Quentin Tarantino was by no means the first director to use popular music to score his movies, but over the course of eight films he has turned the juxtaposition of his own visual imagery and other people’s music into personalised art form. Tarantino’s vinyl collection is rivalled only by Martin Scorsese’s – he has a record room in his house,
The soundtrack album itself is a dying entity; downloading has rendered such things as obsolete as pagers or Pauly Shore’s career. Soundtrack albums from The Sound of Music through to The Bodyguard used to sell in the millions, but no more. Tarantino’s soundtracks were the final shot in the arm for this moribund music genre, and also helped the dialogue included between the songs to achieve instant classic status. Anyone listening to the Pulp Fiction soundtrack on their walkmans in 1994 had an entire movie playing between their ears. Few were the 20 year old kids back then who couldn’t recite the ‘Royale With Cheese’ speech (that preceded Jungle Boogie by Kool & The Gang) from memory.
Tarantino said that “My soundtracks do pretty good because they’re basically professional equivalents of a mix tape I’d make for you at home.” Well reader, here’s one I put together for you. Just don’t let it get chewed up in the cassette player in your car.
1. LITTLE GREEN BAG by The George Baker Selection.
From Reservoir Dogs (1992)
“To me, movies and music go hand in hand. When I’m writing a script, one of the first things I do is find the music I’m going to play for the opening sequence. I can’t go forward until I figure out how I’m going to start – what the opening mood music will be.” Just in case the opening ‘Like a Virgin’ monologue wasn’t memorable enough, Tarantino outdid himself with his choice of song for the opening credits.
Little Green Bag, by the Dutch band The George Baker Selection was the first in Tarantino’s carefully selected catalogue of cool retro tracks, plucked from obscurity and given the kiss of life. That jazz-cool bass riff alone instantly conjures up the image of monochrome-dressed hoods strutting down the road in slow-motion. That first double-thwack of the bongo deliberately announces the director’s name, as if he was kicking open the cinema door, and when the song morphs into its campy, cha-cha second half, Tarantino fades up the agonised screams of the mortally wounded Mr Orange. Quentin Tarantino had just announced his presence to the world.
2. STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU by Stealer’s Wheel.
From Reservoir Dogs (1992)
The anachronism continued with this, probably the most celebrated of Tarantino’s pop music / screen violence interfaces. “This Dylanesque, pop bubblegum favourite,” as DJ K-Billy describes it was used to soundtrack the infamous scene in which Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) slices off poor Marvin Nash’s ear.
Sometimes, movie scenes and the music played over them become so indelibly linked that not even God Himself can rent them asunder. It would be interesting to discover Richard Wagner’s reaction now that The Ride of The Valkyries is remembered not as the third-act of Die Walküre from Der Ring des Nibelungen but as the Helicopter Theme From Apocalypse Now. One can only speculate as to what Joe Egan and Gerry Rafferty thought about their upbeat pop classic being taken from them forever, ‘Stuck’ in the public memory alongside a dancing torturer with a bloodied razor blade in his hand.
3. MISIRLOU by Dick Dale and The Deltones.
From Pulp Fiction (1994)
This stunning burst of ‘Surf-rock’ guitar work from Dick Dale captured the kinetic cinema-changing energy of Tarantino’s second film; the director by now an unstoppable, world-conquering rollercoaster with an ‘esque’ already suffixed to his surname. This frenzied fretboard savaging classic became the quintessential Tarantino sound; his own theme tune. Even those heartbreaking Harvey Keitel insurance ads are linked back to Pulp Fiction by a half-arsed, copyright-dodging coda of surf-rock guitar.
By contrast, the low-key closing track, Surf Rider by The Lively Ones sounds like the surf-rock equivalent of a mournful dirge, perhaps foreshadowing Vincent Vega’s doom
4. YOU NEVER CAN TELL by Chuck Berry
From Pulp Fiction (1994)
Twenty years of embarrassing first dance wedding tributes have failed to undo the cool-factor of this, Pulp Fiction’s great musical moment: Uma Thurman and John Travolta’s trophy-winning dance at Jack Rabbit Slims. Said to have been based on the Madison dance scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part, the shapes Thurman and Travolta were throwing were deliberately amateurish. Travolta even resorts to – but somehow pulls off – Adam West’s notorious eye-saluting Batusi move from 1966.
Chuck Berry is one of the most important figures in rock history – and a fairly unpleasant cove by all accounts. His stock took a giant leap in 1985 when Marty McFly gave his signature track, Johnny B Goode the Van Halen treatment in Back To The Future. It is testament to the power of the Tarantino-effect that nowadays, the previously unheralded You Never Can Tell is probably Chuck Berry’s most popular song.
5. DIDN’T I (BLOW YOUR MIND THIS TIME) by The Delfonics
From Jackie Brown (1997)
Tarantino’s movies are commonly associated with pop-culture references and button-pushing ultraviolence (don’t mention this to him, though or he’ll shut your ass down). This song however, represented an unexpected sweetness at the centre of his 1997 Elmore Leonard adaptation, when Jackie Brown’s bail-bondsman, Max Cherry (Robert Forster) finds himself smitten with his new charge.
Cherry is no bumbling Hugh Grant figure though, but a stone-faced, life-weary loner. Having discovered that Jackie is a big Delfonics fan, he ambles into a record shop and buys one of their albums, subsequently playing it to death – it nearly proves his undoing later on when Samuel L Jackson hears Max playing it in his car and smells a rat. Not only is this a beautifully simple, wordless demonstration of a lonely man hoping to establish a connection, but it is also something that everyone can relate to. Who hasn’t got into a band or a singer they’d never heard of, perhaps briefly, just to impress the girl or guy they were in love with at the time? It just wasn’t the kind of touchstone anyone thought they’d be discovering in the new Quentin Tarantino movie.