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SONG-TRACKS: POP TUNES DOMINATE FILM SOUNDTRACKS

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Remember when "soundtrack" meant a record album stuffed with thrilling, touching, evocative orchestral passages that composers like Alfred Newman, Bernard Herrmann or Erich Wolfgang Korngold created for a particular film? Or maybe Mary Martin, Shirley Jones or Julie Andrews singing songs from the latest Rodgers and Hammerstein movie musical?

You're showing your age.Today soundtracks aren't, generally speaking, instrumental flights of fancy or songs sung by a movie's stars in the course of a romantic/

dramatic plot. Now such albums (or cassettes or CDs) are most likely sets of pop songs - old hits, potential hits, non-hits culled from a dozen other discs or specially recorded by contemporary hitmakers.

Their raison d'etre, of course, is to generate the almighty hit single - with luck, several hit singles - which in turn helps transform the album into a best seller . . . and promote the movie as well.

This is a direct result of what some might call the "Saturday Night Fever" syndrome, because that hugely successful song soundtrack kicked off the avalanche. And perhaps such amalgamations shouldn't be called soundtracks at all, for most of the songs barely manage to get a lick in during the actual movie.

Maybe we should call such collections "songtracks."

OK, so we made the word up. It fits.

This all comes up because nine out of 10 (if not more) movie-related albums these days are songtracks and because of the amazing tactic Warner Bros. records used to market the music from the summer blockbuster "Batman."

Warner released the "Batman" album by Prince when the movie opened nationwide - and called it the "motion picture soundtrack." Only a few snatches of Prince's music were used in the epic; most of the album's frisky-funky songs might be better characterized as having been "inspired" by the movie, starring Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson and Kim Basinger. The Prince album shot to No. 1 and generated a No. 1 single, "Batdance," one of the "inspired" numbers nowhere to be found in the film.

Warner Bros. didn't release the gothic orchestral music Danny Elfman composed for "Batman" until August, and then the record company called it "the original motion picture score." Elfman, leader of the rock group Oingo Boingo, is a rising young film composer praised for his colorful, quirky work on such films as "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" and "Beetlejuice."

"I think the controversy is centered on the fact that Warner Bros. used the term `soundtrack' for the Prince album, not so much that they released the album," says Paul Grein, a chart-watching researcher, analyst and columnist for Billboard magazine.

"It was a smart move . . . , one of the best moves of the year," he says. "But the fact that only six minutes of the music from the album is actually featured in the film does raise questions."

There is speculation that the Elfman album was delayed to give Prince a clear field, so there would be no confusion.

"It's hard to prove that; Warner Bros. denies that," Grein says.

Warner Bros. simply says the pause in getting Elfman's score into the record stores had more to do with the logistics of production than anything else. As a rule, instrumental scores are about the last thing done in putting together a film before releasing it in completed form to the theaters.

But, says Grein, who has talked with both Warner representatives and the composer, "Elfman doesn't buy that excuse. He says there are other reasons, and if they'd wanted to get it out sooner they could have.

"You can be accused of being too skeptical if you felt Warner had taken it a little slower than they could have to give their biggest star, their biggest record seller of the '80s, what was a pivotal release - his previous album wasn't that big a success.

"I think Warners can forgive me for being that skeptical, especially if Elfman is, too."

Elfman's "Batman" is doing OK, if not spectacularly well on Billboard's Hot 200 album chart. It was up to No. 30 a few weeks ago but is dropping already.

"That's pretty good, but it certainly would have done better if it had come out simultaneously with the film," Grein says.

The Prince-Elfman-Warner tempest is, as Pink Floyd might put it, just another brick in the wall.

A half-century ago, many moviemakers didn't even want to release music from their films - they apparently figured that would hurt the exclusivity of having their stars available to audiences only on the silver screen.

But by the 1950s, soundtracks became an accepted part of the moneymaking entertainment industry machine. Billboard didn't start its weekly album chart until 1956. By then, soundtracks and albums by original Broadway casts were always among the contenders for No. 1: "Oklahoma!"; "The King and I"; "The Eddy Duchin Story"; "Around the World in 80 Days"; "South Pacific"; and "Gigi."

Four of the top 10 best-selling albums of the 1960s were soundtracks, and one of the 10 was a Broadway cast album: "Exodus," "Mary Poppins," the Broadway "Sound of Music," Elvis Presley's "Blue Hawaii" and the No. 1 album of the decade - topping the chart for an astounding 54 weeks (one year, plus two weeks) - "West Side Story."

"As late as the mid-'60s, the bulk of the album market was soundtracks, Broadway musicals, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass" - a more adult market, Grein notes.

Rock ruled the singles chart, but albums didn't sell that well.

"That all started to change with the Beatles, the (Rolling) Stones and the Supremes, all of whom sold albums as well as singles, and really in '68 with Joplin, Hendrix, Iron Butterfly, Cream and still the Beatles and Stones. And by that time, even the soundtracks for really big movies - `Hello Dolly,' `Oliver' - didn't go into the top 10."

The market - and marketing - had changed, and was to shift again, dramatically so, with the release in 1978 of that Bee Gees-dominated soundtracks for "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease."

The "Saturday Night Fever" album became one of the best-selling discs of all time, loaded with recent and soon-to-be No. 1 singles.

It set the stage for other blockbuster songtracks in the '80s: "Footloose," "Top Gun," "Dirty Dancing," "Cocktail."

"It's kind of a science now," Grein says. "If you have a movie that hits just the right audience that's also the top record-buying demographic . . . and if you get the right songs and with the right singers . . . you can have just such a tremendous upside potential." As they say in the industry.

Film scores, on the other hand, have a loyal but limited following.

Composer-conductor John Williams has had substantial success with his scores for the "Star Wars" and Indiana Jones trilogies as well as "Superman," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T. the Extraterrestrial." But in general, scores don't sell like songtracks do.

Hybrids aren't unusual, either - albums that are half-pop songs with lyrics, half film music instrumentals.

Such albums aren't new (the James Bond soundtracks of the '60s, not to mention the American Beatles soundtracks like "Help!" and "Yellow Submarine"), but if record companies don't handle things right they can raise composers' hackles.

Take Michael Kamen, for example.

Kamen is a very busy man. The London-based American has composed music for such recent movie hits as the first "Lethal Weapon," "Die Hard" and this summer's "Licence to Kill" and "Lethal Weapon II."

"Licence to Kill" and "Lethal Weapon II" both feature a mix of instrumentals and songs, but Kamen is a little angry about the first soundtrack and happy with the second.

Kamen composed the hip, sometimes moody "Lethal Weapon II" score with Eric Clapton and David Sanborn and had a hand in developing the songs for the movie and soundtrack, like George Harrison's "Cheer Down" and the effective remake of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," with vocalist Randy Crawford.

But he's not pleased with MCA Records' approach to "Licence to Kill." He composed the score, but the executives pulled in a "music supervisor" to handle the songs, which include vocals by Patti LaBelle (on "If You Asked Me To") and Gladys Knight (the title track).

"Record companies are in business to sell records, and if they have something to flog, they'll flog it," Kamen said during a recent Utah visit.

And tacking outside product onto his work, arranged by others and produced by others without him having a say, doesn't please him.

"I am actually deeply offended by that." He strongly believes that if a composer is hired to handle a project, he should be in control of the musical side of the production, not "a ubiquitous character called a music supervisor." Nor should the overall work be at the mercy of agents and such, who can literally obstruct the composer in his efforts to compose.

That golden idol, the hit soundtrack single, has become paramount in they eyes of many corporate execs.

And MCA didn't even credit the engineers, photographers and other technical people who worked on the "Licence to Kill" record project, he said. "That's very indicative of the lack of respect for the people who do the work in this business."

Such things may not sound very important to the record-buying public or to the industry honchos. "It's for us; it's not for them or for the people out there - they don't care."

Kamen shakes his head and admits it's an increasingly cutthroat world out there in entertainment conglomerate land.

Danny Elfman might shake his head, too.