(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #55 – released July 9, 1996)
Track listing: Lust For Life (Iggy Pop) / Deep Blue Day (Brian Eno) / Trainspotting (Primal Scream) / Atomic (Sleeper) / Temptation (New Order) / Nightclubbing (Iggy Pop) / Sing (Blur) / Perfect Day (Lou Reed) / Mile End (Pulp) / For What You Dream of (full on Renaissance Mix) (Bedrock featuring KYO) / 2:1 (Elastica) / A Final Hit (Leftfield) / Born Slippy (NUXX) (Underworld) / Closet Romantic (Damon Albarn)
Trainspotting might be the only soundtrack I made a trip to the record store to buy the day after first seeing the film. Twenty years on, director Danny Boyle’s and writer John Hodge’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel about Scottish drug addicts remains one of my favorite movies of that decade (maybe my absolute favorite). It had a now-unrecognizable, emaciated Ewan McGregor in a star-making lead role and also introduced Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller and (in her first film) Kelly Macdonald to the rest of the world. It deployed a barrage of stylistic flourishes that drew heavily from French New Wave cinema yet felt thrillingly up-to-the-minute, arguably capturing its cultural moment more vividly than any other film of the era; it also depicted addiction frankly and honestly, acknowledging its on-and-off cycles and how rehab and redemption can contain fluid definitions.
Most of all, it innovatively utilized pop music to push its narrative forward in often fresh, genuinely exciting ways. Trainspotting was far from the first flick to feel like a music video in parts, but it is perhaps one of the most superb examples of scoring a film in such a way. So many “Original Motion Picture Soundtracks” from the ‘90s on felt like mere receptacles for record label showcases, made up of songs seemingly randomly thrown together, often having little to do with the film itself (Batman Forever (1995) is a key example—it resembles a far-better-than average mixtape, but a majority of its (best) songs are either barely audible in the film or not included at all). In contrast, you heard every one of the Trainspotting soundtrack’s fourteen songs onscreen and likely remembered the images accompanying each one as well. (Although the soundtrack stands on its own, it’s a significantly more rewarding, resonant listen if you’ve seen the film first).
Both film and soundtrack (which mirror each other chronologically) kick off with Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life”, certainly Trainspotting’s signature song and sequence: a furiously-edited, literally hit-the-ground running montage of Renton (McGregor) and his mates hightailing it on foot through the grubby streets of Edinburgh, introducing us to each one (plus his two drug-free friends, who comment on their actions like a mini Greek chorus) by means of rapid freeze-frame cuts. Although Pop recorded the song almost twenty years prior, it fits in perfectly—its irresistible “dun-dun-dun, dun-dun, da-dun-dun” rhythm exudes urgency and momentum, while the lyrics (“Well I am just a modern guy / you know I’ve had it in the ear before”) could be anecdotes about the young men we see onscreen, on the run from something unseen but likely not good. Presumably, Boyle and Hodge were drawn towards Pop for his own reputation as a notorious former drug addict, but the song (and the film) neatly have it both ways—reveling in the junkie grotesque while grasping an euphoric high with the equally heartfelt/ironic chorus of “I’ve got a lust for life! Lust for life!” (also mirroring Renton’s opening soliloquy of vowing to “Choose Life”.)
Only a few cuts here were recorded specifically for the film, and most of them are instrumentals (Primal Scream’s title track, a ten-minute plus excursion into dub; Leftfield’s far briefer, progressive house piece “A Final Hit”) or near instrumentals (delightful closing credits nonsense from Blur vocalist Damon Albarn). Sleeper’s cover of “Atomic” is so close to Blondie’s original, you have to wonder whether it was recorded only because the filmmakers couldn’t get the rights to the latter. The rest is mostly previously released songs and plays like a rich, evocative blend of Britpop’s glorious present, proto-highlights from its past two decades and a brief inkling of where it might be heading.
Trainspotting came out right when Britpop was at its peak, and it duly serves as a primer for it. All of the genre’s big names are here except for Oasis, whom I can only imagine did not want to contribute because of the presence of archrivals Blur (whose then five-year-old, impressionistic, dirgelike single, “Sing” sounds like nothing on Parklife or The Great Escape). In addition to aforementioned tracks from Primal Scream and Sleeper, there’s also female-fronted, post-punk revivalists-ten-years-before-it-was-cool Elastica (“2:1”) and a new song from Pulp, whose career and genre-defining “Common People” had come out the year before. “Mile End” may be the most British song on a compilation teeming with British artists, full of references to such London locales as Burditt Road and the Isle of Dogs (not to mention noting how “the lift is always full of piss.”) Still, it’s clever accompaniment for a montage where Renton, having moved to London, is forced to take in a familiar old mate in his shabby flat. Pulp leader Jarvis Cocker’s splendidly suited for such material, laying out a shrewdly observed character sketch over a delightfully jaunty, slightly skeezy trot.
Rather than limit itself to the sounds of 1996, Trainspotting complements them with choice cuts from the previous two-and-a-half decades; given how much Britpop drew from music of that period and the decade before, the time traveling doesn’t at all jar. Considering his influence on the characters and their adoration of him, it’s no surprise a second Iggy Pop song shows up: “Nightclubbing”, from the same year as “Lust For Life”, arguably more appropriately conjures up the junkie’s milieu, trudging along like a walking hangover. Although Pop is the compilation’s most notable non-Brit, David Bowie did produce both songs, as well as Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”, perhaps the only track here whose usage is a bit on-the-nose (scoring Renton’s literal sunken overdose). Brian Eno’s ambient “Deep Blue Day” serenely (and somewhat ironically) accompanies the film’s infamous “Worst Toilet in Scotland” underwater scene; New Order’s 1987 version of “Temptation” may be the only barely heard soundtrack cut on the film, coming out of someone’s radio (and briefly referenced scenes later in a more sinister hue), but given that it’s the Best Single of the 1980s, it’s welcome between “Atomic” and “Nightclubbing” here.
When the film moves from Edinburgh to London, the soundtrack partially shifts from guitar-based rock and roll to what was then being called Electronica—the future of music, as far as Americans were concerned, although it had already made a considerable impact on the European charts. Renton’s first nightclubbing excursion in his newly adopted city is set to “For What You Dream Of”, an epic techno-dance track from production duo Bedrock, itself buoyed by KYO’s mighty diva house vocals. It’s noticeably different from everything preceding it on the soundtrack, a relentlessly pulsating strobe light and tab of ecstasy in the face of Britpop’s pint of lager. Two tracks later, Leftfield’s relatively chill “A Final Hit” appears but registers as a mere appetizer to the main course, Underworld’s “Born Slippy (NUXX)”. Scored to the film’s final sequence (at least as iconic as its opening), it is the future. An epic, unusual mélange of techno, drum-and-bass, house and other dance subgenres, it may open with those recognizable, echoing synths, but when its breakneck paced, run-on sentence vocals come in (“Drive boy dog boy dirty numb angel boy”), often as indecipherable as some of the characters’ brogues, all bets are off. However, in terms of pure feeling and kinetic motion, its placement in Trainspotting is nothing short of brilliant, as crucial as what occurs onscreen in driving the film to a twisty, exhilarating close.
Both film and soundtrack proved so popular that a second volume of the latter came out the next year*, compiling other songs heard in the film (such as Heaven 17’s glorious, 1983 synth-soul hit “Temptation”) and additional tunes providing inspiration to Boyle and Hodge during its creation. By then, of course, Britpop’s moment had all but passed. Oasis had self-imploded with the overwrought Be Here Now, Blur had moved on to aping American indie rockers Pavement for their self-titled album, and the biggest band in the country was now the Spice Girls (whom really wouldn’t fit in well with the likes of Pulp and Iggy Pop). Even that year’s film A Life Less Ordinary, which reunited Boyle, Hodge and McGregor was a big flop. Trainspotting had the foresight, or perhaps just the luck to arrive at Britpop’s apex and the rare opportunity to compile its soundtrack by deferring to the head and the heart, rather than the wallet. Other, isolated attempts to replicate its stature would follow (most notably Velvet Goldmine two years later), but we won’t be encountering another film soundtrack in this project.
Next: Bedsitter Images.
*As I write, we’re months away from an actual film sequel to Trainspotting, which I’m more than a little weary of (despite it procuring Boyle, McGregor and the rest of the original cast.)
“Lust For Life” (Iggy Pop):
“Born Slippy (NUXX)” (Underworld):