Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Tracks of My Sounds

Fire in the Twilight - Wang Chung (mp3)
Cry Little Sister (Theme from The Lost Boys) - Gerald McCann (mp3)

For a stretch of time in my life, soundtracks were the most important albums in my life. Often I never even knew it.

Now don’t confuse soundtracks with musical scores, which are also great. It might make my classical music-loving father-in-law cringe, but I’m just as likely to listen to James Horner or John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith or Ennio Morricone, composer of the greatest movie score ever ever ever, otherwise known as The Mission.

But what I’m talking about are soundtracks, collections of songs from a variety of artists designed to give a movie its defined musical soul, to be the movie’s ghost long after someone has left the theater. (You see, back many years ago, people had to go years, sometimes forever, without the chance to re-watch a movie on video. Listening to the soundtrack provided them a connection to the film in its absence.)

The most important soundtracks approach the task in one of three ways:
TYPE A. The Lazy No-Brainer Popularity Contest -- Make arrangements with the biggest record company. Compile some of their bigger stars. Take some B-sides that fit the flick and pay someone with a penchant for writing a catchy single to put something together for your flick. Think Footloose or Top Gun or Pretty Woman.

TYPE B. The Memory Lane -- Best done with movies glued into a specific time, you take the best collection of songs from that era you can afford and cram ‘em into a sort of retrospective. Think The Wedding Singer or Forrest Gump.

TYPE C. The Trailblazer -- Prove your movie is cool by taking musical risks. Collect bands and acts from the indie music fringes, few if any who have signed big contracts or even hit Gold in sales. Your movie is popular and sales for a few of your artists start shooting through the roof, and you’re a hero to musicians and a Creator of Cool. Think any John Hughes movie.
Rarely did I enjoy Type A after I reached my tween years. Sure, Heavy Metal was and still is heavily worshipped, a double album of crunchy raucous goodness, but at some point my desire to be cool meant rejecting candy from strangers, and that’s what those first types seemed like: desperate attempts to make us like them.

Older folks love Type B. In fact, you know you’re at a movie where the target audience is the 30+ crowd when you’re listening to hits from the mid-70s or the early 80s or the freewheelin’ 60s. They’re simultaneously trying to set the scene while stirring every last desperate reminiscent memory about the good ol’ days to help sell tickets.

The soundtracks that meant the most to me and my friends, however, were Type C. They were safe ways to dip a toe into new musical waters. We could sample a variety of artists in a genre without having to sink into an entire album. Some of the great soundtracks of my youth that had tremendous influence, for better or worse, on my musical tastes:
  • The Breakfast Club -- It’s easy to overlook now, but Simple Minds wasn’t exactly a guaranteed pop chart-topping success. The album is full of decent if not superb 80s alterno-syntho-pop and includes arguably Wang Chung’s best song. (Which, yeah, is debatably not saying much.)
  • The Golden Child -- No, seriously, this was one of my first exposures to anything along the lines of funk or soul or R&B or whatever. Unless you count Hall & Oates. But it also had an Ann Wilson song and a Ratt song on there, and the B-side was the musical score, so it was a wild mash-up of sounds.
  • Valley Girl -- A friend of mine made a tape of this when the movie was making its heavy rotations through HBO. Either the original version included “I Melt With You” or it got added by this girl.
  • The Lost Boys -- This album forced me to reconsider INXS, which I’m sure many readers will think insults me or insults this soundtrack. The Echo & the Bunnymen cover of “People Are Strange” forced me to reconsider The Doors long enough to remember why I never liked them. And the song “Cry Little Sister” was haunting enough to keep you awake at night yet also keep you moving the needle back so you could get chilled by it one more time.
  • She’s Having a Baby -- The Kate Bush song is worth the price. But Bryan Ferry’s awesome cover, Love & Rockets’ “Haunted When the Minutes Drag,” and an assortment of other fringy alternatives pulling in some strong pop moments makes this a personal favorite.
  • Say Anything -- Cameron Crowe was the kind of genius who managed to make soundtracks that went a little in all three directions. Maybe a classic song or two, or at least an older tried-and-true artist. Lots of music from the edge. And he has occasionally thrown a clear hit into the mix. While Fast Times... and Singles bookend this movie and are equally amazing at capturing the zeitgeist, but this one has the Replacements, the Chili Peppers, Cheap Trick, wife/hottie Nancy Wilson and Peter Gabriel, which is in bowling terminology, right in my pocket.
I’m a little too removed from those youthful years to say for sure that art of the Type C soundtrack has diminished. Maybe it’s actually gotten better with the slow death of radio. Although I haven’t seen the Twilight movies, I was definitely encouraged that the second and third soundtracks went a little further off the mainstream line. They didn't have to. Good for them.

We need ways to expose ourselves, sometimes accidentally, to music we might not otherwise consider. For a stretch of time, soundtracks was hands-down the best method. Now? I guess it's music blogs.


BeckEye said...

I posted that Wang Chung video to my blog once as a forgotten classic and people were not kind. I can't really say I blame them though.

troutking said...

Pretty in Pink. Still love Suzanne Vega's Left of Center.

Bob said...

Billy, future post:

Bands who reference themselves in their songs. I know of at least Wang Chung, Steely Dan, and Chakka Khan.

Thom Anon said...

For the non-blogging, unwashed public, one big source of exposure to new music these days is the TV soundtrack. I'm looking at you Gray's Anatomy (though I'm not actually watching you - I swear.)

Oh, and Apple commercials.


troutking said...

For the self-reference post: does this count? "I'm Archie Bell and the Drells and we dance just as good we want."

Bob said...

Absolutely, Trout, and probably the best one of all since he introduces himself as "Archie Bell and the Drells."

Billy said...

@Beck - That song is completely married to the beloved vision of those five teens sliding to a halt in the middle of the hallway as they dodge Principal Vernon. So the song is almost like that annoying uncle you love mostly because he's married to your cool aunt.

@Trout - Totally agree. Vega's catchiest song not about child abuse, and the Furs had some really good moments.

@Thom - I have an um friend who used to intentionally watch the last 5-10 minutes of Dawson's Creek just so he could see the names of artists whose songs had been used on that show, so he could check 'em out.

@Bob - Does it count if a hired rapper refers to you rather than you doing it yourself? (There's also "My Name is Prince.")

John said...


Totally agree with you about The Mission. Amazing soundtrack (and despite what Bob would say, given the circumstances of our seeing the movie), a terrific film. I would also put Kenneth Brannaugh's Henry V right up there with the Morricone. A handful, even a small handful, of "contemporary classical" soundtrack composers (John Williams, I'll throw you in here) stand up when the local Symphony plays their oeuvre. The combination of visual memory and auditory immediacy always seems to satisfy me.

Hank said...

I always thought that Archie Bell & The Drells danced just as good as they walked.

I would also like to add The Big Bopper and Boys II Men to the list.

Bob said...

And Miley Cyrus, whose friend in the song says, "She's just being Miley."

And, perhaps most shamelessly of all, Big Country.