He was the Nightrider. Remember him when you look at the night sky
2,455SRP: £19.99Since we’ve been travelling down these post-apocalyptic highways for a while now, what with the Blu-ray collection of Mad Max films, and reviews of the scores for The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and we’ve covered a helluva lot of miles, it is only fitting that we now turn our attention to how this entire saga started and roar back down the Anarchie Road of “A FEW YEARS FROM NOW …” alongside the younger Main Force Patrol officer Max Rockatansky, or the Dark One as is emblazoned on the side of his super-charged Interceptor.
1979 saw Australian Cinema break all the rules. Up until then it had been known for art-house pictures that married up the landscape with a corrupted and individualized revitalization of cultural awareness, and with American movies of the decade offering up a distinctly nihilistic and anti-authoritarian stance, it was only fair that their Antipodean cousins start playing them at their own game. They were a thrown-together colony and they had a million miles of frontier to fight over and tame, themselves. Their story was just as perfect for the confrontation between good and evil, heroic and villainous. Thus, mixing up the Western with the cop thriller with the road movie, George Miller, Byron Kennedy and James McCausland (who co-wrote it with Miller) created a fuel-injected lightning-storm of hi-octane action and an iconic antihero with an SF/Samurai appeal that would become cult-adored and the leather-suited seed from which would sprout an entire genre. With Mad Max, featuring the breakthrough of star Mel Gibson in the title role, they fashioned a high-speed culture-clash that commented upon the lawlessness of an increasingly moral bankrupt society, Man’s obsession with cars, and the growing desire in audiences for something thrilling, escapist and powerful.
It was a pure future-shock, both cinematically and thematically. At once a violent satire like Rollerball and a ferocious comment upon vigilantism as raw and uncompromising and important as Dirty Harry and Death Wish. It hit like a sledgehammer going at a 120 mph!
With the ultra low-budget and unflinchingly road-raging independent production that sent stuntmen, cars and motorbikes flying through the air with hair-raising violence and flair, the film broke much more than just reckless bones. It was a phenomenal success and it would spawn two outrageously entertaining and inventive sequels, establishing a wild trilogy that has been so universally acclaimed that it is now currently being rebooted with Tom Hardy assuming the character of the endlessly asphalt-scarred warrior, Max, and once again employing the talents of George Miller as the desert-quelling director.
Whilst we await Max’s further adventures down Fury Road, it is worth remembering that back at the start of it all, he had a wife and child. He had friends, and a job. But, in the roar of an engine, all that was taken from him. Enraged at the death of their figurehead, the Nightrider, at the hands of the Main Force Patrol, the Bronze (as they are referred because the big bronze police star on their jackets), a vicious motorcycle gang, led by the Toecutter (Hugh Keyes-Byrne) wage a war of revenge them, singling their star driver, Max, in particular. All this takes place at some undisclosed time, the day after tomorrow, just before global war will ravage the world and leave it desolate and prey to scavenging gangs and marauders. Although there are still diners, clubs, towns and holidaymakers, society has clearly taken a tumble. We do not know this place and we wouldn’t be able to trust the judicial system to save us from the mob who are gradually taking over the roads. Like crusading knights of the highways, the MFP cops are all that stand between us and complete anarchy.
Miller recruited Australia’s premier film composer, Brian May, to create the soundtrack to this dark and troubled near-future of frontier blacktop warfare. With thrillers and chillers behind him, like psychic suspenser Patrick and the Rasputin-like political manipulations of Harlequin, with David Hemmings as a string-pulled politico and Robert Powell as the charismatic magician who has entered his world for nefarious means, May was adept at taking emotive narratives and infusing them with depth, character and, above all, momentum … which is exactly what he would need a lot of for Mad Max. Although the film would be bookended with wild and kinetic chase set-pieces, the entire story was one of growing anxiety and escalating tension. Each confrontation would prove more threatening and deadlier than the last. But the stakes would have to be upped in terms of our commitment to both Max, his young family and his best friend Jim Goose (Steve Bisley), and the strangely charismatic yet terrifying Toecutter and his entourage of amoral ne’er-do-wells.
Well, the album plays hugely out of sequence with the film’s chronology, making a proper track-by-track running narrative a little helter-skelter, but we’ll see how we fare. So hop in and ride shotgun as we explore the music behind the mayhem.
Brian May’s stabbing, aggressive style is particularly suitable to this dystopian view of renegade bikers and the rule-absconding cops who vigorously pursue them. Jabbing brass – trumpets and trombones bleat and yell, almost hurling war-cries in competition with one-another – and rippling drums and percussion churn against scissoring strings. It sounds as though it should be discordant, but the way in which he handles these thrusts and parries is literally like a swordfight, or a boxing match. When May is in action-mode, which is much of the time, he attempts to capture the sense of gunning motors, squealing tyres, screeching brakes and, inevitably, grinding metal. Where John Powell uses synth and drum loops and a relentlessly upgraded beat to signify speed and collision-course intensity in the Bourne movies (with the music and the visuals of Supremacy’s final chase being the ace up the franchise’s sleeve), May is much more old school, and this forces him to be more creative, and to think of the characters, themselves, and their motives.
Powell, for example, goes for lots of high-impacts and set-piece links in an overall chase. May has to think from an orchestral point of view, his writing and conducting bouncing from one section to another, his collisions all the more dramatic and combative, his fanfares really given more credence as heraldic statements. Think of stagecoaches, or Roman chariots at least as much as you think of cars and motorbikes, and you’ll understand the direction he is travelling in and the colours of chaos that are being continually sheared-off in the process of these jostling combatants. A continual motif is the passing of the road beneath us. Miller would use lots of footage of the road virtually moving through the screen during his tour de force chase sequences, or of Goose meandering via various methods of transport towards his burning date with destiny, and of Max endlessly cruising the highways in search of every last member of the Toecutter’s gang.
His MFP motifs are militaristic, a sort of heroism that is only barely clinging onto the dregs of actual nobility. The cops here are cavaliers of the road. They see their job as sport and they take it personally that Scoot-Jockeys or other gang-members are finished-off as road-kill if they able to bring about such a result. Big Bopper’s (Steve Millichamp’s bullish Roop) committed assertion during the opening chase is proof of that – “This skag, and his floozy … they’re gonna die!” These are the good guys, but they also take out innocent vehicles in their reckless pursuit of prey, as we bear witness to a poor van that was about to turn a corner, right into the path of Big Bopper, who doesn’t even stop to assess the condition of the occupants. “We’re really gonna get it this time. He had his indicator on!” screams the God-fearing Charlie (John Ley). Miller was taking the theme of cops and robbers but completely enmeshing it with the warring of cowboys and Indians, and the collateral damage that such a culture clash would inevitably lead to. As the film details, the capture and arrest of a felon is probably the least productive thing that can happen in this hamstrung system. Much better to kill ‘em out on the roads than to bring them in to the crumbling Halls of Justice.
This air of decadence permeates every frame of Miller’s film, but Brian May and Mel Gibson are the ones who steadfastly stick to their heroic guns. You can tell that May understands that this society is already quite some way down the pan, but he is idealistically and romantically, like Max, clinging to some half-forgotten values that may still account for something. They both know that if they don’t fight for what is right, then it is all over. As it all it turns out, their campaign is in earnest, anyway. We all know what hell is coming … but that is all still some way down the road yet.The gang has their theme too, though this is really dominated by the Toecutter because it is with him that we really identify. There’s blonde mop-topped Bubba Zanetti (Geoff Parry), who looks like one of the Thaals from Amicus’ Dr. Who and the Daleks, but he doesn’t get a theme of his own despite being the Toecutter’s main lieutenant. And there’s Johnny the Boy (Tim Burns) and Cundaleni (Paul Johnstone), and Mudguts (David Bracks) – all characters in their own right, yet they do not specifically become attached to any singular motif, other than that for the gang as personified by the Toecutter. And pretty this ain’t. It is filled with blurting brassy punches and jabs. A welter of panto villainy that could so easily have become comical and overly abject, but remains sadistic and with just the right amount of camp to give him and the marauders some depth. It needs the camp, to be honest. Toecutter has a great sense of humour. He wears possum epaulettes and delivers a mobile sermon to his troops from the back of a pickup as they each ride by. His Scottish brogue taunt of Max’s wife is highly amusing despite being composed purely of malevolence, as is his mock shock at being on the business end of an old lady’s shotgun. Hugh Keyes-Byrne plays him exceptionally well – part military leader, part clown, sometimes sociable and witty, sometimes a spitting cobra. Brian May takes all these disparate tangents and coalesces them into something instantly recognizable, volatile and comic-book. He holds the screen … as he needs to with the soon-to-be-mighty Mel Gibson frequently stealing it from under him. As bad as he is … you like having him around. It can’t have been easy coming up with musical material to denote a character such as this without playing it too broadly.
The line between the good guys and the bad is clearly drawn-up, yet there is scope for a lot of overlap. All of these people are in love with danger and death. They are all drawn to the road and they all feel the need for speed. They are more similar to each other than they realize, which is the clever trick that the film plays. Max doesn’t become as violent and as evil as the Toecutter by the end of the film – his very introduction sees him offing what we find out is just another in a long line of scumbags, and he clearly enjoyed his ability to do so. He is as just as much a violent adrenaline-junkie as his fellow officers and the gang-members, and the Nightrider is just another skull-and-crossbones that he can engrave on the side of his car like a fighter-ace after another dogfight. He just works to a more recognizable set of standards. It is May who peels back the layers of these people, exposing the heart and soul of Max, his wife Jessie (Joanna Samuels) and their toddler, known as the Sprog. They live in a lovely beach-house, but you can’t really imagine Max being able to relax there for too long without the lure of the gas-pedal and the revving of an engine drawing him back to the open roads. Nevertheless, May instills that environment with a sense of peace and harmony.
Barren austerity befits the police station, which is just a clapped-out tenement of slovenly desks and half heaved-over filing cabinets, that has feral urchins prowling around its grounds. May invests it with some sense of dubious apparatus of fallen grandeur, but it is intended to fool no-one. The system has collapsed and these boys are having too much fun on the roads to be bothered picking it up.
Indeed, it is the open road is where the real musical journey takes place, both literally and metaphorically. Even when they are not tooling down the highways, the characters’ minds are endlessly motoring. The score is, therefore, almost always involved with movement, with roving and never settling for too long, as if to do so will mean overtaken and left behind. Left for dead. But another very important factor that he delivers brilliantly is the horror and suspense of the ordeal that poor Jesse goes through as she is pursued, harassed and terrorized by the gang for a lengthy section of the film. Critics sometimes cite that Mad Max is just a great beginning and a violent conclusion with not much in-between. Man, they really forget the plight of Max’s wife and best friend, which totally encapsulates the entire direction that Max must go in.
Okay, Brian May is now at the wheel. With plenty of detours and sidetracks lined-up along the way, let’s still see where he’s headed.
Main Title is the introductory track and it does, in fact, play over the opening titles. We will hear it again later, but here is serves as a brash, militaristic statement of a world teetering on the brink of total anarchy. Miller has the credits stamp out of the black screen in synch with the punching musical sparring of May’s brass and horns. It is actually quite amusing to watch the names starkly materialise in time to the aggressive clarion-call fluttering of the horns. Bass drums and cymbals clash like the surf. Snares come in and brass makes repeated mini-fanfares. There’s a drum roll, and then a section of disjointed martial snap. A trumpet trills with dementia. It is like a circus serenade performed by shell-shocked soldiers. Almost certainly, Maurice Jarre heard this and deliberately expanded upon it with delirious overkill for his arena material for Thunderdome. May would Mickey Mouse his scores, as we have discussed before, and this could be a source of consternation for some, who label it as lazy and somewhat vaudeville. But I think it works startlingly well, and this approach is firmly adopted right up front during this title sequence, setting out May’s unequivocal determination to race alongside Miller’s visuals, come what may.
Yet after this, the opening few tracks are actually from the film’s final act, which see Max donning his leathers and taking the fabled black last of the V8 Interceptors from the MFP garage – the very vehicle that was purloined “a little piece from here …a little piece from there,” to keep him on-side after thoughts of giving it all up had entered his head - and going out after the Toecutter. Roger Ward’s long-suffering MFP captain Macafee, or Fifi, looks like a bruiser but, after Max, he’s probably the one with the most heart. He knows he needs Max fully committed to the cause if he’s going to stand any chance of keeping the others in-line.
Max The Hunter details the glorious stretch of the ominous black Interceptor prowling the countryside and decimating the gang, bit by bit. Beginning with the moment when Johnny makes a frantic call to his leader from a roadside phone-box to inform him that Max is after them, and then gaining substance as the Toecutter then finds the pictures of Max’s murdered nearest and dearest in his motorcycle helmet, left there as a taunt, the track reflects how the cop then embarks on evening-up the score. Hurried brass and slashing strings keep the speed. Bass adds weight to the rage and violence that is welling-up. Sustained cymbals, tribal ululations from the strings and horns, and then the bass elements all conspire to drive the track forward, putting us in the mindset of Max’s blinkered and relentless hunt for those responsible. These sudden phrases really judder the nerves, goading the adrenaline. The musical narrative is all about momentum, and May allows it to build and gather velocity with each passing motif. The Toecutter’s theme is in here too, darker, more raucous with blaring staccato blasts from the trumpet.
We reach a stalling point as Max cannot pursue the bikers after getting stuck behind a slow-moving road-surfacer, his quarries having just skirted by it. Once he is able to get around it, Max falls for a ruse when he spies a crashed bike off the side of the road. He stops to investigate, alarm bells literally going off in May's score, and just as he gets halfway across the road, Bubba suddenly shoots him through the kneecap, blowing it apart and leaving him crippled on the deck.
The track culminates with a ringing bell as Max lies stricken in the road.
Max Decides On Vengeance finds our hero sitting out by the beach house after the shock of losing his family. Consumed with rage he twists the horror mask that we saw earlier during more tranquil times, in his hands, mimicking his own warped expression of rage and anger, and then, his mind made up, hurtles back to the house to suit up in his leathers for the coming storm. Five notes peal out from French Horn, then trumpet – the Max Theme twisted around into a motif for revenge. The scene becomes a montage as he strides away from us into the MFP garage and then drives out towards us in the black V8. As he travels out onto the highways, we hear the harp and high strings and horns and percussion rolling through a squall of Max’s theme. This is something that May excels at. He has a lilting phrase for the strings, a reminiscence of times gone by, and then he suddenly switches gear and U-turns with feral percussion and brass, the track becoming a deliberately and skillfully jumbled derby of different tones and motifs, perfectly mimicking the divided attitudes of the good guys and the bad guys. Chimes and harp figure, strings layer the dignity and the agony of the actions that Max is about to take. But snares and flurries from brass harass whatever morality he may still cling to, badgering them into submission until he becomes at one with the car, as he has always been – man and machine. Unstoppable. The tracks culminates in a caterwauling exchange of trumpet fanfares, rolling drums, shrieking strings and woods as Max hurtles through an element of the gang and eggs them into pursuing him.
Pulling a handbrake-turn and whirling back down on them he sends them crashing to their deaths over a metal bridge. Famously, we see one poor stuntman getting clocked very violently on the back on the head by his bike in bone-crunching slow-motion, adding to the sense of fury. May’s music, too, becomes a jumble of bodies, machines and clatter, all searing to an emphatic and earnest conclusion of momentary victory. That’s one section dealt with. But he’s still got the more dangerous ones to take care of. May’s drums rumble like thunder in the hills. Max is on the warpath. And he’s madder than a bag of rattlesnakes.
The passing road motif and even a gloriously haunting reminder of Jessie’s sax-playing lie at the core of The Final Chase, in which Max, his kneecap blown-out, his arm crushed, still comes after the Toecutter and charges after him down the Anarchie Road. The actual action of this cue is over and done with the first few seconds really – a burgeoning arm-wrestle of brass, horn, drums and strings – as Max’s Interceptor effortlessly nudges right up behind the Toecutter’s bike and leaves the gangleader unable to break in-time or to evade an oncoming 18-wheeler that crushes him nastily and explicitly in a head-on, eye-bulging collision. A slower, more deliberate brass statement serenades Max’s cold-blooded execution, capped with violins to lend a more stately air of triumph as Max nonchalantly cruises back down the road past the messy wreckage on the deck. This track then segues into Max’s almost trance-like hunt for Johnny the Boy, the last remaining member of the gang. Harp, brass and sax form that haunting reminder again. Visually, Max seems to slumber at the wheel, rain slicking the vehicle and a blurred, almost ethereal shining light leading him on, almost like a waterlogged crucifix, or a star seen through the glassy waters of a pond.
Subtextually, you could have a field day with that, but it is simply a metaphor for time blurring as he searches on and on. The track culminates in a haunting, vehicular reverie as Max spies evidence of a vehicle having been run off the road around a bend, its wreckage lying further down the side of a ridge. May’s passing road motif is slowed-down to a glistening variation, startled by a blast from the trumpet and then a final urging beat from brass and woods compelling him to investigate.
Max may be the ultimate prize for the Toecutter and his crew, but Jimmy the Goose is pretty high on their hit-list too. After striking up a particularly unhealthy relationship with Johnny the Boy (Horst Bucholtz lookalike Burns), the gang do their utmost to ensure that the MFP daredevil is going to suffer. The Terrible Death of Jim Goose begins with the final flambéing moment of the poor motorcycle cop, a sudden blast of brass and aggressively brushed cymbals, and then moves straight into Max’s arrival at the hospital to see all that is left of his best friend. Edgy strings try to stop Max from entering the room in which Goose is being kept. His buddies outside try to prevent him, but he pushes past. Max’s own theme, on horn, makes a forlorn entrance as he discovers his friend on an oxygen-pumping ventilator-machine. May injects horrifying stingers to appreciate Max’s stunned revulsion first at the burned arm that falls from beneath the ventilator’s shroud, and then his frame-warping reaction to Goose’s face after pulling the blanket back and seeing all that remains of it. It is supposed to be brief and full of shivering impact, and it works mightily. “That thing in there … that’s not the Goose!” curses Max to Macafee as he leaves the ward. Big bass drums and a warped rush of strings hurl themselves against the end of the cue, compelling a sense of horror and vehemence. Whatever dark place Max is in, it is not where Fifi wants him … his star player is out of the game. At least for the time being.
May’s music attempts to return some grace and serenity to the score with We’ll Give ‘em Back their Heroes, which is Macafee’s earlier assertion to Max that the good guys can still win despite the lack of respect that the Law gets these days and the distinct dearth of real power they are able to assert as far as the courts go. He’s scared of losing his best man, which is where the prize of the black customized V8 Interceptor comes in, but this track is something of a home-calling for Max. It is his theme, played gently, forlornly, with an agonized sweetness that feels like a fresh wound being licked by a doting dog. The violins play over Jesse’s sign language message that she is “crazy about you” for Max.In Pain and Triumph, Bubba viciously rides over Max’s outstretched arm after shooting him to the ground. “Quit toying, Bubba,” advises the Toecutter, and Bubba Zanneti, replying with “Easy, I know what I’m doing,” then burns down the road a second time, intending to squash Max like a bug. But with Brian May’s insistent urging, Max is able to reach his shotgun and, just in time, blow Bubba Zanetti off his bike to a brassy fusillade of triumph. In agony, Max manages to rise up and, dragging a useless leg and dangling a flopping arm, push himself towards his V8, a ponderous fanfare supporting him. The Toecutter seethes at such dogged hatred and hisses like a snake down at his nemesis, but he has the instincts to get out of there, just the same, so he takes off into the distance. Johnny the Boy, who played his part in the trap, also speeds off across the meadows in a different direction. With May adding to both Max’s pain and anguish and to his valiant determination not to be beaten, Max makes it to the car. His theme sounds as though it is dripping blood. A hawk has already settled on Bubba’s body, and May’s music shrieks along with it in a wired rasp of blind and unforgiving rage. The brass makes refrains akin to those for the gang, but Max’s theme bleeds through, suggesting that he is the dominant force now, as beaten up as he is. Ravens figure in the trilogy as a peripheral signpost of the vengeful spirit, but this is a hawk, symbolizing the hunter.
Again, the album mixes things up.
After a jaw-dropping flyby as he careens 85-feet through the air alongside his sabotaged bike, we find the Dazed Goose slowly coming-to in a field. Steve Bisley is amazing in the role. Gibson’s real-life best mate at the time, he plays the Kenickie to Max’s Danny Zucko, but the Goose is the real character of the squad. Carrying so many broken bones and having survived so many crashes already, he seems largely unperturbed by this particularly spectacular spill. You just know that he’s planning on dining-out on it for some time to come. Only he hasn’t got much time left, and his last supper will be his own barbeque. We’ve already heard The Terrible Death of Jim Goose, so we know what’s just around the corner for him, but May certainly gives us a few hints with this brief track. After a brash intro, strings waver above the cello, following an uneasy and apprehensive path of slow-burn suspense. The harp glimmers and nervous woods waft through the clouds of his fuzzy head. Like Goose, we feel tingly and a bit woozy from the impact. There is something in the air … something dark and dangerous. If Han Solo were here, he’d surely remark that he had “a bad feeling about this.”
There is a combination of material found in Foreboding in the Vast Landscape. This section seems at first to deal with Johnny’s revenge being perpetrated upon Jim Goose. The first segment caters with the spiraling speed at which Goose’s bike is travelling, with whipping strings clocking breakneck force as he zips down the empty roads, May accelerates with elements of high suspense and darker tones from the gang’s unseen involvement. The middle section, however, is full of slow menace and imperious cruelty and would appear to hail from the moment when the Toecutter, tired of the now-freed Johnny’s tomfoolery, walks him out into the sea, almost pleasantly, and places the barrel of a shotgun in his mouth to try to ram his authority home to the errant boy. But this track also details the first encounter that Jesse has with the gang when she leaves Max at the mechanic’s and heads off down the road to get the Sprog an ice-cream. Surrounded by them, she slams her knee into the Toecutter’s groin and leaves him with vanilla ice-cream on his face and, in the process of hurtling back to Max she removes the chain-whipping Cundalini of his hand. All of this becomes a throttling set-piece for May’s brass and strings. We hear Max’s theme creeping in near the start, yet it fails to spark, signifying that the good guys aren’t going to win this time. Drums and the sound of a ringing alarm spike the nerves. Violins and bass mark time with suspense and dark notes glower with the Toecutter’s dark intent. There is ethnic woodblock and shaker here too. Percussion meets up with those bells, and the whole thing ends with a long, sustained shiver of the cymbals. Max now knows that there’s trouble out here, even this far away from his earlier battleground. The new dog that they’ve bought discovers the hand hanging off the back of the van, and Max reports the whole thing to Ziggy (Jerry Day), the most laidback rural MFP cop there ever was. “I’ll file it under lost property,” he declares of the severed hand, assuring the Rockatanskys that everything will be all right.
Next, in Declaration of War, Johnny the Boy gets off with the charges of rape and assault, his seedy lawyers attempting to escort him off the ramshackle premises of the Halls of Justice. But Jim Goose is having none of this. Maddened and truncheon hefted he attempts to keep hold of his prisoner, causing a fight that spills out into the courtyard. He gets a couple of blows on Johnny, who is finally helped to safety … and freedom outside the gates by a waiting Bubba. “We remember the Nightrider!” Johnny calls. “And we know who you are!” he then threatens the Goose. The line has been drawn and Jimbo is now a target. Dissonant brass and a scything of the bass create a tempest of seething anger as the Goose is forcibly held in-check. Horns and cymbals form a one-two of fury.
Brian May gets scary and intense with Flight from the Evil Toecutter. After driving out to the coast to stay out of harm’s way at Aunt May Swaisey’s farm (Sheila Florence, Lizzie from Prisoner Cell Block H) Jessie has been down to the beach, alone, and we already know that the gang has spied her from the cliff-top above. She senses something is wrong as she makes the trek back through the woods to Aunt May’s farm. Brian May (no relation) accents the fleeting figures of the stalking bikers as they flit from tree to tree all around her with trilling brass, gliding harp, ominous chimes, machinegun flurries of woodwind and angular shrieks from horn. This is the sort of track that would elevate any horror film, and it delivers a genuine frisson of skin-crawling, blood-freezing terror here. Various little motifs overlap, all spirited, all pell-mell, all highly anxious. Strings, brass and woods flash in all directions, spinning and spiraling in an attempt to catch up with the ghostly figures moving through the wood. The harp can be heard, as can a bell. May puts in a huge stinger as Jesse stumbles across the hanging remains of their new pet dog, and then again as she runs into the lumbering and clearly backward farmhand, Benno (Max Fairchild, who also appeared in Mad Max 2), in another big false scare. The track ends with apprehensive strings sliding out to the close. I have always been struck by how well Miller choreographed this sequence, amping-up the frights and the jeopardy with consummate skill. May plays his part superbly too, of course. Joe Dante would replicate this sequence in The Howling.
This continues in earnest in Pursuit and Tragedy in which the van gives up the ghost and breaks down on the road. Max has heard the shotgun blast and is now running back up through the farm. Jesse and the Sprog climb out and begin to run down the centre of the road – which is hardly the best place to be, but then who would really believe that a gang of bikers would actually mow down a mother and her child? May Swaisey fires at the oncoming gang, but they effortlessly weave around her and the stranded vehicle. Accelerating at the last moment, the Toecutter cold-bloodedly murders the pair and leaves their carcasses in the road for Max to find a moment or two later.
We know that the tracks have been altered and moved around in this presentation, but it also seems as though some of them have been cut up and utilized in other places too. Elements such as Max crushing the mechanic and getting him to admit which of the gang-members are still in the vicinity, and the sequence in the hospital after his family have been scooped-up off the road, fit within lengthier cues.
Another part of the Jesse-terrorised sequence is heard in Jesse Alone, Uneasy and Exhausted with edgy skittering whippoorwills of strings, harp and woods taking flight, lifting into the air with a haunted sprightliness. The cymbals have trembled, the piano teased with agitation. Max’s theme makes its presence felt, but it is too slight, too far away to be of any comfort, more a reminder that he should be there for her. Bass and cello maintain a dark foundation with tremulous notes.
Light and dark are jumbled-up again. In the film, the score can only head into ever-grimmer territory, but this medium allows the listener a more even experience. In accordance with this, May’s album presentation now opts to drop the shivers and the tension as we become guests at the Rockatansky Beach House. This is from much earlier on in the film, after Max has seen off the Nightrider. Strings slide all around, woods gently insinuate happy, hopeful times. The horn plays a variation of Max’s theme. Cello and piano create a rustic, homely feel. A faint intrusion of the darker theme dances about at the periphery, reminding us that Max’s working day isn’t simply sitting at the office. Max puts on the horror mask, the big latex grumpy-face, but all is harmony. Glassy percussion and delicate strings keep things light and airy. May expertly transitions from nastiness and depravity to reveal what this is really all about, what really matters at the end of day.
This passage is followed by The Nightrider’s Rave from the film’s opening salvo. Now, inarguably, it is the actual words spoken, hissed, growled, taunted by Vince Gill, himself, drunk on adrenaline that make this section so darn memorable, overshadowing May’s musical backup simply because of their deranged and madcap venom. In fact, it would have been quite something to have had an alternate track with the insane monologue on it. But May’s cue takes up after the Nightrider has just eluded not one, but all three of the pursuing MFP vehicles – Charlie and Big Bopper have gone through the side of a caravan, the March Hare car has overturned and slid to a halt on its roof and Goose, with a grin, has just glided to a leg-breaking impasse against the side of the caravan-pulling vehicle. “Much damage?” enquires Max calmly over the radio, and the Nightrider replies, goading another Bronze into the fray. “Much damage, Bronze? You should see the damage. Metal damage. Brain damage.” And then he goes into his notorious speech about being the “mighty hand of vengeance, sent down to strike the unroadworthy.” May refrains at this time from utilizing one of the more traditionally heroic fanfares. Max, so far, has been a mysterious figure, only partially glimpsed preparing his Interceptor for action and strapping on his gear, whilst all the others hogged the screen with their high-speed scrapes. Little flutters of brass, and fillets of woodwind skitter about, evocative of the distances that have been covered and reinforcing the fact that there is now only one man standing between the Nightrider and the escaped felon’s bid for freedom right down at the other end of “the rubber road.”
Things turn darker with the bass drums and the cymbals and the strings worrying their way over the top. Then a fine new beat strikes up. Cello and muted trumpet combine to build up a warning rev of Max’s motor, and then an awkward lurch from the trombone, just one belch, and Max moves off, the track coming to an end. Rockatansky will play chicken with the Nightrider, unnerving the psycho’s previously unshakable conviction that he is the best on the road, and then speeding right up behind him, effortlessly trouncing the fact that the stolen Pursuit Special, on methane, is no match for his own high performance Interceptor. The Nightrider will die an ignoble death in the middle of a blazing inferno (spurred on by a Navy booster-rocket attached to the back of the stunt-car) … and Max will finally be introduced to pounding bass drums – although this last element will not be heard here in this track.
After making it back to May Swaisey’s farm, Jesse realizes that the Sprog is not there. In desperation, and with the same frantic chase motif from Track 11, Jesse Searches For Her Child, she discovers that the gang have got back through the forest before her and have the toddler in their grip. Woods, xylophone, sinuous strings and ominous horns signify this more deadly turn of events. May arrives with a shotgun and gets the bairn back after proving she knows how to handle the firearm, and manages to drive the gang, somewhat implausibly, into an outhouse and locks them behind its flimsy wooden door. She, Jesse and the child will now make a mad break for it in the family car that we already know isn’t likely to get to very far due to a fault in the engine that Max was trying to repair earlier.
Rampage of the Toecutter is brilliantly intimidating, yet surprisingly amusing at the same time. The introduction is a mad, goose-stepping barrage of the purest nastiness. Brass stomps all over the place. Strings have palpitations. A brief lull for fever-brewing violins, harp, chimes and ethnic shaker then gives in to a frenzied rush of horns, tumbling brass and crashing percussion.
After the Toecutter has been flattened at the end of The Final Chase, Max heads out after the one remaining gang-member, Johnny the Boy. Although certainly justified in taking this weakling out, Max knows that Johnny is not the fiend that his cohorts were. His actions, once he locates the now solitary criminal, are the most controversial of the film, however, and stand as some of the most vengefully cathartic in cinema. In a scene that is almost surreal, Max discovers a pickup has been run off the road.
Limping down the hill to the wreck he finds Johnny dragging off the dead driver’s boots. Despite protesting that this isn’t how it seems, and that he only found the guy this way, Max puts a gun to his head and has him cuff his own ankle to the upturned pickup, that is spewing gas. Setting up Johnny’s own lighter, the one that cooked the Goose, so that the spilled oil will soon reach its flame in the pool of a cracked headlight, Max offers his last quarry a choice. “The chain in those handcuffs is high-tensile steel. It would take you ten minutes to hack through it with this,” he tosses him a spindly hacksaw. “Now, if you’re lucky, you can hack through your ankle … in five minutes. Go.” And with that he turns and climbs back up the ridge, leaving Johnny with the terrible decision. Marvellously, as Max drives away, we see a huge fireball go up behind him … and we can only assume that Johnny has gone up with it because unless he has loitered for a couple of moments, he got his calculations wrong.
May scores this crucial sequence, The Crazing of Johnny the Boy – “You can’t kill me, man! Not for stealing a man’s boots!!!” – with a sense of pained fate and tragedy. We know that Johnny didn’t actually want to kill Jim Goose despite his threats. We know that, deep down, he was a coward and not a true follower of the Nightrider or the Toecutter … and May reflects this dilemma with a variation upon the Toecutter’s theme, reminding us of how the gangleader attempted to tutor the rebellious and impetuous Johnny, establishing the notion that this is why Max doesn’t simply slay him there and then, and even gives him a choice of whether to survive or not. Aggressive brass and harsh strings dart about, panicking with the same confusion as the captured biker. There is poetry here, too. Max is injured with a blown-out knee. He wants to leave Johnny either as charred as the Goose, or as crippled as himself. Ultimately, the choice and the music settle on a destiny-ignited inferno. (If you notice, too, both the Goose and Max drag their damaged legs callously over Johnny’s face. Another nice slice of symmetry.) Max’s theme returns on horn, and then the motif for the passing road drives alongside us. We know where this will lead us, of course, but it is a fairly safe bet that audiences even back then could guess that, whether they would be privileged to see it or not, Max’s adventures were going to continue.
It may be out-of-whack with the film’s chronology, but the album presentation works well. It has a different ebb and flow to the movie, of course, yet this only aids in the telling of the story from another perspective, and one that is able to shift gears and glide between the unyielding and the smooth, the glowering and the heartbroken.
This CD release contains an Outtakes Suite of alternate music tracks, which is a great addition.
There are MFP variations, drums and snares. Darker motifs for the gang and subtle differences in approach to the more aggressive stances. The romance and the sax get another airing – this time sounding very much more akin to Morricone’s material for The Untouchables, in fact, layering-on the lushness and the haunting passage of time motif. The harp comes in here, too. This is a beautiful section, and one that delicately drifts into tenser tones and then back into more romantic rhapsodizing. Fabulously romantic, this only breaks the heart all the more knowing how this relationship came to such a terrible end. This element may be in the film score proper, but to hear this rendition here adds a gorgeously bittersweet melancholy. The heroic kill motif for Max’s immolation of the Nightrider plays delightfully into the driving motif of yearning vengeful purpose at the end, combining two memorable aspects into one cohesive, though brief unit.
The almost panto-like juxtaposition of the heroics for Max and the MFP – which are still stamped-through with a dark, jousting agitation – and the arch scumbaggery of the Toecutter and his cronies is not as knee-jerk as you might think. There is a definite sense of humour at large throughout both camps, and let’s not forget the suspense and the tragic romance built up around the Rockatanskys. There is a lot more to this score than the film’s low-budget, action-oriented format would appear to dictate. May’s use of ear-blasting brass, deceptive harp-play and pounding drums is often harsh, wild and blood-curdling. He evokes not so much the landscape as Jarre would do, but the desolation of the soul and the cruel ruthlessness of callous humanity.Where Mad Max 2 The Road Warrior is all angular, jagged and full-throttle, and highly stylized, and Maurice Jarre’s wildly inventive Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is an indulgent whirlwind of world-creation and primal jamming, May’s inaugural Mad Max is the most motific, thematic and linear of the trio. It doesn’t sound at all dated, however. It remains strongly dynamic and exciting. The call-to-arms is immediate and irresistible, the violence and the suspense as thick as any Bernard Herrmann score for Hitchcock of Harryhausen. It is an immediately identifiable soundtrack and, just like those that would follow, brilliantly addictive. What surprises most is his use of both beatific themes and then out and out horror themes, material that really adds colour to the musical palette.
Taken as one trilogy of scores, the Mad Max series is a thoroughly exhilarating and nonstop barrage of inventive action and stunning thematic violence. It is a shame that we cannot get all of the material for Road Warrior – much of the best stuff has been lost – and a rerecording really should be considered. I have no doubt that once Fury Road begins to gun its engines, thoughts will turn to this original trilogy once more. We need extras packed Blu-rays and full, remastered, and reconstructed (if need be) scores. There are clearly many more miles to travel – ten more thousand, if Tina Turner is correct in her Thunderdome calculations in One of the Living – and we will need all the gas and the all the music we can carry for the journey.
So, we’ve covered some ground recently. We’ve crashed and burned, tumbled and rolled, but we’ve picked ourselves up out of the wreckage and carried on. It’s been post-apocalyptic fun and I hope you’ve enjoyed coming along for the ride, as bumpy as it turned out to be. We’ll meet again in the Wasteland once George Miller and Tom Hardy get their act together and pass their Mad MOT, but let’s just pray that their endeavours have the same passion, intensity and sheer inventiveness of the saga that inspired them.
“Hey Mitch, don’t write off the Goose until you see the box going into the hole!”
1. Main Title
2. Max The Hunter
3. Max Decides on Vengeance
4. The Final Chase
5. The Terrible Death of Jim Goose
6. We'll Give 'em Back Their Heroes
7. Pain and Triumph
8. Dazed Goose
9. Foreboding in the Vast Landscape
10. Declaration of War
11. Flight from the Evil Toecutter
12. Pursuit and Tragedy
13. Jesse Alone, Uneasy and Exhausted
14. The Beach House
15. The Nightrider's Rave
16. Jesse Searches for her Child
17. Rampage of the Toecutter
18. The Crazing of Johnny the Boy
19. Outtakes Suite
VerdictRight at the start of it all, Max had a family and a best friend. There were good times as well as brutish, and Brian May’s score for original 1979 future-shock road-thriller managed to capture all of this. There is mystery and suspense, genuine fear and pathos, and, naturally, some chest-beating heroic fanfares of noble vengeance as Max gets Mad and turns the roads into a white line nightmare for the gang who pushed him too far.
The full score is presented here on this now vintage CD from Varese Sarabande, and it makes for a thunderously exciting listening experience. Far more narratively structured than the two scores that followed in the Mad Max Trilogy, but no less violent, ballsy, headlong and rubber-burning, this is a classic thriller score from an era that was the change. The nihilism of the seventies was about to enter into a different sphere of escapism. The broken-down nuclear ravages and dystopian futures of tomorrow were no longer just around the corner. If John Carpenter could make New York seem like a convincing right-wing penitentiary, and we had no problems believing that vast corporations could sacrifice human employees in favour of robots and alien discoveries, then the vast roads that connected our societies could just as easily becomes the threshold to a bloody new frontier of madness, mayhem and murder.
And, here, right at the start of it all, was Brian Mayhem of the most linear, lyrical and innovative.
We have been through it all now. The films. The music. The attitude. The sheer style and imagination of Miller’s post-nuked oblivion. The stunts. The sheer bloody, no-holds-barred flair. Mel Gibson. The cars. Miller’s take-no-prisoners direction. And the music. It all fits together like a well-worn leather MFP uniform.
It’s pure carnage, of course. But it is always a trip worth making. It is funny how many bruises you pick up even from simply listening to the scores!
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