Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Star Wars on CD: Which soundtrack releases are the best?

John Williams conducting the score to Star Wars: but which CD version is best?

The Star Wars Original Soundtrack double LP was one of the greatest pieces of film music ever committed to vinyl and certainly the most successful.  I discussed it here, in what remains the most popular post on Episode Nothing. (Its popularity is due mainly to a kind person sharing it on the message boards of Film Score Monthly, for which I'm very grateful.)

But it's been nearly three decades since the John Williams' score came to compact disc, and since then there have been several different releases.  Which is best?  Here's part one of a two-part guide to the various CD releases.  

Star Wars: Original Soundtrack from the Film, Polydor/RSO CD, 1986

Star Wars: The Polydor/RSO CD release
of the original soundtrack double album

The first CD release of Star Wars was, naturally enough, a straight-forward release of the contents of that original double album from 1977.

For the first time, we could hear the score on the new technology, with none of the crackles that infected the quiet bits of the score, however carefully you had handled your precious LP version.

The first US release of the score on CD was in 1986 on the Polydor label, although my UK copy carries the RSO logo. (RSO was shortly to be absorbed into Polydor.)

Like RSO's vinyl reissue of the Star Wars soundtrack, this one did not attempt to offer most of the treats that had come with the original double LP.  So the listener missed the extensive sleeve notes by Charles Lippincott, the list of musicians and the giant fold-out poster.  All we had inside the jewel case of the two CDs was an insert containing black and white versions of four of the twelve colour pictures that graced the magnificent gatefold sleeve of the LP release.  It was great to hear Star Wars on CD, but this first release was nothing you would want to throw away your LP version for.

Star Wars: The Soundtrack Anthology four-CD set from 20th Century Fox Film Scores/Arista, 1993

Star Wars: The Original Soundtrack Anthology,
the four-CD release by 20th Century Fox Film Scores
and Arista in 1993

The Star Wars soundtrack album of 1977 had delivered 74 minutes of music, which would be plenty for most films.  But fans who got to know the album and the film very well realised that there was still some great music that had not found its way onto vinyl.  

The horn playing that underscored Threepio throwing the dead Jawas onto a bonfire as Luke returned from discovering his family dead; the ominous cue that conveyed Tarkin's relentless determination to destroy Alderaan; and the passage that conveyed the pluckiness of the Rebels as they took off for their rendezvous with the Death Star.  All these were among the fourteen minutes that had not made it to the records.

The arrival in 1993 of  the four-CD boxed set Star Wars: The Original Soundtrack Anthology was a very big deal for fans. It gave us nearly all the music that was missing from the original soundtrack album, along with extended releases of the soundtracks to The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

Disc one contained the contents of the Star Wars double album, except that some of the tracks were re-ordered  (the concert arrangement of 'Princess Leia's Theme', for example, is placed much later on) and 'Cantina Band' was relegated to disc four in order to make the orchestral bits of the album fit on one CD.

Empire and Jedi were given a CD each, while disc four contained previously unreleased music from all three films – beginning with a different recording of the original Main Title, which was recognisable to those of us who knew the Star Wars radio series.  It was on this disc that we were finally treated to 'A Hive of Villainy' (the passage which runs from the burning of the Jawa corpses to the arrival on Mos Eisley), 'Destruction of Alderaan' and the Rebel take-off cue, 'Standing By'.  And alongside 'Cantina Band' from the original LP, there was 'Cantina Band 2', which illustrates even better John Williams' idea that the cantina music should sound as though an alien species had dug up some sheet music by Benny Goodman.

The boxed set, assembled from a host of tapes and film stems and produced by Nick Redman, was a major achievement, and the packaging did it justice.  The four CDs, in individual jewel cases, occupied a plastic tray inside a tall box with a lid.  A colour booklet contained a wealth of production art, photographs from the scoring sessions and stills from the film. There was a lengthy introduction by film director Nicholas Meyer, who described the scores as a “popular simulacram” of Wagner's Ring cycle.  And Lukas Kendall, editor of Film Score Monthly, provided a track-by-track guide to the contents of the four discs. 

It was hard, at the time, to see how the release could be bettered.  You had to know Star Wars and its sequels very well indeed to spot very much music that was still missing from the discs, even if you did have to skip between discs to put all the music from the individual films together.  And yet within four years, there would be another attempt at a definitive CD soundtrack for Star Wars and the rest of the trilogy. I'll cover this in the next blog post, which takes the history of Star Wars on CD from 1997 to the present day. 

Did those further releases make Star Wars: The Original Soundtrack Anthology redundant?  Pretty much all the Anthology's music from the first film would be on subsequent versions, minus a few bars of linking material which the Anthology retained from the original LP presentation.  There are, however, good reasons for still owning the four-CD set.  As far as the music goes, most of those reasons relate to the sequels – which are not the remit of this blog –  rather than to Star Wars itself. But when you combine them with the handsome packaging and booklet, it is still well worth owning this seminal Star Wars soundtrack release. 

For a comprehensive look at the recording and various remixes of the Star Wars soundtracks, this comprehensive account by Chris Malone takes some beating.

Next time: The one undeniably good thing about the Star Wars Special Editions – they brought us a definitive Star Wars soundtrack album.

Note: If you are planning to buy any of the releases mentioned in these posts, clicking on the links above will ensure a small percentage of the price goes to support Episode Nothing, without any extra cost to you. Thank you.   

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