Suddenly the Air Was Full of Music:
The PI Record Collection
Besides the film soundtracks listed elsewhere in these pages, the genre has inspired music in almost any style you could think for. Here are some of my faves....
- (I Wanna Be A) Private Eye
Performed by The Olympics
From the album "The Very Best of The Olympics". Buy this CD
Goofy fun, an hommage toPeter Gunn and other TV eyes of the time. In fact, it's the easy-going sexy charm of TV eyes like Gunn, and their effortless success with the ladies that drives the singer to distraction, in this loopy minor 1959 hit, featuring Earl Royce and Brian Dee on vocal. This frenetic novelty number owes plenty to The Coaster's "Searchin'," but clearly stakes out its own turf, starting off with a blood-curdling scream, and subsequently working in the Peter Gunn theme, sound effects, and tongue-in-cheek references to 77 Sunset Strip, Richard Diamond, Sam Spade and other TV eyes of the time. A telling comment on just how saturated with gumshoes the airwaves were back then.
- Private Eye
(1961, Warner Bros.)
Performed by Bob Luman
Less gimmicky, and more pointedly envious (if not equally contrived) than the Olympics' song is this rockabilly novelty number from 1961 by now-forgotten rocker Luman. In his gloriously politically incorrect way, Luman gripes that TV private eyes meet "more chickies than a Girl scout leader" and "makes a lot of money and he gets a lot of honey." Then he fantasizes about working a case with Ed "Kookie" Byrnes from 77 Sunset Strip. All in all, it's an affable piece of workmanlike Buddy-Hollyish swagger, nothing too special, but saved by its sheer goofiness. And you can dance real good to it.
- Private Detective
Performed by Gene Vincent
Written by Sheri Ann
From the album "The Complete Capitol and Columbia Recordings". Buy this CD
The private eye in this 1964 rocking little number, by the legendary rockabilly cat, is not exactly admirable. A good man lead astray by a hot-looking dish, the babe turns out to be (OOH! THE IRONY!) a private eye hired by his wife. Betrayal, sex, AND you can bop to it. Thumbs up.
(By the way, the writer credited with this ditty is listed as Sheri Ann, but Sheri Ann was actually Vincent's daughter, born in 1963. Not bad for a one-year old.)
- Stranger in Town
Written and performed by Dell Shannon
From the album "Dell Shannon's Greatest Hits". Buy this CD
"Runaway" from the other side. Mind you, not everyone had such a high opinion of private detectives. In this burst of pure pop from 1965, the detective of the title is feared, not envied. Think Romeo and Juliet on the run in a '57 Chevy. The young narrator and his "baby" are on the run (you might even say "born to run") from a relentless private detective who's been following them from town to town because "they've done wrong." The young man says the detective has been sent by their parents, but is there something else going on? Are they actually some fifties-era Romeo and Juliet (or possibly Bonnie and Clyde) fleeing a botched and bloody bank robbery, or really just a couple of crazy, mixed-up (and scared) kids right out of a Ross Macdonald novel, trying to find a place to walk in the sun? Either way, there seems to be no way out. Like Lew Archer, the narrator ruefully acknowledges that, ultimately, there is no escape, that the past always catches up. "Another town, another mile, and they'll be free for a while."
- Theme from "Shaft" . Buy this CD
Written and performed by Isaac Hayes
From the album "Shaft Original Original Movie Soundtrack"
A perfect reflection of its time. A throbbing, percolatin', chunky funky mean mutha of a theme song, written, and performed by Isaac Hayes, that remains a stone-cold cornerstone of funk. Can you dig it?
- Watching the Detectives
Written and performed by Elvis Costello
From the CBS album "My Aim Is True" . Buy this CD
With its ominous (and immediately recognizable) bass line thumping like an implied threat, and the impressionistic snapshot lyrics swiped from a million private eye tales, the P.I. is finally here, to deal with the clients "who are ready to hear the worst about their daughters disappearance," and soon finds himself tempted by the promise of sex from the cold-blooded femme fatale "filing her nails while they're dragging the lake," only to ultimately arrive at the chilling conclusion that "it nearly took a miracle to get you to stay, It only took my little fingers to blow you away." Elvis warns the listener "Don't get cute," and this song never does. A classic.
- Private Eye
Performed by the Nips
Written by Shane MacGowan
From the album "Bops Babes Booze & Bovver" . Buy this CD
Speaking of boasting, that's all this fiery blast of punkabilly from 1978 is about, really. A P.I. named Doyle blatantly assures the listener (over and over) that you don't mess around with him. And all his friends are private eyes too. So there! The Nips (AKA The Nipple Erectors) were a feisty little band that played in and around London in the late seventies, and were best known for their high-energy blend of punk, rockabilly, mod, R&B, ted, indie, and anything else that wasn't nailed down. Their lead singer and chief songwriter was Shane MacGowan, who subsequently found fame (and infamy) with The Pogues. You can read the lyrics to "Private Eye" here.
- Private Investigations
Performed by Dire Straits
Written by Mark Knopler
From the album "Love Over Gold" . Buy this CD
A pretty obvious choice. The unnamed gumshoe in Mark Knopler's bittersweet, downbeat blues from 1982 seems to have had a few too many cases turn out like that of the detective in "The Long Drive." He sits in his office, at the end of the day, and offers up a litany of minor key ruminations on the life. "Treachery and treason, there's always an excuse for it/And when I find the reason, I still can't get used to it." Imagine Marlowe with the blues, a bottle, and a guitar. Uplifting it ain't. Pass the bottle.
- A Raymond Chandler Evening
Performed by Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians
Written by Robyn Hitchcock
From the album "Element of Light" . Buy this CD
No P.I.'s in this one, per se, but there's enough sadness and world weariness in this soft, tender 1986 tribute to Philip Marlowe's creator to think that maybe Hitchcock, the quirky British folk-rocker, knew exactly what he was talking about. Just a low, downer of a song, full of rain and crushed dreams, hinting at loneliness, regret and maybe even violence. Not to mention surrealistic touches that seem spot on: "And I'm standing in my pocket/And I'm slowly turning grey." Huh?
- The Continental Op
Written and performed by Rory Gallagher
Dedicated to Dashiell Hammett
From the album "Defender" . Buy this CD
The late Irish blues/rock musician was a huge fan of all things hard-boiled, and several of his songs used crime as a theme. But none more sotthan his two-fisted cut from his 1989 Defender album, dedicated to Dashiell Hammett himself. It's a white-knuckled paean to Hammett's Continental Op, and features such oddly boastful lines from the usually taciturn eye as "Who they gonna get when you've outfoxed the cops/Here's my card -- I'm the Continental Op." Suggested by Shane Mawe, who wrote an article relating the similarities of Hammett and Gallagher's lives (and lifestyle) for a Rory Gallagher fanzine. Shane was also kind enough to provide the lyrics..
- (She Was A) Hotel Detective
Written and performed by They Might Be Giants
From the album "Miscellaneous T" . Buy this CD
The boys in They Might Be Giants must have been listening to Gene Vincent's Private Detective, because they've cooked up their own little slab of sex and paranoia. Seems the house detective in their hotel has "got her ear to the walls and she's tappin' the calls/If you've got a secret boy, forget about it." Invasion of privacy never sounded like quite so much fun. Or quite so giddy. From their 1991 B-side collection Miscellaneous T. Like the Giants say, "Why don't you check her out?"
- The Long Drive
Performed by Hamell On Trial
Written by Ed Hamell
From the album "Choochtown"
It's difficult to pigeon-hole Ed Hamell, who performs as Hamell On Trial. Imagine the foul-mouthed love child of Billy Bragg and Lou Reed, and you might come close. This noirish little nightmare, from his 2000 album Choochtown, is a shaggy dog yarn yapped out over a recurring buzzy, bluesy guitar and trumpet motif, and concerns a cynical and lonely P.I. hired to find a missing drug dealer by a criminal attorney who may not be telling all he knows (shocking, isn't it?). There's a femme fatale, some betrayal and the usual complications that ensue, and everyone gets screwed one way or another.
Philip Eagle writes: "The song's a mostly spoken monologue over bluesy guitar and trumpet. A nameless PI's been hired to find a missing person by a shady lawyer. He thinks the client wants the person dead once they're found, but he really needs the money and he has his own agenda that he's keeping quiet... The story leads to a trail of dead dope dealers and a femme fatale with one of the most macabre murder methods you've ever encountered. This is a very cool vignette, like a cross between Hammett, Thompson and KC Constantine.
Many of the other songs on the album are hardboiled tales of one sort or another, many about a little coterie of mobster wannabes straight out of an early Scorcese film. The title song has been described as a PI tale by some reviewers, but the protagonist's more of an enforcer/blackmailer than a PI. Musically and lyrically, think of a cross between a more compassionate Lou Reed and a scuzzier Billy Bragg, although the biggest similarity is to the unjustly forgotten English punk singer-songwriter Patrik Fitazgerald. I highly recommend the album, the guy has a website at http://www.hammellontrial.com."
Musical Tips of the Fedora.
Written by Lieber and Stoller
This rock chestnut celebrates the never-ending quest for true love, and along the way, the narrator compares his determination to Sherlock Holmes Sam Spade, Charlie Chan, Bulldog Drummond, and a nameless Northwest Mountie and others. You know he's gonna find her one day...
From the album "Coconut Telegraph" (1981)
A Ballad for Skip Wiley
From the album "Barometer Soup" (1995)
Jimmy Buffet, parrothead guru, and the man who welcomed the world to Margaritaville, is also, believe it or not,one of very few writers to be number one on both the fiction list and non-fiction list of The New York Times. Incommunicado sports the line "Travis McGee is still in Cedar Key. That's what John McDonald said...," while another song on a later album is entitled A Ballad for Skip Wiley, based on Carl Hiassen's recurring character Skink, the former Florida governor turned eco-freak/swamp rat who lives on roadkill. Hiassen claims he can be heard singing a little and clapping alot in the background. Both songs are from the Buffet album Barometer Soup, which is loaded with literary references.
Buffet wrote an earlier song, Pencil-Thin Mustache, which includes "I wish I had a pencil-thin mustache / the Boston Blackie kind" (For those of you keeping score, the rest of the chorus runs: "A two-toned Ricky Ricardo jacket and an autographed picture of Andy Devine.")
- Seminole Bingo
Written by Warren Zevon and Carl Hiassen
From the album "Mutineer" (1995)
Besides the collaboration/tribute with/by Jimmy Buffet above, Carl Hiassen co-wrote two songs with excitablre boy Warren Zevon on the 1995 CD Mutineer..
Other Hardboiled Ditties
"... in murder ballads, the magic is in the mystery, the parts left unsaid."
-- The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad
by Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus (2005)
- Mack the Knife
Written by Kurt Weill
A nice little number about a man and his knife. Any of the original cast albums of Three Penny Opera will do if you want the song's "execution" (pun intended, of course) as hardboiled as its lyrics. The hit version, by Bobby Darin (nine weeks at number one), is a good deal more upbeat, which, in a way, makes it all the more disturbing. In fact, in 1959, New York's WCBS banned all vocal versions of the song, claiming:
"The glamorization of lawlessness as expressed in the lyric is not to be condoned. There is little doubt that records are of particular importance to teen-agers. We feel that in not airing the lyric we are fulfilling our duty as broadcasters to the public... We, of course, recognize the brilliance and artistry of Weill. However, this is a lyric taken out of context of The Three Penny Opera. Performed separately it creates an impression never intended by the composer." Recent covers have been done by Sting and Marianne Faithful.
- Stagger Lee
Written by Lloyd Price
From the album Murder Ballads.
Wrong 'em Boyo
Cave recorded perhaps the best version of this classic, reminiscent of Jim Thompson or James Cain. Also highly recommended is The Clash's rewritten version, Wrong 'em, Boyo, with Jamaician overtones. It sounds like an out-take from The Harder They Come.
- Jeannie Needs a Shooter
Written by Bruce Springsteen and Warren Zevon
From the 1980 album Bad Luck Streak At Dancing School
A nice messy little number about murder, betrayal and incest. Jim Thompson with a beat.
Written by Bruce Springsteen
From the 1982 album Nebraska.
"Sheriff, when the man pulls that switch, sir/And snaps my poor head back, You make sure my pretty baby/Is sitting right there on my lap."
- Delia's Gone
Written by D. Toops/K. Sibersdorf
From the 1993 album American Recordings.
Also the 2000 album Murder.
"First time I shot her/I shot her in the side." Nasty, nasty, nasty. Possibly the blackest song the Man in Black ever recorded. And he's recorded some doozies.
- Brass Knuckles
Written by Rupert Holmes
From the album Widescreen (bonus cut on CD)
Holmes, an Edgar winner for his Broadway play Accomplice, wrote this song about a Homicide cop investigating his former partner's death. The lyrics originally appeared as a poem in the September 1991 issue EQMM, Sept 1991.
- Thirty Dollar Room
Written and performed by Dave Alvin
Alvin (of the Blasters, X, and now with his own band, theGuilty Men) is a country-folk-roots rocker who writes terrific mini-noir songs. (Bob Vietrogoski)
- Strangers When We Meet
Blood and Roses
In a Lonely Place
Performed by The Smithereens
Lyrics by Pat Ninzio
Lyricist is Pat DiNizio of the Smithereens, mines movie titles and quotations for lyrics. On albums like Especially for You and Green Thoughts, noir-influenced songs include Strangers When We Meet, Spellbound, and Blood and Roses (with a classic bass riff). Most notably, he wrote a power pop bossa nova, In A Lonely Place, with a chorus taken straight from the movie: "I was born the day I met you, lived a while when you loved me, died a little when we broke apart." (Bob Vietrogoski)
- Something Big
Performed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Written by Tom Petty
From the 1981 album "Hard Promises".. Buy this CD
It opens with a great guitar flourish, but Petty soon eschews his trademark jingle-jangle to pull this Chandleresque masterpiece out of his hat. It's all busted hopes and blown chances, this late-night motel rendezvous in a seedy motel with destiny and maybe even a chance of salvation. Evidently, even the losers get lucky sometimes. Is the narrator a P.I. or just another fool? "And it wasn't no way to carry on, it wasn't no way to live, But he could put up with it for a little while, he was working on something big..."
- Last Call
Written and performed by Dave Van Ronk
From the album "Going Back to Brooklyn".. Buy this CD
A sentimental favourite, a haunting acappela ballad originally from the New York folkie's 1973 LP, Songs For Ageing Children. The narrator of this cock-eyed, vaguely Celtic tribute to alcoholism and loneliness might as well be a P.I. It's certainly easy enough to picture Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder, circa Eight Million Ways To Die, sitting alone in a room, drinking Irish whiskey, and playing this record over and over on a cheap phonograph, and then rising, on unsteady feet, to lift a glass in toast, and sing along. Block must have felt that way too. He nicked the title of the next Scudder novel, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, from the lyrics. In the quiet fading seconds, you could hear a glass shatter. Or a heart break. "And so we've had another night/of poetry and poses/and each man knows he'll be alone/when the sacred ginmill closes." Forget the bottle, pass the razor....
And, of course, no collection of hard-boiled music would be complete without:
- The Ballad of Thunder Road
Written AND SUNG by Robert Mitchum
From the album, "That Man".. Buy this CD
This is the theme from the 1958 classic drive-in flick about moonshiners. Mitchum not only produced, wrote and directed the film, he also wrote and performed the theme song (as well as another, decidely less hard-boiled ditty, "Whipporwill.") Both alsdo appeared on his first album, "That Man Robert Mitchum Sings," in the early sixties. Of course, Mitchum's credibility in the hard-boiled and noir film genres is rock solid, having appeared in everything from Cape Fear and The Night of the Hunter to such primo P.I. flicks as Out of the Past, Farewell, My Lovely and The Yakuza. "The law they swore they'd get him, but the Devil got him first."
And if that cheeseball chorus is a bit too syruppy for ya, wash that taste away with Steve Earle's 1988 update, "Copperhead Road.".
- Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School.. Buy this CD
Much of Warren "Werewolves in London" Zevon's work could be considered hardboiled, but I've always had a soft spot for this 1980 album. Besides the title and the album cover pics, which practically drip with that good ol' P.I. vibe, there are a handful of tender/tough love songs, including the title track, Empty-Handed Heart and Bed of Nails. And, as reviewer Paul Nelson once noted, Wild Age seems of a piece with the kids tearing about in Ross Macdonald's "The Zebra-Striped Hearse." Then there's "Jeannie Needs a Shooter," a nice little number about murder, betrayal and incest. And just to nail the connection home, Zevon, a long-time fan, dedicated it to Ken Millar.
- Nebraska.. Buy this CD
Written by Bruce Springsteen
From the 1982 album Nebraska.
"Sheriff, when the man pulls that switch, sir/And snaps my poor head back, You make sure my pretty baby/Is sitting right there on my lap." The title track set the tone for the bleak, forlorn set of tunes of crime and punishment, lost state troopers and three-time losers, desperate lovers and psycho killers, for Reagan's "new morning in America."
- Spillane.. Buy this CD
Naked City.. Buy this CD
John Zorn's Spillane, a twenty-odd minute performance piece (some of it very odd) of bits of jazz, spoken word, sound effects and who knows what else. As Mike Hammer might say, "What is this shit?" And give a listen to Zorn's Naked City, as well, kind of 40s meets 90s weird annoying cool.
- City of Angels.. Buy this CD
Original Broadway Cast Recording
Music by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by David Zippel
Book by Larry Gelbart
An ambitious musical/comedy/Broadway show focussing on the lives of tough private eye Stone and his creator, Hollywood hack Stine, who's finding it hard to separate the two. Some good stuff in here, but it is, after all, a Broadway show. You've been warned...
- Murder.. Buy this CD
A collection of some of The Man in Black's's crime-oriented stuff from the last, what? forty or or so years. Some of this stuff, such as Delia's Gone, is just relentlessly, positively vicious. Cave, Waits, Zevon et al are just fine, but this is the real deal when it comes to hard-boiled music. Hell, the brief liner notes by Quentin Tarantino, where he draws the parallels between gangsta rap and Johnny Cash are worth the price of admission, alone! "In a country that thinks it's divided by race, where actually it's divided by economics, Johnny Cash's songs of hillbilly thug life go right to the heart of the American underclass. With their brutal sheriffs, pitiless judges, cheatin' tramps, escaped fugitives, condemned men, chain gang prisoners, unjustly accused innocents, and first-person protagonist who'd shoot a man just to watch him die, Cash's songs, like the novels of Jim Thompson, are poems to the criminal mentality." And Cash himself gets the last word: "So here is my personal selection of my recordings of songs of robbers, liars and murderers. These songs are just for listening and singing. Don't go out and do it."Accept no substitutes.
- The Singing Detective: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack....Buy this CD
This soundtrack to the ambitious but flawed big-screen remake of the TV cult fave about an author feverishly rewriting his life even as he faces his own personal Big Sleep swaps the original's big band-era tunes for classic 1950s-era doo wop and rock'n'roll. Robert Downey Jr. offers the only new recording, a soulful cover of In My Dreams. Goodies include Gene Vincent's original, Johnnie Ray's Just Walking In The Rain, The Chordettes' Mr. Sandman and the eerily appropriate It's Only Make Believe by Conway Twitty. A tasty selection, balancing the expected with some genuine sleepers that deserve to be rescued from obscurity. Dreamy..
For YourFurther Listening Pleasure:
For those interested in this stuff, who don't want to spend a fortune, these CDs will do you right.
Buddy Morrow & His Orchestra
Buddy Morrow & His Orchestra
Impact/Double Impact . Buy this CD
Buddy Morrow & His Orchestra
There were so many great TV themes in the fifties, particulalrly detective shows, that RCA released Impact in 1959, a collection of themes played by Buddy Morrow & His Orchestra. And Impact proved so successful that it spawned a sequel, Double Impact the following year. Now they're both on one great CD, and this stuff just cooks. As the liners notes to Crime Jazz: Murder in the First Degree say, "Buddy Morrow is simply "one of the best-kept secrets on record." Includes great ballsy versions of the themes from The Naked City, Mike Hammer, Richard Diamond, Perry Mason, M Squad, Peter Gunn, Hawaiian Eye, Staccato, Bourbon Street Beat, Markham and International Detective, as well as such other old faves as Rawhide, Sea Hunt, Bonanza (complete with lyrics!) and even The Twilight Zone.
- The Crime Scene: Spies, Thighs and Private Eyes.. Buy this CD
(Ultra-Lounge, Volume 7, 1996, Capital)
Hey, cats, check it out! Dig the blurb: "WARNING: Not one of the tracks on this compilations us an "original" version of any of these crime themes. If you want the "original" version-- rent the movie! We are dealing in cool here! Every track is a "lounge" version of the biggest and coolest movie themes ever scored or scored to. These tracks are big, brassy, bongo-laden. They scream with organs and vibes. This is Ultra-Lounge music at its very best guaranteed to put your stereo in self-destruct mode". Includes Staccato's Theme by Elmer Bernstein, and Dragnet and a down-the-rabbit-hole version of The Peter Gunn Suite by Ray Anthony..
- Murder Is My Beat: Classic Film Noir Themes And Scenes.. Buy this CD
(1997, Rhino Records)
Some of your favorite themes from classic noir films from the forties and fifties, all in one place. Robert Hilburn, in his 4-star review in The Los Angeles Times, "Even if this album just gave us musical highlights from 18 film noir gems, it would be a treat for fans of that school of dimly lit movies...But Murder Is My Beat goes an inspired extra step to include some of the dialogue that contributed so greatly to the tense, hard-boiled edges of those films." Highlights include selections from The Maltese Falcon, Laura, Murder My Sweet, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Big Sleep and Dark Passage.
- Crime Jazz: Music in the First Degree.. Buy this CD
(1997, Rhino Records)
18 tracks from the scores of a variety of vintage crime movies from the fifties and sixties. As Rhino boasts, "Tough, sharp, streetwise, cynical, swinging, blaring, moody, stark, bluesy, suspenseful, and compelling as the accompanying visuals -- but easily dug without them -- crime jazz has found a new life in the last few years, rediscovered by Cocktail Nation hipsters. " Selections include Staccato's Theme by Buddy Morrow & His Orchestra, 77 Sunset Strip Cha Cha and Stu Bailey's Blues by Warren Barker & Warner Bros. Star Instrumentalists, Richard Diamond by Buddy Morrow; From the Television Series Richard Diamond, the Peter Gunn Theme by Quincy Jones, From the Television Series Peter Gunn, and Riff Blues (Mike Hammer Theme) by Skip Martin.
- Crime Jazz: Music in the Second Degree.. Buy this CD
(1997, Rhino Records)
18 more jazz cuts from the scores of a variety of films and TV shows, including Mike Hammer, 77 Sunset Strip, Touch of Evil, The Asphalt Jungle and the Perry Mason Theme by Buddy Morrow.
- Crimestoppers: TV's Greatest P.I. Themes.. Buy this CD
(2000, Wea/Atlantic/Rhino Records)
No P.I. show worth its salt would be ever be caught dead without a cool theme, so the good folks at TVLand, the American nostalgia channel have collected 16 of the original themes from such classic P.I. shows as The Rockford Files, Mannix , Charlie's Angels, 77 Sunset Strip, Vega$, Peter Gunn, Cannon, Hart To Hart, Remington Steele, Honey West, Hawaiian Eye, Spenser: For Hire, Harry O, Checkmate, Tenspeed and Brownshoe and Magnum P.I. by artists such as Mike Post, Lalo Shifrin, Jack Elliot & Allyn Ferguson, Warren Barker, Dominic Frontiere, John Parker, Mark Snow, Henry Mancini & His Orchestra, Alfred Perry, Steve Dorff & Friends, The John Gregory Orchestra and Johnny Williams & His Orchestra. The liner notes, by Thane Tierney, are also great fun. Noticeable by their absence are the themes from Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, by Pete Rugolo, and Staccato, by Elmer Bernstein, but who's complaining? A companion volume, entitled Crime Stoppers: TV's Greatest Cop Themes, is also available.
FOR YOUR FURTHER LISTENING PLEASURE