Another Brick in the Wall: Remembering Michael Kamen

Michael Kamen in a scoring session in 2000.
Photo Credit
Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

You might not know Michael Kamen's name, but you've certainly heard his music. The lion-maned composer was a literal rock star in the world of movie soundtracks, having composed blockbuster scores to films like the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon series. The Juilliard-educated arranger also worked with a myriad of rock acts on some huge projects in the '70s and '80s. Though he passed away in 2003, his music and his memory lingers on; here's a look at some of his best rock works.

David Bowie, David Live (1974)

Bowie's first-ever live record was cut on the tour supporting Diamond Dogs, and was later seen as a transition from straightforward glam-rock to more soul-influenced material heard the next year on Young Americans. (The album's single, a cover of Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood," was a key example of this shift.) Kamen, who'd co-founded the New York Rock Ensemble in the late '60s, was arranging ballets when Bowie discovered his work; he led the singer's touring band and played organ, also recruiting saxophonist David Sanborn and guitarist Earl Slick - key members of Bowie's Young Americans-era ensemble.

Read More: Turn and Face the Strange: David Bowie's Biggest Hits

Pink Floyd, The Wall (1979)

Producer Bob Ezrin brought Kamen in to bring additional grandiosity to Roger Waters' epic concept album with Pink Floyd. His work with the New York Philharmonic and New York Symphony Orchestra on tracks like "Comfortably Numb" helped make the album a generation-defining classic, and Kamen would go on to produce 1983's The Final Cut - Pink Floyd's last album with Waters - and contributed to the band's 1994 epic The Division Bell as well as solo works by Waters and band frontman David Gilmour. "He was a man of many parts, using a very wide brush," Gilmour later remembered. "He had such a gift for a memorable tune, and a great gift for melody. He also had huge enthusiasm, and a compulsion to keep at it."

Read More: June 1980: Pink Floyd Releases "Comfortably Numb"

Eurythmics, "Here Comes the Rain Again" (1983)

One of the best-loved orchestral pop moments of the '80s, this favorite was recorded under interesting conditions: Kamen and a few dozen string players had to cram into various sections of the duo's studio The Church to play; afterward, every session was mixed together flawlessly. The song reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 - the group's second-biggest hit worldwide. "Although he was one of the best people to do the job," Annie Lennox later said of Kamen's work, "when you meet a person who has so much heart, he swiftly eclipsed being a string arranger, and became a friend. There were not many people who had so much stardust about them."

Eric Clapton, Edge of Darkness (1985)

When Slowhand was called to score a BBC television drama about a nuclear cover-up, he knew exactly who to assist him: Michael Kamen. "To work with Eric was a dream come true," Kamen later said in an interview. Kamen purchased a Kurzweil digital sampling keyboard for the job to simulate an orchestral feel; the soundtrack became renowned in England, winning a BAFTA as well as the prestigious Ivor Novello Award for songwriting. The duo later collaborated on the scores to the blockbuster buddy-cop film Lethal Weapon and its sequels, as well as Clapton's live album 24 Nights.

Read More: November 1977: Eric Clapton Flies High with 'Slowhand'

Queen, "Who Wants to Live Forever" (1986)

By this time, Kamen was beginning to immerse himself in film scoring. An early success was his score to Highlander, the epic action movie about an immortal Scottish warrior in New York City. The film also featured an album's worth of songs by Queen, including the heartbreaking "Who Wants to Live Forever," a theme for the hero's mortal wife. The song quickly took on a second, tragic meaning after Queen frontman Freddie Mercury lost his battle with AIDS in 1991.

Read More: June 1980: Queen Releases 'The Game'

Bryan Adams, "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You" (1991)

After years of augmenting rock acts on soundtracks, Kamen enjoyed an extremely successful direct collaboration when his score to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was used to build an end credits theme by Bryan Adams and producer Mutt Lange. "“We knocked it out, then sat back to listen to it for the first time, and we looked up at one another and grinned," Adams later said of the tune, which they reportedly finished in under an hour. "Straight away, we knew that we’d written something beautiful, but I had no idea of the impact it would have.” Indeed: the Oscar-nominated ballad remains the longest-running No. 1 single in U.K. history, topping the charts for 16 weeks (plus another nine in America).

Read More: May 1983: Bryan Adams Releases 'Cuts Like a Knife'

Metallica, S&M (1999)

Even as Kamen's film credits increased, he never left rock behind. In 1992, he contributed string arrangements to "Nothing Else Matters" off Metallica's best-selling self-titled album; seven years later, he rejoined the group, along with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, to marry symphonic sounds with the band's iconic metal style. The album reached No. 2 on the pop charts and spawned a sequel in 2019.

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