July 15, 2014



My annual cycle of reminiscing usually puts me in the mood for 1980s comedies during the summertime. But when you're a hardcore past-dweller like myself, the law of diminishing returns means that watching them just isn't enough anymore. I'm "chasing the dragon" so I've got to layer on the nostalgia to even come close to the high the movies once gave me. Thankfully I've discovered the act of listening to vintage records of 80s summer comedy soundtracks. Now, while I relive the movie I can also speculate on the history of the used records I own, read Wikis on dead session musicians, contemplate Kenny Loggins, and I can ponder past pleasantries like visits to mall music stores and tower speakers on bedroom floors.

So let us now examine the merits of three soundtracks: Meatballs, Caddyshack, and National Lampoon's Vacation.  All of them sun-filled features that came out in a four year span and have managed to retain at least some cultural pertinence. Incidentally, all of them are what they are because of the late great Harold Ramis (co-writer of Meatballs, and director of both 'Shack and Vacation.)

Meatballs (1979)
This is definitely not a selection of music that can stand apart from the film. The same could be said for many soundtracks, but this is a melting pot of sounds that never quite melt together, with styles ranging from the nostalgic-yet-grating children's screamfest that is "Are You Ready for the Summer" to dreamy ballads, Elmer Bernstein instrumentals, disco, and a Rick Dees novelty song, all loosely strung together by a few lines of dialogue from the film. 

It's a cultural stew that gets more interesting the closer you look. For instance the upbeat dance track "Makin' It" was the theme to a short-lived 1979 TV show of the same name that's performed by David Naughton who starred on said sitcom just two years before starring in American Werewolf in London (1981). The broad scope of the soundtrack makes for an effective snapshot of the era from which it came. An era it stayed in since it never made the jump to compact disc.

Even the cover art points to an unlikely source. The white background with the circular element is an homage to Norman Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post covers. Coincidentally, the Caddyshack album cover more blatantly borrows from the same place.

Here's even more Post inspired movie art...

If we're telling the truth here, I've never thought Meatballs was as funny as it should be. Like summer, it seems full of endless possibilities, yet never reaches my impossible expectations. In fact, my first viewing of the film was born of summer letdown. It aired on a June evening when I was stuck indoors with crazy-severe sunburn while my family all went out for pizza. Really, I think it's one of those movies that has been imitated so often that the source material now seems trite. But there are still some golden moments, and I still like it when those kids ask me if I'm ready for the summer.

Caddyshack (1980)
There were a number of 80s comedies that went all out in the the soundtrack department and included original songs that were written specifically for the film in addition to the musical score. Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, and Caddyshack are all examples. Hearing these soundtracks everywhere made already huge movies seem like monumental events.

Kenny Loggins was hired to write and record the vocal tracks for Caddyshack. The first of Loggins' well known soundtrack spree that included Footloose, Over the Top, Top Gun, and Caddyshack II. Loggins wrote the songs after seeing a rough cut of the film which allowed him to cater the songs to specific scenes, and write lyrics that are supposed to reflect the perspective of the main character, Danny Noonan.  

Side one is like a Kenny Loggins EP, featuring three tracks made for the film, and "Mr. Night" which formerly appeared on his Keep The Fire album. The three originals are almost like three movements of a musical composition. "Make the Move" is practically an extension of "I'm Alright (Theme from "Caddyshack")" and its dreamy intro of choral loops closely resembles the outro of "Lead the Way." In the film this melody is seamlessly spliced into the beginning of "I'm Alright" (as heard here). With some slight editing these three tracks could be fashioned into an eternal loop of Loggins.

Side two is a grab bag of pop songs and instrumentals including Journey's "Any Way You Want It" from Dangerfield's insta-party. Just as the Looney Tunes did, Caddyshack uses familiar classical pieces as comedic enhancers. "Divine Intervention" is an amped up "Flight of the Valkyries" and "The Big Bang" is a take on "1812 Overture." Overall, the energetic and upbeat mood of the album makes it more cohesive than many soundtracks. Somehow it's got an aural smirk of 80s confidence which is important when you're mainlining the past.

National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)
I have to remind myself that "Holiday Road" by Lindsay Buckingham wasn't really a radio hit (peaking at #82 on the charts) because I've heard the song so many times while watching the movie. I've made a habit of playing this song and "Dancing Across the USA" during my own family vacations, and it perfectly sets the tone for fun. The inevitable traveling mishaps don't even seem as dire because it makes me feel like I'm living a Comedy.

Like the others, this soundtrack has a pretty broad mix of material, but in this case the distance between the styles appropriately resembles a musical road trip. Many of the tracks are fused with moments from the film. "Deep River Blues" by Ralph Burns is the wrong turn in St. Louis, "Mr. Blue" by The Fleetwoods is the shot of the entire family sleep-driving down the highway.

"The Trip (Theme from Vacation)" by Ralph Burns captures a wonderful moment in music history when certain early 80s film scores hadn't completely transitioned from the easy instrumentals of the 1960s and 70s. These tracks are so soothing to me with their warm brass and soaring strings. Another example is Marina by Johnny Mandel from the Caddyshack soundtrack which has more of a Latin, loungy sound. Also, the music from Mr. Mom comes to mind, but there are so many. I really should compile a master playlist of this style so I can bask in its blissful comfort.

The Vacation album cover is yet another parody of sorts, only this time it's not just imitating a known style, they actually hired the legendary fantasy artist Boris Vallej to illustrate. Another similarity between the three covers is women clinging to men.
I am of the mind that these films transcend the standard 80s sex comedy, though they certainly have that element. Either way, the art is designed to capitalize on the trend. Maybe Vacation gets a pass since Vallej is a known leg-clinger artist, but Meatballs in particular, with its four clingers (including one shirt-biter) is just gratuitous marketing, making a debauched romp out of a movie that's both PG, and Canadian.

In conclusion, I thank you for reading my writing about records about movies.

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