Friday, September 25, 2015

Nostalgia Nugget – My First Soundtrack

I have to say that 1987 was not a banner year for me. I was surviving the wilds of Junior High, doing my best to keep a low profile, but still managing to get book dumped at least once a week. My best friend moved to Mississippi later that year and I pretty much felt lost.

Somewhere along the way the joy of Transformers evaporated. I was into NES games, especially The Legend of Zelda, but I didn’t actually own an NES, and had to enjoy and play the game at a friend’s house (a friend who was a few years younger than me, and so I couldn’t hang out with at school and discuss the game).

This book contained tons of information
that went beyond the movies.
I was looking for something to fall back on, and that may be where I experienced my first bout of nostalgia. I rediscovered the Star Wars trilogy. Part of this came with a trip to Disneyland, and riding Star Tours for the first time. While I was there, my parents bought me the Star Wars Role Playing Game book by West End Games. It was filled with all kinds of story and character information I had never seen before.

I became (re)obsessed with the movies, watching all three again for the first time in years. I pulled out my old toys and started creating new adventures. And then I got an idea. What if I could take Star Wars with me wherever I went? I had a walkman cassette and headphones I had got for Christmas. There was a way… oh yes there was a way.

We had a radio with a built in microphone and you could record directly to cassette tape. I used that sucker to record the audio from Star Wars onto two tapes. It was a bit tricky getting the right timing so I wouldn’t cut off the movie in mid sentence to turn the tape over, but I got it done.

Ben Burtt obtaining new sound effects.
It was this experience that actually changed the way I appreciated film. First was the amazing sound effect design by Ben Burtt. At the time I didn’t really know anything about sound effects, but I still felt that Star Wars had its own unique world of sound. These sounds set it apart not just from our real world, but from other science fiction films I was familiar with like Star Trek and The Black Hole. Everything from the lightsabers, the blasters, the TIE fighters had its own sound. It wasn’t until hearing the movie divorced of the visuals that I understood that these sounds had to be created just for the movie.

The other element that really struck me was the music. Sure I grew up with the music to Star Wars cemented in my brain. But it was only the main themes that I really ever found myself humming. Listening to the film play out, I suddenly became aware of how little dialogue there is in the first third of the film and how much the music carries the feelings and power of the story. Hell, the music practically told the story. That was the moment where I realized how powerful a part music plays in film making. From that time forward most of my storytelling would be accompanied by some kind of score (either played while I write, or running along in the background of my imagination).

I listened to those tapes more than I’d like to admit. My parents must of have noticed because for Christmas they got me the actual score for Star Wars on cassette. My dad actually asked me to put it on our stereo and suddenly I could hear the music – without the dialogue and sound effects and it was like hearing it for the first time.

What amazed me was the music I never really noticed before. The music during the Tatooine scenes was very unusual, not at all what you think of when you think Star Wars. The variety included the percussive drumming for the Sand People, the loneliness of the Dune Sea and the playfulness of the Jawa music. There was even material not used in the film that was amazing to hear.

Once I knew that film music could be a wonderful listening experience outside of the film, I started to notice it more. Movies like Star Trek:The Motion Picture, Conan the Barbarian and Back to the Future all had memorable music, and I could now find it at record stores to listen to whenever I wanted. Part of the joy of collecting these was having a piece of the movie in your collection, a kind of souvenir. But there was also the amazing storytelling going on in the music itself that appealed to me.

When Star Wars finally made it to CD it was
in this awesome 4 CD set.
But the first quest was to complete the Star Wars trilogy. I found the Empire Strikes Back on cassette pretty easily, and wow was that a revelation.  Having the concert version of the Imperial March was a high point in my geek quest.  But for some reason Return of the Jedi was very difficult to obtain. It actually took me a couple years to actually find it. It was a big day for this film music nerd to play all three tapes back to back and indulge in the power of John Williams’ music.

I can blame Star Wars for my current hobby of collecting film scores. But it also opened up the idea of film being more than just visuals and story. The audio was a key element to movies, especially genre films. Star Wars changed a lot of things about movie making, but one of the things it brought back was the concept of a large-scale Golden Age style film score to support and accent the action. While that approach won’t work for all movies, and will wax and wane in popularity, it was what got me into enjoying film music in the first place.

Williams would continue to score the Star Wars films, and his sound helped define the world of the series. It is amazing how the music has become as much part of that cinematic universe as the visuals.


  1. Cool story.

    The first soundtrack I bought was, I think, “Patton” which included George C Scott’s rendition of one of Patton’s speeches. (It is pretty close to the original – I have it in a biography of Patton – but actually cleaned up somewhat for the movie.) Though anything but a martial zeitgeist prevailed in high schools of the day, for some reason this movie was well regarded even by most hippies: they spun it as “yeah, that’s what crazy militarists are like” while the militarists liked it straight-up. Anyway, the soundtrack was recommended to me by a very unlikely peace-nik. It’s still on my shelf, but while I liked it I never did acquire the habit of buying soundtracks. When I do, they tend to be the non-orchestral kind with popular numbers chosen for (rather than written for) the film: e.g. the "Cruel Intentions" and "Scott Pilgrim vs the World" soundtracks. Your reflections on various scores and composers, however, are interesting, and I definitely can see how one can get into collecting them.

    I trust you don’t have the awful disco (is “awful disco” redundant?) “Star Wars” number that was such a monster hit in the 70s, though maybe for a true collector it is a necessity:

    1. Well being a the big Jerry Goldsmith fan that I am, I really love the score to "Patton". If you listen carefully to the main titles you'll hear three different motifs that make up Patton's theme. And then Goldsmith uses each one or combinations of all the motifs throughout the score depending on what element of Patton we are witnessing - the militaristic, the religious or the historical. Kind of a cool concept you don't really see in to many other scores. The movie itself is just as you describe, one that appeals to both sides of the camp.

      Yes, I've heard the wonderfully horrible Star Wars disco track. So so painfully cheesy. How can a Star Wars fan resist. ;)

  2. The first soundtracks for me was Woodstock, Easy Rider, and then maybe Sorcerer. Later I picked up A Clockwork Orange. I still enjoy all of them today.

    Did you ever get the Christmas in the Stars album? It was sort of a rarity. I never bought it, but a friend brought it over to listen to once.

    1. I forgot Easy Rider. I did buy that, and in fact still have the vinyl, Wow. No I can't say I'd ever heard that number before.

    2. Oh wow, I never heard that one before either. I'm still running into these odd Star Wars related items. Thanks for sharing!