Westerns were a big thing in my home when I was growing up. Westerns and war movies. My old man being particularly fond of them. I was drawn to the westerns, though. The scenery. The plains. Saloons. Sheriffs. Colts and the occasional noose.
One movie, stuck with me right from the moment I saw it. An Italian Western called The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo) by some guy called Sergio Leone. It was the first of the Dollars Trilogy I saw and it was very different from the other westerns I’d seen at that time. It was cool. Here’s this Clint Eastwood guy sauntering around as cool as you like despite there being loads of chaos around him – be it destroying a bridge while a battle rages around him or nonchalantly strolling around taking out bad guys in some ghost town.
Man, I tell you, that flick became a lasting favourite that I would watch often (to the point I could recite it word for word). Not only that, but I sought out Eastwood flicks, cause he was cool and he didn’t fuck around. Are you a bad guy? If the answer is yes, you better leave town or be a good shot.
Anyhoo, what was I saying? Oh yeah, as I got older I’d appreciate some of the themes in there (anti-war, morality, working together to achieve a common goal, etc) and not just how cool it was.
See, the thing with The Good, The Bad & The Ugly is that it’s one of the greatest westerns ever. Arguably, the greatest ever Spaghetti Western. Stylistically it’s absolutely mesmerising – full of gritty close-ups and sun scorched longshots. For me, it certainly doesn’t get much better. It’s perfectly written and shot.
The (uneasy) team of Eastwood’s Blondie and Eli Wallach’s Tucco are memorable and as great as they are, I can’t ignore Lee Van Cleef. His Angel Eyes is a cold, sinister, son of a gun… and that’s not mentioning Aldo Giuffre’s turn as the disillusioned and hopeless Union Captain and the brutality of Mario Brega’s Wallace. But, my friends, we’re not here to talk about the movie (our pal CB covered that here).
We’re here to talk about Ennio Morricone‘s score…. and truth be told, it plays a big part in just how iconic The Good, The Bad & The Ugly is. It’s astonishingly good and, quite frankly, it’s influence stretches beyond cinema (Hans Zimmer is likely a big fan, cause you can hear a lot of the cues and vibes in some of his work. There’s also Bear McCready and John Williams, though that might just be my ears) and can be felt in alternative country. Seriously, listen to Calexico, The Sadies, Jon Rohouse, Sacri Cuori, and even Broken Bells’ Mongrel Heart.
Morricone’s score compliments Leone’s vision. It casts a light on the beauty in the chaos of the sun scorched landscape – filled with strings, galloping drums, mariachi horns, harmonica, castanets, piano, piercing twanging zinging scorching dusty electric guitars (classical ones, too) and bells and whistles (honestly). And lets not forget the voice of Edda Dell’Orso (she’s not the only vocalist, but she was Morricone’s foil and she adds so much to his compositions).
There’s a thread that’s woven throughout the soundtrack that creates a familiarity… an emotional response. Sometimes it’s brutal and weighty, while at other times it’s spirited and inspiring. It’s an effective tactic which pulls everything together so it feels like a piece of classical music with various movements. As well as the main theme, there’s a trumpet and rolling piano line that repeat throughout the melancholy moments.
You could argue that the main theme is so recognisable that it might just be more memorable than the film*. Just. It’s one of the greatest pieces of music ever written and recorded. The sheer majesty of how it builds. The wordless vocal accompaniment is absolutely essential and the motif recognisable to pretty much everyone on the planet and, dare I say everything that whizzes around the sky at night^.
Listen to it. How it builds with the whistling and the drum before the chants, bell, and the snapping of the electric guitar. A surf rock influence in there, perhaps. When I hear it it transports me to the first time I heard it. Sitting on the couch as a young lad.
Trumpet. Pistols. Flute.
Me shooting ‘woah!’ looks across at my old man.
It’s exciting, eh?
Listen to it again and tell me that’s not fucking sensational.
Like I say, there are themes that echo throughout the soundtrack and you can here the main theme can be heard in The Sundown (Il Tramonto); however and it’s the sound of the nylon strings toward the end that own this one. The Strong (Il Forte) is a melancholic and stirring number… an ode to the soldiers. The trumpets are a salute, while Gabriel plays for them.
You can almost feel the weight of the sun and dust hit your chops as you listen to The Desert (Il Deserto), amaright? Honestly, it can be quite dizzying. I feel thirsty and lightheaded just hearing those strings and that piano roll. It’s ever so slight. But it builds… and when it does it pinches. The sun is too much, man… before long you’re squinting and it’s all a haze. Now, where’s the bloody water!? It segues into The Carriage of the Spirits (La Carrozza Dei Fantasmi); which is magnificent, haunting, shimmering and hopeful. Seriously, there’s something magical there that I just can’t reach. The low hum of the vocal interwoven with the trumpet… and there’s that main theme motif before side one closes with the subtle hope of Marcia (Marcetta).
Side two starts with The Story of a Soldier (La Storia De Un Soldato). It continues the Marcia theme, while also drawing on a melody that is similar to that used at various points in The Searchers (I understand this to be a song called Lorena that was popular with both sides during the American Civil War). This piece is particularly beautiful, yet the scene it accompanies is brutal.
There’s actual lyrics here which add weight and that anti-war sentiment when you read them. It’s a stark contrast.
Bugles are calling
from prairie to shore,
Sign up and fall in
and march off to war;
Blue grass and cotton
burnt and forgotten
All hope seems gone so, soldier, march on to die.
Bugles are calling
from prairie to shore,
Sign up and fall in
and march off to war
There in the distance a flag I can see,
Scorched and in ribbons but whose can it be;
How ends the story,
whose is the glory,
Ask if we dare our comrades out there who sleep.
The harmonica is a nice touch, innit? Lovely. Again, as it comes to an end it bleeds into Marcia Without Hope (Marcetta Senza Speranza) and eventually The Death of a Soldier (Morte Di Un Soldato).
I actually should mention that the harmonica really stands out on The Death of a Soldier. Quite a bit, actually. It’s as sure as the trumpet. The piece itself is quite intense while at times flowing like a lullaby.
We shift into the final (and my favourite) movement of The Ecstasy of Gold (L’Estasi Dell’oro) and The Trio (Il Triello).
For me, The Ecstacy of Gold** is equal to the main theme. It doesn’t mess around, either. It builds steadily, but quickly. Dell’Orso’s vocal is utterly mesmerising – in tandem with the horns. It’s a rush of blood to the head here… it gallops and the tension of the ecstasy is tangible – wah-wah-wah… yesss! We see Tucco racing through the cemetery searching for Arch Stanton’s grave and he’s dragging us along with him. It’s dizzying. Tiring. Stumbling over our own feet and certain to fall over. It’s climatic. The guitar’s back. Chiming in time with a fucking bell. A few fucking bells. Then it stops.
Just. Like. That.
Arch Stanton. 3 February 1862.
The Trio weaves everything we’ve heard together. It’s expressive and inspiring. It’s tense. Castanets and those nylon strings again. The horns and the strings… then we glance around. Fingers itching. The cogs turning as Blondie, Tucco, and Angel Eyes weigh up their move.
“Whits he uptae?”
“I’m watching you”.
“Don’t dae it”.
“Naw… dae it”.
Tucco the nervous energy of the guitar.
Blondie and Angel Eyes steely and confident – the sparring horn and strings.
The horn here is triumphant.
So aye, there you have it. This is one of the most beautiful and exciting scores ever, in my opinion. Maybe the best. I still feel that rush of excitement when I hear it and I gasp when people say they haven’t heard it or they’re not familiar with it before I ramble about how they’re in for a treat.
And you know what, I’ve decided, it’s the best. It’s timeless. It’s exciting.
Sure, better writers than I will express just how beautiful, emotive, and important this album is in a more cohesive manner, but this is my experience with it.
Anyhoo, I’m flipping this one and dropping the needle again. Thanks for reading.
“Hey, Blond! You know what you are? Just a dirty son-of-a-bi…”
A few things about the LP:
My copy of this was a gift from my pal over at 1537 a few years ago, as he knew it was high on my list and I’d never seen one in the wild.
From what I can gather it’s a UK first press (1968), with flipback cover with laminated front. Overall, it’s a really lovely copy.
Naturally, it’s been reissued a few times on vinyl over the last few years and there is also an expanded version available on CD, which is worth investigating.
*I’m led to believe that the main theme topped the Billboard chart!
^it is well documented that Cowboys and Aliens is based on a true story. The aliens, y’see, saw Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo and, not realising it was a work of fiction, decided to travel through time to find Bill Carson’s hidden fortune.
**Also, I realised that I saw from Some Kind of Monster that Metallica use The Ecstasy of Gold prior to taking the stage. I assume because it gets the adrenaline going (for band and the crowd). Anyhoo, I figure that means that tune will also be fairly recognisable for many who may not have seen the flick.