John Carpenter wrote one of the most iconic movie themes of all time in a rush, out of necessity, and basically by noodling on a keyboard.
The mother of invention forced his hand—Carpenter’s shoestring budget for Halloween, $300,000, meant that he was the only composer he could afford—and the best tool at hand for a director with no formal musical training and no money in 1978 was a synthesizer. So he popped into a synth studio operated by a fellow USC alum and quickly whipped together a lean, economical score that would give the film some of the tension and propulsion and electric jolts that were missing on the screen.
The result was one of the most spine-tingling yet downright danceable film scores ever produced. Carpenter played a handful of simple ideas on a grand piano and synth keyboard, conjuring them up in the moment while smarter techs made the actual machines work. “The stuff you hear on my early albums is all me playing,” Carpenter says, “and, boy, it has to be simple if I’m doing it.”
“John had a particular skill set that was unconscious,” says Dan Wyman, the synth programmer and orchestrator who helped Carpenter achieve the Halloween score. The director knew enough about music theory to take his haunting hook around a sequential series of harmonic keys known as the “circle of fifths,” which meant he could rotate the obsessive riff almost endlessly. “That’s what really allowed Halloween to work,” says Wyman. “To him, it was noodling—but it was really intelligent noodling.”
Carpenter’s the first person to play down his musical acuity: “I don’t have great chops, on anything,” he says. Nor does he claim any understanding of the analog contraptions he used to create his famous scores. “Oh, hell no. I just played the keyboard. I would say, ‘Let me have a bass sound, Dan,’ and he would do it. ‘Let me have a violin.’ Until recently, I’ve really never been conversant with the machinery at all.”
“He’s very humble about it,” says Alan Howarth, Carpenter’s other synth guru and cocomposer for many years. When a record label approached Howarth about producing a soundtrack album for Escape From New York, Carpenter’s response was: “Really? Somebody would want to listen to that stuff?”
Yes—they would, as evidenced by yet another new greatest hits album, Anthology II. Carpenter is the only filmmaker in history who is as beloved for his musical creations as he is for his movies. The hypnotic minimalism and tension he cooked up with delectable synth waves gave films like Assault on Precinct 13, Escape From New York, Big Trouble in Little China, and Prince of Darkness a sonic identity and electric drive that lingered in our psyches and even transcended the images to become almost a mini-genre. He may not have meant to do it, but the Master of Horror made himself a master movie musician.
He came by it honestly. His father, Dr. Howard Carpenter, was a violinist who ran the music department at Western Kentucky University. Dr. Carpenter composed a symphony, performed in a string quartet, directed the university orchestra, and accompanied plays—including a spooky production in 1966 called The Bat’s Revenge—as a member of the Nashville Strings, he even played on albums with Roy Orbison and Brenda Lee.
“In the beginning, it was kind of: Eh, there’s my dad again,” says Carpenter, who explains that he appreciated his father’s “unbelievable” ability as he got older. “But when you grow up with it, you just take it for granted. And I took my dad for granted, unfortunately.”
Dr. Carpenter also played the organ in a Methodist church in Bowling Green, and “he made me sing in the choir,” says Carpenter. “I wasn’t very happy doing it. Wednesday night choir practice. Sunday morning services. Had to wear a choir robe and all that crap. Oh my God.” The old man was simply in love with music, John says. “Deeply, deeply in love.” The house was constantly filled with classical, and Dr. Carpenter tried to push the violin onto his son. They played a violin duet together in 1956, when John was 8, with his mother accompanying them on piano.
“That was the mistake,” says Carpenter. “He shouldn’t have tried to force me to play violin, because I had no talent. But oh, I love classical music.”
Carpenter was born again in the mid-’60s when he heard the Beatles, then and forever his favorite band, and like a million other boys his age, he grew out his hair and picked up a guitar. “I loved the British bands a lot,” he says, “and loved Procol Harum. I loved the Doors. I loved that whole wave of music. ... But the Beatles just blew me away. That was it. Never the same.”
One of his primary school classmates in Bowling Green was Tommy Lee Wallace, future film collaborator, director of Halloween III: Season of the Witch, and trombone player. They became good friends during the British Invasion and started singing together, Everly Brothers style. “I’m pretty sure John himself would tell you he was a bit of a loner, very pale and willowy, bursting with talent but, as a youngster, keeping it mostly to himself,” says Wallace. “In his early days, he wrote a story inspired, I believe, by Ray Bradbury, entitled Johnny, You’re a Strange Sweet Boy. He was certainly kinda strange, and kinda sweet.”
Carpenter found his mojo in his teens and found popularity through school productions and getting elected class president, and he “made lots of friends with his guitar,” says Wallace. “I found John a creative dynamo. On his own, away from school, he was making 8-mm movies with his dad’s camera, writing stories, drawing superhero comics, publishing a monster-movie fanzine—and, most exciting to me, writing catchy pop tunes we could sing together.”
They formed a trio with Carpenter’s girlfriend and, like Peter, Paul, and Mary, would gig around Bowling Green playing folk music and Carpenter’s original songs. When Wallace formed a rock cover band, Carpenter sang harmony and played bass guitar. They wore hippie clothes and used strobe and black lights, and their band, which was called Kaleidoscope, brought “psychedelic music to southern Kentucky,” says Wallace. Even then, Carpenter was thinking visually: He projected a Charlie Chaplin movie on the kick drum during their debut performance.
“We played ‘Soul Man,’ we played ‘[In the] Midnight Hour,’ we played a lot of R & B,” says Carpenter. “But then occasionally we did ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale,’ the whole thing. We actually weren’t bad for a cheesy little band.” Kaleidoscope made good money playing school dances and sorority parties around town. “They loved to dance for us,” Carpenter says. “We were popular. I learned all about how to do the alligator playing in the band, watching the Delta Tau Deltas. Boy, they threw parties. Wow! Lord God. Picked up a couple girls here and there.”
Carpenter’s father was part of a big band, Gemini 15, at Western, and in 1968 Carpenter joined them on a tour of army bases in Germany. Larnelle Harris, who went on to become a successful gospel singer, was the only other male bandmate, and he and Carpenter would sing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” together. “I would get up, and I’d get booed by the soldiers because I had long hair,” says Carpenter. “But after we sang, they went nuts for us. I had the low voice, and Larnelle had the high voice.” That tour taught Carpenter to sing from his diaphragm with a deep voice like Jim Morrison’s. “John’s father once observed that Morrison was the only pop singer of the current crop who really used his natural baritone voice effectively,” says Wallace.
The lanky longhair was never a great student, and he was aimless in college at Western Kentucky. More than anything, Carpenter loved movies—Hitchcock, horror, Westerns, science fiction—and he persuaded his parents to let him transfer to film school at USC. Tuition was nothing then—$1,000 a semester—and when he got to L.A., he hit it off with his classmate Nick Castle, a would-be rock star who had the chops to pursue a career in music. At one point, “I said, ‘John, I’m really conflicted,’” Castle remembers. “‘Where do you think I should lean?’ And he said, ‘Well, I saw your films, and I know your music. I’d stay with music.’ Which,” Castle laughs, “I thought was a backhanded stab.”
When Wallace transferred to USC a few years later, the three film junkies formed a rock trio, the Coupe de Villes—mostly making send-ups of Elvis and the Bee Gees. “A personal quirk of ours,” says Wallace, “done for fun, and never taken very seriously.”
Carpenter always paid close attention to the scores in the films he loved watching as a kid. “I fell in love with Bernard Herrmann scores, Dimitri Tiomkin scores,” he says.
“Most people just watch the movie,” says Wallace, “absorb the experience, and move on. I have no doubt that John broke down the elements in his mind and charted what effect each element was having on the audience.” At USC, Carpenter offered to score films his fellow students were making, which usually meant something simple on guitar and/or piano—just the right palette for The Resurrection of Broncho Billy, a short that Carpenter cowrote about a modern loner who fantasizes about being a cowboy in the Old West. He created a score with acoustic guitar and whistling, which he and Castle did in harmony. The film, directed by their peer James R. Rokos, won an Academy Award in 1971.
Castle’s father had a studio in his Bel Air home, where they recorded the score and performed an original title song by Carpenter. Only later did he realize it sounded like the theme from a ’50s Western series, The Rebel. “Johnny Yuma was a rebel ...” Carpenter sings from memory. “It was very similar to that. I just kind of ripped it off, unknowingly.”
Carpenter was always wild about Westerns—in his 20s, he wrote a screenplay for John Wayne, and he almost directed another original story, El Diablo, after the success of Halloween. (“I chickened out,” he says. Both scripts ended up as TV movies in the early ’90s, not directed by Carpenter.) His first major feature, Assault on Precinct 13, was a deliberate homage to Westerns but reimagined for modern L.A. gangs, and for all their futurism and science fictionalism, later films like Escape From New York, They Live, and Vampires were blatant nods to the genre. He found his own John Wayne in the cocksure Kurt Russell.
Maybe there’s an alternate cinematic universe where Carpenter composed acoustic Western scores in the classic vein of Tiomkin or Elmer Bernstein. “Boy, I would love to have done something like that,” he says. “But that was way beyond my capability.” Instead, the universe destined Carpenter for the synthesizer. It was “the simplest way to convey the sounds he heard in his head,” says Wallace. When he was making Dark Star, a space movie that started as a student film, Carpenter got his hands on a Minimoog—a more portable, playable version of the giant Moog analog synth—but he needed technical assistance. A friend referred him to Dan Wyman, who was then teaching a class in electronic music at USC.
“He had it on his apartment floor,” says Wyman. “They were trying to figure out how to make it squeak.” Wyman laughed as Carpenter explained how they worked the film’s low-rent beach ball alien, and he gave the director instructions about working this far more advanced musical machine. “The logic of the flow of the Minimoog was brilliant,” says Wyman, “and something that John, who is an intelligent human, could make some sense out of. And they did.”
By the time Carpenter made Precinct 13, Wyman had taken over Sound Arts—the onetime studio of Paul Beaver, an electronic music pioneer and the premier Moog wizard of the West Coast. Wyman had contributed synths to commercials, records by Barbra Streisand and Sparks, and several film scores, including a rejected all-electronic score for Apocalypse Now by David Shire. Precinct 13 was a rush job, but it resulted in a killer theme—a fat bass synth over a ticking rhythm groove. “One of my favorite scores,” says score lord Hans Zimmer, “and what a hook!”
Sound Arts was a wonderland of synthesizers and organs, and Wyman also proudly acquired “a beautiful baby grand, a Steinway B.” Carpenter was sitting at that piano when he started noodling his brilliantly basic riff for Halloween. The limitations on his time, budget, and musical know-how all compressed to form this dread-filled diamond. Carpenter could play it fast and syncopated, eerily sliding down and down into other keys, or slow and creepy. He asked Wyman to create a constant ticking sound—which Wyman achieved with a Moog sequencer—as well as “a good, sick bass.”
In the course of about three days, Carpenter hashed out the entire score. He didn’t even have the picture running—other than inside his head—and they simply measured the length needed for the cues with a stopwatch. (Wyman jokingly called it “making yard goods, like cloth.”) But the musical product pumped serious blood into Carpenter’s movie, right from its glowing jack-o’-lantern title sequence—heart-pounding tension, creepy vibes, and a horror hook that gave John Williams’s two-note Jaws motif a run for its money. The theme itself became an icon, not just associated with the film and its many sequels, but an all-time part of the Hollywood canon and a banger you could crank up in October or really any time of year. When cellphones came along, star Jamie Lee Curtis made the theme her ringtone. Kobe Bryant would use it to psych himself up before games.
It was also, with the possible exception of Goblin’s music for Suspiria, the first scary score you could dance to. Carpenter doesn’t know why his spooky score slid toward such a sick beat. His process is unthinking and intuitive. He can’t seem to articulate his process or the results, other than to say: “There’s a whole lot of rock ’n’ roll behind what I do, and just a lot of riffs, and a lot of Rolling Stones and the Beatles, all that stuff. I steal from all those guys.” But your scores sound nothing like those bands, I tell him. “No, no, no—I can’t,” he says. “I wish I could.” I asked his son, Cody, why Carpenter’s scary film scores turned out as bops. “My dad has a great love of pop music,” Cody offers. “He loves Abba, which is very much dance music. Maybe that love just comes out naturally.”
Still, Carpenter never stopped scratching the rock itch. The Coupe de Villes played—wearing masks—at the wrap party for Halloween. Castle, who played the iconic mask-wearing entity known as “The Shape” in that horror classic, remembers Carpenter taking it very seriously, saying: “Guys, we’ve got to come over here and practice. We’re not just going to go there and make a fool out of ourselves. Let’s actually get this down.”
The band recorded a “vanity album” called Waiting Out the Eighties, never commercially released but blessedly available on YouTube, and a deeply ’80s music video for an original song for Big Trouble in Little China.
“I mean, some of it’s OK,” Carpenter says. “Some of it’s shit.” The Coupe de Villes are “much more legend than reality.”
There’s a much more obvious rock vibe in some of the scores that followed Halloween, matching the blue-collar wise guy energy of Kurt Russell’s characters—Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China—although Carpenter continued to stick with his machines. He would layer on real guitars, but as sampling technology improved, he often preferred a sampled guitar, saxophone, or drum machine to the real thing. And there remained a dance floor groove in so many of his scores, regardless of the subject matter.
After he scored The Fog, Carpenter met Alan Howarth—an audio gearhead who once ran a music store in Cleveland and got his start in Hollywood designing sounds for the first Star Trek films. Howarth was originally brought on to Escape From New York to do the same thing, but when Carpenter visited his house in Glendale, the director gaped at a dining room that had been converted into a synth lover’s paradise—including ARP guitar synths, a sequencer, and a Prophet-5. “We sat for a couple hours, and I played him some music,” says Howarth. “He saw my gear, and he saw I knew what I was doing with the gear, and John looks at me and he goes, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”
Howarth became Carpenter’s musical “butler,” and for the next decade Carpenter would compose every film project in Howarth’s dining room studio (christened “Electric Melody”). It was Carpenter’s favorite part of the filmmaking process—he said it felt like being on vacation “because he could stop with all the politics, and the money, and the personalities,” says Howarth, “and just kind of kick back and get a cup of coffee, light up a cigarette, and make music. And that was fun. That was relaxing.” Like he’d done with Wyman, Carpenter would ask Howarth for “something like strings,” “something like brass.” For Escape From New York, he specifically wanted sounds like Tangerine Dream, whose score for Sorcerer, the 1977 William Friedkin thriller, was a Carpenter favorite, and the Police, who had just made an album using a LinnDrum digital drum machine. So Howarth procured one of those, too. “There’d be times I mentioned technical things to John,” says Howarth, “and he would go, ‘Alan, that’s your job. Don’t even waste my time.’”
The scores were mostly improvised. “Pretty much we were finding it in the room,” says Howarth. “The Escape From New York opening titles theme, he kind of knew what he wanted, but he sat there and kind of worked it out, the last part of it, sitting there in the room with me. It wasn’t ever written. But he had an idea. I mean, his filmic vocabulary is all the movies he ever watched. He’s a big fan of the spaghetti Westerns, and he did have an understanding of the language of music and what he wanted to get from that to underscore his movie.” Carpenter refers to music as “the director’s velvet glove,” which “was his way of saying that it’s how you touch people without them knowing they’re being touched,” says Howarth. “It’s a soft way to move people: I’m scared, I’m excited, I want to have affinity for this character, I want to hate this character. The music does a lot to sell that.”
Howarth rigged up a VHS player so that Carpenter could watch the films while he channeled his instincts into score cues, allowing him to “freewheel against the picture,” says Howarth. “John referred to that as an ‘electronic coloring book.’ He loved it.” Carpenter says he never gave any thought to the score in the preproduction phase and never thought about music while he was shooting the film. “You don’t know what you’re going to do, what choices you might make later in the editing room to make the movie better, make it work,” he says. “So it just gets in the way if you think.”
When Carpenter got his first major budget for The Thing, his 1982 arctic gore paranoia thriller, he realized he could finally hire a “real” composer. So he went to the spaghetti Western maestro himself, Ennio Morricone. The Italian legend’s initial ideas were a little too beautiful and florid, so Carpenter asked him: “Can you do something simpler? Less notes? Electronic?” Morricone responded with eerie, shifting clouds of synth notes for the opening sequence of a helicopter shooting at a dog in the tundra. “Oh, I love that music,” says Carpenter. “So stark.” He admits, “I struggled with the darkness of that movie for a bit, and Morricone had it figured out ahead of time in one of his pieces. He helped me realize what it was about: It’s about the end of the world. It’s about the end of everything. You can’t fight this. If it happened, you couldn’t fight it. When Kurt [Russell] and [Richard] Dysart are investigating the Norwegian camp, it’s a beautiful piece, but it’s so sad. It’s really amazing. And I realized: That’s what this movie is. So I went with it. To my chagrin later, but that’s the way it goes.”
There were a few spots in the film that needed music Morricone hadn’t provided, so Carpenter conceived some synth cues himself. Those were just released for the first time in a new album, Anthology II, that Carpenter made with his son, Cody, and his godson, Daniel Davies. The second such album of Carpenter’s movie themes consists of brand-new recordings made using new technology that approximates the sound of the old gear. “This is all a recycling job,” Carpenter says bluntly. “Find something that people haven’t heard in a while: ‘Oh, let’s put that out.’”
But there’s a market for it—in a way that defies all of the economic necessity and musical simplicity and primitive machinery that contributed to the director scoring his own films. Somehow Carpenter, with his unarticulated intuition and these gizmos he didn’t even know how to operate, concocted hypnotic, freaky, catchy synth-wave (and the occasional blues-rock) tunes that people love listening to away from the films. Carpenter plugged his brain, shaped by a nerdy love of movies and a lifelong passion for rock, into the machine, and out came hits.
Dr. Howard Carpenter, who died in 2016, saw his son’s films—the director’s parents were scandalized, he says—but they never discussed the scores. Carpenter’s collaborators think he downplays his own ability because of how much more highly trained his father was, and at the same time, maybe he was always trying to make his music special in order to show his father he had talent. “He was happy that I was in music,” the director says. “We didn’t discuss the worth of my scores. You know, you can’t put me up against Bach! It’s not possible! I’d lose every time.”
Daniel Davies met John Carpenter through his dad, the English lead guitarist for the Kinks, Dave Davies, who had written Carpenter a fan letter. Dave and Carpenter became friends, and when the Brits moved to L.A., Daniel spent every weekend at the Carpenter house. His parents even asked the director to be his godfather, and after they got divorced when Daniel was a teenager, “John asked if I would want to come and live with them,” Davies says. “It was not the easiest time at my house.”
Growing up like brothers, Davies and Cody would go to the director’s sets and hang out in the trailers. Carpenter had a house in Inverness, a coastal town north of San Francisco where much of The Fog was shot and where, in the fall of 1994, he filmed Village of the Damned. Davies transferred to nearby Tomales High School, which was when he started playing music. On the long drives from L.A. to Marin County, Carpenter would always blast the Beatles and ZZ Top. They would make frequent trips to Amoeba Music, the famous record store in Berkeley, and then have listening parties. Carpenter would say, “OK, what did you get?” “I’d be like, ‘I got Metallica, Ride the Lightning,’” says Davies, “and we would listen to that.” Carpenter’s homes were filled with instruments, and soon enough Cody and Davies were jamming with the old man—in the den, at wrap parties or New Year’s parties ... just for fun. Cody started studying music in college, “and then I stopped because it was just not for me,” he says. His dad never once told him: “You’ve got to practice. You should take this theory class.” “In fact,” says Cody, “it was the opposite. He’s more of a feeling guy. The feel is the most important thing.”
Carpenter loved introducing movies to his boys—always accompanied with pizza—and they graduated from schlocky ’50s sci-fi to classics like Psycho and Apocalypse Now. Carpenter would pause on scenes or turn off the sound and ask his young acolytes why it was scary, or why it worked, or what the music was adding. About a decade ago, Carpenter got a new music attorney and connected with the record label Sacred Bones—and he decided to make a straight-up instrumental rock album with his boys.
The result was Lost Themes, one of the coolest musical products of Carpenter’s career. His twisty, dark, and delicious riffs were now powered with a mixture of real synths and plug-ins, creating a robust hi-fi sound, and Cody and Davies both brought their own rock-writing instincts and chops on electric guitar, keyboard, and percussion, as well as modern software. Freed from the parameters of a movie, Carpenter let his musical imagination loose and let the addictive riffs play out with abandon. With track names like “Vortex,” “Obsidian,” and “Abyss,” it was the exact concept album you would want from the composer of Halloween.
He “has a really specific idea of what he wants,” says Cody, “and he really goes right to it. There’s really no hesitation. There’s no: What do I want to say? It’s just straight feeling and improvisation. It’s just a direct line right to what comes out.”
“John, Cody, and I have a unique thing when we’re together working,” says Davies. “There’s nothing quite like it. It’s almost like a stream of consciousness sort of purge of music that comes out.”
Where does this music come from? Why is it so dancey? Why does Carpenter still love electronics so much? “It all makes sense if you don’t think about it too much,” laughs Davies, who tells me I’m overanalyzing. The same impulse that makes Carpenter stick a camera where he does or know when to cut is what guides his hand on the keyboard. “It’s all the same process,” he says. “Comes out of the same place. It’s all feel. Which can be maddening to some people. It’s an unknown. But hey, that’s the way it goes.”
Carpenter has since made two more Lost Themes albums, and they’re currently working on a fourth. (The trio also scored the three new Halloween films, as well as the recent remake of Firestarter.) They’ve gone on tours and played to huge crowds. “I just said, ‘John, now you’re a rock ’n’ roll star!’” Castle says. “‘You’re actually going out to venues, people are yelling and screaming, and you’re playing music. That’s called a rock ’n’ roll star, John.’ So what we always really wanted to be when we were kids, he’s actually fulfilled that dream for himself.”
I asked Carpenter whether there’s a kind of taste test, or goosebump test, that tells him a piece of music he’s made is really humming. “No, it’s much more practical and straightforward than that,” he says, eyeing the exit on our interview. “There’s no magic to it.”
Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles and a regular contributor to NPR, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. Find him at timgreiving.com.