The Musical World of Rocky Horror

Richard Hartley Interview (1979)        4,047 views

Exclusive Interview: RICHARD HARTLEY
A man and his music - the composer/arranger for RHPS tells all.


Music composer/arranger Richard Hartley began his professional career in Paris in the mid-sixties, riding the wave of the British pop craze. "If you were English and played in a rock and roll group you could do no wrong," explains Hartley over tea in his airy London apartment. As a keyboard player he toured Europe with 'Denny and the Witchdoctors,' an eccentric musical group that combined fifties rock and roll with a touch of Barnum and Bailey's circus. "Denny, who was in his early forties, dressed exclusively in leopard skins. He did a fire-eating act while he sang and played the banjo. In between he used to string up wires and swing all around the stage. It was a great show. Very visual."

After Denny and the Witchdoctors went their separate ways, Hartley headed back to England where he worked as an arranger for a company that produced reggae records. Although that musical form lacked the necessary slickness to make it commercially successful, it was starting to gain a measure of popularity in England. Hartley was hired to add the necessary commercial gloss. "It was like Motown Records trying to make black music appeal to whites. We used to take all these great Jamaican songs and put violin music in the background. They became commecial, all right, but who knows what happened to their original appeal."

Although it was good technical training, the "bland" musical arrangements were getting uncomfortably close to Muzak. As Hartley did not want to make his living arranging songs for the listening pleasure of dentists and elevator operators, he quit. Retiring from the pop scene altogether, he spent the next year writing and recording his own string quartets.

He was called back into action by the musical director of Jesus Christ, Superstar who needed help with some music auditions. Through Superstar, he met director Jim Sharman who asked him to compose the music for his forth-coming production of The Unseen Hand. "The music itself was quite incidental. Sort of like music for spaghetti westerns. You know, little plinks and plonks. But luckily I met Richard O'Brien who was a member of the cast. One day he came over to me and said, 'I've written this little rock musical,' and I thought, 'Oh dear!' because at that time there were so many rock musicals being done. But I went over to his house anyway and he played the tape. Needless to say, I was very impressed."

"We put Rocky together very quickly. It was rather like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in Summer Stock. 'Well kids, we have three weeks at the Royal Court SO LET'S PUT ON A SHOW!'" Richard started out with five or six songs, although more were added during rehearsals. People would either come up with ideas, or Jim would say, 'We need another song in this scene.' Richard would go home and the next day he would be back with a new number."

Since O'Brien does not write music but records the tunes directly on tape, Hartley was given the job of transcribing the songs and fleshing out the simple guitar arrangements. With the show's miniscule budget, Hartley could only afford to hire four musicians who had to double on a second instrument. "We couldn't just hire a bass player. We had to find a bass player who could also play saxophone." Hartley played keyboard himself for the five weeks of the initial run.

In between the Rocky Horror stage show and the film, Hartley was hired to compose the score for two Joseph Losey films, The Life of Galileo for the American Film Theatre, and The Romantic Englishwoman, which starred Glenda Jackson. The jobs were a major break for Hartley, and a big departure from Rocky's harsh fifties-style rock. He has since written the score for The Lady Vanishes, with Cybill Shepherd, which was released this year.

After completing work on The Romantic Englishwoman, he was called in to re-arrange the music for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. "The arrangements are basically the same, although I made them quite a bit stronger. With more money to spend, Hartley increased the size of his orchestra from four to thirty, which subsequently increased the complexity of the arrangements. "I'm afraid we may have embellished the music too much. It's difficult when you take something that relies on simplicity and energy and try to make it into something that sounds smoother."

Hartley had two weeks to rehearse the band and record the music. "Surprisingly it was really more than enough time. I knew the music backwards anyway. We used one of the original guitarists from the show and the rest of the musicians were from the group Procol Harem." Many of the keys were changed to accommodate the new voices which now included Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick and Meatloaf. "I was delighted with Meatloaf. He was the first person who ever played Eddie who actually could sing."

While some songs were switched to accommodate script changes, others were dropped from the film entirely. "Brad's song was cut in the beginning, although it had already been recorded and shot. It just slowed up the pace too much. I persuaded Jim to let Richard sing the title song because I had always loved the way he did it. It was the first tune he ever played for me. In the stage show a lot of the humor was gained from people acting the songs instead of singing them. The melodies always suffered because of that. With the film we really tried to focus on the tunes, and the title song was a perfect moment to do that."

Although The Rocky Horror Show has been running for more than six years in London, a hit song has yet to emerge from the play. People rarely come out of the theatre humming the title song; in fact, most people on first hearing may be hard pressed to even remember it. Hartley agrees. "While the songs are very simple, they don't have that repetitive verse-chorus structure that most hits seem to need. The lyrics are also very specialized. They fit the show perfectly, but independently they don't make too much sense. They're not your typical moon-in-June type of things."

"When the play first opened in London, the record was played in every restaurant in town. People clamored for it. They wanted to relive the show. That's why it's so unique. Most modern musicals of the past ten years have all had at least one major hit. Think of Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar. Rocky Horror has been a long-running success despite that." "Who could sing the songs anyway?" Hartley asks. That's a hard question to answer. The idea of Tony Bennett on the Tonight Show doing the "Time Warp" sends the mind spinning. "See what I mean? That's the test of a popular song. Can you imagine a housewife singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" while washing the dishes?" Perhaps the songs' inaccessibility are a partial key to the show's success. A muzak version of Rocky Horror would be enough to kill off the cult entirely.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack has been in the Billboard charts for over a year, selling over a million copies. But when the album was first recorded, it was turned down by every major record label. "The album was finally taken up by this young guy who used to buy it from Canada and Australia and sell it in New York as an import. Eventually the record started to sell well enough so that he persuaded Ode Records to press off some copies."

Although the music has only recently been popularized in the U.S., Hartley draws a parallel between Rocky Horror and what he calls "New Wave" music, a more respectable word for "punk." "I've always felt that Rocky Horror has had a great influence on New Wave. When we first did the show, the sound was very hard and brash. The kind of musical energy it exuded was completely new in the theater. Usually with bigger productions, microphones would be carefully placed everywhere. With Rocky, the actors had to belt out the song and get on with it. We had no money to smooth things out. It was completely anti-commercial. Punk is very similar. It's basically rock and roll speeded up. Like Rocky, the music is very simple, there are no studio embellishments. There's nothing sweet about it."

Besides having a similar musical sound, Hartley believes that the Rocky Horror "look" was picked up on by many New Wave musicians, and may have been instrumental in creating the punk fashion trend. "Remember that everybody saw Rocky in London. Little Nell used to dye her hair these very strange colors back in 1973 before the trend started here." Hartley used to live on Sloane Square, right near King's Road, the place where fashion trends are set and broken. "I used to see people walking up and down the street every day and after Rocky things definitely changed."

From the entryway of the Royal Court, Rocky's original home, you can get a clear view of the current punk look on parade. Today King's Road is decorated by dozens of kids who stroll up and down the street in a strange array of black leather jumpsuits, slashes with bright red zippers; their heads topped with Easter-egg-colored hair. Dark hair is dyed blond and streaked blue, or pink or both. They haven't taken to corsets yet, but the overall feeling is very similar to Rocky Horror. They've taken the "Don't Dream It; Be It" message into the streets. Not just on a weekend at the stroke of twelve, but every day. Any hour.