A Tribute to Morricone's Spaghetti Western Themes
Ennio Morricone reinvented western movie music with his score for A Fistful of Dollars [Un Pugno di Dollari] in 1964. He discarded the symphonic and the noble (lush strings and brass) and brought in the folkloric and the grotesque: whistling, choral shouting, dissonant harmonica, lonesome trumpet, Jew's harp, ocarina, chimes. Most importantly - to those of us raised on rock and roll - he brought in the gnarly electric guitar.
It was a sonic revolution that enabled director Sergio Leone to transform the western's visuals and script. With music strong enough to carry scenes without dialog, wide vistas and extreme closeups (the eyes of a duelist filling the screen) replaced talking heads. The talkative and well-scrubbed hero gave way to the taciturn and dusty anti-hero. As Leone himself put it: "If it is true that I have created a new-style Western, with picaresque people placed in epic situations, then it is the music of Ennio which has made them talk." Morricone's music made stars of Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef.
Four hundred soundtracks (of all genres) later, Morricone sometimes bristles at being best known for his early westerns. He lectures interviewers that "le note per i film 'pistoleri' sono una minima parte dell mia produzione [the scores for the 'gunfighter' films are a minimal part of my productions]" and specifically that "the Westerns I worked on, others as well as Leone's, account for just 8% of my productions." (In raw numbers, westerns comprise about 36 of his more than 400 soundtracks.) He recently told the alt-rock magazine Magnet that he considers A Fistful of Dollars "the worst Western of Leone's career and the worst of my music."
All the same, Fistful and his subsequent pistolero soundtracks are unmatched in popularity and enduring influence. Some five hundred European westerns were made on the heels of Leone's, most with scores styled after Morricone's. Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly [Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo] and Once Upon a Time in the West [C'era Una Volta il West] are the only Morricone-scored films among the 100 favorite movies of all time, as rated by the users of the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com). When a music critic calls an artist or song "Morricone-influenced," the reference is to the maestro's western music, particularly for GBU and OUaTitW, not to his work for horror, sexploitation, romance, or gangster films.
The world first noticed Morricone's music because it plays such a prominent role in the Leone films. Leone's biographer, Christopher Frayling, explained to interviewer Cenk Kiral: "Leone and Morricone told me that the music for the last twenty minutes of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was recorded in advance. So, the reason the cemetery scene is so beautifully choreographed, so well cut, is because it was actually done to the music. And the same for the duel scene. They were walking in time with the music. It's shot like a rock video."
How fitting, then, to offer an instrumental rock-and-roll tribute to the Morricone western scores. Bands around the world, from surf to heavy metal to avant-garde, love the music's imaginative tones and unforgettable melodies. Many have covered individual EM western themes. A few bands have even specialized in the spaghetti western style, including the The Hellbenders, Di Dollari, and In the West (the latter two making their recorded debuts on this disc). Million Dollar Records has released two excellent compilations of bands playing spaghetti-styled original tunes, "Spaghetti: Duck you Sucker" and "Spaghetti II: The Revenge".
For this tribute, we sought all new recordings. We found a remarkably talented set of bands eager to participate. Many have roots in "surf music", the style of guitar instrumentals associated with the Southern California teen beach culture of the early 1960s. In a curious way they are here following Morricone's own progression from beach sand to desert sand. One of the first movies Morricone scored, before any westerns, was an Italian teen beach movie, 1962's Eighteen in the Sun [Diciottenni al Sole].
A year before Fistful, Morricone had written a Hollywood-style score for an Italian-made western, Gunfight at Red Sands [Duello nel Texas]. He wrote another for Guns Don't Argue [Le Pistole non Discutono], a higher-budget film with which Fistful of Dollars was shot in tandem to save money. While Guns Don't Argue had a catchy theme (energetically played by The Penetrators here), Leone wanted a different sound.
At Leone's request, Morricone arranged the main Fistful theme with elements (whip cracks, bells, hammers, flutes, vocal chorus, and electric guitar) that he had previously used on a 1962 folk-pop single (for Peter Tevis, who was the vocalist on Gunfight at Red Sands and Guns Don't Argue, singing Woody Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty"). Possible influences on the decision to feature electric guitar are many. The American Duane Eddy had famously recorded western themes on his trademark "twangy" guitar in the late 1950s. British instrumental bands the Shadows and the Outlaws followed suit in the early Ž60s. We don't know whether any of those recordings ever reached Morricone. The British composer John Barry had featured the distinctive guitar work of Vic Flick on his soundtracks for Beat Girl (1960) and the James Bond films (1962-on), but any direct influence is likewise unknown. Looking for specific inspirations is probably pointless: by 1964 the electric guitar was everywhere in popular music.
We have it from several reliable sources that the principal guitar heard on Fistful was a Fender Stratocaster played by Alessandro Alessandroni, a remarkable musician who was also the celebrated whistler and director of the vocal chorus that Morricone repeatedly used. On subsequent soundtracks (For a Few Dollars More [Per Qualche Dollaro in Piú]; GBU; OUaTitW) the principal guitarist was Bruno Battisti D'Amario, possibly on a Jazzmaster. Both guitarists are still active today.
Morricone (as quoted by Frayling) explains that he sought to match his music to Leone's characters: "Certain characters in his films, the bad ones in particular, are very Italian, and even very Roman. But with Stetsons on their heads. Nothing to do with American history, really, and to underline the irony and craziness of these Italian characters, I created an ŽItalian' sound." With that lineage in mind, we are proud to have Italy's two top surf/instro bands, the Bradipos IV and Cosmonauti, performing the title themes from A Fistful of Dollars and its sequel, For A Few Dollars More. Both play con molto spirito.
In scoring some three dozen Italian westerns, Morricone did not endlessly mimic the Fistful formula. His scores fall roughly into three groups, matching three sub-types of westerns: violent dramas about vengeance-seekers or bounty hunters; comedies about frontier bumpkins; and fables about Mexican revolutionaries. Perhaps because their more urgent melodies are best suited to guitars, all of the artists in this tribute chose themes from the first group, and the majority chose from the four best-known scores for Leone films.
Dave Wronski, lead guitarist for Slacktone (and rhythm guitarist for Jon and the Nightriders), gives a lovely Spanish-guitar reading to the recurring trumpet theme from A Fistful of Dollars. Brent J. Cooper, lead guitarist for Huevos Rancheros, rocks up a suspenseful piece from For a Few Dollars More: "Sixty Seconds To What?". Sweden's surf/western combo The Langhorns (pronounced "Longhorns"?) bring out the drama in a gundown number from that movie, "The Vice Of Killing".
The Atlantics, a stunningly creative Australian band from the 1960s who regrouped in 1999, rise to the challenge of Morricone's best known (and most often covered) theme, the main title to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. 3 Balls of Fire, a trio from the actual American southwest, veer in an unexpectedly exotic direction with the music ("The Extacy of Gold") to that movie's above-mentioned scene where the character Tuco (Eli Wallach) runs through a cemetery on his way to buried treasure.
Morricone scored four westerns directed (and two purportedly co-directed) by Leone, but eight for the prolific Sergio Corbucci. Three of the best Corbucci themes are reinterpreted here. The wailing guitars of Pollo del Mar reconfigure Navajo Joe, theme to the best movie Burt Reynolds has ever made. A sample of the original's screaming chorus was used to great effect in the 1999 film Election. The Hellbenders bring interweaving guitars to the distinctive music (originally arranged for jazzy trumpet) of the dark western they named themselves after, The Hellbenders [I Crudeli]. Australian guitarist Kim Humphreys brings new urgency to the haunting melody of The Great Silence [Il Grande Silenzio]. This critically acclaimed snowbound western (at long last (legally) available in the USA with its recent DVD release) takes the taciturn hired gun archetype to its logical conclusion: a violent act has left the title character mute.
Completists will want to know that one other guitar-band cover of a Morricone / Corbucci theme is available: the theme from The Mercenary can be found on a recent collection of rare tracks by the legendary Ventures, In the Vaults, Vol. 1. Two other directors makes our collection. The Bambi Molesters tackle the title theme to Ducio Tessari's A Gun for Ringo [Una Pistola per Ringo], while the Irreversible Slacks provide a swanky reading of the gnarly theme to Sergio Sollima's The Big Gundown [La Resa dei Conti].
Our collection of Morricone compositions concludes with three tunes from Leone's most ambitious western, and Morricone's most Hollywood-like western score, "Once Upon a Time in the West". The trio In the West, recorded live, take a soulful approach to the bittersweet title theme. Morricone himself played the tune on church organ at Sergio Leone's funeral. The movie's awesome showdown theme, "As a Judgment [Come una Sentenza]", is taken over the top by a special collaboration between Los Angeles guitarists Bernard Yin (from the bands The MiGs and Sex with Lurch) and David Arnson (from the Insect Surfers). We appropriately bid farewell to Ennio with Di Dollari's nuanced take on the ambling "Farewell to Cheyenne," named for a bandit portrayed by Jason Robards. As a special bonus track, guitar legend Davie Allan offers a Morricone-inspired original tune, "The Loud, the Loose and the Savage", previously unreleased.
Without a doubt, the focus on guitars in this collection fails to mirror the varied instrumentation of Morricone's original arrangements. But holding up a mirror would have been pointless when everyone can (and should) listen to the original soundtracks. They not only remain in print, but wonderfully expanded editions keep arriving. (By the way, although some of the other westerns that Morricone scored are a chore to watch, I highly recommend all the movies represented here.) The objective of this collection is to pay homage to the great melodies, mostly by showing how they rock.
Well, I could go on, but it's time for the music to start. One must heed the words of Tuco: "When it's time to shoot, shoot! Don't talk!"
note that this is the correct running order.
a Few Dollars More
Seconds To What? [aka La Resa dei Conti]
Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Ecstasy of Gold
Gun for Ringo
Big Gundown (Seconda Caccia)
Upon a Time in the West
Above songs composed by Ennio Morricone
Compilation organized by Larry "Moon Dawg" White and Dalibor Pavicic
Artwork and package design
Thanks to all the musicians
and recording engineers for their contributions. Il grande grazie
to Ennio Morricone for the unforgettable music. Thanks also to Don
Vigeant; to Mark Bandy; to Ferenc Dobronyi, Mark Huber, Roberto Ruggeri,
and Dusty Watson for help in recruiting; to Roberto Zamori, Micke Lindgren,
Laurence Staig, and Cenk Kiral for information; and to Thad Todt for asking
on the Cowabunga list why nobody had done a tribute to Ennio Morricone
Read Gregory Nicoll's review from Creative Loafing
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