Rock Operas of Violence

Between Song & Score Part 1

published in The Wire No.170, April, 1998, London

Rock. Consider its lumpen weight, its compacted form. One word, so perfectly describing the granulitic, gravity-bearing power of a music predicated on volume, mass and density. No wonder it has been granted scant environmental hold in the shimmering, flickering world of cinema and its ghostly evocation of wispy imagery. Like the delicate white sheet which captures the phosphorescent play of light and shadow on its slight surface, film music is accordingly ethereal, vaporous, wafting. Historically, cinema is a machine of the phantasmagorical: a play upon the fantastic evocation of impossible images and imaginable scenes. When rock music occurs on the film soundtrack, it smashes that arcana of slide projections and light shows with volcanic force. The air becomes thick, space is filled with volume, sound degenerates into noise - all reminding us that hidden behind the silver screen's porous fabric are speakers.

Vulgar, brash, obvious, effective - rock music has for over forty years consistently been used to signpost rebelliousness, albeit a fairly pale one. Particularly so in the cinema. Little distinguishes the purpose and effect of a rock presence generated by Elvis Presley in a 1957 movie and Trent Raznor in a 1997 movie - despite the plain contrasts in their musical style and aura. As songs in films, though, they exist as imports, bearing carnets of displacement and badges of otherness. Polarised so directly against strains of orchestral beauty, rock tends to suffer a sameness which marks its identity too sharply, thereby rendering its usage limited by self-effacing and 'naturalistic' standards of filmmaking. The problem is that the grandiose narrational aspects of the orchestra are presumed to somehow come from cinema, to somehow match it, while the folk-song form of rock music is sited outside of cinema's higher aspirations, fixing rock songs as vagrants and itinerants.

Yet a historical sliver of rock film scoring trails across the body of cinema like a barely visible scar. From fuzzed guitars in American biker movies of the 60s to wailing organs in European sex movies of the 70s, the underbelly of cinema's more disreputable genres belie rock affectations from the gorgeous to the gross. A full accountability of rock in the cinema cannot be undertaken here, but some points about the granular peculiarities of 'rockness' on the film soundtrack - particularly as a transition from imported songs to texturally composed presences - are worth pondering. One pinnacle of mixing cinema with rock scoring resides in the musical networking between Italy's master of violent horror, Dario Argento, and the many scores supplied to him by symphonic rock ensemble, Goblin. Therein one can encounter all that is wonderfully wrong about rock in the cinema: its unnecessary forcefulness, its disavowal of diminution, its self-centred sensationalism.

The most distinguishing feature of an Argento film is its Italian flavour: excessive, hysterical, modish, gaudy, enraptured with its own stylisation. Some have mistaken Argento as a sycophantic director caught between Alfred Hitchcock and Brian DePalma. Clearly forsaking the taut, cerebral mystery structures of his Anglo counterparts, Argento co-opts European operatic form for the staging of his corpulent narratives. Environment, scale, plasticity and spectacle are foregrounded in the pyrotechnics of his films, often so much so that the story becomes incomprehensible. Relations between sound and image are deliberately overloaded to disorient one with an near-abstract audio-visual experience. As coloured lights from nowhere render the scene garish and Goblin's violently loud music bears down on the drama, the film itself actively terrorises its audience, eschewing the mundane mechanics of guided story-telling for psychological dislocation. The resultant effect is like suddenly inhabiting the frenzied mental disposition of the film's killer. Hitchcock and DePalma consistently create voyeuristic states to implicate us in observing murderous action; Argento jettisons us into the deranged terrain of the killer, where nothing makes sense except the engulfing pulsations which drive the moment of psychosis. And Goblin's music is the neural flow of this dimensional overload.

In the first Argento film scored by Goblin - DEEP RED (1975) - the texture of rock is cannily employed to evoke the abrasive sado-masochistic pleasure of rock music in all its deafening pain and thrilling obliteration of aural subtlety. The joy of subjecting oneself to rock music's unrealistically loud volume is integral to the thrill of its power, and the pleasure of horror films requires a similar contract. For the original release of DEEP RED, Argento stipulated that cinemas be equipped with additional PA speakers to increase the volume level of the soundtrack. First used for films like Ken Russell's TOMMY (1971) and most recently with Prince's SIGN O' THE TIMES (1989), the effect is brutish at best. Nonetheless, the sight of big, black concert bins and sub-woofers ungainly framing the picture screen like coup detat sentinels conveys an exciting sense of rock taking over the cinema. DEEP RED certainly benefited from this effect as its aim was to attack an audience with images and sounds of extreme violence. Goblin's unabashed appropriation of Mike Oldfield's TUBULAR BELLS' irregular-time riff is corny, cliched, corrupt - but its plain inappropriateness to the scenes of terror it accompanies in DEEP RED's story of childhood terror and sexual confusion is aptly unsettling.

SUSPIRIA (1976) recapitulates the formulaic accoutrements of symphonic rock (compound time signatures, ornate instrumentation, vainglorious tone, melodramatic structure, self-aggrandising solos, etc.) yet in its feverish simulation of the vocabulary, it somehow transcends the dated conventions of the form. More than DEEP RED (which occasionally affects jazz-fusion styling), SUSPIRIA salaciously degenerates into atonal free-form passages which evoke a pap paganism that creates some chilling moments of terror. The opening sequence of SUSPIRIA is possibly one of the most wilfully perverse stagings of apocalyptic violence committed to film. The biting creativity with which the unseen killer murders one of the nubile dancers at the Dance Academy nestled deep in Vienna's Black Forrest reflects the morbid inventiveness with which Argento stages the feculent event. The sequence - from the film's opening through its first fifteen minutes - is incredulous, overblown, unremitting, illogical. But there is a vicious knowingness in its staging, as if each moment openly asks its audience "what would you feel if I showed you this? And this? And more?". Argento's murderous gaze and psycho-sexual camera work is matched by the hedonistic fever with which Goblin rake over the cliches of symphonic rock, stoking them into an overblown spectacle of operatic effect. While conservative critics bemoan both the excessiveness of Italian exploitation cinema and the numbing bombast of rock scores, Argento and Goblin collaborate to create a potent, distasteful fusion of the two, blending their co-existing strains of perversity.

As producer of George Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979), Argento enlisted Goblin to provide a typically pompous but powerful score. In contrast to Argento's own fretful tempos, Goblin create a plodding, lumbering main theme which perfectly fits the slow ebbs of massed zombies. Fat drums, chunky bass, tubular bells, spaced-out synth chords - the arrangement is a mutation of Black Sabbath's first LP and Morricone's early spaghetti western scores. Inappropriately overstated - maybe. Luridly stylish - definitely. Romero apparently preferred the generic temp cues of which many Argento directed Goblin to replace, indicating not simply artistic differences but a cultural clash. Americans (and the English) for decades ridiculed Leone's eclectic western's and Morricone's electric scores. Certainly, the music of Goblin is a matter of taste: it is spicy, smelly, saucy. It draws attention to itself, but when combined with visuals which equally beg attention, the operatic effect of sensory overload kicks in and the music's grotesque nature establishes it own dramatic logic. To some degree, DAWN OF THE DEAD sits as a film in conflict, due to a primary mismatch in audio-visual coding, but irony gurgles noisily in Goblin's para-kitsch pseudo-Gothic musicalisation of the deliriously utopian shopping mall.

Since DAWN OF THE DEAD - and mostly due to the notoriety and infamy of the Goblin/Argento collaborations - many volatile rock scores have been based on similar Euro-Anglo schisms. Argento employed Keith Emerson to score INFERNO (1980), after which Emerson scored Lucio Fulci's MURDER ROCK (1984). Rick Wakeman scored Ulli Lommel's THE BURNING (1980), and even Dino De Laurentis' penchant for rock spectacularism aided in the selection of Toto to score David Lynch's DUNE (1984). In reverse flow, Ennio Morricone has adopted Goblin's stylistics on occasion, from his wildly 'fusion-esque' freak-out for John Boorman's THE EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC (1977, covered by Snakefinger on Chewing Hides The Sound, 1979) to the booming, shuddering throb of Roberto Fainza's ORDER OF DEATH (1983, a rocked-up reworking of Morricone's own VIOLENT CITY, 1970).

Goblin and Argento are well overdue acknowledgment of their feisty contribution to rock in the cinema - not merely as some raunchy dialect but as an influential redefinition of rock's potential purpose and consequent role on the film soundtrack. In a current climate where film scores can be constructed as a polysemous patchwork of songs from every historiographic niche without short-circuiting narrative continuity, the often derided later films of Argento which feature substantial sections composed by various ex-members of Goblin - TENEBRAE (1982), PHENOMENA (1985), OPERA (1987), TRAUMA (19?) - are refreshingly perplexing and joyfully disorienting. True to the mythical outsider sentimentality of rock, Argento and Goblin have consistently defied convention through an excessive regurgitation of musical cliches. In doing so, they have collapsed the desperately defined differences between 'song' and 'score' and placed themselves outside of expected norms of cinematic composition.

Text © Philip Brophy 1998. Images © respective copyright holders