An Interview with John Steven Lasher by Steve Russ
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.16/No.62/1997
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
John Steven Lasher was born on October 18, 1943, in El Paso, Texas, the only son of a United States Army non-commissioned officer and domestic housewife. John’s aunt Moselle Donlevy, related to the late actor Brian Donlevy, introduced him to many Hollywood celebrities, who often visited her home in North Hollywood. John became interested in music for motion pictures in the early 1960s. In 1974, at the behest of his friend and colleague, the great composer, Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), he formed his own record label (Entr’acte Recording Society) in Chicago. The label’s first release, the Herrmann soundtrack from Brian DePalma’s SISTERS, was a big success for him. In the past 35-years John has produced many fine recordings on several independent labels, including the film scores (newly recorded) from THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, KING KONG (1933 RKO film), CITIZEN KANE, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, as well as then current recordings of the original soundtracks from BOUNTY, FRANCES, SOPHIE’S CHOICE, TEEN WOLF, TIME AFTER TIME, VOYAGE OF THE DAMNED, among others.
In 1992, branching out into film production, John purchased an original Soviet Kinopanorama 3-film panoramic camera, in order to re-launch the format after a 30-year hiatus. Kinopanorama is the Soviet equivalent of Fred Waller’s famous Cinerama. John’s two Kinopanorama films to date have been screened in the UK and in the USA at Dayton, Ohio and at the Hollywood Cinerama Dome. In 2010 he commenced work on the pre-production of a new Kinopanorama documentary, THE KINOPANORAMA EXPERIENCE (working title), a documentary about the history of the Kinopanorama wide screen format.
There is a rumour going around that the SCSE release of FRANCES will be your last, and that you are planning to sell off Fifth Continent in favor of an early retirement. Any comment on this?
Only conjecture on the part of others. I have no official plans at this time, but if a buyer with a good sum of money came forward to purchase the master tape catalogue I would certainly be open to negotiations. Now that I am involved in the production of BOUNTY, my Kinopanorama film, I am spending less and less time producing music CDs. I am tempted to lift the title of the final cue on the FRANCES CD, “Things Are Going to be Slower from Now On”, as my new motto insofar as film music recordings are concerned.
I read somewhere that you have located the 8-track masters (which you had previously indicated were lost) of THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES and NIGHT DIGGER, and that you are planning to release them on a specially encoded DTS 5.1 audio CD.
This is correct. Both albums will be released later this year, with some additional material, in the DTS format and they will be sold direct to audio dealers marketing the DTS software by DTS Direct Marketing. The sound will be completely remixed to take advantage of the discrete 6-speaker DTS technology. I will make an official announcement when we have reached a marketing agreement and a release schedule with DTS Management.
Are you planning any other releases in your “At the Movies” series this year. If so, what are they?
Yes, but I have no specific titles for publication at this time.
Do you feel that too many film music CDs are being released?
Yes and no. It all depends on what you consider “too many”. Certainly, as far as I am concerned, the quantity far exceeds the quality. The amount of what I call “rubbish” that is released boggles my mind. Keep in mind too that a good number of these soundtrack albums include previously-recorded pop songs, which the film producers have licensed for use in their films to help promote them. Again, the old scenario from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s has come back to haunt us, when original orchestral scores were largely displaced by the “theme song scores”. Now, however, it is with considerably enhanced TV marketing aimed at the masses, most of whom would not know the difference between an original soundtrack and the latest CD release of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Sad but true.
Do you feel that this flood of soundtrack CDs inhibits the smaller labels, and perhaps even the larger ones, from releasing more titles?
Not really, as the “pop” soundtracks are usually released by the major labels, many of whom already own the exclusive rights to the songs anyway. The major films with established box-office potential mostly end up being released anyway – usually by the major labels, especially when the score is by someone like Goldsmith, Homer or Williams. The smaller labels then get the leftovers.
For those listeners who might have tuned in late, when and how did you become involved in producing soundtracks? Was SISTERS the first one?
Well, that is a long story, and one that I will not bore the majority of your readers with. Therefore, I will condense it accordingly. Although SISTERS was the first album I produced, in 1974, it was not intended as such. Pride of place was originally reserved for VERTIGO, my favorite Herrmann score, and one of my ten all-time favorites by any composer.
I was living in Chicago at the time, working in the sales department of Trans World Airlines. Chicago was also the corporate home of Mercury Records (many years before it was sold to Polygram) who were the producers of the original VERTIGO soundtrack LP. One day, in a fit of blind madness (or divine inspiration – take your pick) I decided that this great, classic Herrmann soundtrack, so long out of print and on just about every soundtrack collector’s top-ten list, should at long last be re-released – and that I should be the person to make it happen.
I telephoned Mercury’s Business Affairs Department and was put through to a Mister Herb Wolfson, who patiently listened to my impassioned plea that VERTIGO was the one-and-only soundtrack LP deemed worthy of re-release. Mr Wolfson, who was later of great help in offering me professional advice on the convoluted music business, went out of his way to open various doors with Alfred Hitchcock’s business managers. Unfortunately, just as a contract was about to be consummated, disaster struck in the form of a bootleg LP and negotiations were terminated. To say that I was heartbroken is an understatement. All those months of telephone calls and flights to California (costing nothing, fortunately, thanks to airline staff benefits) had come to naught.
Luckily, I had already spoken to Herrmann on the telephone about my plans to do VERTIGO. In fact, my first-ever long distance international phone call was made to him in London. George Korngold, who had previously befriended me, warned me that Herrmann was an explosive character and that I should choose my words with extreme caution in our initial conversation. But Herrmann and I got on famously, to my intense relief, and it was he, in fact, who suggested that I release SISTERS, which he claimed, and I quote, “No record label would release because it did not have a ‘Hank’ Mancini tune in it.”
And the rest is history.
Why haven’t you released more titles in your “Bernard Herrmann Anthology”? I thought you were going to do a whole series of them.
It’s called “making a profit”, mate. CITIZEN KANE and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS cost a considerable amount of money to produce. The bottom line is that although both CDs sold rather well over the past few years I have not recouped the full amount of my personal investment. I am, after all, a businessman, and I have to earn a living, pay the rent, eat, meet various financial obligations, and so on. (John Lasher told me at one time that he had to sell 4,000 units per title to break even, let alone make a profit – LVDV).
What was your best-selling album and how many copies did you sell?
SOPHIE’S CHOICE, followed by KING KONG. Sales figures are strictly confidential and no record label as a matter of corporate policy ever releases this information to the general public.
Okay, what were your least successful titles then?
Where do I start? YOR, THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE, for one.
Did your recent compilations sell well?
I assume you mean “At the Movies”? Not bad at all. Several individuals wrote to thank me for putting so much music on a single CD.
You’ve had a long history of producing CDs in Australia now. How and why did you choose to live and work “Down Under”?
I had simply had enough of living in the United States, with its crime, pollution, overpopulation, rotten transport, xenophobia – you name it!
It was time to burn all the bridges behind me and to move to some place as far away from America as possible, and preferably where the people spoke some kind of English. As I look back on these last seven years I have to say that I think that we, and I do count myself, quite proudly, as a “dinkie-di Aussie”, speak better English than all the bloody “septic tanks” (Yanks) and the “Pommies” (English) put together. I truly love Australia – not only the diverse multicultural population, but also the incredible land itself.
What was the first soundtrack you released here?
I think it was FROG DREAMING by Brian May, which also had a suite from THE WILD DUCK by Simon Walker. As you know, Brian May died just recently.
Were there any titles which you wanted to record but had to shelve for one reason or another?
Yes, ATTACK OF THE MUTANT TAMPONS. Just joking, of course. I would really like to record an anthology of some of Daniele Amfitheatrof’s film scores, particularly from his years at MGM and Paramount. But, I am sorry to say, they would never sell. Amfitheatrof, with whom I was a good friend in the last two decades of his life, is in my estimation the most neglected of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” composers. He was a first class musician in every respect, and you will find any number of musicians still active today, who worked with him, who will attest to this fact.
Then there are composers whose music I would never record, even if you paid me! Herbert Stothart is one. Did you know that “his” score for THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (MGM, 1945) was actually composed by Ernst Toch? He was an Austrian repatriate who later became professor of composition at the University of Southern California, and taught several film composers, including Goldsmith and Mancini.
No, I didn’t know that! I suppose that was a throw-back to the days when the heads of the studio music departments often got the screen credits for scores that were actually composed by a staff composer. Anyway, if there were ONE unreleased title, one which you could negotiate the rights to release on CD, which one would it be?
If I were to divulge that, one of my colleagues, or rather one of my competitors, would beat me to the punch. That would spoil all the fun, now wouldn’t it?
Who are your favourite film music composers?
Well, that really is a broad question – sort of like separating the men from the boys. Let me say that I have particular favourites among those composers who have also written for the screen as well as those who write mainly only for the screen.
In the former category I would include Aaron Copland, Benjamin Frankel, Miklos Rozsa, Dmitri Shostakovich, Akira Ifukube, Peter Sculthorpe and William Walton. In the latter I would open with “FHN”, which sort of sounds like an acronym for an insurance company, I suppose. Those letters are the three men who represent my Holy Trinity of film composers, Friedhofer, Herrmann and North. Keep in mind that the latter two also wrote a fair number of concert works. Each penned one of my ten favorite film scores: THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, VERTIGO and SPARTACUS. After them I would follow with Elmer Bernstein, Jerome Moross, Leonard Rosenman, Nino Rota, David Shire and Franz Waxman. There are, of course, many others, too numerous to mention here.
I notice that you did not mention Morricone, who has the most prolific output of CDs of any film music composer.
Actually, Ennio Morricone is a rather interesting conundrum in my book. I am very fond of his chamber music, particularly “Esercizi For Ten String Soloists” (available on a Denon CD in a performance by I Soloisti Italiani), which I think is an absolutely brilliant work. In it, he takes a motivic cell, in this case the melody from one of the arias in Verdi’s opera La Traviata, and “dissects” it, through changes in the note values, inversion, augmentation – you name it – so that it is all but unrecognisable.
His film music, however, leaves me cold.
Me too, I have to admit. How about the younger film music composers? Are there any of the “new generation” of composers whose work you admire?
Yes. I think highly of Bruce Broughton, James Newton Howard and Howard Shore. Their respective scores for YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES, WYATT EARP and ED WOOD are particular favorites of mine.
Just to throw in a controversial question, are there any composers whose music (or personalities) you don’t like?
Yes again. James Homer, in both categories. I should add, however, that the best piece of music he ever wrote, the Universal Pictures Logo, is also the shortest!
What do you think of your colleagues at the other music labels?
To paraphrase the author Ayn Rand in her novel THE FOUNTAINHEAD (the film of which had a rather decent – for once – score by Max Steiner), “but I don’t think of them “. ‘Nuff said.
Sounds like you don’t like Steiner too much. But staying with “controversial” for the moment, and at the risk of getting hit, you’ve often come across to others as being temperamental, opinionated and something of a non-conformist. How do you feel about that?
Oh, yes. I once said to Bernard Herrmann that I was always “on the outside looking in, never mixing with others of my mine”. His comment was, “My dear John, pigeons flock together but we eagles soar alone “. This has become the credo to which I thereafter always aspired.
I have no time for fools (the pigeons), and this includes a good many of the administrators in the Hollywood studio music departments – most of whom are musically illiterate hacks who couldn’t find middle C on a piano if their lives depended on it. The halcyon era of the Greens, Newmans, Stoloffs, Bakaleinikoffs, Forbsteins, etc., is long gone, and I want no part of today’s Hollywood politics. Thanks, but no thanks.
Incidentally, before I answer your next question, I just want to tell your readers how honoured I was to be named in another film music publication as their Most Obnoxious Mail Bag Correspondent. As Tallulah Bankhead used to say, “I don’t care what they say, darling, as long as they say it about ME!”
Yes, I saw that too. It’s a rare talent John. Just to finish off now, are there any particular events in your career which you recall with particular fondness that you would like to share with us?
Sure! Thanks for asking. As you can imagine, there are several – among them being close friends with a good many of the greatest names to grace the Silver Screen – but one which immediately springs to mind is the dinner which I hosted in May, 1979, for Hugo Friedhofer. It was at Scandia, a famous Hollywood restaurant frequented by many from the film industry, and it was not only to launch the LP release of THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, but also to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his Hollywood career.
It was the sort of event one would never forget – had one been invited. Seated at a very long table was a veritable “Who’s Who”; John Green, David Raksin, David Shire, Lalo Schifrin, Nathan Scott, Alex North, Henry Mancini, George Duning, Variety columnist Army Archard, writer Gene Lees, and on Hugo’s left, his then lady friend, torch singer Jeri Southern. This dinner, which I paid for out of my own pocket, was my personal tribute to a composer who, apart from those colleagues honoring him that evening, had been largely forgotten by an industry in which he had toiled for half a century – a man whose formidable talents had been rendered “outdated” by the then-current studio music administrators.
Thank you very much John. You’ve touched on some interesting points which I would like to follow up in the future, if you can spare the time again.