I was thrilled to see the first few clips that appeared on YouTube of excerpts from John Carpenter’s first ever gig. Hes currently touring the globe performing some of the pieces of music that have featured in his films. Whilst these are soundtracks to his films these pieces of music are also the soundtracks to the lives of many cinephiles.
One of those cinephiles includes me. I am old enough (just!) to remember and experience the advent of video in the UK. Almost all of Carpenter’s films made up until this point were released on video at this time. Any of John Carpenter’s films that weren’t hits at the cinema box office (and that wasn’t many) became huge hits on video. Escape From New York is one such example. Video gave certain films and filmmakers a whole new audience. Viewers could now play and replay Carpenter’s films. Hence every piece of Carpenter’s music was absorbed note for note.
The first Carpenter film I ever saw was Halloween. It remains in my Top 3 films of all time (the other two being Taxi Driver and Bloodsucking Freaks). Its a testament to Carpenter’s filmmaking that I instantly knew there and then that I was watching a cinematic landmark as the film’s events were unfolding before my eyes. And that was even though the print I was watching was full screen, pan and scan and faded to fuck. But the film still had a massive impact on me. As Halloween seemed to be the ultimate cinematic horror statement then the soundtrack for the film was the ultimate perfect musical accompaniment- primal, simplistic, tragic and doom laden. I knew something horrific yet unavoidable was going to happen during the film’s course. And it did. The sound of a piano would never be the same for me again. It was like Carpenter was a punk film composer- go back to basics and make a soundtrack using as few notes as possible. If other more boring film composers were Yes or Emerson, Lake and Palmer then Carpenter was Suicide or The Ramones.
Theres a famous story involving the soundtrack to Halloween- Carpenter showed the film to studio executives before the music had been added. They said rather ruthlessly that the film was good but no more. But then they saw the film with the music added. They concluded that the film was a masterpiece and that it had scared the bejesus out of them! Never underestimate a film’s score. Just as Bernard Herman had perfectly scored the greatest horror movie of that era, John Carpenter had scored the done the same.
Halloween had such a massive impact on me that I feverishly started to see as much of Carpenter’s work as possible. With every brilliant film was an equally brilliant soundtrack- the urban ultra-minimalism of Assault on Precinct 13, the synth-meets-baroque creeping menace of The Fog, the graceful sweeping score for Escape From New York.
Even the scores Carpenter wrote for films that he didn’t direct are visionary, astounding pieces of work. I think the soundtrack for Halloween III: Season of the Witch is one of the best soundtracks ever written. Credit here should also be given to Alan Howarth who has collaborated with Carpenter on many of his soundtracks. I want the track Drive to Santa Mira to be played at my funeral.
So just as Carpenter has many strings to his bow (director, composer, actor, editor) he can now add rock star. Thats not bad going.