The music of The Wicker Man

wicker_man.jpgLeft: The scarce first edition of the Hamlyn novelisation. From the Coulthart library.

I realised some years ago that all my favourite films have great soundtracks, almost without exception. Something about the blend of drama and well-chosen music really excites me, so it’s no surprise that The Wicker Man would appeal, having as it does a wonderful folk soundtrack. Nice to see from the discussion that follows how influential this soundtrack has been although I’m surprised they didn’t mention the multiple cover versions of Willow’s Song. Once again Hollywood has seen fit to gift us with a completely redundant cover version of their own; the less said about the imminent remake, the better.

‘It was a way into a magical world’
The Wicker Man is the unlikely inspiration to a new generation of British folk musicians. So we put the film’s musical fans in a room with its director to discuss its enduring appeal. By Will Hodgkinson.

Will Hodgkinson
Friday July 21, 2006
The Guardian

ONE OF THE unlikeliest motivating factors in the current wave of new British folk music is a horror movie from three decades ago. The Wicker Man, the story of an upright Christian police officer investigating the disappearance of young girl on the Scottish island of Summerisle, and stumbling across a pagan cult, is hardly a masterpiece. But it has endured as a cult classic because it is unique, fascinating and evocative. Its folk-based soundtrack and use of ancient rituals and mythology have made it the focal point for a new generation of British musicians. So, as the gods of creation poured golden light into a sacred hall (a meeting room at the Guardian) on a summer afternoon, we assembled a handful of Wicker Man-obsessed musicians to discuss the film’s influence with its director, Robin Hardy.

The Guardian: How did The Wicker Man come to be?

Robin Hardy: Its scriptwriter, Tony Shaffer, and I had been partners in a television company for 13 years when we talked about doing a “film fantastique”—an otherworldly fantasy feature. At the time, British horror films had a set of parameters: you drove stakes through people’s hearts, you flourished garlic, and there was a standard movie-industry idea of the occult. We thought it would be amusing to go back to the roots of the occult, which is in the old religions. At the same time, we were always playing games with each other—usually innocent, sometimes devastating—and so came the idea of doing an occult detective story in which a game is played out. We spent a weekend at my house on an island on the Thames and wrote the entire story.

The Guardian: Part of the appeal of the film is the way it creates a twisted vision of British traditions.

Hardy: That was all in the game: to re-create a pre-Christian society. We put an enormous number of pre-Christian things in an unlikely contiguity: we had people being called after trees, and the transportation of Rowan’s soul into a hare, which is a pagan belief. We hoped people would see from the start that this was all relating to religion.

The Guardian: The soundtrack is integral to the film. The songs drive the narrative, and the use of traditional folk songs and lush arrangements evoke an atmosphere that is both attractive and threatening. What was your brief to Paul Giovanni, the soundtrack’s composer?

Hardy: That the film should have no electronic sounds in it at all. It should be as if we were using a town band on the island, and therefore it should have Scottish folk origins. We talked about Robbie Burns a good deal—the songs Corn Rigs and Gently Johnny are both from his poems.

The Guardian: Johnny Trunk released the soundtrack of The Wicker Man. What inspired you to do that?

Johnny Trunk: I had been collecting film music for years, and this soundtrack appeared never to have been issued. I spent three or four years looking for it, and ended up talking to a French company who gave me permission to release Paul Giovanni’s original recording. So I went to Pinewood studios where the tapes were kept in cold storage, and as soon as I put out a press release for the album, it went mental. I was getting Christopher Lee singing down the phone to me, and a guy from the Wicker Man Appreciation Society on the phone for three hours at a time. People were sending me lumps of wood from the original wicker man. All of this came from the fact that if I wanted to hear the soundtrack, I was going to have to release it myself.

Mike Lindsay: Someone sent me a piece of that wicker man wood, too.

The Guardian: Mike, you did a version of The Maypole Song.

Lindsay: Yes, although I only wanted to cover The Maypole Song as a laugh because it was such a twisted, ridiculous tune, with loads of weird melodies and this camp teacher singing to these kids about fertility. I went into the studio with 10 vocoders and did it in an afternoon. From then on every review of our work said that The Wicker Man influenced Tunng.

The Guardian: Did The Wicker Man influence Tunng?

Lindsay: Yes.

The Guardian: Adem, also an influence?

Adem: You can’t avoid it, really. It’s a fairly obvious reference point for a lot of the new music being made. Somehow it has become electronica plus folk equals The Wicker Man, and all kinds of disparate things have been joined together by this film. By mentioning The Wicker Man you evoke a traditional influence from a modern perspective. We look with modern eyes at these old traditions; we are observing from the outside. That’s what the film does.

Hardy: Yes, but so does Christmas. The tree and the mistletoe are pagan symbols. All of these things are there in the film and most of the songs come from Cecil Sharp, the great Victorian collector of traditional songs. The problem was that he was asked to present his Scottish folk songs to Queen Victoria, and they were so sexy that the Queen could not be allowed to read them, so they were bowdlerised. Peter Shaffer, Tony’s brother, rewrote them to get them back to their original versions. After all, Corn Rigs and Gently Johnny are very salacious. Robbie Burns was a lusty guy.

Steve Cracknell: When people approach traditional music, their main concern is generally whether it is authentic or not. But what made me want to do a live soundtrack to The Wicker Man is its playfulness in its approach to old music. And because it comes from a soundtrack, it has that filter of being a part of something else, and it’s less direct. That’s where modern music is going.

Trunk: The fact that so many bands have referenced the film or played versions of the songs is a sign of its influence.

Adem: I can’t think of many other films that are referenced so much.

Lindsay: That’s because you want to be in that pub with the islanders when they sing The Landlord’s Daughter and then Gently Johnny.

Trunk: Before I watched The Wicker Man, I had never seen people singing traditional songs in a pub, drinking ale. It was a quick and easy way into a magical world.

Hardy: The Landlord’s Daughter is quite a rude song … utterly filthy, in fact.

The Guardian: Are you surprised at the continued influence of and interest in the film?

Hardy: Yes, of course. I was recently asked to speak about the film at a pagan convention—in Croydon. But the whole suggestion of human sacrifice was a thorny issue. In San Francisco, we had a major pagan riot when we showed the film.

Adem: Watch out, the pagans are rioting!

Hardy: They arrived en masse, claiming I had defamed them. It was quite frightening.

The Guardian: So is The Wicker Man a tour-bus classic?

Lindsay: You’re asking the wrong level of musician. I’ve never even been on a tour bus.

Cracknell: Everyone associates the songs with those images, so it’s a shared experience.

Hardy: You can’t imagine The Third Man without Anton Karas’s zither either, but you have to fight for that kind of thing. When you are financing a film, someone tells you that you can get 6% of the budget for the soundtrack. So then a record company will fund it if you have this artist and that artist, and you end up with a pot-pourri of songs from all over the place. Do you remember a film called Peter’s Friends? The soundtrack was wall-to-wall numbers.

Lindsay: Where did the Wicker Man‘s composer, Paul Giovanni, come from?

Hardy: He was an American actor and a stage director, and of course he sang—he sang Gently Johnny. He got the dreaded Aids and died in 1996.

Lindsay: So he’d never worked in film before?

Hardy: No. He was the special friend of Peter Shaffer, so that’s why he did the music. One can’t underestimate the fact that Peter, who was extremely musical and had done a lot of research into traditional British music, was at his elbow the whole time.

Cracknell: I like the fact that it’s not uniquely British or authentic. That’s quite modern—it doesn’t have to be authentic as long as it has a sense of a whole.

Adem: Nobody can say what is accurate in folk tradition, anyway. Traditions evolve in different ways; you can only guess what it’s going to be like. The film takes you to this unusual place and you assume it’s the truth because you want to experience it. It’s outlandish, but you are convinced it could happen like that.

Our panel

Robin Hardy, director of The Wicker Man, is currently making a movie of his recent horror novel Cowboys for Christ.

Johnny Trunk, founder of Trunk Records, released the soundtrack to The Wicker Man in 1996 to unexpected success.

Mike Lindsay, of the folk-electronic duo Tunng, did a version of The Wicker Man‘s Maypole Song “as a joke”. Before long it was selling for £150.

Adem, the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, also worked on that accompaniment.

Steve Cracknell of the acoustic/electronic folk group the Memory Band has written a live musical accompaniment to the film.

Neil LaBute’s remake of The Wicker Man is released on September 1. The Wickerman festival is at East Kirkcarswell, near Dundrennan in south-west Scotland, today and tomorrow. Details:

4 thoughts on “The music of The Wicker Man”

  1. I’ll have to rent the movie on DVD as it’s been years since I’ve seen it and all I can really remember clearly is the shock ending which made it a movie you could never forget and an extremely bawdy song sung in a pub to the uptight puritanical Edward Woodward.
    What’s the novel like?

  2. There’s a decent DVD set that contains two versions of the film, one the short cut, the other, a longer version that’s unfortunately sourced from a video copy as the outtakes were lost. And the soundtrack CD is marvellous, of course.

    The novel is pretty good, in fact “novelisation” is a rather insulting description since it’s more a proper novel based on the original screenplay. As a result, much of the pagan and folk background is fleshed out while minor aspects of the film are more fully developed. There’s also an odd coincidence: during the scene when Howie is watching the boys performing the maypole dance he thinks of the Lady Chatterley trial and the way that the prosecutor was disgusted by the mention of Lady Chatterley worshipping her lover’s balls. The book was written in 1978 so they couldn’t have know that the excellent Edward Woodward (who plays Howie in the film) would play that same prosecutor in a TV dramatisation of the trial in 1980 (not listed on his IMDB page for some reason).

  3. I’ve got the “black” vinyl soundtrack LPon Trunk. Once described as “the most collectable record ever!” Who needs pensions when a piece of plastic will see me right in my dotage.

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