The Sounds of Death: “Blood on Black Wax: Horror Soundtracks on Vinyl”
Metal and horror have been inextricably linked from the jump, when Earth changed their name to Black Sabbath. Naturally, their respective fanbases have major overlaps: whether it’s Entombed covering the theme from Phantasm or Dokken writing “Dream Warriors” for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, there’s no denying the mutual love. On a deeper level, heavy metal and horror films act as conduits for a different kind of catharsis, whether it’s the frenzy of a mosh pit or the primal fear of a well-timed scare. And in 2019, metal is no longer just a genre, it’s a descriptor: horror’s goriest and most outlandish moments (as well as its musical accompaniments, will always be metal.
This dovetails into the fantastical, diverse world of the horror soundtrack, where the rubber hits the road and often makes or breaks a scary movie. Those fanbases hold certain scores and composers dear, and this all converges in the dark, creepy corner of the record shop, just past the metal section. Here is the home of those holy grails of horror soundtracks, on glorious, almost perpetually collectible wax.
The vinyl resurgence of the last decade, coupled with the horror soundtrack’s innately collectible quality, leads directly to Blood on Black Wax: Horror Soundtracks on Vinyl, the gorgeous new tome from Rue Morgue magazine Music Editor Aaron Lupton and contributor Jeff Szpirglas.
For the first time, an entire book is dedicated solely to the rarest and wildest soundtracks and scores from every corner of the horror pantheon. Accented by killer original artwork (courtesy of Andrew Wright) and high quality scans of the album covers, Blood on Black Wax deftly balances a plethora of details and anecdotes with a casual style and format that works for any reader. Instead of simply rattling off facts and figures about each release -- the important stuff is in there, don’t worry -- Lupton and Szpirglas integrate that information into an engaging description and review of each score, often with input from the composers themselves.
The book is comprised of seven chapters, each dedicated to a different subgenre. Chapter 1, entitled “Supernatural Horrors," gets the most page space with its all-encompassing tropes and franchises. Whether you want to know the vinyl release details for The Dunwich Horror or read some of Lalo Schifrin’s musings on why he was fired from The Exorcist, it’s all here. Most of the album art comes from Lupton’s gargantuan, envy-inducing personal record collection, representing each era of the genre all the way up to recent stellar reissues from cornerstone labels like Waxwork and Death Waltz.
The prose never comes across as repetitive or remotely boring; with the sheer volume and variance of content to write about, how could it? Lupton and Szpirglas remain concise and brisk, with the longer entries reserved for commentary from the original artists, names any horror fan will instantly recognize: Harry Manfredini, Christopher Young (who also contributes Black Wax’s afterword), Richard Band, and the godfather, John Carpenter.
Carpenter’s latest gig as a recording artist coincides with the latest trend in horror movie music: synthwave. Zombi, Slasher Dave, and Carpenter Brut (among others) round out the book as the newest kids on the block, drawing inspiration from Carpenter, Goblin, and other 1970s and 1980s legends, complete with vinyl releases almost across the board. The fact that these new acts are creating horror scores without an actual movie to put them in sounds odd at first but makes sense when one realizes the impact those original musical pieces had as their own entity.
We had the pleasure of exchanging with Lupton and Szpirglas regarding the upcoming book (which say a Record Store Day special release, but will see official shelf date on May 13th). Following the interview are some excerpts from Chapter 5 of the book entitled "Rock 'n' Roll Nightmares."
What was the first horror soundtrack you had a real connection with?
Szpirglas: Without a doubt, it was Jaws. I was never allowed to watch the movie as a kid, but I would always end up spotting clips of it on TV, sometimes on PBS shows when they were doing suites of John Williams music. I eventually tracked down an LP of the soundtrack at my local library, and sampled the theme as background music for a grade 6 audio play I created for class. Star Wars was a bigger influence, but Jaws certainly was the first horror score I connected with.
Lupton: I hate to be so predictable but it was probably John Carpenter's Halloween. I think that's the score that hit horror fans the hardest -- even if you were too young and unsophisticated to appreciate movie scores, that one has to stand out as a piece of music that is undeniably says "horror.” It could work as the music in a haunted house attraction and yet it was actually added to a horror film itself. It doesn't really function as a piece of music for any other reason than to be scary. Truthfully Halloween probably wouldn't have worked all that well as a movie if it wasn't for Carpenter's music. It gives the audience goosebumps, makes their hair stand on end, and absolutely makes you believe that Michael Myers is the personification of evil and an unstoppable force. The fact that the score alone is what made Halloween one of the indisputable classics of the genre speaks to its power.
How did the idea for Blood on Black Wax come about, and was there a clearly defined vision on what it would be from the start?
Szpirglas: It began as a conversation between myself and Aaron Lupton at Rue Morgue. I approached him about doing a Rue Morgue Library special digest issue devoted to horror soundtracks, featuring reviews and interviews of the best in the genre. When the magazine stopped issuing the library series, we began to search elsewhere for a publisher, with the goal of making a really visual book. Aaron’s record collection is pretty intense.
Lupton: Yes, I really wanted to do a book on horror soundtracks because it was something Jeff and I were equally passionate about. But I really wanted to make a book that was more accessible and fun, rather than a text-only book that contained a lot of discussion on music theory. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it limits the audience. Horror soundtracks today are far more popular than ever before, and it's all because of the vinyl reissue market. Waxwork and Death Waltz were able to create a market of people who would never otherwise buy horror scores by creating colourful, collectible physical media. We kind of decided to do something similar with this book. As Jeff and I talked about the project we kind of landed on the idea of a record album book for horror soundtracks. That way we would appeal to soundtrack aficionados, horror fans, and horror art collectors.
There are a ton of fascinating interviews and excerpts from many of the original composers throughout the book; who was the most difficult to track down, and was there anyone you wanted to get but couldn't?
Szpirglas: We tried to reach out to John Williams, Danny Elfman, Howard Shore, and Ennio Morricone. With Williams, I think we came close, but the man has been so busy cranking out score after score. I know he’s close to retirement, but he was just unavailable for the book. We did get really close to scoring an interview with Krzysztof Penderecki, whose music ended up in The ShiningThe Exorcist, and whose modernist style seems to have been a huge influence on a number of horror composers. You can’t win ‘em all.
Lupton: The really surprising one was Claudio Simonetti. I have met him numerous times and had a direct line, but just couldn't get an answer! I figured he was a shoo-in.
In his foreword, Mick Garris beautifully encapsulates what it is about horror scores that succeed in capturing the audience's attention. With records, one is ostensibly listening without the visual element. What do you think makes a horror soundtrack compelling enough to stand on its own, and not just a component of the film?
Szpirglas: It’s a really good question. Some of the best horror scores work wonders in the movie, but can be a real chore to sit through at home, although it depends on what kind of mood you want the music to set. For my fiction writing, I tend to make soundtrack playlists, and I’ve got several horror-themed ones. The usual suspects are on there: John Carpenter, James Bernard, Bernard Herrmann. But within that playlist, you’ve got a variation of themes, so that it’s not just the same theme or motif repeating for forty minutes.
And you have to approach a horror score with a different mindset; they don’t tend to rely on tonality as much as other genres do. Horror scores present a chance to experiment with different sounds, often with the goal of unnerving you, and trying to induce a kind of sonic dread. Certainly when a soundtrack utilizes a broader range of sounds, whether coming from an orchestra or synthesizers, it gives your imagination more to work with.
But soundtracks are unique, especially if you’ve seen the film they come from. You’re constantly thinking about the movie itself, even if you’re not watching it in tandem with the music. You’re being reminded of different scenes from the movie, and your brain is working from that mental template -- at least, in my experience. It was interesting reviewing soundtracks for the book for films I hadn’t seen, and there were a few. I had a completely different frame of reference that was entirely musical, and not cinematic.
Lupton: Ha, it's a very good question and nearly impossible to answer. I think when you look at the horror genre, the fans are just diehard. Horror fans need to own every horror movie collectible, they need to own the movies, the posters, wear the t-shirts, and even get tattoos of their favourite horror movies. But horror isn't really one thing is it? I mean, from the Universal monsters to Amityville Horror to The New York Ripper to Re-Animator to Scream, those are all very different films with very different styles and purposes aren't they? And how many horror movies are even scary, or even intended to scare?
I don't know ultimately why we love horror movies so much but their appeal seems to lay in their status as some sort of outsider art form. So the reason horror scores are so cool is that they are a key cog in the aesthetic that makes each film the work of art that it is, dubious or otherwise, from the classic strings in Bernard Herrmann's masterful Psycho to the low-fi cheap synths in Xtro to the unorthodox instrumentation of period piece The VVitch, to Goblin's weird sonic tapestry in Suspiria to Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell's avant garde experimentation in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. If you think any or all of these films are great, chances are the music contributed to that greatness in its own way. It's sort of the spirit of the film that can now haunt your turntable long after the film has ended. But I think unlike film scores in general, you kind of have to be one of those weird outlaw horror fans in order to truly appreciate these horror scores on their own.
Vinyl's resurgence over the last decade, coupled with horror fans' tendency to be obsessive collectors, has seen certain releases skyrocket in value on platforms like Discogs and eBay. What would you consider a “Holy Grail” find, if you came across it at a flea market or used record store?
Szpirglas: As a collector of -- gasp -- CDs over LPs, I’m probably the wrong guy to answer this question. That being said, I’m gobsmacked that people are selling the Chinatown CD for over $100. Glad I grabbed mine back in, like, 1995.
Lupton: For sure it is any Beat Records original Italian horror soundtrack LPs. The Beyond, City of the Living Dead, etc. If you own any of these let me know, I have a couple of homes I can sell.
With synthwave continuing to explode as we speak, most if not all of these new groups owe a huge debt to many of the artists you talked to and soundtracks you wrote about for this book. Are there any in particular that stand out to you, and do you believe the genre stands on its own merits, not just as a nostalgia trip?
Szpirglas I remember reviewing a soundtrack for a movie called Three Sisters by Repeated Viewing, which turned into my running jam for the summer of 2016 (particularly after-dark runs through downtown Toronto). And though not strictly synthwave, I really like the grooves that Morricone Youth brings to their alternate soundtracks to films like Mad Max and Night of the Living Dead.
Lupton: Actually we dedicate a few pages in the book to the modern horror synthwave and "faux horror soundtrack" genre, as an example of how far reaching horror soundtracks have become, to show that horror soundtracks have actually inspired artists to make music original music directly inspired by horror soundtracks that can stand on its own merits. There are tons of great artists to check out: Slasher Dave, Voyag3r, Terrortron, Videogram, Umberto, and now there are break through artists like Carpenter Brut. Yes for sure these bands stand on their own, exactly as horror scores can stand on their own, they each craft songs that are designed to appeal in a variety of ways, just as horror scores themselves are varied. If you take time to listen to these artists you can see that they continue to take chances and new approaches to their music. For sure they are heavily inspired by the past though, and as soon as they leave the past you can bet a lot of their fans will too, so from that point of view it can be seen as a nostalgia trip. Regardless I am a huge fan of these artists and I wish they were more popular so that they can tour. I think only Perpturbator and Carpenter Brut are that big.
The Return of the Living Dead
The Return of the Living Dead is a cult classic for so many reasons: the humor, the amazing F/X work, the introduction of brain-eating zombies, and, of course, its status as the ultimate punk rock horror movie, with its gang of misfits battling the undead set to a soundtrack of some of the most bad-ass bands from the ‘80s.
The album opens with The Cramps’ “Surfin Dead,” a track written specifically for the 1985 film that captures its high-energy mix of horror, camp, sex, and sleaze. Next is one of the ultimate horror anthems of all time, 45 Grave’s “Partytime (Zombie Version).” This song has its own history, as it was first released as the B-side to a cover of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” the previous year, but this earlier version is slower and more goth. There’s also TSOL’s “Nothing for You,” one of the album’s most recognizable punk tracks; psychedelic rock legend Roky Erickson’s “Burn the Flames,” propelled by organ and TV horror host-like camp; “Deadbeat Dance,” a spooky howler from The Damned; and tracks from Tall Boys and The Flesheaters. Gothy pop band SSQ rounds things out with two tracks, including “Tonight (We’ll Make Love Until We Die),” another fan favorite thanks to it playing during Linnea Quigley’s graveyard striptease.
Enigma released the album in multiple formats, including a highly sought after picture disc. NewRose Records released a different picture disc version in France the same year, and a standard version with very cool album artwork. Big Beat released the compilation with two different artwork versions in the UK, and Victor released an LP in Japan under the title Battalion, featuring very strange ‘80s computer graphic-style artwork. Finally, Real Gone Music reissued the soundtrack in 2016 and 2017 with numerous variants, including “black and blood red,” “glow in the dark,” and “black and brown ‘tarman’” vinyl.
No soundtrack book geared for vinyl collectors can see print without a Quentin Tarantino film on the list, hence our inclusion of Death Proof, QT’s contribution to the double-feature throwback Grindhouse.
The soundtrack for the 2007 release plays like a list of greatest hits from old cult favorites. Jack Nitzsche’s opening cut “The Last Race” was first heard in Village of the Giants (1965), Ennio Morricone’s “Paranoia Prima” comes from Dario Argento’s The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971), and Pino Donaggio’s melancholy “Sally and Jack” pays homage to Blow Out (1981), one of Tarantino’s favorite flicks. If the soundtrack does one thing brilliantly – as with most of Tarantino’s playlists – it reveals the sonic inspiration clanging around the writer/director’s head for each film. For us soundtrack nerds, half the fun comes from spotting these musical references.
The soundtrack also resurrects a smattering of R&B hits from yesteryear, and the film gives these songs some real breathing space in the dive bar setting where they’re heard. Much of the movie’s opening half seems designed to showcase people chilling out to the scratchy 45s on the jukebox, including Eddy Floyd’s “Good Love, Bad Love” and The Coasters’ “Down in Mexico” (cut from the original Grindhouse double feature with Planet Terror, but reinstated later). There’s a real balance to the style of the film that comes through the music; the first half sees Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike as a predator, and Tarantino utilizes eerie instrumentals for dramatic, often spooky effect; but at the halfway point the film shifts gears to a wild chase movie that would make Mad Max director George Miller proud. The slam-bang ending is punctuated with the echoing drums of Eddie Beram’s “Riot in Thunder Alley,” with a punch-out to April March’s “Chick Habit” that brings the flick to a hilariously subversive (and empowering) conclusion.
This being a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack, choice snippets of dialogue join the songs on the album. The limited edition release from Warner Brothers Records (following the 2007 CD release) saw that each slab of wax got its own unique blood spatter pattern on the vinyl.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
Though these days a fan favorite, Tobe Hooper’s sequel to his unparalleled American classic was neither a critical nor financial success upon its release in 1986. Answering the fact that the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre was made for little money, featuring no recognizable actors, no gore, and a minimalist soundtrack, Hooper went all out on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and loaded it with all of those things, including a soundtrack full of slick pop, punk, and goth bands from the IRS label roster. It’s a choice that only cemented the film’s cool factor over time.
Goth rock supergroup Lords of the New Church (featuring members of The Damned, The Dead Boys, and The Raincoats) provides dark, sleazy, high-energy tracks “Good to Be Bad” and “Mind Warp,” while a pre-Bloodletting Concrete Blonde delivers two sexy offerings of black-makeup-and-fishnet rock with “Haunted Head” and “Over Your Shoulder.” Probably the best known song from the movie, however, is The Cramps’ “Goo Goo Muck,” its mix of humor and sweaty hillbilly sex serving as the perfect match for the movie’s hot, sticky atmosphere. Meanwhile, Danny Elfman’s Oingo Boingo, purveyors of ‘80s quirk, makes an appearance with “No One Lives Forever,” affirming the film’s reputation as a party classic (“Let’s have a party, there’s a full moon in the sky/It’s the hour of the wolf and I don’t want to die”). The only contributions that are out of place come from Stewart Copeland and Timbuk 3 (of “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” fame).
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 soundtrack serves as a reminder that this beloved classic is its own unique film. Dripping with black humor and a punk rock buzz, the movie’s song selection is the exclamation point on its fuck you attitude. IRS released the record with the film around the world and it has become popular with collectors. Perhaps one day someone will reissue it and include Roky Erickson’s “Crazy Crazy Mama,” which appears in the film but not on the soundtrack.