the best musical moments from the career of john carpenter

As he prepares to take his soundtracks to the stage, we survey the career of one of cinema's best directors and soundtrack composers.

by Ian McQuaid
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20 October 2015, 9:52am

John Carpenter is movies' Renaissance Man. Auteurs that write and direct their own work are relatively common, but Carpenter has always gone one step further, composing and playing his own soundtracks; of the 19 films he's directed, he's scored 16. A champion of electronic sound, the last decade has seen Carpenter's classic scores gain increasing currency outside the world of cinema, his influence heard everywhere from the electronic menace of Haxan Cloak to the chilly synth-pop romance of Kavinsky. Whilst his films have see-sawed between genius (Halloween) and grot (Escape from LA), his soundtrack work is now recognised as amongst the finest Hollywood has ever seen.

Earlier this year Carpenter decided to try something new. He released an album of music made without an accompanying film. To a thrilled critical reception, Lost Themes invited listeners to conjure up their own mental scenes to go alongside the minimalism, portent and threat that make up Carpenter's musical toolkit. "I want you to take my album," Carpenter told Billboard "Put it on, turn down the lights, sit there and listen and start fantasizing. See the movie you got in your mind. My album is the score for it."

As it turns out, this might be the closest fans get to seeing a new Carpenter film. At 67 he currently has no plans to get back into the director's chair. Instead he's focusing on the music, and has just announced that 2016 will see him play his first ever live show. Performing at ATP Iceland, Carpenter won't just be playing selections from Lost Themes - he'll be covering highlights from his entire career. What better time to re-evaluate the greatest moments from the man who bought synths to cinema?

Assault on Precinct 13
Carpenter's breakthrough picture was also his first major score. Necessity was the mother of invention in Assault on Precinct 13, with budget restraints meaning there was no cash -- or time -- to sort out a composer. Carpenter ignored his limited experience and stepped into the breach, self-deprecatingly noting later that "I compose cause I'm cheap and I'm fast."

Recorded in 1976, the film's opening theme has all the elements that would go on to define Carpenter's work - simple, fat sounding bass pulses, washes of eerie strings, and uncluttered arrangements that allow menace to lurk in the gaps. This is one of Carpenter's most influential works, with his naïve, untutored melody prefiguring hundreds of Euro synth pop songs, then later, being liberally sampled by a number of UK rave hits. It's echo can be heard everywhere from the early 80s avant-Berlin electro of Martin Shreeve, to the gleaming Pet Shop Boy's created theme used for The Clothes Show, to Awesome 3's hardcore anthem Hard Up

The theme is re-visited in the film as The Windows - here, pulled down to skittering drums, fat bass plods and sorrow laden melodies, it transmutes into a minimal industrial composition of extraordinary foresight.

Prince of Darkness
As a film, Prince of Darkness has become something of a cause célèbre for Carpenter fanatics. Critically panned on release, the 1987 production is the directors slow paced shot at biblical horror, with a grab bag of zombies, threats of apocalypse, and Alice Cooper cameos chucked in for good measure. Whilst the film's merits are debatable, the soundtrack is undeniable, and amongst Carpenter's most accomplished work. The title theme is just shy of 10 minutes, revolving around a cycling two note bass pulse. Strings and discord fade up in the mix, crashing over the pulse, then fall away into space, and Carpenter has almost created his own genre, somewhere between the psychedelic horror film scores of the Italian Giallo masters, and a brooding epic of beatless Gothic techno.

Night
It's tempting to see John Carpenter as The Ramones of the synth soundtrack world - pretty much everything he writes sounds exactly the same, it's all basic as you like, and yet he still, somehow, gets away with making the formula sound brand new every time. Taken from the Lost Themes album, Night is a case in point. There's nothing in the track that couldn't have featured in one of his early 80s masterpieces, from the synth pulse bass, to the menacing acres of space in the mix, but there's still such magic there; the track lingers long after it's been played, as much the work of a master craftsman as it is an artist, and probably all the better for it.

Escape From New York
The noughties sequel Escape From LA may have been a black mark in Carpenter's career, but the original remains a classic of style and execution. The opening theme is typically strong, based around a distinctive Carpenter looping riff, embellished, rising up and down, and running alongside a nagging electronic rhythm track. However, there's plenty of gold throughout the film - Bank Robbery is a moody disco workout that combines skeletal guitar, throbbing bass and sharp hand claps with such taut funkiness it's a wonder Pharrell is yet to steal it and chuck Robin Thicke over the top. Over the Wall, meanwhile, is a Kraftwerk-esque dance of keyboard arpeggios that sounds like its come up with the blue-print for a thousand Detroit techno classics. Finally The Duke Arrives is such an effortless display of chilly punk-funk that it's found it's way into Trevor Jackson's DJ sets.

The entire Halloween franchise
The first Halloween score is probably Carpenter's most famous. In terms of memorably horror riffs, the 5/4 piano loop that opens the film is up there with the Twilight Zone theme tune. In many ways it's a departure from his usual work, far closer to a traditional horror film score, with the synthetic sound barely noticeable in the mix. From the same film, The Shape Stalks is closer to the typical Carpenter formula; one relentless note hitting on a piano as brutal, discordant pitches rise around it. It's a thoroughly unpleasant listen, and the perfect accompaniment to Michael Myers slashing through the house after Jamie Lee Curtis. "Music is like laying a carpet down for the scene," Carpenter has mused. "Sometimes it's the simplest, simplest thing. The whole point is to make you watch. There wasn't much too it, it didn't take a lot of talent."

A few years later, Halloween 2 and 3 were among the few films Carpenter scored without directing -- and his involvement was probably the greatest feature of both. The Halloween 3 title music is particularly strong -- it's needling main melody echoes of the first film's recognisable riff, this time replayed as bitty electronic stabs. The theme opens with these horribly atonal descending sounds; synths as knife slashes, then develops into a creepy epic of cosmic disco, stepping between the harrowing and funky as only Carpenter knows how.

John Carpenter plays his debut live show at ATP Iceland 2016

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