Do you dance
The former description corresponds to the concert that John Carpenter gave during Primavera Sound last June 2nd. A gig many of us awaited with teenage angst, and that once finished we didn’t dare judge with the same parameters we apply to other many musical acts. Using superlatives might be out of place, but applying a critical eye and airing the many objections (the omission of favourite songs, the excessively rocky treatment the band often used…) seems mean, almost a betrayal of the emotional-cinephiliac-musical background of all the people gathered there. At the end of the day, seeing the director of They Live playing live on stage a selection of his soundtracks was a possibility that only a few months back wasn’t even in the field of the imaginable.
The perception we have of Carpenter is that of a kind of hermit with bad health, not too keen on travelling (he didn’t even come to get the honorary prize that the Sitges Film Festival awarded him with in 2008) and without much interest in publicising his musician side. Son of a violin player, our man has always confessed that his studies on the field are precarious, and that the decision of composing the soundtracks to his movies himself was due, at least at the beginning, to the low budgets he counted on: suffice it to say that the soundtrack for Assault on Precinct 13 was recorded in one day, using a borrowed synthesiser. He didn’t even want to make much ado about it when, in the mid eighties and already being a household name when it came to horror films, he formed the band The Coupe de Villes with two friends, also directors Tommy Lee Wallace and Nick Castle: the only album they recorded, Waiting Out the Eighties, is officially unpublished (it was only distributed amongst friends of the band, but a kind spirit uploaded it onto YouTube) and, of course, they never made any sort of public appearance; we can only see the three members of the band in the funny music video they recorded for Big Trouble in Little China. For all this, many of us received the news of his current tour (and, most of all, of his stop in Barcelona) as an unexpected gift, and the joy it provoked made any objections to the gig a mere trifle. But tearing the oppressive corset of fan rhetorics, it’s worth travelling back to that spring night and briefly analysing a couple of things about Carpenter’s music and how we relate to it.
The first question has to do with the circumstances that made possible something so apparently impossible as having the author of The Thing jumping on a stage. The most immediate answer is that, in the last months, Carpenter has released Lost Themes and Lost Themes II, two works made up of instrumental pieces not thought to accompany any images, but with a similar aesthetic to his soundtracks. In his gigs in smaller venues he plays the not-to-be-ashamed-of recent repertoire, but at Primavera Sound the director and his band (in which he’s backed up by his son Cody and his step-son Daniel Davies, son of former Kinks member Dave Davies, also an occasional Carpenter collaborator) only played two songs from these albums, since they thought that what the audience really wanted was hearing the manic repetitions of Halloween, and the Gothic atmosphere of The Mist. That takes us to thinking that, maybe, the Sacred Bones label (also responsible for the publishing of records by David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch) wouldn’t have been so interested in John Carpenter’s “lost songs” if it wasn’t for the boom that seventies and eighties horror film soundtracks are having in recent years; soundtracks that in many cases weren’t even commercialised back in the day and that now are the object of tantalising vinyl editions. At the head of the panic beat cause we find label Death Waltz, responsible for circulating again the music from Escape from New York, Prince of Darkness and other Carpenter jewels.
This policy of gourmet re-releases of works often composed in the trenches has been parallel to the boom of musical projects that have John Carpenter at the top of an aesthetic canon which is filtered thinking not so much about possible images as the dance floor. All in all, the director prefers to keep a distance from this trend he doesn’t feel the godfather of. In an interview published in magazine The Wire, he made these comments after listening to a track by Umberto, probably the responsible of this dark synthesisers revival: “I don’t hear any influence [of my soundtracks]. None. There’s just this cheesy organ sound (…) I played, generally speaking, orchestral type music on a synthesizer. That’s not what any of these guys now are doing. They’re doing something different. They’re taking off from techno or electronic music – which is great, I love electronic music. But it’s a different genre”.
But no matter how much Carpenter might frown, it’s evident that the place of his music has changed; it no longer surrounds us at the cinema room, now it’s a mermaid’s song in the frame of music festivals in which he would have been considered an alien before but which today is a knowing bet: should promoter All Tomorrow’s Parties not have closed its doors, I’m sure this summer the director would have played in Iceland as the top of a line-up also including Goblin and Fabio Frizzi, Lucio Fulci’s composer. His concerts are, in fact, the image itself of this new situation: we applaud, dance and receive, as a balsam, songs that should produce an ominous feeling. In the eighties, Afrika Bambaataa revisited the main theme of Assault to Precinct 13 in an uptempo key. The hip-hop pioneer was the first to guess the galvanising potential of these soundtracks that, as it’s logical, were born with a concrete narrative objective, as a fundamental element of the mise-en-scène. Using a synthesiser, and without any possibilities of composing in front of the recorded material until Escape from New York, Carpenter was not trying to create descriptive scores following the dramatic flow, but he had the knack to make music and images fit somehow, giving them a characteristic sound that defined his films and, sometimes, also his creatures. As Arnau Horta affirmed on a recent article published by Cultura/s, the main theme of Halloween isn’t only a suspense resort, but an acoustic incarnation of psychopath Michael Myers, as repetitive, inextinguishable and immutable as the evolution of the masked assassin. Those few notes coming from an enervating keyboard are the sound that the film itself transmits when it breathes, as is Neil Young’s guitar in Dead Man, or the scores with which Tindersticks palate the work of Claire Denis.
“I don’t hear any influence. None. There’s just this cheesy organ sound (…) I played, generally speaking, orchestral type music on a synthesizer. That’s not what any of these guys now are doing. They’re doing something different. They’re taking off from techno or electronic music – which Is great, I love electronic music. But it’s a different genre”.
Carpenter maintained that optimal precision during most of the seventies and eighties, when he worked hand in hand with sound engineer Alan Howarth, but it got to a point in which he wanted to face the marriage of image and music with further shrillness, at least on the main themes. Still today we’re surprised at hearing the song to the title credits of In the Mouth of Madness, cheeky and with a Dave Davies going mad on the guitar; not exactly the best way to start an obsessive, nightmarish and Lovecraftian film (the hard rock vein would go even further with Ghosts of Mars, which united the strings of Steve Vai, Buckethead, Scott Ian and Paul Crook). It’s dramatically and narratively useless music, and, however, when we heard the first notes at Primavera Sound some of us went mad. Why? Well, I’m afraid that simply because it’s inevitably charismatic. Because it’s “cool.” I would usually never use that word in an article, but I just can’t find any other term to describe with such precision and transparency the aura of the theme song, and Carpenter’s capacity to go beyond good and evil and invalidate the critical exercise. It’s cool hearing Prince of Darkness; it’s cool seeing the director and the rest of musicians putting their sunglasses on before playing, teasingly, They Live; and it’s (really) cool realising that the context of all that music is no longer a given scene, or simple title credits, but a dark rave that feeds off the joy of all of those who have turned those rhythms into familiar hymns. Carpenter can no longer scare us, because he has giving us too much joy.