I’ll be traveling from 4 AM my time until late afternoon, en route to the Creative Lives Writing Away retreat in Breckenridge, Colorado. I therefore will be largely unavailable for responding to comments for at least the first half of the day — sorry.
I’ve therefore chosen a light topic, pure entertainment, beaucoup de fun, for your enjoyment. Chime in, please — “feel free to converse among yourselves” — and I’ll try my best to get back to everyone before the end of the day.
I wonder how much the music we associate with any particular type of story influences our attraction to it.
For example, I grew up when westerns seemed to be everywhere, and though there are memorable themes from such movies and TV programs — most notably those for Rawhide (composed by noted Cossack cowpoke Dmitri Tiomkin), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (by the fabled spaghetti saddle-buster Ennio Morricone), and my personal favorite, The Magnificent Seven (above, composed by Elmer Bernstein, the High Plains Hebrew) — by and large the tunes didn’t stick. They were as wholesome and hokey as the programs themselves. (I tried to go back and watch an episode of Have Gun, Will Travel, for example, which I loved as a kid, and found it godawful: predictable, sentimental, and paced like a glacier).
And though movies based on WWII were still all the rage — Bridge Over the River Kwai, The Guns of Navarone, The Great Escape (all, interestingly, with themes by Mr. Bernstein again) — and the music from those films not just inspired me but often brought me nearly to tears (cut me some slack, I’m a boy), it also had a back-glancing quality, straining for epic, as though to say the best of manhood was a dead letter.
Not exactly what a guy teetering on the brink of his teens wants to hear.
In contrast, the music for more contemporaneous crime and espionage shows always seemed to be sleeker, hipper, edgier — more conspicuously if fatalistically alive — even for a show that actually reached back further in time than the war, The Untouchables:
Or consider the quirky, short-lived Johnny Staccato (“TV’s jazz detective”), featuring John Cassavettes, who played a jazz pianist PI — a program so forced in its artiness it was often unwatchable — but what a perfect theme (by Elmer Bernstein again; the dude got around):
I was a boy in central Ohio, I’d already found my way to a guitar, I had garage band aspirations and far-away dreams. I wasn’t looking to the mythic cowboy past for inspiration, but to the cosmopolitan present, and the music I heard on crime shows spoke not of mesquite canyons but smoky barrooms and shrill casinos and deadly back streets, of twisted hearts and savage dreams, of power lurking in a shadowy boardroom I’d never know, of lonely men and lovely women and an itch you can’t scratch, a hunger you never satisfy, an empty palm at the end of the mind.
Everybody tap your toes!
Where did it begin? All roads lead back to Perry Mason, I suppose, with a theme that managed to be driving, lyrical, passionate and dissonant all at once — and distinctly urban:
Little did I know that Paul Drake would be the model for my later incarnation as a real-life private investigator — and Drake is to my mind the most accurate portrayal of a PI ever on TV (though a little dim-witted and unambitious next to the massively mental Mr. Mason).
Henry Mancini’s vibe was a bit more cool and urbane, but he provided two of the most seminal inner anthems of my boyhood. I loved (and envied) the effortless masculinity of Mr. Lucky, despite — or perhaps because of — the ice-rink organ effects:
A spin-off tune from Mr. Lucky was Mancini’s sumptuous “Lujon,” which has inspired filmmakers ever since, cropping up in movies as diverse as Sexy Beast and The Big Lebowski:
And no kid who picked up a Gibson didn’t rush to learn the opening riff from Peter Gunn, a bit of reverb-cranked Mancini-esque testosterone reminiscent of John Barry’s 007 theme:
Guitars, of course, lead us to the Ventures, and though I was far more enamored with hits like “Journey to the Stars” and “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” their theme for Hawaii Five-O had a hook so compelling it’s single-handedly responsible for the show’s current reincaration on network TV (imho):
That theme would become almost as much a part of that time’s aural fabric as the theme from Mission Impossible:
Argentinean exile Lalo Schifrin — who in Buenos Aires played piano for the master of the nuevo tango, Astor Piazzolla, and went on to work with Clint Eastwood on the Dirty Harry films — was responsible for the MI theme, which was ripped off shamelessly for The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a second-rate show in almost every regard (which I loved, naturally).
As testimony to the power of music, the most memorable part of the film version of Mission Impossible for me was the midpoint action sequence when this theme finally kicks in with a vengeance — I got chills the instant I heard that unforgettable intro. Still do.
But the shows that truly registered with me came from Britain, and not surprisingly their music was very much a part of that impact.
The first was Secret Agent, which ironically changed both its name (from Danger Man) and its original theme — which emphasized a somewhat manic harpsichord rather than the distinctive, slicing guitar of Johnny Rivers:
Even more compelling was The Prisoner, like Danger Man/Secret Agent starring Patrick McGoohan, and perhaps the darkest, strangest, most paranoid show from that era — or any era:
But the show that stole my boyish heart was, of course, The Avengers.
I wonder how many boys, sitting enraptured before TVs around the world, had their erotic imaginations seared into focus by Diana Rigg:
The show played on Friday nights, I always watched it at my best friend Mike Enright’s house, and when that theme played over the ending credits I always felt a wistful sense of loss and longing. The weekend lay ahead but The Avengers was over, at least for a week.
How would I live until then?
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So, Murderateros — what music from childhood stirred your imagination, quickened your pulse, insinuated itself into your dreams — marinated the twtchy tedium of puberty?
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Jukebox Heroes of the Week: On a much, much goofier, weirder, cheesier level, there were freakish “supermarrionation”action shows when I was growing up, such as Supercar:
And Fireball XL5:
America. Fuck yeah.