John Carpenter is my favourite director. His diverse, charming and down-right bizarre pictures captivated me from an early age. They directly shaped my appreciation for cinema and despite my efforts to avoid fetishising individual film-makers: he is one of few auteurs who resonates with me so consistently. From sci-fi masterpiece The Thing (1982) to more abstract political commentary They Live (1988); his depth and character has had a long term affect on both myself and the movie industry.
No doubt, a large proponent of this comes from his soundtracks. His analogue synth-lines define his punk — somewhat authoritarian — approach to film-making. The opening score to Escape From New York (1981) sets a palpable tone that only Carpenter could craft. His Halloween theme is frequently cited alongside Bernard Herrmann’s Physco; cementing his work amongst the musical greats. More recently, his Lost Themes — two full-length instrumental records released in 2015 and 2016 — have pushed his musical credentials further. These ‘picture-less soundtracks’, co-written with his son and god-son, saw his distinctive style blossom to great avail.
The prospect of seeing John Carpenter live, therefore, is something inherently close to my heart. But following the success of his instrumental records — and undeniable cult status — Carpenter formed a touring band and took his scores on the road. For the first time ever. I was fortunate enough to catch the final UK date at London’s Troxy, the follow-up to his sold out ‘Release the Bats’ Halloween show, the night before.
What made ‘Release the Bats’ so extraordinary is that Carpenter could have merely played his scores to satisfy the fans. Offering the bare minimum here would have been suffice given the circumstances. I’ll be the first to admit that seeing him in the flesh immediately justified the entry price. But he actually offered something greater. A carefully curated retrospective of his career, which demonstrated real foresight and attention to detail.
In short, the live band burned through a number of Carpenter’s memorable tracks, with extracts from Lost Themes thrown in the midst. Sequences from each film were projected behind him — with a genuine understanding of their content. Footage was carefully spliced to match the respective tempo and duration of each song. Whole two hour pictures were condensed and summarised into their finer moments. From Lo Pan’s henchmen in Big Trouble In Little China (1986) to Christine’s headlights (1983) — it worked exceedingly well. The production designer, who one presumes to be Shaun Kendrick, can only be praised for this. It made the whole event more intuitive and the lighting only served to compliment this. The live theatrics offered the same: albeit the smoke-laden stage for The Fog (1980) or the band’s sunglasses during They Live. Carpenter’s comments about ‘ghost stories’ and ‘driving home safely’ also brought a heartiness to it all. It was a genuine celebration of his career and artistry. Even despite its relative swiftness — roughly a 75 minute set — it still felt extensive and well orchestrated.
The quality of the performance also deserves some attention. Carpenter fronted the group with unquestionable aura — yet with dad-dancing that reflected his light-hearted humility. Cody Carpenter played keys; complimenting his father’s playing and providing a tremendously wide spectrum of sound. This was abetted by two guitars, bass and a full drum-kit, too. Despite Carpenter’s penchant for electronic music, his live show translate an authentic, traditional rock feel. Lead Guitarist Daniel Davies — son of Kinks’ guitarist Dave Davies — was the undeniable highlight here. His sheer precision and tonality left me a little lost for words. As a disclaimer, I am very rarely impressed by live mixes — but Davies genuinely conjured some of the greatest guitar tones I’ve heard in a live environment. And I’ve been lusting for a Gibson ES-335 and a Vox AC30HW ever since. To their credit, the whole group sounded incredibly tight and rehearsed. The mix was rich and tout whilst boasting all the nuance that Carpenter’s compositions are famous for. The Troxy accommodated the sound perfectly, with great acoustics and visibility throughout. And its various posters added an extra touch.
Above else, ‘Release The Bats’ was an experience in every sense of the word. John Carpenter is one of few artists I offer a ‘blank cheque’ should they consider touring the UK. But the set-list was glorious and satisfying. To witness such an event — with fantastic sound, musicianship and visual accompaniment to boot — made it entirely worthwhile. There’s an idiom somewhere about not meeting your heroes. But Carpenter and his band delivered on everything and more. And I only hope that they continue to tour again.