Performance, Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s multi-layered, Borgesian portrayal of mutable late 1960s London demi-mondes, is rightly hailed as an outré classic of British cinema, despite having its hallucinatory, sex and drugs permeated narrative cut to ribbons by unnerved Warner Bros executives and an overzealous censor. Finally unleashed on art-house audiences in 1970, this fractured chimera of a film was held together by some compelling acting, from Jagger, essentially playing himself as effete, reclusive rock star Turner, and James Fox as transformative underworld lieutenant Chas, and by its, by turns, rocking, beauteous and unsettling soundtrack. Both very much of its time yet curiously modern, the musical accompaniment to Performance, shorn of the images, also works as an eclectic but absorbing album in its own right, one that deserves far greater recognition, argues David Sheppard.
A star-vehicle for the thespian Mick Jagger, as later Nic Roeg flms would be for David Bowie ( The Man Who Fell to Earth) and Art Garfunkel (Bad Timing), the soundtrack gig for Performance was originally offered to the leading man’s daytime out t, the Rolling Stones. However, the parlous state of Jagger’s relationship with his Glimmer Twin partner-in-song Keith Richards at the close of the 1960s, in the wake of fellow band founder Brian Jones’ disenfranchisement from the band (aggravated when Jones’ erstwhile paramour, Anita Pallenberg, took up with Richards only to then be cast as Jagger’s lover in the film), made this untenable. Jagger and Pallenberg are rumoured to have taken the realism of their several sex scenes together in Performance rather too earnestly (out-takes apparently later won a prize at an Amsterdam adult film festival), and Richards was alleged to have spent many days staking out the set of the film, quietly fuming in his Bentley.
With the Stones score idea kicked into touch (only one song, ‘Memo From Turner’, bearing the Jagger-Richards credit would make it to the final cut), Jagger made sure the job of creating the soundtrack was put in the hands of a trusted insider: arranger, composer, producer and one-time Phil Spector apparatchik, Jack Nitzsche. An erstwhile Stones accomplice, having played piano on several of the band’s early albums as well as arranging landmark singles such as ‘Paint it Black’ and ‘Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby (Standing in the Shadows)’, Nitzsche was a shrewd choice. A martinet, as equally distrustful of the Hollywood machine as he was Laurel Canyon bohemia, Nitzsche was a forbidding but perspicacious figure: established enough not to be easily strong- armed by Warner Bros executives, yet, at 32, young enough, and hip enough, to intuit exactly what was required by literate, counterculture heavy hitters such as Roeg, Cammell and Jagger.
Jagger had planned to co-write the soundtrack with Nitzsche, but the latter, dismissive of the Stones recent psychedelia-tinged direction, saw things differently, and when he was own over to London to see rushes of the film, Nitzsche supposedly responded to Jagger’s offer of collaboration by saying “What do I need you for?” Duly left to his own compositional and arrangement devices, Nitzsche built much of the soundtrack around a fluid ensemble of LA sessioners, with the guitar playing of a young Ry Cooder and Lowell George at its core, supported by bassists Bobby West and Jerry Scheff, drummers Gene Parsons and Milt Holland, percussionist Russ Titelman and singer Merry Clayton (best known for her vaulting backing vocals on the Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’). Most of this unit were responsible for the soundtrack’s spine of spirited blues-rock essays, most famously the aforementioned, sardonically toned Jagger-Richards strut ‘Memo From Turner’ (a song “thematically placed somewhere between ‘Jigsaw Puzzle’ and ‘Cocksucker Blues’ as another contender in the Stones’ on-going wanton/ dirt-ball gambit”, according to Performance super-fan Julian Cope), and the slinky, inescapably Stonesy paean to impotency ‘Gone Dead Train’ – the band’s urgent yet sinuous playing topped off with vaguely Jaggeresque vocals by an uncharacteristically animated, 25-year-old Randy Newman. (Newman also played piano on several Performance tracks, was employed as conductor on some of the album’s orchestral numbers, and would later become a doyen of Hollywood soundtrack composition, penning everything from Ragtime to the Toy Story trilogy).
Lip-synced by the chameleon-like Jagger/Turner figure in the film, ‘Memo From Turner’ was actually a piece of clever musical exhumation-cum-transplantation. Jagger’s vocal was taken from a much slower, acoustic version of the song recorded in 1968 with members of Traffic, a tape of which Nitzsche had sent to LA where it was sped-up and the Englishmen’s instruments replaced by those of the session band. None of which stopped the Nitzsche-produced version of the song making the UK Top 40 when Jagger released it as a solo single in 1970.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for one of the architects of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, studio innovation was the name of the game for Jack Nitzsche, and what really distinguishes the score of Performance are its eclectic diversions away from the blues-rock template into what would later be called world music, proto-rap and, indeed, avant-garde-tinged music for which no definitive genre identity really exists. Somehow, it is these latter essays that most evocatively underscore the woozy, incense and hashish-laced atmosphere of the Notting Hill hippy sanctum in which most of the film’s narrative is played out, and it is also these tracks which remain timelessly affecting on the album.
To achieve an ambience of suitably ethereal otherworldliness (“I need a bohemian atmosphere” announces Turner at one point, defending his domicile’s decadent trappings against the incredulousness of South London hoodlum Chas), Nitzsche hired pioneering LA electronic duo Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause to play Moog synthesiser. Th instrument was so new in 1968 that none were commercially available and the duo used the prototype instrument Bob Moog had given them to demonstrate at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival to help create Performance’s title track. Its eerie waves of white noise punctuated by Merry Clayton’s soulful, wordless testifying, remain uncanny and evocative, evincing how, as the Aquarian age played out, music was poised on a technological cusp, and acting as a poignant analogue for the film’s claustrophobic visual atmosphere.
Droplet notes of Moog also features on ‘Dyed, Dead, Red’, a track otherwise distinguished by Canadian pop-folk singer Bu y St. Marie’s twanging mouth-bow and Native American-style ululations and Titelman’s Indian tablas. It sounds like something you might hear any night of the week at Dalston’s Café Oto…
St. Marie (mouth bow), along with Ry Cooder (dulcimer) also deliver the Indian flavoured mood piece ‘Hashishin’ whose paisley-dappled exotica is the aural essence of 1968 Notting Hill.
In contrast, Nitzsche’s haunting, one minute 47 second- long ‘Rolls Royce and Acid’ sounds exquisitely aged, almost Elizabethan, it’s playful yet slightly queasy calliope theme couched in redolent strings slightly reminiscent of Krzysztof Komeda’s memorable soundtrack for Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, also written and recorded in 1968.
Amongst such innovative pieces, the romantically effulgent orchestral detour ‘Harry Flowers’ (named for the underworld boss who is pursuing Chas even as he goes to ground in Turner’s Powis Square house), should sound incongruous, yet under Nitzsche’s hand, and in context with the preceding music, it takes on an ineffably disquieting quality, especially towards its close as the limpid strings, pianos and brass get fed through synthetic effects, a hint at the violent darkness lurking behind the titular character’s superficially cheery, old school mien.
Further startling, not to say prescient, juxtapositions arrive with the uncompromising civil rights call to arms ‘Wake Up, Niggers’ delivered by Harlem’s proto-hip hop trio e Last Poets (“Dreaming of lost black civilizations that once flourished and grew / HEY! WAKE UP, NIGGERS or y’all through!), while elsewhere, two largely solo Ry Cooder instrumentals, ‘Get Away’ and ‘Powis Square’, showcase the guitarist’s signature slide work and directly anticipate his iconic soundtrack for Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas.
The album, and the film’s, closing number (spoiler alert!), ‘Turner’s Murder’, brings together many of the soundtrack’s earlier musical components: disquietingly throbbing, wheezing synths, numinous organs, dissonant and soaring chorales from the Merry Clayton Singers and, finally a reprised valedictory passage from the opening ‘Gone Dead Train’ which neatly bookends this most wonderfully disorderly of musical journeys.
While the film was hardly a money-spinner for anyone involved, and even its cult success took time to accrue, for Nitzsche, the Performance soundtrack would prove pivotal. Like seemingly everyone who worked on the film, Nitzsche emerged from Performance personally transformed and he would go on to enjoy a stellar career as the composer of soundtracks for such similarly twisted yet more commercially viable movies as The Exorcist and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – not to mention winning an Oscar for his work on An Officer and a Gentleman.
In the sleevenotes to the Performance soundtrack album, Nitzsche recalls being greeted by The Exorcist director William Friedkin across a Los Angeles boulevard with the salutation: “Performance – the greatest use of music in a motion picture, ever!” There are many who would agree. Moreover, the film’s soundtrack album is one of those real rarities, a record that resonates absolutely convincingly even without the film images, with its own fascinating internal narrative and so full of affecting musical innovations that it continues to spark afresh, 45 years after its conception.