Eraserhead – David Lynch And Alan Splet
Eraserhead’s ominous soundtrack feels like it could only have been recorded in the urban squalor of a city choked with industrial gloom and consumed by decay.
Published on November 16, 2011 | Filed under Audiodrome: Music in Film

David Lynch’s nightmarish meditation on the horror of parenthood Eraserhead, is undoubtedly one of the most unsettling, perplexing, darkly beautiful and haunting films you are ever likely to see. Popular on the midnight movie circuit and championed by the likes of John Waters and Mel Brooks upon its release, the film was a true labour of love for Lynch and the small cast and crew who dedicated over five years of their blood, sweat and tears to completing it. While certainly one of Lynch’s most challenging and disturbing films, it is also one of his most personal. Deeply inspired by the young filmmaker’s stint in Philadelphia and the sense of desperation he experienced there, his marital problems and need for artistic expression also worm their way into the narrative. Perhaps most of all though, the formidable industrial landscape he wandered through on a daily basis makes its domineering presence felt in the young director’s head-fuck of a debut feature film.

Negating traditional narrative structure in favour of something more dreamy and warped, Eraserhead centres on Henry, a nervous young man who discovers that his estranged girlfriend Mary has just given birth to a malformed mutant ‘baby.’ The pressure of tending to the constantly crying baby, his loneliness, the stiflingly bleak surroundings of his sorry existence and increasing thoughts of suicide, drive Henry deeper into a hellish, no-man’s landscape of doom and paranoia.

To create the soundtrack for the “dream of dark and troubling things” that is Eraserhead, David Lynch collaborated with sound designer Alan Splet, and utilised sounds created with bits of glass tubing, library sound effects, pneumatic machinery, and the occasional Fats Waller sample dropped in for eerie effect. The two men worked on the soundtrack in an empty garage room in the deserted AFI buildings. They hung sound-deadening blankets over the custom built set walls to ensure every facet of the sounds created therein was captured in as unadulterated a form as possible. Processing and altering the frequencies of the sounds they recorded became key to creating the expressionistic, industrial-laden cacophony that forms the soundtrack; steamy, dank, clanking, claustrophobic and utterly hellish, Eraserhead’s ominous soundtrack feels like it could only have been recorded in the urban squalor of a city choked with industrial gloom and consumed by decay.

Also key to creating this atmosphere was the utilisation of a plethora of machinery, factory noises and whistles, and grinding cogs and gears. Even though everything is grotesque and exaggerated – even the delivery of the stilted dialogue – it is not without beauty. As Lynch himself once noted on the subject of beauty: “When you see an aging building or a rusted bridge, you are seeing nature and man working together. If you paint over a building, there’s no more magic to that building. But if it’s allowed to age, then man has built it and nature has added into it. It’s so organic.”

Beginning with a ceaseless rushing sound that gradually builds in intensity, and rarely lets up, the soundtrack album consists of two tracks which, complete with samples of dialogue, make up the bulk of the film. Track one clocks in at around 20 minutes. Howling winds through draughty rooms, vast grumblings, deep drones, the crackling of electricity, anonymous clanking and whooshing are just some of the discernable noises worked into the constant hum and ringing din of the almost omniscient presence of something massive and mechanical. This track also contains a few excerpts of Fats Waller’s pipe organ compositions including Digah’s Stomp, Lenox Avenue Blues and Messin’ Around with the Blues. The Waller samples seem to echo from a place that while maybe less eerie, is no less lonely or surreal.

Track two is about 18 minutes and includes more of the same atmospheric soundscape work and the Lady in the Radiator’s song, In Heaven. Written and sang by Peter Ivers, In Heaven is a luminous and warped shard of light that momentarily perforates the darkness. Until you start to think about what the song is actually about, that is…
Traditional horror is hinted at in the form of loud organ blasts and the ‘baby’s’ constant wailing, feverish gurgling and frantic contortions. The effect the record has on the listener is akin to a gradual sense of falling through a dark, rushing space with no light or air. As critic Henry Bromwell commented in his article on Eraserhead for Rolling Stone magazine (“Visionary from Fringeland”, November, 1980), “the sounds, mostly industrial noise never cease; in fact, they increase when Henry is alone, the city filling his head, literally, and turning him into a kind of mechanical zombie.”

Listening to just the soundtrack proves to be as disturbing and enriching an experience as watching the film – arguably even more so as we don’t have the visuals to provide an anchor; our minds conjure all sorts of nightmarish sources for the creepier sounds.

The legacy of Eraserhead’s industrial soundscape glowers on in the music of such artists as Dead Letters Spell Out Dead Words, Burning Star Codes and Svarte Greiner’s Kappe.

Track 2 on the soundtrack album, In Heaven, accompanies Henry’s increasing descent into despair. Dreamily emerging from the industrial, horror-laden haze is the song sang to him by the hamster-cheeked lady who lives in his radiator. It takes the form of a softly sinister plea, beckoning Henry to put an end to all his troubles by taking his own life. It was covered by The Pixies and released in 2002 on their self-titled EP.

Here is the Music Player. You need to installl flash player to show this cool thing!

Like what you hear? Buy the Eraserhead soundtrack in digital or CD form, HERE.


James is the author of Dario Argento (Kamera Books) and a monograph on The Company of Wolves (part of Auteur’s Devil’s Advocates series). He currently contributes to Exquisite Terror and Diabolique, and has also written for Film Ireland, Eye for Film, Little White Lies and The Quietus.

James Gracey