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Screaming Hides the Sound: John Carpenter’s Death Disco

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by Jed Mayer
November 9, 2012 8:30 AM
1 Comment
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As a teenager I didn’t care much for disco, but I disliked team sports even more.  So when major news networks began showing footage of the infamous Disco Demolition Night of July 12, 1979, where tens of thousands of shirtless jocks stormed Comiskey Park Field in Illinois to join in the blowing up and burning of disco records, I knew which side I was on.  The event was planned as a White Sox promotional event by Chicago DJ Steve Dahl, whose “Death to Disco” movement benefitted from the growing racism and homophobia directed against the once-popular dance music genre.  As someone who was forced to dance “The Hustle” in gym class, I could relate to Dahl’s distaste for the soulless product that disco music was fast becoming.  But as a junior high student who was often bullied, sometimes violently, for my music and fashion choices, I was horrified by this scapegoating of an entire musical movement, whatever my feelings for it. As Nile Rodgers of disco supergroup Chic later observed: “It felt to us like Nazi book-burning. This is America, the home of jazz and rock, and people were now afraid even to say the word ‘disco.’”

The most vital elements of disco would, of course, survive, particularly in Europe, where the synthesizer would play a dominant role in its rebirth in new forms like Italo-Disco.  Building off of the sweeping futurism of electronically-driven disco anthems like Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s “I Feel Love,” Italo-Disco incorporated many prominent contemporary trends in electronic pop and new wave of the early 1980s.  One of the more surprising figures in this music scene was an American film director and composer of horror soundtracks named John Carpenter. Carpenter had revolutionized the horror movie by showing what could be achieved with low budget and minimal equipment.  He redefined the horror movie soundtrack in a similar way, employing musical minimalism and repetition to create an almost unbearable aural tension.  In 1982, however, Carpenter’s minimalism would be maximized as his music made its menacing way from the theater to the dance floor.

The primary medium of DJs then, as now, is the 12” single. With more vinyl space for wider grooves, and the higher fidelity of 45 RPM, 12-inches have a room-filling sound, and with ample space to accommodate extended mixes, three-minute pop songs could grow into epic soundscapes. One of the funkier numbers from the soundtrack to Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981) was given the 12” treatment by Italo-Disco producer Mario Boncaldo in 1982. By stringing together several key songs from the soundtrack, headed by “The Duke Arrives”—accompanying Isaac Hayes’ unforgettable arrival in the film, as he is chauffered through post-apocalyptic Manhattan in a funereal limousine—Boncaldo makes disco magic out of moody soundtrack material. Carpenter’s dark reign on European dance-floors would continue with another 12” single in 1983, featuring two versions of the theme from Carpenter’s early effort Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), remixed by German producer Ralf Hennings. The following year, Hennings would produce an entire album of discofied Carpenter themes by The Splash Band, further solidifying the director/composer’s Euro-disco presence.

Carpenter’s path from cinema to dance floor was aided by collaborator and co-composer Alan Howarth, a rock keyboardist and later keyboard roadie for the jazz-fusion super-group Weather Report. Howarth’s synthesizer expertise helped expand the sonic palette of the signature Carpenter sound, and their joint productions in the late-70s-early-80s would prove as influential in the music world as Carpenter’s Halloween soundtrack was in the world of horror cinema. Their classic soundtracks are currently being reissued by boutique soundtrack label Death Waltz Recordings, and what is perhaps most impressive about listening to these reissues is how successfully they work as standalone recordings. Escape from New York, which sold over 80,000 copies in 1981, is perhaps the most successful in this regard, its subtle funk and rock elements making a persuasive pitch for its later dance-floor rebirth. 

The most innovative of the Carpenter-Howarth collaborations, however, is certainly Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), a soundtrack whose brilliance is in inverse proportion to that of the film it was created to accompany.  The Halloween sequels ran out of steam earlier than most slasher franchises, beginning with Halloweeen II (1981), a film that, under the direction of newcomer Rick Rosenthal, indulges in the kind of exploitative violence of Carpenter’s imitators while largely eschewing its precursor’s blend of subtle suspense, humor and horror. 

The soundtrack of Halloween II is a true sequel to its predecessor, consisting largely of elaborate variations on Carpenter’s original, facilitated by Howarth’s vast analog synthesizer battery. Halloween III, on the other hand, offers fresh, new compositions that capture the bleakness and pessimism that lay just underneath the brightly painted surfaces of the early Reagan era. While the film itself presents a weak satire on commercialism through its story of an evil plot to control and kill children with a sinister line of mass-produced Halloween masks, the soundtrack presents a grim version of the shiny dance-pop and adult contemporary-friendly synthesizer music increasingly dominating American airwaves. “Chariots of Pumpkins,” as its title suggests, is a nightmarish take on Vangelis’ hugely successful theme to Chariots of Fire (1981), while more driving tracks, like “First Chase,” capture the darkness hovering at the edges of MTV hits like the Eurhythmics “Sweet Dreams” and Yazoo’s “Don’t Go.” 

The most distinctive pieces from Carpenter and Howarth’s soundtrack, however, are the more subdued and atmospheric, and it is these that also sound most contemporary, anticipating the bleak urban soundscapes of later artists like Portishead, Burial, and Aphex Twin. Like Carpenter, Howarth is a firm believer in the value of subtlety in scoring horror films, a point recently emphasized by Carpenter in an interview for online magazine The Quietus: “The horror element in movie scoring comes from mood over complexity. Also from silence.”  This is equally the credo of many of the more innovative figures in contemporary electronic music, artists like Laurel Halo, Actress, and Emeralds, the latter of whom recently shared a stage with Howarth at the Unsound Music Festival in New York.  Like these artists, Carpenter and Howarth achieve haunting effects by rendering distorted pop musical elements through a gray curtain of sonic gloom.

Equally influential, of course, is the other side of Carpenter’s work, the taut, rhythmic intensity and insistent repetitiveness of his original score for Halloween (1978). Directly influenced by Bernard Herrman’s unforgettable stabbing strings for Hitchcock’s Psycho, the Halloween theme creates an aural equivalent to an experience more elusive than violence: menace. With its complex but forceful 5/4 time signature, Carpenter’s theme uncannily conjures a sense of something creeping up behind you, of danger loping relentlessly along.  Although much of the soundtrack is filled with “stingers,” those brief and alarming rhythmic stabs that have become something of a cliché in horror films, the most distinctive quality of the main theme is its disturbing steadiness. Piano chords and synthesized orchestral effects build only to subside, leaving us alone again with an unnervingly steady off-beat keyboard signature that won’t go away. Like Colt 45, it works every time.

The year after Carpenter’s Halloween left its indelible mark on future developments in film and music, a stadium of baseball fans would vent their misdirected hatred on a pile of disco records.  If this was 1979’s version of 1969’s Altamont, clearly Marx was right when he said that history repeated itself as farce.  Fortunately, the specter of disco would again haunt Europe, with the unlikely aid of two of horror cinema’s great musical innovators.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

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1 Comment

  • Matthew H | November 10, 2012 1:59 AMReply

    Listen to Optimo's "How to Kill the DJ Part 2" mix from 2004 for a fantastic use of "The End".

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