Surf Music and Seventies Soul: The Songs of ‘Pulp Fiction’
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.
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.
Dick Dale and His Del-Tones, ‘Misirlou’
Dick Dale's fiery, fluttery guitar playing ignites Pulp Fiction almost as excitedly as Amanda Plummer threatening to "execute every-motherfucking-last one of you" in its opening scene. The Boston-born guitar icon released "Misirlou" – a Mediterranean folk tune, whose title translates literally to "Egyptian Girl" or, as Alan di Perna put it in Guitar Masters, maybe the title translates more precisely to "Non-Christian Girl" – in 1962, a track he claimed to have recorded 95 times in an effort to reduce the oceans of reverb that ultimately defined surf rock.
That watery guitar sound also defined Pulp Fiction. "Having 'Misirlou' as your opening credit, it's just so intense," Tarantino said in 1994. "It just says you're watching an epic, you're watching a big, ol' movie. . . It just throws down a gauntlet that the movie now has to live up to."
Kool and the Gang, ‘Jungle Boogie’
With the gauntlet thrown, Tarantino has the audacity to change the station midway through "Misirlou" – literally with radio fuzz – to tune in to Kool and the Gang's horn-heavy 1973 barnburner "Jungle Boogie." Featuring frog-like rap by the band's roadie, Don "Get Up With the Get Down" Boyce, the track is every bit as frenetic as the surf rocker but with more groove. Outside of Pulp Fiction, the song, which appeared on Kool's Wild and Peaceful LP, experienced second life as a sample on records by everyone from the Beastie Boys to Madonna. Tarantino said he picked the track because it was "intense" has had a "Seventies feel."
Al Green, ‘Let’s Stay Together’
Al Green did not believe in "Let's Stay Together" when producer Willie Mitchell presented him with its music in 1971. And even after Mitchell cajoled him into recording a softer, gentler vocal than he wanted to, Green "wasn't happy with what came out," as he wrote in his autobiography, "because I was mad about being forced into doing the song." But within 10 days of cutting the record, it was a Number One hit; within two weeks the single had sold gold and it went on to become Green's signature song.
In Pulp Fiction, the tune plays as Ving Rhames' character, Marsellus Wallace, asks Bruce Willis', Butch Coolidge, to take a fall in a boxing match. Tarantino described the way he used "Let's Stay Together" in that scene as a "hypnotic score," since the viewer must stare at Willis as Rhames speaks at him, forcing the moviegoer to take in Willis' reaction, but it's also ironic since Willis and Rhames want anything but to stay together later in the movie.
"I really want the songs that I'm using in the movie – like in the case of Maria McKee and Al Green or in the case of anything – to work in the crux of the scene," he said. "We're really trying to make it, like, fun and neat and not just a collection of songs."
The Tornadoes, ‘Bustin’ Surfboards’
You can hear the crackle of 1962 sizzling on Tarantino's 45 of "Bustin' Surfboards," a cut by the Redlands, California surf ensemble the Tornadoes. The track itself, which plays in the background as Rosanna Arquette's piercing-obsessed character talks about the virtues of a tongue stud during fellatio, contains everything that makes surf great: woozy wammy bar dives, an easygoing drumbeat and ocean sound effects.
Ricky Nelson, ‘Lonesome Town’
Ricky Nelson was still a teenage heartthrob when his wistful, wondrous hit "Lonesome Town" made it to Number Seven on the Hot 100 in 1958, but the track wasn't always so intimate. Songwriter Baker Knight initially wrote it with Eddie Cochran's voice in mind as a calypso number with pianos and a conga-driven rhythm, until a member of the vocal quartet the Jordanaires, who backed Nelson on the track, suggested it would work better as a guitar song.
Knight, who would later be diagnosed with agoraphobia, said the song was personal to him and that the "Lonesome Town" in question was the city where he resided. "It was Hollywood," he said. "I was sitting in the middle of this whole thing. I was broke, didn't know what I was going to do. My manager was giving me a few bucks, keeping me going, paying my rent." Coincidentally, in Pulp Fiction, the song plays when "a few bucks" are in question, as Mia Wallace offers a five-dollar shake and expects Vincent Vega to pay the exorbitant price.
Dusty Springfield, “Son of a Preacher Man”
Producer Jerry Wexler recalls originally offering "Son of a Preacher Man" to Aretha Franklin and her turning it down; within a year of Dusty Springfield's recording, the Queen of Soul wanted it back. British-born singer Dusty Springfield ended up releasing the track as a single in 1968 and Wexler had no doubts she was the perfect fit for the song after all, calling her "the incarnation of white soul, if there is such a thing," in a 1988 issue of Rolling Stone.
The track plays as John Travolta's Vincent Vega character speaks to the coke-snorting Mia Wallace over an intercom, trying to picture just how she looks. "I've had [that scene] in my head for six or seven years," Tarantino said in 1994, "and it always was scored to 'Son of a Preacher Man.'"
The Centurians, ‘Bullwinkle Part II’
As the surf-rock boom of the early Sixties began to take off, the Newport Beach, California–area group the Centurians (who later spelled their name properly) recorded "Bullwinkle Part II" – a song that would sound like any other surf song were it not for its soulful sax solo. Incidentally, the same year the group put out that single, 1962, they backed Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans for the Phil Spector-produced version of "Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah."
The track accompanies a stomach-knotting scene in Pulp Fiction, as the camera focuses on blood pouring into a syringe as John Travolta shoots up. In 1994, Tarantino emphasized that "Bullwinkle Part II" was score music, as opposed to something Travolta's character would be listening to on the radio. "The reason I did that was [because] I always really dug surf music a lot," he said. "But the thing was I never understood what the hell it had to do with surfing. I don't see the connection between this music and surfing – to me, it sounded like rock & roll spaghetti western music. What I don't want to do is, and I see it happen in a lot of movies, [is] just turn up the soundtrack to create a false energy."
Chuck Berry, ‘You Never Can Tell’
Chuck Berry wrote "You Never Can Tell," along with "No Particular Place to Go" and "Nadine," while doing time in Springfield, Missouri's Federal Medical Center prison for allegedly bringing a 14-year-old across state lines to have sex with her — which didn't seem to stop him from writing his ditty about a "teenage wedding" and skeptical old folks. But perhaps more interesting is the fact that rock's great guitar hero hardly plays guitar on his 1964 single "You Never Can Tell," which sports heaping helpings of boogie-woogie piano and sax solos – perfect for dancing at Jack Rabbit Slim's Twist Contest in Pulp Fiction.
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.
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."
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."
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.'”
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.
'Poor Things': Emma Stone Is Brought Back to Life in New Trailer
- 'Favourite' Follow-up
Taylor Swift Soundtracks August Slipping Away in 'The Summer I Turned Pretty' Season 2 Teaser
- For the Hope of it All