Putting together the synth soundsets for my Retro Synth Summer meant listening to a lot of source material, some of which were classic synth scores from the 70s and 80s.
So, I thought it would be fun to put together a Top 10 of them. You may disagree with my choices or applaud them, either way I’d love to hear what would be in your Top 10s!
10. Flash Gordon | Queen
The absolute pinnacle of space campery. Prior to producing the soundtrack to Flash Gordon, Queen had been fairly negative about synthesizers. But they more than make up for their silly mistake with a high energy, raucous festival of electronic noises, ably supported by their customary guitars and vocal harmonies.
In fact, in amongst all the pomp, there are actually some very sweet moments: the lush analogue strings of the Love Theme and the sweeping real strings of The Kiss.
Tonally, what Queen came up with, is the perfect accompaniment to what is a pretty silly, if not unenjoyable, film. After all, it does have Brian Blessed, David Warner and Timothy Dalton in it!
Favourite track: Space Capsule (Love Theme)
9. Suspiria | Goblin
Italian prog synth legends, Goblin, had a long and successful collaboration with Dario Argento and this soundtrack is, for me, the height of that collaboration. It also comes from the period at which Argento was at the top of his game. Towards the late 80s, his films got weirder and sloppier and lost some of the visceral energy that had propelled the craziness of his early work.
This is another bombastic synth score, with a lot of hi-octane, atonal, driving sequences that reflect the terror and confusion of Suspiria. Although, interestingly, the score was actually written before the film had been shot.
The synth sounds are fairly simple, this is after all the late 1970s, when the more wayward Radiophonic style sounds had gone out of fashion, but are put together to great frenetic effect.
Much of the score is pretty full-on and not an easy listen, but the haunting theme from Suspiria (almost sounding like an evil version of Home Alone!) sticks with you for a very long time indeed.
Favourite track: Suspiria Theme
8. The Fog | John Carpenter
There are few people who write, direct and score their own films. Only one of them has done it truly successfully: John Carpenter.
It might be heresy in some circles to say it, but I think The Fog is probably my favourite Carpenter film. It has a great to soundtrack to match, with its legendary arpeggiated theme played with piano and then repeated with synth.
It’s often the rhythmic elements of Carpenter’s music that fascinates me. Often his music is steadfast in its constancy; repetitive, ceaseless sequences play out, conjuring a hideous inevitable fate for the film’s characters. Then, at other times, he seems quite happy for things to go slowly out of time, reflecting a loss of control, or even to focus on the non-rhythmic elements.
The Fog is full of sizzling, electronic atmosphere, with a reflective, haunting upright piano administering a number of the key themes. It’s perhaps one of Carpenter’s most subdued scores. Much of it is subtle, tucked into the background, until the film’s finale ramps up as the fog enters the town and wreaks its havoc.
Favourite track: The Fog Moves Inland
7. Chariots of Fire | Vangelis
The decision to choose a predominantly synth-driven score to a film set in the 1920s was a bold one. But in hindsight, few can criticise it now. The theme to Chariots of Fire is perhaps one of the most famous movie films of the 1980s – it certainly appeared in many of those “Great Film Themes for the Piano” books that used to exist!
It is certainly a film score dripping with evocative emotion. There’s something tremendously wistful about it, that gives the impression that Vangelis’ score, rather than following the action and drama, is more paying homage to the characters, the time and the ambition of what seems like a golden era of sportsmanship and endeavour.
Another thing to enjoy about the score is the boldness with which it uses its themes. There’s a definite leitmotif element to the music. Abraham’s Theme is particularly beautiful; sparse and lush in equal measures. And there’s the rather lovely guest appearance by Vangelis’ Hymne.
Favourite track: Abraham’s Theme
6. The Neverending Story | Klaus Doldinger & Giorgio Moroder
Let’s temporarily forget about Limahl shall we? Even if I do still love that movie theme…
There are moments in The Neverending Story soundtrack that do wander very close to those late 70s, European orchestral disco things. You know the sort of thing. Terrible. I came quite close to not allowing myself to include this one because of all the disco strings that fly over the top of it in places. But then, there are moments that are utterly sublime, truly beautiful, and fortunately often the more synthy elements.
One in particular is the cue The Ivory Tower. This track also has extra meaning to me as, in the mid 1980s, the BBC used it on their formula one coverage when they were running through the grid order before a race.
Oh, and there’s also Limahl. It IS a cracking film theme song after all.
Hey, I thought we weren’t mentioning him?
Favourite track: The Ivory Tower
5. Fletch | Harold Faltermeyer
Fletch? Not Beverly Hills Cop? Well… yes.
As iconic as Axel F is, I much prefer Faltermeyer’s Fletch soundtrack. I really do.
What I love about it best is the syncopation and playfulness of the themes. The percussive tracks and basslines dance around each other, carefully avoiding any clash, as absurdly catchy melodies play over the top. This soundtrack has groove; tons of it.
It lives in a very lovely bubble where analogue was beginning to go out of fashion and digital was really coming in: you can hear his Jupiter 8 and JX-8P doing battle with a DX7 and Synclavier.
And it’s fun. Most of these soundtracks in my Top Ten are either serious or lush and romantic. Fletch is bristling with humour and playful energy.
Favourite track: Digging In
4. Educating Rita | David Hentschel
I suspect this might be the most surprising entry in my Top Ten, not least because it’s so high up. It might also be the least well known.
Educating Rita is the tale of a working class woman trying to better herself by attending university. A very British tale of class, character and self-determination. It’s certainly of its time, as is the score. But it’s rather a warm and sweet gem.
It may be a little twee, saccharine and, certainly in places, is somewhat repetitive in its use of the main theme. However, it’s such a gloriously moving main theme that its pretty forgiveable. In particular, the reprise of the theme in the final scene at the airport – if it doesn’t break your heart, you’re already dead.
Favourite track: Main Theme
3. Assault on Precinct 13 | John Carpenter
He’s back. Another Carpenter score.
What I love so much about this one is that its incredibly brutal, visceral and simplistic. The synth tones are aggressive, almost uncultured. They mirror the subject matter beautifully. Nothing clever clever or overtly complicated; just repetitive, dark and menacing.
Funnily enough, I was actually originally introduced to this score by it being sampled in the late 1980s by a band called Bomb the Bass. I was massively into the emerging dance music scene, having learned about Chicago and New York house via remixes of Pet Shop Boys tracks. So, being a huge fan of the track Beat Dis, where Bomb the Bass sampled the main theme, I sourced it back to Carpenter’s original.
My love of early synth scores took a while to grow, even though I was exposed to a lot of synth pop music in the early 80s by my brother. But I could see the influences on the dance music I loved; the beautiful synth sounds, the importance of hooks and riffs, the groove and rhythm, the repetition of effective chord sequences. It was all there. Just rawer and at a different pace.
And Assault on Precinct 13 is one of the finest examples of this stripped-down style of scoring, of which Carpenter was the absolute master.
Favourite track: Main Title
2. Legend | Tangerine Dream
Oh, there are so many excellent Tangerine Dream scores, a number of which very nearly made it into this Top Ten (including Risky Business and Sorceror). But, for me, one stands out.
Perhaps there’s something about casting the synth score against type, much like Chariots of Fire, that appeals to me. Fantasy films are traditionally orchestrated, with a few ethnic instruments thrown in for good measure. Legend was full blown synths. Or at least, the Tangerine Dream version was. There is, of course, a fully orchestrated soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith that was mainly used in European theatrical releases – ironically enough.
And it’s shit.
Haha. That may be a controversial statement, an it is almost certainly fuelled in part by my love for the Tangerine Dream version, but I really do think it’s a clunky nightmare of a score – sitting on top of the film, separate from it, rather than supporting it.
The Tangerine Dream score is full of appropriately beautiful and energetic music that fits much better with the mood of Ridley Scott’s film. Alongside the truly synthy sounds, there are some nice physically modelled sounds, partly provided by the Fairlight, that give that fantasy edge to the electronic elements.
The best argument for being pro the Tangerine Dream version is that without it we would not have the bliss of the Unicorn Theme; a truly sublime piece of mid 80s synth romanticism. And it is ably assisted by Jon Anderson’s vocal version, Loved by the Sun.
Favourite track: Unicorn Theme
1. Blade Runner | Vangelis
Well, it had to be, didn’t it? I mean, it’s an absolute masterpiece.
After all, Yamaha CS80s wouldn’t be worth arounf £20k if it wasn’t for this film. I know that they were expensive to buy in the first place but, a lot of people want THAT brass pad sound.
And as iconic as that sound is, there’s a great deal more to the Blade Runner soundtrack. After all, alongside all those synths are a number of ethnic instruments and vocals that often get forgotten. But it is the synths that the score is remembered for.
They are huge, triumphant, lush, delicate and mournful in turn. The fat, sweeping pads; the glittering bells and plucks; the deep, resonant drum thumps. They all come together to provide elegant, epic colours to Ridley Scott’s (him again?) vast, dirty, neon-lit and rainy cityscapes.
And again, with it being Vangelis, there are a myriad of memorable themes, from the scene-setting Main Titles (and THAT sound), through to the clattering, driven, escapism of the End Titles and one of the most famous synth basslines of all time.
Favourite track: Rachel’s Song