Joe 90: Original Television Soundtrack – Barry Gray – Review

The latest release in the continuing series of Silva Screen’s remastered soundtracks from the Supermarionation series of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson reaches the duo’s penultimate puppet-centric production, 1968’s show about the exploits of nine year old Joe McClaine, better known to viewers by his codename: Joe 90.

Joe’s father – widower Ian ‘Mac’ McClaine – is a Professor who is a top computer expert, and has developed a machine dubbed BIG RAT: Brain Impulse Galvanoscope Record And Transfer. Mac’s creation allows the brain waves of anyone to be recorded and then uploaded to someone else, which will give the recipient all of that other person’s knowledge and experience. Mac’s friend Sam Loover happens to work for the World Intelligence Network (WIN), and seeing the potential of BIG RAT, he recruits Mac – as well as young Joe.

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With the help of BIG RAT and a pair of glasses which store all the information and knowledge contained in the uploaded brain waves, Joe turns into a WIN asset like no other. Thanks to his youth, it means Joe would be able to avoid attracting attention in the same way that adult operatives might, and the skills he can access make him the perfect tool to carry out espionage. Joe becomes WIN’s ‘Most Special Agent’, and Mac becomes someone who should probably end up having some kind of intervention by Social Services.

Joe 90 comes towards the dog-end of the Andersons’ long run of Supermarionation programmes for Lew Grade’s ATV, sandwiched between production of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and the real curiosity piece which is The Secret Service. In many ways, the show rides on the 1960s’ trend of TV shows and movies centred on spy-jinks, driven chiefly by the huge success of Sean Connery as Ian Fleming’s peerless creation, James Bond. The decade’s media ended up being overrun with Bond cash-ins and knock-offs, with Joe 90 at the point where the novelty was perhaps wearing somewhat thin.

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It may be fair to say that Joe 90 is maybe one of the middling Anderson pieces, more widely remembered than some of the earlier output like Supercar or Fireball XL5, while not quite reaching the giddying heights attained by Thunderbirds or Stingray. Perhaps this might be down to Gerry and Sylvia’s attentions being drawn to their live-action feature motion picture Doppelgänger, which was being made concurrently, and meant that they were unable to be as hands-on as they had with their other shows. Maybe they had just missed the boat when it came to secret agent capers, getting in too late as public tastes were moving on.

There is, however, still much to commend in Joe 90, with the production values on display being as consistently high as its predecessors. One of the Andersons’s longtime collaborators is also making as valuable a contribution as ever, in the form of the composer Barry Gray, whose music was in many ways their ‘Fifth Beatle’, being a truly integral part of the success of their output. Whether or not viewers happened to know the name of the man behind those melodies, Gray’s work is synonymous with Supermarionation, having added to all of the drama, as well as counterpointing this with his scoring of those lighter moments to great comedic effect.

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One thing you could always rely upon is Gray coming up with a memorable theme tune, with Joe 90 being no exception. A mixture of Gray’s dabblings in electronic sounds, alongside ‘surf rock’ guitar, the title track to Joe 90 is a certified 100% banger, and reflects very much the sprit of the age, sounding like a merging of the Beach Boys with The Tornados’ record ‘Telstar’. It makes you pine for the days when TV shows used to bother with doing proper intros and outros, making them truly memorable. Nowadays, titles sequences often tend to be truncated affairs, accompanied by the vaguest wet farts of theme tunes which seem almost apologetic for just being there.

Thank goodness, then, for all the brash, brassy bombast of Gray, who absolutely guarantees to leave you with your toes tapping along while the credits are rolling for all the shows he worked on. Take Joe 90, where that opening music must surely conjure up the vivid visual image of a pre-pubescent Michael Gove getting all psychedelic whilst seated inside a giant mechanical Terry’s Chocolate Orange. Yes, they don’t make them like that nowadays, more’s the pity. The track is so memorable and catchy, a cover version by Ron Grainer (he of Doctor Who, Steptoe & Son, The Prisoner and Tales Of The Unexpected theme music fame) and his Orchestra was a house staple of the Northern Soul scene.

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On the pieces selected for this release, Gray deftly weaves in his main theme tune throughout, such as in the second track – ‘A Dream Come True’ – which takes a sharp left turn into a brief excerpt from the Russian folk music standard ‘The Song Of The Volga Boatmen’. Gray’s use of other sources as part of his work shines through in examples like ‘Agent Sladek’, with its burst of ‘La Marseillaise’, as well as having more than just a nod to classical compositions. The joy here is discovering Gray’s versatility, showing his ability to flip between varying styles with relative ease, while also retaining that trademark sound of his.

Echoes of his other compositions can be found in tracks like ‘Trapped In The Sky’, which as well as being the name of the first episode of Thunderbirds, also captures that high drama feel, mixed in with some military-type overtones. Curiously, ‘Church Rats’ presages Gray’s contributions to the following show, The Secret Service, with its allusions to church organs and hymns. While one of Gray’s lighter confections at times, his soundtrack to Joe 90 is certainly no less significant a part of his body of work for it, and it sits not only comfortably but also justifiably proudly alongside all of the previous releases in the range.

The Joe 90: Original Television Soundtrack can definitely be described as a big WIN, and a Most Special Album.

Joe 90: Original Television Soundtrack is out on 14th April from Silva Screen.

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