Carter’s Return Home: A British Cult Classic And An Iconic Soundtrack

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The iconic British gangster film Get Carter and the much-loved music of Roy Budd.

There’s a curious myth about Get Carter, the iconic British gangster film from 1971, which is repeated several times in the book part of the newly issued soundtrack CD collection. This myth has the film lying almost forgotten from a release where it was savaged by critics, until it was picked up as a totemic work by Loaded magazine, the Brit Pop movement and perhaps Quentin Tarantino in the early 1990s. At one point, we are even told that a Moviedrome screening on BBC2 in 1990, introduced by Alex Cox, was the start of the film’s revival, as this was the first opportunity to see it since it played cinemas. Well, perhaps those things did combine to make the film a quotable classic, but as anyone over 45 could tell you, the film had already been shown a few times on British TV, from the mid-1970s onwards, and was already a cult classic before the word ‘cult’ entered our consciousness – a mid-Seventies screening certainly had our primary school very excited (between those who had seen it, those who pretended to and those who missed the edited broadcast). I’m aware that this sounds a bit like some sort of hipsterish claim to have been into something before it was cool – but the fact is, Get Carter was cool long before the Loaded readers picked up on it, and revisionist history is always annoying.

However, Get Carter has definitely been badly treated for such a classic film. The film  seems oddly overlooked in general these days – perhaps that laddish connection of the 1990s has not helped in the current climate, and the cool grittiness of the film is certainly out of fashion. While the film was ubiquitous by its presence twenty-five years ago, it’s now awash with exactly the sort of ‘toxic masculinity’  that idiots fret about – this is a film about hard men where the women are either victims or disposable figures. And although low budget gangster films are still the go-to for micro budget straight to DVD producers in Britain, their ubiquity probably doesn’t help either – how do you get a new generation to see this as different to the White Collar Hooligan or Essex Boys films? Despite a cult star in Michael Caine and a cult director in Mike Hodges – both of whom have had much less interesting work dusted off and given the special edition treatment more recently – Get Carter has, rather disgracefully, been kicked into the long grass it seems.

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So the new soundtrack release is a welcome revival of sorts. Roy Budd’s score has had several releases, but is rarely acknowledged as being as good as it clearly is. The opening theme, a moody, jazzy number (awash here with sound effects that are either appropriate or irritating, and seem to have been a part of most, if not all soundtrack releases) not only sets the scene but also works as a piece of music in its own right – a piece that has a solid groove to it. In a sane world, this would be recognised as one of the classic film themes of the 1970s, as evocative of the time and funkily infectious as anything by Lalo Schifrin. The rest of the album is a mixed bag – there are more vocal numbers than you might remember being in the film, and although there’s a certain kitsch appeal to them in isolation, they rather bog things down within the context of the album. Plastic soul and easy listening songs Looking for Someone, Love is a Four Letter WordGettin’ Nowhere in a Hurry and Hallucinations are less impressive, dated pieces of Seventies pop, and only Living Should Be That Way, with a certain thrust and fuzztone guitar fever driving it forward, is of any value. The rest of the album is more interesting – there’s the seductive sleaze of Something on My Mind, the groove of The Girl in the Car; Manhunt‘s eerily moody play on the intro theme evolves into a weird, discordantly frantic piece; Goodbye Carter!, the closing credits music is essentially a rereun of the opening theme.

Of course, what might tip the balance for many potential purchasers of this soundtrack (apart from the rest of the package, which I’ll come to in a moment) will be the snippets of dialogue scattered between the tracks, catnip for samplers and DJs – though of course, with the film being currently out of favour, perhaps these gritty, macho, down-at-heel dialogue snippets will no longer be as popular.

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As a stand-alone piece, the Get Carter soundtrack is less exciting than you might have hoped, mainly because the film’s actual score – as opposed to the background songs – is rather sparse. Luckily, Cherry Red’s 3 CD release is filled out to the brim. The aforementioned book is a hefty addition – 96 pages that cover the origins of the movie, Ted Lewis’ original novel Jack’s Return Home, the remakes (the extraordinary blaxploitation version, Hit Man, which was made just a year after Get Carter, is rather unfairly dismissed – how can you not love a version of the story that includes Pam Grier being eaten by a lion?) and, of course, the music, with a plethora of impressive visuals. I’ve seen ‘monographs’ (you can usually assume that anyone calling their book a ‘monograph’ will be more rather full of themselves, but that’s a discussion for another day) that are shorter and flimsier than this, and it certainly begs the question of whether this is a soundtrack CD with a book, or a book with bundled CDs.

On top of this, there’s a CD of additional tracks and remixes. The latter can be lived without for the most part, but extra track Plaything, a deliriously groovy slice of funky pop, is almost worth the price by itself, and you get a couple of instrumental versions of the songs that are a little more fitting atmospherically. More valuable is the ‘best of Budd’ CD, bringing together music from his other films. Opener Mr Funker (from Foxbat) sets the scene – a frantic slice of funk (as the title might imply) that is infectious and bouncy, and if there is one thing that we can take from Budd’s work, it’s that – like Shifrin again, a comparison that I’m not the first to make – pretty much his music has that breathless 1970s lounge pop blast to it. This is the music of no-nonsense action cinema, designed to pump up the audience or raise tension, as effortlessly cool as you could hope for from film music before John Williams and his parping orchestral overkill ruined it for everyone.

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This album – with cuts from the likes of The Stone Killer, The Marsaille Contract, The Black Windmill and Paper Tiger (all fine movies that have also somewhat slipped through the cracks) – is the sort of thing that you can put on as perfect background music (it’s currently my writing score of choice). Funky but not overpowering, the tracks have a familiarity for anyone who loves Seventies thrillers, never becoming discordant or strident – while there’s a definite thrust to the tracks, they don’t bellow their intent at you like a Williams or a Horner or a Zimmer, and at times the album slips into a bit of cool jazz or orchestral smoothness to bring things down. As well as the aforementioned films, there’s stuff here from Brit psycho thriller Something to Hide, Soldier Blue and The Carey Treatment – a pretty impressive haul of titles. Compiler Paul Fishman deserves credit for effectively building a new, perfectly balanced soundtrack for an imaginary film from these individual pieces – helped, admittedly, by the fact that Budd’s music does seem to have recurring themes that allow the tracks to flow nicely. While I get the need to use the Get Carter legend to sell this, I’d personally say that this third disc is the essential piece of the package.

DAVID FLINT

BUY THE CD/BOOK NOW
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