Iconic Italian composer Ennio Morricone is credited with over 500 movie scores – a body of work that’s so impressive that to describe him as writing the “ah-ee-ah-ee-ah” theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, seems woefully reductive.
Morricone’s work has entered the public psyche in myriad ways. Beyond earning plaudits and awards for his scores and finally winning an Oscar in 2016 for The Hateful Eight, other musicians have paid tribute to the master over the years through covers and sampling of his music.
These are some of his most influential works and some of those places you might have heard them.
A Fistful of Dollars – Main Title (1964)
In the early 1960s, the Western genre was stale. In the preceding decade, there were more Western movies made than any other genre combined. So when director Sergio Leone was approaching his first Western, A Fistful of Dollars, he knew that he needed something different for the plot, look and sound. For the music, he turned to Ennio Morricone, who already had a couple of Western scores under his belt.
But what endeared Leone to Morricone was the composer’s arrangements for American singer Peter Tevis. It was a cover of a 1944 Woody Guthrie song, Pastures of Plenty, which caught Leone’s attention. The cover opens with a minor acoustic guitar part, and elements that would become synonymous with Morricone’s brand of Spaghetti Western music: real-world sounds such as whip cracks and church bells, galloping rhythms and a Fender Stratocaster.
This arrangement formed the basis of A Fist Full of Dollars’ main title theme – with vocals replaced with the iconic whistling.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – Main Title (1966)
There’s no getting around the fact that the Main Title from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is Morricone’s most famous work. With the success of A Fistful of Dollars and the follow-up For A Few Dollars More, the Western was back. Morricone’s soundtracks were so integral to the feel of Leone’s work that the director would play pieces conceived for this third outing – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – while filming on set to create the mood.
Having the pre-composed soundtrack playing on set was possible because there was no intention of using any sound recorded on set. Everything, from voices to atmospheres and horses whinnying, were dubbed later or added as sound design. This was common practice at the time. The commonly poor lip sync was, bizarrely, due to the international, monolingual actors speaking their native tongues during production, knowing they would be dubbed into various other languages later.
Interestingly, the music might have influenced the pacing of the films, too. It’s argued that the famous, lingering shots were a result of Leone not wanting to cut short any of Morricone’s pre-composed cues.
For a Few Dollars More – Watch Chimes (Carillon’s Theme) (1965)
Perhaps Morricone’s most chilling cue is Watch Chimes from For a Few Dollars More. The motif recurs several times in the film, produced by a musical pocket watch belonging to the psychotic Indio. The cue is already sinister being used as a timer before a duel, and in tape-modulated versions during flashbacks of horrifying deeds.
With this motif, Morricone artfully creates a musical element that the audience and the characters can both hear. And it’s all the more powerful for it.
The Thing – Main Theme – Desolation (1982)
Director John Carpenter famously scores his own movies, but for his 1982 sci-fi body horror The Thing, he enlisted Morricone. Without having seen a final edit, the Italian maestro created 20 minutes of hauntingly minimal music, which is peppered throughout the movie. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2014, Carpenter recalled his instruction to Morricone: “All I said to him was, ‘Fewer notes.’” The result is archetypical Carpenter – minimal, chilling and synth-driven.
The Mission – Falls (1986)
Falls from The Mission soundtrack couldn’t be further removed from the Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns or The Thing. And, despite the sweeping strings and majestic horns, Morricone chooses the panpipes as the featured instrument. Even if you’ve not seen the film – and shamefully, I haven’t – it’s a piece that’s immediately recognisable for its use in ads over the years.
The Hateful Eight (2016)
Morricone’s sound is not defined by Westerns; by Morricone’s estimate, the genre accounted for “just eight per cent” of his work in a 2015 interview for The Australian. However, those eight per cent heavily influenced Quentin Tarantino. The auteur director had used catalogue musical works on Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, and both Kill Bill movies. However, for The Hateful Eight, Tarantino entrusted Morricone with his first original score. The Italian’s soundtrack was nothing like any of the Leone-era Westerns and even featured an unused cue from Carpenter’s The Thing.
Covers and Samples
The Italian maestro’s catalogue has proven fertile ground for sampling. According to WhoSampled, Morricone has been sampled 432 times, covered an additional 193 times and remixed seven times. These are some of our favourites.
Metallica The Ecstacy Of Gold (1999)
Metallica are massive fans of Morricone. They’ve been using The Ecstacy of Gold to open their shows since 1983. And on 1999’s live orchestral record S&M, they got to have it played by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.
Writing on Metallica’s Instagram after news broke of the Italian composer’s death, Metallica singer James Hetfield said: “The day we first played ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’ as our new intro in 1983 it was magic! It has become apart [sic] of our blood flow, deep breathing, fist bumping, prayers and band huddle pre-show ritual ever since… R. I. P. Maestro Morricone”.
Jay-Z Blueprint 2, sampling The Ecstacy of Gold (2002)
Morricone’s evocative wailing vocal from The Ecstacy of Gold makes an appearance on Jay-Z’s 2002 Blueprint 2. The track opens with a robotic rendition of the original’s four-note piano figure, but things pick up when the vocal sample enters. And when the hip-hop beat finally enters it fits so perfectly, that its no wonder he’s been sampled so frequently in hip-hop. Wu Tang Clan, G-Unit, Joey Bada$$ and Eminem have all sampled the soundtracking master.
Goldfrapp Utopia, sampling Tema Italiano from The Sicilian Clan (2000)
Goldfrapp have called Morricone a “huge inspiration… in particular Felt Mountain”. It’s from that record that this tiny sample was taken.
By slowing down the theme from Tema Italiano and layering in under two of the chords at 0.43 and 1.35, they were able to capture a little more of maestro’s magic.
The Prodigy The Big Gundown (2009)
It’s not just hip hop and downtempo electronica that have benefitted from Morricone’s work. The Prodigy’s Invaders-era banger samples The Big Gundown (Seconda Haunting) taken from his score for 1967 film of the same name. The track opens with a high-energy snippet from 0.55 in the original piece, repeated, as below.
Then, later, the serial samplers use the Morricone guitar part to offer relief from the hardcore electronic beat at 1.16.
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