Multiple Nightmares: The Haunted Legacy Of Lynch’s Eraserhead Soundtrack

Following its Sacred Bones vinyl reissue, Charlie Fox re-evalutates the terror of the Eraserhead soundtrack, and its influence on a vast array of musicians over the years since the film's initial release

David Lynch’s mum was pretty shaken up after she saw Eraserhead for the first time. When the lights came up, she reportedly turned to her son and told him in an awed whisper, "Oh, I wouldn’t want to have a dream like that…"

Thirty five years later, this is still the best description of the wondrous, strange and traumatic experience of watching Eraserhead, a hallucinatory black hole of a film with a soundtrack that resembles a field recording made in a derelict section of hell. For the uninitiated, the term ‘soundtrack’ should be treated with the kind of caution reserved for a late night wander round Chernobyl’s Zone of Alienation. This is not, say, The Breakfast Club soundtrack, where ‘Music from the Motion Picture’ (as those taglines always put it) is grouped together to reanimate memories of the movie through listening. Its intentions are darker and its contents aren’t exactly music (excluding two ghost tunes that lurk in its depths) but two slabs of industrial noise, suitably housed in a black tomb by Sacred Bones alongside various pulse-quickening mementoes.

After parodies on The Simpsons, awkward chat-show appearances, sampling by DJ Shadow, Hype Williams, Stars of the Lid and umpteen others (plus his own recent, full-time move into music making), the spirit and space of Lynch-land is familiar to many. His work is marked by its unnameably weird mood that glides from dream to nightmare, through plots that mix an oblique fairytale atmosphere with something close to Kafka writing The Big Sleep. Key obsessions include doubles, dwarves, evil, electricity, owls (Henry in Eraserhead even looks like a big, frightened owl) and music.

Music is always central to Lynch’s activities and to the singularly bewitching mood of his films. His is a world where, as the strange little man says in the Red Room, "there’s always music in the air". Other Lynch soundtracks are more conventional, if no less mesmerising or addictive. Usually they involve a combination of Angelo Badalamenti’s swooning, ominous orchestrations and starry-eyed 50s pop songs about falling head-over-heels in love and then completely falling apart. A potent and seductive combination, full of drama and desire, but its real, ghoulish magic can only be experienced through watching the films. What happens when these bright little songs fall into the world of Lynch’s monstrous world is intoxicating, seriously weird, even traumatic.

They get demonically possessed and suddenly loaded with threats, sinister suggestions and secret violence. The original meaning is deformed beyond recognition (‘Blue Velvet’ will always be the hymn to a fetish…) and a kind of saucer-eyed American innocence gets dragged off into the deep, dark woods. And now the air is full of songs that might have been recorded in Lynch-land – not just his own Crazy Clown Time, but so much other eerie, dreamy, noir-ish stuff where it sounds as if Lynch’s ‘ghost of love’ is singing through somebody else: Grimes, Lana Del Rey, Salem, Nite Jewel, Inga Copeland. Amidst so many vaguely Lynchian chanteuses and so much nocturnal, haunted pop music indebted to him, it might be easy to forget that his films are full of other, more abrasive sounds. The satanic cacophony of the factory has always been as bewitching for him as the wounded crooning of Roy Orbison. His greatest innovation in sound isn’t the transformation of pop into the perverse and psychotic but feeding noise into the cinema. Nowhere is this more sustained than in Eraserhead. As critic Frances Morgan has recently claimed, it’s a ‘noise film’: deafening, full of groaning and growling, clanking and shrieking.

What this glorious reissue makes evident is its enormous impact: a network of dark and haunted sound is mapped out with startling clarity, its influence is a kind of nuclear fall-out – intense, unthinkably wide-ranging and still being felt now. Listen and you get premonitions of all kinds of evil contemporary noise. The lovesick synthscapes and slowly melting melodies of Twin Peaks are very, very far away. As one of the stunned guards in Lost Highway says, "This is some spooky shit we got here…"

"The crap in the air / Will fuck up your face!" a young Mark E. Smith barks on the Fall’s ‘Industrial Estate’ (with its chorus a perfect hit of amphetamania, not so much sung as drooled: "Yeah, yeah, industrial estate!") Spitting out his vision of a slowly rotting north, he evokes the grotesque faces that appear in Eraserhead (Lady in the Radiator with her swollen, scabbed cheeks; the Man in the Planet whose head is covered in sores and burns). Smith never counted these irregulars explicitly amongst his cast of hobgoblins, grotesques and elves, but his vitriolic lyric indicates the intense connection between Lynch’s film and post-punk, where burnt-out industrial terrain is explored with a similar macabre fascination.

If Eraserhead chimes visually with the music’s iconography (decay, despair, deformity), it also echoes some of its more extreme sounds. Alongside the work of Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, this is one of the founding documents of industrial music, an unparalleled evocation of nightmarish urban space. Its thick clouds of toxic electrical din, lonely metallic howls and wail form what Lynch would later call an ‘industrial symphony’, a richly textured soundscape of smokestack noise. Unsettling as it is, it also has a deep and weird sort of warmth to it, like smouldering ash, that anticipates the adventures at the interzone of industrial and ambient pursued by Coil and Zoviet France.

Passages of dialogue drift in and out should you wish to mouth along to certain queasying scenes like Ben miming ‘In Dreams’ for the larger ladies in Blue Velvet. Their inclusion reveals that everybody in Eraserhead suffers from a unique speech disorder, making their words come out slow and odd, either heavy with menace or in a panicked yelp ("just cut ’em up like regular chickens!"). More significantly, the constant presence of what Lynch calls ‘room-tone’ can be heard humming beneath the speech.

In his remarkable study of uncanny and frightening sound, Sinister Resonance, critic and musician David Toop describes its extremely unsettling effect that can transform an ordinary room into "the resonating chamber of multiple nightmares". The abyss of dread it opens up functions like an immense low-end (listen through headphones and it’s as if you’re being buried alive) with bass at an underworld frequency that prefigures the dark, ‘unsound’ practises of Kode9 and Demdike Stare. Alongside its connections to the industrial, the unspeakably heavy and the eldritch, it’s also an uncanny omen of (that much-debated future-ghost) hauntology.

Its thickets of crackle and gaunt music anticipate the work of William Basinski or The Caretaker’s Selected Memories from the Haunted Ballroom, where the dance numbers from Kubrick’s Shining become spectral echoes in a traumatised mind. This last especially because one of the two ghostly songs here is Fats Waller’s haunted funhouse tune ‘Lenox Avenue Blues’, which would bring the ghost dance at the Overlook Hotel to a fine and woozy close. Maybe a little echo of The Shining is to be expected: Kubrick watched Eraserhead repeatedly whilst making his own masterpiece, trying to capture some of its elusive mood, listening closely to the room-tone.

Much like the sound design in The Shining or Tarkovsky’s Stalker (the soundtracks of each deserve similarly sumptuous treatment), Eraserhead is marked by its obsessive attention towards eerie zones, uncanny resonances, the shivers that pass through abandoned space. There’s a wealth of spectral sound in all three, but what brings Eraserhead closest to a hauntological project is its unmistakable sense of sadness. Peter Ivers’ ‘In Heaven’ materialises out of the wasteland like the apparition of a child luring you into the after-life. Its sleep-walking melody and lyric as soothing as a lullaby ("in heaven, everything is fine") are deeply troubling, a feeling only intensified by how alluring and addictive it is. After a nuclear disaster this song would be number one.

Lynch has since claimed that the atmosphere and mood of Eraserhead emerged during his time in Philadelphia – "a sick, twisted and decaying place" – and there’s something equally repulsive about the soundscape. It has a gross, organic immensity, as if a horrible, unseen thing were living, breathing and festering before your ears. But there’s also a sense of mourning.

"I like the smokestack industry. I like the noise… the sounds are so powerful," Lynch told Chris Rodley, lamenting "the sounds are so little now". All of the noise has since been silenced, giving this metal machine music a melancholy air. And fittingly, it concludes with a huge noise: a vortex of sound that suggests this industrial space is being obliterated by a nuclear blast. The raw material of Tim Hecker’s Imaginary Country and Yellow Swans’ Going Places flashes in the distance, a ferocious sound like Einsturzende Neubauten torturing a murder of crows hits you in the head and then… unearthly silence, ‘black as midnight on a moonless night.’ Astonishing.

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