Original sound track

The other day during a long drive my kids were sat in the back watching the 1980 movie version of Flash Gordon on DVD. As I was sat in front I couldn’t see any of it but I could hear it. This was not at all a strange experience for me because I’m much more used to listening to that particular film that seeing it (in fact I don’t think I’ve actually seen it for decades).

I remember back in the days before home video (yes, I’m that old) that once you’d seen a film at the cinema you wouldn’t get a chance to see it again until it turned up on TV some time later. And then if you missed it, you missed it, as there was no way to record and preserve it. So what was a young movie fan to do when he wanted to re-live (repeatedly, obsessively) the experience of his favourite big screen science fiction epic in the comfort of his own home?

There were a couple of options. One was the soundtrack album. In the case of movies like Star Wars which have very memorable, expressive and almost continuous music (only 20 minutes of the film’s 125 running time don’t have musical accompaniment) this was a decent alternative. It had the advantage of omitting any creaky dialogue and letting you fill in the images with your memory or imagination. Or you could flick through a visual aid like the comic book adaptation or souvenir magazine while listening.

Later there was a brief popularity for soundtrack albums which incorporated dialogue and sound effects, and Queen’s Flash Gordon album was one of these. In fact it was Queen themselves who proposed this approach, apparently, and for me it made it a much more enjoyable experience to hear “pew! pew!” sounds and immortal dialogue like “Gordon’s alive?” and “I’m flying blind on a rocketcycle!” interspersed with guitar solos.

I also had an album called The Story of Tron, which even added voiceover narration telling the story. This was less successful, as you can hear here:

Which is why I also later bought the music-only soundtrack so as to be able to hear Wendy Carlos’ electronic tonalities unsullied.

And as I mentioned before, there were visual aids available too. I went through a phase of reading novelisations, but usually only for films I was too young to see at the cinema (Robocop, Predator, Aliens). I had a couple of “photo-novels” (paperbacks formatted like comics but using still frames from the movie) of Battlestar Galactica and The Black Hole. And, of course, sticker albums: Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Return of the Jedi, Gremlins and more (there’s a good set of photos here). I was always anxious about not being able to collect all the stickers, bought in packs of five or six, and having a complete set. God knows how much money I spent buying packets looking for those last few stickers, and throwing away the free, sickly sweet pink chewing gum that came with them.

In the case of Flash Gordon the stickers came free with packets of Weetabix, and one day in the supermarket I persuaded my mother to buy an extra large packet as it would contain a larger quantity of free stickers. I promised her I’d eat all those Weetabix, even thought it wasn’t my favourite cereal. Imagine my disappointment when we got home and tore the packet open to discover…no stickers whatsoever inside. My mother, who was not the complaining type, felt moved to write them a letter. In response they mailed me a complete set.

New music

I used to find new music the way most people did: the radio. I was never a big radio listener but I heard enough at various times throughout the day, at home, at work or in shops to pick up on what was going on. TV supplemented this diet, from the heyday of Top Of The Pops to MTV (TOTP no longer exists, and MTV no longer plays music).

When I moved away from the UK my radio and TV consumption dropped dramatically, and this was also around the time that the way people bought (or didn’t…) music changed dramatically thanks to the internet. Nowadays I feel I’m between two generations: I use the internet to research new music, but I still buy a hard copy on CD.


Often I’ll find something after a friend shares it on facebook, twitter or a blog. Like this one, dropped in the middle of a friend’s recent blogpost just because she was listening to it at the time of events she was describing.



One of the easiest ways to decide on a purchase is “Did I like their last album?”, and on that basis I just bought the new Florence + the Machine CD. But I don’t do it “blind”. I’ll still read some reviews just in case, and for that reason I avoided the last Björk.



Once in a while I’ll pick up a copy of Songlines which, in addition to all the articles and reviews also gives you one or sometimes two free cds featuring the best of that month’s releases. A few from the last issue I liked:

Anoushka Shankar. Flamenco sitar. I bought the album at the weekend.


The Bombay Royale. Australian Bollywood Surf Guitar. Sadly they don’t seem to have released a full album yet.


Ali Khattab. North African flamenco. Album is proving hard to track down in CD format.


Old stuff still sounds new

Whenever I go back to the UK I’ll pop into HMV and scan the discounted section. These days it takes up most of the shop, as so few of us actually buy shiny discs any more, meaning that almost half their stock is available for five quid or less. Usually in these situations I’ll pick up a compliation or greatest hits package. On this trip I got Missy Elliott and Roxy Music.


How do you find new music?

Musical Alphabet: Z

So, we’ve reached the end. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I had to cheat for Z. Zakir Hussain should technically go under ‘H’, but I couldn’t find anything else suitable on YouTube from the one or two other Z-artists I liked.

We were lucky enough to see Zakir and his “Masters of Percussion” live in concert in Dublin in 2000. He’s considered to be one of the best (and fastest) tabla players in the world.

And if you like tabla, Talvin Singh’s pretty good too:

Musical Journey: Y

I first heard this during an episode of Six Feet Under, when Nate goes to visit an old girlfriend, and this song plays as he walks up to her house. It struck me immediately, and so I went to the HBO website and found the music listing for that episode. I’d never heard anything by Yo La Tengo before, but I soon got my hands on a copy of the relevant album, “And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out”; a woozy, hazy dream of an album.

Musical Alphabet: X

Not an easy one, this. I don’t own any music by an artist beginning with X, but a little research threw up the name of a little-known group who once collaborated with David Byrne on a single I heard once on MTV.

The only alternative was an old XTC song which turned out not to be as good as I remembered it to be. Plus this one has a fun video.

Musical Alphabet: W

You could say that movie soundtracks, moreso than pop, was the first kind of music I fell in love with.  I saw Star Wars at the age of four and subsequently bought (well, it was probably my Dad who bought it for me) the soundtrack double album, listening to it obsessively and memorising every note. Back in those pre-DVD (pre-VHS, even) days this was the next best thing to seeing the film again. Better, in some ways, as you didn’t have to suffer through any of the bland dialogue or flat performances.

As time went on I sought out other discs by a variety of composers, but I kept coming back to John Williams, who turned out one classic after another: Star Wars, Close Encounters, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Jurassic Park. Perhaps more than any other musician he provided the fantasy soundtrack to my childhood.

He could perfectly match a movie’s soaring emotional highs, like this iconic moment from E.T.

He could punctuate an action or comedy scene. Remember in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy confronts the sword-swinging Egyptian and shoots him dead? You should be able to identify that moment in this piece of music at about the 2:30 mark:

And of course with the Imperial March first featured in The Empire Strikes Back he wrote the greatest movie villain theme tune ever: