Sight and sound

Film Music byPhil Johnson

Late last year Roy Budd's soundtrack for the 1971 British crime thriller Get Carter was released on a new record label, Castle Cinephile. Previously available only on a Japanese album and a British single of the main title theme, both of which appeared at the time of the film's release, the music for Get Carter had long since acquired cult status among DJs and connoisseurs of obscure retro soundtracks. It was even reported that a rare copy of the Japanese album was sold at auction for £1,500, although, perhaps unsurprisingly, the identity of the buyer has not been disclosed.

Although the Cinephile Get Carter release was hardly an event of Titanic proportions, it has surpassed all expectations, selling 25,000 copies so far, with the vinyl edition of the album said to have outsold the Manic Street Preachers' latest chart-topper by ten to one in some shops. While the appeal of listening to old thriller title themes and brief musical cues designed to keep you on the edge of your seat might seem rather doubtful, once heard in the environment of a club the music makes perfect sense, for clubs are often like thrillers already: dark, damp and filled with the promise of sex, violence and sudden danger.

It was in clubs that the vogue for film soundtracks began, before going on to influence the dark and edgy music of pop groups such as Portishead and Massive Attack. "All those English cold war and gangster film soundtracks really inspired us," says Portishead's guitarist Adrian Utley, who is now writing two film scores himself. "What's especially inspiring about the music to Get Carter is that it was done quickly and cheaply with only a few instruments, and it had to be intensely creative to disguise its limitations." These limitations were very real: the music for Get Carter was produced on a budget of £450, and played largely by Budd himself and the other members of his jazz trio, bassist Jeff Clyne and drummer Chris Karan.

Budd's score for The Black Windmill, Don Siegel's 1974 film, is perhaps even better than that for Get Carter. All the best hallmarks of his style are present: taut, tension-inducing strings, antique electronic keyboard sounds distressed by reverb and studio trickery, and the clack and shimmer of obscure Latin American percussion instruments. Incredibly, a couple of tracks even appear to anticipate the contemporary dance music style of drum'n'bass, with the off-beat, reggae-derived rhythms of Karan's drumming reaching the ridiculously fast tempos that these days are produced only by machines.

Roy Budd, who died from a brain haemorrhage in 1993 at the age of 46, was both a significant jazz pianist and the most successful British film composer of his generation. Entirely self-taught, and already performing by the time he was six, Budd learnt his trade as a film composer largely through watching films himself. "I used to go to the movies every day and listen to how it worked," he told Karan. It's also said that Budd obtained his first commission, for Soldier Blue in 1970, by stealth, sending the director Ralph Nelson an audition tape which consisted entirely of music he'd recorded from soundtracks by other composers.

Budd's film scores were recorded live, direct to picture, using - at least after the minimalist Get Carter - orchestras of up to 80 musicians during the boom years of Anglo- American film production in the mid-1970s. The British film music world in which Budd was such a leading light is now a thing of the past, however. Karan says he gets few calls for films these days; much of the big work is contracted out to orchestras in Eastern Europe, where musicians come cheaper. Roy Budd's last great project also remains unfulfilled. Shortly before his death, he completed the recording of a symphonic score for the 1925 silent film Phantom of the Opera. Written, once again, for an orchestra of 80, the soundtrack awaits its first performance. When it finally gets played, Budd will have the last laugh: for the first time, his music will not be interrupted by dialogue and sound effects.

"The Black Windmill", "Fear is the Key", "Paper Tiger", "Diamonds" and "Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger" are all available at mid-price on Castle Cinephile