Pulp Fiction: The Soundtrack
“Whose motorcycle is this?”
“It’s a chopper, baby.”
“Whose chopper is this?”
“Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.”
In the wake of a thousand laughably poor imitations, it is easy to forget just what a sucker-punch Quentin Tarantino’s sophomore effort Pulp Fiction packed back in 1994. In a cinematic landscape littered with hand-wringingly earnest fare eagerly polishing its badge of ‘Certified: Politically Correct’, Pulp Fiction was a defiantly un-PC raspberry-in-the-face to the likes of Dances with Wolves and Forrest Gump. Like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet eight years earlier, Pulp Fiction was an ode to the underbelly of Americana and the various seemingly sordid characters that inhabit it. There’s “Honey-Bunny” Yolanda and Pumpkin (Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth), a loving pair of small-time robbers; Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), the big, black, bald crime boss who will “get medieval on your ass” should you cross him; Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman channelling Louise Brooks) the coke-snorting, 1950s-loving, $5-milkshake-drinking kook who tells bad jokes (“Ketchup”) and hates uncomfortable silences; boxer Butch and his “mongoloid” tulip Fabienne (Bruce Willis and Maria de Medeiros) who make their getaway on dead Zed’s chopper’; Vietnam vet Captain Koons (Christopher Walken in a hilarious, poker-faced cameo) who finds a unique place to hide a family heirloom from the “slopes” and their “greasy yellow hands”. And of course who can forget the hit-man tag-team of Vincent Vega (John Travolta in his first genuine comeback – Look Who’s Talking doesn’t count) and über cool Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson in a breakthrough performance) who sports a mind-boggling Jheri-Curl wig and spouts ‘Biblical’ rants of questionable authenticity (“Ezekiel: 25:17…”).
Cinematically too, Pulp Fiction was a revelation of sorts. Eschewing the classical Hollywood linear narrative arc, the film instead looked to the French Nouvelle Vague for inspiration for its disjunctive narrative as well as its pop-culture-heavy dialogue that was more interested in character than in plot (giving birth to the writing term ‘Tarantinoesque’):
Vincent: And you know what they call a… a… a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?
Jules: They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder with cheese?
Vincent: No man, they got the metric system. They wouldn’t know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.
Jules: Then what do they call it?
Vincent: They call it a Royale with cheese.
Jules: A Royale with cheese. What do they call a Big Mac?
Vincent: Well, a Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it le Big Mac.
Jules: Le Big Mac. Ha ha ha ha. What do they call a Whopper?
Vincent: I dunno, I didn’t go into Burger King.
For the soundtrack, like his previous film Reservoir Dogs and quite unlike the pop-hit laden soundtrack to Fiction’s main (and only) Oscar rival Forrest Gump, Tarantino looked to decidedly obscure material from lesser known artists of present and past. The explosive opening track ‘Misirlou’ by Dick Dale and his Del-Tones, a 1962 classic, sets the tone for a soundtrack that is heavily inspired by the 1960s Surf Rock movement. Known as the King of the Surf Guitar, Dale galvanised the movement in the 1950s, himself inspired by the Latin rhythms that filtered northward from Mexico by way of Baja, and also the Middle Eastern melodies that were part of his own cultural heritage. Therefore one may be forgiven for thinking that the tune, with its remarkable displays of Dale’s breakneck single-note staccato picking technique, is a South American import.
Surf’s essentially instrumental sound – a visceral stew of wailing saxophones and atmospheric guitar with Fender amps on heavy reverb, accented by a pounding twelve-bar bass beat – is also at work on four of the other tracks. ‘Comanche’ by the Revels especially, makes incredible use of the saxophone – some have called it a brass Louis Armstrong with a sore throat – the horn emitting a coarse, gargling sound that perfectly echoes the rapid plucking sound of the guitar, punctuated by expertly timed dashes on the hi-hat. ‘Bustin’ Surfboards’ by the Tornadoes is also considered a seminal Surf hit that employs a catchy opening drum rift coupled with a lazy, Hawaii-esque lead guitar, giving it a pseudo-ethnic flavour.
“1963! Rebel Riffs! Bone Chilling Spring Reverb! Savage Surf Drums! Intoxicating Sax Moan!” is how The Centurions’ ‘Bullwinkle Part II’ is tagged on their 1960s vinyl release. And with its incredible opening bass hook, shuffling rhythm and ominous melody, it’s hard to disagree with the album cover’s enthusiasm. As for Fiction-ites, they might remember this as the little ditty that accompanies the dreamlike sequence of Vincent getting high on harry the horse.
Like the Centurions, another underrated act from the roster of the 1960s Del-Fi indie label were the Lively Ones who make an appearance here with their reworking of the Ventures’ LP cut ‘Spudnik’, retitled ‘Surf Rider’. With Jim Masoner and Ed Chiaverini on guitars and drummer Tim Fitzpatrick providing the beguiling beat, this is a highly infectious tune that also features a ferocious sax solo by Joel Willenbring.
However, the soundtrack also has much else on offer besides the Surf stuff, not least of which is (Reverend) Al Green’s sublime classic ‘Let’s Stay Together’, by far the biggest R&B hit of the 1970s, spending nine weeks atop the Billboard charts. With its delicious melange of rolling pre-disco rhythms, trumpet punctuations and of course the Reverend’s honey-velvet vocals which at opportune moments go almost falsetto, the song is a certified gem. Tarantino would later harvest similar grounds with his inclusion of Bobby Womack’s transcendent ‘Across 110th Street’ on the Jackie Brown soundtrack.
Not as well known around these parts as say Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield has nonetheless often been acknowledged as the finest woman soul singer ever produced by Britain. Here she sets afire the cheeky classic ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ with her oddly erotic, trademark husky vocal.
Duckwalking Chuck Berry, sometimes referred to as the Prime Minister of Rock ‘n Roll to Elvis’s King, provides the musical background to the celebrated Jack Rabbit Slims’ Twist Contest sequence with ‘You Never Can Tell’. An odd little gem about “Pierre and his Mademoiselle”, the song pays tribute to rock n’ roll’s swing and honky-tonk roots with its funky upright piano solos, and trumpet blasts that are somewhat reminiscent of Jackie Wilson’s style.
Chicago arena-rock/neo-punk band Urge Overkill’s cover of Neil Diamond’s ‘Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon’ – originally featured on their 1992 Stull EP – proved to be yet another breakout hit from Fiction’s soundtrack. Very much a Stonesy, retro lounge number giving rise to visions of black lights and over-sized medallions, the song’s highlights have to be Nash Kato’s aching vocal and Blackie Onassis’ accomplished drumming.
‘If Love Is A Red Dress (Hang Me In Rags)’ by the woefully underrated (and underemployed) Maria McKee, formerly of 1980s band Lone Justice, is that rarest of rarities: a torch song of scorching intensity based in rootsy, countrified rock with lyrics that pay homage to the bittersweet angst of early Blues:
My heart is empty.
Your eyes are dull.
Once we were hungry,
Now we are full.
These ties that bind us,
Can’t beat these chains.
If love is shelter,
I’m gonna walk in the rain.
You were my angel.
Now, you are real.
So like a stranger,
Colder than steel.
The morning after,
No one should brag.
If love is a red dress,
Well, hang me in rags.
Forrest Gump’s cloying, PC sweetness would win out over Pulp Fiction at the 1994 Oscars (the BAFTAs were far more courageous as was Cannes which awarded the film its coveted Palme D’Or). But Tarantino’s ‘vulgar’ little effort had the last laugh, proving to be a mightily influential landmark of a film that completely changed the way that independent cinema was viewed and treated by the Hollywood mainstream, and giving music aficionados a kicker of a soundtrack that is a hot seller to this day, while all poor Forrest contributed to cinematic history was that silly line about life being like a box of chocolates and the chance to hear JFK saying the word ‘pee’.