“It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.”
This is Spinal Tap’s David St. Hubbins proclaims this bon mot with such deadpan seriousness that its utterly hilarious. But it’s so funny because it’s so true and because someone who thinks he’s so clever mouths the truism. The idea of taking one of music’s lowest forms – disco-ized movie-theme covers, itself a bi-product of one of music’s least loved genres, disco – could be either very stupid or very clever.
Universal’s thoroughly fascinating Jazz Club series makes it very clever indeed.
Movie Themes Go Disco! is a great idea that is complemented by what turns out to be a great set of songs. None of the themes presented here were conceived as disco hits. So you won’t find anything from the era’s huge disco soundtracks such as Saturday Night Fever or Thank God It’s Friday, both of which reside in Universal’s capacious catalog. Nor will you hear any of the “disco” themes film composers such as John Barry, Bill Conti, Lalo Schifrin or Giorgio Moroder recorded for any of the Universal-owned labels in the day.
What’s on tap here is the highly rhythmic and artistically imaginative disco-fied covers of film themes that, for the most part, started life in very un-rhythmic, mostly acoustic and highly orchestrated settings. The set starts, of course, with the best known disco-movie theme cover of all, Meco’s 1977 hit “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band.” Meco’s Moog-y cover sets the standard for the program, as many of the disc’s thirteen tracks represent the era’s many blockbuster sci-fi movies and a full five of those are all by Meco (Menardo) himself, including the ultra-rare “The Empire Strikes Back: The Imperial March/Yoda’s Theme,” which was only released on an ultra-rare promotional 10-inch record (while the set also includes Meco’s decent cover of Jerry Goldsmith’s “Love Theme From Star Trek,” but it’s a shame that Universal could not obtain rights to include Bob James’ sensational 45-only cover of the excellent 1979 film theme).
The set contains a few notable rarities, most especially, the highly collectable 1974 European 45-rpm recording of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by the Galactic Light Orchestra (a pun on the rock group named the Electric Light Orchestra, or ELO), one of the many nom-de-plumes of German bandleader Peter Herbholzheimer, who, sadly, passed away on March 27, 2010. While Universal couldn’t obtain the rights to Deodato’s 1973 hit recording of the tune, the GLO cover of the Richard Strauss theme to the 1968 Stanley Kubirck film, 2001 is equally inspired and boasts the unbelievably stellar support of such international jazz superstars as Palle Mikkelborg, Ack van Rooyen, Art Farmer, Ake Persson, Jiggs Whigham, Herb Geller, Ingfried Hoffmann, Dieter Reith, Philip Catherine, Kenny Clare and Sabu!
Lalo Schifrin’s beautifully funky and hypnotic take on Ravel’s “Bolero,” from 1975, has also never seen the light of day on CD before. The song, which became a hit under Henry Mancini’s tutelage from its use in the 1979 Blake Edwards film 10, was one I had hoped to include on the 2004 Lalo Schifrin compilation Most Wanted. But one of my co-producers declined the inclusion in favor of the 45’s b-side, “Doña Donna.” Both pieces, however, will appeal to anyone who loves what Lalo Schifrin was doing around the time of his 1976 CTI album Black Widow.
Additional highlights include the Love Unlimited Orchestra’s cover of John Barry’s “Theme From King Kong” (also covered beautifully by Lalo Schifrin on his other 1976 CTI album Towering Toccata), a spellbinding but ultimately too-long 12-inch from 1976 that was, like the 1979 cover of John Williams “Theme From Superman” also included on this disc, featured on the obscure 1979 album Super Movie Themes – Just A Little Bit Different; the superb 16-minute suite of themes film composer and disco svengali Giorgio Moroder performed from Stu Philips’ Battlestar Galactica (also not previously on CD), a late 70s TV series that took a few episodes to make a remarkably successful feature film in Europe and Canada; and studio group Rhythm Heritage’s cover of Dave Grusin’s excellent “Three Days of the Condor,” featuring guitarist Lee Ritenour, who performed on the original film soundtrack as well as recording a number of covers of the tune himself.
Unfortunately, Universal was unable to acquire rights to include anything from the 1982 MCA album Themes From E.T. And More, with themes from the 1982 Steven Spielberg film, Jaws, Poltergiest, Raiders of The Lost Ark and others, by Walter Murphy, the guy who made “A Fifth of Beethoven” huge in 1976 and is now known for wonderfully scoring many episodes of Family Guy.
As is, though, it’s a pretty wonderful set; full of wonderful music that’s probably been at the margins of most record collections (or the dustiest of bins in the too few remaining used-record shops in the world) and some that should be re-considered as absolutely essential disco listening. Movie Themes Go Disco! is a must.
Perfectly appropriate cover art too!