“My life has been what you might call an uneventful one, and it seems there is not much of interest to tell… I have thought about making a career out of Western music if I am good enough, but I will just have to wait and see how that turns out.”
-Buddy Holly, 1953
The most interesting aspect of this soundtrack, reissued by Cherry Red Records in May, is that each song was recorded in either 1951 or 1952. Part of the brilliance of the Last Picture Show is that it pays attention to these miniscule details in its portrait of teenage boredom. It would be like seeing an SS lightning bolt in a WWI movie, hearing a teenie bopper rock and roll number in this collection. The fact is, the teenage revolution hadn’t begun in 1951 and kids were facing an entirely different world upon leaving school in the early 1950s than they would be even a few years later. Sure, there were enough punks and drop-outs, as there will be in any society, but there was no The Wild One or Gene Vincent to validate their existence. Could they have listened to Frankie Laine singing “Rose, Rose, I love you” and felt there delinquent muscles bulking? I doubt it. Pee Wee King singing “why should I linger every time you snap your finger little slow poke” couldn’t have got them going either. So what did?
Between August and November 1951, a little known Texas town called Lubbock gained overnight fame for numerous sightings of a formation of lights travelling over the town, were they Alien invaders? WWII was wrapping up officially, with the US declaring the war with Germany and Japan finally DONE. Yet, the fight was still raging in Korea, with threatening overtures being made by the unknown quantity of Mao’s communist China. For the first time, the US army was exercising for Nuclear War and in Nevada the first tests were being conducted on thermo-nuclear weapons. The Man From Planet X was being shown in cinemas across the USA, as was The Thing From Another World. A giant, placid, but All Seeing Eye was beamed into every home with a TV as CBS introduced their new logo. It must have felt pretty cosy listening to Jo Stafford singing Shrimp Boats (those jazz tones work pretty nicely with that harpsichord) and imagining yourself the skipper of some Louisiana steamer, while your heads under your school desk and your teachers shouting some apocalyptic procedure at you. But what teenager wants to feel cosy?
There’s no escaping reality in the Hank Williams numbers. Listening to Hank alongside the likes of Phil Harris and Pee Wee King reawakens those electric feelings that got me hooked on the man in the first place. Hank returned country from the burlesque tampering of the pop impresarios and gave it back to the American Ghost. For one thing, he’s never sounded more drunk. Or dark. There’s nothing contemplated about his recordings, the instruments sound like they’re racing each other, with that wily violin coming on strong, until it’s usurped by a high lonesome warble or a wobble from the slide. When Hank sings “How can I free you doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart” his intentions are nuclear war. Hank conjures a split-atom, heart strewn landscape. This must have been what the teenagers were getting off on. The imagery is so powerful, the music is so raw, the voice is familiar in a far off way. Hank’s electric, entirely modern. He sounds dangerous. He makes Pee Wee King sound like a cardboard cut-out. He points to the future (which looked like a black hole full of exploding stars and poisoned cattle) while looking backwards.
Then Wish You Were Here comes on. A schmaltzy ballad with washy strings and a jerky, crocodile tear violin. It’s pops lowest common denominator. That’s what makes the soundtrack brilliant though. It’s honest; it puts the blazing brilliance of men like Hank Williams, Tony Bennett, Webb Pierce and Hank Thompson in their proper context. It’s easy to take them for granted, but these men weren’t the rule, they were the exception.
The Last Picture Show soundtrack is available now from Cherry Red Records.
Words: Joe Stevens