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John Carpenter: The Man, The Myth, The Music

John Carpenter Live Retrospective
Mesa, Arizona – Ikeda Theater
June 19, 2016

What is there to say about the legendary filmmaker John Carpenter that hasn’t already been said?

Well, let me start out by being a fan boy for a moment, if I may be so entitled. One night, years ago, I first fell in love with Carpenter. I had left the television on and came across a show doing a special on some monsters that were created by the special effects crew KNB. This special caught my attention. Not being able to remember the name of the film, I began frantically searching for it, only to find it a few months later. I was lucky enough to view the film on opening day. At this time, I was introduced to what was, in my honest opinion, the greatest horror film Ever made. That film was John Carpenter’s clever and insane ride into the stygian abyss known as In the Mouth of Madness.

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A couple years earlier, I came across a film that my father had recorded onto a VHS tape. It was a copy of John Carpenter’s Halloween, which at the time I had never heard of. Upon my first viewing, I found it to be rather boring and non-impactful. However, after falling in love with Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, I decided to give Halloween another shot, at which time I instantly fell in love with the film.

Upon my second viewing, Halloween became my favorite film of all time and Michael Myers my favorite character of all time, forever changing my life and inciting my torrid love affair with horror films and the genre itself. The slow, melodic, panning shots were infectious. The tense atmospheric force of nature, simply called the Shape, frayed my nerves, embedding images into my consciousness that will live forever.

These two films are directly responsible for my avid affection for all things Carpenter and horror, a love most of my friends really don’t understand. I’m sure I’m not alone.

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I began watching and hoarding Carpenter films like they were a drug and I needed my fix, never fully comprehending that a huge part of the eerily suspense-filled vibe was due in part to the spine tingling scores produced and performed by the legendary master himself. With that said, it was an extreme pleasure seeing John for the first time, having a chance to watch him do what he loves and what currently motivates him.

I was fortunate enough to cop a ticket to John Carpenter’s: Live Retrospective show, where he passionately performed themes from his classic films, along with new unearthly haunting “Lost Themes.” If asked to describe the show, even though it’s cliché, I’d have to say it was nothing short of epic! John Carpenter is a humble, bona fide Rockstar.

The show was like a lucid dream of apocalyptical chaos mixed with ghosts, aliens, an infamous slasher and other quite slimy abominations from the underworld, including Satan himself, or should I say herself. Although he has not donned the director’s cap for quite some time, it was a delight to get a seat and take a ride with Carpenter into his carrion black pit of endless nightmares.

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It was a dream come true to see him performing in his own unique way, enjoying the hell out of himself as he jammed and danced right along with the band. The band mainly consists of John Carpenter, his son Cody Carpenter (born May 7th, 1984 to John Carpenter and Adrienne Barbeau) from the band Ludrium, and John’s godson Daniel Davies (his father Dave Davies from the band the Kinks) from the bands Year Long Disaster (2004-20011) and CKY (2012-2015).

John and his godson’s father Dave Davies had previously collaborated on films In the Mouth of Madness and Village of the Damned. John’s son Cody composed and performed full length scores for both of his father’s 2005 Masters of Horror films, Cigarette Burns and Pro-Life, as well as contributing music for 2001’s Ghosts of Mars. John, Cody and Daniel all worked together on the CBS television show Zoo, all three composing and recording the main titles theme.

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Daniel Davies was a composer for the 2015 film Condemned, also writing songs for the 2014 film I, Frankenstein. John’s first debut studio album release, Lost Themes, was essentially co-recorded by Cody and Daniel. It happened by accident, as John has said, when he and Cody would spend time playing video games. They would take breaks in-between to play around on John’s Logic Pro, creating deeply emotive rhythms and music that, according to John, are for the movies playing inside your head.

The three worked together in the same city, something they didn’t have the luxury of partaking in for their first album release. The music is improvised. John has said he doesn’t read or write music, he just starts with a chord and builds on it. Their first endeavor Lost Themes was released February 3, 2015, with most of the work taking years to see the light of day and being completed over vast distances.

Their first album was so widely acclaimed that it played a major role in leading John, Cody and Daniel to gather and create Lost Themes 2, released on April 15th of 2016 under Sacred Bones Records, becoming the highest selling album in the labels short history.

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They concluded there was no better time than the present to take their act on the road for their Live Retrospective Tour, which is currently underway. As John has stated, it’s a family affair, playing their music in front of a live audience for the first time. John was raised a child of music and film, his father Howard Ralph Carpenter earning a PhD in music from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, even teaching music at Western Kentucky University for a spell. Howard is known for playing in sessions with musical legends like Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra and Roy Orbison to name a few.

John got his start in music at an early age, playing violin via his father, eventually moving on to the piano, guitar, bass guitar and ultimately landing on the synthesizer. John has been known for saying that he loves using synthesizers because he is only one person and they help him sound bigger. John’s musical inspirations are quoted as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Procol Harum. However there is one specific film that is majorly responsible for inspiring John’s filmmaking and musical scoring — the 1956 film Forbidden Planet. Forbidden Planet is the first film to have an entire electronic film score, credited to the writing of Bebe and Louis Barron. John fell in love with the film as a child, but more specifically he was curiously moved by the film’s soundtrack.

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John Carpenter’s Dark Star

John’s first film work was on the Academy Award winning western short, The Resurrection of Broncho Billy (released June 11, 1970), where he took on many roles for the film, such as composer of the music, editor and co-writer of the classic short. From there he moved on to direct his first major film in the science fiction black comedy, Dark Star, which he wrote, produced and scored. Since they were basically broke and on a small (if not non-existent) budget, John took it upon himself and used synthesizers to score his USC film school student film, Dark Star. John knew himself to be cheaper and more efficient than any orchestra, and therefore ended up composing the score for his bizarre and darkly twisted space adventure.

Assault on Precinct 13 was John’s next film score, where we used specific synth sounds to match certain mood points, creating one, if not the best exploitation film of the 70s. With only one day, John was tasked with composing the score for Assault on Precinct 13, from which he composed and recorded the synthesized score that is considered the blueprint for many of his films that followed.

John Carpenter on the set of Halloween

John Carpenter on the set of Halloween

Perhaps his most memorable and noticeable score is that of the 1978 film Halloween, in which John completed the score in three days in Los Angles, using two really old synthesizers. Although it has been said that the score Bernard Hermann did for the 1969 film Psycho is John’s inspiration for this score, the Goblin score for the film Suspiria is said to be his main inspiration for the scoring he did on the infamous film.

Since then, John has gone on to compose the music for all of his films with the exceptions of his 1982 remake of The Thing, the 1984 film Starman, the 1992 film Memoirs of an Invisible Man and his 2010 film The Ward, collaborating on a few. It has been said that his favorite synthesizer to use was the Korg Triton. However having moved on with the advancing technology, John uses Logic Pro with synth plug-ins and lots of help from his son and godson.

While I’ve found all of his scores to be bright, ethereal and at the same time menacing and otherworldly, John himself confessed that some of the most beautiful music is in fact the darker stuff. John has also voiced his opinion that his favorite themes he’s had the pleasure of scoring were to the films Big Trouble in Little China and Prince of Darkness. My personal favorite John Carpenter scores are from the films In the Mouth of Madness and Halloween, although I am a bit biased.

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Over the last couple years, I have been known to say that when people mention the word Halloween, two things instantly come to mind…one being the actual day and the other being John’s film. In my opinion, without that haunting paranoia-induced score John did on Halloween, the film wouldn’t be as nasty and vicious as it is.

Now with John having taken a break from filmmaking, claiming that “Directing is for the young”, he has given himself time to explore his musical endeavors and spend some quality time with his son and godson. John has been quoted as saying, “Music is one of the pure art forms. It’s not polluted like movies.” When asked if he still has an interest in directing, he has said there are some scripts that he would like to take a stab at (no pun intended), and if they come about then great. If not, no big deal. He seems to be more concerned and focused on his musical ventures at this point.

He’s having a blast playing and performing, which was apparent in his Live Retrospective show. After decades of his synth-loaded films, he has found a way to take some of those and turn them into longer, band playable versions, once again revitalizing his career and bringing him to the forefront of the music world. It was awe inspiring to watch John have so much fun, the band enjoying themselves just as much as America’s beloved dark master of horror, smiling and jamming out onstage.

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The lead guitarist Daniel Davies was phenomenal, a true front man, keeping the crowd members engaged and enthused. There were times when I caught the band shooting grins back and forth as the imagery flowed behind them. John put together specific montages of scenes from some of his classic films to match the themes being played by the band, in case they were a bit drab and people weren’t content with just watching them perform, according to John. A number of times I had to remind myself not to pay attention to the screen and instead to absorb and soak in the band onstage, as I have seen every single one of John’s films multiple times.

It was nothing but pure gratification to go on a mind-bending journey with John and the band, as they played the themes from films like Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween and Escape from New York. The band also played the theme to the classic invasion film They Live, with every member pulling out and sporting a pair of sunglasses just as Roddy Piper did in the film. In addition to the classic themes, they played tracks from their original Lost Themes album a year earlier, tracks like “Wraith” and “Vortex”, along with a few songs from their recent 2016 release. The band paid tribute to Ennio Marricone, the man who composed the music for the shape-shifting monster from outer space, as they played the theme from The Thing, with John giving a shout out to Ennio Marricone before the start of the song.

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I have to say that for me as a fan, my first time just being able to be in the same building at the same time with the macabre living legend, putting on a show of uber magnitude, unleashing his creatures back into the universe through a different portal, was a literal dream come true.

The atmosphere was spooky at times and yet very energetic. The show was like surfing through time, taking you from one decade to the next, from one dimension to the next. It was completely amazing to spend a night with John, not only watching his films with him, but being able to listen to him play the scores for those films as well.

In conclusion, if you get a chance, I suggest grab yourself a ticket and don’t miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a one-of-a-kind show. Catch it while you can, cause it might be your last chance to bear witness to something this interstellar. A night with the synth lord John Carpenter is something that any Carpenter fan, or horror film fan, should not miss out on. It’s history in the making. In the words of John Carpenter himself, “Horror movies will live forever.” And if it doesn’t go well, as John has said, he’ll always have the NBA to watch.

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