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Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The Star Wars Record Collection #3: Star Wars – Original Soundtrack double LP

The front cover of the Star Wars double LP

One of the greatest favours Steven Spielberg ever did for his friend George Lucas was to introduce him to the man who had written the music for Spielberg's first two films – John Williams. The young George Lucas knew little about music, apart from the kind of rock and roll 45s that had been so adeptly woven into the soundtrack of American Graffiti.  But he wisely put his trust in a fine composer.

Williams already had about two impressive careers behind him even before he worked for Spielberg at the age of 42.

John Williams conducting
Star Wars in 1977
Trained at New York's Julliard School of Music, he had moved from performing jazz and working in studio orchestras to scoring TV shows such as Wagon Train and Lost In Space, and then into composing and conducting for films.  After scoring a slew of lightweight comedies in the 1960s under the name Johnny Williams, he went on to compose some tremendously impressive film soundtracks, including The Reivers (1969), Jane Eyre (1970) and The Cowboys (1972).  A young Steven Spielberg had loved the music for The Reivers and bought the soundtrack album, eventually getting the chance to hire Williams for his own first theatrical film, The Sugarland Express (1974).

Williams had won an Oscar as arranger and conductor for Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and scored some of the biggest commercial hits of the 1970s – including The Poseidon Adventure (1971), The Towering Inferno (1974) Earthquake (1974) – before notching up his first Oscar as composer for Jaws.

The back cover of the Star Wars album
With Star Wars, Williams was to outdo himself, creating his second Oscar-winning score and one of the greatest music soundtracks ever to grace a movie – a big, romantic score in the tradition of Max Steiner and Eric Wolfgang Korngold, delivering a higher count of memorable themes than any director would have a right to expect. 

"I think this film is wildly romantic and fanciful," Williams said in the sleeve notes to the Star Wars album.  "George and I felt that the music should be full of high adventure and the soaring spirits of the characters in the film."

According to Williams, Lucas had voiced the idea of integrating classical music into the score.  "2001 and several other films have utilised this technique very well," said the composer.  "But what I think this technique doesn't do is it doesn't take a piece of melodic material, develop it and relate it to a character all the way through the film." 

Williams exploited the Wagnerian tradition of leitmotif, with characters, situations and ideas all getting their  own themes.  Aside from a march to represent Luke's heroism, the gorgeous Princess Leia's Theme and a lush melody for Obi-Wan and the Force, there is a fanfare for the Rebels, a brash fragment of music for Darth Vader and the Imperials, not to mention distinctive music for the Jawas and the Tusken Raiders, an Elgar-style interlude for the Throne Room scene, and memorably strange pieces for Mos Eisley's Cantina Band.

I once interviewed Richard Studt, one of the London Symphony Orchestra’s four concert masters during those sessions, and he recalled that the orchestra had been unsure whether the music would work.  “We thought it was far too swashbuckling.  The style of it was harking back to Korngold’s film scores of the 30s and 40s – very well orchestrated, very busy, bellicose, glorious and overblown music, with a great big love theme in Princess Leia’s Theme,” he said.  

(I just came across an interesting interview from 2011 on the website Popdose with Mike Matessino  who worked on the 1997 reissue of the Star Wars soundtracks and wrote the extensive sleeve notes. He clearly thinks the score was intended more jovially than people realise, remarking that: " ... with Star Wars Williams absolutely intended – with tongue more in cheek than most people perceive – to recapture the Golden Age approach of Max Steiner and Erich Korngold. I don’t think that when he wrote it he thought that audiences would embrace the work seriously, since you had to go back probably to Ben-Hur to find a score like Star Wars, meaning that it was all orchestral, featured a lot of themes, and was heard throughout most of the film. Star Wars was originally intended – by George Lucas as well – as an homage to a movie genre from the past, but it ended up becoming its own new thing.")

The pictures from the Star Wars album's gatefold sleeve.
I spent quite a while gazing at these in shop window displays.
20th Century Records took the unusual step of putting out a double LP of the Star Wars soundtrack.  The album, with George Lucas credited as producer, reached number two in the US charts in 1977 and contained a generous 74 of the 88 minutes of music recorded for the film.  As with many of Williams' subsequent albums, the tracks were sequenced the way the composer thought would make for the most entertaining album, rather than always following the progress of the film.  (The track Inner City, for example, encompasses the Millennium Falcon’s approach to the Death Star, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s meeting with Artoo-Detoo and finally Luke and Ben’s progress towards Docking Bay 94 on Mos Eisley.) 

The album’s black gatefold sleeve, featuring a spread of pictures in the middle, plus a poster and liner notes by Charles Lippincott, seemed to grace practically every record store in the world in 1977 and 1978 – quite an achievement for an orchestral album.  In due course there were several rival recordings, too, including the budget-priced Star Wars and Other Space Themes Themes by Geoff Love and his Orchestra and the impressive Suites From Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind by Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Geoff Love does Star Wars: One of several alternative Star Wars albums

There was one odd difference between the US and UK  versions of John Williams' album: The US release was one of those double-albums where sides one and four were on the first record, and sides two and three on the other.  (That arrangement perplexed me for years, until I discovered that the idea was that you could stack both records on a turntable that had an autochanger, thereby playing sides one and two in succession before flipping both LPs over and playing sides three and four.) 

The 20th Century/Pye and RSO releases  –  identical
bar the labels and the disappearing liner inserts

The album eventually sold four million copies – setting a record for an orchestral soundtrack. It was re-released on the RSO label in 1982 (identical to the 1977 version but without the poster and liner notes) and was issued on CD by Polydor in 1986.  

The intervening years have brought extended releases, including just about every note from those March 1977 recording sessions, and I'll review them in due course.  But it’s still worth returning to the original album and admiring the way Williams sequenced his music over four of the greatest sides of movie-related vinyl ever produced.


johnnyivan said...
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johnnyivan said...

Enjoyed this immensely as always Darren!
Like you, I gazed lovingly and starry-eyed at the inner gatefold sleeve as a kid. I even drew scenes onto the paper sleeves! I really should put those on SWa9 one of these days! I recall one day poring over them thinking: "When I have a son, he'll be just as excited about Star Wars as I am." [it came true]

My version, I think just had the black and white Vader-in-Stars poster, not the wonderful John Berkey Last Battle scene that they got in the US. Nor the liner notes you mentioned.

So George took credit as 'producer' on this too. Shameless. Why am I not surprised..?

This was certainly my introduction to orchestral music at only 9 years old and it was very beneficial to my future musical interests. I see that my own PYE/Irish Pressing reads for track 2:
'Mouse Robot and Blasting Off.'

Keep up the great work. And I'll keep promoting it :)

Jodi walker said...

How much is a 3 dics soundtrack

Unknown said...

Another wonderful article, this site is a gem! As is the album!

Melodious Zach said...

Another wonderful article, this site is a gem! As is the album!