The Wicker Man
Soundtrack to Summerisle
To celebrate The Wicker Man at 50, English Bob reflects on the soundtrack and the sounds that inspired Paul Giovanni, accompanied by a two-hour radio show ‘Soundtrack to Summerisle’…
Much has been written and said about The Wicker Man (UK, Robin Hardy, 1973) since its release, revival, and resurgence over the past five decades; spawning a remake and sequel, numerous books and articles, art, comic books, location tours, a festival, and now, a potential TV adaptation. Indeed, it topped a recent Horrified readers’ poll of the top 50 British Horror films.
In this article, I reflect on how I found The Wicker Man and focus on its soundtrack’s lasting legacy and impact, drawing on a rare interview with Paul Giovanni. Accompanying this article is a two-hour radio programme ‘Soundtrack to Summerisle’, featuring music associated with the film.
The Wicker Man is captivating, beguiling, and unlike any other film I have seen. My introduction to the film was also somewhat strange. In the days of VCR when you used to record bits and pieces from the TV, you would occasionally get a chuck of time at the end of a tape when the pre-record timer ended and some ghostly remnant of a previously unplanned recording emerged from the fuzz and white noise. One time, it was a scene for the Wicker Man: specifically, the procession scene. Colourful, bizarre dancing, costumes, animal masks – and the threat of underlying violence – exhilarating, fascinating, decadent, and malevolent. What the hell was this? The brief snippet of the film’s finale I saw was cut short, if I remember rightly, just as Sergeant Howie is adorned and led up the hill to meet his appointment with The Wicker Man. The towering horror of this pagan edifice appeared and then – clunk, whirr – the VCR tape ran out and started rewinding. I did not find out how it ended for years. I was 11 years old.
I asked an uncle about the film, I must have asked several adults, but he was the only one who recognised The Wicker Man from my description. His advice was something along the lines of, ‘You don’t watch to watch that, it’s too disturbing’. Which of course, was music to my ears. Now I knew the title, but finding films as a kid in the early 90s was not easy. Then, a year or so later, sat in an archaeology class at school – end of term – the same thing happened: the documentary the teacher was showing ended, the screen fizzed static, and the finale of the Wicker Man emerged again! The teacher knew the film and its pagan content, he let it play out and I watched in fascination as the rest of my classmates baulked at its strangeness. By this point, I had watched my snippet several times, but this time, it started a little earlier, beginning with the hobbyhorse and islanders preparing for the procession and, crucially, it played until the end. Now once is an anomaly, but twice? Two tantalising glimpses into the enchanting and disturbing world of The Wicker Man – it was clearly fate. It took a couple more years before the film was shown on TV again and I finally managed to watch the whole thing, a ‘two nights on the island’ longer version. Thirty years later, it remains my favourite film.
Part of what keeps bringing me back to The Wicker Man is the soundtrack, a fruitful collaboration between music producer Gary Carpenter and the enigmatic creative talents of Paul Giovanni that was rooted in the early 1970s British psychedelic folk-rock scene. It is a captivating, wonderful soundtrack, full of mood and atmosphere. Wicker Man aficionados are likely well-acquainted with the 1977 Cinefantastique Wicker Man special edition, which features several rare interviews that provide a lot of insight into the film’s genesis, production, and soundtrack. Carpenter and Giovanni deserve equal credit for pulling together such a wonderful and unique score. Carpenter has spoken on the record numerous times about the film’s music; he went on to enjoy a long and successful career in musical orchestration and film scores and remains to this day a well-respected Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music.
Following The Wicker Man, Giovanni returned to his first love, musical theatre, with successful runs of a Sherlock Holmes musical The Crucifer of Blood (1978) [A1] and a musical about the Wild West and the Gold Rush that only played once, Shot Thru the Heart (1981). He sadly passed away in 1990, aged 57. As far as I know, the Cinefantastique feature remains Giovanni’s only interview about his work on The Wicker Man; largely its production and his experiences filming, but he also offered valuable insights into the soundtrack. Having speculated for many years on the influences and ideas behind the music, reading this interview for the first time, I finally felt as if I was sitting down with Paul Giovanni and having a conversation about his music.
Giovanni’s most notable previous music endeavour is also intriguing. He was in a psychedelic folk-rock band called Side Show, whose 1970 album, (now available in reissue, or here in full on YouTube), has slightly off-kilter echoes of Syd Barret-era Pink Floyd and Arthur Lee’s Love, combined with the jazzy piano-led vocal style of Randy Newman or Gil Scott Heron, and the homespun quirkiness of The Kinks. Giovanni sings lead vocals and plays numerous instruments, whilst the arrangements are conceptually interesting and sometimes verge into early progressive rock. Overall, Side Show’s one LP is creative and actually rather good. However, according to Giovanni: “Just as we began to get interesting, the group fell apart. Too many drugs and hysterics, plus the discipline of rehearsing every night and doing concerts” (Giovanni, Cinefantastique, 1977). Side Show’s demise was The Wicker Man’s good fortune.
Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer was apparently key to bringing in Paul Giovanni on The Wicker Man soundtrack, having seen him perform in and produce a score for a folk-rock production of 12th Night in Washington, D.C. According to an interview Gary Carpenter gave to The Guardian in 2013; British Lion then approached him to work with Giovanni on the soundtrack. Incidentally, both appear in the film: Giovanni sings Gently Johnny in The Green Man, alongside members of Magnet, whilst Carpenter plays the Lyre as Edward Woodward is dressed and washed to ‘Lullaby’. Giovanni originally wanted to use Pentangle to record the music, but British Lion was on a tight budget, so Carpenter assembled a group of folk musicians to form Magnet for the sole purpose of recording the soundtrack, who Giovanni auditioned: “I picked only people who were very musical, who could sing as well as play instruments. I didn’t want anyone to sound ‘trained” (Giovanni, Cinefantastique, 1977).
Part of the reason the score to The Wicker Man is so good is that Giovanni went deep, he knew a lot about folk music and the mysticism and paganism that comes with it. Alongside this, Carpenter brought knowledge about traditional instrumentation and musical arrangement. They sourced instruments like the Celtic Harp and brought in the London Symphony Orchestra’s brass section to record the May Day procession and other horn parts at De Lane Lea Studies, Dean Street in Soho. Giovanni was especially interested in American singers like Pete Seeger and Appalachian bluegrass music and how they connected in style and cadence to the roots of ancient British and Scottish folk, which in turn, was infused with different instrumentation from around the world, dating as far back as the 10th Century. Giovanni saw correlations between ancient British and Celtic poetry and song and the use of storytelling in music by his folk resurgence scene contemporaries, name-checking Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and citing the Joan Baez song ‘Silver Dagger’ as an example. Poetry was also incorporated into the soundtrack: Corn Rigs derives from a Robert Burns poem, set to a piece of Gaelic folk music, whilst a Walt Whitman poem influenced the short monologue Christopher Lee addresses to a pair of copulating snails on Howie’s first night on Summerisle.
Giovanni said Gently Johnny is the best song on the soundtrack and for my money, it is. I was deeply confused when only seeing a cut version of The Wicker Man for many years, which excluded Howie’s second night at The Green Man, until the fuller edit was re-released in 2003, with this song again featured. Giovanni apparently sourced six or seven old ‘gigolo’ ballads and combined lyrics, whilst the score itself was original. For me, another standout piece of music is the ‘Procession March’, which Giovanni based on a 14th Century song called ‘Willy of Winsbury’: “I wanted a waltz, in three, so that it could be slower and stranger and that the whole procession could sort of sway” (ibid). In various versions, this song remains a folk standard with a distinct melody. For anyone wanting a deeper drive to the origins of this or any other old British folk song, I recommend the Mostly Norfolk website as a comprehensive source. For the grand finale, screenwriter Anthony Shaffer wrote an adaptation of ‘Summer is a Comin’ In’, which according to Giovanni, is “the oldest song in the English language, probably goes back to the 9th or 10th century. The thing is so sacred – it goes right back to the worship of the sun” (ibid). Its thumping drumbeat and jolly, swinging, singalong chorus, juxtaposed with the barbaric torching of Howie and livestock in The Wicker Man, remains as jarring to me to this day as when I first saw it. Paul Giovanni never lived long enough to feel the love and respect that his work as a composer merits today. In a parallel universe, he may have adapted The Wicker Man for Broadway or the West End. If he were around today, I would imagine he would be a major draw for any folk festival.
To accompany this article, I have dedicated a 2-hour episode of my radio show, Cultural Popcorn, to celebrate 50 years of the music of The Wicker Man. ‘Soundtrack to Summerisle’ features cuts from the soundtrack and, based on Giovanni’s own words, the music that influenced him. The show includes tracks by Side Show and musical contemporaries of the late 60s folk and early 70s psychedelic folk rock scene that shaped and influenced his sound, alongside some traditional Scottish and Celtic folk songs. In addition, the show includes some cover songs from the soundtrack and newer music inspired by the film. And who knows, maybe an extended version of the soundtrack with outtakes and unused material may emerge one day – stranger things have happened. As the film celebrates its 50th birthday on December 6, 2023, much more will be said, and indeed written, about The Wicker Man by much more knowledgeable and credible film and music buffs than myself, but maybe not this: The Strumpets of Yore remains a great, unused band name.
You can listen to Soundtrack to Summerisle here: