Written by Liz Buckley


7 Wonders: TV soundtracks

If you’re settling in for a weekend in front of the box, Standard Issue’s resident playlist genius Liz Buckley has just the tunes for you.

Flight of the Conchords photo by Kris Krug, shared under CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Flight of the Conchords photo by Kris Krug, shared under CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The soundtrack to a TV series should be as important as choosing the cast. It sets the tone, it changes the mood, it makes you laugh, it makes you cry, you probably fancy it. Maybe not the last one.

Without Julee Cruise wafting high above the set of Twin Peaks, softly pronouncing words as though she’s deaf, the eerie and uniquely odd feel of the whole programme wouldn’t be as distinctive. In fact she was so intrinsic to the character of the show that she basically shot herself in the foot there, as no one was going to hire her after that; she had her sound and career nailed.

Likewise, nothing will ever be as brilliantly sneaky as the Henry Mancini theme to The Pink Panther. It’s a universal message to anyone who hears it to immediately start creeping on tiptoe. The intro starts, the soft brushes sweep jauntily across the drums… tish tish… and suddenly everyone has camp little paws. Vince Guaraldi’s fun, upbeat light jazz for the Peanuts cartoons is also exactly what makes us all want to dance with our heads tilted towards the sky like Snoopy. Music maketh the programme.

Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner. Photo by Steven Anthony, shared under CC BY 2.0, via Flickr.

Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner. Photo by Steven Anthony, shared under CC BY 2.0, via Flickr.

Arctic Monkeys – Red Right Hand (Peaky Blinders)

The BBC’s Peaky Blinders series is so entirely tailored to my own personal tastes that I’m slightly fearful it’s some kind of elaborate honey trap. It stars some of my favourite actors (Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy, with Paddy Considine joining in the forthcoming third series); the 1920s costumes and frosted glass pubs with snugs are my idea of tweed-wearing, beautifully-tailored, gin-drinking heaven, and the soundtrack isn’t just all the musicians I’ve sworn undying allegiance to; it’s bigger than that.

Lined up against my wall they’ve got not just Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Tom Waits, Jack White (in ALL his incarnations/supergroups), Johnny Cash, Royal Blood, Laura Marling and so on and, believe me, so on, but series two actually saw PJ Harvey covering Nick Cave. And I don’t mean with a hanky, like he’s a parrot. All exclusively for me.

Sorry, I mean, exclusively for the programme. PJ Harvey sang the recurring theme of Red Right Hand as a complete reworking and it’s gentle and spooky and feminine. I actually laughed because it’s so perfect, like a birthday present. I began to wonder if the programme makers would give my cat a role as prime minister, just to make sure they’d included every single thing I love.

Series two features another cover of Red Right Hand, and it’s the best version I’ve ever heard, this one by the Arctic Monkeys. It has a completely new energy from the original; it’s cheeky and punky and swaggering. The band have changed the phrasing and the rhythm, and the effect is to make it an entirely different song. (Guys. It features in episode three when all the newly-allied countrywide gangs file up a fire escape and… sorry, is this too much? I’ll stop trying to marry a TV programme.)

The Chi-Lites – Oh Girl
The Kinks – I’m Not Like Everybody Else (The Sopranos)

I’m sticking with the gangsters a while longer as they haven’t said I can leave yet. And because it’s important we recognise the marvel that is the music in HBO’s The Sopranos. The choices are as essential to the programme as music itself is to New Jersey.

There is, of course, the inevitable use of Sinatra and Springsteen on the soundtrack, which neatly compliments Little Steven from the E Street Band and Frank Sinatra Jr appearing in the cast, but there’s also well-chosen moments where the eclectic use of Britney Spears, The Stones, Ben E King, Ella Fitzgerald and more is even more effective.

The Kinks do 'zany', 1965-style.

The Kinks do ‘zany’, 1965-style.

The beauty of the Sopranos‘ soundtrack is the tailoring of the music choices to the scene they feature in, rather than just setting the general climate. In the episode ‘Kennedy and Heidi’, Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb is the cue and indeed clue to a much loved nephew’s demise, gang boss Tony Soprano absentmindedly singing it to himself walking downstairs and then realising his fury with the drug addict in his family.

The Chi-Lites’ Oh Girl is important enough to be the entire plot device of ‘Watching Too Much Television’, inspiring Tony to pay his mistress and love rival a little visit. He even chats about the New Jersey Brunswick record label in the gym locker room and every music fan watching gets a little kick out of knowing it was a ‘connected’ label. Indeed, it had to be, American gangs and payola in the music industry being entirely synonymous at the time.

The Sopranos is always as funny as it’s dark and the two complement each other. So when love-to-hate-you character Ralph is brutally murdered in a bathtub, the big shock of the scene is actually the killers realising he wears a toupee, causing more screaming than the actual decapitation.

The evil Ralph even has as much as his own theme tune, without the makers being crass enough to ever play you the song: watch out for frequent use of lyrics from Sympathy For The Devil in connection with him; I’ll give you Ralph saying, “Please allow me to introduce myself” to a surgeon as your starter for 10.

Likewise, as our main man Tony and his sister run around the kitchen trying to murder one another, in kicks The Kinks’ I’m Not Like Everybody Else: not just a reference to the characters actually trying to slice each other to bits but an amused nod to the Kinks’ two Davis siblings also wanting to stick a fork in each other.

Man, the music in The Sopranos was killer.

Flight of the Conchords – Too Many Dicks (On the Dancefloor) (Flight of the Conchords)

The best way to make music for a TV series is to make a TV series about making music. Every song in Flight of the Conchords is a joy, every lyric is as funny as the script and every song is a brilliant pastiche of ever-changing genres. If you haven’t seen or heard Flight of the Conchords, please turn up to their meetings with manager Murray. “Present.”

Flight of the Conchords photo by Kim Metso, shared under CC BY SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Flight of the Conchords photo by Kim Metso, shared under CC BY SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Unloved – Guilty of Love (The Fall)

A truly great soundtrack artist like David Holmes (’71, Good Vibrations, Ocean’s 11) knows when to be quiet. So just as Clint Mansell realised when writing the soundtrack for the film The Wrestler that Mickey Rourke’s larger than life performance would err on the side of ham if you added music on top, David Holmes’ soundtrack to TV’s Northern Irish detective drama The Fall needed subtlety.

The programme has a quiet, brooding plot that stalks you alongside the killer, the music a perfectly judged accomplice, even at times entirely stopping, along with your own breathing. When there’s noise, you jump out your skin. But the quiet is even scarier.

David Holmes’ new band Unloved with Keefus Green began as a result of this project, and the boys continue to do amazing soundtrack work on new BBC drama London Spy, so at least something great has come out of ALL THIS NEEDLESS DEATH.

As a special treat for Liz, Barry Adamson AND Nick Cave in all their early-80s glory. Photo by orangeintense, shared under CC BY 2.0, via, via Wikimedia Commons.

As a special treat for Liz, Barry Adamson AND Nick Cave in all their early-80s glory. Photo by orangeintense, shared under CC BY 2.0, via, via Wikimedia Commons.

Barry Adamson – Something Wicked This Way Comes (Jam)

Most people are aware from flagship comedies such as The Day Today and Brass Eye that Chris Morris is a bone fide genius, but his show Jam is sadly somewhat more ignored. Perhaps understandably as it’s most certainly deliberately oblique. Alienating, surreal and troubling in equal parts, Morris used a bed of pretty, dream-like ambient music to set the tone for long, drawn-out deconstructions of familiar jokes and set-ups, making them sinister and unsettling. The scariest, freakiest, funniest thing since an Aphex Twin video.

Mogwai – Hungry Face (Les Revenants/The Returned)

Post-rock Glaswegian noise-scapers Mogwai are tremendously atmospheric songwriters; having already written some fantastic film soundtracks, it makes sense for them to have turned their hand to television.

This score is for French TV series Les Revenants (The Returned), a one-time zombie film now transformed into a picturesque, intelligent, eerie and bleak analysis not of the undead, but of grief. If you’ve ever lost a loved one and thought you’d do absolutely anything to ever see your parent or partner again, this show challenges whether that person would actually still have a relevant role in your life.

Mogwai photo by wonker from London, UK, shared under CC BY 2.0, via, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mogwai photo by wonker from London, UK, shared under CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

People move on, partners change, one twin grows up without the other and your beloved lost loves are more left behind than you ever wished or realised. It’s a devastating thought, a fantastic concept and a soundtrack to weep to; it’s otherworldly and shocking and smart. Confusing as it is intelligent, this music is pure, uplifting loss.

The recurring theme tune to the show has toybox nursery charms to play alongside the show’s emblematic character: a small, cherubic-faced child who stands next to people, not speaking. It’s terrifying and so far, unresolved. After a huge long wait the programme has recently, well, returned. I haven’t managed to move on yet and there’s still a place for it in my life. Just be careful. There’s a small child stood next to you.

If you’re into hearing more essential and distinctive TV soundtracks, I give you a compilation of the genius that is Tony Hatch.


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Written by Liz Buckley

Department manager at an independent record company. Liker of Frank Sinatra and Nick Cave. Very sudden laugh. Pasty but tasty. Quite tired.