CD: Rocketship X-M (1950)

March 3, 2013 | By

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Rating: Excellent

Label: Monstrous Movie Music / Released: March 27, 2012

Tracks & Album Length: 16 tracks / (37:16)


Special Notes:  16-page colour booklet with liner notes by CD co-producer David Schecter / Limited to 1000 copies.


Composer:  Ferde Grofé Sr. (themes), Albert Glasser (orchestrations)




An auspicious debut release for the short-lived Starlog Records label, Rocketship X-M was one of two film scores with themes by Ferde Grofé that were adapted by orchestrator Albert Glasser, the latter still regarded as one of the most prolific composers of B-level and exploitation movies.

Grofé’s rare dips into the film world often involved writing songs and themes, but more often it was his concert work Grand Canyon Suite that was extracted and adapted by music directors for inclusion in various films.

Grofé’s feature film scores were written for a pair of Lippert Pictures: The Return of Jesse James, and Rocketship X-M (both made in 1950), and with Glasser’s skill, the score for X-M became a superior work for an already unusual spin on space exploration, with an atypical finale for a movie designed to thrill, sell popcorn, and keep the B-movie crowd happy.

The original 1977 LP featured 12 tracks (including a rare, unused theremin solo of Grofé’s tender love theme), and was mastered from Glasser’s own acetate 16” transcription discs, but as Monstrous Movie Music’s David Schecter writes in the CD’s extensive liner notes, those archival paltters have apparently vanished, hence MMM’s disc mastered from a clean LP with the cleaned up material divided into 16 newly titled tracks.

The original LP did feature a slight spatial enhancement which does alter the sonics of mono materials a little, but MMM’s CD has knocked down some of the enhancing, making X-M much closer to its mono originins.

Even had Grofe not been associated with the film and Glasser had been its sole composer, most likely there would still be an interest in the score by the film’s fans, given the story wasn not only engaging, but offered a gloomier finale than George Pal’s own rival space exploration epic, Destination Moon [M], release the same year, and sporting a superb score by Leith Stevens.

Grofe’s main theme is filled with brassy heroism that efficiently conveys the image of experienced seamen (+ one hearty woman) who boldly venture into vast uncharted oceans (er, space), with the stars, moons, and planets guiding them towards a distant, mysterious land. The target – Mars – is the iconic angry red planet seen from Earth as a mythic red orb enshrouded in centuries of mythic tales of aliens, canals, and possible creatures who may be friendly or wholly nasty.

The respective sci-fi scores by Ferde Grofe and Leith Stevens stand as mature, highly dramatic, atmospheric works that hold their own when divorced from their films. It’s a credit to both composers that each managed to codify a high musical standard for the genre, and one can hear traces in modern films, especially Henry Mancini’s own masterwork, Lifeforce (1985), which similarly evoked ‘seafaring’ space explorers to encounter more than they bargained during a routine mission.

A number of X-M cues are amazingly engaging, including “Into Orbit” – an uneasy, lilting work, with woodwinds replaying a short phrase – or “Floating Free” – which uses primal electric organ reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s ethereal music for the 1959 Twilight Zone episode, “The Lonely.”

Grofé also varies the cue’s tempo with subtle bass and lower strings – a motif he further develops in extraordinarily exciting cue, “The Martian Mutants.” The use of interwoven bass lines – a 3/3 couplet, with an overlaid 4/4 variation – is repeated in differing permutations (some tweaked with a haunting electronic echo-warble), starting and stopping as the humans are chased by a rapidly approaching band of Martians.

Interwoven is a subtle theremin solo, punctuated (if not smothered) by Glasser’s brassy explosions that bracket searing strings passages which heighten the humans’ desperate efforts to reach their rocketship. Glasser also employs percussive exclamations, and alternates the action sections with short, restive bars, featuring a solo theremin that acts as a kind of aural cutaway – visually evoking the unseen yet dangerous presence of the aliens, before a rattling sound effect beckons the full orchestra to resume what’s essentially music for a human hunt.

On the original LP, “The Martian Mutants” ran a chunky 6 mins., but even in its separately indexed incarnation as “I Saw the Martians” and “The Atomic Age to Stone Age / The Chase” the music still packs a punch as a shimmering organ and woodwind motif is gradually developed into a full-blown orchestral chase cue. Grofe / Glasser use grim low chords as a prelude to a recurring 6-beat stalking motif, and shift between ascending figures, wildly intensified theremin waves, and percussive hits with strings plaintively rendering spiraling figures. The cue eventually sustains a momentum like a dance piece before the brass flare up and the cue fades out.

The LP’s original track “Exploring the Red Planet” was similarly re-indexed into separate tracks, and that mini-suite is also a great example of the composers playing with the orchestra’s dynamics. Glasser’s orchestrations slowly drop the orchestra’s intensity before an unsettling surge and sudden shift to a gentle, haunting interlude that again plays with a 6-note motif. In between is a theremin solo which recalls Bernard Herrmann’s decision to use two of the iconic woo-woo instruments in The Day the Earth Stood Still, released a year after X-M.

The Starlog LP’s liner notes credit Glasser in suggesting the employment of musician Dr. Samuel Hoffman and his theremin for the score, and long before the instrument became a cheap sound effect in lesser movies, it’s used in X-M with grace and restraint, evoking the mysterious allure of Mars, and the dangers of wandering too close to a primal life form.

Contrasting the heroic theme and beautiful suspense cues is a lush romantic theme (“Floyd and Lisa at the Window” on the CD) which really gives the score a marvelous dimension, especially because the theme makes the brief romantic moments unusually genuine (which isn’t always the case in classic fifties sci-fi).

While fans of either X-M and Destination Moon are aware of the film’s thematic link – space exploration – and stature as pioneering American sci-fi entries, Grofe’s score has perhaps been overshadowed by the composer’s concert music, and the fact X-M wasn’t released on LP until 1977, whereas Stevens’ music enjoyed commercial exposure as a 10” LP, a storybook LP, and an early stereo re-recording within the same decade. The stereo LP of Moon has also been reissued on LP and CD, while X-M pretty much ended up in collector circles, if not as a curio in used record shops; if you didn’t know the film’s history, you might have been reluctant to gamble on what is, in every way, a great soundtrack album.

MMM’s CD comes with another lengthy foldout booklet featuring gorgeous cover art by Vincent Di Fate, and Schecter gives a broader (and more contemporary) history of the film, the score, and the unusual collaboration between a concert composer and a B-movie maestro.

The original Starlog LP featured detailed liner notes by producer Kerry O’Quinn and stunning cover art by Kelly Freas, and was followed by The Fantastic Film Music of Albert Glasser, Vol. 1 [M], showcasing tge music of X-M‘s expert orchestrator / music director. For more information on histories of both classic LPs, read our click WKME-enhanced interview with Kerry O’Quinn.



© 2006; revised version © 2013 Mark R. Hasan


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