“Liquid Sky Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” (1983)

I went through a phase as a teenager during which I tired to watch as many weird movies as possible.  To some extent I succeeded.  But this wasn’t an easy thing to do back in the 1980s.  Obviously there was no streaming and movies on cable were limited to a relatively small number of channels like HBO and Showtime, so the best source was your local video store.  If you were lucky it was a big shop.  It if was a mom-and-pop place, well, your options were pretty limited.  Plus there was the whole problem of getting to the video store if, like me, you lived kind of in the sticks.  Someone’s parents had to drive you and be willing to wait around while you read the back of the box for every strange thing that caught your eye.  Times were hard.  We earned it.

liquidsky

Somehow I missed Liquid Sky, which is too bad because I’m pretty sure I’d have rented it over and over again.  Holly and I ran across it on a streaming service the other day and it kind of blew our minds.  The story is that aliens come to Earth searching for heroin, only to find that human brain chemistry during orgasms is more power, so they start basically “taking” people when they’re in the throws of passion.  Because… it’s the early 1980s.  And there were Russians involved in the filming.  Add in some neon, tons of make-up, androgyny, drugs, sex, and a cast and crew with almost no filmmaking experience and you have a major head-trip.

Almost the entire Liquid Sky score was composed on a Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument, it’s 8-bit recordings contributing to something that sounded both futuristic and sort of child-like at the same time, a step in what quickly became rapidly-evolving progression of musical technology. Much of it has a plinky, calliope-like sound to it, but with added elements that take that familiar feeling and twist it, infusing an undercurrent of creepy dread into everything.  Most of the tracks are instrumental, with the notable exception of the no-wavish “Me And My Rhythm Box” in all of it’s delightful strangeness. The entire thing is pretty bizarre.  Just like the movie.

“Conan the Barbarian – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” (1982)

How can you not get jacked up when “Anvil of Crom” kicks in to open up this record?

Thulsa Doom:  There was a time, boy, when I searched for steel, when steel meant more to me than gold or jewels.
Conan:  The riddle… of steel?
Thulsa Doom:  Yes!  You know what it is, don’t you boy?  Shall I tell you?  It’s the least I can do.  Steel isn’t strong, boy, flesh is stronger!

conanbarbarian

The steel cannot wield itself, it needs a hand of flesh and blood.

I played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as a teen, so Conan the Barbarian was right in my movie wheelhouse, with warriors and thieves and monsters and treasure.  I think in the AD&D world Conan would have been a Fighter-Thief, while his partners Subotai and Valeria would have been Thieves.  Conan always seemed just too huge and obvious to be an effective thief (as Malak points out in the sequel Conan the Destroyer), but that didn’t stop me from renting this a bunch of times back in the day.

ANYWAY… it’s interesting to compare this to the soundtrack from Thief (1981) I wrote about recently.  Not only because both movies are basically about thieves and from the same time period, but more so stylistically.  Both albums are scores, but whereas Thief is full of Tangerine Dream’s electro-ness, Conan the Barbarian is orchestral and epic.  It also has a few interesting characteristics.  It was the first film to credit Musync, a music tempo editing hardware and software tool, to aid in adjusting the score to fit the tempo of the scene it supported.  It was also allegedly the last major studio film with a mono soundtrack.

Killer movie, killer soundtrack.

Tangerine Dream – “Thief (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)” (1981)

thiefI’d been keeping my eyes out for a reasonably priced, nice condition copy of the Thief soundtrack, and I finally found one the other day in the New Arrivals bin over at Easy Street.  I’m not entirely sure why I’ve been wanting this other than knowing the music is by Tangerine Dream and the film is a gritty and brilliant crime noir classic.  Ironically later that same evening I was flipping through the channels and what did I land on?  That’s right, Thief.  Which was followed by the original Rollerball as part of some kind of James Caan retrospective.  Needless to say, I watched both.

I’ve never been a soundtrack guy, especially not soundtracks that are comprised primarily of scores as opposed to previously released songs.  Having listened to a few over the last couple of years, though, I’m kind of intrigued, as this strikes me as a very different way of writing music.  You can feel an emotional flow to the compositions on Thief, an underlying base mood that is nuanced and transformed by the soundscape.  The musicians are writing to align their art with someone else’s art, and when it’s done correctly the results are magical.

The music is a defining element in Thief, just as it is in most Michael Mann directed films.  He could have just as easily scored the album with rock songs and it would have given then entire thing a totally different feel.  Same scenes, same dialogue, different emotional content.  In fact, Mann originally intended to score it using Chicago Blues songs.  It’s hard to imagine what that version of the film would have been like, though the final track “Confrontation” may give us just a hint, the only guitar-based number on the album.

Thief stands on it’s own fairly well.  If you’re into Tangerine Dream and similar electronica, it’s a perfectly enjoyable stand-alone album.  It’s hard for me to separate it from the film in my mind, but it’s not a major leap by any means.

A Tale of Two Soundtracks – “Rollerball” (1975) and “Blade Runner” (1982 / 2018)

I’m not much of a soundtrack guy.  When I do pick one up it’s usually something consisting of actual pop/rock/metal songs, such as for Lost In Translation, Singles, or The Decline of Western Civilization.  In many ways these are no different than compilations, and I do love a good comp.  I only own a few that are more on the instrumental side, like Flash Gordon and The Terminator.  So it was a bit unusual that I found myself flipping through the soundtrack section at Easy Street Records the other day, perhaps even more so that I came away with a couple of records – an original 1975 pressing of Rollerball and the new 2018 version of Blade Runner (the original film from 1982… not the soundtrack to the new movie).

I’m a huge fan of dystopian fiction, both in print and in film, and these are two of my absolute favorites.  I feel pretty confident in saying I’ve watched each movie a dozen times or more, and I’ve read the stories on which they are based – William Neal Harrison’s short story “Roller Ball Murder” and Philip K. Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  I generally categorize this genre into two different buckets and these films are perfect representations of each.  The first group takes place in a future that doesn’t look that wildly different than our current day other than being a bit more run down.  Rollerball fits into this category (we mostly see the trappings of the rich and powerful, but it’s clear the common person isn’t living in anywhere near that level of luxury), as do works like A Clockwork Orange, Soylent Green, and more contemporarily Children of Men.  The other is more technologically advanced and generally futuristic-feeling, including Blade Runner and others such as Total Recall and The Fifth Element.  This is, of course, a gross over-simplification and there are things that don’t neatly fit into either category (I’m looking at you, Brazil….), but what can I say, I tend to categorize things.

When it comes to film, music is a key element in setting the mood.  And that is fully on display when comparing these two soundtracks.  So without further ado…

Rollerball (1975)

Sonically Rollerball is defined by classical music.  In fact, the movie opens with the recognizable-to-almost-everyone “Toccata In D Minor” as we’re introduced to the track upon which the rollerballers will perform their dangerous and sometimes deadly sport.  Quite a few dystopian stories use classical music, especially in the 1970s and 80s – Rollerball, A Clockwork Orange, and even 2001:  A Space Odyssey, often to great effect by creating a jarring disconnect between the futuristic visual elements and the old classical music.  Of course, it also gets a little 70s smooth-jazz-funky with “Symphony No. 8” because, well, 1970s, duh.  But the classical music also has the effect of anchoring you to the scene in a more familiar way, one that almost dictates exactly how you should feel about what you’re seeing.

rollerball

Driving home from Easy Street with this sitting in the bag next to me in the passenger seat I came up with about four paragraphs worth of Rollerball deconstruction in my mind, but now as I sit here listening to the record it all seems so far away.  It’s certainly a brilliant film, one with an even deeper and biting social commentary than what appears as obvious on the surface.  And I could probably write 5,000 words on it without even watching the damn thing again.  But instead let me leave you with this.  The movie stays fairly true to the original story… but do yourself a favor and read it anyway.  It ends just before the start of the final game, the one with no rules, as Jonathan E tells us:

Before the game begins I stand with my team as the corporation hymns are played. I’m brute speed today, I tell myself, trying to rev myself up; yet, adream in my thoughts, I’m a bit unconvinced.

A chorus of voices joins the band now as the music swells.“The game, the game, all glory to it” the music rings, and I can feel my lips move with the words, singing.

This Jonathan is a bit rougher around the edges than the one in the movie, and the score has a role in softening him, humanizing him, to the viewer.  So while the stories are the same on the surface, the music and film attempt to give more thoughtful purpose to his actions and to give us, the viewer, a sense of closure through the outcome of that final game as we see Jonathan, the sole survivor, racing around the track while the previously hostile New York fans chant his name.

The selections on the Rollerball soundtrack are beautiful, making it a record worth playing on it’s own merit.  Because if you can listen to “Adagio” and not be carried away (♥), well, then you’re not alive.  What’s particularly interesting to me upon reflection, however, is how much of my emotional response to these songs is driven by how they were used in the film – I can’t separate the music from the images and emotional tension to which they contributed.  As strange as it seems, I’ll never be able to listen to something like “Adagio” without thinking about specific movies.

Blade Runner (1982 / 2018)

To be clear, I’m writing about the original Blade Runner movie (1982), but the most recently released version of the soundtrack (January 2018).  I’ve been passively looking for a copy of this for a while, so I was happy when I came across an original 1982 pressing in the New Arrivals bin.  I saw the recent re-releases as well but figured I’d go with the original.  Fortunately for me, however, Easy Street’s Vinyl Czar Andy saw what I was carrying around and asked if I’d seen the new versions.  I told him I had, and that’s when he hit me with a very important nugget, that the original soundtrack didn’t include the versions of the songs that appeared in the film but were instead recordings of those songs by The New American Orchestra.  Apparently for a decade or so after Blade Runner first came out there was no way to get the actual Vangelis versions of the songs!  In fact the Vangelis compositions didn’t appear on vinyl for the first time until 2003.  Needless to say I put back the 1982 copy and picked up a copy of the just-released “Start Your Ear Off Right” 2018 180 gram gatefold edition.  So Andy, if you’re reading this, you’re the man!

bladerunner

Thematically there are some basic similarities between Blade Runner and the book it’s based upon, but in many ways the film lacks the depth of the original story.  But that’s OK, in large part because the movie is both intriguing and visually brilliant.  This is the more technologically advanced dystopian future, one with flying cars and androids that can’t be easily distinguished from humans, but one that is still based in a gritty, post-war version of the future and broaches some deep questions about what it means to be human (♠).  I likely first saw Blade Runner on VHS back in the mid-1980s and at the time the combination of the intense visuals with the electronic Vangelis score was unlike anything I’d experienced before.

Vangelis burst into the public consciousness the year before the release of Blade Runner with his work on the soundtrack to Chariots of Fire, which seemingly won about 8,000 awards in 1981 including the Oscar for Best Original Music Score (♣).  In a year he pivoted from making music for a film about runners and the 1924 Olympics to one that took place in 2019 and featured a cop who was basically a hit man hunting androids.  That’s not doing a musical 180; that’s breaking through the space-time continuum.  A legal dispute prevented the original Vangelis compositions from appearing on the soundtrack back in 1982 and we’re fortunate that things eventually got worked out.  What appears on the 2018 version is a combo of music that appeared in the film as well as some compositions that didn’t make the final cut.

My guess is that I’d never heard music like this prior to seeing Blade Runner.  Within seconds of the opening track kicking in, I’m transported right back to the scene where Deckard is flying in his police car over the city and we’re treated to the lights and signs that make it look like some futuristic version of Tokyo.  The soundtrack also includes a number dialog samples from the film, and these were well chosen to fit the mood of the music (or is it the other way around?).  The whole thing has an almost future-classical feel to it.  In fact I suspect it would still sound fantastic even if I’d never seen the movie before.  This 2018 180 gram pressing is impressive.

 

There you have it.  Two soundtracks for two dystopian future movies that were made only seven years apart but couldn’t be more different musically.

(♥)  I believe this was used in the pivotal scene of the insanely brilliant Australian World War I film Gallipoli (1981) as well.

(♠) And inspired the White Zombie song “More Human Than Human”, which, depending on your feeling about Rob Zombie, is either a great thing or a terrible thing.

(♣)  The official soundtrack reached #1 in the US and #5 in the UK, and the famous track simply called “Title” was a #1 single as well.  You literally couldn’t escape that song in 1981/82.