October 20, 2010 | By

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BABY STEPS (1977-1978)

After co-founding Starlog Magazine in 1976 with partner Norman Jacobs, Kerry O’Quinn furthered his interest in the science-fiction and fantasy realms through a series of side projects under the Starlog banner, and perhaps the most fondly regarded are the handful of albums which reflect his deep affection for music written for a genre he felt had been marginalized by the mainstream media and critics.

Starlog Record’s first release – Ferde Grofé’s rare film score for the sci-fi classic Rocketship X-M – was followed by The Fantastic Film Music of Albert GlasserIt’s Alive 2North by Northwest,First Men in the Moon – Music by Laurie JohnsonMusic from The Avengers/The New Avengers/The Professionals, and The Star Wars Trilogy anthology album. With the exception of the first two and portions from The Avengers compilation LP, all of the Starlog productions are still in print, and are widely available on CD.

In November of 2005, O’Quinn graciously spoke with us about Starlog Records, and traced the production of several key albums that remain benchmarks in archival soundtrack production.

The record label “came about because I’d been a movie music addict since I was a kid, and a major collector. I knew all the composers, and had a huge collection of virtually, at that point, I would guess almost every soundtrack that had ever been done, including dramatic scores and musicals… There were certain scores that I had always wanted – like North by Northwest – that had never been released. Some of the science fiction movies [and scores] at that time were not taken seriously either as film art. I mean, Bernard Herrmann [scored] Seventh Voyage of Sinbad … and everybody just thought of it as a silly little kids movie, [putting] the score in the same category. So there was a little bit of my arched back involved in deciding to do these albums. It was also a dream that I’d had for a long time… and I had always wanted to do that sort of thing myself, and do it right.

“It sounds silly, but one of the strange little quirks that I had on this was that I hated most record labels. In that particular period of time, labels were becoming very picturesque, and they would have these elaborate photos and artwork behind them, and you could hardly read what was on the label; they were kind of [getting] carried away with the graphics and not the information. So I wanted to do labels that were [properly designed] – I was a designer, among the many hats that I’ve worn – and so I thought I knew how a label should be, and what was the most important information.

“It was at that point my magazines were beginning to be successful enough that I didn’t have to worry about the life and death of the company…. By that time we had things going well enough that I realized I could begin to branch out and do things that [our readers] would also appreciate and enjoy, and I thought that we could create some products that would make our readers happy, and would also be projects that would make me happy. It seemed like a win-win situation.

“Someone introduced me… to Albert Glasser, who had composed over a hundred cheap movie scores out here in Hollywood. I met the man, went to his home, and he said, ‘Oh, well, I did the arranging for Ferde Grofé on his score for Rocketship X-M ,’ and I said, ‘Holy cow, I didn’t know Ferde Grofé, who wrote Grand Canyon Suite and all this other classical American music, had written film scores!’ ”

Though his filmic output was extremely low, Grofé had written music for the 1944 PRC musicalMinstrel Man, and a pair of Lippert Pictures, in 1950: Rocketship X-M, and The Return of Jesse James – the latter two with Albert Glasser adapting and orchestrating Grofé’s themes.

“The only way that music existed was on some big, old 16-inch acetate discs. Albert Glasser trusted me, and gave me those discs to take to New York to an engineer at CBS… We equalized them, took out scratches and ticks and stuff like that, and made those recordings into the best sound that we could get at the time.”

More stigmatized than mono magnetic tape recordings, music derived from acetates or other archaic formats and mediums lack the sex appeal of a stereo production, and in spite of stereo’s dominance in the consumer market by the late sixties – with studio labels, such as MGM Records, finally phasing out the wasteful mono and stereo runs of each title – engineers still felt stereo recordings needed more oomph – resulting, particularly in the seventies, in the use of variable treatments of ambient echo to simulate greater spacial depth.

With rare exceptions, most vintage scores were either re-recorded by labels – in suites, singles, or the odd theme-oriented album – or ignored. Sometimes composers like Elmer Bernstein, Alfred Newman, Alex North, or Victor Young recorded collections of their famous themes, but a full-length album devoted to one score was seen as a sales disaster in a market where top single stations reigned supreme.

The leading personality in issuing archival scores during the seventies was film historian, writer, producer, and broadcaster Tony Thomas. Through a non-commercial mail order arrangement, Thomas sold a steady stream of vintage recordings by A-level composers like Miklos Rozsa, Hans J. Salter, and Max Steiner (the latter’s work often in cooperation with the Max Steiner Music Society).

Thomas’s albums were generally released on less than perfect vinyl, and the technology used to filter extreme pops, ticks, hisses, and surface noise sometimes left the audio dry or muddy. Early 78 rpm platters used steel needles for playback, so one can understand why any surviving recordings are so precious. Unlike today’s toys on digital workstations, the tech of the period could reshape a recording into something quite distant from the composer’s intentions, whereas today’s philosophy (idealistically, at least) is to stay true to a recording’s character during the restoration process.

Rocketship X-M is a well-mastered album, but more important, it established a template for presenting a score in its most complete form, with a rare bonus track: Dr. Samuel Hoffmanperforming a Theremin solo of “Lisa’s Theme.” (While Grofé’s score remains unavailable, as of this writing, on CD, Hoffman’s theme rendition – unused in the final film – appeared in 2000 on Vol. 4 of Rhino’s Brain in a Box set.)

Continues O’Quinn: “Of course, one of the things that always irritated me about soundtrack albums [is where studios like] MGM would put out an album to a musical show they’d done… and they’d cut the dance music … to a two and a half minute track, and that was it. That used to irritate the hell out of me! If they had a seven minute dance number in the movie, I wanted the whole music; and the same was true of dramatic scores. To me the fascinating stuff was that track that got cut out of the movie, or that sort of thing.”

For X-M O’Quinn discovered the discs were indeed the original studio masters, which proved ideal for the proposed soundtrack album. “The only backup they had in those days were these big old lacquered discs… I wanted to put all that stuff in there and make it historically important and complete, because there’s no point in doing an album to Rocketship X-M and having people way, ‘Well, I liked it, but they didn’t put everything they could have [on] there.’ I didn’t ever want that complaint leveled against what I was doing because I had that same complaint.

“I was very driven at the time to preserve, like Elmer Bernstein, the history of movie music, and to get more respect for it. The fact that there’d been a classical composer writing cheap movie scores seemed sort of typical of the movies, too. To this day, Hollywood doesn’t take science fiction movies seriously when it comes to awards or anything, and by the same token, other than John Mauceri and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra (and a few people like that who appreciate the musical value of scores that were written for basically inexpensive movies), there wasn’t much support.

“That became a little cause of mine… My partner [Norman Jacobs] thought I was crazy, but he kind of indulged me in this because he knew it was something I loved, and also because we were at a point in the company when he could afford to indulge me a little bit and let me try something and see if it worked… [I also] hooked up with Varese Sarabande Records, which was at the time kind of a small company. I knew the guys involved, and I came out here to L.A., talked with them, and we decided to sort of team up: they would be the releasing label, and they’d put their stamp on it as well. So we began to do Starlog-Varese Sarabande co-productions: they would distribute to stores, and we would sell it through the magazines… We realized that these were never going to be a Barbara Streisand hit or something like that, but there was a certain audience for them, the music was good, and we thought that, in the long run, these albums would go on selling through the years.”

Kerry O’Quinn came off the X-M project exhilarated. “There were a lot of things that went into my being interested in putting out that album – not the least of which was the score by a great American composer… I got Kelly Freas to do artwork for the cover, and I wrote the liner notesand produced the album, and I said, ‘God, I love this. This is what I was born to do.’ So then I got ambitious, and hired an assistant to work with me on doing things like that, and we began to check on things like rights for When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds, and some of the old George Pal movies that had never been released.”

While his assistant investigated future projects, O’Quinn returned to Albert Glasser’s guest house, where the composer operated a ham radio among boxes of his own musical history. “That was his playpen,” recalls O’Quinn, “and he had all these tapes and discs and things… He showed me some of this stuff and played me some of it, and at this point he trusted me pretty thoroughly… He loaned me a lot of his masters to take to New York,” where O’Quinn and a colleague listened to every cue, and carefully deliberated over several months on the right approach to tackle Glasser’s massive output. The team knew that none of Glasser’s scores were written for big movies, and O’Quinn felt that, “If you put out the album to that movie, six people were going to buy it.'”

At the time, B-movie music released by Varese and Citadel Records were often restricted to the Republic archives – mainly music composed by Victor Young, or a very young Elmer Bernstein – with the odd offshoot album, such as a compilation of songs by the Sons of the Pioneers. Some of Citadel’s early Hans J. Salter albums for the composer’s Universal films also enjoyed distribution through Varese, as Salter was a lesser-known but respected contemporary of Miklos Rozsa, Alfred Newman, John Green, or Roy Webb – composers with similarly long associations with major studios like Warner Bros., Twentieth Century-Fox, MGM, and RKO.

For B-film composers, however, their own studio affiliations didn’t offer much clout in the recording market; Republic Pictures was the major among the minors, leaving lesser companies, like agglomerate Allied Artists, with its back catalogue of old Poverty Row titles. During the Sixties and Seventies, fellow indie and B-movie factory American International Pictures [AIP] eventually released a handful of soundtrack albums via Capitol Records, or on their own AIR label, but most were early pop compilations from the Beach Party series, or pop/rock/psychedelia albums – with an occasional original score cut.

Continues O’Quinn: “I decided that what we really should do is do a composite of all of the best scores that Albert Glasser had done, [so] we put out The Fantastic Film Music of Albert Glasser Vol. 1 – which was the first time the man had been recognized in any way. He was a part of the Rocketship X-M album… but that wasn’t his music, and I wanted to do something for him because I thought he was one of the ‘invisible heroes’ of cheap science fiction shows over the years – Attack of the 50-foot Woman and all this stuff that he’d done. There was some really fun music in there, so we put out that composite album.”

Composite or compilation albums are a safe way for labels to also test the market and see exactly who (and how many) will open their wallets and test the works of a lesser-known composer.

For years, re-recorded themes and suites tended to be the only way one could enjoy vintage B-movie music, and one of the most well-known albums among collectors was Dick Jacob’s 1959 album, Themes from Horror Movies, which offered fun versions of bug-eyed monster music “in Ghoulish High Fidelity.” In 1978, Varese reissued the album without the gimmicky sound effects & dialogue, and reissued the album on CD, in 1993.

Other notable (or to some, infamous) efforts to re-record exploitation movie themes were the multiple albums performed by Neil Norman (and his Cosmic Orchestra), produced and released via Norman’s GNP Crescendo label. Basically updated versions of classic TV and movie themes, the albums, perhaps subversively, reflected Norman’s own love of this special genre music that, at the time, was too pricey to release in complete form. It would take another decade for labels like Monstrous Movie Music to perfect the re-recorded suites & themes concept album into something that was actually faithful to the original recordings and intentions of the actual composers, but during the late 1970s, genre music was still a rare foray for struggling film music labels.

Varese ‘s own real stab at original B-film music came in 1995, when producer Bruce Kimmel assembled selected cues for the CD Not of This Earth: The Film Music of Ronald Stein (an album that was also a labor of love). A rare commercial tribute to a single composer, it would take another six years before indie label Percepto would mine Stein’s excellent music again, and release complete original scores for AIP’s Edgar Allen Poe and bug-eyed monster movies on CD.

Kimmel’s CD for Varese, like O’Quinn’s Glasser album, contained suites of indexed themes forming compact impressions of their respective films, and the Stein CD reflects the same boyhood glee and sense of fun that resonates from O’Quinn’s tribute to Glasser.

“Sometimes I’d create a suite of the soundtrack music myself,” recalls O’Quinn, “which wasn’t the kind of thorough approach that I had done on X-M, but it was an introduction to a man that people needed to know about and that I wanted to spotlight.” A second volume of planned music never materialized, but like Percepto Records, it took a few more years and another producer with dedication and affection to give some of Glasser’s music another showcase. Packaged in a pair of beautifully designed albums by Craig Spaulding, Screen Archive Entertainment’s first productions were the Cold War cheapie Tokyo File 212, and Glasser’s music for the Philippines-based drama, Huk! (based on Sterling Silliphant novel). Spaulding, also an art director, followed O’Quinn’s example by treating each album as a top quality production.

With a discernable regret in his voice, O’Quinn adds how Glasser “was a treasure trove of material and information,” but a number of market realities with Volume 1 made a second album a far riskier venture. “There was only one stereophonic score on that first album,” he explains, “and at that point [Quadraphonic sound] was just appearing, and everybody was concerned that the technology of recordings be ‘high fidelity’ and stereophonic… We were coming out with this old stuff that was anything but that, and [it] was a detriment… and made people not want to buy it, especially when it was about a man that they’d never heard of. … It wasn’t a huge hit, but it did okay. Again, I wasn’t doing it for money; I was doing it because I wanted to do it.”

Tastefully assembled with lavish vintage poster and promo art, The Fantastic Film Music of Albert Glasser contains a transcription disc of Glasser’s famous theme for the Cisco Kid from 1948, and moves through later TV and film work, culminating with a lengthy 17+ minute suite of stereophonic cues from The Boy and the Pirates. Alongside Rocketship X-M, O’Quinn’s Glasser compilation remains unreleased on CD.



Coming Soon: in Part 2 of our interview and appreciation of Kerry O’Quinn’s work, we’ll examine one of the first albums to employ nascent digital recording tech, Bernard Herrmann in QUAD, and the final years of Starlog Records.

KQEK wishes to extend grateful thanks to Kerry O’Quinn for taking time out from his busy schedule to discuss a very dear period in his lengthy career, and to William H. Rosar (Editor of The Journal of Film Music) for facilitating valuable contact and background information.

Information on the Starlog Group and its numerous publications is available at the official website ofStarlog Magazine.


Related external links (MAIN SITE):

CD/LP:  Boy and the Pirates, The (1960) — Fantastic Film Music of Albert Glasser, Vol. 1 (1978) —  Huk! (1956) — Not of This Earth: The Film Music of Ronald Stein (1995) Rocketship X-M (1950) — Themes from Horror Movies (1959) —  Tokyo File 212 (1957)

DVD/Film: Tokyo File 212 (1951)


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