Somehow, despite how often I’ve listened to James Blake’s self-titled full length this year, it was only a few days ago that I learned that “The Wilhelm Scream,” one of the album’s best tracks, is basically a cover of the song “Where To Turn” by James Litherland, Blake father.1 The reason that I am so taken aback by this news is the fact that it completely opens up how I interpret this song.2
The song’s title reference is, of course, the well-know film in-joke, the Wilhelm scream. Sound designer Ben Burtt found an old studio reel titled “Man being eaten by alligator” and incorporated the shrill cry into the film he was working on, Star Wars. He named it for a character in The Charge at Light Feather, whose utterance of the sound first set Burtt on his quest to discover the original recording. Though sound designers had been using the recording for years, Burtt was the one who started using it as a combination of a calling card and an inside joke. Eventually sneaking the sound into films as the sound a character makes when falling became a tradition in the sound design community.3
Surprisingly, though, the Wilhelm scream itself does not appear in “The Wilhelm Scream” at all. Undoubtedly, most people familiar with the term are likely surprised that Blake would name a track after a famous sound, without adding in the sound itself. That seems like a very clear idea and an effective gimmick.4
Instead, Blake’s invocation of the Wilhelm scream is purely conceptual. He uses the sound effect as a metaphor for both the content of the song, and for the song itself.
First, the song’s lyrics relate to the idea of falling, or perhaps more specifically about the feeling of falling. In the original version of the song, Litherland invokes “falling” only at the beginning of the song. Blake, conversely, holds fast to the reference, having it return again and again. In fact, Blake only really uses the first verse of the song, completely eschewing the chorus, or anything after a minute or so in. Thus, the name change was basically necessitated by the fact that Blake completely omits the section from which the original derives its name. While falling was an incidental part of the original, it is central to Blake’s version.
Secondly, in film the Wilhelm scream is basically analogous to a sample in music. It’s a bit of repurposed sound. It’s cutting out a bit of one work and stitching it into another. As Blake is an electronic musician, sampling is a big part of his work. Thus, the Wilhelm scream is naturally akin to the music Blake makes.
Furthermore, this track is essentially a cover of a portion of another song, which is also a sort of recycling of a bit of an earlier work. Covers, samples, and the Wilhelm scream are all connected by this conceptual undercurrent. They are all bits of previous works that artists have taken and formed into a new work altogether. Therefore, Blake’s use of his father’s song in “The Wilhelm Scream” is similar to the way that Ben Burtt used the Wilhelm scream in his work: they both took a bit of old sound and used it as a bit of a new collection of sound.
This fact is absolutely essential to fully understanding this song, so tell your friends, kids.
1. Thank you, Evil Empire. May my mixed feelings about you continue forever more.
2. It also means that my two favorite songs on the album (“The Wilhelm Scream” and “Limit To Your Love”) are both covers.
*SUPERSECRET BIH EDIT: James Litherland was a long time session musician (guitar, vocals) and early member of the seminal but underappreciated British progressive rock band Colosseum, who, along with King Crimson and The Nice, really kicked off the late 60s prog movement.