Lost Issue Wednesday: Electronic Scores of the 1980s
by Jon Aanensen
From its beginnings, film music has been characterized by trends in
style and instrumentation. Some of them have disappeared fast while others
have become an epidemic lasting for many years. Back when the mighty 1980s
were lurking head of us, a "new" way of composing music for films was arriving
on the scene. Computers, synthesizers and keyboards became a common and
important tool for musicians in both composing and performing. These "wonder
machines" were able to make the most amazing sounds; some people even predicted
the death of the "old fashioned" orchestra (as the machines would soon
be able to simulate one). Today, we know that this scenario never quite
became a reality; the symphonic orchestra lives on, but as costs are cut,
electronics still play a huge and ever growing role in film scoring.
How did it all begin? Who were the men responsible? To start with, we
can go 44 years back in time, when MGM launched Forbidden Planet,
for which composers Bebe and Louis Barron used electronic instruments during
scoring. These composers didn't directly imprint film music in the years
immediately thereafter, but they gave a sign of what was to come later
on. So let's jump to 1977, when William Friedkin decided to remake the
1953 French classic The Wages of Fear. Friedkin knew that his movie
needed a strong and innovative soundtrack. He thus contacted the unique
and pioneering German electronic group Tangerine Dream to score the film.
Friedkin had heard their work a few years earlier, and regretted that he
had made The Exorcist before knowing about them. His remake of The
Wages of Fear, now entitled Sorcerer, was about to become an
important factor in the explosion of synth scores in the following decade.
In the very next year, Italian producer Giorgio Moroder won an Oscar for
his Midnight Express score, and in 1981 Greek synth wizard Vangelis
followed suit for Chariots of Fire. Blade Runner caused a
sensation a year later. The electronic film score had shaken the traditions.
The composers that would come to dominate this field throughout the '80s
had one thing in common: They were raised outside the usual school of writing
music for films. Their backgrounds were stronger in pop and rock than in
The electronic music of people like David Foster (a studio wizard and
musical "genius") is especially striking because of how it tends to be
completely reliant on melody. In Stealing Home (1988), melodies
flow in the background regardless of what's happening on screen. It's something
of a 90-minute music video. David Foster got his break with St. Elmo's
Fire in 1985, but sadly, after a handful of films, his career hit the
skids. On the other hand, his spirit lives on in the form of people like
Randy Edelman, who has taken some Foster tricks for his piano writing.
Getting back to Tangerine Dream...after Sorcerer and Michael
Mann's Thief (1981), Hollywood filmmakers actively approached the
band. The only problem was that studio albums and endless touring took
up so much time that the band had to be extremely selective with film projects.
Some of their finer moments are: Risky Business (1983), Firestarter
(1984), Legend (1986), Near Dark and Shy People (1987).
It's doubtful that film music today would be the same had Tangerine Dream
not made its mark on the industry. When the '90s finally arrived, Tangerine
Dream faded away, leaving it up to countryman Hans Zimmer, Mark Isham and
Christopher Franke (a member of the group from 1971 through 1988) to defend
In 1984, Michael Mann was so pleased with Thief and The Keep
(1983) that he asked Tangerine Dream to join his growing Miami Vice
team. When that never materialized, the job went to Czech immigrant and
former Mahavishnu Orchestra member Jan Hammer. The Tangerine Dream influences
are pretty obvious in Miami Vice. Mann asked Hammer to come as close
to TD as possible, especially in his sequencer works. From 1985 through
the end of the decade, Hammer scored dozens of Miami Vice episodes,
most of the time working alone in his Red Gate studio and using state-of-the-art
technology...and his ten fingers. Tunes like the "Miami Vice Theme" and
the streamlined studio production of "Crockett's Theme" both made the No.
1 position on the Billboard charts. Not since Mancini's "Peter Gunn Theme"
had something similar happened with original TV music. Jan Hammer is still
working, but today he concentrates on direct-to-video productions and TV
About a year before Miami Vice, the Airwolf series hit
US screens. Airwolf's main composer, Sylvester Levay, wrote a catchy
and melodic main theme which would follow Airwolf on hazardous missions
for years to come. Having worked briefly with Moroder on Cat People
(1982), Levay came as a virtual unknown. From 1984-94 he scored a lot of
TV movies, direct-to-video films and some low-visibility features. His
style centers on melodic, pleasant main themes, excessive sequencer-use
(borrowed from Tangerine Dream) and electric guitar colorings prominent
in his electronics. He could, however, also handle an orchestra. Witness
Courage Mountain (1989), Navy SEALS (1990) and Hot Shots
(1991) -- all his biggest projects and all, dare I say, starring Charlie
Sheen. (For those interested, Hot Shots (VSD 5338) is his only available
full score release.) In the early '90s, Levay scored a few Leonard Hill-produced
tele-features, mostly suspense thrillers, and marked the films with his
usual sequencer-based music. After doing charming projects like Dead
Before Dawn (1992) and Elliot Silverstein's Flashfire (1994),
Levay has basically faded from the scene. Too bad Basil Poledouris took
over the venerable Hot Shots! series. Here's a bit of Levay trivia:
In his early years he wrote songs for Elton John and represented Germany
in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1977.
Jonathan Elias hit the ground running as did Levay. In 1984, Elias tackled
Stephen King's Children of the Corn for director Fritz Kiersch.
While scoring films throughout the '80s, Elias was also a sought-after
producer, putting his name to releases including Duran Duran's "Big Thing"
(1988) and Yes' "Union" (1991). His scoring highlights include Vamp
(1986), Two Moon Junction (1988), Parents (1989, in collaboration
with Angelo Badalamenti), Streetwise (1993) and Far From Home
(1989). Elias' trademark was extensive but tasteful synthesizer use (he
used five synthesists on Far From Home) combined with acoustic strains
of sax, bass and guitar. There are even some orchestral passages in Far
From Home. It's unfortunate this score didn't help Elias break into
After working with Giorgio Moroder, Germany's Harold Faltermeyer moved
from pop music to Hollywood in 1984 to work on two Paramount productions.
Thief of Hearts and Beverly Hills Cop were being put together
and needed up-to-date soundtracks. Synth wizard Faltermeyer proved to be
the right choice, employing catchy, almost refrain-based themes, disco
rhythms...and without an acoustic instrument in sight. "Axel F." from BHC
entered hit lists all over the world and Harold was suddenly hot. Fletch
(1985) and Top Gun (1986) were scored in the same mode before Running
Man (1987) showed Faltermeyer's more classical side (though still with
synthesizers as the main force). At the turn of the decade his assignments
dwindled and he's now settled in his home country, working mostly on German
Like Faltermeyer, American composer Patrick Leonard joined the film
music business after having worked as a producer and writer in pop music.
In 1986 he produced and composed Madonna's million-selling "True Blue"
album. In the same year, directors Gary Marshall and James Foley both turned
to Leonard, and At Close Range and Nothing In Common became
his baptism by fire. He based his At Close Range theme on Madonna's
wonderful "Live to Tell" ballad, while taking on a less electronic guise
for the Tom Hanks comedy. He even wrote a nice James Newton Howard-like
two-minute cue (aptly titled "Instrumental Theme" on the album release).
Still, Pat Leonard never had a real breakthrough and basically disappeared
after With Honors (1994).
Burbank-born Jay Ferguson is another fine example of the "rock musician
turns film composer." In the late '60s and early '70s, Ferguson was a member
of the successful group Spirit, and then went out to start a solo career.
Almost overnight, he moved from being a mainstream/middle-of-the-road/FM
rock star to enter the electronic film music business. In 1985 he scored
Fox's Death of an Angel with Peter Myers. He was active in Hollywood
for the remainder of the decade, scoring eight features between 1988-89.
His biggest projects include Best Seller (1987), Johnny Be Good
(1988), Bad Dreams (1988, VCD 70456) which is sought-after by collectors,
License to Drive (1989) and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The
Dream Child (1989). Today, Ferguson isn't in much demand, but he did
do Tremors II: Aftershocks in '95. His style comes directly out
of the Jan Hammer/Harold Faltermeyer handbook, with catchy melodies and
rockin' drum machines. He isn't well represented on disc; Bad Dreams,
Double Dragon (1993) and Nightmare on Elm Street are available
along with excerpts from Best Seller (on 1991's "The Best of Hemdale"
The 1980s also found composers like Yanni, Eric Serra, Thomas Newman,
Vince DiCola and Nick Bicat starting up their careers. Russia's Eduard
Artemyev and Canada's Yves Lafferier (Jesus of Montreal, 1989),
got their small breaks while Mark Mancina, Patrick O'Hearn and Rod Slane
(All-American Murder, 1992) joined the ranks at the start of the
'90s. DiCola will likely be remembered for his exciting Rocky IV
and Transformers: The Movie scores, but Thomas Newman's career skyrocketed.
His early synth-based years (check out The Man with One Red Shoe,
1985) now seem a distant memory. Most A-list productions are now orchestrally
based (though often enough with synth backing, thanks to Hans Zimmer's
success and influence, and also thanks to dwindling music budgets). The
styles of the '80s have all but disappeared today, sadly scrapped along
with the dated synth sounds they were composed on. The legacy of electronic
writing has not, however, vanished; it has merely evolved. And moreso,
there are still plenty of composers out there who are pop-based and who
emphasize melody and accompaniment...because that's what they're most familiar
with, and what most directors are comfortable with.