Variations on a theme

I love soundtracks. I think it comes from when I was young, when I used to put my tape recorder next to the television and record the audio of my favourite Doctor Who stories so I could listen to them on my Walkman later. Sure, there was lots of dialogue, but I also heard those music cues a thousand times. When I started buying CDs, some of my earliest purchases were a box set of the Star Wars soundtracks (I don’t even like Star Wars that much!) and the Silva Screen Doctor Who soundtracks. Listening to the medley of music from The Caves of Androzani I am always transported to the first time I saw it, and I picture every moment in perfect detail. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times. I’m also a bit obsessed with Hans Zimmer’s amazing soundtrack for the Sherlock Holmes movie, Alan Silvestri’s score for Back to the Future, Joby Talbot’s work on The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (especially the desctruction of Earth, one of the funniest pieces of music ever if you’ve seen its context), even Vinc DiCola’s ultimate 80s electronic rock for Transformers: The Movie, but I also love the best game work, including Yu Miyake’s Katamari soundtracks, the Final Fantasy titles scored by Nobuo Uematsu, and the incredible work of Michael Z Land.

I also love cover songs, and nothing brings the two together like a good theme. I was part of a sadly abortive cover band called Rough Draft, and our gimmick was that we would play only acoustic covers of cartoon theme songs. We started with the theme to Sealab 2021, and managed to learn at least a dozen songs or so – I particularly enjoyed performing The Trapdoor, Dangermouse and Count Duckula. We never got past rehearsal stage though – probably because, even if we played our entire repertoire, we hardly managed a 6 minute set!

But there are three themes which have occupied my brain like a fever over the years, one quite recent.

Doctor Who

The Doctor Who theme is one of the most important pieces in the history of electronic music. Composed by Ron Grainer, it was “realised” by Delia Derbyshire, for many years an unsung heroine of the Radiophonic Workshop (who were never credited individually). In the days before computers, Derbyshire used tone generators and manually spliced together tape to create the most iconic television theme tune of all time. Grainer himself was rightly so impressed by the final product that he supposedly didn’t recognise it as his own composition. There were several revisions in the show’s first couple of decades, then the Peter Howell 80s update changed the pace and spawned a couple more revisions (I have a soft spot for the Trial of a Time Lord version, with its extra little layers) until Dominic Glynn’s slower version for Sylvester McCoy. The television movie in 1996 (which I prefer to call by its nickname, Grace: 1999) had a pretty lame orchestral version which lost a lot of what made the originals great, and while I have enjoyed the new series versions, they too started out too generic themey; when more of Delia crept back in, and they lost the trumpety bits added in by Murray Gold, they won me back.

But it’s not just the show that’s produced new versions; there have been loads. The most famous is probably Doctorin’ the Tardis [sic], the KLF’s cynically manufactured number one single, a glorious mash up of the theme with Gary Glitter’s “Rock n Roll” (parts one and/or two) and “Blockbuster” by The Sweet. I do love that track; it brings a mix of memories, of car trips, my first album (Smash Hits ’88 or the equivalent), and of being chased around the school yard by bullies chanting the chorus.

But for my money, it’s the fan versions I love. Some are slavish recreations of this version or that; some horrible misfires; some new interpretations that blow you away with power, or humour, or experimentation. The web site whomix collects them and even has a handy feed you can subscribe to as a podcast; I have nearly 250 of them sitting in my iTunes library, and despite having a few CDs worth of profressional remixes and new versions, it’s one of these I sometimes use as a ringtone (it’s the Vortex Mix by Hardwire, a chap who’s made many of my faves on whomix).

Monkey Island

I’m relatively old school when it comes to gaming. Sure, I like Dragon Age: Origins and Portal and my XBox 360 gets a decent workout with the cream of the crop of new titles and downloads, but my heart belongs to the long dead graphic adventure genre. While I played plenty of games before it, it was LucasArts’ The Secret of Monkey Island which really made me love computer games – and no small part of that lies in the musical genius of Michael Z Land. He put together a magnificent score, and at its centre lies the theme from Monkey Island, a brilliant piece which combines a Caribbean feel and a real sense of humour to perfectly encapsulate the mood and tone of the series.

Like the Doctor Who theme, it’s an iconic piece that many, many fans have sought to cover. While The International House of Mojo has been the main community hub for LucasArts fans, your best bets for finding covers of the theme – and other parts of Land’s very memorable score – are World of Monkey Island, which has a whole section for fan music, or The Scumm Bar, which also has a fan music section. My favourites would have to be Monkey Island Rocks, a heavy guitar version by Eduardo Gouveia, and the enigmatic MJ, TW, and PH’s atmospheric Monkey Island Medley, which reinterprets various refrains and introduces new music which fits in seamlessly with Land’s stuff.

Game of Thrones

I have rarely found a new obsession and thrown myself into so wholeheartedly as I have Game of Thrones, the HBO adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s beloved series of fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire. The theme – and the score – for the series are works of art by Ramin Djawadi, and indeed my newest heavy rotation playlist has been my top nine tracks from the soundtrack album – including the title theme of course – and a couple of fan covers for good measure.

Yes, before the series was even finished, lots of people were covering the theme. In keeping with its newer pedigree, most of the covers are found on YouTube, though thankfully both of my favourites also provide mp3 downloads. Unsurprisingly, given the popularity of the books among metal bands – there are at least three songs titled “Take the Black”, which is what it’s called when you join the ancient order of the Night’s Watch in the series – one of the best ones gives the theme a harder edge.  The Heavy Version version is by Whitenoise Lab, and since it was the only version I had prior to the release of the soundtrack, iTunes tells me I’ve listened to it 159 times. (It’ll be 161 by the time I finish this article.) The layers of guitar, bass and drums really kick things up a notch! My other favourite is no less amazing, though accomplished with just two instruments – both of them violins. Jason Yang’s violin cover is a thing of beauty from a great musician, laying down around a dozen tracks on acoustic and electric violin to give a rich, full sound. This one is climbing up the charts!

Journey of the Sorcerer

This is a bonus track, of sorts. It’s not technically a theme, but rather an instrumental track from The Eagles’ album “One of These Nights”. You probably know it, though, as the theme from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The original radio series used the song without any modification to great effect; the ethereal banjo and strings arrangement really does fit perfectly with hitchhiking between the stars, and was used at Adams’ insistence. The television series used a new version which has charm, but the soul of the original wasn’t recaptured until a short sequence in the film version which paid homage to this extraordinary piece of music. It’s been my default ringtone for years, and back when I had a phone which could use custom text message tones (are you listening, Apple?), my phone would emit one of those iconic banjo chords to let me know I’d received a message.

There are quite a few covers and alternate versions on YouTube, though to be honest I can’t really fault the original, and play it constantly. Of the others, this one is perhaps most interesting: played at the end of the last episode of the expanded radio series (produced by Dirk Maggs and covering the books after the first two, bringing them into the radio continuity), it uses parts of the original song not often heard in the radio series, and brings a little orchestration in.

Wow. Look how productive I am when waiting for my iPhone to restore from backup!

One comment

  1. Loki says:

    I know a couple who used “Journey of the Sorcerer” in place of the Bridal march, and I have to agree with all three of you (and Adams) – it’s a fantastic piece of music.

    I didn’t know that the GoT soundtrack was available yet, but I’ll have to get it now (damn you!) 🙂

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