Music From the Motion Picture Trainspotting


By Ben Kim

Spud hears T’Pau’s ‘China in Your Head’ starting, and immediately realises that Begbie is up at the juke-box. He always seemed to put on either that one or Berlin’s ‘Take My Breath Away.'” That passage from Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel about young junkies and ne’er-do-wells in Scotland, is one of several richly ironic musical moments not included in Danny Boyle’s new screen adaptation. It’s ironic that the explosively violent Begbie would fancy such treacly pop.

And now that Trainspotting is also a movie and a record, it’s ironic that one of his favorites is “Take My Breath Away,” the love theme from Top Gun. In the summer of 1986 “Take My Breath Away” topped the singles charts in the United States and the UK, spurred by heavy play of the video, which was nothing more than a Top Gun trailer (and which begged the question, Was the film much more than a long-form music video?). The sound-track album also reached number one, and stayed in the Top 40 for the rest of the year. The artistically forgettable Top Gun combo was the year’s most successful example of what the entertainment industry likes to call synergy–it ruled by force.

In the decade since, such cross-marketing blitzes have become even more pervasive and efficient. Powered by a massive promotional campaign on the part of its U.S. distributor, Miramax, Trainspotting opened last week as the must-see hipster film of the summer. Its well-promoted sound track, which comprises house, Britpop, and early junkie punk, is also sure to be a hit.

But Trainspotting is intended to be a more important entertainment than, say, Top Gun–it’s supposed to provide an unflinching glimpse of another lost generation. Easy Rider and Saturday Night Fever both triggered aboveground explosions of a youth/music/drug subculture, showing a mass audience where it’s at (or, postexplosion, where it was at). Trainspotting–especially given its preordained and well-enforced hipness–could have been their contemporary equivalent, postulating and popularizing the feel and sound of today’s young and aimless. But it won’t be.

As in those films, Trainspotting’s first joining of image and music is galvanic and unforgettable: the protagonist, Renton, and Spud, one of his sidekicks, hurtle through downtown Edinburgh pursued hotly by store detectives, while Renton, in voice-over, sets forth his existentialist credo–“Choose life…choose a job…choose a career…choose a family…choose sitting on the couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows…choose life…now why would I want to do a thing like that?”–set to the pulse-quickening intro of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life.” It’s Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper roaring out on their motorcycles to Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” or John Travolta swaggering down Brooklyn streets to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive”–an exhilarating break for freedom, but with fear and boredom in relentless pursuit.

“Lust for Life,” in which Iggy proclaims, “No more beating my brains / With the liquor and drugs” in exhausted, unrepentant, and possibly insincere surrender, is an obvious choice for Trainspotting–too obvious, in fact. It bespeaks a classicism that prevents the sound track, for all its undeniable effectiveness as a sound track, from becoming a classic in its own right. Trainspotting’s most interesting musical moments are a result of its risky use of contemporary club grooves, which make up a third of the album. The remainder invokes spirits of decadence past like Iggy, Lou Reed, and David Bowie. Granted, they’re all over the novel: Iggy plays Edinburgh, and paraphrasing his own lyric exhorts, “Scotland takes drugs in psychic defence!”; pusher Johnny Swan, with comic impropriety, spins Reed’s “Heroin” during a group shoot-up; and a near-crashing Renton shivers to Bowie’s “Golden Years” (“Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere”). On the sound track Iggy’s zombie-ish “Nightclubbing” accompanies a group shoot-up; Reed’s wistful “Perfect Day” (a suddenly obvious paean to smack) underscores Renton’s overdose; and Bowie is conjured by reigning Britpop bands Pulp and Blur, which blatantly echo his various incarnations–Pulp’s “Mile End” the extravagant Hunky Dory chapter (1971), Blur’s “Sing” the austere Lodger phase (1979).

The summoning of these punk godfathers connects Trainspotting to a larger legacy that more or less begins with this unholy trinity and carries on through subsequent generations informed by their cool. It also plugs Trainspotting into another tradition of films that, for lack of a better term, can be categorized as “post-delinquent,” a type best exemplified by last summer’s Kids (also brought to you by Miramax) and Sid & Nancy, the 1986 biopic about Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. These films are far removed from the straightforward romanticism of Easy Rider and Saturday Night Fever, and even from present-day hip-hop melodrama, a traditionalist incarnation of the “delinquent” genre. They take pains to undercut their predecessors’ unavoidable message–that dead-end kids are ultimately done in by their own anger and hopelessness, which the kids absorb and express in destructive pathologies, blah blah tell it to the judge–by employing distancing techniques derived from the punk aesthetic, which itself magnifies archetypes of delinquency.

These techniques–flat characterizations, opaque motivations, matter-of-fact depictions of debasement, destabilizing shifts in tone–undermine the inherent tragedy of life candles burning only half as long (and only half as bright). On these terms they can succeed, as Kids did, by failing as stories–you’re left to infer both explanations and reasons to care, which to some minds makes for powerful art. The postdelinquent films that work, like Sid & Nancy, do so in rather conventional ways: The doomed couple’s irredeemable blankness becomes a genuine pathos. They’re fuckups as martyrs, with accidental fame not so much the agent of ruin as its fateful accelerant. Sid & Nancy draws on showbiz legend, but then, in the postdelinquent era, every junkie’s a little bit famous. Spud, in the novel, refers to Renton and Sick Boy as “those superstar wasted junkies.”

How postdelinquent films use music is crucial. The Kids sound track, composed mostly by John Davis and Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow (performing as Folk Implosion), is one of the best and least expected things about that film. Folk Implosion’s ersatz club groove, infused and interspersed with lo-fi indie rock (“folk” is a misnomer), helps set and sustain the film’s air of restiveness. Though Folk Implosion structures many of these grooves as pop songs, it capitalizes on the suitability of dance music, with its flat, blank, backgrounded narrative rhythms, to postdelinquent storytelling. Trainspotting’s sound track works best when it follows this lead, employing dance music for its textural, nonliterary, scorelike qualities. (Though the film contains only two club scenes, Welsh and his characters are devoted ravers and clubgoers.) Underworld’s “Dark and Long” (not on the album) infuses Renton’s withdrawal scene with slow-building hysteria, while its “Born Slippy” pumps like cold sweat as he decides whether to betray his friends and start life anew. The coolness of Leftfield’s “A Final Hit,” which accompanies the four criminals’ bus ride to London, effectively jostles with the creeping bad vibe that threatens to bust their big score and their partnership. Tracks by Primal Scream, Sleeper, and Bedrock, though less compellingly placed, also enhance the story’s sense of forward-but-to-where momentum. Furthermore, dance music’s residual connotations of affirmative escape, of societal underdogs (mostly gays and blacks) becoming and overcoming, provide an ironic counterpoint to the tale of young white people going down by choice.

Surprisingly, there hasn’t been a hit dance-music sound track in the house-techno-rave era, not even really since Saturday Night Fever’s 11-million-copy coup some 20 years ago. Trainspotting won’t be the next, because it’s only a third contemporary dance music–and because the film, whose Scottishness threatens to outweigh its universal aspects, isn’t likely to end up much more than a postdelinquent cult favorite. In their introduction to Celluloid Jukebox, Jonathan Romney and Adrian Wootton note “how most of the films now using pop songs appeal to specific areas of knowledge, to the viewer’s adherence to distinct genres of music or film–as if each film exclusively addressed habitues of one particular rack in a megastore whose clientele is fragmented as never before.”

Despite the risks it takes with club grooves, the Trainspotting sound track ultimately plays it safe, or rather, cool, pushing jukebox buttons like “Lust for Life,” sure to rouse some four generations of fans, or New Order’s “Temptation,” eminently danceable but just as tactically sentimental as anything on The Big Chill or Forrest Gump. The effective postdelinquent sound track reaches for timelessness in the present. Dwelling on classic cool, Trainspotting ultimately isn’t.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Music From The Motion Picture Trainspotting cover.