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Remembering M*A*S*H Theme Song Composer Johnny Mandel

"Johnny Mandel, who composed and arranged for some of the leading big bands of the 1940s and '50s before establishing himself as a writer of memorable movie scores and themes like 'The Shadow of Your Smile,' 'Emily' and 'Suicide Is Painless,' died on Monday at his home in Ojai, Calif. He was 94," the New York Times reports.

"Mike Altman, the teenage son of Robert Altman, the director of M*A*S*H . . . wrote the words for "Suicide Is Painless," Mr. Mandel told JazzWax, after his father tried writing them himself but decided, "I can't write anything nearly as stupid as what we need."


The original version from the movie:


via JazzWax:

JW: How did you work on the project?

JM: I was brought in before the movie was even shot, which was highly unusual. In most cases, you're the Mash last one in the line to see the film when scoring it. So Bob and I were sitting around getting rather ripped one night. Bob said to me, "You know, I need a song for the film. It's that Last Supper scene, after the guy says he'd going to do himself with a pill because his life is over, because couldn't get it up with the WAC the night before." I said, "A song for that?" He said, "Yeah, that Last Supper scene where the guy climbs into the casket and everybody walks around the box dropping in things like scotch, Playboy and other stuff to see him into the next world. There's just dead air there."

JW: But if I recall, the scene features just a guy singing with an acoustic guitar.

JM: Right. Bob said, "We've got one guy in the shot who can sing and there's another guy who knows three chords on the guitar so we can't use an orchestra." Bob also said the song had to be called Suicide Is Painless. "Since [Capt.] Painless commits suicide with a pill, that would be a good title," he said. Then he said, "It's got to be the stupidest song ever written."

JW: What went through your mind?

JM: I said to myself, "Well I can do stupid." Bob was going to take a shot at the lyrics. But he came back two days later and said, "I'm sorry but there's just too much stuff in this 45-year-old brain. I can't write anything nearly as stupid as what we need."

JW: So who wrote the lyrics?

JM: Bob said, "All is not lost. I've got a 15-year-old kid who's a total idiot." So Michael Altman, at age 15, wrote the lyrics, and then I wrote the music to them. It was the first scene in the movie that they were going to shoot. They had to have the song for it as a pre-record, so the actor could mouth the words, allowing for a dub later.

JW: So if you had seen the movie before composing Suicide, the song that has become so famous would likely have turned out quite differently, and perhaps not nearly as endearing.

JM: Oh sure, it's quite possible.

JW: When you gave them the song, what did Bob think?

JM: He loved it. In fact, he loved it so much that they started trying it over the title credits.

JW: What did you think?

JM: I said, "You guys are crazy. It doesn't fit." You have these army medic helicopters flying in a war zone with this soft melody playing. It felt odd. But I wasn't Picture_1_2 about to get into a fight over it. So I left the screening room. Sure enough, when I saw the film, the song was used over the opening credits. Then it was used on the TV series in 1972.


The TV show version:


via Songfacts:

"Marilyn Manson covered this in 2000 as the theme for the sequel to the movie The Blair Witch Project. Manson said this is 'More depressing and offensive than anything I've ever written.'"


Manic Street Preachers version:


Comments welcome.


Posted on July 1, 2020

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