Final on Vinyl?

Seems like every film score that once appeared as a vinyl record album has, by now, been reissued as a CD, even those that were not worth hearing the first time. In a parallel development, we also have all those "boutique labels" (Intrada, FSM, Varese, Silva Screen, Kritzerland, Quartet, even LaLa Land) digging back into the vaults to find original studio tracks of neglected scores to issue as deluxe CD packages. Those are labors of love – and gratefully received by us. And yet...

And yet it is also true that a lion's share of equally esteemed and deserving soundtrack scores that were once available on vinyl records still have not been issued by anyone in the CD format. Why the delay; why the neglect? Sure, the CD format itself is being superceded by other music-delivery options like streaming and 'tubing'. But the real problem is more basic: there are just no promoters, no cheerleaders for this particular "vinyl music". Take any category: we were recently thinking of certain British scores that once made brilliant soundtrack albums back in the days of vinyl, yet are still not represented on CD.

David Whitaker: Run Wild, Run Free - film score album cover Take David Whitaker. He was a song writer first; then an arranger for the BBC, finally a film composer for Hammer horror films (Scream and Scream Again; Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde) or for low budget spy films like Hammerhead (which had a pleasing mini piano concerto as its centerpiece). His best music was for the pastoral, lyrical John Mills film, Run Wild, Run Free, set in the misty Dartmoor region of SW England. This was the story of an autistic lad and his growing bond with a wild colt living on the moors. A gorgeously atmospheric soundtrack album was released on vinyl circa 1969 which lent the inclement landscape on screen the mythical aura of a storybook. Massed strings carried the minor-key main theme but also participated in a lot of detailed descriptive music while evocative writing for solo violin, various solo winds and Baldwin electric keys focused on many of the film's intimate moments: encounters between Nature and human nature as the boy struggled to communicate. But the most distinctive idea in the scoring was the cold, brittle exotic sound of a cimbalom – known in ancient times as the hammered dulcimer – whose dusky, pointed tone throughout the score seemed to speak for the exotic heart and soul of the moor. Moor-men say that the grasslands, tors and bogs of Dartmoor have a pulse that can be felt deep in the peat and heather, and throughout Run Wild Whitaker's music went a long way towards recreating that mythology. Furthermore, his flexible, detailed scoring followed the action on screen as directly as in a children's film (naively but beautifully): music as storyteller. Once upon a time, all this music made a tremendously colorful and charismatic record album – but no CD version has ever appeared. That's someone's sad oversight.

Richard Rodney Bennett: The Return of the Soldier - film score album cover Or what about an even finer Brit-film starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates, Return of the Soldier, with its subtle character-study score by Sir Richard Rodney Bennett? Here was music that needed to be abstract, even hallucinatory, for the shell-shocked main character returning from WWI -- but then had to sound sweetly nostalgic as we realize this soldier's lost his memory and thinks only of younger days; even his wife's a stranger to him now as he knows only the woman of his youth. This was one of Bennett's favorite scoring assignments: "I just did a movie I love," he wrote to fellow composer Thea Musgrave at the time; "...a lovely chance for music and the director/producers treated the score with respect, not as disposable garbage." The result was one of Bennett's favorite scores and yet only a small private record label pressed a few copies of the soundtrack to vinyl and, again, the CD market has yet to pick it up for reissue after 35 years.

Raymond Leppard: Alfred The Great - film score album cover Even more esoteric is the short-lived disc version of a skittish British historical reenactment of 9th century warfare, Alfred the Great. Good battle scenes couldn't fight their way past a lot of dogged dialogue so that the film (David Hemmings; Michael York) failed in its day. But one of its prestige advantages was a grand music score purchased at great expense from a visiting music professor who'd (almost) never scored films before: the baroque scholar/conductor Raymond Leppard. His period music here for the royal court scenes was impeccable; his orchestral scoring for the pre-medieval setting was as vivid as engravings or tapestries of the period; his battle music not only carried the violence of hand-to-hand, sword-on-armor combat, but compositionally asserted an 'eroica' authority of its own. Romantic music for the heroine (Queen Aelhswith) was likewise compositionally self-possessed and effective as screen underscore. Again, a vinyl album was issued of the full score (copies go for Big Money these days) yet there's been no CD except for a rare pirated UK edition coupled with Leppard's other movie moment, a 'theme' from Lord of the Flies...

Patrick Gowers: Stevie - film score album cover The exact opposite sort of film was Stevie -- a theater piece starring Glenda Jackson as the Queen's Medal poetess, Stevie Smith (1902-1971) -- which has her speaking directly to the camera. As though eavesdropping, we overhear the story of Stevie's eccentrically plain and habitual suburban life – but out of that bland personal history emerged her satiric novels and her bleak death-fixated poetry ("...I was much further out than you thought, and not waving but drowning..."). The film's music score by Patrick Gowers consisted only of brief interludes for solo guitar and ensemble to mark the scene-changes like a series of curtains for a stage play. Only once or twice did that music continue over dialogue, carried away by the portent of a few unsettling moments in the story: Stevie's suicide attempt or the death of her beloved maiden aunt. Mostly, the score was a commentator from the wings, always in Gowers's Bach-like chamber ballad style, tuned forever to B-minor. The vivid vinyl album of this score featured Jackson's recitation (alternately haunting and sardonic) of some of Stevie's poetry sharing the center of attention with the acoustic guitar score. A handsome and haunting album – but again, no CD.

And these are just four personally-noticed British scores longing for digital attention, deserving a life beyond vinyl.

by John Caps