An Imagined Soundtrack: The Acid Western

Gary Farmer and Johnny Depp in 'Dead Man'

Though I am primarily a music fan, my obsession over the concept of genre is something which extends into the realm of cinema. The ‘acid western‘ subgenre is particularly interesting in this regard.  ‘Acid’ is used both in reference to the often surreal imagery, dreamlike pace and bizzare plotlines (see Alejandro Jodorowsky’s masterpiece ‘El Topo’) but also to the ideals of the counterculture movement that popularized the drugs use; these films often subvert the ideals of the classic western films: Western imperialism, macho culture, capitalism.  For example, Dead Man (perhaps one of my all time favourite films) is critical of not only the treatment of Native Americans by Westerners historically, but also their portrayal in film as barbaric and uncivilised; very few films have allowed Native American characters to be more than two-dimensional stereotypes. Dead Man, on the other hand, is famed for its not only sympathetic stance and thorough research but also for being unpatronising towards Native American cultures.

One way in which this twin meaning of ‘acid’ is manifested is in their soundtracks.

Unusual image? Not in El Topo...

A paticularly fine example is Neil Young’s improvised score for Dead Man.  The minimal, bluesy overdriven guitar recalls the classic americana of ‘straight’ westerns- but also perhaps Hendrix’s interpretation of Star Spangled Banner,  the ultimate subversion of American iconography (an iconophone?).  Using Young’s ‘Guitar Solo No. 2’ as a centrepiece, I have created a playlist for your listening pleasure of other songs which would not seem out of place in the soundtrack of an acid western, whether it be the post-modern, snails-pace americana of Dylan Carlson’s guitar work in his band Earth; the vivid, overblown Morriconesque arrangements of Secret Chiefs: 3; or the ‘freak folk’ of Feathers.  So close your eyes, listen, and let your mind drift into trans-dimensional space…


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