Episode 10: Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons

Episode 10: Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons

Barry Gray's Music from Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons
Barry Gray’s Music from Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons

Our takes:

The Inspiration: Bam Bam Bam Ba Ba Ba Bam!!!!

by Rod Cullen

Harp strings and a discordant Wurlitzer organ scream fade into purposeful footsteps. A disturbed bottle skittles into the distance and a prowling tomcat hisses a startled defense. Spotlights sizzle into life and find their quarry in a darkened alley, a machine gun splatters and bullets strafe their illuminated mark.  Captain Scarlet groans and falls dead. Again. Bam Bam Bam Ba Ba Ba Bam!!!!

A broken body lies at the foot of a cliff, a mangled car smolders in the background.  There’s no sound as spooky, otherworldly, almost Olympian rings of light traverse the scene.  The silence breaks. A voice, bitter with injustice and filled with vengeful intent, “This is the voice of the Mysterons. We know that you can hear us Earthmen”. Bam Bam Bam Ba Ba Ba Bam!!!!

Stand by for action - The Music of Barry Gray CD Cover
Stand by for action – The Music of Barry Gray

I’m not ashamed to admit that as a 5 year old the beginning of Captain Scarlet both scared the living day lights out of me and enthralled me in equal measure.  And the genius responsible for this, Gerry Anderson?  Well there’s no denying Gerry Anderson’s legacy, from Four Feather Falls to Terrahawks and everything in between.  However, for me the greater genius is in the music of Barry Gray.  The opening titles of Captain Scarlet aren’t really a theme tune they are a soundscape, a narrative in their own right.  Barry Gray worked on pretty much all of Gerry Anderson’s creations and a couple of year’s back I stumbled across “Stand by for Action! – The music of Barry Gray” on CD in a record shop in Manchester.  The album charts not only the history of Anderson’s supermarionation but also development of Gray’s music that was such a big part of the whole package.  There is some amazing stuff on it, but IMHO nothing better than the Captain Scarlet theme and related music.

I’ve been following the Frozen Veg project pretty much since the start and I’ve really enjoyed hearing and reading about Frosty and the Parsnip’s reimaginings of a very eclectic mix of original pieces. After a couple of beers, I collared them at our work Christmas party and set them what I think is the pretty difficult challenge of creating something inspired by Barry Gray’s music for Gerry Anderson.  So Stand by for action folks and over to Frosty and the Parsnip.

Frosty 1973’s Take

Captain Scarlet  7" Single
Captain Scarlet 7″ Single

When Rod suggested Captain Scarlet as an idea for the next Frozen Veg episode I wanted to create a new super hero for the task with a similar name and theme tune.  After a bit of experimentation with names I came up with Commander Red and did a bit of an improvised first musical idea.  Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) I then found that Commander Red already exists in the world of Manga. It made me wonder whether his creator went through the same thought process?

Anyway, as often is the case, my first idea filled me with enthusiasm for a couple of hours before I decided it was pretty dreadful.  I needed a new character. After considering many shades of red I settled on Sargeant Crimson. This immediately introduced an additional musical reference to the mix. One of my favourite prog rock bands and, specifically, a record of theirs from the late sixties, 21st Century Schizoid Man. I couldn’t resist dropping in a few musical phrases for good measure.  I met Robert Fripp from the band once.  He offered me a slice of cake. I hope he doesn’t mind me using some of his notes.

King Crimson - In The Court of the Crimson King
King Crimson – In The Court of the Crimson King

The actor I originally had in mind for the role of Sargeant Crimson was Deryck Guyler who played PC Corky Turnbull in Sykes, a programme a loved watching as a child.  Unfortunately he wasn’t available due to image resolution limitations so when I stumbled on the following anonymous image I knew I had my man:

Unknown Sargeant
Unknown Sargeant

A bit of photoshop tinting, a Captain Scarlet-like background and it was easy to imagine him fighting off evil enemies from other planets with his Victorian telephone table permanently attached to his left hand, looking slightly embarrassed.  Having found my character I set to work on the music. I knew I wanted to use the same palette as Gray’s original and ideally I wanted to create something with the same 60s feel to it, with lots of space and lots of twiddly brass parts.

I started of with a Scarlet-like spooky introduction with The Listerines providing a more than adequate replacement for the mysteriously missing Mysterons.  My girlfriend Yvonne provided the sinister sounding female voice, not that she usually sounds sinister. The ideas flowed so quickly that the aim of accurately recreating a sixties sound  soon went out the window but the instrumentation remained similar.

Although there are a few ups and downs in the volume of the music there’s usually quite a bit going on.  The challenge was therefore to make all the parts clearly audible in the mix.  The Parsnip has become quite accomplished in this area so in a recent writing session with the two of us I picked up a few hints.  One key factor involves ensuring parts avoid each other’s frequency ranges. Propellerheads Reason has a great EQ window which is a big help.  A high pass filter (as shown below) prevents parts such as guitars muddying the bass line.  Another key thing I realised when I came to mix the track was that when putting the brass tracks together each instrument should be playing a part that is appropriate for its sound.  Without this it’s likely some parts will cancel each other out.  Another thing that helps is spreading instruments across the stereo range.

Reason EQ High Pass
Reason EQ High Pass

Both The Parsnip and I have been using the Ozone Maximiser for a while now.  This handy effect adds a lot of fullness and volume to the sound and this time I realised that keeping the volume levels of each track down and cranking the threshold up higher on the Ozone gave much better results.

In general I’m quite happy with some of the music.  Some bits sound like an old fashioned policeman and the end section sounds like a car chase.  I’ve reused the sirens from an earlier Veg episode.  There are also a couple of other TV police references.  There’s an imaginary prize for anyone who can point them out.

The Parsnip’s Take

This was an educational experience for me and the most detailed piece of musical work I’d done since transcribing the violin opening of The Lark Ascending. When I caught up with Rod at the Christmas Party about the choice of Captain Scarlet it was apparent throughout our discussion just how important the Barry Gray music was to the whole experience. This set the tone for my piece. It needed to have enough recognisably “Gray” ingredients to hark back to the original. I listened to the Captain Scarlet theme and a few other pieces and assembled a collection of the all the key instruments in a Reason project. I played around with a few ideas initially but I wasn’t happy with any of them. It wasn’t just the sound of the instruments. How and where they were used was going to be key. I started to work out the chords and melody of the original “Captain Scarlet – End Titles (Commercial Version)” to act as a guide and it became a labour of love. The more I listened the more elements I was able to pick out and recreate. After 3 solid days of effort I was at square one, i.e. I had a good recreation of the end titles theme. It was a good starting point. Because I had all these ingredients, I could dismantle and rebuild the theme and take it in a different direction.

The proper end titles theme is fast paced which was crying out for a Drum & Bass remix to me. I got Drum & Bass patterns worked out for the drums and bass (unsurprisingly) but it didn’t sound right. It didn’t have any of the power of the kind of music I was using for reference – stuff by Spor and Chase & Status (Chaise ‘n Taters). I parked that idea for a future episode. In slowing down the track to work out suitable Drum & Bass drum patterns, I realised that it sounded better at 110BPM and the “Easy Listening & Bass” genre was born.

The track starts with the mandatory Bam Bam Bam Ba Ba Ba Bam!!!! motif which repeats with gratuitous abandon whenever the opportunity presents itself. It’s an iconic ingredient so I figured the more the merrier. I’m happy with the recreation of the Bam Bam sound. My version comprises a sax ensemble, staccato tuba, 60s brass section, bass and timpani drums. All for a single sound but well worth the effort. The downside to this and the other multi-part sounds is that Reason kept stopping with “Computer too slow to play song” messages. A PC upgrade is overdue.

The Mysterons make a reverberating appearance to kick off the first Mysterons section of the track. The track switches between the spooky Mysterons parts and the (slightly) happier Captain Scarlet flavoured bits. Spooky synths echo the original Mysterons notes, working with hi hats, sparse guitar, loads of multi-delayed vocals courtesy of the Steerpike BBD Delay Ensemble rack extension and tasteful descending harp glissandos – another characteristic ingredient.

Another Bam Bam Bam takes us into the Captain Scarlet section. Essentially a slowed down version of the original stripped down to the bare essentials to start with – vocals, bass, rhythm guitar “chits” and finger clicks. Feel free to click along.

The vocals took a long time because I can’t really sing notes high enough for this song. It took a lot of practice to get a relaxed, almost falsetto sound and a lot of processing to get it to sound any good. I had to sing with less effort, weirdly. It’ll do.

The drums kick in for a bit of contrast. The second chorusy bit has some organ underpinning it. A french horn sneaks into the background, almost unnoticed but essential to the sound.

“They crash him…” sees the introduction of the vibes – another iconic ingredient – can’t get enough of those. The vibes alternate with a plucked harp and the french horn returns for a vital collection of notes. Then it’s into the guitar solo. Lots of diffuse echo and a lazy riff to suit the laid back mode.

Bam Bam Bam again because it’s Mysterons time. Spooky synths and spooky guitar this time. Another guitar riff sets the melodic tone then it’s into the new verse “Captain Scarlet, always thrilling…”.

Rolling tympani introduces the next bit. A tribute to Thunderbirds. “As the angels are flying…” – low twangy guitar echoes the melody to give it more body. The guitar solo crops up again with a different ending because I liked it the first time around.

“Spectrum is Green” – the word of Rod.

Key change. Now I’m really struggling to reach the high notes. I’m also doing backing vocals. More guitar provides much-needed assistance to the vocal effort. Spooky whistle pops up again as it has throughout. Drop to vocals only at the end to ensure the last “Captain Scarlet” is clear. Harp, Bam Bam and spooky whistle to finish.

The whole thing needed an airy feel so copious amounts of reverb were applied throughout and I was always looking to remove elements rather than add them to give all the ingredients the space they needed.

Have I captured a sixties/Barry Gray feel? You decide. I hope so.

A photo shoot with Rod in a dark alley in a Captain Scarlet outfit for the cover and the episode was complete.

Bam Bam Bam Ba Ba Ba Bam!

3 responses to “Episode 10: Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons”

  1. Hey fellas, I’m not quite through what has been a very tough week at work and this has been the first chance to have a read and listen. What an amazing job you have done. Two very different takes, both capturing the spirit of Barry Gray IMHO and both made me smile throughout. The attention to detail in the Parsnips track is quite spectacular. You have proper cheered me up gents.

  2. A visit down memory lane. Captain Scarlet was my favourite Anderson show – though I also have a soft spot for Stingray (which I’m old enough to have watched as a child when it was first on TV). Anyway you’ve both done a magnificent job of capturing the essence. Well done.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: