GUILTY PLEASURES: The Music of Sam Spence

On August 2, 2012

It is the goal of every composer on the planet to write memorable music. It’s a moral victory we all strive for, without guarantee of success – to write a melody that survives its first hearing, that might, on its journey through the world, find favor in men’s ears, perhaps even be carried aloft over a mosh pit of a million listeners, slouching its way towards eternity.

We’re not talking about symphonies here, either. Heck, even a one-hit wonder has his one hit, a thin sliver of posterity. What wouldn’t anyone give to write a tune, a ditty, a jingle, a riff, that might lodge itself into a listener’s consciousness and resonate there forever? Better yet, wouldn’t it be cool to snatch an off-hand lick from off the floor, launch it into the collective brain-pan of the culture and there have it find glowing after-life in the collective soul?

Well, that’s the kind of victory that Sam Spence has won over and over again.

Some people have called Spence the greatest soundtrack composer who’s ever lived. He’s certainly the greatest soundtrack composer no one’s ever heard of – even though just about any red-blooded American male of certain age would recognize his music instantly. His is the secret soundtrack to our boyhoods, the theme music to our youthful fantasies of athletic glory.

Sam Spence, of course, was the house composer for NFL Films – creators of those classic highlight reels begun in the glory days of professional football. (We’re talking the Rozelle era of the late 1960s, early ’70s.) These films – more so than the televised games themselves – cemented pro football’s iconic status in the American imagination. They sold the public the idea that pro football could bring epic drama to our Sunday afternoons. They managed to turn football players into modern gladiators and invest their weekly struggles with a mythic dimension.

Sam Spence, looking every inch a man’s man

For those who were there, NFL Films did something remarkable, bringing us closer to to the game than we’d ever been before. The key to this was access: camera angles that were more intimate and candid, and the pioneering use of slow-motion, which shattered split-second moments on the field into a kind of contemplative dream-time. Today the NFL Films style is a cliché – parodied in snarky car commercials featuring peewee football players – but then it was a revelation. Especially those slow-motion action sequences, shot in gloriously saturated and grainy color, brought you face-to-face with the sweat and the grime and the tortuous hand-to-hand struggles taking place at field level.

The use of slow motion expanded football battles into beautiful, sometimes agonizing ballets of conflict and consequence, where a team or individual’s destiny – victory or defeat – was at once played out, pored over and instantly memorialized. And this is where Spence’s music achieved its splendid fulfillment.

Spence’s cues gave these moments their grandeur, majesty and mythic underpinning. He understood the not-so-hidden subtext of football as war. His music speaks in what Norman Mailer called the language of men, describing in sound that certain idea of manliness and physical swagger that comes down to us from Theodore Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway and John Ford, with a little James Bond and Sinatra thrown in for good measure (ahh, those swingy, self-confident rat pack moments). So while the music was ostensibly about football, in its most expansive moments it might well have been describing the Battle of Thermopylae or the storming of San Juan Hill.

Listening to Spence’s music pinned the cool meter of my teenage mind. To this day I find his music beguiling – if somewhat problematic. (More on that later.) Back then, something about it both captivated and mystified me. For one thing, Spence’s music seemed to defy generic categorization. For a boy who obsessed over Aristotelian imperatives – every art object had its place – this amounted practically to an existential crisis.

Spence clearly operated out of a pop milieu and sensibility. (In one of its many guises, his music sounds like an extension of Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass – had Herb Alpert, as Spence had, studied with Honneger.) Nevertheless, his music came pre-loaded with a certain stature and seriousness of method. Though his was not “classical” music per se, it was wholly orchestral and existed on the astral plane of pure music. Spence’s dramas were self-contained, their arguments plain to hear and sufficient unto themselves. In fact, their unfolding before our ears was one of their chief pleasures.

That is the consistent satisfaction of Spence’s music. Though he is loved by football fans everywhere, you can easily turn off the visuals and enjoy the music for its own sake. (This, from a soundtrack music perspective, is no mean feat, as a lot of movie music sounds pretty thin once you remove the visuals.) As Spence once explained, he wasn’t writing background music; the football footage instead pushed his music to the foreground.

If Spence had been a classical composer, he’d have been considered hopelessly retrograde. Sometimes a composer is just born into the wrong era. Like Korngold (who had similar sensibilities) or even Bernard Herrmann, Spence is a lost Romantic. That he was able to find his niche writing unabashedly tonal quasi-classical soundtrack cues (that might ungenerously be described as “middle-brow”) was a great gift to us all.

Spence’s music has high artisanal integrity. Its abundance of craft – he never sets a foot wrong – bespeaks a rigorous musical training, and his arguments are executed in bold, confident strokes of orchestral color. One always feels that Spence is hitting his marks, that he’s gotten the effect he is going after. His sequences have a gratifying sense of logic, a thrilling sense of sequence and escalating tension, and they provide splendid pay-offs. Spence’s juggernaut cues build inevitably to grand and eloquent climaxes. And they speak with a self-possessed rhetorical confidence that cannot be faked. That’s probably the most attractive thing about Spence’s music, that it has the courage of its convictions. Like William Holden and his comrades in “The Wild Bunch,” it walks the walk.

Much of this is in no small way due to the truly heroic recorded performances by Spence’s (no doubt) hand-picked cadre of studio pros. The brass and percussion sections, in particular, perform their roles as if someone had finally given them music that fulfilled their soul’s potential. Here was music they could sink their chops into, that was super fun to play. (And you just know the trumpets never got the dreaded “hand” from the conductor, signaling them to back down the volume.)

(Spence, somewhat incongruously, lived then and continues to reside in Munich, and I’d love to know more about where his cues were recorded, who conducted them, and who the players and producers were. To my ears, anyway, the musicians – with their ability to pivot effortlessly from Tchaikovsky to Basie – sound American. Suffice to say Spence had a crack production team.)

The production style of the Spence cues emphasized spotlit instrumental choirs in a manner counter to the typical orchestral production, where the sound-stage is proscenium-like and the orchestra is represented from a middle distance. By contrast, Spence’s production style was pure pop and he certainly did not mind using studio techniques to right a balance or bring the strands of the argument into high relief. After all, this was music that needed to register through a television set’s tiny speaker. (Forget home theater; these were the days of three broadcast channels and no remotes.) In a sense, Spence’s producers were doing radio mixes, much as the Beatles and Buck Owens were cognizant of how their music should ideally sound in the monophonic, pre-FM era.

The cool thing about Spence’s music is that it never aims over the heads of his listeners’ tastes, but neither does it pander to them, which makes it wonderfully Jeffersonian. Spence may be a populist, but not in any sense that involves condescending to his audience. True, his harmonic language is decidedly plain-spoken, stopping resolutely at the Wagner’s edge. But his masterly sense of dramatic tension and sure grip on formal strategies are clearly in the service of bringing pleasure to the listener, and they often take us to places we’ve never been before. Like the GI Bill, Spence’s music was, without so much as saying so, aspirational.

For example, Spence loves counterpoint – he often has two instrumental choirs playing simultaneous, interlocking melodies, and occasionally even ventures into fugal writing. This raises the technical bar to a higher level than most TV themes aspire to, but therein lies the satisfaction – in Spence’s hands, things are laid out so transparently and executed with such gusto and panache that the pay-off for the listener is palpable and self-evident. There’s a certain “Hey, Mikey, it tastes good!” moment. So while it wasn’t exactly “Classical Music for Dummies,” Spence’s music did expose much of the mass public to the intellectual and emotional pleasures of purely orchestral music and surely propelled more than a few football fans into the concert hall.

To be sure, Spences cues were not always wholly original. He made abundant reference to the pop and movie music of his time. There are obvious homages to Elmer Bernstein, Simon and Garfunkel, Herb Alpert, even Isaac Hayes blaxploitation themes (Spence, among other things, was a brutha), but they are reworked with such high spirits, affection and innate understanding that we are quick to forgive him his plunderings. Also, knowing that he had many minutes of soundtrack to churn out in a day – like Bach writing a cantata for next Sunday’s services – it also humanizes the composer to know he would occasionally hang his ears out and take a listen to what was happening around him.

Sometimes his ears reached all the way back to the 19th century. Spence channels Tchaikovsky and Smetana in “The Dance of the Fumblers,” which explicitly transforms football into ballet and makes it a comic one. He also does a lot with old Civil War marches and sea shanties like “What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor.” But these songs manage to retain the the hearty spirit of their root sources. Unlike Ives, who twisted gazebo music into phantasmagoria, Spence did not trade in nostalgia or irony. He used folk tunes the same way John Ford did, mining the past for a sense of mythic resonance and cultural identity. But because his subject matter was this week’s game, his music pinned the particular to the universal. His dramas were happening now, but they were also eternal dramas.

What, then, makes Spence a “guilty pleasure?” On one level, you enjoy Spence’s music in much the same way you enjoy a Sousa march – the stuff is soul-stirring, artfully crafted, purely fun. “What’s not to enjoy?” But in some perhaps tragic sense, I fear the world has evolved past the pure celebration of athletic striving that his music involves us in. Consider Spence’s subject – pro sports. In the light of the steroids scandals, and now the latest spate of concussion-related suicides, the shine has gone off the apple. Even the gridiron warriors from Spence’s own era are emerging from the closets of their machismo to protest that they were used – and used up – by the league for the sake of huge profits.

Also, our view of war as adventure – which Spence’s music seems to wholly affirm – has undergone a huge shift. Never mind that Spence’s music comes from the Vietnam era; in this shattered post-Iraq era, its uncomplicated portrayal of male machismo seems even less apt. The aftermath of war, the missing limbs, the shattered psyches, exist outside his music’s frame of reference.

The tragedy is not just Spence’s but ours. We have grown up into a world infinitely more complicated and ambiguous than the one we knew as children. With the corruptions of age come the uncertainties that arise upon embracing truths that seem to cancel each other out, as well as the disappointments that ensue when our heroes are tarnished by scandal. This is one dimension of manhood that Spence’s music, through no fault of its own, cannot address: can any grown-up man, parsing the detritus of his life’s experience, feel unequivocally about anything, anymore? It’s tough. And so the music of Sam Spence, which resonated so purely in the heart of a boy, seems today a precious relic of youth – a lost toy indian, an aggie in a cigar box – and if we are to pause mournfully and ruefully at its glories, we might well pause also to mourn our own lost innocence.


Click here for Sam Spence’s webpage

To purchase Sam Spence’s music, here’s a good place to start

Leave a Reply