This CD cover here on the left must be one of the craziest, most unexpected releases I can imagine. Released a few weeks ago, its the majority of Basil Poledouris’ Conan the Barbarian score transcribed for organ. You know, like they play in churches- indeed this recording was made at Claremont United Church of Christ in California, so it has that authentic ‘sound’. Once you get used to it (and after thirty years listening to the score in orchestral form, yes it does take a little adjusting to), it is a remarkable sounding work. There’s something primal about it, as if the music is reduced to its most raw state, at times brutal but also warm, and often richly religious-sounding with the associations of hearing organs in churches. Its more successful than you might think, and for any fan of the score its a must. Listening to it I wonder what Poledouris, who sadly passed away in 2006, would have thought of it (I’d like to think he would have been absolutely thrilled). Then I consider the long road that led us here some thirty-plus years after the original film was released. Quality wins out, and that is never truer than with this music. Say what you may about the film, the score is a monumental piece of work, Poledouris’ masterpiece, and its wonderful to have seen the music get appreciated and revered separate from the film.
Back in late summer of 1982, I read an issue of Starlog that featured an interview with Basil Poledouris, composer of the score for John Milius’ film Conan The Barbarian. I’d been a reader of the Robert E Howard stories since the mid-seventies and while I wasn’t at that time a big fan of the movie, I was very curious about the score. It seemed to ‘fit’ the Conan I knew from the original stories perfectly, a monumental piece of work that I have always been convinced was one of the finest scores for any movie, ever (it was just a shame that the film didn’t match the music but subsequent viewings on VHS turned me into a fan of the film too).
Oh, but that music. I’ve always been a supporter of what Douglas Trumbull described as Pure Cinema, moments or sequences with minimal dialogue or exposition, in which visuals and the score tell the story. Conan The Barbarian was just that. “I wrote two hours of music for Conan,” Poledouris said in the Starlog interview; “It was always in John (Milius’) mind that Conan would be solid music – much like an opera, but without singing. Even the first three reels of the film is wall to wall music. From the first frame of reel one to the end of the Wheel of Pain sequence somewhere in the middle of reel three, is one long cue without any break.” More than that, dialogue during this first twenty minutes -barring a brief prologue between father and son describing the Riddle of Steel- is non-existent; it’s just the music and the visuals telling the story.
Handicapping this however was a deeply flawed decision by the film-makers to release the film in mono only. Looking back on it, it seems a crazy decision to make, especially in these times of home cinema systems, but back then televisions were square and mono, and home video undreamed of- films had limited lifetimes in cinemas before being consigned to network airings years later and cinemas themselves were hardly -in the main- the surround sound auditoriums they are today.
But still, it does seem short-sighted and clearly impacted the movie. Here’s a big movie with huge sets and a (literally) huge imposing star, accompanied by this massive score that serves film and story in purely cinematic terms, and you hamper it with a mono soundtrack just to save some of the budget (which presumably ran over). Poledouris commented about this in the Starlog interview: “I think its a crime that with a movie of this size that the soundtrack doesn’t come close to what Milius has on the screen. the monophonic optical track does the picture no service. For demonstration purposes, we mixed the first reel in stereo to show the producers what it should really sound like when all of a sudden those horsemen come charging through the snow. You really feel the terror of those hooves thundering through the snow with the drums and chants. The sound works on a gut level resurrecting primitive memories of fear”.
The only way to hear any of that two-hour score in stereo was to buy the soundtrack album, which totalled 47 minutes of music. The soundtrack presentation was very good, including all of the main themes and highlights from the film. For some reason the only edition of the soundtrack that I could get was this version from Europe, a French import I believe, although it had Italian stickers on it if i recall correctly. I don’t think I ever saw a UK or American import at all. This was in those distant days of vinyl, and I damn near wore this sucker down. To save serious wear I recorded it onto cassette, placing the tracks into film order and played that over and over; it was really a soundtrack to my life back then, played in the background while doing my paintings during my A-level art days and playing fantasy RPGs with friends. Back then of course it would never occur to me that one day we might get a better, more complete release of the music.
A few years later the score would return, this time on CD, first on a Milan disc and later a slightly expanded Varese Sarabande release. At the time this was deemed the most complete release that would ever be possible, as the master tapes had been believed lost or destroyed. A complete and chronological release (C&C in filmscore geek parlance) of Conan would be the stuff of dreams for years, and of course, as the years went by, ever more unlikely.
Poledouris himself was said to be disappointed with the performance and recording of the original score in Rome, and in the mid-nineties discussed with producer James Fitzpatrick the possibility of the composer having the opportunity to conduct a new re-recording of the score. At the time these plans didn’t come to fruition, and it wouldn’t be until 2010 that the full re-recording would become a reality- alas, some four years after Poledouris’ untimely passing. Fitzpatrick would do Poledouris proud, using the composer’s original manuscripts and a large orchestra accompanied by a 100-voice chorus to record the complete score. For fans of the score it was a dream come true, even though some would voice reservations. This was, essentially, the score as Poledouris had always intended it to be heard, but for some fans whose ears were used to the original, for all its faults, this re-recording sounded a little odd at times. I guess its in the nature of re-recordings. Deviate too far from the original and you get cries of heresy, stay too close and you question the point of a re-recording at all. But there was yet a twist in the tale of Basil Poledouris’ Conan.
Shortly after the re-recording was released, rumours began to fly about the original master-tapes of the Conan scoring sessions finally being found after years of fruitless searches. Finally in 2012 Intrada records presented its definitive Conan The Barbarian set; a three-disc epic that encompassed everything any fan could have hoped for over all those years. Two discs of the original, complete score recording, supplemented with never-before-heard alternates and a remastered edition of the original 1982 album on the third disc to preserve Poledouris’ original album presentation of the score. Maybe it gives some hope to those of us still waiting for a complete release of Vangelis’ original Blade Runner.
So here we are. Basil Poledouris’ Conan the Barbarian is surely utterly triumphant after all these years, with a stature far above that of the actual movie and enjoying a life all its own. Philipp Pelster’s rendition of the score on organ just further cements this position and breathes fresh life of its own to the score. It is fascinating, really, to hear a track like “Anvil of Crom” on the Intrada album and compare it to Pelster’s version. “Orphans of Doom/Awakening”, always one of my favorite moments of the score, is particularly spine-tingling on the Pelster album. Then we have the Fitzpatrick/Nic Raine re-recording with its huge orchestra to compare to both. Fans have never had it so good, and the score for the barbarian remains as valid and powerful as it did all those years ago. I don’t know how many times I have listened to this score, but I’m certain I will continue to do so for many years to come, in all its guises (who would ever guessed I would ever have such choice in that regard?). They don’t score ’em like they used to, and the loss of Poledouris remains to film music as great as ever. I’m sure we won’t hear his like again. But we do have his Conan The Barbarian.