Its often been said that when you hear a film score that has been written in the decade of the 1960’s you don’t even have to check the date of when it was released, because the film music of the 1960’s had a very distinct and unique sound, often it was symphonic as in played by an orchestra with strings, brass, percussion etc but also in the 1960’s composers were beginning to experiment with instrumentation that had started to become popular in the popular music of that era, guitars, drums, double bass, etc all went into the mix, with composers such as John Barry, Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein. Jerry Fielding, Quincy Jones and Ennio Morricone creating a unique mix and fusion of styles and sounds. I thought that I would look back on just a handful of scores from that decade and remind us of just how innovative and creative that the 1960’s were. I started to collect soundtracks in the early 1960’s so I suppose it’s easier for me to remember or maybe sometimes forget the music of sixties cinema. It was a fertile period and not just for film music, there were vibrant and catchy pop songs arriving every day and also the instrumental track was still something that was popular amongst listeners when played on the radio It was a time of discovery in film music, as in composers working on scores and pushing boundaries and breaking down barriers of what type of music should be or could be written for a genre. Let’s start with most people’s favourite genre THE WESTERN. There are so many western movies and western scores that are now regarded as iconic which first made their appearance in the 1960.s. So it is with some difficulty that I selected just four scores to open this article, one is a score which at the time of its release was hailed as ground breaking and revolutionary, another is a work that I am sure you will agree is a classic and also a film that was to spawn so many sequels and spin offs. The third is something of the odd one out as it was released in the latter part of 1969, so arguably could be and is often thought as being a part of the era of the 1970’s, and the fourth, well it’s certainly different as is its score, and is probably not even thought of by many as a true western.
THERE ARE TWO KINDS OF PEOPLE IN THIS WORLD, THOSE WITH GUNS AND THOSE WHO DIG. YOU DIG!
The first score I am going to talk about is probably one of the best known western soundtracks of all time and its theme has certainly attained a cult following, the theme itself stands out but it was not just this that audiences became attracted too, the remainder of the score too was an important and moreover an integral part of the movie it was written for, in fact a number of the cues were composed before the cameras had started to roll on many of the scenes within the film, and the director would play the music to the actors on set to inspire them.
The director even extended certain scenes, so that the music could run its full course allowing it to develop and then he would cut the scene or extend it to accommodate the music. To say this score and this move are iconic is certainly a great understatement, the film is of course THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY with a classic score by supreme composer Ennio Morricone. It was with this movie and also this score that the Spaghetti western genre was truly born, of course there were two movies made by director Sergio Leone which contained music by Morricone that had been released prior to THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE these too had a hand in shaping the phenomena that was to become the violent yet quirky Italian western, and also they helped in the creation of the raw and at times savage sounding soundtracks that the films within the genre required. Many say that ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST was Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, but in my opinion, it is THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY that most remember him for and relate to Morricone through. The movie is a sprawling American Civil War epic, but that is just a background to the main story of three men that are all aiming to become richer by the way of a grave full of dollars.
As the tag line says, FOR THREE MEN THE CIVIL WAR WASN’T HELL, IT WAS PRACTICE. The score by Morricone, matched the violence and the grandiose and epic battle scenes and the relentless tension that was whipped up via the unsteady relationship between the three central characters underlining these three figures and giving them a musical identity all of their own.
The score not only purveyed a rawness and a harshness and enhanced the elements when they manifested on screen, but there were too a number of more subdued and lighter moments. This is most certainly a score that changed the way in which western soundtracks were perceived and written, gone were the Copelandish wide open range melodies, and the rodeo infused sounds that we had all associated with the western movie, as in THE BIG COUNTRY and GONE WITH THE WIND, instead of the normal HOME HOME ON THE RANGE and crooning cowboys, we were served up Shrieks, Screams and Grunts, Electric guitar passages were the mainstay of the score and subsequent soundtracks within the genre, choral performances, soprano solos, racing percussion and martial sounding brass, and of course the flawless whistling of Alessandro Alessandroni who not only featured in this Epic but in hundreds of sagebrush tale soundtracks that were to follow from Italy. Now, whistling had always been something associated with cowboys, but with Morricone in the driving seat the whistle took on a more integral role at times becoming sinister and apprehensive at times and also as within the dollar movies it became the trademark of the central protagonist THE MAN WITH NO NAME. This was a masterful move from the composer, he took a standard sound which the audiences had already identified and associated with westerns and utilised it in a revolutionary fashion.
Alongside the shouts, grunts and shrieks Morricone employed the calming sound of the classical guitar within cues such as THE SUNDOWN and FATHER RAMIREZ, the latter purveying a sense of the melancholy, whereas the former had to it menacing connotations and introduced the unmerciful character of Angel Eyes to the audience. So again, the composer took an instrument associated with the western and transformed it. Of course, he had already experimented with the use of a musical sound in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, with the sound of the chiming watch, which again was a key factor into understanding the films storyline and he would do this again in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and to a more integral degree, using harmonica as a focal point that is pivotal to bringing the story to its conclusion and making things more translucent to the watching audience. In the GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY we also hear the mournful yet poignant STORY OF A SOLDIER, which is one of the gentler paths to the score, at first we hear sweet song but then when you listen closer and hear the lyrics, it is in fact an anti-war ballad.
THE STORY OF A SOLDIER. LYRICS.
Bugles are calling from prairie to shore
“Sign up” and “Fall In” and march off to war
Blue grass and cotton, burnt and forgotten
All hope seems gone so soldier march on to die
Bugles are calling from prairie to shore
“Sign up” and “Fall In” and march off to war
There in the distance a flag I can see
Scorched and in ribbons but whose can it be
How ends the story, whose is the glory
Ask if we dare, our comrades out there who sleep.
The composer also wrote a tense and literally sizzling piece entitled THE DESERT, which underscored the sequence when Blondie (Clint Eastwood) is left to wander in the desert with no water or shade whilst being watched by Tuco (Eli Wallach) Morricone’s music gave this sequence a greater impact and relentlessly followed the action purveying a feeling of heat and thirst. The searing sounds being performed by strings, percussion, woodwind and piano, with horns being added to the mix to relay the vastness and immenseness of the dry hot desert. Then segueing into the desert sequence we have a piece entitled THE CARRIAGE OF THE SPIRITS, bugles open the cue with the soprano of Edda dell Orso, combining with them to create an almost celestial moment, as a carriage of dead and dying soldiers is seen hurtling along the sand throwing up a dust cloud, it comes to a halt as Tuco manages to stop the horses, and this I suppose is where the story of the movie really begins, because it is here that Tuco and Blondie find out about the gold but Blondie has a vital piece of information from one of the dying occupants of the carriage, and now Tuco has to do everything to keep him alive after nearly killing him in the desert. Morricones music is key to this scene and elevates the sight of the racing wagon and horses being both enthralling and melancholy. Tuco decides to take Blondie to San Antonio mission, where the monks care for him and nurse him back to health. One of these holy men is Father Ramirez, Tuco’s Brother.
As the movie nears its conclusion we are treated to stand out tracks such as,THE ECSTACY OF GOLD, what can you say about this composition that has not already been said? During the last 20 minutes or so of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY, there is very little dialogue, in fact most of the interaction between the actors is done via stares and close ups on the eyes, sweating brows and hands hovering over guns in holsters. But it all begins with the poignant cue DEATH OF A SOLDIER which is a version of THE STORY OF A SOLDIER, but we hear no lyrics being sung, just a choral version of the lilting and emotive melody, as Clint Eastwood’s character, takes time to comfort a dying boy soldier watching him die Eastwood picks up the blanket that is covering the soldier and this is where, the final sequence begins. Tuco stumbles into the graveyard that he has been looking for and realises the mammoth task he has in front of him, to find a specific grave amongst thousands of others.
It is at this point that Morricone takes the helm and the film becomes awash with wonderful and exciting music that is THE ECSTACY OF GOLD, choir, brass, percussion, strings, piano and the unique vocalising of Edda Dell Orso, take the scene by the throat as Tuco goes into a frenzied and almost mad search for the gravestone. In a western this type of scoring had never been seen before, it was and still is gloriously effective and totally mesmerising. Morricone and Leone entered the motion picture history books when they collaborated on this film, Leone creating a movie that was not just a western but in fact was a historical account of the American Civil War and a pretty accurate one too. Morricone became the supreme Maestro via his crafting of music that did so much more than support the action on screen, because he also had a hand in the creation of a genre. A genre that would take the traditional American made cowboy movies and turn them on their head and inside out, using them as a blueprint but all the time altering and adding to the basic outline to produce not just great movies that entertained, but also westerns that outshone many of their American made predecessors.
The crowning glory of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY,(and numerous other Italian westerns) is the showdown, the gunfight, the settling of grievances and to the victor goes the spoils. Or in this case the gold. The showdown was to become the trademark of Sergio Leone and also the scene where Morricone would come into his own, again Leone often allowing Morricone to compose the music first and then filming the final gunfight around the score, thus these duels would often take some time, but when you watch the final showdown in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, it is for me definitely the music that builds the tension.
It is not background in any way, it is the driving force and also seems to become another character in the stand-off, a character that is not taking part but watching, orchestrating and pushing the protagonists into a fight where there can be only one winner. The apex of any spaghetti western is the showdown at the end of the movie where the good guy (or anti-hero) sometimes ends up dispatching the villain, but the Italians do it with style and also with a nervous tension that all the time is enhanced by the musical score, in THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY, the end gunfight was fashioned around Ennio Morricone’s near eight minute composition that we now all know as IL TRIO, this is where the final solution will be reached and as I have said already the settling of accounts and grievances will at last be done. Normally in American westerns this was carried out without the aid of any music two rivals meet in the street or saloon, they stand looking at each other whilst townsfolk head for the hills, the men maybe say a few words and then comes the draw and two shots ring out and one of the opponents falls to the ground. In an Italian western it is much more involved, and in the GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY we have three figures standing facing each other. So, anything could happen, Morricone’s dark yet at the same time exciting showdown music is central to the scene, solo trumpet soars, percussive elements punctuate, solo piano meanders in and out creating a menacing sound and adds tension to the proceedings, whilst a strumming guitar gently sounds the death nell for one or maybe two of the trio involved. Punctuating castanets give the piece more tension and Morricones use of electronic sound within the track also adds to the taught atmosphere, bring choir and also a chiming effect into the equation and what is building here is a tumultuous and immensely dramatic and intense composition that is a bolero of death which builds to a crashing and powerful operatic crescendo.
IF THEY MOVE KILL EM!
Sam Peckinpah is probably best known for his take on the western in the 1969 production THE WILD BUNCH, it was an edgy and polished production, and in my opinion the director re-invented the western after the Italian western had almost run its course. The uber violent movie set a precedent for many other film makers and also showed the real damage that a pump action rifle was able to do, which movies up until then had not displayed, it was no longer a case of bang, bang and the victim falls to the ground with a small bloodstain on his shirt or trousers, no with Peckinpah’s WILD BUNCH we got the full treatment, exploding bullet wounds that spurted blood and spattered the streets and dusty ground with a crimson shower. Peckinpah had been the subject of the censor four years previous when he directed another western MAJOR DUNDEE, which had its opening scene edited in the UK because it was deemed to be too graphic. He again would fall foul of censorship on THE WILD BUNCH.
THE WILD BUNCH was a movie that made many in the audience cringe but also was a film that gained a following because of its notoriety for the use of violence throughout. It was the first X rated movie I went to see, even though I was under age, I managed to get in and I have to admit seeing the X Certificate come up on the screen, made me feel a little apprehensive, but it’s a western I thought, what could possibly warrant an X cert for the movie. How wrong I was. The opening sequence which runs whilst the films credits display on the screen, is masterfully done by the director, and assisted magnificently by Jerry Fielding’s atmospheric and slightly martial sounding but downbeat score. THE WILD BUNCH or at least part of the gang ride into a small town, dressed in US army uniforms, other members of the gang are already in the town waiting for the signal. The target of the gang is the bank, the opening sequence is wonderfully atmospheric and dark the images and the music build a tension which reaches almost a crescendo of a breaking point at its conclusion. The scene is also an important one for setting the scene for what is to follow in the movie and introduces us to several of the central characters on both sides of the fence within the storyline, as in William Holden (Pike Bishop), Robert Ryan (Deke Thornton), Ernest Borgnine (Dutch), Warren Oates and Ben Johnson (The Gorch Brothers).
The music is I think so important within this sequence, it brings all the elements together, and Fielding in a way is acting as another character that is both a member of the Bunch and also as an on looker. The music laces its way through the action in a subtle but also in a foreboding and apprehensive fashion, it builds upon an already tense mood and enhances and elevates this via its sinewy but martial rhythms and beats. The composer would also employ this style of scoring in the end sequence of the movie, with snare drums accompanying four members of the Bunch as they walk through the streets to negotiate with the Mexican leader for the life of their friend Angel. The tension is underlying and present already, thanks to Peckinpah’s knife edge direction and the superb acting of the leading players, but again it is the score that increases that tense and nervous atmosphere, the Bunch walk through the dusty streets as they are watched by the hundreds of soldiers that are camped around them.
We just know that this will not end well, mostly because of the musical score, which is already preparing us for more moments of violence. Fielding also provided the film with some beautiful lilting Mexican melodies and entertaining mariachi style passages, which he wove into the fabric of the score giving it a more authentic sound and style. Which when you think about it was what Bernstein achieved in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, in the cues entitled on the soundtrack, PETRA’S DECLARATION and MARIACHIS DE MEXICO.
THE SONG FROM THE WILD BUNCH is a emotive and touching piece for guitar, strings and subdued brass that are underlined by scattering of subtle woods with the string section giving it a luxurious and lush sound, the composer delivering a superbly melodic composition amidst a majority of action fuelled piece’s. It is like the proverbial island of calm amidst a sea of fast paced and pulsating compositions and does evoke memories of Bernstein’s score for THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. Fielding also works into his score LA GOLONDRIA which in English is THE SWALLOW a song written in the early eighteen sixties by Mexican doctor Narciso Serradell Sevilla and over the years was recorded by numerous artists, including Solomon King in the 1960’s under the title of SHE WEARS MY RING before Fielding incorporated into his soundtrack.
The song which is heard as the Bunch leave Angels village is particularly poignant and relevant as it tells of the longing for a home land or place where one belongs, it was at one time used as a signature song for many exiled Mexicans who fled their country when the French intervened in its affairs.
The violent scenes purveyed with THE WILD BUNCH became the trademark of many westerns that were to follow, and although the Spaghetti westerns that had ruled previously were violent, they did not really contain such graphic examples of the true devastation and damage that can be caused by the shooting of a person, yes they did include scenes that were on occasion even cut by the censors outside of the country of their production, as in Sergio Corbucci’s DJANGO, which was banned in the UK for many years. Also, Corbucci’s THE GREAT SILENCE was edited heavily by censors before getting a theatrical release.
Peckinpah however, was probably the first to show the full horror of a bullet entering and exiting a body on screen. The end scene from the movie is a testament to that. And consider the end sequence which was carnage personified, with hails of bullets and slow motion sequences, showing falling bodies, arcs of blood and explosions etc, which was not scored, The filmmaker letting the action be the focus for the audience, so another masterful move by both director and composer. It is only after Borgnine and Holden are eventually gunned down and lay dying that the DIRGE AND FINAL commences, the fighting has stopped and there are what seems like hundreds of bodies lying around the music underscoring and bringing home the extent of the devastation and loss of life. These images and the sight of gathering vultures underlined by Fielding’s subtle and sombre score was stunningly effective and highly emotive and sobering.
I SHALL CALL YOU MARAH, BECAUSE YOU ARE BITTER LIKE WATER.
The next movie is a 1969/1970 production, but I felt that I had to include it because I often wonder what I have just sat through when I do at times return to it. I only saw the movie EL TOPO once, and it was a movie that at the time I did not fully appreciate or understand, it was screened at the BFI which was in Brighton, a cinema that is sadly no longer there although he screen is still in place showing MTV to customers of a well-known fast food chain, who have their restaurant on the site of the cinema. EL TOPO has been referred to as the first Mid-Night movie, a movie that was never shown before midnight in cinemas, why, Well I think it is because it is such a complex movie that not everyone would appreciate the storyline or the images on screen.
As I said I saw the movie just once and came away confused and somewhat dazed, was it a western, was it a religious movie or a fusion of the two, it certainly had the violence of the Spaghetti Western, and the camera angles and way in which it was filmed were very evocative of the Italian made western.
EL TOPO is a figure dressed in black, who carries his naked son on his horse behind him, at times carrying an umbrella to shield him from the sun, (shades of A MAN A HORSE AND A GUN). EL TOPO played by the director of the movie, Alejandro Jodorowsky who also composed the score, has superhuman shooting ability and he is persuaded to put this to use avenging the slaughtered inhabitants of a village. He is persuaded by a woman to ride deep into the desert to confront and fight four mystical gunfighters, he leaves his son with a group of monks and rides off to face the gun men. EL TOPO kills all four of them but is then betrayed and wounded finally being dragged into a cave that is inhabited by a community of deformed people, these ask EL TOPO to help them too, they want to escape from the religious fanatics that inhabit the town, so they ask him to help them build a tunnel. Weird, yes, it is, thought provoking, I am still not sure, entertaining, well I don’t think I could say it was really, violent yes, sexual scenes yes, filled with religious references yes to that also, note the dead bodies with Bee hives inside them, as a reference to stories in the old testament. The movie was given much credence and attained the cult status largely because of John Lennon who was a big fan of the movie and its director. But, because of certain disagreements between the director and the producer EL TOPO was withdrawn from circulation for some 30 years, and if you were lucky enough to see it after the first initial screenings, it was probably via a bootleg video tape. It was partly also due to its withdrawal that the movie attained the status it has. As already touched upon this also happened with DJANGO the Franco Nero spaghetti western, which was banned for many years, before being screened on BBC tv in the 1990’s. Like DJANGO, EL TOPO ‘S reputation preceded it. And it became notorious or infamous before many had even seen it. Thus, giving it an iconic or legendary status. Finally, the movie was given an official release on DVD in 2005 and then was screened in cinemas late in 2007.
The musical score by the director was in many ways just as bizarre as the movie, although there are certain similarities within the score to certain Italian western scores, the use of solo trumpet for example and the utilisation of choir. However there are some interesting cues within the score, that at times have to be given credit for being original and innovative, the composer creates a number of haunting melodies which are performed by conventional film music instrumentation and would not be out of place in any genre of film, there is even the token trumpet track, UNDER THE EARTH track number 2, is typically spaghetti sounding, with cantering timpani acting as a background to the central theme being performed on trumpet and accompanied further by French horn.
The soundtrack also contains several quirky up-beat tracks that sound very similar to either burlesque or circus music, something that was used in certain spaghetti westerns by the likes of composer Carlo Rustichelli, whether these were effective or popular is another matter. I have to say one track does bare an uncanny resemblance to the music of WALLACE AND GROMIT, but as this was written in 1970, I suppose WALLACE AND GROMIT sounds like EL TOPO. The composer also uses organ at certain points within the score, and his use of choir in cues such as DEATH IS BIRTH displays an uncanny resemblance to the style of both Morricone and Nicolai. Jodorowsky, combining the vocals with warm sounding strings and underlining proceedings with brass. The composer also makes effective use of woodwind and solo guitar. There is no doubt that this is an interesting soundtrack, and even at times breaks into jazz orientated cues, which maybe cold be a nod in the direction of composer Piero Piccioni who incorporated jazz influenced cues into his western scores. The movie maybe a little confusing, and I am still not sure if this is a western or an art house movie or a religious vehicle. Whatever it is I still believe the score is an entertaining one and also one that served the picture well, penned by an imaginative and innovative composer who also just happened to be a gifted film maker.
ONLY THE FARMERS WON, WE LOST, WE ALWAYS LOSE.
The next score is from what many would probably refer to as a traditional western. Released in 1960, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN not only became a classic movie but spawned a number of sequels, the majority of which never really shone as brightly as the original, what all of the movies had in common was the score or at least the opening theme and the music that accompanied the seven gunmen or mercenaries that were the focus of each instalment. Composer Elmer Bernstein penned the opening theme and it was not long before the music became popular not only within the movie but also as just a piece of music that stood alone.
Don’t forget in the 1960’s it was not unusual for radio stations to play film themes and Bernstein’s MAGNIFICENT SEVEN got a lot of airplay, it was also a piece of music that was covered by many artists, from The John Barry Seven to The Fifty Guitars of Tommy Garret and Henry Mancini. Each artist putting their own stamp upon it. But it was the expansiveness and the melodic content of this evergreen theme that attracted people to it and it is still today associated with the western, as soon as the opening bars are heard people think horses and cowboys. But it was not only the theme that stood out, Bernstein’s score was also expansive, expressive and vibrant and contained a plethora of rich and colourful themes, these ranged from the driving and dramatic as in CALVERA, with its tense brass, urgent guitars, dark and driving strings and wild percussion which accompanied the bandits as they entered the village.
A theme that the composer adapted and utilised in THE RETURN OF THE SEVEN in the form of BANDIDOS. The central theme for Bernstein’s score was repeated throughout the movie as in THE JOURNEY, but we also heard snippets of the melody within other cues and even within the more robust battle music when the Bandits attack the village, the SEVEN theme accompanying individual members of the band of mercenaries when they were involved in being shot or doing the shooting etc. Bernstein’s score also contained numerous pieces that were of a Mexican Mariachi style, and added a authentic musical flavour to the production. One of the stand out cues was for me TORO, which is a stunning composition that combines a rich melodic content with a soaring and tantalising trumpet solo that is accompanied and punctuated by strong strumming guitars, giving it a wonderfully exuberant Hispanic feel, the trumpet heralds a tense and highly dramatic orchestral piece which is powerful and commanding in its make up and performance, strings, brass, and booming percussion combine to play out a robust and a the same time thematic passage.
The next piece that is key to the film and the score is PETRA’S DECLARATION, which I have already referred to in the section on THE WILD BUNCH this lilting melody is one of the most beautifully haunting written, guitar and strings work together passing the subtle theme from one to another. The music that Bernstein composed for the action scenes of the movie, added much to these, rumbling brass, raw brass flourishes and tense driving strings, combined with the images creating what I think is a perfect combination, because although one is aware that there is music there, it does not distract one from what is taking place on screen, but at the same time if you were to watch these without the music, would they be as exciting or affecting? It was style and sound that we would hear again in scores such as THE RETURN OF THE SEVEN, THE KINGS OF THE SUN and THE GREAT ESCAPE. Directed by John Sturges, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is a classic movie, and one which contains an iconic soundtrack.
TO BE CONTINUED…………………………………………