Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Pointless List : Morricone-Influenced Rock

Ennio Morricone was perhaps the first significant Soundtrack Composer to take a lasting influence from rock music. His seminal scores for the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci utilised rock instrumentation and even borrowed rock textures - the guitars sounded like those of a Surf guitar group, and some of the jerking rhythms almost resembled reggae. This meant that he - and artists covering him - had a few chart hits in the 60s and also that his work began to influence some of the more interesting artists of that era.

Since then, he has been utterly absorbed by popular culture and people perhaps take his brilliance for granted. He pops up in rock music in unlikely places - he has been endlessly sampled, most famously perhaps when the Orb used "The Man with the Harmonica" from Once Upon a Time in the West on "Little Fluffy Clouds", but also by the likes of Jay-z and the Prodigy. Morrissey somehow persuaded him to score the strings for "Dear God, Please Help Me" from his 2006 "Ringleader of the Tormentors" album. Maybe hes a fan of the Smiths? Metallica begin their live set with "The Ecstasy of Gold" and their Metallica album contained a couple of Spaghetti Western influences.
Probably the most reliable Morricone-booster in modern rock music is Mike Patton. His bands Fantomas and Mr Bungle have both covered Morricone, and he curated the fantastic Morricone compilation "Crime and Dissonance" a few years ago.
But Morricone's direct influence on rock music is harder to trace, I think, since his sound has become so diffuse and eclectic. There are a few obvious references to make, however:

Babe Ruth - The Mexican
Babe Ruth were a strange mix of Prog and blues-rock who enjoyed far more success in North America than they ever did in their native England (they came from Hatfield). The song for which they will be remembered is The Mexican, which incorporates Morricone's theme from For A Few Dollars More as a guitar riff. Maybe "incorporates" is too mild a word, for the song is fairly built around that theme, one of Morricone's most nagging and distinctive melodies. Based on a fantastically pulsing bassline and some nimble guitarwork, the body of the song allows singer Janita Haan's raw vocal - with Western-referencing lyrics ( "Dreams of Santa Ana, fighting in the Sun" etc) - to dominate. But the breakdown is all Morricone, a guitar and keyboard working over his theme as part of an extended solo. The song's storming rhythm section was used in an early 70s B-Boy break and since then it has been covered and remixed a couple of times, but the rocking original remains the best, and the closest to Morricone.

Last Shadow Puppets - The Age of Understatement
Here is a band paying tribute to Morricone via Baroque rock. In an attempt to create a record that could have been recorded in the 1960s, full of Big galloping orchestras and melodramatic soundscapes but also unashamed, exciting pop hooks, Alex Turner and Miles Kane end up sounding like they've listened to an awful lot of Scott Walker. Specifically "Scott 4", the beginning of his commercial decline but arguably his best record of the 60s. Its also an album that betrays a major Morricone influence, most obviously on tracks like "The Seventh Seal" and "The Old Man's Back Again". So theres a secondhand Morricone influence, if such a thing is possible in a world where Morricone's music has become such a cliche, and this song features those strident, charging strings, building toward an inevitable climax that never quite arrives.

Tindersticks - Her
Tindersticks have composed and performed music for soundtracks over the last few years - Clare Denis has a particular fondness for their work, meaning that they've contributed to some of the best films of the decade - and this isn't remotely surprising given the influence of various soundtracks on their music right from their first record. Her comes from their brilliant eponymous debut, and in its storm of chopped acoustic chords, which sound not unlike thundering hooves, it recalls the action theme from A Fistful of Dollars. Then theres the buzzing electric guitar line which runs throughout and the use of horns, which are very redolent of Morricone, too. As ever, Stuart Staples writes dark, personal lyrics, full of recrimination and self-loathing, but thechorus is as plain and ardent as it could conceivably be; "Its Her, Her, Her, Her, Her". In their later work they go more late-night and the dominant film composer influence seems to be John Barry, but here the dominant cinematic influence is Italian and beautifully absorbed. Who knew a song could wear the influence of both Morricone and Thin Lizzy and yet work so well?

Modern Eon - Euthenics
You might imagine that post-punk as a movement and aesthetic is about as far from Morricone as you could get. And generally you would be right. But Modern Eon, a Liverpudlian post-punk band, peers of the likes of The Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen, managed to be firmly post-punk and absorb a heavy Morricone influence. With most rock bands that influence comes from his Spaghetti Western soundtrack work, and that is also the case here. Usually the influence is most discernable in either the guitar sound - a sharp, reverb-wrung surf guitar line, in most cases - or in the work of the rhythm section, who will charge the song along with big bass drums beating out odd, primal tattoos. Here the guitar sound is very definitely the most obvious Morricone element in play, but the rhythm section isn't too far off, even if the vocals and keyboards are both intrinsically 1980s and Post-Punk in their effect:

Portishead - Machine Gun
Early Portishead wears more of a John Barry/Burt Bacharach influence (as well as a touch of Esquivel) even if there is some Morricone in the occasional searing guitar break and the general atmospherics. Their third album is an entirely different beast, junking all of their stylistic crutches, and this song stands apart from their entire catalogue due to its harsh, industrial drum sound, which hammers along throughout. But the coda features a despairing synth theme which sounds like it has been beamed in from 1979, from an Italian Morricone soundtrack where Il Maestro is wearing the influence of John Carpenter's scores from his own films so lightly, it seems as if he's organically come up with it himself. It finishes off a great song - Gibbon's beautiful voice pushed to the limit as it rarely is by the band's more habitual sound - on a beautifully accomplished note.

Gruff Rhys - Lonesome Words
The Super Furry Animals obviously love Morricone. There are Morricone moments scattered throughout their many albums - a harmonica here, a guitar part there, some strings, some drums. On his excellent solo album singer Rhys goes for the fullbown Morricone homage with this lovely little folksy stroll. It has that galloping rhythm so many of these songs have, played on acoustic guitars, Rhys cooing over the top. But the backing vocal is the really obvious Morricone element - a keening female wail singing a ghostly countermelody which runs under each verse. Then the song shifts gear for its final stretch, and a jolly, hyperactive fiddle kicks in, a sound familiar from much of Morricone's work from the 60s and 70s. The fact that it plays quite a glum little melody just makes it sound more lovely.

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Blogger Monsterwork said...

Secret Chiefs 3, a handshake away from Patton, do loads of Morricone/Araby doodles. Pastiches, pretty much.

It's an awful quality recording, sadly.


11:08 pm  
Blogger David N said...


For all that the whole post was pointing out Morricone's influence, I sometimes look at modern music and think hes not influential enough...

11:59 pm  
Blogger Beezer B said...

Nice pointless list. Am linking it to a couple peoples.

10:03 pm  
Blogger Ross said...

Nice post. How can there be such a lot of music in the world whilst some people are content with swimming in the bilge?
SFA are ones I've always liked but never listened to much, maybe now I should finally get it, especially the Gruff solo stuff.

2:41 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice list! The first Goldfrapp album "Felt Mountain" and all songs by Get Well Soon would match as well.

2:49 pm  

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