Perhaps mere utilitarian products, but they demonstrate that sometimes, commerce inspires innovation.
Full of eye-popping vintage cover art, coffee-table books such as Unusual Sounds and The Music Library have whetted the crate-digger’s appetite for old-school production music. This cottage industry was set up around background tracks played by session musicians and sold (by the album) for use in TV and film. You’re heard more of it than you realize. George Romero used such tracks to score Night of the Living Dead, and the long-time “Monday Night Football” theme comes from the 1974 album Heavy Action, released on the British label KPM. That company’s vast catalogue has been digitized and made available online, and last year Be With Records launched a program to reissue 10 of the most popular albums in vinyl editions that reproduce the branded KPM hunter green color block. Two titles in the series were released in December, and each is chock full of easily digestible break-beats and studio funk instrumentals. They’re perhaps mere utilitarian products, but they demonstrate that sometimes, commerce inspires innovation.
First released in 1975, The Hunter (Drama Suite)/Adventure Story is, for better and for worse, a typical KPM album of the era. Steve Gray’s “Theme for a Hunter” opens the set with a drum roll and brass fanfare that immerses you immediately into some ‘70s crime drama funk score. The sick bassline is so vivid you can practically see some hard-boiled detective with wide lapels jumping out of a gas guzzler and drawing his weapon to take down a perpetrator.
The full track conveys a lot of lurid action in just over two minutes, and, to make it easier for filmmakers who may only need a short music cue, it’s followed by three brief versions of the theme, each about 10 seconds long. This is where the album becomes more of a means to an end rather than a self-contained unit. “Link 1” isn’t much more than the tom-tom roll and brass fanfare, closing off with the primary bassline, which ends and decays in the audio equivalent of a cinematic fade-out or dissolve. This gives you an idea of the restrictions that session musicians behind these albums were working with; how do you convey a self-contained mood and audio story in 10 seconds? KPM and other library music players did this on a regular basis, consummate professionals that faced radical time constraints and still came up with something distinct and sample-worthy. “Link 2” is the same track, but without the bassline, while a third variation takes another part of the brass theme and, unlike the other two segments, leaves the theme unresolved, ending on a musical question mark perfect for use in a dramatic cliffhanger.
Similarly, Clive Hicks’ somber, moody “Approach” is included in a full version and three short variations. The fragments are more evocatively titled, and don’t just sound like a few bars taken from the full score. While the melody of the full version is played on flute, the “Shock” variation is a startling five-second burst on heavily distorted guitar; “Sting” is a more conventional two-note fuzz guitar fill, and “Exclamation” a slightly more complex but less distorted guitar figure. This is entertaining stuff, though it doesn’t quite make for an album one could sit down and listen to, unless one had it on headphones and tried to match up the action to their surroundings (which seems like a worthy exercise).
The 1976 release Visual Impact, on the other hand, registers more like an album since each track is heard in just one, full-length version. John Scott’s “Canaveral Scape” opens the record with a ballad tempo that APM, the company that currently licenses KPM material in the United States, helpfully explains as suitable for “momentous objects”: the primarily string and brass arrangement begins to suggest a sterile institution, but when it shifts into a mildly funky piano and brass theme it conjures a simmering tension. Steve Gray’s “Low Profile” begins with bass and bongos, and for much of its four and a half-minutes, the bassline, somewhat contrary to the track’s title, climbs up the scale as if a stalking protagonist (on either side of the law, perhaps) is getting closer to its prey. It’s a solid soundtrack album for a movie that doesn’t exist—or rather, for several movies or television shows whose producers have tapped its wares for a scene or two.
The very nature of library music albums, destined to be sent to different homes like a litter of puppies, seems narratively disjointed. But these KPM albums, especially Visual Impact, sustain a coherent, professional mid-‘70s tone. They’re fine examples of craft more than enduring works of art, but either of them would go over well at your next theme party. Meanwhile, let’s hope the more rocking 1973 KPM title The Trendsetters gets a second life in this reissue program.