Learning the Classics, Easy as R-C-A
Updated: Jul 17
My Adventures in Underscore, part 6 New summer hits, old chestnuts, and Camera Three.
In 1975, the whole world was humming a movie theme. And it was just two simple notes. I was at the Jersey shore with my family, where a new movie had just opened the night before. The lines out front were unusual, adding to our curiosity. We all went to see it, a few blocks from the ocean in Asbury Park, packed in like proverbial sardines on the side front seats. Dad grumbled, but once the shark’s fin cut through the calm waters of Amity Bay, we were all screaming, jumping and cheering with 500 strangers. And everyone who still had a voice on the way out was chanting “Dun dun. Dun dun. Dun-dun-dun-dundundun….”
That movie was so potent, I had nightmares at the motel. I always had trouble relaxing in a strange place, but that night was spent in twilight sleep, dreaming that my small cot was a tiny raft. Every time my arm or leg dropped off the edge, I’d bolt upright in terror that a Great White was about to chew something off. The orchestra sting and chords played over and over in my ears like aural PTSD.
Maybe, I thought, movie music was gonna catch on after all. For the first time that I could remember, people were talking a little about what they’d HEARD in a movie theater. It became family lore, especially after the following summer, when brother Steve stepped on a sand shark, nearly lost a toe, and came back from Florida with a miniature set of shark jaws—just like the ones on the album sleeve. Of course I bought a copy of Jaws—it was a true rarity in my collection.
Obviously, it was not a rare LP—it was ubiquitous (and dozens of copies would show up in yard sales, along with yogurt makers and Jaqueline Suzann novels a few years later). But the breakout collaboration of Williams and Steven Spielberg was a rare combination of great score and story, well-represented on disc. Up to now, I bought soundtracks as souvenirs of the movie experience. Once a movie left theaters (admittedly, after many months) it would be unavailable until the television broadcast a year or eighteen months later. So being able to play the music over and over rekindled the cinematic thrills.
Many other albums in my small collection were simply big popular hits (like The Sting or Godspell) that had catchy music for films I was less excited by. But those LPs were easy to find and we bought into the hype. Other movies that really struck a chord and I wanted to replay (like The Eagle Has Landed or the last three Planet of the Apes pictures) never made it to record. Still other films were hugely entertaining experiences that used little or no music at all, and hence had no soundtracks to release (thank you, Sidney Lumet). Finally there were worthy scores, like Chinatown and The Andromeda Strain, which came and went so quickly that I missed them. My collection was out-of-sync.
For example, three albums that I played endlessly at this time were from movies that I had never seen, because I was not old enough to have bought a ticket without a parent or guardian. But their music was so infectious, so of-the-moment, that they proved irresistible. And of course, by their nature, these LPs were not popular in a house that leaned into top-40 and easy listening radio. What is it about adolescence that gives us the superpower to pick music guaranteed to drive our parents insane? In my house, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield and J.J. Johnson did the dirty work for me with a funktastic set of four discs from three blaxploitation hits. Shut yo’ mouth.
And yet, I didn’t care about the various genres of music so much as whether or not it was connected with a movie. At the other end of the spectrum that included Cleopatra Jones and Superfly, were the more classically-oriented soundtracks. I can probably thank Stanley Kubrick for making me a contrarian in this way; 2001 was one of the first albums I’d bought, and A Clockwork Orange was a movie I could only imagine based on the soundtrack—until I was old enough to see a re-release. His latest introduced new sounds (like the Irish folk band The Chieftans) and cemented my love of symphonic film music.
I began noticing some new records in the classical bins — Charles Gerhardt had started re-recording suites from classic Hollywood movies. There was a new Erich Wolfgang Korngold album, featuring honest-to-gosh pirate music (which, interestingly, informed John Williams’ approach to Jaws!) I’d recently discovered Errol Flynn pictures, which led me to take fencing lessons and buy a couple of fake swords. I was primed for hearty, throwback adventures, whether they were old chestnuts or new releases scored by Michel Legrand, Jerry Goldsmith or Maurice Jarre — and they all had good albums, to boot.
Humphrey Bogart had also gained some counter-culture cachet at the time. I saw Key Largo for the first time playing at a bar popular with college students, and while I couldn’t follow the plot and converse with my date at the same time, I definitely dug the main title theme. Mr. Gerhardt had him covered as well, in albums dedicated to Warner Bros.’ most iconic stars, including Flynn and Bette Davis. I didn’t know most of the movies, but I was sold on the RCA imprimatur, and bought every one I could get my hands on. Reading the liner notes (which were the most extensive I’d ever seen), taught me a lot about composers whom I hadn’t heard of. Suddenly, a greater tapestry began to unfold…
It really came together one fateful Sunday morning. Flipping channels between Meet the Press, college football and televised church services, I caught the sight of a familiar giant cyclops, with his incredible, bombastic fanfare. He roared, the music soared, and I dropped what I was doing. It was, of all things, a documentary hosted by a film composer, talking about a giant of another sort named Bernard Herrmann. I was familiar with him from his recent re-recordings, and as a huge stop motion/special effects buff, I recognized The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad—but hadn’t put two-and-two together. There followed clips from Citizen Kane (another favorite in heavy rotation on WOR’s Million Dollar Movie) and I thought “Wow—the same guy did both of these?”
Then I remembered: His last picture was Taxi Driver, which I had seen on opening day. From the first shot of Travis Bickle’s yellow cab, rolling through the neon-lit mists of Hades to snare drums and ominously turgid orchestral chords, I was riveted. It didn’t hurt to have watched it unspool at a seamy theater on 42nd street in NYC—which was like the ’70s sensory equivalent of today’s X-D theater experience (with stickier floors, smellier lobbies and scarier patrons…) The film was actually dedicated in memoriam to Herrmann. And now there was a whole hour of television about him. Who IS this guy?!?
This was the first time I’d actually heard someone speak about movie music as if it was important in any way. The host certainly seemed to think that Mr. Herrmann was a big deal. It was also the first time that I heard anyone speak a film composer’s name aloud, much less explain his job. The host went on to show clips from other shows, including a few that I knew and loved: The Day the Earth Stood Still. The Twilight Zone. North By Northwest. I would soon connect the dots and embrace the three H’s of adventure and suspense movies: Herrmann, Hitchcock and Harryhausen—a trifecta of talent!
The host, David Raksin, appeared to know his subject personally and called him “Bennie.” From that day forward, I had a friend (well, two!) in the movie business, whom I would possessively refer to on a first-name basis. I watched for his name in the credits, and began to take note of others as well. By 1975, Bennie may have met his untimely passing, but I had three decades of past work to uncover. Armed with his name and a short list of films to watch for, I graduated from being a clueless fan to a nascent collector. Soundtracks were changing from a mere hobby to a pursuit with new urgency and importance. Even if (especially if!) the world never payed attention to another soundtrack like Jaws, I now had a mission.
I began to make lists of films I’d seen and the composers involved. Nobody else I knew seemed to care. If I didn’t keep track, who would?
* * *
If you enjoyed this post, maybe you'd like to join my site (sign up, above). And if you're already a member, I'd appreciate any comments below. Thanks!