“One of the most unique Australian film soundtracks ever recorded.”
By Ian McFarlane.
I think I might have a bit of a theme going on with this column at the moment: last month I took a look at the original movie soundtrack to Aussie surf movie Band on the Run; this month it’s the soundtrack to the Aussie biker film Stone.
Written and directed by Sandy Harbutt and originally screened in 1974, Stone was savaged by the critics at the time but was whole-heartedly embraced by movie fanatics who liked their exploitation movies to be fast paced, edgy, visceral and anti-establishment. Unlike a lot of exploitation movie making as such, Stone didn’t cater to the lowest common denominator; Harbutt actually cared about his subject matter and knew that likeminded individuals would be able to embrace the concept and empathise with the characters. On a commercial level it was left in a kind of no-man’s land, caught between the new art house hits such as Picnic at Hanging Rock and the ocker comedy capers of Alvin Purple and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie.
Over time Stone became a cult classic (dare I say a seminal example of the genre) and by the 1990s was being embraced by a whole new generation of movie fanatics. In 2008 Mark Hartley featured it prominently in his terrific documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! in which Quentin Tarantino gave his seal of approval (“…Oh my God! What a movie!”). All of a sudden Stone was the biker movie to see, not only in Australia but also on an international level. It’s probably not up there with the likes of Easy Rider as a counter-cultural exemplar, but it sure beats the hell out of American B-grade biker potboilers such as The Wild Angels, The Cycle Savages, The Glory Stompers, She-Devils on Wheels, Hell’s Belles, Hells Angels on Wheels, Chrome and Hot Leather or The Hard Ride.
The plotline, such as it is, focuses on the Grave Diggers Motorcycle Club, the members of which are being knocked off one by one in some bizarre politically motivated vendetta. Somebody wants them dead and somebody needs to find out why! So undercover cop Stone (played by Ken Shorter) gets sent in but sidles up a little too close to the gang members for their comfort. When they find out his real purpose, the drama reaches a climax and they beat him to a bloody pulp. There’s that great line Stone mumbles through smashed teeth at the end of the film, “No cops! No cops, man!”.
The Australian one-sheet film poster is a classic of the genre, and also boasts one of the great taglines of all time: “Take the Trip!” (Much later on, the tagline was modified to become “Before Mad Max there was Stone”; there’s even a supporting character in Stone called Bad Max.) Another prominent feature of the poster and the movie masthead was the futuristic looking, air-brushed title of Stone itself (designed by comic artist Peter Ledger and rendered by Errol Black), depicted as a snaking chrome exhaust-pipe – iconic movie imagery.
So what of the music? American biker movies tended to feature incidental soundtrack scores by the like of Mike Curb or Davie Allen & the Arrows; also Easy Rider was one of the first movies of the day to feature a soundtrack comprised of contemporary songs by prominent rock bands (including Steppenwolf, The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Band). Harbutt wanted something different for Stone, engaging journeyman guitarist Billy Green to compose and produce a dedicated movie score that directly referenced the scenes and characters shown in the movie.
Green was one of the most inventive and distinctive players of the day, having given his talents to Doug Parkinson In Focus, King Harvest, Jerry & the Joy Band and Friends. He set up in TCS Studios, Melbourne with engineer John French and assembled a crack session crew including jazz players Peter Jones (electric piano), Graham Morgan (drums) and Col Loughnan (sax) and rock players such as Barry Sullivan (bass) and Andy Cowan (keyboards). Green also scored a bit part in the movie as a Grave Digger, known as 69, seen several times playing his Yamaha acoustic guitar.
Using all his compositional and instrumental skills Green gave the music cues – ‘Septic’, ‘Undertaker’, ‘Race’, ‘Klaud Kool and the Kats’, ‘The Death of Doctor Death’, ‘Pigs’ etc – great gravitas and a direct connection to the unfolding drama. It’s a composer’s device that serves both to announce various characters and to help put the viewer “in the picture” (known in the trade as mise-en-scène).
With several characters assigned their own musical theme, it reminds me of the way Ennio Morricone created signature themes for characters in the Sergio Leone movies (such as Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West or Tuco in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly).
‘Undertaker’ is a laconic bluesy shuffle with electric piano runs set beside Green’s delicate wash of wah-wah guitar lines (similar in feel to the Jimi Hendrix tune ‘Belly Button Window’). ‘Toad’ starts out all driving and electric before evolving into a haunting French horn motif struggling to be heard above Green’s piercing lead guitar drone. ‘The Death of Doctor Death’ starts with a tumble of piano notes then makes use of an eerie electric harpsichord, but rather than being played in the traditional method of fingers on the keys it sounds like someone running a rat’s tail file across the strings.
The minor key ‘Amanda’ features stunning viola and violin soloing over a lurching rhythm. ‘Septic’ utilises a jaunty combination of acoustic guitar, banjo and harp, like some weird Appalachian Mountain hoe-down. Likewise ‘Klaud Kool and the Kats’ is a different kind of country hoe-down utilising crazy rockabilly licks and honky-tonk piano; it sure sounds like a diabolical recipe but it’s hugely entertaining into the bargain.
‘Race’, ‘Grave Diggers’ and ‘Stone’ develop into aggressive jazz-fusion instrumentals replete with Green’s coruscating, acid-drenched lead guitar (very much in the Al Di Meola vein), wailing saxes and driving break beats. Drummer Graham Morgan was able to handle the demanding 7/4 rhythm of ‘Stone’ for example with considerable aplomb. Elsewhere the soundtrack features electronic sounds, droning didgeridoo lines melded with woozy Moog synthesizer effects (‘Toadstrip’), ethereal strings and swampy funk-rock rhythms. And who can forget the 44-second grunting / percussive mind-fuck that signifies the ‘Pigs’?
The two actual “songs” (sung by Doug Parkinson) are incredibly powerful with lashings of Green’s flashy guitar work well to the fore. ‘Cosmic Flash’ is certainly progressive with an intriguing coda that features beautiful Spanish-tinged acoustic guitar. Harbutt wrote the lyrics to ‘Cosmic Flash’ by taking inspiration from Sly and the Family Stone but Green rendered it with more of a classic rock vibe. Green and Parkinson had previously been performing ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ (lyrics derived from the Dylan Thomas poem ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night’) with In Focus. Across the soundtrack everything’s impeccably played – all up a cosmic, psychedelic head trip of the highest order and one of the most unique Australian soundtrack albums ever recorded.
The original Australian LP (on the Warner Bros label) is a great artefact in its own right. The front cover features the Stone insignia on a black background while the back cover displays the Grave Diggers embroided logo of a death’s head skull with slouch hat. Open the gatefold sleeve and there’s the full parade of hundreds of bikers astride Kawasaki 900s, which was taken from the funeral scene shot on the north Sydney freeway.
In 1978 the film was released in Japan and Polydor issued the album for the Japanese market with a different cover (the inner gatefold shot). In 2009, UK specialist reissues label Finders Keepers issued the soundtrack on CD, complete with several additional tracks from the film not found on the original vinyl. A fine addition was a previously unheard version of ‘Do Not Go Gentle (Rage)’ with recitation and vocals by Jeannie Lewis that’s absolutely stunning in its intensity.
I cannot recommend this soundtrack any more highly – get hold of the original vinyl LP (if you can find a copy) or the CD reissue and “Get with Stone!”
Original LP release
Stone – Original Film Soundtrack (Warner Bros. 600,002) 1974
Composed and Produced by Billy Green
1. COSMIC FLASH (Lyrics: Sandy Harbutt / Music: Billy Green)
6. KLAUD KOOL AND THE KATS
2. GRAVE DIGGERS
3. THE DEATH OF DOCTOR DEATH
7. DO NOT GO GENTLE (Poem: Dylan Thomas/Music: Billy Green)
(All tracks written by Billy Green, except where indicated)
A Hedon Production
Recorded at TCS Studios, Melbourne, April/May 1974
Sound Engineer: John French
BILLY GREEN – Guitars
PETER JONES – Pianos
BARRY SULLIVAN – Bass
GRAHAM MORGAN – Drums
ISABEL MORSE – Violas
ROMANO CRIVICI – Violin
GEOFFREY HALES – Percussion
COL LOUGHNAN – Saxes
JOHN MATTHEWS – Didgeridoo
ANDY COWAN – Moog
JIM CONWAY – Harp
ALEX GRIEVE – French horn
CHARLIE GAULD – Banjo
DOUG PARKINSON – Vocals
Strings for ‘Cosmic Flash’ arranged and conducted by Peter Jones
CD reissue – Finders Keepers FKR031CD (2009)
1. ECO BLUE * / TOADSTRIP
3. HEAD OFF *
5. COSMIC FUNERAL *
8. SMOKE *
11. GRAVE DIGGERS
12. SWIM *
13. KLAUD KOOL AND THE KATS
15. THE DEATH OF DOCTOR DEATH
Scene from Stone
16. HIPS RAP *
The Songs of Stone
17. COSMIC FLASH SONG Vocals by Doug Parkinson
18. DO NOT GO GENTLE (Rage) Vocals by Doug Parkinson
19. DO NOT GO GENTLE (Rage) * Vocals by Jeannie Lewis
20. STONE IS A TRIP – Original Stone Theatrical Trailer *
* Exclusive tracks from the film soundtrack – not available on the original 1974 LP