The Interplanetary Sound Workshop & OrchestraMusic From Close Encounters Of The Third Kind
Released 1978 on Pickwick
Reviewed by flashbackcaruso, 01/10/2015ce
1. Main Title and Mountain Visions 3:29
2. Nocturnal Pursuit 1:03
3. The Conversation 2:53
4. The Appearance Of The Visitors 3:18
5. Theme From Close Encounters Of The Third Kind 2:45
1. The Abduction of Barry 4:43
2. Resolution and End Title 8:35
3. Theme From Close Encounters Of The Third Kind 2:45
Here's another oddity from the days of the anonymous budget LP, a cheap alternative for the cash-strapped record-buyer whose funds didn't quite stretch to buying the genuine item. Or in my case, whose parents would always go for the cheap option when fulfilling a Christmas or birthday list*. In 1978 I felt like my life changed slightly after being taken to the Hammersmith Odeon (when it was still a cinema) to see Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and ending up being left alone for most of the film's duration after my younger siblings got too disruptive and were taken outside until it had finished. For a few months afterwards UFO abductions replaced Star Wars re-enactments in the school playground for the select few of us who had become as obsessed with Devil's Mountain as Richard Dreyfuss was in the film itself. So of course I had to have the soundtrack album, but when my birthday came around I found myself unwrapping the budget disco version of John Williams' score rather than the full orchestral version. This seemed like an added bonus in the post-Saturday Night Fever world we lived in at the time, and I played the album quite regularly. But eventually it became one of the less-treasured records in my collection as disco became a source of embarrassment, and a viewing of the Special Edition of the movie at the cinema two years later, followed by the television premiere at Christmas 1981, actually freaked me out somewhat, and suddenly my former favourite movie was giving me nightmares. It took a while to grow out of these negative associations, but eventually disco came back into favour, and I learned to love the movie once again for its unusual structure and brilliantly conceived set-pieces. Unfortunately the LP was no longer playable, as in a moment of un-characteristic teenage vandalism I'd amused myself by taking a needle from my mum's sewing box and scratching both sides to buggery. Fortunately nowadays it is readily available in mp3 form on various blogs, and listening to it again for the first time in at least 30 years was surprised to find that at the age of eight I was being given a taste of the sort of music I'd be listening to two decades later. Not that it isn't entirely free of the type of hack-work you'd expect from budget records of the era, but the nature of the source material forces the anonymous musicans to move somewhat out of their comfort zones, and dabble with electronica and avant garde improvisation.
'Main Title and Mountain Visions' starts off as a fair copy of the John Williams original, transposing the unearthly strings to a cheap synthesizer to create an eerily discordant beam of light from outer space. Additional alienation is provided by subtle undertones of guitar weirdness, before the sudden jolt of a crash on the piano and drums, a cheap substitute for the orchestral blast of the original. The two-chord heavenly choir is well replicated, either with real voices or mellotron (it's hard to tell). But then that ubiquitous four-to-the-floor disco beat comes in and the musicians start to play to a different set of rules. So, while John Williams' score remains in a classical tradition, with a series of themes and variations that don't go anywhere in particular when divorced from their accompanying visuals, these musos turn the main melody into a catchy dance track with nice chord changes, and syncopations that have one foot in the world of prog rock. 'Nocturnal Pursuit' is even more individual; in the movie this is a standard 'thrill of the chase' piece which these musicians are either disinclined or, more likely, unable to reproduce (or perhaps they'd already heard the clunkily literal interpretation by the Electric Moog Orchestra), and so instead we get little more than a minute of eerie electronics, loosely based on the main title theme we've just heard. It has a 'first take' feel and was probably knocked off in the time it takes to listen to it, but as a linking mood piece it is suitably unsettling. 'The Conversation' opens with the deep rumble of the mothership flying over, and then becomes a reasonably faithful 'cover' of the film's musical conversation using that famous five-note motif. I always liked this idea in the movie; it has an affinity with Vernon Elliott's use of music in 'The Clangers'. Again the classical complexity is toned down here, and it works well as a brief synthesizer piece, at one point reminding me of an exercise from The Faust Tapes. 'The Appearance Of The Visitors' is a beautifully ruminative piece, with a similar feel to 'Intestinal Bat' from Vangelis's Heaven & Hell album. Mysterious electric piano improvisations are bathed in the warmth of the same type of synthesized discords that opened the album, while a bent-out-of-shape version of the melody to 'When You Wish Upon A Star' is interpolated more subtly than on the original score. Then we're back into disco territory for 'Theme From Close Encounters Of The Third Kind', which has all the expected ingredients present and correct: funky bass, choppy wah-wah guitar, stabbing piano and synthesized strings all conspiring to turn that five-note melody from outer space into a potential hit in the wake of Meco's smash disco version of the Star Wars Theme. Except it doesn't seem to have been released as a single. There is a moment in Bob Balaban's Close Encounters Diary that recounts Spielberg having to yell 'Cut!' because the children playing the aliens have broken out into a disco shuffle. Somebody needs to find that out-take and add this track on top.
Side two kicks off with 'The Abduction of Barry', a title guaranteed to set the pulse racing for those of us who rated that terrifying kitchen scene as the highlight of the movie. John Williams provided a suitably nightmarish score for this sequence, and the Interplanetary Sound Workshop use it as a jumping off point for a highly improvisory yet fairly minimalist four minutes of rumbling bass, freeform piano, reverbed guitar effects, sheets of white noise from the cymbals and ghostly, somewhat orgasmic groaning from the choir. Then with one eye on the clock, and the remainder of the second side left to fill, these anonymous musos then set to work stretching out 'Resolution and End Title' well past the 8-minute mark. This is where the original soundtrack gets really schmaltzy, but the version here is pretty good, the piano player working through variations of both the Main Title and Theme, while the synthesiser player adds electronic noises and the celestial choir provide haunting harmonies. The combination of classical piano stylings and spacey electronics is very reminiscent of the workouts we'd get from Vangelis a few years later, particularly 'Memories Of Green' and the side-long 'Chariots Of Fire' suite. Yet despite this extended extemporising side two still isn't long enough, and so the record label comes up with the cunning solution of ending it the same way as side one, by repeating the disco version of the theme tune. Exactly the same track, twice on the same record.
It's clear that this album was knocked off in one quick session by a bunch of hacks, and not a great deal of care was taken in mixing it. One wishes it had been handed over to the likes of Klaus Schulze to really bring out the more out-there elements which are sometimes a bit buried due to a frustratingly timid mix. But restraint can also be a good thing, and for me it makes a very good job of taking a few pointers from John Williams sometimes overblown original score (despite this combo's moniker, probably concocted in the pub after the session, there is no orchestra involved here) and then proceeding to produce an alternate soundtrack that is far more minimal and otherworldly. Oh yes, and occasionally funky.
* There were exceptions to this. I also asked for the soundtrack album to The Black Hole, Disney's surprisingly dark contribution to the sci-fi fad, and naturally got given the cheapo Pickwick release. But this was the real deal - John Barry's hypnotic original score in all its glory, later heavily sampled by The Beta Band on their debut album.