Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Ennio Morricone—
A Fistful of Dollars


Released 1967 on RCA Victor
The Seth Man, March 2004ce
Composed and conducted by Ennio Morricone, the soundtrack for the 1964 film “A Fistful of Dollars” would be the first of three accompanying soundtracks for the trilogy of ‘Spaghetti Western’ films featuring Clint Eastwood as the mysterious ‘Man With No Name.’ Directed by Sergio Leone, “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) was quickly followed by “For A Few Dollars More” (1965) and the epic “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly” (1966). Interestingly, the soundtrack of “A Fistful of Dollars” was released a full three years after the film, which seems to hint at the fact that the growing popularity of each successive reel of this gun slinging triad demanded wider investigation. And since there was a relative dearth of dialogue (with the theme music providing a powerful role in the interpretation of human motive and emotions) it must have been memorable to have only heard this in the darkness of a mid-sixties cinema with no immediately available tie-in product to return home to. But one thing is certain: Morricone’s scores were perfectly paired with Leone’s films as both spoke in the same universal themes that made such an indelible impression on audiences the world over.

The original liners for “A Fistful of Dollars” proclaimed that ‘the music matches the excitement note for note, shot for shot.’ And even if one excludes the extended Gatling gun massacre scene, there was still a shitload of gunplay in the film so the soundtrack had a lot to live up to. Luckily, it did (and still does) because it was not a typical soundtrack (but then again it was not a typical western, either) as Morricone conducted not only an orchestra but included in these 1964 arrangements harmonica, whip cracks, whistling, brusque yells, funeral bells and even electric guitar. He wove all this into a series of bizarre instrumentals that echoed everything from pistol ricochets, “Bolero” and purely human vocal wails that all conspire to create a cruel landscape: flat desolate, dry and horizontal in every respect for it is the landscape of cheap life and death in the dusty Italo-Mex plains. Granted, Leone’s entire ‘Man With No Name’ trilogy was actually shot on location in Almeria, Spain and therefore NOWHERE south of the Rio Grande. But the geographic and national ingredients of the ‘Man With No Name’ series is so freewheelin’, it wouldn’t matter if it were shot in Iceland. I mean, here’s a film directed by an Italian, starring an American, filmed in Spain while pretending to be set in Mexico while the bandits leaders whose lips are often out of sync with their accent-less post-production English (both of whom weirdly resemble Sam The Sham and Sonny Bono’s evil twins from East L.A.) all are arranged in what was essentially a frame by frame re-jig of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai epic, “Yojimbo.” But since “A Fistful of Dollars” is a film about timeless deeds hovering around that most primal of archetypes -- the hero -- as long as you’re a hooman bein’ you could watch this film with the mute on and its actions would still resonate. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before but at the beginning of the film, Eastwood passes under a tree hung with a noose. Later he faces a near-death experience. He is then shipped off in a coffin to a cave where he is entombed only to emerge forth stronger in order to defeat his enemies with supernatural powers (OK, so it was just a sheet of plate metal he forged in the cave that he hid under his poncho, but it sure spooked out those evil Rojo bros something fierce minutes before their respective untimely demises.)

But if you had the sound off, then you’d be missing out on the glorious soundtrack, which is entirely successful in conveying everything the scant dialogue doesn’t...or couldn’t, even if it stood on its head.

It all begins naturally enough with the main theme, “Titoli” (“Titles.”) But instead of the entry of a full orchestra, we are presented instead with a simply plucked background acoustic as a calmly whistled melody slowly and wordlessly spells out the beginning of the story then deftly parts for a battery of cracking whips, flute trills and struck bells that chime an ominous graveyard dénouement rhythm in the background as the reoccurring ‘We can fight!’ chant punctuates throughout. “Almost Dead” (“Quasi Morto”) is just as stripped down, with the flute trills continuing their dance as impishly as ever, weaving in and out and around graveyard bells that portend imminent doom. A hacking violin saws into the ending, and with more struck metal bells it all disappears. “Square Dance” follows, and is the only moment of the album out of step with the impressionistic forces of the rest of the material as it’s a merely an Old West period piece hoedown. Luckily, “The Chase” (“L’Inseguimento)” follows and it’s a wild ride of a highly aggressive pursuit theme chaotically propelled with driving bass guitar, military snare, tympani and a male choir of ‘aaahhh’s that bury a spindly but frantic Western guitar riff. In turn, an even larger horn section bulldozes everything in its path until it all falls away to a gentle trumpet theme of remorse. “The Result” (La Reazione”) is peppered with staccato harmonica blares and solo violins that dance a tango of death on a tightrope with percussive bass and more kettledrums than you could shake a mallet at. “Without Pity” (Senza Pieta”) is a string section passage that quietly keeps a respectful decorum over the ever-growing mound of dead bodies. But soon the force of life returns and jolts forward to re-build and spews forth in a quick, frenzied rising of spirit, with wordless male vocals summoning the courage to face all that would extinguish their dreams forever. “The Theme From A Fistful of Dollars” (“Per Un Pugno Di Dollari”) is the return of the memorable main theme resplendent with yearning and mournful trumpet blowing an approaching requiem for every living thing all at once. It almost sounds like an instrumental version of Scott Walker’s “If You Go Away” but only if it were set to a tabasco’n’trumpets sunset Mexican showdown of stopped watches and long shadows.

Side two is entirely taken up by the 14-minute long “A Fistful of Dollars Suite” into an edited reprise all of the previous themes. Which is weird, because although the album is of regulation-size mid sixties soundtrack length (15 minutes per side) it flows so effortlessly like an aural magic lantern show inside your head, suspending time with its emotive grace and inspirational heroic themes. And speaking of inspirational, what side two of Quicksilver’s “Happy Trails” would’ve sounded like without that distinct Morriconian vibe is beyond me. But I wouldn’t want it any other way.


Note:
There are extraordinary moments in all three soundtracks Morricone produced for Leone’s ‘The Man With No Name’ trilogy. Most notably: “La Resa Dei Conti”, “Il Vizio Di Uccidere, and the main theme from “For A Few Dollars More” (as well as some versions of the same theme used only in the film that have recently been released on Italian CD.) Then there’s the rightly famous main theme from “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly” (one of the briefest yet most dazzling use of reverb and tremolo bar twang-guitar thang ever), “The Sundown,” “The Ecstasy of Gold” and “The Trio.” This last named piece sums up everything stated wordlessly throughout the ‘Man’ trilogy: bringing back home all the hopes, dreams and doings (and/or its flipside of laments, longings and loneliness) all at once of all people and funneling it into a beautiful, diamond-hard intensity as abstract and as full of life as the human heart itself.

Frustratingly, it’s impossible to locate all the music from the entire trilogy in one place. “A Fistful of Sounds” includes “A Fistful of Dollars” and “For A Few Dollars More” though not “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly” which is available separately. The best moments of all three should be culled into a single album with the title “Sketches of Almeria” -- with an appropriate red, black and goldenrod colour scheme sleeve and the cover typography peppered with bullet holes, natch.