By Charlie Brigden
Long before Fury Road and Junkie XL, there was Brian May. Not the Queen guitarist and badger-defender but rather an Australian composer of some note, May has been responsible for some of the best film music to come out of Oz. This includes his scores for the first two Mad Max pictures, the first of which we’re looking at today.
Like the film, May’s score is stark and uncompromising. Many composers have tried their hands at scoring dystopian science fiction, but Mad Max stands out, particularly because it’s primarily orchestral. Violent and visceral, the score is aggressively dissonant but suitably evocative of the landscape it’s illustrating. The use of brass is particularly interesting, with a furious performance that is really breathtaking in its bellicose brutality.
But given that Mad Max is about civilisation – some degree at least – being violated, May brings a sense of equilibrium that is somewhat melodramatic and subsequently provides a stark contrast to the harsh Nightrider material. Much of it reminds me of Barry Gray’s music for the Gerry Anderson shows such as Thunderbirds and Space:1999, with ‘We’ll Give ‘Em Back Their Heroes’ and ‘The Beach House’ having some wonderful string work, the latter very calm and serene. This kind of material is occasionally peppered amongst the brass, such as ‘The Final Chase’ which has a beautiful use of harp, and it works as a slight relief in places from the consistent assault that is the main body of the score.
That aural assault is fascinating to listen to. To some it may sound like a random assortment of instruments, but it’s carefully orchestrated to really come across as a co-ordinated attack, starting as it means to go on with the drum trills and tense brass of ‘Main Title’. May does really interesting things with his orchestra, using the string section like a police siren during chase music, and blaring horns screaming and stabbing with the use of knives and bullets (the latter in ‘The Terrible Death of Jim Goose). Max himself is given an interesting treatment, with a five-note trumpet motif that plays as an emotional reminder and some really intense sawing strings that almost position him as a killer from a slasher movie. Perhaps that’s May illustrating what all of this has done to the character, what he has become.
Mad Max was originally released on LP in 1980 by Varese Sarabande, with a running time of half an hour. It’s a great lean program, and it shows how effective the score. Varese reissued it in 1993 with an extra “outtakes suite” added, which includes parts of Max’s wife playing her saxophone. Sadly, the score has not been reissued since.
Mad Max is a brilliant score, fascinating and intense. The cult of Brian May has increased recently with vinyl reissues of his work, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this surface again somewhere down the line. It really deserves it.