Rocks In The Attic #711: Alan Howarth – ‘Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers (O.S.T.)’ (1988)

11183_JKTOne thing I’ve learnt from my discussions with fans of horror movies and horror soundtracks is that the majority of them have poor, poor taste in films. They might have jobs and families, but it’s like they have the mental age of a 7-year old when it comes to films.

The first Halloween is a stone-cold classic. It’s more than a little responsible for the popularity of the slasher genre of horror films. It was made a shoestring budget, and became one of the most profitable films of all time.

Halloween II gets by mainly because of the same cast, the involvement of John Carpenter (now in the producer’s chair), and its continuity (it takes place immediately after the events of the first film).

Halloween III: Season Of The Witch is the outlier – a brilliant side-step away from the threat of murderous kid brother Michael Myers, into something far more terrifying. But there’s no accounting for taste, and its poor box-office performance almost killed the franchise.

John Carpenter walks away, and in steps Syrian-American film producer Moustapha Akkad, attempting to resurrect the series by returning Michael Myers to Haddonfield, Illinois.

Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers should have been subtitled The Disappearance Of The Roman Numerals. It is a bad film. The story is bad. The script is bad. The performances are bad – not least the dreadfully hammy acting by Donald Pleasance. The action sequences are bad. Everything is bad.

Probably the most unforgivable aspect of the whole film is the production design. Where Michael Myers once looked terrifying, he now looks comical. His white mask has changed since the earlier films. He now looks like a confused Asian businessman standing at a hotel buffet cart.

The only saving grace is the synth-laden soundtrack, by Carpenter’s musical collaborator, Alan Howarth. The Halloween theme, with its fantastically odd-time signature, makes a welcome return, and feels like the most Carpenterish element of the whole film.

Moustapha Akkad was killed along with his daughter in 2005, by a Al-Qaeda bomb in the Grand Hyatt Hotel, Amman, Jordan. The Rob Zombie directed 2007 remake of Halloween was dedicated to his memory.

Hit: Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers

Hidden Gem: Halloween 4 Reprise

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Rocks In The Attic #710: Muse – ‘The Resistance’ (2009)

RITA#710I don’t want to read too much into this but Muse were an awesome band when I lived in the UK. Then I left the UK and they went off the rails.

The rot set in with this, The Resistance, their fifth studio album, from 2009. Up to this point, each album saw Muse getting bigger and bigger, their sound solidifying into a massive wall of noise. Rock fans liked them, metal fans tolerated them, and when radio-friendly fourth album Black Holes And Revelations dropped in 2006, suddenly they were accepted by casual pop listeners.

Live 8 - ParisThe writing was always on the wall. When I saw them on their first tour, supporting debut record Showbiz, they wore t-shirts and jeans on stage. When I saw them on their second tour, supporting follow-up record, Origin Of Symmetry, they were still wearing t-shirts and jeans on stage. The next time I saw them, from the comfort of my television set, they were playing the Live-8 concert in Paris. Here, they looked like tour-guides from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

The band had sold out and employed the services of an image consultant. A stylist now chose the clothes they wore on stage.

Don’t get me wrong, The Resistance isn’t the worst Muse album to date. I think that accolade lands safely with 2012’s The 2nd Law, with 2015’s Drones a close second. But The Resistance marks the point where the band starts running out of ideas.

First track and lead single Uprising takes more than a little inspiration from the Doctor Who theme – the first time a Muse single sounded like anything other than a Muse song. United States Of Eurasia finds them channelling Gershwin via Brian May’s signature guitar sound and Queen’s trademark layered harmonies.

But most importantly, the album finds them plagiarising their earlier selves – the march of Uprising sounds like a reprise of Time Is Running OutUnnatural Selection starts off sounding like Plug In Baby and ends up closer to Stockholm Syndrome. It’s all starting to feel very samey.

RITA#710aFast-forward to 2017 and I don’t even recognise Muse anymore. I get promotional emails from them, and it’s hard to take them seriously. Is this an email from a rock band, or a trendy men’s clothes store?

The thought of Muse as a world-conquering rock band seems like such a distant memory. The last couple of studio albums have been mired in a horribly tepid Europop sound. Matthew Bellamy used to write guitar riffs that would genuinely give me goosebumps. Now my default bodily response is to retch at the image of bassist Chris Wolstenholme in a leather jacket stolen from mardis gras.

But…what’s this? Muse have a new record out? And lead single Something Human sounds almost like the classic Muse of days gone by? The artwork for the new album looks terrible – and highly derivative of a lot of things, not least the cover of recent compilation Rise Of The Synths­­ – but my fingers are crossed anyway.

Most importantly, the most recent publicity photo of the band – a moody side-lit shot, no-doubt influenced by Robert Freeman’s With The Beatles cover image – shows that the band are possibly returning to their roots…

Hit: Uprising

Hidden Gem: Exogenesis: Symphony Part 3 (Redemption)

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Rocks In The Attic #709: John Williams – ‘Jurassic Park (O.S.T.)’ (1993)

RITA#709What does William’s score to 1993’s Jurassic Park have to do with Dies Irae, a latin hymn from the thirteenth century?

After watching the latest disappointing Jurassic Park sequel, it’s refreshing to wash my brain out with the score to Spielberg’s original film. At this point in his career, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Williams would be washed-up. Surely the composer of Jaws, Superman, the Star Wars trilogy, Close Encounters, the Indiana Jones trilogy – and many, many more – would have nothing left. Somebody that prolific can’t keep on being prolific, can they?

The answer seems to be a resounding Yes. Not only does Jurassic Park contain two distinctly memorable main themes – Theme From Jurassic Park and Journey To The Island – but the rest of the score is just as strong as his ‘70s and ‘80s output. But what’s all this about Gregorian Chant?

The answer is in a descending motif in the ancient hymn. For centuries, this doom-laden melody has been used as short-hand for evil or foreboding – Dies Irae itself translates to Day Of Wrath. A host of great composers have used the motif in their works – Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Holst, Liszt, Mahler and Rachmaninoff, to name but a few – but it’s its use in modern film soundtracks that interests me the most.

The tune is easiest to spot in the first few notes of The Shining’s opening Main Title, played by Wendy Carlos on the Moog Synthesiser. Here, the melody isn’t even disguised, it’s as clear as the day in which it’s used to soundtrack, as the Torrances drive up the mountain approaching the Overlook Hotel.

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Williams uses it to great effect in Jurassic Park, throughout the cues entitled Incident At Isla Nublar (from 3:32), and High Wire Stunts (from 0:00). But this isn’t the first time he’s referenced it. It can be found a couple of times in his iconic score to 1977’s Star Wars. Here it plays as the accompaniment immediately before Luke’s Force Theme rises up in The Burning Homestead (from 1:28), and is echoed in the doom-laden brass line (from 1:43) as Luke’s fate realigns.

And it’s not just John Williams sliding it into his scores, the musical equivalent of directors inserting the Wilhelm Scream into their sound mix. Other famous composers have “borrowed” the melody too. In 2001’s The Fellowship Of The Ring, Howard Shore uses it as the bassline thoughout the cue entitled Weathertop (from 0:18), as the Ringwraiths attack the Hobbits. Jerry Goldsmith utilises it in his 1982 score for Poltergeist, Hans Zimmer uses it briefly in 1994’s The Lion King, and Bernard Herrmann used it back in 1963 for Jason And The Argonauts. Unsurprisingly the tune also makes for good horror music fodder.

RITA#709aEven back in 1927, Gottfried Huppertz inserted the motif into his Dance Of Death cue for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (from 1:17) – confirming that the appropriation of Dies Irae in cinema is as old as cinema itself.

Interestingly, John Williams does something sneaky with Dies Irae in Jurassic Park. Usually the sequence of the first four notes in the motif is enough to suggest doom and despair, but Williams takes just the first three notes and does something unexpected with them. They serve as the starting point for the Jurassic Park’s main theme – as positive and upbeat a film theme as could be, even when played on a Melodica.

Hit: Theme From Jurassic Park

Hidden Gem: Dennis Steals The Embryo

Rocks In The Attic #708: Rowan Atkinson – ‘Live In Belfast’ (1980)

RITA#708Sometimes the wife comes homes with records for me from the charity shop. Sometimes they’re only so-so, and other times I already have them. Strangely she doesn’t have an exhaustive knowledge of what sits on my shelf, like the useless memory banks I have.

Other times, she brings me home records like this; records I didn’t even know existed. Records that make me so happy, it reminds me why I collect these strange, dusty things in the first place.

Rowan Atkinson is undoubtedly one of the greatest British comedic performers of the twentieth century. There are heaps of his early live material to be found on YouTube, but obviously the physical side of his comedy – or his amazingly expressive face – doesn’t come across on LP. The content, written and performed by both Atkinson and long-time collaborator Richard Curtis, still makes for a great listen.

The record has a lovely dedication on the rear sleeve:

This album was recorded in the week of the re-opening of the Grand Opera House, Belfast, at the end of a four month tour of the United Kingdom squeezed in between the second and third series of that infamous ‘bundle of laffs’ Not The Nine O’Clock News. It is a record of not only a coupla jokes told and a coupla laughs gained, but of a wonderful week spent in a troubled province. The kindness shown to us by people in Northern Ireland was truly beyond compare, and this album is dedicated to them.

Hit: I Hate The French

Hidden Gem: The Father Of The Bride

Rocks In The Attic #707: John Carpenter & Alan Howarth – ‘Big Trouble In Little China (O.S.T.)’ (1986)

RITA#707.jpgAcross the space of four years in the late ‘70s / early ‘80s, John Carpenter directed three of the strongest genre films ever to hit cinema screens. The mainstream success of low-budget horror Halloween (1978) awarded him with bigger budgets, which he used to depict dystopian cityscapes in Escape From New York (1981) and sci-fi paranoia in The Thing (1982). Over the same period he also directed 1980’s The Fog and produced the first two Halloween sequels. This was very much Carpenter’s golden period.

Success always attracts attention, and Carpenter was courted by the major studios. As a result, his films of the mid-1980s – Christine (1983), Starman (1984) and Big Trouble In Little China (1986) – all feel like they’re missing something. All of the ingredients are there, but the end results just aren’t as satisfying as his earlier work.

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I’ve written about Christine before, and I’ve always been a big fan of Starman (despite it feeling like the least Carpenteresque of Carpenter’s films). But the real disappointment was Big Touble In Little China. After its commercial failure, Carpenter continually struggled to get films financed, and the rest of his work is patchy. Only 1988’s They Live could be considered as strong as his breakthrough successes.

Big Trouble In Little China should be great. It has a tried and tested Carpenter leading man in Kurt Russell, awesome optical effects, and a terrifically grimy underworld feel. But the plotting is loose, the script is poor, and the performances of the principal actors leave a lot to be desired. Only the soundtrack music – always one of the stronger elements of Carpenter’s work – is up to standard, even if it’s nowhere near his best.

RITA#707cI first saw the film far too young (which is becoming a common theme of this blog). I can vividly recall the first showdown in the alley between Kurt Russell’s character and the Three Storms. This was scary enough, but the appearance of James Hong’s villain – and particularly the light emitted from his mouth and eyes – proved too much and the film was swiftly turned off.

In retrospect, it’s the best part of the film, and one of the great cinematic showdowns of the 1980s. It’s just a shame the rest of the film couldn’t live up to its promise.

Hit: Pork Chop Express (Main Title)

Hidden Gem: Tenement / White Tiger

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Rocks In The Attic #706: Bob Dylan – ‘Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II’ (1971)

RITA#706I saw Bob Dylan in concert a couple of weekends ago. I took my mother-in-law along, who has trouble walking, so we got to use her disabled badge and park inside the stadium.

A couple of weeks prior, they sent us instructions to access the parking space. The email subject line was ‘Mobility Parking Bob Dylan’.

‘Mobility Parking Bob Dylan’ sounds like the long-awaited, much slower, follow-up to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

I went to the concert expecting age-appropriate Dylan classics such as:

– The Tyres (On My Wheelchair), They Need A-Changing
– Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right…I’m Senile
– Subterranean Hip-Replacement Blues
– Like The Rolling Stones
– A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (And I’ve Forgotten My Umbrella)
– All Along The Wheelchair
– Lay Lady Lay (It’s Naptime)
– Stuck Inside My Mobility Scooter With The Memphis Blues Again
– Blowing In The Wind (Flatulence Remix)

And of course, I was expecting Mr Dylan to perform under his real name, Robert Zimmerframe.

The truth was far scarier.

Bob is Bob, and Bob gets to do what he wants to do. Or so the chorus of staunch Dylan fans seem to recite, every time a criticism of his live performances is uttered. It’s like a reflex mechanism. They can’t help it.

You see, Bob Dylan no longer performs Bob Dylan songs live in concert. He sings songs with the same titles as the ones on his records, and (I’m guessing) with the same lyrics, but the music is something else, something new, something strange.  And saying that he sings these songs is very generous, for he doesn’t even sing anymore. He just expels an odd sound, indecipherable to most people. I’m sure he’s trying to get words out, but his enunciation is just lost to the ages.

Critical reviews of his Auckland show were almost universally positive, with the caveat that ‘it wasn’t for everybody’. Because it’s Bob Dylan, right? The man changed culture as much as any politician of the twentieth century. His influence on the music world is immeasurable. So does that give him the right to do what he wants on stage? Of course it does. But then again, any artist can do whatever they want. That’s the very nature of art. It’d be boring otherwise, and generally is.

I can understand the absence of big screens above the stage. If Bob doesn’t like being recorded, that’s fine. But the policing of mobile phones seemed a little heavy-handed. Multiple PA announcements before the show warned that phones were not to be taken out inside the arena ‘at the request of artist management’, which just sounded a little like the energy-allergic paranoia of Michael McKean’s character on TV’s Better Call Saul. I managed to get a few blurry photos, and took a couple of videos under my jacket. A couple in the rows below us were not so lucky and were caught by the phone police. They were asked to follow a staff member out onto the concourse, a journey from which they never came back. As a result, I feel like I’ve smuggled something out of East Germany.

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The sound itself also left a lot to be desired. The first two or three songs were some of the worst sounding music I’ve ever experienced at a big concert. The sound mix was all over the place, and the band just didn’t seem to be gelling. Then something just clicked during a song featuring the accompaniment of a fiddle-player, and it got better and better as the night progressed.

I’m just sad when I imagine how good a Dylan concert could be. ‘Sometimes he can be transcendent,’ somebody told me on Facebook. ‘And other times he can be…less than transcendent.’ Somebody else warned me that he doesn’t do jukebox set-lists, and while I’m sure that a greatest hits set would have made a lot of people happy last week, I’d have been content with something else. If he’d have played anything – anything – and actually sounded like Dylan, I’d have been happy.

But there were a couple of moments in the concert where he did sound like the Dylan everybody remembers. Sat behind his baby-grand on stage, he blew into his harmonica, and that beautiful wailing sound breathed in and out, filling the arena. It’s the sound that makes my dog sing along to Bob’s records. Right then, he could have been the Bob Dylan of 1965, or the Bob Dylan of any decade since. That truly was transcendent.

Hit: All I Really Want To Do

Hidden Gem: I Shall Be Released

Rocks In The Attic #705: Abigail Mead – ‘Full Metal Jacket (O.S.T.)’ (1987)

RITA#705I watched Ken Burns’ excellent documentary series The Vietnam War recently. After being schooled by Hollywood on the conflict for so many years, it was refreshing to find out what really happened. And what a fucking mess. No wonder the United States is in such a bad state in the twenty-first century. There’s probably a straight line between the war and Donald Trump if you look hard enough. In fact, scratch that, you probably don’t even need to look.

Burns’ documentary is heavy-going at times, whether it’s watching the protesting monk committing suicide by self-immolation, the execution of a VC soldier live on TV, or ‘napalm girl’ and her family running away from friendly fire, you really need to watch something a bit lighter straight after. Something with Adam Sandler maybe.

I grew up in the 1980s, the decade which saw a glut of Vietnam films made for the MTV generation – Platoon, Hamburger Hill, Good Morning Vietnam, Born On The Fourth Of July, Casualties Of War – so it’s strange that Kubrick would visit such a popular genre. Oddly he didn’t direct a film between 1980’s The Shining and this, his only film which belongs firmly in that decade.

I’m not sure what Kubrick’s intentions are. Plenty of other films around the same time get across the ‘war is hell’ message loud and clear, and so Full Metal Jacket doesn’t feel as individual as the rest of his work. If anything, it’s the least Kubrickian of his post-1960 films.

Recently rewatching the film after seeing the Ken Burns documentary, one glaring take-out for me is that the US might have fared better in Vietnam if they hadn’t put so much time and effort into giving each other catchy nicknames (a trope excellently lampooned in Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump).

Music-wise, the choice of Abigail Mead as composer for the score lends the film an ominous gloom, but it’s the contemporary music that is best remembered. Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ opens the second act of the film, soundtracking an infamous scene with a Vietnamese prostitute bartering with two marines. I remember this playing as a comedic scene – a moment of levity – when the film was first released, but watching now, it’s hard to stomach. A number of racist epithets originated in that scene, and have since become ingrained in popular culture.

RITA#705aOn my way to work, I walk past an Asian fusion restaurant which proudly displays one of these phrases on the pavement outside their building. I like to hope that the owners are just trying to reclaim the saying, but it just feels wrong, and must look terrible to our many Asian residents and tourists.

The one mis-step on the soundtrack is the opening track – Full Metal Jacket (I Wanna Be Your Drill Instructor), credited to Abigail Mead and Nigel Goulding. A dated jaunt through Lee Ermey’s drill instructor rhymes, put to a hip hop beat, and accompanied by a Fairlight synthesiser, it’s truly as horrific as it sounds.

Hit: These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ – Nancy Sinatra

Hidden Gem: Hello Vietnam – Johnny Wright