Perfect Sound Forever


Photos courtesy of Ennio Morricone Fan Page

by Alan Bishop (Sun City Girls)
(November 2001)

The following is a brief overview of film composer Ennio Morricone's Western scores. In this golden age of CD reissues of out-of-print LP's, definitive editions with bonus tracks and alternative takes, and the full-blown flooding of the consumer market by compilations with occasional crossover duplicate tracks, attempting to gain focus on an artist such as Morricone is a huge task.

In the text below, I have modestly broken down the major scores in EM's Western catalog in hopes that some clarification can be ascertained for those not yet initiated. Opinions of the man's music vary considerably however, most who have listened repeatedly would agree that these works are as rich in texture and complexity as they paradoxically remain quite logical and accessible.

Per un Pugno di Dollari (A Fistful of Dollars - 1964)
Per Qualche Dollaro in Piu (For A Few Dollars More - 1965)
The first two "Dollar" films in the Sergio Leone triology, these scores are the early signals to composers worldwide that a major transformation had begun on the Western scene. This music was new and memorable. The cinematography was changing. The actors were mostly European. The directors began expressing their political views in their films. The American West became a land of violence and uncertainty where, almost overnight, Hollywood's love affair with cowboys and Indians was slashed to pieces by an infestation of mystical outlaws and cold-hearted bandits playing off each other like Sicilian gangsters capturing the imagination of film-goers as the directors shifted location towards areas in and around the Mexican border, saturating the big screen with a land dominated by greed, harsh climates, and human atrocities. In this music, the trumpets are mourning, a church organ sets up camp in hell, guitars are snipers, a pocket watch plays Russian roulette, a lonely whistler massages an exposed nerve, and the orchestra is an explosion. Hollywood's Western was dead.

Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo (The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly - 1966)
Now available as a reissue CD (GDM music) or Double LP (Dagored) expanded to 55 glorious minutes. This is the most fertile of all Western soundtracks with "The Ecstasy of Gold" as its crowning achievement. Too many ideas to be realistic for most films, yet Sergio Leone found a way to incorporate them seemlessly into his first masterpiece. Not even the endless corporate raping of the title theme for purposes of advertising can tarnish this work. It will remain as the standard by which all music associated with the period geography of the film will be judged.

Cera Una Volta Il West (Once Upon A Time In the West - 1969)
Scrutinized and praised perhaps as much as Il Buono..., OUATITW revolves around the three themes wirtten for Cheyenne, Jill, and the man with the harmonica. The emotional qualities of this score are more synonomous with the characters portrayed on the screen than in any film I have seen. What one man did, thousands of miles away in Rome, with a banjo, harmonica, and a woman's voice must have completely blown away his American soundtrack contemporaries at the time, even if they never admitted it. When this film was released in 1969, Ennio Morricone owned (lock, stock and barrel) the audio backdrop of the American Southwest from his perch in Italy.

La Resa Dei Conti (The Big Gundown - 1967)
A lesser-known film, directed by Sergio Sollima and starring Lee Van Cleef, The Big Gundown is loaded with great music. All three variations of the main theme are quite different. One with the Edda Dell'Orso vocal intro into grand orchestral orgasm, another with surf guitar riff Bombay-film feel, and the third as vocal song "Run, Man Run" featuring an over-excited Christy screaming "Never, Never, Never, NEVER" at the top of her lungs. There's a bullfight sequence (La Corrida), a full-on duel-styled cut (La Resa), and plenty of clever arranging, suspense and pastorial moments. A reissue CD with bonus tracks and superior sound quality is now available.

Il Grande Silenzio (The Great Silence - 1968)
Morricone writes and orchestrates this music to fit the climate and geography. Snow, cold and higher elevations of the American West cater more to the loss of blood than the ovens of Sonora. The sad chill of the main theme "Restless" blows numb throughout the film. The orchestral action cuts achieve thin-air status with the aid of fuzz guitar and galloping metallic percussion. A very lonesome, frigid score. Released on CD by Beat Records.

Una Pistola Per Ringo (A Pistol for Ringo - 1965)
Il Ritorno di Ringo (The Return of Ringo - 1965)
I group these two films as I did the first two "Dollar" films because they can usually be found together on one CD. Try the RCA release which also includes "Death Rides A Horse." Vintage moments galore on these works. Maurizio Graf gives a spectacular effort on both main themes, his approximate English vocals and inflections painting a portrait of our bad-ass outlaw, Ringo. "Heroic Mexico" (from Pistol...) glides through tightly arranged orchestral grandeur, commanding respect for what's coming at you out of the speakers abruptly shifting into a stringed-frenzy break with tympanis. The respectfulness of paying tribute to a devastating loss on "The Funeral" (from Return) is so masterfully performed with choral buildup and trumpet solo that, unbelievably a year later, Morricone eclipses it in emotion and power during "Il Forte" from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Michele Lacerenza plays trumpet on both recordings).

Il Mio Nome E'Nessuno (My Name Is Nobody - 1973)
Beside the fact that this score is more a parody of his earlier works and the opening piece is a twisted, light pop song with odd vocal placements, there does happen to be great Western music here. "Mucchio Selvaggio" is a tour de force in the GBU theme vein, incorporating Wagner's "Flight of the Valkaries" as ominous chorus. "Se Sei Qualcuno E 'Colpa Mia" is in the "man with harmonica" mold with a pocket watch build-up inside slashing glass 12-string guitar arpeggios blasting into the electric guitar chorus. Another highlight is the reflective candle flicker of "Good Luck, Jack." This is a great record. Hunt down the limited edition Screen Trax label's definitive CD reissue from 2000.

Guns For San Sebastian (1968)
Several Morricone fanatics actually label this their favorite of ALL of the EM scores. The huge orchestral sound with beautiful vocal choruses is present. The "Love Theme" is probably as gorgeous and sentimental as Once Upon A Time in the West. "The Chase" features great flute and voice interplay over Spanish guitar and the "Attack/Burning Village" sequences supply the patented Morricone use of mystical vocal chant with horn tone color against pounding drums. Chapter III Records finally released this on CD last year coupled, oddly enough, with "Dark of the Sun" by Jacques Loussier.

Il Mercenario (The Mercenary - 1968)
The main title supplies us with Allessandroni's best spook whistling amidst dramatic reverb percussion and the perfectly-placed guitar runs of Bruno Battisti D'Amario. There are some extremely beautiful and lonely guitar and organ moments on this soundtrack which are unfortunately too short. The stinging arrangement on "Paco" and the Chorus with trumpet on the finale, however should help put this near the top of your list. Issued on CD by the German label "Alhambra" and coupled with "Faccia A Faccia" on the Italian label "Vivi Musica."

Faccia A Faccia (Face to Face - 1967)
Perhaps someday soon we'll see a superior sound quality reissue of this since, from the opening second, the main theme is mired in a sound engineer's mud bog. The audio improves along the way into a more cerebral collection of haunted orchestral color- as if being present at several sunrise funerial processions. "Intermezzo" is a more melodious variation of the main title and probably on its own, worth the effort to obtain this.

Da Uomo A Uomo (Death Rides A Horse - 1967)
The "Dark" Western film score. A demon riding side-saddle with flautist and choral accompaniament right out of the gates. If there was ever music composed to compliment the worn, diabolical mug of a Mr. Lee Van Cleef, here it is. "Guitar Nocturne" could be the obscure campfire Alessandroni Spanish guitar number you've been seeking. Other song titles include "Mystic and Severe" and "Ghost"... You get the idea.

Gui La Testa (A Fistful of Dynamite - 1971) AKA: Duck, You Sucker!
This is an anomoly within the Western soundtrack mindset. Dripping with sentimentality, the music burns as slow as the fuses on James Colburn's TNT sticks from comedy to tragedy as if flushing out some forbidden aromas never before considered downwind from the Mexican revolution. Seemingly out of place for a Western, the main theme is one of EM's most loved compositions. Edda Dell'Orso's mastery of the melody octave demands and the over-the-top romanticism of the piece work quite well in the film as Coburn and Rod Steiger struggle in futility with their attempt to carve out independence in an unforgiving land. A light whistling theme whispers over banjo strums, strings, and other various echo-colored instrumentation along the way creating a sombre backdrop. Highly recommended and can be found on CD (Cinevox) and LP (Dagored).

Tepepa (Blood and Guns - 1969)
Two nice acoustic guitar pieces here ("Tradimento Primo" and "Secondo"). Also a lovely Mexican ballad sung by Christy. The main title is a light piece with south of the border appeal climbing into a "glory of victory" finale.

Vamos A Matar Companeros! (Let's Go and Kill, Comrades! - 1970)
A score driven by two themes: the main title and "Il Penguino." The lyrics of the title cut were written by the film's director, Sergio Corbucci. This song comes barreling at you like a mad posse of freedom fighters seeking revenge, branching off into a brief organ interlude which bridges upon an alternating instrument/voice showcase; yet another way Morricone's resourcefulness keeps it all fresh and vivid. "Il Penguino" is a cool, rambling odyssey allowing several different instruments to rotate the melody. Only a completist would really need the 60 minute reissue CD on Screen Trax, but the more one investigates all this music, the sooner ones becomes a completist. Pick your poison. The main theme is on several comps.

Il Crudeli (The Hellbenders - 1967)
A mono-thematic score with slight variations, the best cut being the opening title with up-tempo drumming (hi-hat fluttering) and a great trumpet melody with Alessandroni's chorus filling the voids. The 41 minute limited, definitive edition on Screen Trax (CD) is listenable since the main theme has enough depth to last through several developments.

Un Eserrito Di 5 Uomini (5-Man Army - 1969)
A 25 minute soundtrack release on Beat Records containing some great material. The title song is reminiscent of the theme from "A Sky Full of Stars As A Roof" (see below) and starts with a glide feel of swooping just above ground as a bird of prey eventually shifting into a medium-tempo chorus in patented fashion. Tracks 2, 5 and 8 are pastoral and uplifting. Tracks 4 and 6 are short, lovely interludes. Tracks 3 and 7 are the more experimental "heavy" cuts and are worth noting as very intense and well-arranged.

Gli Avvoltoi hanno Fame (Two Mules For Sister Sara - 1970)
Here we have a droning acoustic guitar riff, mideval flute melodies, a choir of nuns, violins swarming as wasps, background oddities for effect, some great Spanish guitar moments and perhaps one of the maestro's more overlooked scores. Coupled with "Days of heaven" on the Legend.

Un Genio, Due Compari, Un Pollo (A Genius, 2 Friends, and a Chicken - 1975)
Taking the parody factor one step beyond 1973's "My Name is Nobody," The Genius (as this film is usually referred to in English) also stars Terrence Hill but has a more ridiculous feel to it. Again, the main title is an easy listening pop song sounding nothing like a Western. "Cavalcata Per Elisa" is an updated version of "Muchio Selvaggio." "Il Pollo" and "Ansia Dell'Oro" are really the only other Western-sounding tracks present. We also have a gospel/sacred song, some weird Bossa up-tempo freak light pop, suspense, romantica. etc..

Navajo Joe (1966)
The original LP credits state "music composed and conducted by Leo Nichols" - Morricone also used the pseudonym, "Dan Savio," in the early years as a smokescreen for reasons I cannot confirm. The main title with electric guitar and a blistering orchestral chorus is the high point. Lots of suspense music to cover Burt Reynolds on the screen. Some of the more moody moments are reworked to greater success on 1967's "Death Rides A Horse."

E Per Tetto Un Cielo Di Stelle (A Sky Full of Stars For A Roof - 1968)
To this day only available as 6 tracks on one side of an LP issued by the COMETA label, the B-side containing non-Western rarities. The uptempo theme, repeated in variations on three of the tracks, is a drifting dust devil of mystery -not heavy- the orchestra appears at times with horn clusters but the song is a droning melody; banjo, fiddle, electric guitar, flute, drum kit, bass, and another instrument I cannot identify. The 15 minute side flows smoothly like a suite and is very nice in an understated way. One of the most sought-after and rare pieces of EM's discography.

La Band J+S Cronaca Criminale Del Far West (Sonny + Jed - 1972)
Although track 4 and 6 are very creative arrangements, and tracks 1, 2 and 5 are pleasant to listen to, this 19 minute endeavor is too campy, saloonish, and lightly nostalgic to rank in the hierarchy previously described. If you must, the CD is available through the Cam label.

Che C'entriamo Noi Con La Rivoluzione? (What Am I Doing in this Revolution? - 1972)
Only three cuts released, light music fare for 12 minutes. A very interesting main theme, however, with slightly out-of-tune piano, signature whistling and smooth arrangement.

Un Fiume Di Dollari (Hills Run Red - 1966)
Starts with a fair representation of a more traditional Western vocal "Home To My Love" which repeats in instrumental forms throughout the LP. "The River of Dollars" is a grand orchestral work complete with colorful vocal phrasing and tight, dynamic arrangement. The remaining material is saloon, suspense, camp and fiesta filler in typical fashion. Morricone set the bar high for himself, otherwise this would be considered a great score.

La Vita A Volte E Molto Dura, Vero Provvidenza? (At Time Life Is Very Hard, Isn't that Fate? - 1972)
Only one track ever released but a great example of EM's ability to combine complex and diverse musical ideas into one coherent gem. Catholic choir, drum kit with bass, huge orchestra, banjo, fiddle, tubular bells, and an arrangement that blows me away every time I hear it. This cut, along with most material from the following five films listed is available on one disc: Spaghetti Western: The Ennio Morricone Collection (BMG/RCA).

Ci Risiamo, Vero Provvidenza? (We'll Be Back, Isn't That Fate? - 1973)
The sequel as the title suggests- only three tracks have seen the light of day, the best being the title cut which is actually a pop vocal with a tight groove that would not be out of place on an "Easy Tempo" compilation.

Duello Nel Texas (Gunfight at Red Sands - 1963)
EM's first foray into Westerns from 1963. Several minutes have been released in "suite" form but the main title vocal is complete with lyrics: "There's only one kind of man that you can trust, that's a dead man... or a gringo like me."

Le Pistole Non Discutono (Bullets Don't Argue - 1964)
Only four tracks available for a combined total of seven and a half minutes. The title song, sung by Peter Tevis, is on par with his performance of Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More.

Sette Pistole Per I McGregor (7 Guns For the McGregors - 1965)
Two tracks have surfaced from this mid-sixties sleeper. Both are large orchestral "Marching Into Glory" pieces. The closest you may ever come to seeing this film is by viewing Sergio Sollima's mafia crime drama Citta Violenta, wherein there's a scene featuring Charles Bronson walking into an office interrupting Telly Savalas, who is sitting at his desk watching 7 Guns... with EM's "Santa Fe Express" blaring out of the set, during a scene with covered wagons circling. Savalas then proceeds to turn-off the telly and gets down to business.

Sette Donne Per I McGregor (7 Women For the McGregors - 1966)
Only one cut from this sequel. A very nice, smooth and lazy piece, tailored for relaxing in the wide empty spaces.

Occhio Alla Penna (A Fist Goes West - 1981)
Morricone's last stab at a Western to date (No, I don't include "U-Turn"), the title track is a fair re-creation of cut one from 1973's My Name is Nobody. "Non Fare L'Indiano" is straight outta Death Rides A Horse. "L'Ultima Tromba" is the only real link to past glory and a fading one at best.

If the previous 32 scores aren't enough to satisfy, you are welcome to trudge the riparian topography in search of dozens of Western-styled cuts scattered like bleached-bones across EM's (400 scores) entire discography appearing in films and/or soundtracks which have little or no relation to the American West...

Or stalk the pinion and juniper for waterholes where 500 other films in the Italian Western style and their composers Bacalov, De Masi, Nicolai, Alessandroni, Piccone, Cipriani, Fidenco, Umiliani, Travajoli, Giombini, Ortolani, Reverberi, Lavagnino, Gori, Bixio, Tempera, De Angelis, etc. await you. Or, get the coffin ready for the sherriff, kill them, and come back alone to collect $20,000 for a cadaever.


The Ennio Morricone Fan Page: The online Mecca of the Morricone collector and home of the EM discussion board.

MSV - The Ennio Morricone Society
Groenelaantje 62
The Netherlands
A bi-yearly publication with 92 issues to date. I know of no other composer with this much effort spent to dicipher their work. At least 50 pages in booklet form in each issue and a necessary tool for exploratory drilling. Also available from MSV: the 500 page EM musicography!

Spaghetti Westerns- The Good, The Bad and the Violent (558 Eurowesterns and their personnel, 1961-1977) by Thomas Weisser, published by McFarland + Co. (1992).
500 pages in encyclopedic detail of titles, credits, reviews, and plenty of other information, although mistakes exist occassionally throughout.

Also see James Hoffman's Morricone tribute
and Alan Bishop's tribute to Sun City Girls drummer Charles Gocher

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER