Uneasy listening

`Get Carter' is a classic - and the soundtrack isn't bad either. Phil Johnson reports

Jack Carter smokes Gitanes, takes drugs, and when forced by circumstance to drink a pint of bitter, has the good taste to insist it comes in a straight glass. As played by Michael Caine, he's the English answer to Alain Delon in Le Samourai, only harder. Dressed by designer Dougie Hayward in sober double-breasted suits and iconic black trenchcoat, with his floppy blond hair curling down towards those quizzical baby-blue eyes, Caine as Carter is cooler than cool. In fact, he's so cool that we are more than happy to suspend our disbelief when faced with his trademark cockney accent. Carter is supposed to be a Geordie, returning to Newcastle to avenge the murder of his brother.

Made in 1971, Get Carter is a classic revenger's tragedy and probably the best British gangster movie ever. Certainly it's the most stylish, and its cult reputation has grown and grown in the years since its release. Then, it was savaged by the critics for its violence, with a severity that is hard to credit today. Even the normally sane George Melly cautioned, in the Observer, that the cinematic experience was like "a bottle of neat gin swallowed before breakfast"; now, this sounds like a whole- hearted recommendation. The film has remained in currency through television screenings and on video (and a new cinema print is to be released by the BFI at the beginning of next year). But the Get Carter cult has been intensified most of all by the unavailability of its excellent soundtrack, written and performed by the British composer and pianist Roy Budd.

While the title theme was put out as a single in Britain in 1971, the soundtrack album was released only in Japan and this rare vinyl artefact has attained such legendary status that a copy recently fetched pounds 1,500 at auction. Tomorrow, the original soundtrack is to be released on CD for the first time, in a deluxe edition which includes sleevenotes by the film's writer and director, Mike Hodges. The brilliant instrumental music is mixed with some extremely naff vocal tracks and a selection of dialogue excerpts, but it remains far more than a historical curiosity. Get Carter is psychopathic lounge music par excellence, with the kind of analogue keyboard voicings that DJs and record producers love to fiddle with.

The widespread regard for the soundtrack is mainly a dance-music thing. Film soundtracks have long since become a favourite hunting ground for hip DJs looking for a new rare groove to play in clubs, and for pop groups searching out obscure retro material to sample. Portishead's 1994 album Dummy represented the entry of soundtrack chic into the mainstream, and the group's Adrian Utley is a big Get Carter fan. "All those English cold war and gangster film soundtracks, like The Ipcress File and Get Carter really inspired us," he says. "We were always more interested in offbeat film composers and the minimalism of their work than we were in finding funky American breakbeats. What's inspiring about the music to Get Carter is that it was done quickly and cheaply with only a few instruments, and it had to be intensely creative to disguise its limitations. It made new sounds out of recognised instruments and did tricks in the studio like turning the tape round backwards, or using an old Hammond organ with lots of reverb. It's incredible that the soundtrack is coming out now, because millions of people have been looking for it for ages."

The signature-sound of Get Carter is plucked piano strings, electronically distressed with reverb until they shimmer darkly. It first appears in the film in the pre-title sequence. Then it re-surfaces, in slightly different form, for the main theme: as Carter's train travels from King's Cross to Newcastle's Central Station, Roy Budd's harpsichord and electric-piano keyboards are accompanied by Jeff Clyne's bass and Chris Karan's tabla-drumming for a pulsing riff. As the engine puffs to a stop, the tablas echo the train's halting rhythm. The music - only Budd's second commission - was done on a budget of pounds 450 at Olympic Studios. It was recorded almost entirely by Budd himself, with Clyne and Karan drafted in from the jazz trio he used to play with at the Bull's Head in Barnes.

Budd, who died in 1993 from a brain haemorrhage, was only 24 when he composed Get Carter. "His manager, Jack Fishman, was a friend of the film's producer, Michael Klinger," says Mike Hodges. "It was my first film and I was influenced by the fact that Budd was young too. It's an extraordinary score. In my films, I tend not to use very much music and even in Get Carter there's not really a lot. With earlier films for TV, I'd tended to take tracks off records and pay the needle time. But overall, a composed soundtrack gives you more control and it's also less costly. Roy's main theme was absolutely terrific; and buried in the introduction was this very simple tune that I asked him to extrapolate into an extra track on the vibes, and which I then used at various points throughout the film."

After Michael Caine, who gives perhaps the most effective performance of his career, the film's other principal star is Newcastle itself, which is recorded in all its pre-urban-renewal glory. But when Klinger first sent Hodges a copy of Jack's Return Home by Ted Lewis, from which the film was adapted, the location was yet to be sorted. "In the book, Carter changes trains at Doncaster. All we know about where he then goes to is that it's a steel town," says Hodges. "I'd done my national service in the Navy on a minesweeper looking after the fishing fleets and so I'd been round all the northern fishing ports. The producer got his Cadillac out and we went off to scout for locations. But in Hull and Grimsby there was nothing left that was visually interesting, they'd all been destroyed. I persuaded Klinger to go on for one more day and, although I'd been to North Shields before, I'd never driven into it from Newcastle."

"Suddenly there was this incredible city, visually amazing. I'd already written the script so I just adjusted it to fit the locations, and the events of the La Dolce Vita murder case [a recent gangland killing in Newcastle]. Because of previously working on World In Action, I'd always tended to research subjects, even for fiction. In the film, the country house of John Osborne (who plays the gang boss) was actually the house where the criminal in the real murder case lived. I insisted on renting it, even though the producer thought it was too expensive. It was very strange and none of us liked working there, but it was a wonderful location."

Initially, Hodges had wanted Ian Hendry (who ended up playing Osborne's chauffeur) for the Carter role. "I'd originally seen the world of the film as even seedier," he says. "But I think I was wrong because Michael Caine probably understood the character of Carter better than I did. There was a kind of glamour around criminals like the Krays, who were photographed by David Bailey, and having a hero who was handsome and well turned out made it all the more horrible. The ending of the book was ambiguous and the producer wanted it left open for a sequel, but I knew that Carter had to die." And die he did, on a coal-black beach in Northumberland with Roy Budd's plucked piano strings shimmering in the background. As the dirty waves lap over Michael Caine's beautiful hair, it's enough to make even a DJ weep.

`Get Carter: An Original Soundtrack Recording' (CD, Castle Communications) is released tomorrow.

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