Aug 24, 2010

CD Review: The Zoo Gang: Original Soundtrack

I can’t remember if I’ve ever said this before in reviewing one of Network’s comprehensive ITC soundtrack sets, but one of the reasons I find these scores so appealing is because, being TV scores, they serve as sorts of digests for everything cool that’s happening in film music in their given era. Let me be clear: I do not mean this as a slight! That they are derivative does not mean that they aren’t creative. Quite the opposite, in fact. If the producers had merely slated in bits of existing movie scores or used total sound-alike bits, then they wouldn’t be fun and would probably detract from the shows in question. Instead, they hired very talented composers (including the great Ken Thorne, responsible for the music for The Zoo Gang) to synthesize what was popular, distill it to its essence, and regurgitate it in exciting and unexpected new ways, greatly enhancing the programs it accompanied. Because the ITC shows themselves were often reflections of big screen entertainment that was popular at the time (obviously Bond, but plenty of other influences as well), it’s only right that their music reflect that. There is no better capsule of an era in film music than an ITC soundtrack; what's going on in movies inevitably trickles down to television as well.

Case in point: The Zoo Gang. This short-lived series about a group of wartime resistance fighters now well past their prime but reunited first to bring to justice a traitor who betrayed them decades earlier and then to right new wrongs lasted only six episodes in 1974, but the incidental music for those episodes plays like “Now That’s What I Call Film Music 1974.” From the bold staccato track that opens Disc 1 and will instantly evoke George Martin’s first cue in Live And Let Die for Bond fans to the funky Paul McCartney theme tune this disc (like that Bond soundtrack) segues into, to even more funky, Roy Budd-ish action music to even the occasional T-Rexian riff, The Zoo Gang represents the very best in music of its era. The mere fact that Paul and Linda McCartney were hired to compose and perform (along with Wings) the theme bespeaks an ITC much more attuned to its era–and particularly the youth culture of its era–than the last time the company mounted a show about reunited war veterans more than a decade earlier in The Four Just Men.  That series about older heroes offered no concessions to the younger generation who would become television's biggest market; in fact there was an episode about how the remarkably out-of-it heroes couldn't even understand them.  A show with leads all in their fifties or above might seem like a strange match for a Wings song, but I think that was actually a canny strategy on ITC's part to lure younger viewers.  (Sadly, it seems to have failed.)

Disc 2 offers an equal variety of musical influences to that on Disc 1. Track 21 is a somber, even mournful orchestral piece that evokes Nino Rota’s score for The Godfather. The suspenseful, exciting track 24 (and tracks 36-38 of alternate versions) sounds like it could easily be torn from one of those great, funky Hammer scores of the early Seventies like Dracula AD 1972 or The Satanic Rites of Dracula. Other tracks offer the perfect cocktail of smooth, Seventies lounge music, akin to Laurie Johnson’s Jason King music (or John Barry’s 1971 Diamonds Are Forever score, to which I also compared Johnson’s music).

While there’s something to please every musical taste (well, at least every Seventies-leaning musical taste, anyway) on The Zoo Gang soundtrack, it’s by no means a hodgepodge. Ken Thorne (Help!, Inspector Clouseau) brings all of these disparate sounds together and skillfully blends them in service of the show. While I obviously appreciate the many different musical genres he touches on, the end result is very much his own. In fact, I think it’s the best representation of Thorne’s work I've heard on CD. (I have most of his officially released soundtracks save for that awesome-looking, super-expensive Superman box set that includes his music and his arrangements of John Williams’ music for Superman II and III.) It’s great original music, great arrangements of the McCartney theme and great music for the show itself. (To me, nothing better evokes the South of France as the ultimate Seventies vacation destination!) Furthermore, it all sounds great on Network’s release. (Even the alternate takes, amidst which Thorne can occasionally be heard talking to the orchestra–but far less detrimentally than the frequent vocal intrusions on the Laurie Johnson Avengers CDs–sound terrific, and don’t get as repetitive as some of Network’s sometimes frustratingly thorough compilations.) And none of these ITC shows sound cheap*; the studio didn’t skimp when it came to recording stellar scores.

I’ve said many, many times before that my own personal Soundtrack Holy Grail is Thorne’s music for The Persuaders!, of which we received one meager incidental cue on Network’s Best of ITC collection. It’s been said that the music is lost; it’s also been said that it’s been recently found. I choose to remain optimistic and hold out hope that one of these days, Network will release a set as wonderful–and hopefully at least as complete–as this one. In the meantime, though, The Zoo Gang: Original Soundtrack is as close as you can get. Even if you’ve never seen the series, if you enjoy Thorne’s work on The Persuaders!, you’ll enjoy this too. (Despite its older heroes, The Zoo Gang shares a similar tone and French Riviera location with The Persuaders!The Zoo Gang is Seventies television music at its very best, and probably my favorite release yet in Network’s ongoing series of ITC soundtracks. This is essential spy music–essential for fans of the show, for fans of Thorne, for Beatles fans and Paul McCartney completist, and essential for fans of the studio and the genre at large. The Zoo Gang itself is a fun series, but by no means essential. Its music, however, is!

In Britain, The Zoo Gang: Original Soundtrack is available for £15.99 as a Web Exclusive from Network's site. In America, it can be ordered from Screen Archives Entertainment for $29.95. You can listen to a good representative sampling of the music here.

*A lot of Thorne’s best music is besot by cheap-sounding recordings. He wrote some wonderful themes for Lassiter–and I’m grateful to have that obscure score on CD thanks to BSX–but it sounds like it was recorded by a three-piece orchestra. The same can sadly be said of his Superman work (at least compared to The London Symphony Orchestra’s bombastic and enthusiastic performance of Williams’ score to the first movie), though I hear FSM has worked wonders to make it sound better than ever on that box set.


Anonymous said...

Thorne leans quite heavily on a couple of themes so there isn't the variety of themes and styles that you find in John Cameron's score to THE PROTECTORS for example. But Thorne puts these little themes through various arrangements and they are all jazzy and tuneful. There are a number of short cues but they are sequenced very well and the whole disc works rather well as a joined-up listening experience.

Excellent job of mixing the multi tracks into stereo too. I must be honest I haven't felt the need to listen much to disc 2. Glad they managed to rescue most of this music!

Tanner said...

It's true that it's not as varied as The Protectors (which was previously my favorite Network release), but I do like the themes that he relies on and I love the arrangements. I totally agree with you that Disc 1 is the better listen overall, but there are a lot of tracks on 2 that I like as well--particularly that Hammer-ish one. (I have a review copy, so I'm afraid I don't have Pixley's booklet with the track names and details.)

You also make an excellent point that the short cues here are indeed sequenced very well, making the whole disc play much better than the later discs of early sets--particularly The Prisoner, some discs of which are virtually unlistenable because of the repetitive sequencing of very short cues.

Anyway, as someone who loves Thorne's music to begin with, this one is my new favorite! I, too, am very glad they managed to salvage these tracks. And I hope so much the same can happen for The Persuaders!

Jonathan Wood said...

Very pleasing indeed to read that review and I'm very happy that the remixing went down so well, especially with Mr Thorne himself! The latter half of track 37 on Disc 1 sounds extremely Persuaders like to me. Keep up the good work on the blog. cheers!