Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Ennio Morricone—
The Big Gundown


Released 1968 on United Artists
The Seth Man, April 2011ce
Like the musical equivalent of a bustier reining in a beautifully heaving pair of breasts (ooo-er, but nothing could be truer), the very best spaghetti western soundtracks are so simultaneously restrained yet bursting forth that the tension, anticipation and ultimate unveiling is both unbearable and exhilarating. Like a petite mort in sound, Ennio Morricone’s “The Big Gundown” is one such example of the aforementioned genre in full flight. Although no tracks even hit three minutes, all of them (even the ones a minute or so in length) are so densely packed with dramatic information alongside the bravura and pathos that run so deep and consecutively balance themselves that it combines to distort the length of the album from that of a half hour into an afternoon.

Despite being a spaghetti western film directed by Sergio Sollima and not Sergio Leone, the soundtrack to “The Big Gundown” could easily be considered a companion piece to those of ‘The Man With No Name’ trilogy (“A Fistful Of Dollars,” “For A Few Dollars More” and “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.”) Of course, Morricone’s rich score makes it a dead natch -- Not to mention the back cover’s depiction of an armed Lee Van Cleef beneath the title: “Mr. Ugly Comes To Town!” (Despite the fact he was the ‘Bad’ and not the ‘Ugly,’ but never mind. The reason for this being that the film version of “The Big Gundown” was released prior to “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” but United Artists held the release of its American soundtrack LP back until after the wake of their higher-budgeted “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” soundtrack hit the racks.)

No, what makes it a sister piece most of all was Morricone’s employment of nearly all the same talent present on ‘The Man With No Name’ trilogy, and with similarly outstanding results. Recording was made with the same orchestra, conducted (here by Bruno Nicolai) and one usually unknown but especially significant musician -- Morricone’s guitarist. This same guitarist twanged throughout the entire ‘Man With No Name’ trilogy of soundtracks and contributed much to their singular uniqueness. His name is Alessandro Alessandroni and his name is so great it’s repeated twice, AND his talent is so great I’m gonna repeat it thrice:

Alessandro Alessandroni!
Alessandro Alessandroni!!
Alessandro Alessandroni!!!

It’s worth noting that besides being an excellent guitarist, pianist and mandolin player, Alessandroni was also an expert whistler. So THAT whistling? The vocal “wah, wah, wah” in the main theme of “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly”? That surf-reverbed guitar? The elegiac acoustic guitar on “The Sundown”? All this and more was the work of Alessandro Alessandroni. He even formed his own eight-piece choir, I Cantori Moderni Di Alessandroni, who appears not only on “The Big Gundown” but nearly all of Morricone’s most noteworthy western soundtracks. Signore Alessandroni is a total genius of economic musical phrasing and I’m thrilled to finally discover his name and therefore pin it forevermore to these outstanding sonic achievements instead of (as I’ve been doing for decades) refer to him merely as ‘Morricone’s unknown guitarist.’ Anyway, to the bustier at hand...

“The Big Gundown” starts off with the immediately compelling “The Big Gundown (Main Title)” as a woman’s caws and coos weave with other animalistic noisemaking before the onset of a highly reverbed percussion track reminiscent of (of all things) The Deviants’ “Nothing Man.” Soon, a female voice beams in to wordlessly wail the main theme of “Run, Man, Run” -- one that will subsequently wend and bleed its way throughout a third of the album’s proceedings in a variety of configurations. Tympani rumbles up front as strings blossom to both shore up the lone female voice and operate as reception for the ensuing “1812 Overture”-styled theme of bombast that reiterates the “Run, Man, Run” theme as an orchestral cavalry charge that then dashes into a finale of the theme in quick succession before drawing to a close.

Dropping down to a near whisper, “The Widow” softly parts like twitched lace curtains with a mournful Spanish guitar strumming a slow and lonely tune. Soon joined by swelling strings, it’s an jewel of a elongated cue that ceases quickly and onto the single, throaty woodwind launch of the album’s absolute highlight, “Run, Man, Run (Vocal).” Vocalist, Maria Cristina Brancucci (who appears on this album under her stage name, Cristy) delivers a whispering-to-stentorian operatic wildness that switches between the ever-searing, strident qualities of Renate Knaup Krötenschwanz on “Archangels Thunderbird” and the even more rapid, strident qualities of Irena Papas’ wrenching vocalisations on Aphrodite’s Child’s “∞.” It only begins quietly measured and restrained but doesn’t stay that way for long: for what starts as a wistful and ageless plea for peace jarringly switches tone and tempo to become the most demonstrative point of the entire soundtrack. The occasional errant lyric translation from Italian to English make it even more emotionally charged and vigorously abstract. In fact, “Run, Man, Run (Vocal)” is such a jumble of tempos, expressions and moods that it’s impossible to convey them all. But very quickly, Cristy’s voice (along with her imaginary bustier) bursts open in cue of the entry of the orchestra flaring up into sonic, Techniscopic™ widescreen. Suddenly, she lets loose in full psychotic pain the undying refrain of:

“NEVER!
NO NEVER!
NO NEVER...DON’T KILL ME-E-E-E-E!
NEVER-A-A-A-A-H!
NO NEVER!
YOU’LL NEVER LET THEM WI-I-I-I-N!”

“GO! AHEAD! YOUNG MA-A-A-A-A-N-N-N!
FAILS! TOWARDS! THE! SUN!
RUN, MAN, RUN, MAN!
RUN, MAN, RUN, MAN -- HAA!”

This then breaks down to bass drum and the single, throaty woodwind as Cristy, now crouching on all fours, switches from nearly-whispering to near hysterics, accompanied only by loudly rolling tympani:

“Run like a hare, like a deer, like a rabbit...Danger in the air coming near like a starlet...
And you panting like a hyena like a deer like a rabbit...Running from a snail on two feet is a habit...”

Rapidly accelerating, then decelerating:

“Hurry on and on and on...Hurry on and on, hurry on and on...
Run and run and run and run until you know you’re free...
Run to the everything world ‘til you find the place where they...never, NEVER GET THERE!”

...until finally letting loose with a final voicing of that unbridled refrain. Then, after rearing for so long on her operatic horse, Cristy reins in her stallion (and imaginary bustier) and heads off into the sunset. Whew and Brava!

“The Bullfight” is heavily scored yet improvised-sounding at the same time as weird, stabbing woodwinds, car horns and percussion gather and disperse seemingly at random. But as tight piano clusters, duck calls, wind-up clocks and shrill violin needling dance around a strident French horn, it becomes apparent it’s not random at all but a carefully constructed conspiracy of cacophony. In direct contrast, “After The Verdict” is supremely tranquil, its becalmed string section soberly reflecting the cost of gunfire while sparse tympani quietly resound in the background. Then “First Desert” arrives, beset by low, swelling strings set against high-pitched, searing violin. Tympani rumbles ominously, piano clusters tinkle dramatically, a slow acoustic guitar plucks out quietly descending passages while the entire string section sickeningly modulates in pitch as horns caw like distant carrion birds...And the overall effect is paralytic.

Side two opens with a rousing reprise of “The Big Gundown.” As a tight rhythm is picked out on brusquely-reverbed electric guitar, snare rolls and tympani resound together with stampeding qualities until dropping out altogether for a wordless call and response between female and male choirs. Horns blare as a military snare denoting a build between opposing forces leads into a return of the “1812 Overture” qualities of con brio from the opening version, complete with cannonading tympani. “The Verdict” is a hair over one minute in length but once again: Morricone manages to make it carry an hour’s worth of tension as a repeating quote of Beethoven’s “Für Elise" is interwoven with grazioso acoustic guitar vignettes shot through with dissonant, staccato electric guitar runs that rattle out in sporadic, echoed volleys. Scored for the penultimate Mexican standoff at film’s end, “The Surrender” features low and sparse piano notes that dart over orchestral strings and horns kept to the distance. A choir gently emerges, soon parting for a fanfare that blares with majestic elevation with a sole trumpet blaring out do-or-die motifs with both string and horn sections following suit. Running concurrent to its ebb and flow, heavy tympani accents resound to keep all locked down with eternal pressure.

“Cucillo [sic] Arrives,” with its acoustic guitar and gleaming, searing noontime strings, shines and reflects to conjure both a physical and mental landscape of desolation exactly as they would on Morricone’s “The Sundown” from “The Good, The Bad And The The Ugly.” ‘Cuchillo’ is Spanish word for ‘knife’ and is spelt incorrectly on the album, as is the track which follows, “Normoni [sic] Choir.” Featured in the film during a Mormon settler wagon train a scene, at least ‘choir’ was spelled right, for it is exclusively vocal and the domain of I Cantori Moderni Di Alessandroni, the eight-piece choir founded in the early sixties by Alessandro Alessandroni. Unfortunately, despite its well-handled execution, it also breaks the spell of the album’s established balance of vibrancy/near-meditative momentum. But this is carried forward with the final two pieces of the album that share the same underlying theme bearing shattered emotions and physical exhaustion. “Second Desert” is an acoustic guitar-led version of “Run, Man, Run” rendered at the speed of funeral procession and ends so unresolved that it practically bleeds into the next track, “The Big Gundown (End Title).” Switching the lead instrument from guitar to cornet, it concludes an album of masterful lows, brutal highs and punishing drama traumas. So: Bravo, Maestro Morricone! Brava, Christy! Bravo, Alessandro Alessandroni! Bravo, Bruno Nicolai! Bravo, brava, viva, one and all! But most of all: ¡Ole!

Note: The 1966-released Italian film and accompanying soundtrack album of “The Big Gundown” was originally entitled “La Resa Di Conti” (“The Yield Of Accounts”) -- in all certainty inspired by the track of the same name that appeared on Morricone’s previous “For A Few Dollars More” soundtrack. This version of the album also had a slightly different running order with the addition of “Corri Uomo Corri,” an Italian language version of “Run, Man, Run (Vocal),” with Cristy outpouring in more naturally fluid and commanding tones due to its rendition in her native Italian. For those in search of a few fistfuls of more Morricone, this plus ten further outtakes used in the film were released by the GDM label on the “La Resa Dei Conti” compilation CD. It features four excellent outtakes of “First Desert” of which, “Primo Deserto (Il Morso del Serpente)” totally nails it for eerie, breathtaking intensity.