Drive Baby Drive

 

There is a scene in Leon the Professional where Gary Oldman, in a piece of brilliant scenery chewing, demands that his henchmen bring everyone to help fight Leon. When the henchman asks what he means by everyone, Oldman contorts his face and releases a primal scream of “EVERYONE!” He was up against someone who was moving around like a ghost and killing like it was second nature. Oldman’s character needed every tool available in New York to stop Leon and he clearly knows it.

 

If you were to ask me who was on the Baby Driver Soundtrack, my reply would be ‘EVERYONE!” This album is the complete toolkit, the perfect collection. You don’t have to see the movie to know that Edger Wright has picked each song for a certain reason. Just in listening to the music the movie comes to life, which is pretty damned impressive.

I’m going to toss in a few mentions from the movie so I guess a spoiler warning is needed here. If you haven’t seen the movie, go… I mean right now. Then buy the soundtrack on vinyl, then read my column. It’ll be here when you get back.

So if you watched the movie like I told you to you know that Baby is a driver for heists and listens to music constantly as a way to drown out the tinnitus he got from an accident as a child. It also serves as a way of timing the heists and separating him from the people he has to deal with. What you might not know is that Ansol Elgart who played Baby, learned ASL so he could communicate with CJ Jones the actor playing his foster-father who is actually deaf.

The album starts with the pounding rhythms of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion off their Orange album from 1994. Bellbottoms is one of those songs that was perfect for alternative radio. It just grinds on through, shifting up and down, the perfect car chase song. This is the song that was stuck in Edgar Wright’s head for years and his inspiration to write an entire movie.

If you don’t recognize the opening beats from the Harlem Shuffle by Bob and Earl you have not listened to enough music. (House of Pain sampled the opening for Jump Around) This is the original version, not The Rolling Stones or Ike and Tina covers. It has that real R&B feel, not over produced and glossed over. In the movie there is three-minute tracking shot while this song is going that draws you completely into Baby’s world.

The next track is a nifty instrumental by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers from the 1977 Rock ‘n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers album. Did I mention that Edger Wright went deep with this play list? The song is called Egyptian Reggae and is like a lot of Jonathan Richman’s stuff. It has a very subversive style that was ahead of its time, mixing styles and pointing out why many punk and ska bands were heavily influenced by Richman.

Smokey Joe’s La La was written by Rafeal Leon who was the son of Leon Rene who wrote Rockin Robin and the father of Chris Rene who was on the X-factor, hitting big with Young Homie. This information is what comes from getting way too interested in the history of a song and the people who make them. This one is a mix of jazz piano, fun drum beats and laa, laa, laas. The shouts and whoops from the club goers in the background are a perfect accompaniment. When you watch the movie listen to how the music mixes in with the background sounds.

Reaching deep into The Beach Boys catalogue and pulling out the haunting instrumental Lets Go Away for a While is an interesting choice since the song is short but fits the scene in the movie perfectly. The song is from the days when they were trying to be relevant, and be like the other ‘hippie’ bands by doing psychedelia. This is actually pretty good. Just don’t listen to their “protest” song “Student Demonstration Time”, it is really the worst.

With all the songs that have baby in the title the best one to choose would be B-A-B-Y by Carla Thomas. The queen of Stax records in the 60s, Ms. Thomas has a voice like honey and the song may have only hit #14 on the chart but it is clean, sweet, and pure. There was a time when a voice and a great tune was enough to carry a song. Baby’s finding of the song is one of the most delightful parts in the movie.

Do you love the sax? How about some just amazing funk? Imagine that a band teacher went to an Otis Redding concert in 1967 and then with bunch of teenagers from Kashmere Gardens in Houston, Texas put together a Stage Band that rivaled the adult funk bands of the time. The recordings of the band disappeared for a while but then they were found and released in 2006. People have been blown away by how good the music is and if you like funk I highly recommend the Kashmere Stage Band. The song here is one of their signature pieces, Kashmere.

My father listened to The Dave Brubeck Quartet a lot on his hand-built stereo with the tubes that had to warm up before the records could be played and the speakers so big you could use them as a coffin (points if you recognize the reference). In my too cool for school days, I was not a fan, too mild, too soft. I’ve grown up since and learned to appreciate subtlety. It’s funny too, how many Prog bands were influenced by Dave.  Unsquare Dance is one of those songs with hand clapping, then bass, then piano. It’s just an exercise for the quartet, done in 5/4 time and kept tight.

But then again screw subtlety, sometimes you just need to beat something up and The Damned are just the band to do that. Neat, Neat, Neat roars on through and takes not one prisoner. The song is the first track off their first album in 1977 and is the second song after New Rose to present The Damned as the seminal punk band of all time. This song is also where you realize how important the music is to Baby’s timing, when he makes them stop the robbery so he can reset the song. The car chases were filmed without green screen, everything done on Atlanta Freeway, The actors and director were in the cars when they were doing the stunts you see with Wright strapped outside filming. Jon Hamm said it was like taking directions from a “floppy sunburned muppet”.

From the The Damned going to the R&B sounds of Easy by The Commodores. Written by Lionel Ritchie and released in 1977 this was the song that led the way for all of Ritchie’s songs like Three Times A Lady and Sail On. There is a timelessness to this song, where it could easily be released today.

The next two songs are Deborah songs, the first by T-Rex and Debra by Beck. They are important to the movie but are also fun songs on their own. T-Rex makes a love song with a name that is totally silly but catchy as hell while Beck does a dreamy song about an obnoxious dick who wants to sleep with a girl and her sister. (Yes, I know the Beck song is a parody of the standard love song)

Bongolia by the Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band  is pure joy with a great back story which may have been why Wright picked it. Michael Viner was an executive at MGM Records and was called on to fill up the soundtrack for the low-budget horror movie The Thing With Two Heads. So he put together a band from studio musicians many of whom were hired guns, some of the best of the time. People like the saxophonist Steve Douglas who played backup for Duane Eddy, Aretha FranklinElvis Presley, Willy DeVille, Bob Dylan, and The Ramones. Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band used a fake band for their two albums which are all full of amazing work, which I promptly bought right after I heard them on the Baby Driver soundtrack. I feel like he could have pulled any song off their albums and had it work. I would love to see more of their stuff in movies.

As the movie points out there are a ton of movies that use baby but only two are used in the soundtrack. The first is Baby Let Me Take You (In My Arms) by the Detroit Emeralds another R&B song from the 1970’s. This one has a way of getting under your skin especially in the context of the movie. You will also have a feeling like you recognize it since the song has been sampled by a number of rappers including De La Soul and Joe Budden.

Alexis Andrew Nicholas Koerner was English Blues. This guy is responsible for not only starting the most influential blues bar in London at the time. He worked with or influenced all the great blues and rock artists in England through the 60s and 70s. Early in the Morning is like listening to a tone poem and it is yet another example of how Wright picked music that isn’t background music but something that fits the exact tone of the movie and actually creates the mood of the scene.

I have to say that researching this album has been a joy because it seems like every time I think that there isn’t anything new that Wright can hit me with something else pops up. So it is with The Edge by David McCallum. Yep, that David McCallum, of The Man From U.N.C.L.E and NCIS fame. Back in the 60’s he recorded four albums with Capitol Records with titles like Music … A Part Of Me and Music … A Bit More Of Me. But unlike other actors who made albums he didn’t sing, McCallum is a classically trained musician so the albums are a synthesis of horns, strings, with guitar and drums for emphasis. The Edge is his best known having been sampled by Dr. Dre for The Next Episode, by Missing Linx for MIA and Masta Ace for No Regrets.

No Where To Run is pretty much the signature song for Martha and the Vandellas. No covers or backstory on this one, you get the straight up Motown pop song that has been with us since 1965. You can’t get a more perfect example of the girl group or Berry Gordy’s Detroit sound.

Wright picked a cover of Tequila by the Button Down Brass rather than the more known version by The Champs, because there is a long drum solo right in the middle that is a perfect match for the shoot out that he wanted to set up. He had the actors matching their moves to the music but there was so much noise he was worried they couldn’t hear the music playing and asked Jamie Fox if the actor had the set up. Jamie took the steps needed perfectly, firing his gun in perfect sync and then pretended to finish a cigarette to prove how well he had it down. Wright liked the move so much he put it in the movie.

Some songs get covered a lot and just don’t live up to the original no matter how hard the people try. Alicia Keys, Small Faces, and The Spencer Davis Group (with Steve Winwood doing vocals) have all tried make Every Little Bit Hurts their own but just couldn’t do it. None of them could bring the song to the same level that Brenda Holloway does seemingly without effort. There has to be history behind the words or it just won’t work and she just nails it.

If you remember the blue steam locomotive Mallard, from the cover of Blur’s second album Modern Live is Rubbish, you’ll also remember their catchy tune Intermission. It starts out with a bar piano playing slowly like a train building speed, then the drums and guitars add in as it goes faster and faster building energy until like those kinetic energy sculptures it tears itself apart.

Wright paid out-of-pocket for the foot chase that takes place during Hocus Pocus by Focus because the studio wanted to cut the song. The song was perfect according to the director because it changed pace depending on what Baby is doing, the speed drumming while he is running, yodeling while he is ducking behind a tree or the whistling while Baby is stealing a car.

I have fond memories of Radar Love from my teenage years. It was just this badass rock song with a guy who could psychically keep in touch with his girlfriend. I didn’t get the reference to Brenda Lee’s Coming On Strong which is actually an amazing song all by itself. I didn’t understand that Golden Earring created one of the catchiest rock road songs of all time.

How does Barry White do it? The song build up with a cymbal tapping, slight bass steps in, then an organ, it builds tension… then…his voice. Damn its pure sex. The cymbal is still back there but he is telling you how he is going to give you everything that he has found what the world is searching for, that he has found the only thing he has ever searched for. Never, Never Going to Give You Up really is that song.

I have to admit a major affection for old school rap and Young MC is one of those guys who can just make me smile. Know How is one of his brag raps but it is clean and smart.

Some of the busiest rhymes ever made by man
Are goin’ into this mic, written by this hand
Are comin’ out of this mouth, made by this tongue
I’ll tell you now my name, my name is Young

Seriously how can you argue with that?

 Brighton Rock is not the first song that you think of when you someone says Queen. They have so many iconic songs, some (over) played at stadiums every week that the song from their Sheer Heart Attack album with its carnival opening and amazing duel guitar solo doesn’t always jump to folks mind. Which is funny considering the solo is played at just about every Queen concert. The song itself is used both in a quiet moment where you get to know the character in the heist crew and later in truly scary moment.

Rather than hire an actress to play Baby’s mother and then have her lip sync, Wright just cast Sky Ferreira who grew up around Michael Jackson (her grandmother was his personal hairstylist for twenty years) and who had a music contract when she was fifteen. She covers Easy with flair and style, doing a great recall to the earlier point in the film.

Baby Driver is one of Simon and Garfunkel’s throw away tunes. It was their way of doing a couple of songs that would hit the Top Forty and make sure the album would sell. Still Paul Simon was a master craftsman when it came to making songs like that. This one is the other Baby song I mentioned and of course fits perfectly.

 

Was He Slow is a major plot point but also a neat little piece on its own. Watching Baby make sampling music old school is a real flashback and just plain fun. The song is actually done by Kid Koala who has worked with Gorillaz and is known for doing graphic novels with their own soundtracks.

If you are going to do a song that will hit the charts to sell your movie the answer is simple. Bring in Danger Maus, Run the Jewels, and Big Boi, then let them do their thing. The beat is slamming with change ups that are standard for Danger Maus. The rhymes are clean and actually have something to do with the movie which is nice for a change (I’m looking at you Rick Ross and your Suicide Squad song).

I saw an article complaining about how no kid Baby’s age would listen to these tracks but it makes sense if you remember that he makes his own music. Every one of these songs is sampled or has a backstory. This is a kid who goes looking for music to use for just that kind of sampling. Of course he is going to have interesting and obscure tracks. Watch what young artists pull out of their bins when they are showing their influences. It isn’t the usual suspects. It is often a band you have never heard of like the Incredible Bongo Band.

Peter Hill

About Peter Hill

Hunter of vinyl, lover of music, drinker of Guinness, causer of trouble and pounder of keyboard.

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