Ten months ago, I learnt some shocking news: John Carpenter, the director of Escape from New York (1981) and They Live (1988), would be performing his music live. In the UK. I flipped, and booked tickets as soon as I possibly could.
Then he announced he would also be performing at the Warwick Arts Centre two days beforehand, essentially a 40 minute journey from my house.
So currently I’m spending a weekend in an actually not terrible and actually rather friendly hostel in Manchester.
Whenever I try to explain the concert to people, I always get a similar reaction. “Who’s John Carpenter?” Carpenter is the very definition of iconic. I can acknowledge directors like Dziga Vertov for how much they altered the medium of filmmaking, providing breathtaking montages and striking visuals, but there’s something incredibly watchable about Carpenter’s films.
It feels odd to admit as a 19 year old born at the tail end of the 90s that I have this weird obsession with 80s films. Each decade of cinema has its own qualities, but the 80s has something special about it. Maybe it has a reputation for awful fashions, cheesy action movie one-liners, and dumb pop music. But the fashion is fucking amazing. Visual effects ruled thanks to ILM, Phil Tippett, Tom Savini, Rick Baker and many others. The Human League, Eurythmics and Kraftwerk became the masters of synth. The X-Men moved to Australia.
But then the 80s also gave us neoliberalism, excess consumerism and Donald Trump.
Tracing the roots of this infatuation is difficult. Maybe it starts as being an apologist for 80s Doctor Who from the age of 10. When I first properly got into film in 2011, I started with the masters: Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Kubrick. But around the same time, I also had friends introducing me to Carpenter’s contemporaries, like Walter Hill, and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.
By the mid-90s, synth seemed to be disappearing from the music landscape. Big budget blockbusters seemed to rely instead on emotional, heartwrenching orchestras, or pop music soundtracks cobbled together from whichever artists who work for their record label. James Horner went from Commando (1985) to The Amazing Spider-Man (2012).
Recently, in an interview with Little White Lies, Carpenter stated of his use of synth:
I started using synthesisers out of necessity, because it was the cheapest thing available to me at the time.
But recently, synth seems to have undergone a reappraisal. In the wake of Tarantino/Rodriguez’s Grindhouse (2007), throwback films like The House of the Devil (2009), Hobo with a Shotgun (2011) and Turbo Kid (2015) have embraced the style of the past.
Synth is a versatile medium: it does not purely represent disco or the worst of 80s cheese. It can represent technology, the unsettling, the unnatural, and the thriller. Often it can be a framework for innovating something different: The Social Network (2010), It Follows (2014) and The Neon Demon (2016) use this aesthetic to explore something new. But it seems to be undergoing somewhat of a renaissance within the music industry too, thanks to synthpop artists like M83, CHVRCHES, Years and Years, Troye Sivan. Synth is not dead.
In 2015, five years after his last directorial effort (2010’s The Ward), Carpenter debuted his album Lost Themes, alongside his son Cody and his godson Daniel Davies. Now, he’s touring the US and Europe as a badass rockstar, alongside Cody, Davies and John Konesky and John Spiker from Jack Black’s Tenacious D. Yes, Tenacious D. This seems like the best career move for Carpenter; all artists must find a new avenue, as David Lynch has with his artwork.
Getting to the venue was a stressful experience. It had been a stressful day: relying on Google Maps to find a quicker route to the train station was an awful decision on my part, and the Virgin Train was so packed that it felt as if another #Traingate was inevitable. Then there was the stress of accidentally buying a single tram ticket when the return was 20p more.
The venue was originally to be held at the Manchester Albert Hall, but over the course of the year, the original ticket vendors folded; the venue was moved to a recently converted, modern arts venue, the Victoria Warehouse, a 20 minute tram from the city centre. As I walked down to the venue, legions of other people dressed in football shirts walked in the opposite direction.
Maybe I’m glad I got to the venue early: it felt like a little community of 20-somethings and 40-somethings, girlfriends dragged along, all brought together by the same thing. But there must always be something to occupy the mind in queues. When the ambulance pulled up at the venue, I started to get worried. Has there been a massive accident between a technician and a loose wire? Has Carpenter had a heart attack? Has Carpenter suddenly died, ready to join Roddy Piper in the sky? I stressed out for half an hour, until the paramedics and the ambulance wheeled away to a nearby parking space, probably waiting on hold until the first person ends up with a shard of glass in their eye, or is in desperate need of having their stomach pumped.
Buying overpriced merchandise before the show had even started, I began to wonder whether I had learnt anything at all from They Live. But I tried to be restrained: people walked into the venue carrying signed vinyl albums, t-shirts from The Thing (1982) and Escape from New York, lithographs and more. But it just seems too much – unlike my trip to the Troye Sivan concert last year, I wasn’t that guy spending £70 in one go. So instead I walked into the venue carrying a poster and a plastic (!) bottle of beer.
The venue seems to have received a wide amount of flack on social media, with numerous ticket holders complaining about being unable to see anything, or hear much at all either. A few days later, the Facebook page was completely down.
Personally, I have no real issues to report. That isn’t everybody’s experience, which is fair. Standing next to the Joker and Michael Myers near the stage, I was at a good vantage point. The warehouse was vast, stretching back to crowds far back. Moving two different shows into one was never going to work perfectly. But it feels almost appropriate – sitting in the Albert Hall would feel too formal, too operatic – unlike the sheer rebellious fun of Carpenter’s films, fighting against and within the Hollywood film industry. Instead, it feels like an underground show of decades ago.
Carpenter was having sheer fun, elevated from film director to a 68 year old rockstar. Chewing tobacco through every song; moving his eyes along to the audience (“I see you”, his hands gestured); dancing along like some cute old granddad; putting his sunglasses on through the They Live section.
Maybe instrumentals aren’t the most exciting part of live performance – there’s a framework, but no sense of the deviation and chaos of performing lyrics to a live audience. Visuals were provided in the form of clips from Carpenter’s films, vignetted by a Chinatown border for Big Trouble in Little China (1986); window blinds for Halloween (1978); a mirror image for some of his other films. But Carpenter never fully took on the rockstar persona. There was no sense of talking to the audience, or describing his experience of working on his films. Simple words, simple phrases, talking about being a master of horror; warning everybody to be safe and look out for Christine when they drive home tonight.
There was no sense of looking forward, but looking back. Carpenter performed a handful of songs from Lost Themes and Lost Themes II, but it didn’t feel like enough – instead, it just became a film retrospective. Even my favourite song from the album, Night, felt more gripping in its music video.
Looking bad isn’t a bad thing – but Carpenter was clearly following the iconic image of himself. There was no time for Kurt Russell in Elvis (1979), or Ice Cube and Jason Statham in Ghosts of Mars (2001), or even the scary children in Village of the Damned (1995). There was no sense of challenging his less than successful efforts.
It kind of made me question how much of a Carpenter fan I even am. I’ve seen his main ones – Halloween, Escape from New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live. I even watched Starman (1984) earlier this year. But I’ve not seen Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), or Christine (1983), or Prince of Darkness (1987). Maybe I can hope HMV gets copies of Christine in as soon as possible, or that Arrow Video can get the rights to Scream Factory’s release of The Thing, or for Studiocanal to lose control of their mishandling of The Fog (1980). Many of his films, I’ve only seen once. But that’s not what’s important – I still love him as a director.
After the concert and everybody flooded out through the fire escapes, hordes of people lined up outside, dressed in Halloween costumes. Through the crowds lined the Snake Plisskens and the John Nadas. Through the fans, I wandered back to my tram, so packed that I almost found myself jammed against the window. It almost felt like the violent subway of The Warriors (1979). But it had been a good night. Maybe not the greatest Halloween, or even as great as I imagined it – but it was still a lot of fun.