When the great Mancunian wordsmith Anthony Burgess unleashed A CLOCKWORK ORANGE in 1962, could he ever have imagined the impact this piece of work would have on society, or that its visual anarchy would still resonate in popular culture to this day? The book itself – a visceral study of youth violence, set in a dystopian London – is written in its own ‘yoof’ language of Nadsat. Some readers had the luxury of a glossary at the back of their well-thumbed paperbacks, but not all editions were so lavishly produced. Nevertheless, stark exclamations such as Ultraviolence, Droogs, Cutter, Korova and Horrorshow have become, in varying levels, almost household words.
The stark visuals of the novel clearly begged to be dragged kicking and screaming to the big screen. When, at the birth of the 70s, Stanley Kubrick announced he was filming an adaptation of the controversial book, dark magic was in the making. Kubrick’s juxtaposition of grand musical themes against his eye-menacing visuals was a startling element of his auteur approach. The unsettling humour of his musical choices in Doctor Strangelove (We’ll Meet Again serenading the nuclear explosions) and the heart-stopping themes in 2001: A Space Odyssey – in particular Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra playing over the epic opening shots – promised great things for the tale of a Beethoven-loving sociopath.
The music that sits at the heart of A Clockwork Orange’s warped world has enabled the film version to maintain its cult status for the past 47 years. It’s not merely the dramatic soundtrack that Kubrick compiled, but the varying connections between the artificial world of protagonist Alex’s being and the very real sphere of music in our world.
The look of the film immediately lent itself to the glam rock movement which was in full flow in Britain at the time the film was released in 1971. You can see echoes of Marc Bolan in Alex’s iconic look; the deeply lined eyes and elongated lashes which are the focus of the film’s oft-imitated opening shot. Not even David Bowie could ignore the influence of the film’s visuals, but Burgess’ twisted language also intrigued him. “Hey man, Droogie don’t crash here,” he sang on Suffragette City in 1972; 44 years later, on the track Girl Loves Me from Blackstar, Bowie went pure Nadsat, mixing his lyrical scat with smatterings of Polari (a slang language popular in gay clubs in 70s London): “Cheena so sound, so titi up this malchick, say / Party up moodge, nanti vellocet round on Tuesday.”
In an interview in 1993, Bowie revealed that he saw the film’s inspiration as the driving force behind his Ziggy Stardust period. “The whole idea of having this phony-speak thing – mock Anthony Burgess-Russian speak that drew on Russian words and put them into the English language, and twisted old Shakespearean words around – this kind of fake language… fitted in perfectly with what I was trying to do in creating this fake world, or this world that hadn’t happened yet. It was like trying to anticipate a society that hadn’t happened.”
Bowie’s love for the film’s visual aesthetic was joyously unashamed, particularly in the Ziggy era. His outfits from this period wouldn’t have looked out of place in the record store that Alex visits to pick up girls, a zeitgeist-capturing scene which has been pored over by the film’s fans for decades. Alex, played with delicious menace by Malcolm McDowell, is a music fan who is seen perusing his local record store, strolling past racks containing albums by The Beatles (Magical Mystery Tour), Tim Buckley (Lorca) and a cheekily semi-veiled 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack. Further references to groups The Heaven 17 and The Sparks are pure gold for fans, who still debate as to whether those groups lifted their name from this sequence. The actual shop scene was shot in the famous Chelsea Drug Store, as mentioned in The Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want. In 2015, a petition went up for auction that was created by The Beatles: the intention of this fascinating document was to see their mate Mick Jagger in the role of Alex in an early screenplay that was being conceived by Terry Southern (Easy Rider, The Magic Christian). Imagine.
Artwork by Nick Booton / Brui Studio
The scenes set in the Korova Milk Bar are perhaps the only other elements of the film to have had such an impact on the world of music. Blur’s video for their 1995 hit The Universal is perhaps one of the most beautiful homages to A Clockwork Orange yet, placing the band in a re-constructed milk bar. Albarn’s knowing eyeliner is a direct reference but throughout the clip are more subliminal nods that only true fans may spot: the red and blue men, the blink-or-you’ll-miss-them visual stings and the singing diva all reflect iconic moments from the film.
Closer to home, Korova was re-appropriated as Echo and The Bunnymen’s label in the 80s, and later as the name of the Fleet Street bar that incubated the scene that developed around Ladytron and many other alternative musicians in Merseyside in the early 2000s. The Bunnymen also had a hit with The Cutter in 1983, borrowing from the line, “Spare me some cutter [money]” that the Droogs’ first victim pleads in the damp subway. The milk on sale in the bar, Moloko, was also borrowed wholesale by the 90s dance duo fronted by Róisín Murphy, and also gave its name to a bar and eatery in the Ropeworks area.
The actual music used in the film is another whole world of strange. Beethoven looms large and is integral to the plot. It is he who drives Alex to take to the streets pumped with manic adrenaline, ready for a bit of ultraviolence; but it is also the sound of Beethoven’s music that controls him as he undertakes the eye-straining Ludovico Treatment to make him nauseous towards the violence he loves. One passage in particular from the novel shows that Burgess’ love for Beethoven is at least the equal of Alex’s:
Segments from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 feature heavily in some of the film’s most integral – and visceral – sequences, but it is the synthesiser arrangements of the music by Wendy Carlos that truly disturb and stay in the mind long after the film has ended. The Rhode Island composer, who also provided the score for Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), creates a soundscape that perfectly matches the otherworldliness of Kubrick’s vision. Her title music, co-composed with Rachel Elkind, has elements of Beethoven’s work but fits perfectly with the long pull shot from Alex’s face, revealing the Korova Milk Bar in its full glory. Words like iconic and cult were made for such moments.
The music of Gioachino Rossini is overlooked in discussion of the soundtrack but it plays an equally powerful role, particularly given the Carlos treatment. The Thieving Magpie passage accompanies the still-shocking depiction of an assault on a young woman carried out by Billy Boy and his gang and makes it all the more horrific. Equally, Carlos’ take on Rossini’s William Tell Overture adds humour and frenzy as Alex has speeded-up sex with the two girls from the record store in his bedroom.
Carlos’ work on the film’s soundtrack is a masterclass in twisting existing music to create a sense of comfortable familiarity, while also re-presenting it in a jarring, futuristic context. These Carlosian tweaks make the ‘straight’ faithful reproductions of familiar songs even more powerful. Little touches like the inclusion of Erika Eigen’s I Want To Marry A Lighthouse Keeper show Kubrick’s humour and pathos as Alex returns home after his treatment to find his room taken by a lodger. Similarly, the inclusion of Gene Kelly’s Singin’ In The Rain makes for a sense of unease in A Clockwork Orange’s famously shocking scene: Alex sings the much-loved musical number as he and his Droogs brutalise the writer and his wife, following a forced entry to the house. McDowell met Gene Kelly some years later at a party and the star walked away in disgust, so infuriated was he about the use of his signature tune alongside such a shocking moment.
The power and influence of Kubrick’s film cannot be denied, and it would be churlish not to consider how much the spirit of A Clockwork Orange haunts Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996). The whole otherworldliness and dystopian gang mentality is there throughout and key sequences ring with influences: the nightclub is designed around the Korova Milk Bar with the same iconic fonts on the wall; Renton similarly picks up a young Devotchka; and Renton’s home is clearly modelled on Alex’s, with Iggy Pop replacing Beethoven on his stereo. Themes of addiction, rehabilitation, illicit sex and shocking violence all appear, and it seems ironic that the treatment Alex receives removes all choice from his life, the one thing that is the driving force behind Renton’s entire “Choose Life” philosophy.
Imagery more than music has defined Stanley Kubrick’s legacy, with things like his signature one-point perspective and meticulous eye for detail celebrated and mimicked throughout his life and beyond. But, the musical choices in his films were important and need to be assessed more often. Despite I Wanna Be Your Drill Instructor – a tie in single from Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (and one of the worst singles ever released) – reaching number two in the UK chart in 1987, the film did inspire Oasis to shoot their stunning video for D’You Know What I Mean on the abandoned film set at Beckton Docks. Kubrick fans are diverse and musicians have always found inspiration from his artful soundtrack work. Can you imagine the balletic docking sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey taking place to anything other than the enchanting Blue Danube waltz?
Burgess’s own 1986 script, A Clockwork Orange: A Play With Music was performed at The Barbican in 1990 and featured original music from Bono and The Edge. The track Alex Descends Into Hell For A Bottle Of Milk/Korova 1 appeared as the B-side for U2’s 1991 single The Fly. It is this same play that will grace the stage at The Everyman this Spring, with composer and musician James Fortune taking the lead on the play’s soundtrack. The production by the Everyman’s new rep company will doubtless recruit more fans to the cult of the book and film, and will surely have the rest of us returning with real horrorshow to skvat the sinny once more and viddy it well.
A Clockwork Orange shows at the Everyman Theatre between 14th and 21st April, and then again between 10th and 30th May. Join us at the Everyman Bistro on 19th April for A Clockwork Social, featuring music from Cartwheels On Glass, Eyesore And The Jinx and some droogian theatrics.