POP / Interview: The man who gets all the credits: When the composer Michael Kamen gave us 'Everything I Do', it hung around for months. Now 'All for Love' looks set to do the same. Can we forgive him? Giles Smith thinks so

Giles Smith
Sunday 18 September 2011 09:52

The song opens with a ruminative piano chord. Enter the husky voice of Bryan Adams: 'When it's love you give . . .' And then in comes Sting for a line. And then Sting and Bryan sing a line together. And then Rod Stewart arrives. Each of them protests, with throaty fervour, their unshakeable commitment to each other ('I'll be the rock you can build on'; 'I swear I'll always be strong', etc). And then the song halts for a second before uncurling into a giant chorus. And it's Rod. No, it's Sting. No, it's Bryan. No, it's all three, singing, 'All for one and all for love,' while the drums go crash, bang, crash.

A thumping great ballad taken from a movie and sung by Bryan Adams? We have been here before, in 1991, when 'Everything I Do (I Do It for You)', from the soundtrack of Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, was in the charts for nearly six months. 'All for Love' is already No 4, and its movie, The Three Musketeers, hasn't even opened yet. Michael Kamen, the composer of film scores, among other things, co-wrote both these songs with Adams and the producer Mutt Lange, and he says that the similarities are not entirely coincidental. He's gone and done it again.

'The Three Musketeers is a Hollywood movie, a Disney film, and they wanted, not to put too fine a point on it, a repeat of the same circumstances that led to the success of Robin Hood. They wanted a hit record at the end of the film. So the three of us tried to do deliberately what we did more or less by accident last time.'

And that's what they managed, one afternoon last autumn in Kamen's airy house in Notting Hill, with its grand piano and its harpsichord and its small studio off the sitting-room where a projector mounted above the door can screen movies on the wall above his keyboard while Kamen works. (The next-door neighbour occasionally complains about the noise.) 'All for Love' is end-of-movie music, cinema rock. You can virtually see the credits sliding slowly up the screen and hear the soft thud of tip-up seats as people start walking out. 'Bryan Adams said he went to see Robin Hood and the only person left in the cinema at the end was the cleaner. He thought, 'Why did I bother?' But maybe that's why so many people bought the song - they missed it in the movie.'

Kamen is 45, an immediately friendly man with a cavalier's hairstyle and a deafening laugh. He was classically trained as an oboe player at the Juilliard School in New York, where he grew up. But he got into rock music at the same time and has never quite worked out where one style begins and the other ends. He has composed a saxophone concerto for David Sanborn and a guitar concerto for Eric Clapton and has ignored people's derision for doing so. He has arranged orchestras for Kate Bush and Pink Floyd and Eurythmics. His name is hottest, though, in Hollywood, where he has a reputation for providing quality music in a hurry. The full-length orchestral score for Three Musketeers is 100 minutes long. It took him three weeks.

Kamen wrote the score for Brazil for his friend Terry Gilliam (it is still the piece of music Kamen is most proud of), and in 1985 he composed with Eric Clapton a soundtrack for the BBC drama Edge of Darkness. The editor working on the Mel Gibson movie Lethal Weapon happened to use that music as a guide for a rough cut and when the director saw how it worked, he commissioned Kamen to write the real thing. Since then, Kamen has built up a list of action picture credits as long as the car chase in Lethal Weapon: he's done the two Lethal Weapon sequels, both Die Hards, Hudson Hawk, The Last Boy Scout, The Last Action Hero . . . This work has made him a wealthy man, even without the royalties from 'Everything I Do'. But it was not exactly the line of business he envisaged for himself, nor the one he may stay with in the future.

''In Hollywood, you're tagged by your work there. If they know you have achieved success in a big action film, whether they know your score or not, they're going to call you for their action picture. For years I was delighted to say yes. I would be on the phone saying, 'They want to pay me how much, to write what?' The notion that people might actually judge you on your work didn't occur until much too late. So now I'm known as an action film composer. It's odd. I wasn't allowed to play with guns as a child. I didn't read comic books, and now I score them.'

THE remarkable thing about Kamen is that he never studied for this. He taught himself composition, orchestration, conducting, arranging, writing for film, the works. 'I was just a rock'n'roll oboist,' he says. 'But it seemed within my grasp to do. You know that there are certain instruments that are in the range of the human voice. So if you work away from them, you'll essentially leave a hole in the middle for the dialogue. You can have the whole orchestra blaring away, but if the horns and the clarinets aren't too busy, you'll hear the voice. The only one you have to really fight is helicopters. You need electric guitars for helicopters.'

Working in the movies, he has grown used to sacrificing fancy ideas. He might have a vision of a precisely researched score with long flowing movements and French dance suites, but he knows that hard-nosed producers will want to talk about testosterone levels. 'Seriously, the director of Three Musketeers told me that he wasn't interested in the score's authenticity so much as in its effect on the testosterone level of the film. This is, in their words, a 'high testosterone level movie'.'

Still, before writing that score, he bought himself the harpsichord and learnt to play music written by Francois Couperin's uncle, Louis. 'He wrote all these preludes without bar lines.' Kamen hands over the music. It's about as legible as a child's drawing of a tornado. 'There aren't many people who play it. But it begins to impose its own logic on you.'

He says he's sad that the Clapton guitar concerto never made it on to record. It was performed in 1992 during Clapton's annual Albert Hall residency, with Kamen conducting a full orchestra. The next year, Clapton had scaled back down to a blues band. 'It seemed a great thing to do at that time - let's put an orchestra with the band and dress up some of the songs. Let's write a guitar concerto for Eric to play. I've never had as much fun. But Eric has obviously made a decision that that was a departure. There were some kitschy moments, no doubt about it. People mistake the seriousness of that. All I was trying to do was mix genres. They're already homogenised in my brain - so why shouldn't everybody else have to suffer?'

Undeterred, Kamen is currently working on an orchestral concert with Roger Daltrey for Carnegie Hall later this year. 'We'll play a suite of Tommy and a selection of The Who's songs.' And at the same venue in April, he will conduct an orchestra behind those well-known tenors Sting, James Taylor and Pavarotti.

'People very rarely remember a film score. Take the film away, it's not impressive. And my favourite music is music that says something by itself. I run the risk of being a footnote here, and I have to confess to taking myself a little more seriously.'

Late last year he completed a children's opera. He says he has some similarly helicopter-free projects for this year. But let's not write off the movie scores. The American equivalent of the Performing Right Society gave Kamen a Lifetime Achievement award last year ('Which I find very galling because it's not over. I asked them if I could take half the award now and half later') and played a retrospective of his work. And even Kamen was forced to confess 'there were a couple of pieces from Die Hard that I really liked.

'You know, I tend to send messages to my friends around the world inside the scores. There was a guy I worked with on Pink Floyd, who once came up with a theme as a joke. And ever since then, I've included it somewhere in my score as a kind of, 'Hi, James]' It's completely inappropriate but I always try to stick it in.

'As I was writing Three Musketeers, part of a Passover tune came into my mind and I found the perfect place for it. There's a scene where Lady de Winter holds a knife to Cardinal Richelieu's groin and says, 'With one flick of my wrist I could change your religion.' And then the theme comes, and it's a Passover song. Before I did it with the orchestra in LA, I said, 'Spot the tune'. And one by one the Israelis in the orchestra fell off their chairs.'

'The Three Musketeers' opens on 11 February. The soundtrack is released on 14 Feb.

(Photograph omitted)

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