In the wake of the death of his wife, Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski’s next film project was always going to have emerged from a metaphorically dark place. As it happens, the British weather ensured his film of Macbeth also came from a literally dark place, with appalling meteorological conditions combining with production costs (Hugh Hefner stepped in where the majors feared to tread), casting problems (Richard Burton, Albert Finney and Nicol Williamson all passed) and Polanski’s notorious pedantry and off-handedness to make a film the making of few look back on with pleasure.
Third Ear Band were recommended to Polanski by an actress who had worked on a German TV production of Abelard and Heloise that the band had scored for. Though the phone call made by the director to the band’s manager and produce, Andrew King, was very well received, it actually came at a time when the band was perilously close to self-destruction. Melody Maker had already broken the news that their proposed third album would likely be released under the guise of The Electric Ear Band, though a somewhat musical chairs approach to their line-up meant that what was happening tomorrow was as mysterious as what might happen next year.
The line-up for Macbeth was Glen Sweeney (percussion); Paul Minns (oboe/recorder); Paul Buckmaster (cello/bass); Denim Bridges (guitar) and Simon House (violin/VCS 3 synth). Their cinematic score weaved electronic washes of sound through what were ostensibly pieces of chamber music that could have easily been composed in centuries past. This odd construction was a nice mirror of the screenplay by Shakespearian authority Kenneth Tynan and Polanski, with its heart embedded in a vision which could easily have fitted into a contemporary Globe performance.
The score is filled with discordant misery, performed in the studio alongside black and white rushes sent by the director. Minns’s oboe pierces through groaning and agonisingly prolonged bowed strings, whilst Sweeney’s hand drums don’t so much propel the music forward as beat out its funeral parade. Violins sound uncannily like bagpipes, whilst at other times (in particular, Dagger and Death) they are like the disturbing textures conjured up by Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Claps of thunder signify a well-earned break, a bit like the gong sounding for dinner. The most coherently ‘pop’ track is Fleance, a mournful though very pleasing dirge, sung improbably by a youthful Keith Chegwin. A 7 inch single release in Japan of this track is a brilliant reminder as to the absolute absurdity of the music business at the time.
Though given a decent ride by the critics, the film not only lost well over $3 million, it also left Hollywood not touching Shakespeare with a barge pole for nearly two decades. The album too sank without a trace, despite decent notices at the time. The band continued with changing their line-up and within months had gone their separate ways: Buckmaster was the most successful, orchestrating hit records until his death in 2017, most notably Bowie’s Space Oddity; Simon House also joined Bowie (his Lodger period), though he is best known for reinforcing Hawkwind‘s sound from 1974.
The soundtrack of Music from Macbeth has been newly expanded and re-mastered on CD from the original Harvest master tapes and includes four previously unreleased bonus tracks, three recorded at Trident Studios in December 1970 and the fourth a lengthy BBC session recorded in January 1972. The reissue restores the original album artwork and features an illustrated booklet with essay.