John Carpenter and Alan Howarth at work on Season of the Witch (scan courtesy of Mike Conway)
The growing interest in John Carpenter as a composer of electronic music, and not just a director of horror films, seems to be reaching a critical point at the moment: his music is celebrated in the Vision Sound Music festival in London this weekend; the latest issue of Wire magazine features an interview with his composing partner, Alan Howarth (who will appear at the festival); and French duo Zombie Zombie released an album late last year called “Zombie Zombie Play John Carpenter.”
A renowned hardworker, John Carpenter may not be aware of just how much of an impact he has had on a successive number of generations of electronic musicians. Regarded in the same league as Giorgio Moroder and Vangelis, whose soundtracks for Midnight Express and Blade Runner, respectively, have had a life of their own, Carpenter is often cited as a major inspiration by many electronic musicians.
The real interest in John Carpenter’s music began with his soundtrack for his 1976 film Assault on Precinct-13. For its title theme, he used a simple electronic riff that he had pinched from a Led Zeppelin song, and a spare percussive line composed on a drum machine, giving the film an unusual texture, slightly cold and synthetic, and pre-dating the new-wave/industrial sound of bands like Throbbing Gristle and Coil.
Of course it was the Halloween theme (and the film) that put him on the map, acting as a kind of surrogate audio cue for anything spooky over the last couple of decades (along with the Twilight Zone theme and “Tubular Bells” from the Exorcist).
But Carpenter had also composed a number of other exceptional horror soundtracks – The Fog was amazing, and so was the score to the third “Halloween” film, Season of the Witch, even though it was unrelated to the original. With each successive film, he seemed to go deeper into the music, and his elongated sounds – drones, and wide bending bass notes – toyed with parts of the brain rarely used outside of sleep.
Zombie Zombie’s version of the Halloween theme live in Glasgow
John Carpenter’s music first started being covered by European groups who wanted to recreate what they had heard in Assault on Precinct 13. German producer Ralf Hennings, as The Splash Band released his own 12″ of the “End Theme” in 1983, near the height of John Carpenter’s influence on the film world.
Strangely, in 2003 – twenty years later – a limited edition CDr came out, entitled The European Tribute to John Carpenter, using the same pumpkin orange colour that the Splash Band had used. It was a compilation of different electronic artists from around Europe, covering and composing tracks in his style, but with a decided dark wave bent. This was at the height of the electroclash movement, where an interest in the origins of modern electronic dance music, in new-wave, EBM, New York electro, and Euro-pop (like italo-disco) was underway. This interest also bought synthesizers back into the standard band line-up, something that hadn’t really been seen since the eighties.
A number of musicians like Holland’s Legowelt, Germany’s Anthony Rother and Booka Shade, and Australian band Midnight Juggernauts have acknowledged Carpenter’s influence on their music. Although Carpenter rarely composes music for films now – the workload is just too great – he has left behind a considerable body of music to be enjoyed.
Most of his music is still available. Besides the bigger Varese Sarabande releases, niche labels like Record Makers (home of Sebastian Tellier) released his Assault on Precinct 13 for the first time back in 2003, while La-La Land Records put out Big Trouble in Little China a couple of years back.
Number 47 of 110 … Sleeve for European Tribute to John Carpenter
This is a recent interview with co-composer Alan Howarth:
For more information about John Carpenter and his music you can visit the Official John Carpenter site.