You might not think you know the music of progressive Italian band Goblin, but if you’ve seen horror films such as Profondo Rosso, Suspiria, and George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, then you have heard some of their music.
by Marshall Bowden
The group took the unconventional road to success of becoming known for their work on such films, giving them steady work and a following among serious fans of horror cinema. Originally they were known as Cherry Five, and in 1975 they cut an eponymous record featuring prog rock in the vein of early (The Yes Album, Time and a Word) Yes with strains of The Moody Blues and some jazz fusion influence as well. The opening track, “Country Graveyard,” sums up their sound pretty well.
The record was released on Italy’s Cinevox label, home of Italian cinema’s soundtrack music, and though few were interested in it as a rock album, director Dario Argento found them interesting enough to hire to work on the soundtrack to his film Profondo Rosso. The band created a rock-driven sound replete with organ and synthesizer sequencing that was starting to be heard on records like Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra and Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygene. Such sound has become somewhat cliched on horror film soundtracks, but the group also provided some incidental music tempered by modern jazz and not far off from some of the sounds generated by New York’s No Wave and punk jazz musicians.
Next, the group was asked to do a soundtrack for Argento’s stunning film Suspiria. The main theme goes from a music box theme (the film is about an American dancer who discovers that the prestigious German dance school she is attending is a front for a supernatural conspiracy) to a driving guitar theme (and I hear some mandolin in there) that fades into a burbling synthesizer. Again, there are elements of the soundtrack music of Tangerine Dream (who composed the soundtrack to William Friedkin’s Sorcerer the same year). But that’s nothing like the tribal pounding that underlies the track “Witch” or the acoustic guitar and layered vocal drones of “Sighs.” Ultimately Goblin’s Suspiria soundtrack holds its own as a sonically fascinating album that is really not like anything else heard on a horror soundtrack before or since. In a 2019 piece for Red Bull Music Academy, director John Carpenter talked about soundtracks that influenced him, and he had this to say about Goblin’s Suspiria:
“I will say there was a moment when I heard a score from another movie that I thought, oh, I wish I had done that. I still wish I had done it. That’s Claudio Simonetti and Goblin. The Suspiria score was, ‘oh my God, what is that?’ It has the Indian sitar sound in it. Absolute genius. He and I became friends.”
So impressive was Goblin’s Suspiria soundtrack that when Radiohead’s Tom Yorke signed on to create the soundtrack music for Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake he didn’t make any attempt to evoke it, opting instead to be influenced by musique concrete experiments, modern electronic music, German bands such as Faust and Can, plus the soundtrack to Blade Runner. Indeed Yorke’s music is more meditative and much less psychedelic, which fits Guadagnino’s vision for the film well.
(Tom Yorke The Balance of Things)
Goblin’s next project was creating the soundtrack for the Italian version of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, titled Zombi. The film was co-written by Romero and Argento, and Argento maintained control of the editing for European releases of the film. Since he was already used to working with Goblin and liked their sound, he asked them to compose a complete score, which he used as the entire soundtrack to his cuts of the film. Romero, in charge of the film’s final cut in English-speaking countries, used three of Goblin’s songs as well as stock music from the De Wolf Music Library, including the Pretty Things (billed as Electric Banana) singing “Cause I’m a Man” and a track by British composer Herbert Chappell entitled “The Gonk,” which accompanied the zombies’ wanderings in the mall. I have to say that I prefer the retro Latin style music from the Goblin score. Romero also used “The Gonk” over the movie’s ending credits with overdubbed sounds of the zombies from the movie.
Goblin returned from a twenty-two-year hiatus to score Dario Argento’s 2000 release Sleepless. The recording awoke fans and new listeners alike to the exciting realization that they could still make great music. Unfortunately, the group was unable to remain together due to personal issues, and that has continued to be the case with leader Claudio Simonetti’s frequent attempts to restart or remodel the group, though it has resulted in a handful of recordings. Just as with other longstanding electronic acts like Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk their personnel has changed many times, generally centered around the leader (Simonetti) and a longstanding core group ( Fabio Pignatelli, Massimo Morante, and Agostino Marangolo) with other musicians sometimes swapped in and out depending on a variety of factors.
Goblin ended up, because of their relationship with Cinevox as well as Argento’s interest in the group, becoming a successful working band without recording albums at frequent intervals (although they did follow up their Cherry Five outing with a couple more prog albums under the Goblin name) or frequently touring. In many ways, the movies they scored became videos for the band and the soundtrack recordings were their albums. Later in the ’90s and 2000s, bands would earn money from music they composed and recorded specifically for video games and, later, for specific cues in commercials. These guys licensed their music before they had even written it, but there’s no denying the power of the fusion of Argento’s style and use of color coupled with the group’s music.
(John Carpenter/Assault on Precinct 13)
Goblin’s music and Argento’s close work with the music for his films led director John Carpenter to create his own scores in the 1980s. His minimal work, which was born of economic necessity, set a new standard for horror soundtracks, which until now had largely been scored (in Hollywood, anyway) for symphony orchestra just as any soundtrack. Carpenter changed that, bringing some of Goblin’s European sensibility to his own soundtracks. “The one way I could sound big was to play on synthesizers, (where I could) do numerous tracks and sound something like an orchestra – not exactly, but close,” he told Dazed in a 2017 interview. “When I moved into features I kept doing it because, again, I didn’t have any money, it was low-budget. But then I just kept doing it.”