Sound SHOCK: Composer John Cameron on Making the Music of PSYCHOMANIA

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Composer John Cameron on his music for the berserk British biker flick PSYCHOMANIA.

Director Don Sharp’s utterly demented 1971 action horror opus THE LIVING DEAD aka THE DEATH WHEELERS aka PSYCHOMANIA is a film that has to be seen to be believed.

Not just seen. But heard.

Telling the tale of cocky London motorcycle thug Tom (WITCHFINDER GENERAL’s Nicky Henson) and his obsessive quest to learn the secrets of eternal life through violent suicide, PSYCHOMANIA is ostensibly a biker flick, with the devil worshipping Tom and his fellow two-wheeled gang bangers (who call themselves, appropriately, The Living Dead and wear wickedly designed skull helmets and head to toe, skin tight, black leather) raising hell in the city streets. But when the hell-raising turns literal, after Tom strikes a deal with his Satanic butler (played by THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY’s George Sanders, whose last film this tragically was), kills himself and returns as a hog riding zombie, things start careening into pure genre mash-up madness. One by one, Tom’s followers follow sick suit, rising again as immortal ghouls and blazing trails of terror across the countryside. Meanwhile, Tom’s psychic and sickly rich mother (the great Beryl Reid) rubs her hands and looks for a Devil-defying loophole to send her brutal boy (with whom she has a rather unhealthy relationship) back to the bowels of the “bad place”. And then things get weird…

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By the time the exploitation film world spun into the 70’s, EASY RIDER, the ultimate arthouse biker film, had spawned a glut of similar pictures and screenwriter Arnaud Dusseau (who also wrote the equally offbeat Spanish/UK chiller HORROR EXPRESS) opted to fuse their fame with headline-ripping British “youths gone wild” stories along with a post-NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD zombie film and the result was PSYCHOMANIA. But the weird violence and vintage faux-nihilism aren’t all that sells the picture; it’s composer John Cameron’s brilliant music that seals the deal with what might be the single most delirious psychedelic soundtrack of the 1970’s.

Cameron was a former collaborator of psyche pop star Donavan and a film composer who, along with his band of specially selected studio players collectively called ‘Frog’, managed to sculpt one of the trippiest, grooviest, eeriest tapestries of sinister ‘wah-wah’ space rock brilliance ever. From those first few frames of PSYCHOMANIA, as the members of The Living Dead ride in slow motion in and around a creepy, fog drenched field called The Seven Witches, Cameron’s fuzzy, aural acid trips push the picture into the realms of serious, strange art.

Thanks to UK label Trunk Records, we now have that score on CD and it’s been since pirated to hell and back (as has been the movie over the years).

Here is a brief interview we conducted with Cameron about his major contribution to the sound of cult cinema.

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SHOCK: When you sat down and watched PSYCHOMANIA for the first time, without your score, what were your thoughts about this wacky little movie?

CAMERON: That it was a wacky movie, yeah! It was really weird and kind of bizarre. But it was definitely a product of late 60’s and early 70’s low budget filmmaking; they were trying to put everything in there – rock and roll, zombies, action…but no sex, strangely. Well, none that was visible anyway, most of it was inferred, I suppose…

SHOCK: What was Don Sharp like?

CAMERON: Don was a great action director and he shot really great kinetic sequences that made the movie. All those suicides and wild crashes were fantastic. Don was a really good guy to work with too, not an “airy fairy” sort of guy at all. He simply knew the kind of film he wanted to make and did it.

SHOCK: Your work in this film is so trippy and loose…I presume it was mostly improv?

CAMERON: It was mostly written, actually. I tend to write everything when I compose, even guitar parts. But I did give the band some space to be loose. We recorded the music at Sheperton Studios, which is this big old studio designed and used primarily for symphony orchestras. We even had an engineer who still wore a suit and tie to the sessions! Now, a lot of the nature of that score was down to the fact that there were no Moogs available to us. I mean, there were Moogs but they were the size of a house and impractical to transport. So we took guitars, vibes and different instruments and did a kind of Phil Spector thing by putting them through different speakers and phase units. We had to find ways to make weird sounds without synthesizers and this produced was an ingenuity that you don’t see nowadays.

SHOCK: For a long time, before it was released to CD, the score was thought to be lost. Who had the masters?

CAMERON: I think Johnny Trunk must have found those but I presume the film studios would have had the masters. Actually, it’s quite possible that with PSYCHOMANIA all there would have been was a quarter inch master. Once it got to be like, 1974, 1975, everybody making movies used multi-tracks for music. But in those days, especially in those cheaper British movies, everything went straight from quarter inch onto 3 track dubbing optical prints. It was only after the CD came out and Johnny Trunk told me about different DJ’s doing remixes on the main theme that I became aware of any interest in it. And then, of course, the internet has made me aware of it too…