The Imperial March

#763: L’Empire contre-attaque

GETTING MORE TALE #763: L’Empire contre-attaque

We didn’t have a VCR in 1980.  You could rent them; this was usually reserved for special occasions.   That meant, unlike today, we couldn’t just watch the latest Star Wars any time we felt like it.  The best way to re-experience the movie was on your own, with action figures and soundtracks.  The Empire Strikes Back was my favourite album at that time.  I played certain tracks on those records so often with my kid fingers that they started to skip.

I used my parents’ big living room hi-fi.  Giant wooden speakers as heavy as oak doors.  A turntable, an 8-track, and a receiver.  Once I discovered Star Wars, I think I used it more than they did.  The Empire Strikes Back came in a luxurious gatefold, with photos from the film, liner notes, and a generous booklet.  It didn’t take long for the rips and tears to set in; that record was well loved.  Usually, I would plug in the set of headphones and listen quietly while turning the pages of that booklet.  On weekends, my sister and I would probably set up a big battlefield and re-enact the movies, with the soundtrack playing in the background.  The most frequently played tracks were “Yoda’s Theme”, “The Asteroid Field” and of course “The Imperial March”.  Sometimes we would ambitiously re-enact the entire movie in sequence using the whole soundtrack.

We had to improvise.  There were lots of characters and vehicles we didn’t have.  When the Wampa ice monster attacks Luke Skywalker and knocks him off his tawn-tawn, we had to use Chewbacca as a stand-in for the monster.  Before we had a Boba Fett, we used a Micronaut with an actual missile-firing backpack.  We didn’t have an AT-AT, so we used my sister’s cardboard Jawa sandcrawler.  The centrepiece of our play time was usually my huge Millennium Falcon toy.

Before anyone gets too nostalgic for the good old days, I’ll remind you those Kenner toys were actually quite shit.  My two biggest toys, the Falcon and the X-Wing, both broke immediately out of the box.  The wings on the X-Wing never worked right and I had to wedge marker lids in the wings to keep them open.  The hinge for the boarding ramp of the Falcon snapped when my dad put it together.  He tried to glue it, but ultimately the door was held on by an ugly piece of masking tape.  Sturdy toys they were not, and parts were always popping off.  The guns refused to stay on the wings of the X-Wing.  The canopy of the Falcon always popped open mid-flight.  It too eventually got locked down by masking tape.

During these huge play battles, my sister and I would take over the entire living room floor.  There was a coffee table that usually acted as Imperial headquarters.  You could park a TIE fighter on the shelf underneath.  All the while, John Williams and the London Symphony spun behind us.  I’d flip sides and cue up another track, or just play “The Imperial March” again.

When we were done playing Empire, we would do our own original stories.  We usually set these “pre-Empire“, since Han Solo was frozen in carbonite at the end of the movie.   He was a favourite character and we had two Han Solo action figures:  original Han and Hoth Han.  I loved Hoth Han.  Not only did he look cool but he was the only figure you could take his gun and plug into a holster on his hip.  It was hard to really make good coherant “pre-Empire” stories though, because we also wanted to play with other cool figures like Lando, and Yoda.  It didn’t particularly matter because we had tremendous fun without a logical story.

I’ll say it again:  improvisation.  We built a custom multi-level Cloud City out of cardboard boxes.  It had sliding doors and sort of an elevator.  We made our own figure-compatible vehicles out of Lego.  Before I had a figure of Han Solo frozen in carbonite, I took my Solo and put him in a glass of water.  If I put him in the freezer for a few hours, I’d have a frozen Han ready to go for the next adventure.  My dad was bemused to go into the freezer and find Han Solo in there so frequently.

No matter the story or setting, the Millennium Falcon was there.  You could fit several figures in it, with two in the cockpit, one in the gunner’s chair, and several tossed into the opening rear compartment.  The cool thing about the gunner’s chair was that it rotated in sync with the top quad-cannons.  The Falcon’s rear compartment was equipped with a space chess table (called Dejarik), a Jedi training area (you know, for that one scene), and a smuggler’s compartment with secret hatch.  This made it more of a playset than a ship, but it did have several features that made it more a ship than a playset as well.  Close up the rear compartment, raise the working landing gear, and you are airborne.  The Falcon also had sound effects and a large battery compartment where the escape pod would have been.  While playing on the living room floor, if the track “The Asteroid Field” was playing, you just had to get the Falcon ready for take off.  Close the ramp, the canopy, and the rear compartment.  Raise the landing gear and you were space-bound!  Then I’d fly the ship around the living room in sync with the swells and crescendos of the theme.  It really felt like Star Wars at that point.

In 1981, the first Indiana Jones soundtrack was released, also composed by John Williams.  It was official then:  Williams was my favourite.  I didn’t have very many records; most of the others were “Story Of” soundtracks with full narration and dialogue.  That was another way to re-live a movie in a pre-VHS household, but I kept coming back to the actual movie scores.  I outgrew the “Story Of” records but not the scores.  Even so, nothing topped the original two-record set of The Empire Strikes Back.  When Return of the Jedi was released in ’83, it was only a single record.  It didn’t have as many memorable cues.  I loved and cherished it, but not as much as Empire.

Besides, in 1983 something else happened besides the end of the Star Wars trilogy.  I was getting older, and there was this new song out.  I heard four words — “Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto“, and my world shifted once again!  But that, friends, is another story.


REVIEW: Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (Special Edition original motion picture soundtrack)

STAR WARS: Return of the Jedi – Special Edition original motion picture soundtrack (1997 RCA limited edition with holographic discs, original soundtrack released 1983)

The final soundtrack of the original trilogy received the most disappointing Special Edition soundtrack.  The reissues for A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back essentially offered complete collections of all the music from those two films.   The soundtrack for Return of the Jedi suffers the most from the Special Edition changes.  New music replaces old well-loved tunes, which is rarely a good idea.

Instead of the classic music of “Lapti Nek” (Jabba’s palace scene) we now get “Jedi Rocks”.  I need not tell you how unwelcome that song was, replacing “Lapti Nek”.  All because Lucas didn’t like that the singing alien puppet’s lips didn’t move enough, so he decided to “fix” that by putting in a much more elaborate musical number to go with the new CG lips.  Thanks, George.  Thankfully “Lapti Nek” was included on the 4 CD Star Wars Anthology box set.

The other missing music is “Ewok Celebration”, which fans worldwide know as “Yub Nub”.  This Ewok song was one of those miserable little teddy bears’ few redeeming qualities.  “Ewok Celebration” is replaced by the bland new “Victory Celebration” which ends the film.  Thankfully the original music is also on the Anthology box set.  (I would like to get that.)

Yub Nub!

Return of the Jedi gets off to a slower start than the other soundtracks.  Instead of a battle or vicious Wampa attack, Jedi opened with a couple droids wandering through the desert before finding gainful employment with Jabba the Hutt.  I know, right?  How could that not make for exciting music?  It’s not until Luke Skywalker confronts Jabba (track 6) that things start to move.  Until then, the music remains largely atmospheric and creepy.  There are a few unforgettable musical cues, such as that which accompanies Han Solo’s thawing.

Because Jedi was the third movie in a trilogy, it revisits a lot of familiar themes.  The music for “The Imperial March” is heard several times for example (such as within “The Emperor Arrives”), but there isn’t much in terms of new memorable themes.  I suppose that is to be expected.  The nature of the film, including the deaths of beloved characters and other upsetting revelations, lent themselves to a darker soundtrack.  A lot of atmospheric pieces helped underscore the mood of these scenes.  This is offset by child-like Ewok segments of brightness.

A nice touch is the inclusion of alternate versions.  The exciting “Sail Barge Assault” is included in an alternate take.  There is also a sweeping concert suite of “The Forest Battle” on disc two.  “Lapti Nek” and “Yub Nub” would have been nice, but in 1997 George was really trying to bury the original versions of the films forever.  I’ll just have to find an old record, or that Anthology box.

The original music, excised for the Special Edition, is what this CD misses most.

3/5 stars

REVIEW: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Special Edition original motion picture soundtrack)

STAR WARS: The Empire Strikes Back – Special Edition original motion picture soundtrack (1997 RCA limited edition with holographic discs, original soundtrack released 1980)

Composed and conducted by John Williams

When I was 8 years old, this was my favourite album.  It was my favourite album for a long time.  I didn’t have a lot of albums when I was young, but The Empire Strikes Back was a clear favourite.  It was only usurped by Styx’s Kilroy Was Here several years later.

Even when I was a child I had a sense that this one was something special.  The Empire Strikes Back contains one of the best known Star Wars anthems ever: “The Imperial March”.  Hard to imagine today, but that piece of music did not exist when the original Star Wars came out in 1977.  The character of Darth Vader grew tremendously in the second film, and I think “The Imperial March” helped drive it home.

As far as I’m concerned, composer John Williams is a rock star.  He makes instrumental concept albums.  That is exactly the way that my rocker ears hear this music.  I cannot express how true to me that is.  For me, this album (in its original double LP format) was like The Wall, Tommy, or Quadrophenia.  It has always been a rollicking journey to listen to, preferably loud.  It has swells and drops, peaks and valleys.  It has memorable “songs” that you can go back to over and over and over again.

The original soundtrack from 1980 was a massive two record set, but it was still only long enough to contain 75 minutes of the film’s music.  This double CD has a whopping 124 minutes — the complete score.  Even all these years later, revisiting the soundtrack, I can immediately tell when a piece of music wasn’t on the original record.  “Ice Planet Hoth” was the first such moment.  Other pieces such as “The Magic Tree” are very familiar because I played those records so many times!  As a kid, I don’t think I even realized that the LPs didn’t have all the music.

Having the whole soundtrack, in order, on CD, is a real treat.  It makes me want to take a dig through my parents’ basement and dig up my old Kenner Millenium Falcon.  Or even better, get the bigger, badder, awesomer new one.  That thing looks incredible…but I digress.  My point is, it reignites that feeling I had as a kid.  I’d hear this music, and go grab my Falcon toy, and “fly” it around.  That feeling hasn’t gone away.  In fact, with this baby remastered the way it is, I’d say that feeling is stronger than ever.

Other honorable mentions:  “The Battle of Hoth”, “The Asteroid Field”, “Mynock Cave”, and “Yoda’s Theme”.  All these are almost as memorable as “The Imperial March”.

Since I’m not musically schooled in any way, I wanted to talk to someone who is. I spoke to world-renowned bass clarinetist Kathryn Ladano about the music:

This album is one of my favourite soundtracks, and I still listen to it often. In fact, when I got my new turntable for Christmas, the original LP soundtrack for Empire was the very first album I played on it. In terms of Star Wars soundtracks, I think this is the best one. I am certainly more critical of John Williams’ soundtracks in general now than I was as a kid because I now know that much of his material was “borrowed” from other composers, but despite that knowledge, this album still has a lot of iconic and evocative themes. My favourite is probably “The Asteroid Field”, but obviously “The Imperial March” is pretty amazing too.

If I had to pinpoint a favourite moment in this soundtrack, it actually appears during the track “Carbon Freeze/Darth Vader’s Trap/Departure of Boba Fett”.  From about 5:10 to 5:20 is a series of dissonant chords that I have always loved the sound of (especially the one at 5:17 – 5:18!). Long before I studied music or played an instrument, those dissonant chords resonated with me and I still love hearing them.

I now know what album I’m going to listen to today.

I’m fortunate to have the limited edition CD wallet version of this soundtrack.  As with A New Hope, the discs are hologram etched.  This time, instead of the striking image of the Death Star, it’s just a fairly flat Imperial logo.  Not quite as awesome.

Still, 5/5 stars.

STAR WARS_0003REVIEW:  Star Wars – A New Hope soundtrack Special Edition (1997)