Hit It, Max: The Galactic Funk of Star Wars Jizz-Wailer Max Rebo
Look, I get it. Long-running movie and TV series — even Star Wars — occasionally have to kill off established characters to remind audiences what’s at stake.
So help me god, though, if Max Rebo is dead, I don’t know what I’ll do.
One of the bright spots in the first half of season 1 of the Disney+ series The Book of Boba Fett was the surprise appearance of the floppy-eared red ball jett organ player last seen on screen in 1983’s Return of the Jedi. I was thrilled to learn that Rebo had not only survived the destruction of Jabba the Hutt’s sail barge on the edge of the Great Pit of Karloon, but had subsequently found a new gig performing in an upscale cantina / casino in nearby Mos Espa. So it was all the more distressing when, in episode 6 of the series — SPOILER ALERT! — the cantina was reduced to rubble by what amounted to a terrorist bombing. It’s not clear whether Rebo was in the cantina at the time but I thought I saw a flash of blue in the background only moments before the explosion. So now I fear the worst.
Hopefully Max lives to see another day. Just in case, though, let’s take a moment to celebrate the life and work of everyone’s favorite blue Ortolan by delving into some of the Jizz music (yes, really) he has made over the years. (Don’t miss the supercut of Max Rebo performances at the bottom of this post.)
Bless the Rains Down on Tatooine?
One of the highlights of Return in the Jedi was a musical set piece set in Jabba the Hutt’s palace and performed by a motley group of creatures known as Sy Snootles and the Max Rebo band. The scene recalled the cantina band scene from the original Star Wars movie, with an important difference: while the cantina band music consciously evoked 1940s swing music (from our own galaxy), George Lucas, producer of the Star Wars movies and creator of the Star Wars universe, wanted the Return of the Jedi music to sound more futuristic.
Composer John Williams had written all of the Star Wars music to that point — including the “Cantina Band” song from the original, 1977 movie, probably the most famous piece of alien music ever — but, for Max Rebo’s big number, Lucas initially considered going in a different direction. “We’d contemplated bringing in rock and roll composers to try their hand,” Lucas says in J.W. Rinzler’s book The Making of Return of the Jedi. “[W]e talked to Toto at one point and a few other groups and writers to see if we could come up with something very bizarre or unique. But we didn’t want something too Top Forty; we wanted something strange but lively.”
As it happened, Toto went on to score another early eighties space-based epic: the 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, directed by David Lynch. Coincidentally (or not), Lucas had previously approached Lynch about possibly helming Return of the Jedi.
“I Am Your Father…”
Williams eventually penned the song for the Max Rebo Band himself. “Lapti Nek” was a lugubrious disco-infused track scored for synthesizer, a funk horn section and what sounds like a clavinet, among other instruments. For the original, English lyrics — later translated into Huttese — Williams turned to his 22-year-old son Joseph. “It was basically my father throwing me a bone,” the younger Williams says in a 2016 Little While Lies article. “George asked him for two sound cues [‘Lapti Nek’ and ‘Ewok Celebration’] so my dad thought that if I wrote the lyrics in English, then recorded them at Lucasfilm, it would be a fun way to spend time together.”
In another Toto-related twist, Joseph would later join the soft rock giants as their singer and frontman — though not before releasing his own version of ‘Lapti Nek” under the name Urth.
The Urth single wasn’t the only version of “Lapti Nek” to see release in 1983. RSO, the label that handled the Star Wars soundtrack albums, issued a 45 the same year with both a “club mix” and a “dub mix” of the song. At the same time, the artist known as Meco, who had made a career of producing dance versions of songs from TV and movie soundtracks, beginning in 1977 with Music Inspired By Star Wars And Other Galactic Funk, released a single with disco versions of “Ewok Celebration” on Side A and “Lapti Nek” on the flip.
How Do You Get to Jabba’s Palace? Practice, Practice, Practice
Max Rebo isn’t just a funk- and disco-fluent elephant-like creature. He has serious classical music chops as well. In a lesser-known cue from Return of the Jedi, heard in another scene in Jabba’s palace, he plays a chamber music piece much like court musicians might have played in 18th-century palaces in our own galaxy. Even more impressive, he plays the piece on an instrument with only 21 keys — and with his feet.
Koo Nee Tang!
We’ve come to a sad but unavoidable part of the Max Rebo story: the “Jedi Rocks” debacle from the 1997 Special Edition of Return of the Jedi. With the release of this updated version of the movie, for reasons still more murky than not, George Lucas decided to replace the “Lapti Nek” sequence with a full-blown production number with Max and a menagerie of annoying CGI characters performing a newly written song. “Jedi Rocks” is a straight-ahead R&B stomper. With no discernible attempts to make the song sound even remotely “alien,” beyond the lyrics sung in Huttese, the song sticks out like a sore [insert your favorite alien appendage] in the extensive canon of diegetic music in Star Wars.
“Jedi Rocks” was written by American horn player and arranger Jerry Hey. Often derided by Star Wars fans (even if they don’t know his name), Hey has in fact enjoyed a long and successful career in the music biz. He has won six Grammy awards, for example, including a 1983 award for arranging — wait for it — the Toto hit “Rosanna.”
Presenting: Jizz-Wailer Max Rebo
Max Rebo is mostly known for the songs “Lapti Nek” and “Jedi Rocks.” But those aren’t his only performances in the Star Wars universe. Here’s a brief supercut of most if not all of his appearances in the movies and TV shows. Let me know if I’ve missed anything. Enjoy!