In that special late October lull when the days gather a brooding scowl, the evenings swell and the landscape outside of town waits with electric expectation for the spectral touch of Halloween, a cold breeze skits the fallen leaves and dropped litter and worries at the collars of the drinkers on the street. Tonight the Master of Horror is come upon us yet no glowing seafog rolls in from the shore and inside the Brighton Dome this evening no malevolent sled dogs wait, no Shatner-faced slashers, no spinning vortex of evil; in the Dome tonight there is only a warm buzz of bonhomie for although John Carpenter has spent over forty years making movies which chill, shock and unnerve, judging by the infectious good spirits that fill the auditorium tonight his legacy is actually one of love and affection. As he takes the stage this evening he is greeted by the sort of familiar cheer reserved for an old friend and it is as an old friend, with one hand raised that he acknowledges it.
John Carpenter has not just spent forty years writing and directing movies of course, he’s also scored most of them himself and his distinctive, atmospheric synths have created a unique body of work as memorable as the films themselves. This passion for music spilled over into last year’s studio album Lost Themes, co-written with his son, Cody and this year’s follow-up Lost Themes II. It is this combined wealth of music which we are presented with tonight with Carpenter behind his trademark synthesiser backed by a full rock band of two guitars, bass and drums and Cody Carpenter doubling up on extra keys. Behind them, on a huge screen, Scenes from the movies are projected as they come up in the set and come up they do, one after another, ‘Escape from New York’, ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, ‘the Fog’, ‘Big Trouble in Little China’, ‘In the Mouth of Madness’. Watching these pieces tumble out one after another is a startling reminder of just how much work Carpenter has produced over the years and how idiosyncratic and uncompromising his output has been; how doggedly he’s stuck to his oeuvre. The film music is interspersed with tracks from the two Lost Themes albums and despite lacking the same immediate familiarity the two worlds of cinema score and studio album exist perfectly well with each other demonstrating Carpenter’s resolute refusal to change tack in all that time. In fact, John Carpenter has been sticking to his guns long enough now for the world to come round to his way of thinking again but there is something undeniably authentic (real if you like) about the 80’s atmospherics of his music. I imagine that it’s an authenticity which many new bands absorbed in trying to emulate that early 80’s sound would probably kill for.
I confess that despite my fondness for John Carpenter’s films and music, I had wondered quite how well this would work live and worried that it might just seem like some kind of novelty; the truth is it works brilliantly. Not only is it as cool as you like but it’s just so much fun! The band haven’t tried to replicate the atmospherics and brooding incidental soundscapes of the movies; it’s definitely more along the lines of theme tune greatest hits but there are certainly moments that make the spine tingle including their rendition of the Thing, perhaps Carpenter’s finest movie and one of the few that he didn’t score himself instead asking long time hero Ennio Morricone (so much of a hero to him was Morricone in fact that Carpenter had the theme from ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ played as his wedding march). It’s also pretty obvious that after forty years behind the camera John Carpenter is positively relishing being out front performing, from his endearing introductions (delivered a little like a child’s presentation to class), to his infectious hand dancing, his sense of enjoyment is utterly beguiling. There are some lovely playful moments too such as when the whole band dons Raybans before launching into the theme from ‘They Live’ (a film in which only by wearing special sunglasses can you see that humans are being dominated and enslaved by skull-faced aliens).
“I direct horror movies”, says John Carpenter, “I love horror movies… horror movies will live… forever” before playing the eternal intro riff from ‘Halloween’ and as the ominous bass notes come in I think of the many times that I’ve played that theme on music shop synths or drunkenly on out of tune pub pianos, I think of how my band used it as an intro to a song when we played on Halloween the year before last and as I watch Carpenter play that tune live on stage I realise that he is having as much fun playing it as I always have and there’s something very special about that.
The band come back for one encore and play the theme to 87’s ‘Prince of Darkness’ and a piece from Lost Themes II called ‘Virtual Survivor’ but they could of done six encores, in fact they could have played the whole set over and I wouldn’t have complained.
I suppose if you never imagine that you will see something then perhaps you don’t realise quite how much you really want to see that thing and I certainly never imagined that I would see this. The whole thing is remarkable and blessed with a touch of magic. If you get the opportunity to see John Carpenter & co. Live, I thoroughly recommend that you take it. Hats off to the Master of Horror, long may he reign.
Words & photo: Jon Griffin