Sunday, April 24, 2016

Finding the Forbidden Planet

The music detective strikes again ...

If there's anything more annoying than trying to remember how a certain song goes and being unable to, then it has to be knowing how the song goes but being unable to listen to it because you can't find the recording.

I've written about a couple of previous attempts to track down lost music from the past. I located Space Escapade by Les Baxter, and discovered a whole genre of music called Space Age Pop in the process. And I tracked down Purple Moon by the Paul Desmond Trio -- something I remembered from my teen years and had been unable to find for over fifty years. But there was one more item that still eluded me.

This latest hunt was greatly complicated by not being able to remember either the name of the song or the group that had recorded it. What was left? Well, everything else. I could sing it for you, though it had no words. I could tell you the instrumentation: piano with string orchestra and some brass, plus a theremin. And I knew for certain that it had a science fiction motif.

At first I thought it had been called "Forbidden Planet," so that's what I searched for. There is indeed an album of the soundtrack to the 1950s movie by that name. It's a classic based on Shakespeare's The Tempest that inspired the original Star Trek series. This sound track was the first -- and still one of the very few -- to consist entirely of electronic music. In the era before synthesizers, that meant a laborious process using oscillators and recording tape. It was truly groundbreaking and interesting in its own right, but of course it does NOT include any pianos or string orchestras, nor even any traditional melodies, so I decided I must have been mistaken about the title.

Thinking it must have been the theme from some other sci fi flick, I looked through all kinds of collections. Unfortunately there are LOTS of them by now, and most of the material on them is from more recent things like Star Wars and Close Encounters. Nothing even close.

I gave up on this more than once when the Internet failed to deliver its usual instant gratification. We get so used to quick Google searches taking us directly to a download that when it fails we hardly know where to turn.

One night I got into it again with more time on my hands. Still no luck, but I did turn up some other interesting items. There's an entire suite of music to Destination Moon by Leith Stevens, for example, another 1950s classic. And some other choice examples of Space Age Pop, like Fantastica - Music from Outer Space by Russ Garcia. Then I got off track, looking for the original version of the Route 66 theme.

Noticing how many others besides Nelson Riddle had recorded things under this name made me wonder about "Forbidden Planet" again. What if someone else had recorded something and called it that? It turns out they did -- lots of them. Way too many of them. Most of them rock bands and homebrew electronic music buffs. But I kept looking, and finally noticed one that said "David Rose and his orchestra." Could it be?

The listing was on Amazon, but it was only available on a vinyl LP and was "out of print" as the saying used to go. That also meant there was no audio preview to confirm it was the one I was looking for. But let's see ... where can you turn for things that are not available new?

I typed the composer's name and the title into eBay, and lo and behold. multiple matches. Not only the full LP, most of which didn't interest me, but also the 45 rpm single which was exactly the one I used to own. There it was, staring me in the face, the yellow label with the big hole in the middle. Should I place a bid? Let me read about it first, see if it sounds like the right one...

Sure enough, the paper cover said, "inspired by" the MGM film. To my amazement, the seller included a link to a Youtube upload of the audio so buyers could listen first. I clicked, clicked again, and there it was. Pops and hisses characteristic of the medium, even a wavering from a slight warp, but all the same ... the familiar opening swoop of the theremin, a blare of brass, and the strings burst into song. Ahhh.

Here you go -- you can listen to it.

The only thing better would be finding a pristine CD or mp3 version, but for now this will serve me just fine. I fired up VLC to save myself a copy of the video (with audio only), and then convert it to an audio flac. Just like that, it's part of my library. Ain't life good?


  1. OK, OK, you've just risen to the top of the competition for Biggest Miami Nerd-Geek of 2016. I LOVE the movie, one of my favorites of all time (and still watchable a half-century later). BUT ... that music is dreadful, and only a supreme nerd-geek would have chased all over the web universe to find it, the same way you'd chase a freeware operating system for a Chromebook, the kind of guy who chooses Google Plus over Facebook, while waiting for My Space to make a comeback which you'll read on a Blackberry. Still -- I appreciate your movie taste.

  2. I think I'll take that as a compliment. I freely admit my principle interest in the tune was its nostalgia value, and nostalgia knows no bounds when it comes to bad taste.