'Pulp Fiction' Songs: Tour the Film's Bestselling Soundtrack - Rolling Stone
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Surf Music and Seventies Soul: The Songs of ‘Pulp Fiction’

Take a song-by-song tour of the groundbreaking film’s bestselling soundtrack

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The mixture of surf, soul and shit-talking that Quentin Tarantino assembled for Pulp Fiction‘s soundtrack played out like one of the world’s coolest mixtapes, which made it an instant classic when it came out. As it happens, Tarantino had mixtape sequencing in mind when he executive produced the album in 1994, rearranging the way the songs play out on the track list the same way he played with chronology in the movie. “This could easily be a Quentin tape,” he said at the time of its release.

‘Pulp Fiction,’ A to Z

The soundtrack made it to Number 21 on the Billboard 200 and has since sold more three and a half million copies. It was so successful, in fact, that it’s five surf-rock offerings renewed interest in the genre, prompting surf label Del-Fi to put out a comp called Pulp Surfin’ the next year, and its influence has continued to reverberate as the Black Eyed Peas sampled it on their 2006 single “Pump it.”

In a 1994 interview that later appeared as a bonus track on the two-disc 2002 collector’s edition of the soundtrack, Tarantino was adamant about keeping songs fresh in his movies. “You are such a poseur and a lame-o for using a song another movie has already christened,” he said.

And that approach has continued to define later Tarantino soundtracks like the ones for Jackie Brown and Django Unchained. “When people ask me what kinds of music I listen to, I never really know what to say,” he said in the interview. “I listen to all different types.” Nowhere has that worked better to his advantage than on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, which Rolling Stone breaks down track in the pages that follow.

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Urge Overkill, ‘Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon’

Legend has it, Quentin Tarantino found a used copy of alt rockers Urge Overkill's 1992 Stull EP while crate digging in England and became smitten with its lead track, a cover of Neil Diamond's 1967 single "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon." The director has gone so far as to say the alt-rockers' version is "even better" than Diamond's. It had a profound effect on him.

When he was deciding on the music Uma Thurman's character, Mia Wallace, would dance to while John Travolta psychs himself to take her on "not a date," he considered a number of songs, including one by the rockabilly duo the Collins Kids. "All of a sudden, this is it," he said of Urge's "Girl." "Beyond the shadow of a doubt, this is the song Mia has to dance to by herself. I played it to Uma; Uma flipped."

Diamond has said he was apprehensive about licensing the track, based on the ear-severing scene in Reservoir Dogs, but ultimately he was happy with it – once it sunk in. "I watched [Pulp Fiction] about a half a dozen times before I could figure it out," Diamond told Rolling Stone in 1996. Urge Overkill's single made it to Number 59 on the Hot 100 and Number 11 on Billboard's Alternative Songs chart. "It really proves you can't keep a good record down," Urge Overkill frontman Nash Kato said in 1995.

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Maria McKee, ‘If Love Is a Red Dress (Hang Me in Rags)’

The only original song on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack is easy to miss in the movie, where it plays dreamily whistling in the background of Bruce Willis and Ving Rhames' pawnshop tussle. "When you take songs and put them in a sequence in a movie right, it's about as cinematic a thing as you can do," Tarantino said of the scene in 1994, adding that he was a big Maria McKee fan. "You're really doing what movies do better than any other art form. . . When you hit it right, the effect is you can never really hear that song again without thinking about that image from the movie."

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The Revels, ‘Comanche’

"Comanche," by San Luis Obispo surfers the Revels, was not Quentin Tarantino's first choice for the scene in which Marsellus Wallace is sexually assaulted by a pawn-shop owner and a security guard. No, his first choice was the Knack's "My Sharona." "'My Sharona' has a really good sodomy beat to it, if you think about it," he said in 1994. "I could set the time by that. . . And it just seemed so funny to me." The director approached the group, but "one of the band members had become a born-again Christian or something" and turned it down; they opted license the song to Reality Bites instead.

In hindsight, Tarantino has said he's glad it didn't work out because "My Sharona" would have been "too cutely comic." "'Comanche' still works the same," Tarantino said. "It's kind of funny actually, but it doesn't break the scene."

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The Statler Brothers, ‘Flowers on the Wall’

Only two of the Statler Brothers were actually fraternal, and none were named Statler, but the funniest part of their name is that they pulled the word “Statler” off a box of tissues. “We could just as easily be known as the Kleenex Brothers,” singer Don Reid once said. They first got together to open for Johnny Cash, releasing the jangly, whimsical “Flowers on the Wall,” with its shout-outs to the game of solitaire and Captain Kangaroo, in 1966. It became a Top 10 single and won them two Grammys.

Tarantino credits the song’s inclusion in the movie, when Bruce Willis sings along to it after killing John Travolta’s character, as the idea of music supervisor Karyn Rachtman. “Karyn just kept giving me different tapes, and for every five new songs she’d put an old song on there,” the director said in 1994. “I [mentioned] it to Bruce, [and he said] ‘Oh god, I love it.'”

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The Lively Ones, ‘Surf Rider’

The jumpy rhythms and sinewy melodies of "Surf Rider" originally began life as another song, "Spudnik," by another band, the Ventures. But the Orange County surf rockers the Lively Ones were respectful and asked the Ventures if they would allow them to use a few "musical phrases" from their song.

"We were pretty surprised when 'Surf Rider' became a hit as a note-for-note cover of 'Spudnik,'" the Ventures' Bob Bogle lead guitarist said in the band's biography. "We had no problem with that, as long as they directed royalties to Nokie [Edwards, bass]." Later, when the Ventures needed another surf song to follow-up "Pipeline" in 1963 they just rerecorded "Spudnik" and called it "Surf Rider."

As a result of the Lively Ones' recording on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack making it into the end credits as John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson walk out of the diner, the Ventures have gotten multiple platinum plaques for the song – something rhythm guitarist Don Wilson said initially was a reminder they had even written the track in the first place. 

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