Songs of Fire and 'Vice': Jan Hammer on the Music of 'Miami Vice'

The composer who defined the sound of Eighties TV reveals the secrets behind his groundbreaking work on the show and why he didn't score Michael Mann's movie

Jan Hammer performing in Dallas, Texas on November 27th, 1983. Credit: Paul Natkin/Wireimage/Getty

From the that moment its the sensory-assaulting opening credit sequence kicked in, Miami Vice brought Eighties TV audiences a weekly dose of South Beach escapism — a world of bikini-clad blondes, speedboat formations, palm trees and pink flamingoes. Viewers watching at home on Friday nights probably wouldn't have guessed that the swaggering, synth-filled theme song playing over the credits, and the rest of the instrumental music that gave the show its moody Miamicentric pulse, was actually made in an upstate New York farmhouse by a balding, one man band from Prague.


Prior to scoring Michael Mann’s groundbreaking show, Jan Hammer was best known as the keyboardist from Mahavishnu Orchestra, John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham's monumental Seventies jazz fusion project. Post-Mahavishnu, he led the suitably named prog-rock outfit Hammer, and released collaborative albums with Jeff Beck and Neal Schon. But it was Vice that made him a household name when the show's theme song topped the Hot 100 in 1985 — the last instrumental recording to do so until 2013’s “Harlem Shuffle.” Hammer's score compositions (including "Crockett's Theme," a No. 1 single across Europe) were also packaged with original songs licensed for the show (Phil Collins' "In The Air Tonight," Glenn Frey's "You Belong To The City") on a soundtrack album that hit No. 1 for an impressive 13 weeks in 1985 and 1986.  

Calling from that same home studio in Holmes, N.Y. where he scored Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs' every move, Hammer spoke with us about the show’s unique place in music and TV history, the inspiration behind the soundtrack albums and why he wasn’t involved with the big-screen adaptation of Miami Vice.

Having this background in experimental music and prog-rock, how did you come across the opportunity to soundtrack something as commercial as Miami Vice?
Well, I was always halfway between the two worlds. I was very much interested in contemporary pop. I was working on a movie at the time in L.A., and a friend of mine told me [executive producer] Michael Mann is putting together a new TV show and [suggested] I just say "Hi." I met Michael when they were still casting. We were talking about what music would work to make something that was like nothing on television at the time. I had some sketches that I played him — and that turned out to be the theme for the show. I had already recorded most of it.


It was the first television show presented in stereo. How did that affect the creation of the score?
When we started, stereo sets were just coming out, and not many people had them. But at the same time it was fantastic, because you could do something with the atmosphere; it was much more like a movie experience. That went in line with the whole production design, and the cinematography of the show, which was very movie-like. I didn't have to worry about trying to break through a Mono speaker like in the old AM radio days. I was able to be much more adventurous, and make the sound really nice and wide.

Every last note of your score was created in your farmhouse, right?
For the four years that I worked on the show, yes. I would usually get a rough cut of the episode, with some of the [licensed] songs already placed in. Sometimes I was able to work in and out of those songs, and make transitions. Sometimes I'd just go off on whatever struck me. I never read the script. Getting caught up in the excitement of the story — that's how I was able to get inspired writing music for it.

The pilot, however, was done more of the old-fashioned way. I was in L.A. with Michael in the screening room, deciding where the music would go. When we finished, Michael took me aside and said, "When the show gets picked up, I want you to run with this." That was the password for me to be totally free. I was able to decide what kind of music to write, and where to place it in the story — how to drive the narrative. It's very unusual and I'm very grateful for him, as he said, letting me "run with it."

They just trusted your instinct completely?
Yeah, it sounds amazing but that's how it was. The only note I remember getting from Michael, probably halfway through the second year, was "Let's have more music" [laughs].  I wasn't even asked to try to emulate anything, which is usually what you get when you work on films. They always tell you they want you something that is this or that. That never happened on this show. It was just, "Do what you want."

What synthesizers did you use to create the music for the show?
Oh, Jesus. The most important machine that I was using would be the Fairlight CMI, which was one of the first advanced, computer-based sampling machines. I would sample my drums and percussion [instruments] into it, and then work out the music by using real acoustic sound, which was fairly new at the time.

Would you visit Miami at all while you were scoring the show? For inspiration or other reasons?
I've been there many times, so I know the place very well. [But] I only went there twice during the run, and that was only to appear in a quick, blink-and-you-miss-it guest spot. Music really doesn't require for you to be at a certain locale to be able to create in that vein. I was already influenced by Latin and Afro-Cuban music, [so] giving it a more Latin and percussive flavor just came naturally. It wasn't necessary for me to go there and smell the ocean air, or view the palm trees. When I was working during TV season, which is mostly winter, I would be here in the snow, writing tropical music.

The only note I remember getting from Michael [Mann] Was "let's have more music."


When did you develop your interest in synthesizers?
I had this frustration with the fixed pitch of a piano. You couldn't bend notes. There was no vibrato, no flirt, no slide. All the other instruments — violins, guitars — they could do it. The human voice, too. That's where the synthesizer came in. It was a keyboard, so it was already second nature to me and, through the controls, I could play melodies with slides and bends. To me, that was heaven. So that's how I ended up finding my own voice on a synthesizer. With Mahavishnu Orchestra, I got the mini-Moog, which was the first performance-ready synthesizer, as opposed to the huge unwieldy sort of beasts in the studio with patch cords and wires. I spent a few weeks figuring it out, then I started playing it live, and it really became my absolute main voice.  

A typical Miami Vice episode would have as much as 30 minutes of music from you…
Between me and the songs [licensed for the show] it would be about 30 to 35. It was wall-to-wall.

Did you feel like you were creating a new album every week?
It was happening so fast I couldn't even think in those terms. By the time I finished, the new show was already at my door. You can do this if you just don't second guess yourself, and never look back. I wouldn't have described it as working on a new album but in retrospect it seems that way. It was a burden that I created for myself. I could've slacked off and recycled things forever, but I was interested in making it interesting.

Did you play any role selecting the outside songs that were licensed for the show?
The associate producer, Fred Lyle, that was his full-time job — to pick the sourced songs, and it was up to me to write the score.

When did the idea of a Miami Vice album come about? It was pretty unique for a TV show to have a soundtrack at the time, and its popularity was definitely unprecedented.
It was the start of the second season, right after we were all nominated for Emmys. We didn't get any except Eddie Olmos [for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series]. It was kind of a frustrating evening. But we had a trump card, which was the album that was being put together. That was a huge happening. Nobody expected it to get so big.

TV music is [usually] a utility. It's just there, and it's used mostly like wallpaper. It was nice to know that the music stood out on its own. It was referred to as the third character or the third star in the series. So, to me, it became totally natural that it would be put out as a standalone musical album.
 


Miami Vice has been credited with getting people to stay home on Friday nights just to watch TV. Would you stay home and watch the show?
That would be my only chance to see the finished episode. So, yeah, I saw it every week. I could judge, and then I could say, "Hey, the music was kind of too soft here. Let's turn it up a little bit."

You revisited that era a few years back with your soundtrack for the documentary Cocaine Cowboys. Were you approached about working on Michael Mann's Miami Vice movie?
No, not a word from them.

Was that something that you would have been interested in?
Of course.

I guess they wanted it to be completely different?
Well, they still called it Miami Vice, didn't they? It's branding, so they had to use it.

The series recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. What would you say is the show’s legacy?
We definitely shook up the TV world. You can still feel certain aftershocks, even at this late date. [Musical] shades of it show up here and there, but it’s more of an intangible thing. I get [Google News] alerts with reviews, and they'll say "There's this synth, and it's very much Jan Hammer-like…" It's really amusing. And then I'll go and listen to it and I'm like, "Yeah, they have a point."