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September 15, 2020

Jason Murphy and Raine Cardinaels-Baird 10 Best Ozploitation Movie Soundtracks

We’re taking a journey into the sounds of Ozploitation. Ozploitation refers to the direct-to-video films to come out of Australia from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s. The only thing linking these films, apart from their generally low budgets, was the exploitation of aspects of Australian culture and stereotypes to attract viewers, both locally and abroad. This genre typically did not spend the greatest amount of money on scoring these releases, so it was known to attract composers working for fairly cheap, whether because they were new in the game or they were more established in the field and knew they would be able to create soundscapes a little outside of the norm.

For a peek into the genre, we called upon local Sydney DJ, producer, and head honcho of Optic Intake magazine, Jason Murphy (DJ Blaze/Idiot Proof), to guide us through his 10 favorite movie soundtracks to come out of the scene.

These are the sounds of Ozploitation.

Brian Trenchard-Smith‘s classic is probably my favorite Australian film of all time. It also has an underrated soundtrack. Most of the attention was placed firmly on the theme song that accompanies the beginning title sequence. A colorful hang glider flies above the Hong Kong harbor while British band Jigsaw’s “Sky High” rolls over in its infectious disco groove. It’s a perfect marriage of sound and visuals that set the rest of the film onto action-packed martial arts extravaganza through the suburbs of Sydney and New South Wales country.

Jigsaw hailed from Coventry, England, and had been releasing records since 1968. Sky High was their biggest selling single, placing at No 3 in Australia and charting quite significantly in Canada, the United States, and Japan. The song featured on their self-titled fifth LP and has now ended up on at least over 250 compilations. The success of the single in Japan was so impressive that they retitled the film to Sky High when it opened to cinemas in May 1976. The belated vinyl soundtrack that came out in 1977 also adopted this new alias so much so that you’d be fooled into thinking it was an album by Jigsaw as their name and the song’s title take major prominence on the cover. Unusually, it has never seen a digital release, either on CD or download.

Oddly enough, the only other vocal track is a syrupy song by an Olivia Newton-John-soundalike Deena Green. “A Man Is a Man Is a Man,” AKA “Love Theme From Sky High Part 1” on the Japanese vinyl, plays over the film’s very ’70s montage of horseback riding, waterfalls, and the romantic interplay between the lead, Chinese-born kung-fu star, Jimmy Wang Yu, and his on-screen Aussie love interest Rebecca Gilling.

The rest of the soundtrack is all instrumental, ranging from library-styled super funk to breezy muzak. The pre-title fight scene on the top of the then-named Ayers Rock is between two screen legends, local icon Roger Ward (Mad Max, Turkey Shoot) and Hong Kong-born star Sammo Hung (Eastern Condors, Meals on Wheels). The track “Carrier From Hong Kong” is a pulsating bass guitar slapping number with some crazy synth work, followed not long after by a frantic TV cop show styled arrangement on “Foot Chase” while stuntman Grant Page, playing a rooftop sniper, gets chased by Wang Yu through Darlinghurst in Sydney. Another highlight is the stripped-back percussive number “Roof Top” with yet another appearance by a super spongey synth that precedes the finale where villain George Lazenby gets his arse kicked overlooking a panoramic view of the Sydney harbor. There still hasn’t been a localized action or martial arts film in Australia since to even come close to everything that happens on screen. If only it had inspired more of its kind.

Composer Noel Quinlan’s first film soundtrack was for the 1973 Thai jungle action film S.T.A.B. (Special Tactical Airborne Brigade). As was the case with a lot of Southeast Asian films of the time, the star was an American import. This one was the 1960s TV series: Mission Impossible’s Greg Morris. The soundtrack consisted of a smattering of funky up-tempo tunes, so he already had a pedigree that was required for The Man From Hong Kong. Noel has scored films for Hong Kong directors such as Tsui Hark (Aces Go Places III), Wellson Chin (The Inspector Wears Skirts), and even a few for the late Ringo Lam, most notably Undeclared War (1990) and Touch & Go (1991), none of which are available on media outside of the film’s content.

OK, let’s start off with the tragedy before we begin. The Restless Years actor Jon Blake was heralded as a rising star within the Australian film industry. After appearing in the mini-series The Anzacs, he was then cast for Simon Wincer’s big-screen epic The Lighthorseman (1987). Unfortunately, he never even saw a cut of the film as he was in a car accident on the final day of shooting in 1986 and remained in a cruel sort of coma until his death from pneumonia in 2011. What he did manage to put on his film resume was the lead role in this early Scott Hicks (Shine) film, Freedom.

Blake plays an anti-hero of sorts in one example of Australia’s film obsessions about cars. Basically, he steals a Porsche and gets into mischief in the countryside of South Australia. The soundtrack itself is scored by Cold Chisel legend Don Walker, featuring his fellow bandmates, guitarist Ian Moss, bass player Phil Small, and drummer Steven Prestwich. It’s not really a notable soundtrack, but more of a curiosity, especially for the Chisel completists. It’s the early appearance of INXSMichael Hutchence that makes it sought after. Of the two tracks, the more memorable is “Speed Kills” with its Aussie rock charged guitar and screaming vocals. Its more a curiosity than anything, but has become collectible, but still affordable. The 1996 CD reissue has a ridiculous cover totally unrelated to the film. Why a homeless person is pushing a shopping trolley on the front is kind of obtuse.

The film has had a terrible history. It was pretty much ignored on release and still remains virtually unknown outside of the dedicated horror film fan circle. Even finding details for its actual theatrical release in Australia is a mystery. Apparently, it was sometime in late 1982. The film was approved for classification in June 1982 and even appeared as the cover story for Cinema Papers for the same month, yet they never reviewed it as they did virtually every other Australian film. Two years later, it turned up on VHS through Roadshow and then again on DVD in 2005 through a limited run, which went out of print and became highly coveted and expensive on the secondary market. Finally, in 2018 it was given the hi-def treatment and released on Blu-Ray in Australia (Umbrella,  then releases followed in the UK and the United States. Wondering why I mentioned all of that when this is supposed to be about the soundtrack? Probably because its important to watch the films that accompany these reviews. And honestly, this film deserves more love.

Next of Kin starred John Jarratt and is a slow-burn suspense film about a woman who inherits a nursing home for the elderly back in her childhood town. Things start to go awry. It was New Zealand-born director Tony Williams’s second and final feature movie. Filmed in Melbourne and country Victoria. It was originally going to be along the lines of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but they ended up with something far more European and almost Giallo-esque. Slasher films were becoming the dominant style of horror at the time, but the director didn’t want to go that route despite American advisers telling him to add more violence and gore. (If you do want to check out an Australian slasher of the time, John Lamond’s Nightmares (1980) might quell your appetite. Scored by Brian May of course.)

The filmmakers tried to get Australian composers, but they were unavailable. During production, they were listening to albums by German electronic musician Klaus Schulze. They ended up asking him if he wanted to do the score and he leapt at the opportunity. He’d previously scored a few films, including the Swedish porno Body Love (1977; released many times on vinyl and CD), as well as the U.S. horror film Barracuda (1978; unreleased). Up until Next of Kin, this early member of Tangerine Dream had been involved in the release of over 20 albums. For this soundtrack, he would use the purpose-built synthesizer and a library of floppy discs. However, his soundtrack wasn’t entirely used for the final film. Instead. they used some of his earlier works and some of the new compositions. Cue almost four decades later and Melbourne label The Roundtable manage to unearth the original soundtrack for the first time. As you can probably imagine, its very Berlin styled, or what is referred to as Teutonic electronic. It’s droney, dark, oppressive, etc. — thank the stars that the “Love Theme” is somewhat kinda sorta cheery. A few tracks have driving drum beats that knock up the heart rate to over 200bpm, though I much prefer the final outro music that accompanies the last scene of the film and goes into the credits: the super slow “End Theme” with its ghostly vocoder and almost poetic lyrics.

One of the greatest Australian exploitation films ever made is this widely delicious, insanely entertaining, and thematically over-the-top piece of gilded trash. It’s directed by British ex-pat Brian Trenchard-Smith, who gave us the impressive classics, The Man From Hong Kong, Death Cheaters, Dead End Drive-In, and Nicole Kidman’s debut, BMX Bandits. Without either Brians, the Australian genre’s input wouldn’t be as great as the archive holds. The film was ridiculously retitled with the generic Escape 2000 in the U.D. and Blood Camp Thatcher in the UK. The soundtrack remained unreleased until Melbourne label Dual Planet blessed the world with a CD, as well as the much-preferred vinyl format.

Coming off the success of the Mad Max films and the hit Gallipoli, the score for Turkey was originally slated to be orchestral, but last-minute budget cuts meant that it was to be stripped back, therefore Brian May had to eschew the bigger sound and go back to a more electronic process. (May was able to conduct his orchestra for another picture in 1982 when the word was greeted with George Miller’s sequel to Mad Max.)

That’s when the Italians moved on from their science fiction films that were set in space and brought them back down to a ravaged post-apocalyptic world. The synth score would arrive en masse, but with driven drum beats that were a leftover from the recent Italo disco era. I feel that it now fits in more with the genre films that were coming out of Italy at the time. Check out Walter Rizzati’s score for 1990: I Guerrieri Del Bronx (1982).

There was a period in Australian cinema where the topic of nuclear war, uranium mining, American ships carrying nuclear weapons, and the after-effects of the British tests in the 1950s at Maralinga all had an impact on the collective consciousness. This 1959 film, inspired on Nevil Shute’s highly regarded novel On the Beach, was the first film to touch on the subject. A version of the topic would be touched up in Beyond Reason (1970), Deadline (1982), One Night Stand (1984), Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome (1985), and Ground Zero (1987).

The Chain Reaction’s working title was The Man at the Edge of the Freeway. It was directed and written by Ian Barry, who was the film editor on the 1974 cult bikie drama Stone. He was inspired to write the story after news reports he had read regarding how the Australian government at the time was taking back the radioactive waste from the uranium they had exported overseas — what if it was disturbed by a geological tremor? The film came out the year after the American nuclear-themed The China Syndrome, which was at one time called Chain Reaction. Auto-mechanic Larry (Steve Bisley) and his wife Carmel (Arna-Maria Winchester) stumble upon an injured German scientist whilst they are camping. They unwittingly get caught in the crosshairs of a multi-national corporation trying to cover up an accident at a nearby nuclear waster storage facility. With the help of second unit director George Miller, who filmed two explosive stunt sequences, it’s an action-packed political thriller filmed a few hundred kilometers out of Sydney at Glen Davis and Rylstone.

If you listened to the soundtrack before watching the film, I’m not sure if you would come to the conclusion it was full of vehicular destruction and frantic chase scenes. The back of the LP sleeve mentions that Wilson uses the Oberheim 4 voice synth, a Moog modular system, Roland System 100m, and even a Roland Space Echo among others.

When I was a teenager, I bought this secondhand at the infamous Ashwoods in  Sydney in the mid-1980s. I was entranced by the title track. It’s an almost synth-pop tune at 135bpm with understated vocoder-ed vocals. It’s also begging for an updated re-edit that would fit in with today’s synthwave or even the Italo disco revival. Stems, we need stems. You could put “Car Chase” on the flip of a 12-inch as it also carries the same frantic tempo, but with less poppy melody. The only other upbeat track is “The Beast,” so named after the vehicle that Bisley drives in the film; it has more of a standard rock with heavier chords. A sound of what was to come with Wilson’s later musical output could be found on the more luxuriantly ambient piece “A Swim in The River” and the initial swirling synth appeal of “Awakening.” There’s loads of bubbling soundscapes and atmospherics.

The original soundtrack was released through TV station Channel 7. The reissue artwork takes its illustration source from the German theatrical poster, where it was called Die Kettenreaktion. There were also two 7-inch singles released, which are hard to find and either commanding high prices or just not available.

Incidentally, Andrew Thomas Wilson is the owner of an obtuse factoid. He was the first Australian artist to have his music pressed onto compact disc in Australia. The album was the ambient work  Carnarvon and it was manufactured in Japan then released on October 20, 1984, through EMI. John Farnham had the distinction of having ‘Whispering Jack be the first CD pressed in Australia in May 1987.

It would be virtually impossible to list a selection of Australian soundtracks without mentioning composer Brian May. No, not the celebrated guitarist from Queen, but instead the one-time orchestrator for ABC TV who’s most famous cinematic compositions would be for the original Mad Max, Mad Max 2, and Gallipoli. After his film debut for the 1975 bawdy comedy True Story Of Eskimo Nell, he ventured into a period of scoring for what would end up being a slew of cult films.

His first genre output was for Richard Franklin’s eerie telekinetic horror, Patrick (1978). Personally, I prefer Berto Pisano’s still-unreleased score for the unofficial Italian (and batshit crazy) sequel Patrick Vive Ancora AKA Patrick Still Lives (1980). I could go with his score for Simon Wincer’s debut feature film Snapshot, or as it was ridiculously titled in the U.S., The Day After Halloween, despite there being zero references to the celebration of All Hallow’s Eve. The theme contains a similar, though not nearly as memorable, use of piano, and near the climax, it goes all stabby violins like Bernard Hermann’s use of them in the shower scene of Psycho. So what is Thirst like in comparison then?

I find May’s score for Thirst incredibly varied and richly texture. I love how it references other films within the gothic horror genre, epecially Jerry Goldsmith’s sonic canvas he provided for the 1976 film The Omen. There’s even a fantastic take on Gregorian chants that accompanies the “Vampire Ceremony.” It’s that European flavor that makes this a standout score: thundering doom-laden pianos, penetrating brass, and plucking violins.

In 1989, 10 years after the film’s release, the score was finally made available commercially by film soundtrack specialists 1M1 on CD. Then in 2015, U.S. label Dragon’s Domain Records heralded another release, but this time with an ugly cover that made it look more like a Japanese black hair horror flick akin to The Grudge.

Thirst wasn’t Australia’s first depiction of vampires on screen. That would go to Donald’ Pleasance’s character Count Von Plasma in the irreverently ridiculous Barry McKenzie Holds His Own (1974).

Of all the of the Australian filmmakers, it was the British-born Brian Trenchard-Smith who was not only the most prolific but also the widest-ranging. Action, science-fiction, horror, martial arts, comedy — but Stunt Rock is in a category all unto itself. The only film I can think of that comes close is the stunt-filled extravaganza Action USA (1989). Merge that with This Is Spinal Tap and you might have an idea what to expect.

Legendary Aussie stuntman Grant Page plays a rare lead role as a — wait for it — stuntman who goes to Los Angeles to work on a project, but ends up helping his cousin create theatrically impressive ideas for his band, Sorcery. The end result is part documentary, part drama, part musical, and all chaos. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It’s beautifully executed, high-impact trash.

While The Man From Hong Kong (1974) had a single composer and his follow-up, Deathcheaters (1976), was mostly stitched together using library music from labels such as KMPO and Chappell, it was Trenchard-Smith’s third feature that went above and beyond in the music department. Somehow, Sorcery was discovered after performing their live show “The King of the Wizards against the Prince of Darkness” in Hollywood and asked to be in the film. As they hadn’t recorded anything previously, the film’s soundtrack would be their first release produced by soundtrack composer Jimmie Haskell. Their only other venture into cinema was for the middling horror Rocktober Blood, where they also appear onscreen as the Headmistress Band.

The first choice for the music was going to be Foreigner, with even Van Halen being a onetime choice. However, the theatrical aspect of Sorcery is what makes the film even more outrageous. The music would be described as proto-metal by some, but at its core, it’s just really powerful hard rock, with some prog and psych thrown in for good measure. The track “Stuntrocker” appears several times through the wobbly narrative with its chorus that contains the line “You’re a stuntrocker / because everyone looks at you.” And that really sums it up.

You cannot take your eyes off of Sorcery when they appear on the screen. Imagine the blue Lego wizard in real life throwing balls of fire onstage. Then imagine a musical accompaniment by a band of musicians who had day jobs working in Hollywood creating jingles for commercials. They certainly had a knack for rocking hooks — just check out their track “Sacrifice.” It’s incredibly impressive and a pummelling example of intensity and guitar histrionics.

The album was originally released in Australia through EMI but the Netherlands had a more lavish gatefold presentation. Why the Netherlands? One of the bankrolling executive producers was Dutch and was most likely either appeased or requested a star of the film be from the Netherlands: Monique van de Ven, who had just come off a starring role in a well-received Dutch historical mini-series. The only U.S. version was a six-track EP, but it’s a picture disc replicating the back cover of the other sleeves. An Italian double-vinyl edition appeared in 2000, with one slab being a picture disc. In 2009. U.S. label Code Red released a double-disc DVD, while a single disc appeared from Australia’s Madman.

Melbourne lad Russell Mulcahy made a fantastic career for himself directing slick videos for Duran Duran, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Queen, The Human League, etc. His first, however, was a live performance of AC/DC’s “Please Don’t Go’” in 1976, which is widely known as the video where Bon Scott dresses as a schoolgirl. Eight years later and over 100 music videos in the bag, he gets around to directing his debut feature film. And what a choice he made —  Razorback is of the most certified, classic, straight-up Ozploitation films around.

The plot: a feral pig is on the loose killing people in the Outback. As was par for the course, an American TV actor Gregory Harrison was put into the lead, though truth be told, that’s what nationality the character in the book was anyway. It was beautifully shot by acclaimed cinematographer Dean Semler and based on the novel by Peter Brennan. Add this to your list of weird shit: Brennan would go on to create the concept of the original A Current Affair for Fox Television in the U.S. and was the executive producer for the entire run of the reality courtroom series Judge Judy. Whacko. His other novel, the tennis thriller, Sudden Death, remains unfilmed.

Iva Davies was an inspired choice. He composed the majority of the score using the fairly new digital instrument the Fairlight CMI, which was was invented by Sydney lads Kim Ryrie and Peter Vogel and based on a concept by engineer Peter Furse. Peter Gabriel was the first musician to utilize the machine after Vogel approached him with the potential for this new invention. As it was the world’s first digital sampler, it ushered in a new musical revolution that forever changed the musical landscape. Davies and his band, Icehouse, were responsible for one of Australia’s greatest hits of not just 1982, but for all time, Great Southern Land. File it next to Gangajang’s “Sounds of Then (This is Australia)” and Men At Work’s “Down Under” as proxy national anthems. By chance, Icehouse’s management happened to be in the same building in Sydney’s Rushcutter’s Bay as the new location for where the Fairlight was being built. Davies recollects that in either 1981 or ’82 he obtained one at the then very hefty price of $32,000. The first project he used it for was Razorback.

Considering the film is mostly shot out in the desert location of Broken Hill and Silverton (where Mad Max 2 was predominately filmed), the soundtrack is sparse and sometimes piercing. It’s not always a comfortable listen as a standalone piece of music. Unsettling would probably be an apt description. Despite its occasional minimalism, it does come to a clanging cacophony when the onscreen action ramps up. A standout track is “The Visit,” which seems to take its cues from Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the original Planet of the Apes (1968).

There was a 7-inch single culled from the album used for the late Arkie Whitely’s character on “Sarah’s Theme.” It was promo-only and an odd choice, as it has zero commercial appeal being purely instrumental and relying on pretty much three repeated notes and some very downbeat and sad sounding minor chord progressions. The actual theme for the film was on the flip.

The only other movie that Davies scored was Peter Weir’s seafaring Master And Commander: Far Side of the World (2003). It would take another 33 years before another oversized Outback-dwelling feral pig made an appearance in a feature film: Chris Sun’s Boar (2017), with a soundtrack by Mark Smythe. Trivia bit here: Iva Davies’ Icehouse colleague, guitarist Robert Kretschmer, also scored a feature film, the dull Carmen Duncan thriller Run Chrissie Run (1984). He bizarrely enough changed careers and went on to become a wig maker in Hollywood for blockbuster Marvel and DC superhero films.

This is easily the most sophisticated film on the list and also another film that had a belated release. Peter Weir’s third film, following The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) and Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975), carries with another supernatural tone. The story concerns a lawyer, played by English actor Richard Chamberlain, who has to represent a group of indigenous men after they were in a bar fight that results in the death of another man. He forms a connection to his clients and starts receiving apocalyptic premonitions, with his main liason being the film legend that is David Gulpilil. Oddly enough, it was partially filmed in Adelaide, though set in Sydney. It’s still a strong feature that holds weight today, especially on the topic of indigenous perspectives and climate change.

This was one of Charles Wain’s few soundtracks and his discography is all kinds of oddness. For starters, that name. While researching online, I discovered that its a reference to the “circumpolar asterism of the northern sky.” Further information reveals that he was in fact Wayne Richard Myers and worked with wheelchair-bound Sydney born rocker Jeff St. John in the late ’60s with his band, Yama. He ventured into making advertising jingles under the name Groove Myers, some of which ended up on 7-inch singles and even flexi-discs that were handed out by companies such as Amoco and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The poppy soulful track for Amoco features American singer Sharon Redd, who would later have a massive disco career and released the albums on the illustrious label Prelude. Apparently, she was touring Australia for a production of the counter-culture musical Hair as this single came out in 1970. It’s an odd choice for Peter Weir’s film as it’s so far removed from the career he maintained in advertising.

The music in The Last Wave must be an early example of synthesizer scoring, which was going to become de rigueur in Australian cinema in the coming years. It’s very dark, moody, and relies predominately on layers of synth chords as there is virtually no percussion of any kind — kind of like those mediation CDs you put on late at night to fall asleep. That’s not to cheapen the quality of music, just in providing a comparison before you jump in for a listen. Occasionally, acoustic guitar sounds will appear, with most succumbing to a heavy use of delay, most evident in the almost spacey planet feel on “The Warning.” I’ve always found it strange that indigenous instruments were never used, even though there is one scene in the film where the sound of a didgeridoo makes an appearance when Nandjiwarra Amagula points a white stick at a group of men. Sadly, that’s not on the soundtrack itself.

The mostly kung-fu-genre-filled North American distributor, World Northal, released the film under the title Black Rain. As their films were mostly relegated to the grindhouse circuit such as New Yorks 42nd Street, it never had a chance to become more widely known, despite starring Chamberlain. Wain did score one other film, though this time he is credited as Groove X for the 1982 Tom Skerritt- and Wendy Hughes-starring A Dangerous Summer, which was filmed in the Blue Mountains and set during a bushfire season. Wayne Richard Myers retired to the mountains and passed away in Springwood in 2016

The Last Wave is finally getting a local Blu-Ray release in September 2020 via Umbrella films.

It was a rare moment when Australian genre cinema would utilize current technology into film plots. For this film, which owes more than a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, computer developer Ed (Gary Day, Homicide) is confined to a wheelchair with his main companion being the 1-500, a sensory computer that he helped create. This piece of tech alerts him to a possible murder in a nearby apartment and then the plot is put in motion as Ed, with the help of his hi-tech buddy, tries to catch the neighborly murderer. It’s handsomely photographed, but unfortunately, it suffered a cruel fate due its short cinema appearance. The terrible pan and scan version that C&E released on VHS in 1985 has been ported over to Umbrella’s recent 2020 unleashed DVD. The actual title sequence is in its original Panavision format (but squashed to fit full frame for the long-departed CRT friendly format) so you can see how deliciously composed the final film probably looked. Once again, an Australian film gets a shitty, couldn’t-care-less rerelease.

Chris Neal’s early career shows him working in the prog-rock scene. Check the back cover of his 1974 album Wings of Isis for an extensive list of musical equipment that he himself uses. The Moog comes first, a B3 Hammond organ, followed by a glockenspiel, nose flute, and sleigh bells. Neal started his soundtrack career assisting Tasmanian composer Peter Sculthorpe for the much-vaunted British film, Michael Powell’s Age of Consent (1969), set on the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland. Less famous because it was based on artist Norman Lindsay’s novel, but more so because it featured a young Helen Mirren. Unfortunately, the score was rejected and subsequently replaced by one from American Stanley Myers. The original score was reinserted when the film was restored in 2005. Neal worked mainly in television but was involved with several more Australian films, including Rebel (1985), Ground Zero (1987), and Celia (1989).

Equipment-wise, Neal used the 1977-introduced Roland MC8 music sequencer and the 1976 Roland System 700 synthesizer (there’s a fantastic video from Alex Ball on YouTube about the latter rare beast of a machine). Roland has a fairly large logo on the back of the original LP (as they do in the actual film credits), so it’s likely they provided the equipment, as the System 700 were fairly pricey at around $5000 AUD.  It’s all very minimalist, cold, spacey, melodic, pulsating, and sometimes a tad cheesy. The foreboding, drumless “The Sound of Murder,” which unnervingly sounds like a thousand cats dying in an underground tunnel, sits next to what sounds like a wobble board, harpsichord, and flute on “While She Is Alone.”

The soundtrack appears to be the final release by the short-lived label Grass Roots. Of the eight releases, Crosstalk sits awkwardly besides singles and albums by Judas Priest and Bill Haley. In, 2017 the Italian label Orbeatize, which specializes in weird electronic music, reissued this lesser-known work for many who were unaware of its existence. The main difference between the original and the reissue is the inclusion of a remix for “Terminal.” While the original was beatless, this updated version adds a sedate house tempo remix from Italian electronic artist Jolly Mare.

Intro written by Raine Cardinaels-Baird. Soundtrack descriptions by Jason Murphy. 

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Morgan Enos Producer Joe Harley and Engineer Kevin Gray Discuss Blue Note’s Tone Poet Audiophile Vinyl Series

Some of the greatest jazz of the 20th century was recorded in a Hackensack, New Jersey, living room by an optometrist who hated vinyl. Given vinyl is widely considered to be the ideal medium for jazz, that last detail is surprising.

“As far as I’m concerned, good riddance. I’m glad to see the LP go,” Rudy Van Gelder, that eye-doctor-turned-engineer, said in 1995 about CDs eclipsing vinyl. “The biggest distorter is the LP itself … It was a constant battle to make that music sound the way it should.”

Why did the most hallowed jazz producer of all time, one who recorded Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and scores of other geniuses for Blue Note Records, turn up his nose at vinyl? Because — as Analog Planet editor-in-chief Michael Fremer explains to Discogs — function hobbled form. “Rudy had to compromise,” he says. “In order to make the records play on cheap turntables, he would boost the bass at around 100 Hz and roll everything off below so [the needle] wouldn’t pop out of the groove.”

Despite Van Gelder’s genius methodology and cutting-edge gear, this is how many have lived with early Blue Notes for decades — in passable, but relatively airless form. Enter the label’s producer, Joe Harley, and mastering engineer Kevin Gray of Cohearent Audio, who have restored classic Blue Note releases for the Tone Poet Audiophile Vinyl Reissue Series since 2019. The latest — a pristine 12-inch remaster of tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine’s 1962 date That’s Where It’s At — arrived Friday, September 11.

Harley and Gray solve Van Gelder’s quandary by not sweating cheap equipment. Aurally, tactilely, and visually, these records are sharper than sharp. “Pick a title, any one of them, and I want the release we put out to be the end of the line,” Harley tells Discogs from his record-stuffed home in San Clemente, California. “I want it to be the best available for someone who worships that particular recording. They won’t have to think, ‘Well, this one will do until a better one comes along.’ I want them to know there will never be a better one. This is it. This is as good as it’s going to get because there’s no way to do it better.”

“You can look at it as a three-legged stool,” he adds. “One is using the original master tapes. The other part is the pressing. The presentation — the packaging — is the third part of it.”

The roots of the Tone Poet Audiophile Vinyl Reissue Series lie in the Music Matters Jazz series, which Harley and his colleague, Ron Rambach, launched in 2007 and brought to a close in 2020. Just as Tone Poet does today, Music Matters remastered and packaged vintage Blue Note titles with old-fashioned tip-on sleeves produced by Stoughton Printing Co. in Los Angeles.

“They were doing it the right way,” Fremer, a dear friend of Harley’s for decades, raves about Music Matters. “They were getting the tapes, they were getting good lacquers cut, getting it plated properly, getting it pressed at Record Technology Inc. and doing these tip-on jackets.”

Music Matters quickly found a fan in Don Was, the president of Blue Note Records. “He’d been going on about how great these Blue Notes were,” Harley says. “He would bring home these ones we were doing for Music Matters and say, ‘I’d get depressed because you guys would just kill the ones I was doing! I couldn’t figure it out! Why do these sound so much better?’ He was very open about it.”

During a session for Charles Lloyd & The Marvels with Lucinda Williams’ 2018 album Vanished Gardens, Was asked Harley if he’d work his Music Matters magic for Blue Note. “I said, ‘Yeah. It’s a different way of doing it. It’s more expensive. The packaging is more expensive. The pressings are more expensive,’” Harley says. Was didn’t flinch at the price: “Don kept saying, ‘Yes. Absolutely. That’s what I want to do. Just that.’”

When Harley and Gray comb through old Van Gelder sessions, they find strengths and weaknesses depending on the date and recording location. For one, the Hackensack and Englewood Cliffs studios were completely different. While the house at 25 Prospect Avenue, which was bulldozed in the late 1980s, had low ceilings and bone-dry acoustics (often circumvented by spring reverb), the cathedral-like studio at 445 Sylvan Avenue — which remains functional — has an ocean of natural ambiance.

As Harley points out, there was no isolation — which goes doubly in the Hackensack living room. “Isolation wouldn’t have occurred to anybody at that time because multi-tracking didn’t exist,” he explains. And because Van Gelder mixed on the fly, mixing in post-production is impossible. And audio aside, the nature of vintage tape presents certain issues.

“The tape of the day was very limited in terms of what kind of dynamic range you could get on it,” Gray explains. “The clip level was more than 10 dBs lower than modern tapes. That was a limitation in terms of keeping everything above the hiss level and below the distortion level.”

During the EQ process, Harley and Gray retrieved the bass frequencies Van Gelder scooped out. “We worked very hard at doing that without making it sound exaggerated,” Gray says. “You can only put so much back in when there isn’t a lot there. Picking the frequencies takes a lot of time and effort, but it’s well worth it.” Since Blue Note often recorded the mightiest double-bassists of all time, like Paul Chambers, Bob Cranshaw, and Cecil McBee, restoring their performances is a boon to the music.

Van Gelder also liberally applied compression — which may be important to make a track pop out on the airwaves, but for Harley and Gray’s purposes, begs to be stripped away. They know this might draw the ire of Blue Note diehards. “People tell Joe [affects accusatory tone] ‘Your releases sound too good!’” Fremer says with a laugh. The original Blue Notes have their own character and some people think that’s what they’re supposed to be. That’s the constant battle that Joe has.”

“Compression has very little to do with classic jazz,” Harley contends. “There would be no advantage and a lot of disadvantage to using that. We let the tapes breathe, meaning that the natural dynamics that were there on the tape are what you have on these LPs.”

Sometimes, digital recordings lack breathing room as much as their analog counterparts. On August 28, Tone Poet re-released tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson’s 1985 album The State of the Tenor, Vol. 1, which engineers David Baker and Jim Anderson recorded at New York’s Village Vanguard club with a Mitsubishi X-80 console. “What came off the digital was kind of dull-sounding. There wasn’t a lot of life in it,” Harley admits. “That required some work to bring the air frequencies back into play.”

But when Harley, in his words, “applied makeup,” The State of the Tenor was reborn. “I’ve got the original releases [of Vols. 1 and 2] that are flat transfers. Comparing them with what we did, it’s like the thing came to life again,” he marvels. “It got bigger, it got more dynamic and it’s like you’re at the Vanguard.”

Tone Poet’s next offerings will be pianist Horace Silver’s 1958 album Further Explorations, organist Jimmy Smith’s 1963 album Prayer Meetin’, and pianist Herbie Hancock’s 1963 album My Point of View, all due September 25. Selections by drummer Art Blakey, pianist Duke Pearson, tenor saxophonist Tina Brooks, and other luminaries will follow. Could they ensnare younger fans, even if they may not have encyclopedic jazz knowledge or own thousand-dollar turntables?

“Yeah, one hopes so. It’s not just hope; I’ve seen it,” Harley says. “I find, being 68, that sometimes we have an unfortunate tendency to feel like all these fans are just like us. I’m realizing there’s a neverending new group of people that value this and love it. Who knows? Is it going to be a Chet Baker album that flips the switch and turns that person on? Is it going to be a Horace Silver record? I’ve seen this phenomenon.”

That phenomenon is what happens when music unthaws. When it transcends the limitations of the chilly-sounding CD or information-sapped MP3 and becomes a dynamic force that leaps from your turntable, Blue Note jazz can have a transformative effect on the listener.

“Now I get why everyone’s so excited about this guy named Rudy!” Harley says with a laugh, imitating a wide-eyed Blue Note convert. “I’ve seen it over and over again. They get hooked.”

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