Posts Tagged ‘Bill Conti’

The Music Behind The Movies

March 21, 2012

Originally posted March 11, 2009

My long-time fascination with film soundtracks began – as I shared here in the first few months of this blog – with Goldfinger, the third of the James Bond films. As I wrote, my parents were reluctant at the time – I was eleven – to let me either see the movie or read Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. But the soundtrack to Goldfinger was available through our record club, and I spent hours listening to it.

By the time I saw the film, maybe a year later, I practically had the score memorized, and I was fascinated with the way the music enhanced the movie, highlighting passages and underlining transitions. I began to pay close attention to the music whenever I went to a movie.

And I have done so ever since. Sometimes I felt like the only one. “Did you notice the music during the scene when they’re taking the car to Syracuse?” I’d ask my friends over a post-film drink.

“What about it?” one might reply.

“It echoed the main theme and also brought in the theme the composer created for the girl from Jersey.”

“Oh. No, I didn’t really notice.”

I kept listening and buying the occasional soundtrack LP (and later on, CD). My library of them isn’t large – I’ve focused far more over the years on rock, pop and soul – but generally, it’s music I still find interesting. Some of the soundtracks haven’t aged well. I bought the soundtrack to Country, the 1984 film that starred Jessica Lange, Sam Shepard and Wilford Brimley, just days after I saw the film. But the New Age music – the musicians on it recorded frequently for the Windham Hill label – hasn’t worn well, I don’t think. Some others have lasted. And I think those include the three soundtracks that I absolutely love.

The first of those is the first soundtrack I owned: Goldfinger. Written by John Barry, the score for the third of the James Bond films provides a lesson in contrasts, from the blare and rumble of the main title to the insistent music that accompanied the film’s dawn raid on Fort Knox, followed by the hushed background to the arrival of a nuclear weapon before the pounding countdown begins. Matching the music, which I knew well, to the action on the screen was like reading a primer in film-scoring.

(I dabbled with the idea of scoring and soundtrack work as a career, but nothing came of it except a deeper love for the craft.)

The second of my three favorite soundtracks is Bill Conti’s work for Rocky, the first in what became a ridiculous series of films. Conti’s use of repeated motifs, often identified with one character, remains astounding, as does the variety of moods and arrangements he finds for each motif. How much of my affection for the score is a result of the film’s ultra-romantic story of the man who was almost destined to be “just another bum from the neighborhood”? I don’t know. I have a suspicion that it might be just as accurate to say that my affection for the movie is the result of the score. Rocky might have the prefect symbiosis between story and score: Each enhances the other.

The last of the three scores that sit atop my list is Randy Newman’s work for the 1984 film, The Natural. It’s true that the film’s story – especially its ending – bears only a passing resemblance to the Bernard Malamud novel from which it was adapted. (In the novel, given a chance at redemption, Malamud’s Roy Hobbs strikes out at the critical moment and his life and career unravel.) But given the producers’ decision to make Malamud’s cautionary tale into the Great American Fable, Newman came up with a score that was tragic, triumphant and Coplandesque.

So here is one selection from each of those soundtracks and four more from soundtracks that I enjoy, if not to the degree I love the first three:

A Six-Pack of Soundtrack Selections
“Dawn Raid on Fort Knox” by John Barry from Goldfinger [1964]
“Lara’s Theme” by Maurice Jarre from Dr. Zhivago [1965]
 “No Name Bar” by Isaac Hayes from Shaft [1971]
“Going The Distance” by Bill Conti from Rocky [1976]
“Blade Runner [End Titles]” by Vangelis from Blade Runner [1982]
“The Natural” by Randy Newman from The Natural [1984]
Bonus Track
“Hymn to Red October (Main Title)” by Basil Poledouris from The Hunt For Red October [1990]

First Steps Into The Adult World

August 3, 2011

Originally posted August 22, 2008

It was about late August in 1977 when I finally quit going to college and entered – however tentatively – the adult world. A recession the year before had made it tough for that year’s college grads – of which I was one – to find jobs, so I’d remained in school, doing some graduate work in 1976 and then, in 1977, adding a print journalism minor to my undergraduate degree in mass communications/television.

By the end of the summer, I had that minor finished, having taken a couple of courses in print reporting, editing and layout and a couple of writing workshops. I’d also spent six months as the arts editor for St. Cloud State’s University Chronicle, the student newspaper, corralling reporters to write about everything from theater productions to ceramics festivals; I wrote a lot of movie reviews and had a grand time with all of it.

I was renting a small mobile home from Murl, next to the one where he and his wife lived. I sat at my kitchen table many evenings that July and August, writing letters to newspapers that might need a reporter and listening to WJON, where my college classmate, Jim, usually took the evening shift. I chatted with him occasionally and frequently won the station’s trivia contests.

As the summer drew to a close, two things became clear. First, I’d likely have to find another place to live. Murl, faced with an unexpected vacancy in the spring, had rented me the mobile home at a discount rate for five months. Come September, the rate would revert to the norm, and that would be beyond my means unless I found a job at one of the small newspapers in the area. Second, the state of the economy combined with my lack of experience meant that the odds of finding a newspaper job – whether near St. Cloud or elsewhere – were slender at best. One day in August, my girlfriend of the time and I drove to a small town north of Eau Claire, Wisconsin – about 150 miles away – where I interviewed to be the editor of the local newspaper.

The publisher expressed reservations throughout the interview about my inexperience, while I tried to reassure him that I could handle whatever came my way. I was torn as we drove back to St. Cloud: I needed a job, but did I want to live in a town where four of the five businesses on the main street had displays in their windows of Green Bay Packers souvenirs? It was a question I didn’t have to ponder long. A few days later, the publisher called me and told me that he’d “found a real writer.”

(Even though I likely wasn’t prepared for that job at the time, his dismissal rankled. In the spring of 1983, while I was at the Monticello paper en route to graduate school, I saw in the Minneapolis paper that the same publisher was once again seeking an editor for his paper. I was tempted to send my resume, complete with the list of ten or so state and national reporting awards I’d won, and apply for the job. If it were offered, I thought darkly, I’d decline, telling him I’d decided to write for a real newspaper. I didn’t apply.)

Not quite despairing but concerned, I went one August day to the local offices of a federal program called the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which acted – among other things – as a bridge between workers and jobs. Perhaps the center’s listings had some job for which I was qualified. My intake interviewer turned out to be a fellow who had bought a car from one of my roommates while I was living in the cold house on the north side. He recalled that my training was in communications, and forty-five minutes after walking into St. Cloud’s CETA office, I was the office’s public relations manager.

The job didn’t pay a lot, something a little better than minimum wage, if I recall correctly. But it was an income, and with the right living circumstances, I could make it work. As it was, my girlfriend also needed new quarters, and her mother owned a cabin on a lake about fifteen miles southeast of St. Cloud. It was rustic: no heat and limited hot water, but we were young, and it was still summertime. So she and I and the two cats we shared moved out to the lake at the end of August for a two-month stay.

Here’s some of the music I recall hearing late that summer and during our two-month sojourn at the lake:

A Baker’s Dozen from 1977, Vol. 3
“Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” by Crystal Gayle, United Artists 1016 (No. 80 on the Billboard Hot 100 as of August 20, 1977)

“Heaven on the 7th Floor” by Paul Nicholas, RSO 878 (No. 79)

“It’s Sad To Belong” by England Dan & John Ford Coley, Big Tree 16088 (No. 74)

“Ariel” by Dean Friedman, Lifesong 45022 (No. 63)

“Angel in Your Arms” by Hot, Big Tree 16085 (No. 61)

“Knowing Me, Knowing You” by Abba, Atlantic 3387 (No. 57)

“Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky)” by Bill Conti, United Artists 940 (No. 54)

“Boogie Nights” by Heatwave, Epic 50370 (No. 51)

“Strawberry Letter 23” by the Brothers Johnson, A&M 1949 (No. 23)

“Give A Little Bit” by Supertramp, A&M 1938 (No. 17)

“Smoke From A Distant Fire” by the Sanford/Townsend Band, Warner Bros. 8370 (No. 15)

“Whatcha Gonna Do” by Pablo Cruise, A&M 1920 (No. 6)

“Easy” by the Commodores, Motown 1418 (No. 5)

A few notes:

The Crystal Gayle song was inescapable as the summer faded and autumn moved in. It entered the Top 40 in late September and spent three weeks at No. 2 later that autumn. I swear we heard it every evening as we drove home from our jobs in St. Cloud to the cabin.

“Ariel” was Dean Friedman’s only Top 40 hit ever, and it has to be one of the more odd records to crack the charts in 1977. (I’d say “ever,” but there are lots of odd singles out there.) The strained voice, the ramble-on-until-he-has-to-take-a-breath lyrics, the geeky background singers: it’s one of those records your either like or hate. Enough people liked it that it went to No. 26. It’s still got some charm for me, and Friedman got the details right about post-hippie, pre-disco America, from the peasant blouse to the Legion Hall.

“Knowing Me, Knowing You” was Abba’s eighth Top 40 single, and I wondered if the act was getting stale. To me, the great Abba singles were “SOS” in 1975 and “Dancing Queen” from earlier in 1977. But “Knowing Me, Knowing You” grew on me as the season moved on. It was pretty good radio fare, and it stayed in the Top 40 for ten weeks, reaching No. 14.

During the spring and summer of 1977, I filled a lot of space in the university newspaper’s arts section praising the movie Rocky, especially its soundtrack, no doubt boring my readers along the way. I’m not sure these days how highly I would rate the movie (I may ponder that some day and write about it here), but I still think that Bill Conti’s soundtrack – especially “Gonna Fly Now” – was a gem, one of the great soundtracks of the decade and maybe all time. Conti’s version of “Gonna Fly Now” was No. 1 on the Billboard chart for one week in July 1977. Oddly enough, we didn’t hear it all that often in Minnesota; the local stations seemed to prefer Maynard Ferguson’s propulsive cover of “Gonna Fly Now,” which went only to No. 28 in Billboard.

The Brothers Johnson “Strawberry Letter 23” – a cover of Shuggie Otis’ 1971 single – was a piece of smooth-edged funk that sounded like nothing else coming out of a radio speaker that late summer and early autumn. The record peaked at No. 5 on the Top 40 but reached No. 1 for a week on the R&B chart. The guitar solo is by Lee Ritenour.

I’ve posted “Smoke From A Distant Fire” here before, but it’s good enough to repeat it. One of the great one-hit wonders, it popped up on the car radio the other day, and it held its place as one of the few records that I let play, sitting in the parked car until the record is over and only then going about my business. It peaked at No. 9 that fall.

As always, bitrates will vary.

(It’s entirely possible that some of these selections are album tracks instead of single edits. If so, my apologies.)

Coming Attraction
This is just another reminder to stop by here Sunday when caithiseach of The Great Vinyl Meltdown fills us in on his thirteen favorite singles. It’s a good list with some good listening.

A Third Time Through the Junkyard

April 22, 2011

Originally posted June 4, 2007

As I didn’t get an album ripped yesterday, and Monday morning brings with it a longer list of things to do than I’d normally see – and longer than I’d like to see, certainly – I decided to go back to something I did a couple of times during the early days of this blog (that is, if a blog less than five months old can be considered to have early days).

I thought we’d take a fifteen-song walk through the entire junkyard and see where we end up. But, I considered as I made up my mind, do I make it a random start, or select something? And if I select something, how do I do so?

Well, I watched the first three games of the Stanley Cup finals this past week, and was pleasantly surprised Saturday evening when the Ottawa Senators managed to take a game from the Anaheim Goons –oh, sorry, they’re called the Ducks – in Ottawa. The Senators’ victory left them still trailing the Goons by a two games to one margin, but it appeared for the first time as if the Senators could have a chance in the series. The first two games out in Anaheim were close but the Senators didn’t look like the team I’d seen during the first three rounds of the playoffs. The turnaround the Senators showed on their home ice pleased me because there is no way in the name of Lord Stanley that I want to see the Goons win his cup.

I can see the looks on readers’ faces: This is a music blog, ain’t it? Why’s he talkin’ hockey? Relax. There’s a point to this.

I’ve written briefly at least one other time about the annual tabletop hockey tournaments we have at my place – my friends Rick, Rob and Schultz and I. They’re a one-day continuation of the competitions we used to have when we were in high school, after I got the tabletop game for Christmas 1967. We’d have regular seasons that lasted anywhere from twenty games to fifty-two games, followed by playoffs.

These days, Schultz dominates the competition. Back then, before he joined us, Rick was the best player of the three of us, but he wasn’t quite as dominant as Schultz is now. From time to time, Rob or I could slide a team past him in the playoffs. And in our fourth season, which ended in the spring of 1971, Rob took the title with his New York Rangers. All through that season, when he had the Rangers on the ice and felt momentum turning his way, Rob would begin to hum a song under his breath. I’m not sure why he chose the particular song that he did, but it was a song that seemed to work for him.

And Saturday evening, as I watched the Senators fall behind three times and return to tie the game three times and finally take the lead and the game with a gutsy performance, I found myself humming under my breath. When I realized I was doing so, I chuckled, and then nodded. It was Rob’s old fight song I was humming.

And so, I’ve decided – in honor of the Ottawa Senators and their chances of winning the Stanley Cup – to begin this random fifteen-song walk through the junkyard with Richard Hunter’s solo harmonica version of Rob’s old fight song.

“When Johnny Comes Marching Home” by Richard Hunter from The Act of Being Free in One Act, 1995

“Here Today” by Paul McCartney from Here Today, 1982

“Standing at the Crossroads” by Elmore James, probably Enjoy single 2020, 1961 or 1962

“Rocky’s Reward” by Bill Conti from the Rocky soundtrack, 1976

“Dr. Dancer” by Sutherland Brothers & Quiver from Reach For The Sky, 1975

“Waiting” by Daniel Lanois from For The Beauty Of Wynona, 1993

“Endless Summer” by the Sandals from Endless Summer soundtrack, 1966

“Silent Eyes” by Paul Simon from Still Crazy After All These Years, 1975

“My Time After A While” by John Hammond from Southern Fried, 1970

“Precious Time” by Darden Smith from Little Victories, 1993

“Disco Inferno” by the Trammps from Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, 1977

“Love (Can Make You Happy)” by Mercy, Sundi single 6811, 1969

“Bermuda Triangle” by Fleetwood Mac from Heroes Are Hard To Find, 1974

“String Man” by the Mamas & the Papas from Deliver, 1967

“Hell to Pay” by Bonnie Raitt from Longing In Their Hearts, 1994

A few notes on some of the songs:

The loudest ovation I’ve ever heard at a concert came at the best concert I ever attended, when I saw Paul McCartney at the Xcel Center in St. Paul in September of 2002. About nine songs into the show, as the applause for “And I Love Her” faded away, McCartney began to introduce “Here Today” by saying, “I’d like to do a song now that I wrote for my dear friend John.” Applause burst out, and Paul beckoned to the crowd and said, “Yeah, let’s hear it for John.” And the arena filled with a sustained roar like nothing I’d heard before. From that moment, the concert – which up to then had been good – became magical for me.

“Rocky’s Reward” is the faux-classical string piece – motet? fugue? my bits of classical music awareness fail me – that is used under the final credits for the 1976 film Rocky. I’ve always thought that Bill Conti’s score for the film, the first in what became a series, was a brilliant piece of work, primarily for his imaginative use of recurring themes in a wide variety of settings and arrangements. It was an injustice that Conti was not nominated for an Academy Award for the score (the award went to Jerry Goldsmith for his work on The Omen). And don’t get me started about the award for Best Original Song going to Barbara Streisand and Paul Williams for “Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star Is Born)” instead of Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now.”

John Hammond’s “My Time After A While” comes from his Southern Fried album, recorded at Muscle Shoals with its legendary rhythm section. Duane Allman stopped by to add his slide guitar to four of the cuts on the album, but not, sadly, on “My Time After A While.” That’s Eddie Hinton playing that sweet lead part.

“Precious Time” comes from my favorite album by one of my favorite unknown performers. Well, Darden Smith isn’t entirely unknown; he sells enough CD to be able to keep recording. But as I noted when I posted one of his songs as a Saturday Single in February, if there were any justice in the world, Darden Smith would be a household name. The song sounds as if it’s written about a military draft: “They’re calling up numbers now,” and “How many men and boys will it take to win?” That was odd enough for something written in the 1990s, but it’s chilling now. No, there’s not a military draft right now, but, well, I won’t be surprised if there is one soon.

Heroes Are Hard To Find is a Fleetwood Mac album that I don’t know very well. The Mac was in a transitional state in 1974, just about finishing its shift from a blues band to the powerhouse of smooth California rock it became when Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined up. “Bermuda Triangle,” melodically and thematically, sounds an awful lot like “Hypnotized” off the Mystery to Me album from the year before.

A Baker’s Dozen For Stu

April 17, 2011

Originally posted March 14, 2007

In my comments about debb johnson and its self-titled album Monday, I mentioned my college friend Stu. Over the years, I’d lost track of him, having last seen him in 1989 and otherwise not having spoken to him since, oh, 1976. I was teaching at a university in North Dakota in 1989, and I visited him and his wife, Nancy, while back in Minnesota during a quarter break.

Last week, when I found the album debb johnson in the stacks, I Googled him and found what looked like a good email address. I shot off a short note and got busy with preparing the album for posting, as well as preparing for my annual hockey day with my trio of friends. (A short note about that: Schultz won for the third year in a row, although I did get one of my teams into the semifinals!) And when I finished posting the album yesterday, I thought about Stu and the email, and I realized that with the generic subject heading of “Hello,” it likely had been caught by his Spam filter.

So I Googled again and came up with a phone number for his office. And he and I spent a delightful twenty minutes or so on the phone, catching up a little bit with news of children, parents and of thirty-one years of living. I explained how he’d come to mind, and he was pleased that his brother-in-law’s music is available again (as limited as the venue might be). I asked if he knew when the album was recorded. He wasn’t sure, but he agreed that my estimate of 1970 was probably pretty accurate. We promised to stay in touch, a promise I intend to keep.

It was wonderful to talk to him. There was no awkwardness, as there sometimes can be when old friends talk for the first time in years. And I thought that to mark that conversation – and what I hope will be a true renewal of a friendship that mattered a great deal to me when I was a much younger man and still does so today – I’d pull this week’s baker’s dozen from the year of 1976, when both of us graduated from St. Cloud State University:

“Beautiful Noise” by Neil Diamond from Beautiful Noise.

“The Final Bell” by Bill Conti from the soundtrack to Rocky.

“Homeward Bound” by Paul Simon & George Harrison on Saturday Night Live, November 20.

“Northbound Bus” by the Flying Burrito Brothers from Airborne.

“The Woman That Got Away” by J.J. Cale from Troubadour.

“Satisfied ’N’ Tickled Too” by Taj Mahal from Satisfied ’N’ Tickled Too.

“12/8 Blues (All The Same)” by the Stills/Young Band from Long May You Run.

“Sand In Your Shoes” by Al Stewart from Year Of The Cat.

“How Deep It Goes” by Heart from Dreamboat Annie.

“Forever Young” by Joan Baez from From Every Stage.

“Come On In My Kitchen” by David Bromberg from How Late’ll Ya Play ‘Til?

“You Can Have My Soul” by Carolyn Franklin from If You Want Me.

“Right Before Your Eyes” by Ian Thomas from Goodnight Mrs. Calabash.