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Chilly Scenes of Dystopia

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Curiously, three soundtracks to early 1980s films about urban dystopias have stood up remarkably well. They’re probably not what anybody would want to listen to every day, but as a change of pace, they’re well worth seeking out.

1983’s soundtrack to Blade Runner by Vangelis is undoubtedly the best of the lot, and a knockout of atmosphere and texture. Like the electronic score by Bebe and Louis Barron to Forbidden Planet, it’s both impossible to figure out where the sound effects to Blade Runner end, and Vangelis’s music begins. It’s also impossible to imagine Blade Runner without that soundtrack-it’s a major component of its rabid cult following.

1982’s Death Wish II was a terrible film, but Jimmy Page’s soundtrack has its moments. Indeed, in terms of creativity at atmosphere, its hard rock songs were better than Page’s subsequent efforts in The Firm, even though that latter was somewhat redeemed by Paul Roger’s distinctive vocals, rather than the patchwork of vocalists Page employs here. When Page isn’t in Zeppelin-crunch mode on the soundtrack, the CD alternates between slow compositions with Page on acoustic guitar fronting a small orchestra, and scary, dramatic effects, apparently recycled from Page’s earlier aborted soundtrack for Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising. The real standout is “Prelude”, based on a Chopin’s composition, but with the melody played by Page on his B-Bender-equipped Fender Telecaster. Blink and you’ll miss it in the movie (it was used as “source music” for a radio playing in a restaurant, as I recall), but it’s a nifty little piece of guitar playing on the soundtrack CD.

By the MTV-crazy mid-1980s, it was fairly common practice to employ a rock group on a sound track, even beyond simply contributing songs. It usually didn’t work, but one case where the results have stood the test of time is the soundtrack the Eurythmics contributed to 1984’s…1984. Annie Lennox’s remarkable voice is treated as an instrument in and of itself, and processed through vocoders, delays, harmony effects, and just about every other electronic effect imaginable. Occasionally the results sound dated (especially “Sex Crime”, the opening track, and it’s rap-style “stutter” opening. It might have been cool 19 years ago, but when an effect is employed on 157,000 songs, it quickly becomes old hat.

But that song is the exception to the rule here. “Julia” is the CD’s standout track, as Lennox voice icily soars above an enormous sounding piano, and the requisite synths and drum machine. Chilly scenes of dystopia, indeed.

Apparently, Michael Radford, the film’s director, was uncomfortable with the Eurythmics’ efforts. Originally, the film was released with a combination of their soundtrack, and more conventional pieces by noted soundtrack composer Dominic Muldowney. And apparently, none of the Eurythmics’ music is featured on the recent DVD reissue of the film, either because of the dreaded “contractual differences”, or because over the years, Radford really came to hate their efforts.

Either way, it’s the film’s loss. But for a home recording artist looking for unique ways to employ and process vocals, the Eurhythmics’ score to 1984 is a textbook. Yet all three of these CDs are worth seeking out, for their early ’80s synth sounds, and attempts to make audible the sounds of urban nightmares.

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About Ed Driscoll