John Carpenter's They Live evolved very quickly as a modern mini-classic, mostly due to its second life on home video after Universal kind of spat out the film and let it disappear from screens.
The original soundtrack album from Enigma was a super-brief 31 mins., which seems absurd given it's a synth score with low rights fees, compared to an orchestral score. The Enigma disc did present all of the film's main themes and covered the main dramatic beats as a drifter becomes the chief rebel who alerts humans of aliens that have anesthetized the world into non-thinking, conformity, and ultimately subjugation to seriously ugly creatures.
The score's main theme is the opening blues track, “Coming to L.A.,” which plays as Nada steps across railway tracks and looks for a new gig to keep a roof over his head. The blues riff is very simple, the harmonica adds a slightly sad, melancholic quality, and the sax improv is well, pretty loose, if not kind of clumsy.
As musicians and composers, Carpenter and co-composer Alan Howarth are strong in crafting addictive rhythms, thickening sonic textures, bass-friendly pulses, and harmonics that evoke a sly mix of danger, dread, paranoia, and a bit of tongue-in-cheek humour. When themes are kept simple, the music works, but when there's a straying into jazz-blues improv, the result sounds ever so plainly like notes played on a synth, sort-of approximating southern-tinged hardships, but with the sterility of 1988 electronic gear.
It shouldn't work, but it does (and very well for the character as well as the film) because the movie, like much of Carpenter's work, isn't played with hard gravitas. When Nada exclaims “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass… and I'm all out of bubble gum” (one of a few dialogue chunks archived on the CD as a separate track), you know They Live is a satire, and the wonky main theme is part of a goofy world where humanity is fought by John Wayne knock-offs who display Fordian machismo.
“The Siege of Justiceville,” for example, is a macho battle track that's driven by syncopated percussion, echoplexed taps, and fat synth chords that all coalesce into a heavy march as aliens (Indian attackers) lay siege on human rebels (macho white folks) housed in their own little suburban Alamo.
The composers' reference to western conventions as well as their own (the opening bars in “Transport Station” riff Escape from New York) make the score so much fun, and it's also marks the last collaboration between director Carpenter and sound designer/engineer/effects whiz Howarth. They Live is the pair's creative evolution after their more primal work on New York, and like Halloween III (1982) and Prince of Darkness (1987), it's a great snapshot of how then-contemporary synths were used to create textures, grooves, and function as sound design (like the effects-tweaked “All Out of Bubble Gum”) instead of the up-tempo pop-rock scores from more teen-oriented fodder like Fight Night, Vamp, and Love Bites.
Like AHI's prior expanded CD of Halloween III (also released via Buysoundtrax.com), there's a lot of material that boosts the album's running time, and the results are at times repetitive, but for Carpenter/Howarth fans, it gives them everything they've been longing for.
“Sunglasses On” has Carpenter's own slowed-down voice (“Sleep… Sleep”) layered over shimmering synths, and “Back Alley” has some stylistic similarities to Prince of Darkness, particularly the wet trickling effects applied to hard synth hits.
The extra cues also showcase the composers' fixations on bold chords that do more than simply drone and hold for interminable periods. Howarth and Carpenter like to expand tonal density, take the bass and spread it across the stereo image like a hot, molten matter, and use pulses to set up a cue's ultimate rhythmic pattern, or morph into another pliable tonal shade.
Howarth's liner notes cover the film's production, mythos, cult following, and the music's creation, and he states the extra cues were in fact mixed for a longer album. Twenty years later, his plans have finally come to fruition, peppered with three dialogue tracks (isolated to their own indexed tracks), as well as longer film versions of “All Our of Bubble Gum” and “Underground,” plus source music for the cheeky fake TV ads.
There's better sonic balance between the original album cues (heard first) and bonus cuts (placed thereafter) than the expanded Halloween III CD, making it easy for one to program their own favorite version of the score without any sonic seams. The tracks have been mastered from very clean sources, and Howarth is quite right to be proud that They Live continues to be enjoyed for his strong dramatic qualities.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan