❉ We Are Cult’s James Gent goes deep into Universal’s long awaited The Man Who Fell To Earth soundtrack album
Well, it’s been a long wait and no mistake. ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, director Nicolas Roeg’s elliptic and cryptic space oddysey starring a singularly well-cast David Bowie as its titular alien, graced cinema screens forty years ago, but only now has an accompanying soundtrack album landed on terra firma.
Before you get your hopes up, this is not David Bowie and Paul Buckmaster’s near-mythical ‘lost’ score, but it’s the next best thing.
Those of you who are up on your Bowieology will know that various issues came between Bowie realising and delivering a score for his feature film debut – the material recorded by Bowie was not considered by Roeg to be up to scratch, and Bowie was in the middle of extricating himself from a complicated management contract.
In the long run, there was no love lost – Bowie’s experimental soundtrack would provide the foundation for his Berlin trilogy, with tracks such as Subterraneans, Some Are and Crystal Japan allegedly recycled from his abandoned score.
Ultimately, the soundtrack gig went to LA scenester and former Mamas and the Papas member, John Phillips, with the balance of the score comprised of previously released material by Stomu Yamash’ta, whose unique blend of jazz, prog and avant garde more than compensated for the space left by David Bowie’s lost score.
What we have here, then, is the commercial soundtrack for Roeg’s film, as it appeared on screen. To anyone who’s grown up with ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ over the years, Roeg’s eventual choice of music is so indelibly affixed to its scenes that it’s actually hard to process that many of the pieces were plucked off the shelf, so well do they complement the film.
In particular, Stomu Yamash’ta’s compositions are so tonally correct that they fit the movie like a glove. Our first proper glimpse of Thomas Jerome Newton is as he makes his way through the small town setting of Haneyville, taking in such scenes of slice of pie Americana as highways, burger vans, a belching wino and an out of season gas dirigible. It’s an alien’s eye view of textbook Americana accompanied by Stomu Yamash’ta’s Poker Dice (from 1972’s ‘Floating Music’), with its spooky, woozy marimba percussion, repeating an ominous melody that becomes increasingly giddy and woozy, joined by snare and kick drum that never quite becomes a rock beat.
Elsewhere, the uber-percussive 33 1/3 (from 1975’s Raindog) soundtracks a sequence in which Newton observes a display of Japanese theatre, intercut by Roeg with scenes of aggressive sex between Rip Torn’s lecherous lecturer and one of his teenage conquests.
Mandala, from 1973’s ‘Red Buddha Theatre/Man From The East’, scans like an Amon Duul II-esque fusion that builds to a furious climax reminiscent of Can at their most organic and is perfectly evocative for Newton’s New Mexico hideaway as the shadow, reclusive CEO of World Enterprises.
Wind Words, from ‘Freedom Is Frightening’, combines viola, glockenspiel and delicately picked acoustic guitar, accompanying a tender, erotic, lovemaking scene between David Bowie and Candy Clark, and seems to be a piece Bowie may have listened closely to, given its melodic proximity to his, equally transcendent, Crystal Japan (1980), Ian Fish UK Heir (1993), and Brilliant Adventures (1999), as well as recalling the quieter moments of side two of “Heroes”.
Two more Yamash’ta tracks round off the composer’s secondhand contributions to ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’. One Way (1973) comprises a haunting, plaintive drone, closing with a gentle return to the marimba madness of Poker Dice, while Memory Of Hiroshima (taken from 1973’s Man From The East) is – as the title implies – a disquieting composition.
In the context of ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, it is the piece of music used when Thomas Jerome Newton reveals to his helpmate Mary-Lou his true, Athenian form – waxen grey skin, catlike eyes and smooth genital bump. Mary-Lou recoils in terror, literally pissing herself, and catatonic with shock.
Memory Of Hiroshima is sinister, atonal and disturbing, the closest Stomu track approaching rock, with strident Gilmour-esque guitar by Steve Winwood, against a bed of melismatic strings and a moderate rock rhythm section backbeat.
If Stomu Yamash’ta’s tracks used in ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ soundtrack don’t send you scurrying to Amazon and Ebay to check out his (mainly deleted) back catalogue, there ain’t no justice in this world.
The remainder of The Man Who Fell To Earth soundtrack is taken up by Papa John Phillips’ original contributions, barring brief snippets of Louis Armstrong’s Blueberry Hill and The Kingston Trio’s Try To Remember and a Hoagy Carmichael standard, which we’ll mention in due course…
On the subject of standards, notable omissions from the soundtrack album are Jim Reeves’ Make The World Go Away and Roy Orbison’s Blue Bayou, for which licensing complications can be the only explanation.
Phillips’ score seems to have been built up from jams and ideas he had lying around during his ‘lost weekend’ as a drug casualty of the Lauren Canyon era, but he got it together to assemble a number of jams and fully-formed songs for the movie.
Much of Phillips’ material appears in the movie as source music, such as the rinky-dink Jazz II (a brief snatch of which plays in Oliver Farnsworth’s chi-chi apartment, on what Bowie/Newton describes as his “antiquated sound system”), some ‘good old boys’ redneck music heard on a car stereo (Boys From The South, Rhumba Boogie), the smooth and langorous Jazz, and the cotton-picking hoedown of Bluegrass Breakdown. Elsewhere, Phillips lends his pipes to a rollicking remake of Ricky Nelson’s Hello Mary Lou, as Newton and Mary-Lou enjoy some fetishistic, sexually charged gun play in his expensive prison.
Disappointingly, there’s one omission that prevents this album from being a complete soundtrack, and that’s The Devil’s On The Loose, a sleazy bit of funk-boogie that introduces us to Rip Torn’s Nathan Bryce, although a refined, vocal version can be found on the posthumous John Phillips album ‘Jack of Diamonds’ (Varese, 2007).
Beyond these throwaways, Phillips does himself credit with two key instrumental tracks: Space Capsule, a cosmic, krautrock-flavoured slice of systems music, like Tangerine Dream at 78rpm, and Window, the Great Gig In The Sky-aping composition that scores Oliver Farnsworth’s murder, elegaic and with oh so 70s vocal chorus harmonies worthy of a later Roger Moore era John Barry Bond score.
And talking of Roger Moore-era Bond, we can’t wrap up this review without considering Phillips’ unused theme song for ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’. Yes, tucked away as the final track of disc two on this two-disc release is an actual, bells and whistles, theme song for this most unusual of films. Taking the sublime Window is as its template, Phillips lumped on top of it a cringe-worthy lyric that makes The Man With The Golden Gun or Moonraker sound like sublime works of art.
Sample lyrics: “Maybe his yellow eyes will let you in to the man who fell to Earth”…, “He flew through time and space, maybe he’ll change your life like he changed mine” etc. Oh dear.
This wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that the movie had a bona fide rock writer-performer as its lead role, who could function in the middle of a cocaine blizzard, but that’s another story, already hinted at here. But be that as it may, Phillips’ putative theme song is fucking awful.
The soundtrack is rounded off by two pieces that, although – as per the score en masse – have no Bowie contribution, are riven with his cultural DNA. Two excerpts from Holst’s ‘The Planets’ are featured in the movie, and are present and correct on the album. Masters degree level Bowiemaniacs will know that Mars: The Bringer Of War was a set-piece in David Jones’ 1966 ‘Bowie Showboat’ regular gig at the Marquee Club (the young Jones was vastly enamoured of the adventures of Professor Quatermass). Similarly, as the film ends with an aged, world-weary Nathan Bryce catching up with our lost spaceman, as Bryce concludes, “I think perhaps Mr Newton has had enough…” the film plays out to the strains of a Hoagy Carmichael blues standard. Its title? What else. Stardust.
❉ The Man Who Fell To Earth original soundtrack album was released by Universal Music Group as a 2CD and a 2LP set from 9th September , and will be released as Deluxe 2CD/ 2LP Box Set from 28th October.