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Tune into the Pictures Part 1: The Dawn of the Soundtrack


If you think that the first film with a soundtrack involves Al Jolson hamming it up as an obscene racist caricature in the Jizz Singa you're dead wrong. The art and ambition of the film soundtrack began long, long before.To it's credit, the BBC still finds a few coppers down the back of the sofa sometimes to make some wonderful programmes. While BBC1 and BBC2 are largely a sea of greasy kitchen sinks, gurns and PC cheese BBC4 has picked up the mantle of what BBC2 once was when it had the likes of Arena, Storyville and the like.You owe it to yourself to check out the Neil Brand fronted three part series: Sound of Cinema: The Music the Made the Movies.I intend to rip it off and riff all over it for the next few Sleeves - not just because the tireless efforts of your favourite record store have supplied me with amazing soundtrack LPs from the dark bliss of Goblin's Suspiria to Mad Max, Wild at Heart, Chinatown and various innovative injections from Tangerine Dream. And I must repent because sadly the first recorded music I purchased with what passed for my "own money" was the steroid and sweat yacht rock vomit bukkake that was the Top Gun soundtrack on LP.The first demonstration of a soundtrack probably happened in Paris in 1900. A crude but heroic attempt to sync the awful wax cylinder records of the day with moving images wowed crowds by making short excerpts of ballet, theatre and classical concerts. Thomas Edison and others kept monkeying around with music for films for the next couple of decades using the same basic, obvious idea of syncing up some kind of disc with sound to the film. Of course speakers largely were giant horns so it was more a novelty than anything else. Two mechanical devices playing back media recorded in an irregular format - hand cranked cameras and early wax recorders were variable in speed and pitch - kept in some kind of sync that was more than just surreal was a massive challenge.A format war began between those who wanted to carry on with the pretty logical but nearly impossible idea of keeping records synced with the picture and the more radical, CD-like idea of recording the sound somehow directly onto the film itself to ensure perfect sync every time.In 1919, while the fields of Flanders still smelt of blood, the amazingly named American inventor Lee De Forest filed a patent for encoding sound onto the film itself. Bits and blobs of exposed negative were read by a light and then converted back into soundwaves - much like the magic a cartridge on a tone arm performs. The difference here is that instead of a needle hitting a groove and vibrating, its a light flickering on and off.A load of brilliant PR stunts, such as offering punters $10,000 (enough to buy a massive estate back then) if they found a record player anywhere in the cinema spread the word. Musical acts of various kinds, speeches and stage performances around New York City were the main things filmed by the new PhonoFilms company. Hollywood controlled all the major theatres and talent, so was content to watch from a distance and try its hand at sound occasionally as a novelty. Warner Brothers, the most innovative studio, had continued to pursue the sound sync from disc route with some success - in 1926 the no doubt turgid epic Don Juan had three hours worth of music and sound effects shown with it. However, the heroic efforts needed to keep the discs in sync with the picture blew dead sheep.Sound was coming but the problem was the big boys had not agreed what technology to use, how cinemas would be converted and who would pay for it all. Like any Mafia racket, keeping control meant cooperation was needed. In the end, an optical format won out and even today the sides of film sprockets are covered with all kinds of digital soundtrack information. Soon it will all just be bits and bites on encoded hard drives sent by the Man.So the soundtrack came, but was it ever absent? In Japan a long tradition of live music and commentary during films was lost. Live music from bands or even just an organ was common - films were distributed with sheet music. This got lost in the shuffle over the years, so if you were unlucky enough to see an older transfer of Metropolis it was likely to have anything from random MFP Classical Volume 3 to Pat Benatar debasing it.Films were never truly silent before sound. In fact, in artistic terms they were often louder. The need to export worldwide created a global film culture - where you could see a German thriller in Manila or an American comedy in France without any worry about dubbing, subtitles and other nonsense. Filmmakers and cultures influenced each other like never before until the tinny cry of "Mammmy!" crushed the magic like hot piss across a fine cheese.Sound is atmosphere, after the war, art came back and music painted back the beauty that had been lost to talkies. Four very different artists - Miles Davis, Goblin, Neil Young and John Carpenter gave us much here. We'll turn to them next time. You all know Morricone, so we wanted to go somewhere more electronic, scary, and terribly beautiful.

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