Monday, 16 March 2015

Ennio Morricone, The Yardbirds and Brad Paisley - how Spaghetti Western Music conquered the world

In a way, it all started in 1961, with Italian composer Ennio Morricone's arrangement for this version of a Woody Guthrie song by American folk-singer Peter Tevis (which I heard for the first time this morning):

Film director Sergio Leone heard it, and asked Morricone to adapt it for his first Spaghetti Western:

I sat open-mouthed in the Wimbledon Odeon as I watched that title sequence for the first time. It obviously had the same seismic effect on The Yardbirds, who proceeded to cut three records incorporating elements of the Morricone's style - "Heart Full of Soul", Evil-Hearted You" and the mournful, "Still I'm Sad". The last one, in particular, was  a startlingly odd record for late 1965 :

Obviously,  twangtastic pop records that sounded like Western themes didn't start with Morricone - in the UK, for instance, The Shadows kicked off the trend ("Apache" and the  the glorious "Wonderful Land") and John Barry ("Iron Horse" and Zapata") and a host of others followed. In The US, surf music and country and instrumental groups like The Ramrods ("Ghost-Riders in the Sky") were all riding the range long before A Fistful of Dollars hit US screens. Morricone must evidently have been aware of all that Western-influenced musical activity - but he just took the elements he wanted (the "riding" beat, a Fender Stratocaster tone, the minor key moodiness) and mixed in church bells, Jew's harp, ethereal female and gruff manly choirs (mainly wordless), whistling - and whatever else added to the general atmosphere of incipient violence. Morricone didn't in any way invent a new musical genre - rather, he extended, reimagined and refreshed an existing traditionmuch as Leone did for the Western film genre: a cretaive marriage made in heaven. (Yes, I'm perfectly aware that many film fans view Spaghetti Westerns as a form of sacrilege - I'm just not one of them.)

I'll pick out two other Sxities records which strike me as particularly Morriconesque. First, this instrumental from Mason Williams, a #2 hit the year following the US release of A Fistful of Dollars:

What a brilliant Western theme that would have made - as would the haunting 1969 Peter Green composition, Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well Pt. 2" (the start of the Western-style acoustic theme was tagged onto the hit A-side, "Oh Well Pt.1" - the rest of it occupied the whole of the B-side).

Instrumental country music mostly carries the Morricone torch these days - just listen to top picker Brad Paisley's "Eastwood" from 2011 (and no prizes for guessing who the voice at the start belongs to - apparently the Great Man was also responsible for the whistling):

I'll leave you with my favourite Morricone Western theme, For a Few Dollars More, which manages to be simultaneously haunting, exciting - and witty, and all with a twangy guitar at the very heart of it :

And it all started with a bloke called Peter Tevis, who was never exactly a household name, but who continued his association with Morricone by singing on soundtracks for several Spaghetti Westerns. Which is nice.

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