John Carpenter has always had a soft-spot for synthesizers. When Carpenter earned his fame as a ground-breaking filmmaker and godfather of the modern horror film, he embraced the synth to self-score such distinctive flicks as Halloween and Christine. Pounding, riff-based, and dazzlingly 80s, Carpenter’s music helped make his films such cult icons.
Now, swimming in the soup of the unstoppable 80s nostalgia train, Carpenter has made a return to his music. Encouraged by musician son Cody, Carpenter released and recorded his first ever albums, ‘Lost Themes’ and ‘Lost Themes II’, and has now embarked on his first ever tour at the tender age of sixty-eight. On the 23rd of October (nicely close to Halloween), Carpenter and his band took to Bristol’s Colston Hall, to close the ‘Simple Things’ festival and play the hits for a crowd packed with fans.
After no warm-up but the creepy soundtracks played over the stereo system, Carpenter and his band promptly took to the stage. Gut-punching any suggestion of subtlety, they kicked off with the double whammy of the ‘Escape From New York’ and ‘Assault On Precinct 13’. Retro, riffing, and everything the packed concert hall wanted.
Cody Carpenter played lead synth, and took most of the more intricate key work. This left his father free to focus on the bombastic synth-riffs that dominate his work, hunched over his Korg like some white-haired cyber wizard. A diminutive, frail-looking fellow, most of Carpenter’s stage-craft was limited to genial smirks and devil-horns to the eager crowd. In true Carpenter style, he did all his showmanship with his camera.
The stage was dominated by a giant projection screen. This played clips from Carpenter’s movies during the themes, and spacey graphics during the ‘Lost Themes’. It was less like a concert, and more like a live-soundtracked grindhouse marathon in some small-town drive-in around 1985.
Carpenter played a set that was about 70% film scores and 30% ‘Lost Themes’. Thought the latter were slick, and often more complex, it was the film themes that sent the audience into fandom-fuelled hysteria. As each song finished, the lull set in; whispers ran through the crowd about which he’d play next. Carpenter would turn the page of his music book, give a knowing grin, and blast out the first few notes of each devilishly catchy hook. The screen would burst to life, the film’s star (be it Kurt Russell or some animatronic grisly) would scowl across the auditorium, and the crowd would fill with joyful cries. The audience knew their stuff, and so did John Carpenter.
He reserved the oft-parodied ‘Halloween’ theme for the hallway point, but it went down like Snake Plissken at a prison riot. The band donned alien-spotting shades for the groove-tastic ‘They Live’, and were bathed in other-worldly green light for ‘Big Trouble in Little China’. For the sake of completeness, the band even covered Ennio Morricone’s theme to the Carpenter-directed ‘The Thing’.
The band were tight as Frankenstein’s neckbolts, realising each synthesized theme-song perfectly for the live setting. Particular praise goes to lead-guitarist Daniel Davies. Whether he was skulking through the sinister ‘Night’ or blistering through ‘In The Mouth of Madness’, Davies channelled the soaring tones of Rudolf Schenker and brought an authentic 80s arena-rock vibe to the proceedings.
If John Carpenter’s live tour is anything, it’s an odd turn of events. The man is almost seventy, playing theme songs to films that are thirty years. But it works, and has the same bizarre charm and charisma that made his films so successful. If you’ve never heard of John Carpenter, and don’t care for classic horror films or the 1980s, then this really won’t be your cup of tea. But if you’re a fan of Carpenter’s work, or you’ve been watching a little too much Stranger Things on Netflix, this is exactly the retro experience for you.