On The Record - Ennio Morricone's "Giu' la Testa"
Shared by Jeff
Hi friends! I’m thrilled to continue our monthly LP nerdery series, On The Record. My rough plan is to alternate my choices between LPs I’ve known my whole life with ones that I’ve come to more recently. My pick for this month is Ennio Morricone’s score recording for Giu’ la Testa (1971), a record I only heard for the first time within the past few years (though I first heard John Zorn’s version of the main theme ages ago). This was a film directed by Sergio Leone (The Good, The Bad and the Ugly); in the US it was released twice as Duck, You Sucker! and as A Fistful of Dynamite, though the Italian for the original title is “Down the Head.” Here’s the wrinkle on this: I haven’t actually seen this film yet!
I do have this issue, i.e. collecting soundtracks/scores for films I’ve never seen. It’s usually due to my own interest in certain composers, performers and groups. In my collection of LPs, this little problem is perhaps not more apparent than in my collection of Morricone records. Each one is a piece, a song cycle, a tone poem, a great album- but I haven’t seen most of the films (some obvious exceptions apply). Film scores are supposed to have one job: to enhance the vibe of, or to prop up the action of scenes and sequences in a film. Can they also provide a great record listening experience? Generally, it can be a tough leap sometimes: how many times do I need to hear that love theme??, that fight scene music is awesome, but the whole album is kinda boring, etc etc.
Giu’ la Testa, on the other hand, is a record of songs without words that make a great LP on its own, apart from the film. What I’m left with at the end is the same feeling I get after hearing any of my favorite albums: I’ve just been told a story or taken to another place. The songs themselves (there’s really only 4, 5 if you count Rivoluzione contro) happen to appear multiple times in different lights throughout the record, sometimes out of order (short versions of songs appearing a few numbers before the song itself). They’re all loosely related, especially harmonically; they are Giu’ la Testa (tr 1), Marcia degli accattoni (tr 4), I figli morti (tr 5), and Messico e Irlanda (tr 8). Rivoluzione contro (tr 10) stands on its own, as it is more a through-composed orchestral piece than a song form like the others, and isn’t represented in short versions elsewhere in the record.
It’s also worth mentioning some of the most-recognizable Morricone orchestrations, especially from the 60s Leone “Spaghetti Westerns.” Whistling, extended vocal techniques*, banjo, harpsichord, Hammond and transistor organs, the incomparable voice of Edda Dell’Orso… Each one of these here is used beautifully sparingly, especially considering Morricone could have just as easily rehashed everything in his Spaghetti Western bag of tricks to appease the fans or the industry. He was never one to mitigate his art.
Giu’ la Testa (tr 1) is the main theme of the film, and, as such, does not return very many times in the program; compare that to almost any other score recording out there, even Morricone’s own (check out Le clan des Siciliens). In the first couple minutes it introduces the listener to the magical harmonic worlds where this record lives, both the beautiful diatonic ones and the bracing “out” ones. And those “shonnn-shonnn-SHONNNs!!” Where else can ya find that? Esquivel’s “zoo-zoo-zooooos” do come close. The second half of this track is likely the most “soundtracky” sounding passage on here, a waltz worthy of its 60s lush pop strings and II-Vs. Edda Dell’Orso’s gorgeous voice is here in this section only, then gone in an instant. The melody replays itself up a minor third for each of a few stacks before fading out. The first thing I thought upon hearing this passage was, “I’ll be hearing that quite a bit through the rest of this record.” Maestro, however, has tricks up his sleeves, and the listener only hears it one more time.
The other versions of the main theme only appear as Scherzi a parte (“Jokes Aside”) (tr 7), the opening section of I figli morti (tr 5), and Invenzione per John (tr 9); the latter here deserves its own paragraph, if you’d like to skip to it. Scherzi a parte is such a great example of an absurdist version of this gorgeous music. Check out that organ part (is that what that is? a Farfisa or a Vox Continental?)!
Next up is Marcia degli accattoni (tr 4). Some great harmonic activity here (where would we be without Bach?). And the orchestration, of course, classic Morricone: from the very beginning we have contrabassoon and male vocal fry setting the scene. The use of banjo here and throughout the record is sublime. In this track it’s used in an unusual way for banjo, playing an orchestral part, a lead melodic line. The march is also represented in 2 variations elsewhere, as Addio Messico (tr 6) and Amore (tr 2). In Amore, the recorder reminds me of Morricone’s other long-term involvement, Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza (aka Il Gruppo), an improvisation group formed by composers Franco Evangelisti, Egisto Macchi and Morricone in Italy. I’ll leave them for another discussion, but look for their fantastic recordings.
Messico e Irlanda (tr 8), with its earlier variation (Mesa Verde, tr 3), is one of the most beautiful themes in Morricone’s work. I love the use of the nylon guitar out in front of the orchestra, and the low brass countermelodies. If you check out the Mesa Verde variation, you’ll find Hammond organ used to gorgeous effect in the main melody. Just my own perception, but I feel like this tune is part of what Pat Metheny was going for in his group in the 80s.
Finally, my favorite part of this record, I figli morti (tr 5). After a brief reprise of the main theme, the stage abruptly shifts to this song without words with a Dm9 chord in the strings. What follows is a sublime slice of pure orchestral pop magic. The “verses” alternate between bassoon and whistling (really, really masterful whistling, a la The Good, The Bad and the Ugly), with banjo, electric bass and brushes providing rhythm. Then, the “refrain,” in 3/4 time, melody in the low flutes, building with harpsichord, glock and strings to the Am chord, subsiding to the whistling (or bassoon) again, over glorious back vocal ooohs. Just heavenly.
My Italian is not so great, so I didn’t really notice the title of this one at first. Having not yet seen the film, I wondered what this was underscoring. A love theme? A tender family moment? “I figli morti” translates to English as “The dead children.” Yowch…
Its variation is the last cut on the record, Dopo l’esplosione (tr 11), every bit as gorgeous as the original, if not even more. It includes another Morricone move, the reverb spring, its low volume percolations absolutely hair-raising here.
Two more honorable mentions here: Invenzione per John (tr 9) and Rivoluzione contra (tr 10). Invenzione is the main theme one last time, however now it’s spread out on a large table completely disassembled. Over nine minutes, we hear each element come into the light in varying orders, over a cosmos of beautiful 12-string guitar and breathtaking strings. There’s a brief Hammond organ interlude midway through; when it couples with the 12-string it really satisfies my prog fix in a Genesis/Floyd/Moody Blues kind of way.
Rivoluzione is the one piece on the record that doesn’t have any repeats or variations, as it stands on its own as an orchestral piece. The opening section is like punk rock Penderecki, and the rest of it gives me some great Ives vibes. More orchestral use of banjo here, and the reverb spring is introduced as well. This one embodies the Il Gruppo sound the most on the record.**
Okay, I’ve said enough! Ennio Morricone is one of our lasting guiding lights in Bombay Rickey. His recorded output is so vast (and rapidly reissuing on vinyl) that it’s impossible to wrap him up in a single blog post. But I’m happy we could nerd out together on this one, a score recording that stands on its own as an album. Happy listening! We’d really love to hear your thoughts!
I promise I’ll see this flick soon!
*There was a great mention by John Lurie in the latest episode (season finale?) of Painting With John where he talks about what the session players and vocalists must have heard the maestro ask of them back in the day during those sessions. I won’t link here, just go find it, it’s very rewarding!
**The Bandcamp links take you to an expanded version of this record, with multiple takes of almost every piece. Rivoluzione in particular appears in vastly different versions, with one of them including Messico e Irlanda material.