In Memoriam Peter Thomas

German film and TV composer Peter Thomas (1925 – 2020) died yesterday aged 94. Unfortunately, there is no English language obituary, though here are some nice German ones from Der Spiegel, Die Zeit and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Together with Martin Böttcher (whom we lost last year) and Klaus Doldinger (who is still alive), Peter Thomas formed the trifecfta of the great West German film composers of the postwar era. All three created iconic works of music, combining jazz, swing, classical and early electronic music. Of these three, Peter Thomas was probably the most experimental.

Peter Thomas was born in 1925 in Breslau, Silesia (nowadays Wroclaw in Poland) and moved to Berlin as a young child. He had music lessons from early childhood on. As with so many others of his generation, his musical career was interrupted by WWII. After the war, Thomas studied music, composition and conducting, while supporting himself as a piano player in the clubs of Berlin that catered to allied soldiers. This is also where he became comfortable with many different styles of music. The Americans loved swing and jazz, the Russians preferred classical music and sentimental tunes. Thomas played them all.

In the 1950s, Peter Thomas first worked for the West Berlin radio station RIAS and then found his true calling composing music for film and TV soundtracks. One of his earliest works is the soundtrack for the 1959 science fiction movie Zurück aus dem Weltall (Moonwolf), starring Ann Savo. The movie is difficult to find, as his Thomas’ soundtrack. However, Peter Thomas and Ann Savo quickly went on to bigger and better things, when they signed on with the West German Edgar Wallace movies of the 1960s. Ann Savo appeared as an actress in several of the movies, most notably as Jean, secretary of Sir John, head of Scotland Yard, while Peter Thomas provided the soundtrack for no less than eighteen of the thirty-eight West German Edgar Wallace movies made between 1959 and 1972, beginning wit Die Seltsame Gräfin (The Strange Countess) in 1961.

As you can hear, the swinging big band dance music for the The Strange Countess is still fairly conventional. This should quickly change, because Peter Thomas was also a musical innovator. Even The Strange Countess already includes electronic music effects, as you can hear in the trailer below. Also enjoy silent movie diva Lil Dagover vamping it up, complete with a Gollumesque “My precious” routine, Klaus Kinski in one of his most delightfully deranged roles (though The Squeaker, also with music by Peter Thomas, is even better) and Brigitte Grothum proving that once upon a time she was an actress with potential and not just the mother from the painful 1980s TV series Drei Damen vom Grill (Three Ladies from the Barbecue) about a three generations of Berlin women running a sausage stand.

Peter Thomas’ music for later Edgar Wallace movies was more innovative. His theme for the 1965 movie Der unheimlich Mönch (The Sinister Monk), in which the titular monk uses a bullwhip to strange the students of an exclusive girls’ boarding school housed in a very gothic mansion, combines organ music with swinging big band tunes.

But Peter Thomas’ masterpiece for the Edgar Wallace series was the main theme for the 1964 film Der Hexer (The Ringer, reviewed at Galactic Journey last year), a squeaky jazz tune, which includes samples of pistol shots, women screaming and moaning, dogs howling, people saying “Der Hexer” over and over again – all in 1964. The result is incredibly danceable – I challenge you not to bop along with the theme – and a great hit at every Halloween party.

The theme for Der Hexer was so good that it reappeared in its original form in George Clooney’s 2002 directorial debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, after Quentin Tarantino referred Clooney to Peter Thomas.

Peter Thomas also provided the music for another great West German series of crime movies from the 1960s, the Jerry Cotton series, starring Hollywood refugee George Nader as pulp hero G-Man Jerry Cotton. The Jerry Cotton movies are highly enjoyable and Peter Thomas swinging Jerry Cotton march is absolutely perfect for the series.

Peter Thomas also worked for television productions and provided the music for a series of hyper-popular TV adaptations of the novels of British mystery writer Francis Durbridge, which were watched by up to 89% of West German TV viewers in the 1960s. Okay, so there only were two channels at the time, but 89% is still an impressive figure. Like Edgar Wallace, Francis Durbridge is another British crime fiction writer of the early 20th century who is largely forgotten in his country of origin, but still fondly remembered in Germany for the (usually very loose) filmic adaptions of his work in 1960s. I have tried to read both Durbridge and Edgar Wallace and find that I don’t particularly care for their novels. The movies, however, are still a treat more than fifty years later. Meanwhile, enjoy Peter Thomas’ theme for the 1966 Francis Durbridge adaptation Melissa.

Also in 1966, Peter Thomas would compose the TV theme that would become one of his most iconic works, the theme for the German science fiction series Raumpatouille Orion (Space Patrol Orion):

The countdown at the beginning is Peter Thomas’ own voice, fed through a vocoder. This is the first use of a vocoder in popular music, by the way, almost ten years before Kraftwerk did it. Together with a friend, Peter Thomas also built his own synthesizer, the “ThoWiePhon”, which can be heard in many of his works and is now in the collection of the Deutsche Museum in Munich, exhibited together with an original Theremin. And of course, Peter Thomas and his ThoWiePhon also provided the music that accompanied Raumpatrouille Orion‘s legendarily bizarre dance sequences:

German film and television drastically changed direction in the late 1970s and early 1970s. Gone were the Edgar Wallace and Jerry Cotton movies, instead we got the New German cinema, crappy softcore porn films masquerading as documentaries and endless adaptations of the sappy, ripped from the headlines novels of Austrian writer Johannes Mario Simmel. It was a dark time for German cinema, but luckily Peter Thomas was there to make even utter crap a little better with his iconic music.

Here is the theme, complete with really sappy lyrics, for the 1972 Johannes Mario Simmel adaptation Der Stoff, aus dem die Träume sind (The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of). Book and movie are a disaster, a slow and sloggy mess about a journalist disillusioned with the fact that the magazine he writes for is focussing more and sex and boobs than on political reporting. He tries to change this by interviewing Czech refugees who came to West Germany after the failure of the Prague spring, falls in love with the Czech refugee Irina and gets embroiled in an espionage affair, too. The summary doesn’t make the film and novel sound too bad and the plot really was ripped from the headlines of the early 1970s. But trust me, it is bad. I have no idea how you can make a spy thriller boring or how a talentd director like Alfred Vohrer can make anything boring, but The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of manages it. So enjoy the only saving grace of the movie. For some reason, “embed” doesn’t work for this video, so it’s just a link.

But the Simmel movies were Oscar-worthy masterpieces compared to the West German softcore porn movies of the early 1970s, which represent the true nadir of German filmmaking. Peter Thomas’ music, however, was as good as ever, even if it now played over some truly dreadful films. Here is a groovy piece for the 1970 movie Die Weibchen (The Girls), a weird erotic thriller about a women’s health clinic that is a front for a cabal of man-killing lesbians (of course). Stars Uschi Glas, who really knows a thing or two about bad movies. And don’t worry, the video is safe for work. The image is just a record sleeve, no man-killing lesbians anywhere in sight. The record is called The Erotic World of Peter Thomas, by the way. Cause only Peter Thomas was famous and bold enough that he could release a compilation of the music he composed for very bad sex films.

With groovy music like that, who wouldn’t want to join a cabal of man-killing lesbians?

Peter Thomas continued to be active well into old age, as a new generation of young musicians rediscovered his classic tunes during the easy listening boom of the 1990s.

One of the obituaries said that Peter Thomas provided the soundtrack for postwar West Germany. That’s absolutely accurate, because any iconic movie or TV show as well as lots of forgettable ones were accompanied by the brilliant music of Peter Thomas – unless it was accompanied by the brilliant music of Martin Böttcher or Klaus Doldinger instead.

So rest in peace, Peter Thomas, and thank you for all the wonderful music.

Finally, here is one last treat, that could also double as recruitment music for the cabal of man-killing lesbians. “Black Power”, a song composed by Peter Thomas for the 1969 TV movie 11 Uhr 20 (Eleven Twenty), performed by a very young Donna Summer, when she was still Donna Gaines and starred in the German stage production of Hair. The movie is apparently a routine adventure thriller and sadly does not feature man-killing lesbians.

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