Saturday, December 16, 2006

Movie Music

I had a stack of records I was planning to transfer to MP3 and post here, but I couldn’t figure out what the connecting thread was. But then it hit me: all the songs were either taken from soundtrack records, or they were by artists that I’d discovered from a movie soundtrack.

My childhood television-watching memories mostly consist of vast catatonic stretches gazing at Saturday morning cartoons, maybe a little weekend family time with the Love Boat/Fantasy Island double-whammy, or some after-school moralizing from The Brady Bunch. But I have a couple recollections of having my mind blown by watching old movies on the telly. One was a Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road movie - slapstick, songs, buddy adventure, world travel - it had it all. Another powerful movie experience involved catching “To Sir With Love.” I’m sure that the story was vaguely compelling, but what really captivated was the scene with Lulu singing the title song at the tear-jerking climax. Listening to it now, it’s surprising how much the song is obviously an ode to the Smokey Robinson/Motown school, complete with the classroom/love lessons, the dramatic strings and the opening almost Latin rhythmic bass line.

“To Sir With Love” – Lulu

Years later I scored the soundtrack at a yardsale. I think I also found the Coleman Hawkins/Milt Jackson record (and a large book of aerial photographs of Mecklenburg Country) at the same sale. On relistening to the music, I had a brief infatuation with the Mindbenders, the mod crew who rock out at the school dance. This song “It’s Getting Harder” just rips. From the opening two-beat drum intro to the requisite backwards guitar solo.

“It’s Getting Harder” - the Mindbenders

Screaming Jay Hawkins was another movie discovery, thanks to Jim Jarmusch and “Stranger Than Paradise,” which also turned me on to John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards. “I Put A Spell on You” was the song that got me. Then I got the record Frenzy and heard “Hong Kong,” which is sort of frm the same greasy-waltz template. It’s certainly ethnically inappropriate, racialist, insensitive, and stupid, but god it’s good.

“Hong Kong” - Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

As it happens, I also had the soundtrack from Hair on the stack (Broadway version, not from the movie, which we just watched a bit of the other night, great Twyla Tharp choreography - did you know Diane Keaton was in the Broadway production?). This is one that I remember finding in my mom’s record collection. I was shocked to hear songs about LSD and sodomy (not to mention masturbation and pederasty). And the funky “Colored Spade” continues to freak me out. There are a handful of really beautiful songs on the soundtrack, but one of my favorites is “Frank Mills.” You may remember that the Lemonheads covered this tune on It’s a Shame About Ray, about the same time they had success with their cover of Mrs. Robinson. Evan Dando was always a bit of a softie - they covered the Gram Parsons tune “Brass Buttons” on an earlier record.

“Frank Mills” - from Hair

As I think about it, the movie music theme could probably be drawn out for weeks, but one more artist/movie deserved inclusion. Though I’m pretty sure I’d heard Skip James, I had never really paid particular attention until I saw Ghost World in 2001. The tune “Devil Got My Woman” features prominently in the story, and I think I went and ordered the complete Skip James that night when I got home from the theater. James is one of those amazing Delta blues characters who disappeared for years, everybody thought he was dead, only to be “rediscovered” in the ‘60s by some astute folk/blues revivalist. James actually made a come back and performed at the Newport Folk Festival. You can catch some amazing footage of him on YouTube.

Obviously, James’ voice is incredible, but left me shaking my head was his piano playing, which is a crazy wide-open dematerialized fragmented approximation of Delta blues guitar playing. There are so many dramatic gaps and holes and pauses in his playing on “How Long ‘Buck,’” but you can feel the pulse chucking underneath it all, even more so when nothing is happening.

“How Long ‘Buck’” - Skip James
I thought about dropping the Pink Floyd tune from the end of Zabriski Point, from the great slow-motion explosion while the credits run, but I hate that movie.

1 comment:

Lefty said...

Rose O'Donnell don't got nuthin on Screamin Jay Hawkins.