Halloween is this week! Have you got a costume yet? No? Well, here’s something you can throw together in a hurry: just grab a bowler hat, a white shirt, white pants, a jockstrap, combat boots, some fake eyelashes, and a cane (eyeball cufflinks might be harder to find). Boom! Now you’re a proper droog! It’s always a hit at a party! Real horrorshow!
This month at Nightmare On Film Street, we’re examining the Sound of Screams, listening to the scores and sound effects that make the little hairs on the back of our necks stand up. As you might have guessed, I’ll be talking about the first “punk rock movie ever made” (according to Steven Spielberg); A Clockwork Orange, directed by the enigmatic Stanley Kubrick. Although it was released about five years before punk rock officially exploded onto the scene, the film’s aesthetic and classical score inspired generations of punk rockers.
Kubrick’s film is an adaptation of the 1962 novel of the same name by Anthony Burgess, written entirely in Nadsat, a fictional slang that anglicises Russian words combined with Cockney rhyming slang. A Clockwork Orange depicts a dystopian Britain in the near future, overrun with crime. Our humble narrator, Alex DeLarge (played by Malcolm McDowell in a breakout role) is a young delinquent leading a gang of thugs. Together, they drink milk laced with drugs, beat elderly vagrants, fight rival gang members, drive recklessly, break into people’s homes, and rape unsuspecting housewives, all in the course of one night. It’s all fun and games for Alex, until he’s betrayed by his droogs, and arrested for murdering a wealthy cat-lady (by crushing her head with a phallic ceramic sculpture).
Alex is sentenced to 14 years for his crimes. Looking to leave prison early, he volunteers for an experimental treatment touted by the Minister of the Interior (Anthony Sharp) as a life-long cure for criminality. The Ludovico technique involves injecting Alex with drugs, strapping him to a chair, clamping his eyes open, and forcing him to watch films of sex and violence. At first, he enjoys the images flashing in front of him, but he soon becomes nauseous. Within two weeks, Alex is unable to have a single violent or sexual thought without feeling sick to his stomach. The experiment is deemed a success, and Alex is released from prison.
However, the outside world hasn’t yet forgiven his sins of the past; Alex is rejected by his parents, attacked by the homeless, and savagely beaten by his former droogs, who turned in their bowler hats for police badges. In each case, Alex is unable to defend himself due to his therapy. Wounded and disoriented, Alex knocks on the door of the first house he comes across to ask for help, unaware that he had broken into the home years ago, crippled the owner Mr. Alexander (Patrick Magee) and raped his wife (lucky for Alex, he was wearing a mask at the time).
Music plays a big role in A Clockwork Orange. Alex’s favorite composer is Ludwig van Beethoven. When most people listen to Beethoven, they are overcome with a serene and pleasant feeling. But when Alex listens to Beethoven, he fantasizes about sex and violence (same when he reads the Old Testament in the Bible). To his horror, the Ludovico technique plays Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony underneath footage of World War II, causing Alex to feel sick every time he listens to it. This development is used against him once the crippled writer discovers his identity. Locking Alex in a room, Mr. Alexander blasts the Ninth Symphony beneath him. In an attempt to end his sickness, Alex tries to kill himself by jumping out a third-story window. Instead, he wakes up in the hospital with several broken bones. Not wanting a scandal for pushing a test subject to suicide, the Minister of the Interior reverses Alex’s treatment, giving him back his free will.
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In true Kubrick form, the ending of the film is very different from that of the novel (much like how Kubrick’s The Shining differs from Stephen King’s book). The film ends with Alex listening to Beethoven, once again able to fantasize about sexual violence. In the final chapter of Burgess’s book, Alex goes back to his old habits, leading a gang of much younger criminals. But at the age of 18, he finds himself growing bored of the ultraviolence. One night, he bumps into a former droog at a cafe, who has given up the life of crime for a married life. Seeing his old friend so happy, Alex considers getting a real job and starting a family of his own. No government brainwashing required.
Another big difference between the film and the book is when Alex playfully sings the musical number “Singin’ in the Rain” during the rape scene. This was not mentioned in the book, rather it was improvised by McDowell to lighten the mood. Later in the film, Alex carelessly sings the song again while taking a bath at Mr. Alexander’s house, exposing his true identity. Torturing Alex allows Mr. Alexander to kill two birds with one stone: getting revenge on the boy who crippled him and raped his wife, and exposing the tyranny of the government’s plan to deal with crime. The classical score is often used in stark contrast to the disturbing imagery appearing on the screen. Composer Wendy Carlos gave one classical number— “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary”— a sinister tone by playing it on a Moog synthesizer. The foreboding title music plays at the top with McDowell giving the camera a Kubrick stare as it slowly dollies out in the Korova Milkbar.
Everyone from U2 to Lana Del Rey have referenced A Clockwork Orange in their music. David Bowie threw in the occasional Nadsat word throughout his lyrics, most notably in “Girl Loves Me” off his final album Blackstar. In the realm of punk rock, so many bands have been influenced by A Clockwork Orange that it spawned its own subgenre: Clockwork Punk. These bands glorify Alex’s lifestyle, pre-treatment.
They often dress in bowler hats, makeup and white shirts, with added punk accessories like spiked bracelets and leather jackets. Their musical style can be described as either street punk or Oi! —a subgenre popular among working class skinheads, characterized by its simple sing-along structure. The lyrics sometimes reference the exploits of Alex or are written in Nadsat, but like a lot of street punk, it’s mostly about drinking and fighting. Beethoven’s Ninth or Wendy Carlos’ title theme are inserted into song intros, or the bands take a crack at playing the classical numbers themselves, with their own spin.
Probably the most recognized band are the Adicts from Ipswich, England. Since 1975, the band has donned the droog look, and the frontman Keith “Monkey” Warren took it one step further by painting his whole face white with black around his eyes and lips, looking a bit like the Joker. Their music is upbeat and playful yet mischievous. It never directly references the violent aspects of their source material. Still, they gave a wink-and-nod to A Clockwork Orange on their third album Smart Alex, and in 2012, Monkey finally sings in Nadsat on their record All the Young Droogs.
Major Accident (or sometimes just Accident) are another English punk band from the same era who were influenced by A Clockwork Orange, specifically reflected in their dark black-and-white album art. And in their song “Glorious 9th,” the band plays a scrappy instrumental version of “Ode to Joy.” Many bands mimicked the iconic movie poster by Philip Castle, along with the orange font of the title, such as the Malchicks from Southern California and Lower Class Brats from Texas, who get brownie points for at least attempting to rhyme with ‘orange’ in their song “Ultra Violence:” “I think I need some ol’ in-out / I need to find a Devotchka now / Before you know it your life is torn / When you live in a Clockwork Orange.”
Japan took an interest in the style as well, forming bands of their own like Anny’s LTD. and the masked Hat Trickers. Surprisingly, there are a couple all-female clockwork punk bands like the Devotchkas and the Droogettes. Considering that women are mostly portrayed as victims in the movie, their role reversal as the droogs beating on men who get too close can be seen as empowering. Other bands didn’t want to base their entire persona on a single movie, but still wanted to pay tribute, like in the street fighting anthem “Droogs Don’t Run” by Cock Sparrer and Rancid’s B-side “Clockwork Orange.”
Probably my favorite piece of music I came across is from German punkers Die Toten Hosen (which translates to “The Dead Trousers”), who released an entire concept album called Ein Kleines Bisschen Horrorschau (“A Little Bit of Horrorshow”) in 1988, written specifically for a theatrical adaptation of A Clockwork Orange. The album’s cover has Beethoven’s face smack dab in the middle, and snippets of his Ninth Symphony are sprinkled throughout, including the first track “Hier Kommt Alex” (Here Comes Alex).
But it’s not just punk bands. In 2009, Brazilian thrash metal outfit Sepultura also put out a concept album called A-Lex (a reference to the main character, but also Latin for “without law”). The album tracks Alex’s journey from a sadistic deviant to a brainwashed shell of a human. Guitarist Andreas Kisser expertly pays tribute to Beethoven in the instrumental track “Ludwig Van,” with the help of a backing orchestra. The year before, ex-Sepultura members Max and Igor Cavelera released their own clockwork-themed song “Ultra-Violent” with their band Cavalera Conspiracy. And in 2007, grindcore weirdos Agoraphobic Nosebleed dropped “A Clockwork Sodom,” clocking in at almost three minutes, unheard of for the band at the time since their previous album contained one hundred 15-second songs.
In the world of hip-hop, horrorcore rapper Cage wrote the song “Agent Orange” with producer Necro sampling Wendy Carlos’ theme music for the beat. Cage (real name Chris Palko) had a similar adolescence to Alex: getting into street fights and taking massive amounts of drugs. After several arrests and violating his probation too many times, his mother convinced the judge to send him to a mental institution instead of jail. There, he became a test patient for Prozac, making him depressed and suicidal. After being released from the hospital, he started off rapping under the stage name Alex, taken from A Clockwork Orange, but eventually changed to Cage. “Agent Orange” begins with Cage reading a condensed version of the Alex’s opening monologue, before going into a violent diatribe about gang life.
“Everyone from U2 to Lana Del Rey have referenced A Clockwork Orange in their music. “
I wasn’t able to find every song I mentioned above on Spotify, but for those of you who are interested in giving Clockwork Punk a listen, be sure to slooshy the Gut the Punks Spotify Playlist. Reading through the lyrics of these songs, I feel most of these musicians missed the point of A Clockwork Orange by identifying with the antihero. Anyone who read Burgess’s story in high school would tell you it’s actually an allegory about morality, freedom of choice and the dangers of totalitarianism. But as Burgess himself later wrote, humans are naturally attracted to evil, and it would explain the wave of copycat crimes that occurred following the release of Kubrick’s adaptation.
As horror movie fans, we tend to root for the murderous villain, though we don’t feel compelled to go out and commit murder ourselves. The same could be said for this kind of music. If punk musicians can fantasize about being a gang of violent youths without causing any actual harm to anyone in real life, then all the power to them. If it’s been a while since you’ve watched A Clockwork Orange, it’s definitely worth the rewatch. Just be sure to have a Nadsat dictionary on hand.