My Adventures in Underscore, part 4 - Trials and tribulations of a nacent LP collector.
Two dollars a week may not seem like much today, but it stretched a little further in 1971. As an eighth grader, I had important purchases to make, like the latest issues of Fantastic Four and World’s Finest (a bargain because I got Batman and Superman in one book for 15¢), and a never-ending stream of Aurora model kits for $1 apiece. Factor in some paint, glue, or a couple of candy bars, and I’d be counting my pennies until my next week’s allowance.
So record albums were definitely considered a luxury item. I never passed up the opportunity to thumb through the selection at Korvette’s—one of the first “deep discount” retailers, which also had its own brand of high-end consumer audio equipment (XAM). I didn’t care about that, but the records were plentiful and it was always a thrill to see the movie poster art up-close-and-personal. Since I didn’t get to theaters very often, this was often my first opportunity to see the evocative key art for the likes of You Only Live Twice or Ice Station Zebra in full color, anywhere.
Still, a few titles were impossible to resist. I was a huge WWII buff, thanks to a prime time schedule saturated with war shows (and cool themes) from The Rat Patrol to McHale’s Navy, but sadly, no records of those were available. I soaked them all up, from the unabashed patriotism to the noble heroism. In retrospect I guess it was deliberate programming for all the middle-aged guys who had served twenty years earlier, but we kids craved the excitement, and acted out scenes on the school playground. Playing “army” was always fun—especially our hammy death scenes as we succumbed to each others’ invisible guns and bayonets. It wasn’t that different from the shows themselves, where life was cheap and dead “Jerry's” were plentiful.
All this made Patton an unsurprising choice as my first real soundtrack album—and which would prove important for a number of reasons. I was already a fan of the star from his comic turn in The Film Flam Man. I even committed the foulmouthed opening monologue to memory, performing it in a passable vocal imitation, which would later get me into trouble with the authorities (you can read about that here.) The music was not only heroic and patriotic, but offered something more. My favorite scenes featured the echoing horns and flute—which brought out a sense of majesty, mystery—and goosebumps. It was one of the first times that I'd been transported to another world in a film that wasn't sci-fi.
I’d had a similar reaction two years earlier, with the same composer’s music in the same director’s previous film. Not that I made the connection at the time.
At this stage, while I watched credits with rapt attention, I didn’t remember them. I was more interested in the mix of music and graphics, even just words popping on and off to the beat (I was a nascent type geek as well). So when Mom dropped me off at the theater later that year, with my tiny tape recorder to see another World War II epic, the only thing that I noticed was the studio. 20th Century Fox was a brand that I could trust from Batman or Lost In Space, to Fantastic Voyage or The Day the Earth Stood Still. And the fanfare was pretty great all by itself.
Sure enough, this movie was no exception. The sheer volume of vintage American and Japanese planes was enough to overwhelm a young history buff, but then there was the music. Big, sweeping and curiously Asian in character. One of the first cues was a whirlwind of excitement that wrapped up into a noble fanfare. The music was so much more thrilling than the politicians signing agreements on screen—it was like the sweep of the entire war played out in 45 seconds. And when the planes prepared to launch en masse after the intermission, to the beat of wild drums and trombone licks, I was ready to shell out $2.99 for my LP of Tora! Tora! Tora!
But there wasn’t one to be had. I assumed that all movies had soundtracks and I must have missed it. So the next time that I “had to have” a soundtrack, like the album for Diamonds Are Forever, I’d broker a deal with Dad for an advance on my allowance or make some other arrangement. Something special would be required for my next “must have,” the original cast recording of Jesus Christ Superstar. Everyone was talking about it, but I couldn’t afford a two-LP set—that was over two weeks’ savings. Fortunately, my father was a newly-minted college professor who wanted to stay au courant, and he agreed to make the purchase. A single spin was enough for him, and the album was relegated to my tender care. I liked it, but wished there was more over-the top rock-symphonic underscore and a little less singing.
Speaking of “singing,” I’d be remiss if I failed to mention another key album from this period: Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock’s Music from Outer Space. It barely qualified as a soundtrack, because the main theme was a “jazzed-up” faux rock version that was devoid of the original’s epic sweep and adventure. Which was a mystery, because side two opened with a cover of the Mission: Impossible theme that sounded “right”—so what gives? The rest of the album was a mix of spoken word pieces (again, with underscore lacking the punch of the show’s actual scores) and a couple of vocals by Nimoy. Of course I played the record ad naseum, because it was the only souvenir of a favorite TV show. But again, Dad had to stick his head in the study and ask me to PLEASE turn it down. Especially “Lost in the Stars.” Please.
Around this time a television commercial began to appear in between all of our favorite reruns. A stuffy English man walked into a room that was decorated like a museum—with a harp, fancy paintings on the walls, a marble bust, and a fern—but the walls were bare brick, like someone’s basement. He talked about how songs that we might recognize from movies were actually famous “compositions” by the old “masters.” But what caught our attention was the music: Strauss, Beethoven, Schubert, and many more. We didn’t know the names, but my brothers and I knew the melodies, intimately, from countless Merrie Melodies and Modern Madcap cartoons that we ingested daily. We looked at each other and thought: “Gotta get this.”
The commercial seemed to air several times a day, every day, for weeks, imploring us to ORDER NOW. But $10.99 (plus shipping and handling!) even for five LPs, was an unthinkable investment. Fortunately, Dad was always in favor of encouraging his sons’ cultural development, and having seen the ads himself (how could he not?), he bought our spiel and the albums. The wait was interminable, not only because of mid-century postal speeds, but because the ads kept running over and over again. Didn't they know we'd already placed our order???
When it arrived, we tore into the tracklist, matching up the music we knew with the unfamiliar titles and credits. For Steve, Rob and I, it was our first music history lesson.
Even though the set was missing many of our favorite cartoon themes, it was a treasure trove of familiar earworms. And I began to recognize that so much more of the underscore that tickled me was borrowed or outright stolen from the past. What would Top Cat have sounded like without Gershwin? How many mice would have been chased across pianos without Lizst? And why were these new recordings often so much slower than the ones in cartoons like “Corny Concerto?”
I continued to go to the movies on my own, selectively, because even a 99¢ ticket and 35¢ for popcorn and a Coke was a big bite out of my allowance. (Colossus or the Apes sequel? The latter.) The experience was so rare and vivid, I’d want to hear the music from every movie I saw. But the movies that most interested me didn’t even have albums released. Why didn't the exploits of a hot-tempered NYC narcotics cop or the Last Man on Earth battling zombies deserve a record of their own? You know, the way that sappy Love Story or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang did. What I didn’t understand at the time was that my musical tastes were simply not mainstream. Those of us who consistently listen to what we watch are a band apart (to borrow Tarantino's malapropism.)
This frustration was laying the groundwork for a future career, but I had no inkling at the time. All that I could do was make the most of what I had: a few LPs, a few memories, and when possible, recordings of my own. Even that had drastic limitations. There were only two TVs in the house, with five competing sets of eyes and ears. When I was allowed my choice of programming, I had to contend with bickering brothers, family chatter, and arbitrary phone calls messing up the sound. Not to mention the arduous experience of hovering next to the TV, microphone precariously balanced on a stack of books, fingers on the pause and record buttons, staring through commercials more intently than the program itself, in order to maximize the available tape.
Phew! The things we do for love. And the things we do to save a buck...
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