In 1976, John Carpenter, a few years out of the University of Southern California’s film school, set about creating his first real feature. An homage to legendary director Howard Hawks, Assault On Precinct 13 appropriated the premise from Hawks’s western Rio Bravo, relocating the action to a bleak and desolate version of present-day Los Angeles where an unlikely team of convicts and cops must defend an isolated police station from a ceaseless swarm of nihilist gang members.
Working with a miniscule budget of $100,000, Carpenter proved adept at ratcheting tension to towering levels with sparse action, agonizing foreshadowing, and sinister musical cues—elements that would be hallmarks of his subsequent films. For a brain-searing example of this technique, look up the infamous “ice-cream truck” sequence that nearly saddled Assault with an “X” rating (go ahead, you’ll never ask for vanilla swirl again).
The severe shortage of funds made hiring a soundtrack composer impossible, so Carpenter sequestered himself for a few days to do the job alone. Though he neither reads nor writes music, his father, Howard, was a music theory professor and a Nashville session violinist, so this was not as outrageous as it might seem. In the tradition of simple, unforgettable scores like Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho or the immortal two-note motif of John Williams’s Jaws, Carpenter came up with a riff that would accompany most of the scenes—to the extent that it becomes almost another character in the movie.
Cloaked in a fat sawtooth synth tone, the theme owed part of its ominous nature to a rhythmic and harmonic pattern loosely based on Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” an effect immeasurably heightened by a ricky-tick rhythm-box percussion track run through cavernous reverb. Along with a ponderous heartbeat thud, this cyber cymbal is often the only accompaniment to the visuals, punctuated unnervingly by piercing upper-register wails.
“A truly minimalist score,” as Carpenter himself put it, the soundtrack was not officially released until 2003. Explains Carpenter, “I never imagined that anyone…would listen to the music on its own.” Not everyone shared his view: the Italo classic “The End” by the Splash Band is an up-tempo take on the theme and Afrika Bambaataa’s 1986 single “Bambaataa’s Theme” was so indebted to Assault’s proto-techno sound that Carpenter got writing credit.