The sentence “Hello, I’m John Carpenter…” is a simple one when you break it down. All its doing is just saying a simple salutation, but its effect was devastating. It turned a few hundred people into a jibbeirng, shouting, frothing mess. Very similar after watching on of Carpenter’s films. But I’m getting a bit a-head of myself. Let’s rewind things slightly before we continue.
John Carpenter has been horror/action films since the late 1960’s. Films like Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing Christine, Starman and Big Trouble in Little China really put his name on the cultural map. As well as writing, directing and producing these films he also wrote ground breaking scores. They were stark synth soundscapes filled with chilling motifs and eerie moments that really helped cement the vibe and feeling of these films. And it’s thanks to these scores that hundreds of people have braved a cold October evening in Brighton to watch a master of screen become a master of the stage on his debut UK gig.
Carpenter opted to open with ‘Escape from New York’. While ‘New York’ doesn’t have the bombastic opening of other themes, it did say to us “Don’t worry. While I’m opening with a classic, I still have plenty of bangers left in up my sleeves” and this is exactly what happened. As Carpenter, and his 5 piece band, played the theme shivers ran up and down my body as I was transported by to my mate’s parent’s lounge one summer holiday when we watched film after film and slow became obsessed not only with his films but his music. While the band belted out their opening number, there was a screen behind them playing a condensed version of the film. This really helped to hammer home not just not just where the theme was from, but where it fitted culturally.
Once Carpenter had finished we were in the palm of his hand. “Hello, I’m John Carpenter…” he said before launching into ‘Precinct 13’. Since I’d first seen this film as a 15 year old it has stayed with me. This is partly down to the exquisite minimal electronic score and its catchy theme. The footage that played in the background of deserted suburbs and inner city sprawl coupled with the heroes of the film slaying an unending army of gang members really helped ground the feeling isolation and violence that permeates through the score. I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t the highlight of the set.
Next up was the first of the sets low points. At the back of all of our collective minds was the thought “He won’t play any new songs will he?” The answer to this was yes. While there was nothing wrong with ‘Vortex’ and ‘Mystery’ they didn’t have the bite of the opening salvo. However when they finished Carpenter and co. launched into ‘The Fog’, ‘They Live’ and ‘The Thing’. These three films turned Carpenter from an underground hero to mainstream superstar, and this was down again, to their delicate, eerie suspenseful synth scores. As the footage rolled in the back ground, the songs took on even more sinister tones. ‘They Live’ was the first track of the set that deviated from an electro sound. The main component of the track is a blues guitar riff, while industrial beats recreate the sound, and feeling of loneliness of a major city. As the song started the band all put in black wayfarer sunglasses and the screen showed the “Obey”, “Consume”, “Submit”, “Conform” and “Money is You God” slogans that Roddy Piper sees in the film when he put on his sunglasses. These little touches really show that Carpenter had thought about how the set would look and feel, rather than just playing some ‘the hits’.
Throughout the set Carpenter spoke briefly, when the mood took him, danced behind his keyboard. Now we spoke to the audience in a bit more detail. “I’ve made five films with my very good friend. The one film when we have the most fun was about some big trouble in little China’ the audience roared with delight and approval. This was one of the songs where the backing video really hammered home the music. Seeing Kurt Russell strutting about as Jack Burton on screen while the band played their hearts out remind me of watching the film for the first time as a child with my parents and being on the edge of my seat. As Carpenter and co played on I was back on the edge of my seat again, trying not to blink in case I missed something amazing.
Carpenter addressed the crowd again after ‘Big Trouble’, “I direct horror movies. I love horror movies. Horror movies will never die!” then he launched in ‘Halloween’. This is by far his most iconic song and the crowd responded with whoops, cheers and hundreds of devil horns were thrust in the air, to which Carpenter replied! The last song was ‘In the Mouth of Madness’. This is a lesser known work in Carpenter’s back catalogue, but possibly his last great film. And its inclusion at this point in the set made sense.
The band then bowed, applauded us and left the stage. However, after a short break, they returned to the stage. Their encore consisted of ‘Prince of Darkness’, new songs ‘Virtual Survivor’ and ‘Purgatory’. Before the final song of the evening Carpenter thanked us for coming out and said “Make sure you get home safety, as Christine might be out there…” then launched into the final song of the night ‘Christine’.
On the walk home, as well as looking out for killer cars, I played the night over in my mind, and although it had been a sublime trip down memory lane there were some downsides. Most notably the inclusion of five or six new songs. We all get that he is proud of both of the Lost Themes albums, but there are other themes that we would have rather heard instead. ‘Starman’, ‘Village of the Damned’, ‘Vampires’ and ‘Ghosts of Mars’. Yes the new songs were enjoyable, and sounded like cues from his existing films, but they missed that spark that all his themes have. This might have been done to them not having backing visuals, but they were the weaker points of the set. However, when Carpenter went back to the well everything was forgiven. Seeing John Carpenter is more than a cash in to watch edited versions of your favourite films with a live score. It’s a way to watch a legend at work. Carpenter look comfortable, and at times, like he’d been playing live for years. But as Jack Burton would say “It’s all in the reflexes…”