IN THE EARLY ’70s, I discovered that when a British fan bought a copy of the Beatles’ 1965 album HELP! on Parlophone in the UK, he got a Beatles album with fourteen new Beatles recordings. When an American fan bought the same title on Capitol in the US, he got an “original soundtrack album” with only seven new Beatles recordings! 1
The rest of the record was padded out with five pieces of “incidental music” composed and arranged by someone named Ken Thorne. Somehow, it seemed that the American record-buyer was getting the short end of the stick—that is, screwed, cheated.
And neither I nor any other fan that I knew blamed John, Paul, George, or Ringo for this shortfall. We blamed Capitol Records and company guys like “producer” Dave Dexter!
And possibly, maybe just a little anger was (mis)directed in Mr. Thorne’s direction.
No “Elvis movies”
The Beatles’ career in cinema is rather schizophrenic: fifty years later, their first movie, A Hard Day’s Night (1964), remains a marvel of documentary-meets-farce-meets-music-video. Playing themselves, somehow our four heroes appear unaware of the fact that they are being filmed and therefore appear totally natural and, well, real—despite moments where they are obviously mugging for the camera!
On the other hand, their second feature film Help! looks like the producer and director turned to the ever-uninspired team of Colonel Parker, Hal Wallis, and Norman Taurog for guidance. Consequently, the Beatles’ second feature film comes across like one of the better Elvis movies of the ‘60s (and that is rarely said as a compliment). While enjoyable, it does not hold up well under repeated viewings. (John referred to his physical appearance in the movie and the year 1965 as his “fat Elvis period.”)
Coincidentally, Presley was shooting Harum Scarum (released in Europe as Harem Holiday, apparently because the word-play would be even lamer there than here) at around the same time that Help! was being made. Both films share a Middle Eastern flavor and an attractive female co-star (Eleanor Bron and Mary Ann Mobley). This film was done under the creative watch of Sam Katzman and Gene Nelson, not that such things mattered in Presley Product by this time.
The Beatles’ third film was the animated gem Yellow Submarine (1968), to which the contributed nothing but a brief, after-the-fact coda. The fourth and final celluloid project was Let It Be (1970), a genuine documentary It was painful to sit through the first couple of times back then when we needed to see it but I have been afraid to see it for the past few decades.
Still, years and years and years later (actually, in 2012), I watched Help! (yet again!) and had a very different experience, feeling glad all over. As I said, Help! is modestly enjoyable and I genuinely enjoyed the incidental music of Ken Thorne. It fit the film and the combination of such then-hip but now somewhat kitschy elements as James Bond and sitar music both captured the time and spoofed it simultaneously.
In fact—and here I risk heresy—in many ways Thorne’s bits and pieces are both more energetic and more lively than several of the less than inspired songs and recordings by the Fab Four.
That said, last week Mr. Thorne died of natural causes (July 9, 2014) in Los Angeles, where he had lived since the late ‘70s. He was 90.
James Bond and sitar!
Thorne is a conductor/composer/arranger who is known principally for his film-related work. He took up the piano at an early age and entered music as a pianist in various dance bands during the ’40s. At the start of the ’50s, Thorne became interested in composition on a more serious level, and began studying on a formal level.
His breakthrough came about four years later as a result of the ill feeling that had arisen between Lester and George Martin during the making of A Hard Day’s Night.
Rather than use Martin for the incidental music for the follow-up film, Help!, Lester chose Thorne to compose that portion of the score. His resulting music for the movie . . . consisted of re-arrangements and adaptations of tunes by the Beatles and Wagner.
He said that he was given very clear instructions for the job: “My orders were to only use Beatles music and use their themes and snippets of themes, and I did that.” Thorne, along with the Beatles, was nominated for a Grammy for Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Show.
Thorne next turned up on the soundtrack to A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1966), Lester’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim‘s hit stage farce. Thorne won the Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of Music, Adaptation or Treatment.
Since then, he has worked on major feature films on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to composing numerous film and television soundtracks, Thorne is also a highly regarded arranger and orchestrator. His credits include (but are certainly not limited to):
1967 How I Won The War with John Lennon in a bit part.
1967 Inspector Clouseau with Alan Arkin as the inept inspector.
1968 Head, the Monkees sole feature film.
1970 The Magic Christian with Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr.
They Might Be Giants starring George C. Scott and Joanna Woodward.
He is best known to millions for the Lester-directed features Superman II (1980) and Superman III (1983), for which his job was to re-orchestrate and re-shape John Williams’ theme material from the first Superman movie (1978).
Following his work on the Superman movies, he focused primarily on TV movies. His credits include the TV movies The Return Of Sherlock Holmes, Diana – Her True Story, and Liz – The Elizabeth Taylor Story.
Kenneth Thorne, Rest in Peace. 2
1 The UK version of HELP! was originally issued as Parlophone PMC-1255 (mono) / PCS-3071 (stereo); the American version as Capitol MAS (mono) / SMAS-2386 (stereo).
2 Sections of this biography were liberally adapted from Bruce Eder’s piece for AllMusic.