Having apparently blown $2,200 of his $3,000 budget on coke, Roger Watkins turned to what's known as ‘library music' to salvage a decent soundtrack.
The Last House on Dead End StreetDirector: Roger Watkins
Cast: Roger Watkins, Ken Fisher, Bill Schlageter
It was 1972, and Roger Watkins, a long-haired troublemaker from Binghamton, was a senior in the Theater Department at SUNY Oneonta. Flocks of liberal arts candidates were flooding the campus of this State University during a severe wartime recession (according to former college president, Carey Brush, in the years preceding there had been 205 faculty resignations.) Amok, the students kept their minds off the draft by attending frat parties newly flush with cocaine and quaaludes. Suffice to say, by his senior year, the school main stage didn’t quite scratch the itch that Roger Watkins, then thoroughly addicted to methamphetamines, was feeling creatively.
So, using a cast of current and former student actors from the Theater Department, Watkins shot one of the sleaziest, cult grindhouse films of the ‘70s, right on campus. The opening shot of the film, underlaid with ominous synthesizer music, depicts the arches of a campus building emblazoned with the words, “State University”.
Last House on Dead End Street is not just shocking -- it’s also powerfully difficult to watch. It depicts a restless filmmaker (played by Watkins) who is tired of making porn and decides, instead, to get into snuff films. The plot is a mixture of Nightcrawler and A Clockwork Orange: He meets a distributor who is desperate for a product that would appeal to his jaded audience and takes him on. Soon, however, Watkins’ character becomes dissatisfied with the arrangement and decides to cast the distributor, his wife, and a couple of other associates in his next gruesome film. They are cattle prodded, eviscerated, forced to fellate goat hoofs, and murdered on camera by his gleeful associates.
The film is a sloppy attempt at surrealism and heavy-handed with its allegory. It's poorly cut and full of cheap references to other films, the most overt being to Wes Craven’s 1972 debut, Last House on the Left, which depicts similar gang brutality. It’s also an authentic time capsule of early ‘70s DIY. There’s no wonder it achieved cult status when it was finally released in 1977. It’s basically the original two girls, one cup -- you regret watching it, but once you have, you wear it as a badge of honor that you feel a sadistic urge to pin on others.
What’s more, as was recently brought to light by a tape-transfer reissue from Vombis Records,Last House on Dead End Street happens to have a remarkably killer soundtrack.
Having shot the film on a cheap camera, recorded sound to a simple tape recorder, and apparently blown $2,200 of his $3,000 budget on coke, he turned to what's known as “library music”, stock music for commercial use. Obtained through mail order or possibly on a trip Watkins took to England, he used music exclusively from the famous KPM database, which not only upped his production value for an affordable price, but included some genuinely cutting edge work from British composers who, while not quite DIY, were at the time engaged in similarly out-there analog experimentation.
By 1972, the KPM Musichouse had become an unlikely lightning rod for strange music. KPM was a production house (operating oftentimes out of Abbey Road Studios) that specialized in library music, sound effect cues tailored for BBC specials, and genre pastiches (“wok a chicka, wok a chicka”) that were widely synced into television and pornography alike. As label boss John Gale, whose label Trunk did some early library music reissues, explained to The Guardian, “this music was made in the days of the pirate radio boats, so a lot of it was crazy and naughty.” It was also somewhat underground. He adds, “this was music that also had to be made behind closed doors, as the Musicians Union didn't allow its members to make library records. Therefore, the people who made them were even more willing to experiment.”
Production houses also simply had the gear to do so. As Lindsey Zoladz noted in her recent article on library music in The Believer, "It’s easy to understand why, back then, musicians who wanted to tinker with the latest instruments and technology might seek out a production house. They had ample budgets, and, as Radiophonic alum Steve Marshall recalls, the earliest sampler, the Fairlight CMI, cost about as much as a small house."
With an ear for quality and a film whose horror-porn aesthetic was almost perfectly tailored for the collection, Watkins was especially attracted to ones that did experiment. They include Ron Geesin, whose proto-industrial, ambient monophonic synthesizer sounds make already unbearable scenes in Watkins’ film that much punchier. Geesin was famous for orchestrating Pink Floyd’s ‘1971 ambient suite, “Atom Heart Mother” and was a pioneer of experimentation with tape delays and effects. He remarked to The Guardian, "In those, days it was all about tape, and tape seemed to offer endless possibilities." Other ambient artists from Watkins’ selections include Delia Derbyshire, famous for creating the original, ambient theremin and organ-based Doctor Who theme from the ‘60s.
A bulk of tracks came from composer, ethnomusicologist, and erstwhile KPM employee, David Fanshawe. He spent his life traveling the world, making field recordings in Polynesia, Africa, and Iraq. Also working at KPM to make a living, it’s as though Fanshawe couldn’t help but imbue his choral work with the eerie ambiance the television world had come to expect from its cue music. He adds reverb and mixes ideas from different cultures. The work is, as such, a strange blend of authentic and canned, human and inhuman. And works perfectly to imbue the deranged actions on screen with an epic sense of dread.
There’s that same uncanny quality to the single track from Alan Hawkshaw, once guitarist for Bowie on his famous “Bowie at the Beeb” session for John Peel and music director for Serge Gainsbourg, who made a bundle off of aping popular styles for library tapes. The track that Watkins included is a canned piece of organ funk blues called “Beat Me Till I’m Blue”. It’s impeccably played but, as Pitchfork writer Nick Neyland writes in a review of a library music compilation that includes Hawkshaw’s work, “there's certainly a feeling of joy… but little or no sense of abandon. It lends much of the KPM music a unified ambiance, locked down in a place it can’t quite get to.”
But that place maps comfortably onto Watkins’ film world. The music is at home with his proto-punk aesthetic of ironic pseudo-commercialism and avant experimentation. 1972 was the year of Ziggy Stardust; it was also the quiet beginnings of many underground artistic movements that wouldn’t truly codify for another decade, through punk. The contributions of library musicians and university students alike to these changes shows how strange and inconsistent the boundaries were becoming between an ambitious underground and the commercial mainstream.
Watkins himself never reached the mainstream, but not quite for lack of trying. He reportedly scrapped for five years for distribution, while never publicly taking credit for the film. Watkins and crew assumed obvious pseudonyms in the credits, which had the effect of ensuring it was untraceable after a decade of obscurity, and eventually came to enhance the cult allure by standing as potential evidence that the film could have been capturing actual murders.
In 2000, seven years before his death, Watkins surfaced on an internet message board and claimed responsibility, eventually releasing a DVD commentary and filing it alongside his other work: a couple of other low budget surrealist films and some hardcore pornography. Now, his legacy as a curator of a strange and unlikely musical movement is equally on display -- for those who dare to listen.