The Music Of Pulp Fiction
How Tarantino’s curated classic changed the way
we listen to movies
By DJ Pizzo
Illustrations by Sean Clauretie
The Rebirth Of Cool
Midway through Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, I had already fallen in love with it. As I sat in the theatre 20 years ago, at 17 years of age, my tastes in movies and music were being challenged and upgraded in real time. This powerful film could do no wrong — each scene upped the ante for intensity, shock, humor and style, each song cue oozed effortless cool.
In the two decades since, dozens of films have mimicked Tarantino’s fresh camera angles, jocular dialogue, quirky characters and cool ensemble casts, but none of these knockoffs have matched the avant-garde brilliance of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack.
The songs used in the film give it a timeless quality, a sense that events on screen are happening in an alternate reality. The action seemed to be set in the present day, but the characters remain blissfully unaware of the period’s dominant forms of music: grunge, hip-hop and electronica. In their world, it is perfectly normal for John Travolta’s Vincent to be doing Adam West’s bat-dance to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” or for The Revels’ “Comanche” to be the song of choice for Marcellus Wallace’s soon-to-be-living-the-rest-of-his-short-ass-life-in-agonizing-pain rapist.
How did the Pulp soundtrack achieve such enduring coolness and seamless synergy? To learn more, Cuepoint spoke to the film’s music supervisor, Karyn Rachtman, along with Urge Overkill—the band whose hit single, “Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon,” led the soundtrack—about the music of the film and its far-reaching influence.
Prior to Pulp Fiction, the standard methodology behind a major film soundtrack was to simply “play the hits” (if you had the budget), as Forrest Gump did that same summer of 1994. Releasing a high-profile double-disc set—a collection of massive hit records from earlier eras, including Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” CCR’s “Fortunate Son” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”—it sounded as if they ordered a copy of Freedom Rock and jammed to it in the editing room.
“What I don’t want to do, and I’ve seen it done in a lot of movies, is they turn up the soundtrack to create a false energy. Or in particular, to create a sense of period,” said Tarantino in a 1994 interview, included on the 2002 expanded reissue of the Pulp soundtrack. “‘Okay, it’s the 60s. We’ll play a lot of 60s songs and that will create the period.’ To me that’s cheap, it’s annoying, and like listening to the radio and watching a movie at the same time. They don’t really go together… I try to avoid that.”
Neither Pulp nor Reservoir Dogs had the Forrest Gump-sized budgets to splurge on your parents’ favorite songs, so they had to make-do with more obscure selections. Quentin Tarantino had little interest in going after the obvious big hits, so he picked a series of more off-the-beaten-path numbers when writing the screenplays for both films.
Tarantino’s original music supervisor on Reservoir Dogs told him that it would be impossible to get the rights for some of the songs written into the screenplay, so their only option would be to use “muzak” covers or cheap copies. Lucky for Tarantino, music supervisor Karyn Rachtman had a different plan. Without her, both Pulp and Reservoir may have sounded very different.
“He had a music supervisor on the film, who told him that he couldn’t have any 70s songs, because they couldn’t afford them,” Rachtman told Cuepoint. “So they had to get 70s sound-a-likes, to like, make up 70s songs, so it sounded like 70s songs, but ones you didn’t know. And he was devastated, and most devastated about ‘Stuck In The Middle With You,’ he wrote that scene to that song.”
Karyn, who hadn’t yet been hired for the job, was determined to see Tarantino’s vision through; that is, to see Mike Madsen’s Mr. Blonde severing the ear of a bloody, bound and gagged cop, to the accompaniment of Stealers Wheel.
“They had, I believe, $10,000 allocated for all the music in the film. And [Quentin] said, ‘Help me get ‘Stuck In The Middle With You.’ What can you do?’ And I was like, ‘I’m going to go get it.’ And it was a hell of a hard job, I’m going to reach out to Joe Egan and Gerry Rafferty (of Stealers Wheel), at the time whom weren’t speaking. [Producer] Stacey Sher and I put a plan together and explained about how we were paying homage to “Singin’ In The Rain” in A Clockwork Orange, and that it’s a violent scene. Here we are, asking for a song for no money, and to a violent film, and for a filmmaker you’ve never heard of,” she said.
“So it was a tough job, but needless to say, I got the song and it took up the entire music budget. And Quentin was like ‘Thank you so much, what can I do for you now?’ and I was like ‘You can fire your music supervisor and hire me.’ And he did,” she remembers fondly.
Rachtman, who would later help round out the soundtrack to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, worked closely with Tarantino to see that what was written on the page would be heard on the silver screen.
“Especially in Pulp Fiction, Quentin was a horrible speller. He really wrote most of those key songs to that film in the script. But he would make up titles for them that didn’t exist, and spell things wrong. And I’m like, ‘I can’t find this song.’ Of course it would be a lot easier today with the internet and all that kind of stuff, but that was a tough job. Quentin very much writes to music.”
Said Quentin in the soundtrack interview: “When I have like an idea for a film, I’ll go through my record collection and just start playing songs. I guess in some ways to find the personality of the movie, the spirit of the movie.”
It’s something that the recent chart-topping Guardians of The Galaxy soundtrack quite obviously took a cue from, building the film around a series of semi-obscure, retro tunes. Marvel Studios’ latest even uses one of Tarantino’s original selections from Reservoir Dogs, with Blue Suede’s “Hooked On A Feeling” lifted right from K-Billy’s Super Sounds Of The 70’s playlist.
“When I heard about the Guardians Of The Galaxy soundtrack, I got a little jealous. I have an 18-year-old and 24-year-old, and they were telling me it’s pretty cool,” said Rachtman.
Hopefully they realize that their mother’s work on both Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs laid the groundwork for the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack. In the Tarantino style, the music of Guardians plays a central role in the new film, but like Forrest Gump, it still “plays the hits.” While it is largely built around the obscure 70s tunes, it also relies on obvious, overdone crowd pleasers like Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” Tarantino didn’t go for this. Like a good DJ, he defined what the hits would be and what the next trend would be.
The soundtrack of Pulp Fiction is largely built around 60s surf tunes, most notably the opening credit sequence track, “Misirlou” by Dick Dale and the Del-Tones. The song is so synonymous with the film that many just refer to it as “The Pulp Fiction Theme.” However its origins are much deeper: the song originated as a 1927 Greek rebetiko composition, was made popular by Dale’s cover in 1962, and again by The Beach Boys a year later for their Surfin’ USA LP. The song has been covered dozens of times throughout the last century, and most recently was sampled for Black Eyed Peas’ “Pump It.”
What Tarantino has referred to as “rock & roll spaghetti western music,” the surf rock resurgence exploded into 90s pop culture as of a result of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, and simultaneously with Portishead’s hit single, “Sour Times,” released that same year. However Rachtman largely credits the origins of the comeback to Link Wray, who many view as the pioneer of the power chord.
Wray was the unsung hero of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack; he’s the only artist with two songs in the film, “Ace of Spades” and “Rumble,” yet neither were included on the original album release. Both tracks were used as atmospheric score in the film, most notably “Rumble,” which played during Mia and Vincent’s dinner conversation. “Rumble” was later added in the expanded and remastered 2002 re-release, but “Ace Of Spades” was still curiously absent.
Other strange omissions to the soundtrack’s original release include The Robins’ “Since I First Met You,” The Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter #23,” and The Marketts’ “Out Of Limits,” each of which were added in the re-release. Yet Woody Thorne’s “Teenagers In Love” and actor Gary Shorelle’s performance of “Waitin’ In School” are only featured in the film.
Inevitably, what Quentin wrote in the screenplay was not always attainable from the rights holders. “I remember ‘Locomotion’ by Carole King was refused,” recalls Karyn.
“At one point I thought of using ‘My Sharona’ for the sodomy-rape sequence. ‘My Sharona’ has a really good sodomy-beat to it, if you really think about it,” Quentin revealed in the soundtrack interview. “Apparently part of the band was for it, but one in the band was a Born Again Christian who just wasn’t for it and was like, ‘No, I’m not interested.’”
Says Karyn, “Quentin’s mother came on the set when we were at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, and she said, ‘Why is Quentin using [Chuck Berry’s ‘You Never Can Tell’]? Why did he chose that song? I used to listen to that song all the time when I was pregnant with him.’”
Marcellus Wallace’s Soul
Among the myriad surf tunes and twangy guitars are a few funk and soul classics that belong to the gangster Marcellus Wallace and his crew. The first of these is Kool & The Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” which acts as the backdrop for Vincent and Jules’ oft-imitated car-ride conversation — it plays on the radio while they discuss the finer points of Amsterdam’s McDonald’s menu. Later in the film, perhaps referencing that earlier moment, Sam Jackson’s Jules uses the band name as a substitute for the word “cool,” telling Tarantino’s bath-robed Jimmy character, “Hey, that’s Kool and the Gang. You know, we don’t wanna fuck your shit up!”
Marcellus has his own theme song, Al Green’s soul classic “Let’s Stay Together,” which plays when we are first introduced to the back of his bandaged head. It’s implied that Marcellus prefers this kind of slow, romantic baby-makin’ music. Perhaps Jules didn't know just how prophetic he was being during his Big Kahuna Burger interrogation, telling Big Brain Brad, “And Marcellus Wallace don’t like to be fucked by anybody except Mrs. Wallace.”
While the Pulp soundtrack is built on retro tunes, its biggest hit was Urge Overkill’s newly-recorded remake of “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon,” which first topped the charts in its original Neil Diamond incarnation in 1967. This cover version was the only modern-ish song on the album, released as its lead single. The song was recorded as a throwaway in 1992, for the band’s vinyl-only Stull EP, primarily to fulfill their previous record label contract before signing with Geffen Records in 1993. Ironically it would end up being the band’s biggest hit.
“The movie was such a global hit, as was the soundtrack,” Urge Overkill’s Nash Kato told Cuepoint. “One doesn’t necessarily guarantee the other. You can have a hit movie, but nobody buys the soundtrack, or vice-versa. But both were such big hits. That three minute cover that we pulled out of our ass took us around the world.”
“We were doing okay in the U.S., but the movie had this global reach that was kind of new to us. So right away, the people that wanted to talk to us were a lot of people from Europe and overseas,” remembers Urge’s singer-guitarist Eddie “King” Roeser.
With so many of the soundtrack’s songs taken from yesteryear, why didn’t Tarantino just use Neil Diamond’s original 1967 version? Supervisor Rachtman recalls, “I had never heard that [Urge version] before, and Quentin just loved that, and I had nothing to do with it, except for making the deal on it. It was just something that Quentin was just a huge fan of, and he had to have that version. And I remember Neil Diamond’s publishing company was being very difficult, but afterwards I think he was very grateful.”
“The thing is, our version is really so squishy. Everything’s a little of out of tune. There’s no solid meter. The drums speed up and slow down,” says Urge’s Nash. “Everything that was so wrong with that take became so right for that pivotal scene in the movie, where everything turns to shit. [Mia] snorts all of that heroin, which she thinks is coke, and then all of a sudden she overdoses. They used it in the narrative, it wasn’t incidental music. She walks over to the reel-to-reel and this is the song she wants to hear. I don’t think he would have bothered licensing that tune if it had been any more correct, you know?”
As legend has it, Uma Thurman picked the song from a handful of options that would animate her drunken solo dance scene and shortly-to-follow heroin overdose. “The story we got from Quentin is that it was a pivotal scene. He had it down to three, possibly four tracks. So since it was Uma’s scene, he was going to bounce it off her and let her choose,” recalls Nash. “I don’t know what the other songs were that we were up against. So apparently when she heard ours, she was like ‘This I can do.’ She sings and dances to it, and… O.D.’s (laughs). So it better be the right song!”
However the greatest tale surrounding Urge’s hit cover is how Quentin’s hobby of vinyl crate-digging led to his discovery of the track, which he allegedly found in a used/discount bin, somewhere in Europe.
“This was a long running gag for us, for a while. Because some poor fucker thought that we sucked, or this record sucked and cashed it in for a dollar or two, or something. And then Quentin Tarantino, an avid record collector, picked it up for 50p or whatever the currency is,” laughs Nash. “We’ve always wanted to find the guy who thought the record sucked and changed the trajectory of our musical career.”
“And film history, at that,” adds Eddie.