Think back, if you will, to a time before cinema's Jimmy Dimmick was a millionaire megastar director who prefers to spend most of his time making the same film again and again but with different hats interspersed with getting a bit shirty on What The Papers Say, and when he was, quite simply, potentially the most exciting movie-maker ever. He was someone who - not unlike certain figures in the independent music scene around that time - appeared to have seen the good, the bad and the just plain weird in any and every area of 'underground' cinema from the forties onwards, and had decided that the time had come to put a nice new shirt on it and send it 'overground'. At a time when the concept of postmodernism itself was the stuff of postmodernity, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, True Romance and Natural Born Killers arrived like a pop cultural call to arms (well, maybe not Natural Born Killers), simultaneously pointing the way into cinema's future and into the more weird and wonderful (though mostly just plain weird) corridors of its past.
Part of the reason for this, of course, was his revolutionary approach to soundtracks; ignoring the tradition of the Oscar-courting original orchestral score in favour of employing a similar sort of pop culture archaeology to his visuals, which was probably more inspired by American Graffiti than by any Polish art film with a stop-motion goose tapdancing to a slowed-down-then-speeded-up version of The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, and using the parade of non-stop half-remembered hits to actually emphasise something about the characters or setting; the tacky seventies pop radio sounds in Reservoir Dogs, for example, give an indefinable extra sense of definition to the sharp-suited career criminals addicted to oldies stations, while the sparse and trebly forgotten pre-Beatles chart smashes in Pulp Fiction do much to underscore the empty fringe-of-society netherworlds in which its various protagonists variously operate. Hardly surprising, then, that both films should have inspired soundtrack albums that bothered the upper reaches of the chart for years on end, to the extent that it's now impossible to venture into a charity shop without spotting one or the other of them. And then there's True Romance with its tongue-in-cheek reuse of existing film scores, and the blues-hollerin'-driven original script of Natural Born Killers. By the time of Kill Bill he really was just playing back-of-the-bargain-bin Top Trumps, though.
Needless to say, those top-selling soundtrack albums inspired a brief but prolific outburst of me-too soundtrack albums, and indeed me-too themed soundtrack compilations, all of which spectacularly missed the point of why those Tarantino efforts had been so popular in the first place (and of course Trackspotting, which missed the point of just about everything ever). Most of these efforts, as you can imagine, or indeed may well have been trying to forget, simply bolted together a couple of blatant borrows from Tarantino and Tarantino-affiliated (seriously, remember when we were supposed to regard Killing Zoe and Threesome as somehow relevant?) soundtracks with a handful of de facto Britpop-era hits and some seventies rock stuff that Loaded had said it was OK to like, which is why you'll now find them all lurking in their hundreds in the 58 CDs For £1 section at That's Entertainment.
There was one album, however - well, series of albums to be strictly accurate - that somehow managed to get this least get-right-able of approaches right, and would then subsequently go off on all manner of obscure and esoteric tangents that would have caused all those people whooping at Stuck In The Middle With You at the student union to shudder like they'd been forced to watch a single minute of The Magic Fountain on a loop for forty eight hours. It started off with both feet planted firmly in Tarantino-land, yet six volumes later it had taken in Count Indigo, Bardo, the 'wrong' Magic Roundabout, and plenty more besides. And, what do you know, they all still stand up well today. So join us, if you will, as we take an album-by-album relisten to... the Cult Fiction series! Beginning with...
This Is... Cult Fiction (1995)
As the Pulp Fiction-riffing title suggests - though as we shall see, within a very short time 'Cult Fiction' seemed almost to become an original name in its own right - this inaugural offering came very much in the slipstream of the initial outbreak of Tarantino-mania; something that was in turn very much reflected in the cover art, featuring as it does a stocking'n'suspendered and unfeasibly-chested blonde in a bleak motel having recently discarded a wine glass and the world's smallest record. Meanwhile, lord alone knows that that TV show's supposed to be. Doubtless this was intended as some sort of non-copyright-troubling homage to Uma Thurman's iconic pose from the Pulp Fiction poster, only commissioned from an artist that was briefed to not to watch the film, nor to learn anything at all whatsoever about what might possibly happen in it. If anything, it's closer to being a homage to the cover of Tony Hancock's favoured page-turner Lady Don't Fall Backwards, although sadly you won't find Spying Tonight anywhere on this tracklisting.
Needless to say, said Hancock-deficient tracklisting leans very heavily towards the Tarantino-weighted end of the scale, and yet somehow, rather than seeming like yet another cash-in stroke rip-off, it manages to hit all the right notes and throws in a few impressive suprises to boot. The opening double whammy of film-openers Little Green Bag and Misirlou still sounds amazing, the over-familiar but still great Stuck In The Middle With You rubs shoulders with the lesser-heard Jungle Boogie and You Never Can Tell, and the compilers have also found room for Rumble, the menacing crumbly-toned Link Wray instrumental that was inexplicably left off the Pulp Fiction soundtrack album in favour of Maria McKee whistling about a sodding dress for twelve years.
As you might well be deducing from that rather left-field inclusion (well, relatively), the compilers of This Is... Cult Fiction seem to have been keen - as would rapidly become a trademark of theirs - to put that extra bit of effort in and come up with something that would both warrant and withstand repeated listening; no mean feat when you consider that many of the similar efforts it was jostling for space with in the HMV Soundtracks rack were a slog to get through even just the once. The only problem is, when you've exhausted the Tarantino soundtracks and incorporated as much of them as you feasibly can without your target audience feeling royally ripped off, where do you go next?
And this is where This Is... Cult Fiction starts to get interesting. Initially they seem to have opted to reach for the nearest recent films with similar (if far lesser) 'cult' credentials, meaning that we get Bjork's still-astonishing theme from Young Americans and the original Lalo Schifrin version of Mission Impossible (as opposed to that miserable angle-grinding reworking by Larry Mullen and a bin, which was virtually inescapable at the time but thankfully barely heard now), though on the less appealing side we also get Here Comes The Hotstepper from Pret A Porter, a film that the media appeared to decide appealed to the 'Tarantino set' without actually canvassing any of them for their opinion on the matter, and - stetching the definition of 'recent' slightly - the never-entertaining Blue Velvet by Bobby Vinton. The latter had in fact been a barely explicable Twin Peaks-affiliated reissued top ten hit late in 1990 (and that's not the last that we'll be hearing from Dale Cooper and company), and indeed room is made for a couple of further then-recent Revived 45 chart-vaulters; Perez Prado's Guaglione, as featured in the first of several thousand Guinness adverts that apparently 'everyone' thought was amazing apart from anyone at all that you actually knew, and the similarly beer-propelled We Have All The Time In The World by Louis Armstrong.
The latter's James Bond associations provides a convenient route in for the James Bond Theme, here in one of its later elaborated-up John Barry re-recordings rather than the twisted beat boom twangings of the original (though - spoiler alert - that's something we may well end up touching on at some point in the future), and while there aren't really that many big name big screen big themed spies or detectives worthy of a place alongside him on such a commercially minded compilation, there are nonetheless many of a more televisual persuasion who are eminently suitable for the task, and indeed that's the next major port of musical call. Laurie Johnson's single version of The Avengers is joined by a couple of judiciously chosen top-drawer covers, The Les Reed Brass' take on The Saint and The Bob Leaper Orchestra's frantic rattle through Danger Man (which was then also doing a stint as the theme music for Mark Radcliffe's 'Graveyard Shift' Radio 1 show - which you can read all about in my book Fun At One), while from across the 'pond' come the barnstorming original black-and-white-era arrangement of The Man From UNCLE and, rather less impressively, a pedestrian trot through Hawaii Five-O by a struggling post-psychedelia The Ventures, twanging politely through an arrangement that does neither them nor the tune any favours.
Then there's a bit of a lurch forward into seventies urban funk hipness, with Theme From Shaft (which, weirdly, sounds like an inferior re-recorded version even though it isn't), The Harder They Come, the overquoted monologue-enhanced All The Animals Come Out At Night from Taxi Driver, and - letting the urban funk quotient down slightly - Everybody's Talkin' from Midnight Cowboy, as then recently pushed back into the charts by The Beautiful South though anyone with even the slightest bit of sense should prefer this reading by indie nearly-men Moose. And once again there's some small screen contemporaries for this lot, with a reading of The Sweeney by the dreaded Power Pack Orchestra (an eighties studio ensemble that specialised in microscopically close approximations of original film and TV themes, virtually indistinguishable from the genuine article but just about mechanical and workmanlike enough to be detectable, which in a way is actually worse than a ludicrously inauthentic bash-it-out-after-lunch job), and the throw-some-notes-at-the-wall funk-jazz of The Streets Of San Francisco, a show that has blithely ignored repeated attempts to artificially build up any kind of cult following around it. Meanwhile, from completely the other end of the seventies comes Francis Monkman's alarming theme from The Long Good Friday, a suitably nasty-sounding reminder of the days when library music started to get just that bit unsettlingly antiseptic in a slap-bass-and-sequencer reflection of the dockland redevelopments that the in-character Bob Hoskins so despised.
And that's just about it, apart from three notable fishes out of big-poster-bought-from-the-Student-Union water. An all-too-familiar four-note twang signifies it's time for Twin Peaks, a show which has since disappeared from the 'cult' map in a manner that you really wouldn't have predicted from the endless conversations about the latest 'clues' back in 1990 (most of them conducted by people who claimed not to understand The Prisoner when it showed up on Channel 4 a couple of years later), Great Big Giant Of The Cinema Horson Welles shows up to show these young upstarts how it's done with the beatnikky bongo freakout from the start of A Touch Of Evil, and then... there's... Joe 90. Yes, Joe 90. The least marketable of any Gerry Anderson show (and yes, that does include The Secret Service), and with about as much in stylistic and thematic common with anything else on the album as Here Come The Double Deckers. And yet Barry Gray's spectacular transistory Hammond and speaker-rattling guitar theme music is quite simply the best track on here by a very long distance indeed. Yes, Sam Loover and company may lack the cult credentials of the collar-turned-up sax-accompanied types that make up the bulk of the rest of This Is... Cult Fiction - let's face it, they even lack the cult credentials of a country-yowling Supermarionation cowboy with an oversized head - but end up showing them all by virtue of having the best theme music. Even if it does appear here with the dreaded 'wow' intact (if you have no idea what that might possibly mean, have a look at this highly amusing rant on the very tape-warbling subject).
One place that you won't find the Joe 90 theme though, 'wow'-equipped or otherwise, is on the little-known American edition of This Is... Cult Fiction, a heavily truncated affair in the tradition of the early Now That's What I Call Music CDs that dispenses with the less hoagie-scoffing friendly selections in favour of... well, a lot of tracks that we'll be coming back to in the near future. And to know what did show up on those future volumes, well, you'd need to have a police box that travelled in time or something. Or be Belgian.
Yet one thing that the American edition does do is highlight just how diverse, even within its own narrow and limited self-imposed parameters, This Is... Cult Fiction really is. Rather than stick to entirely safe and predictable choices, there's at least an attempt to suggest to people who had bought it on the back of Pumpkin and Honeybunny's jabbering that there's a lot more out there that they might like, from gritty urban gangland thrillers to sub-psychedelic sixties private eyes to, well, Joe 90. Whether this actually had any effect is another question, but it's a question better suited to future instalments. For now, it's worth highlighting just how well this seemingly all over the place selection of soundtrack excerpts hangs together, disregarding what 'fits' in a humourless berk HERNing on a forum sense and concentrating on what 'fits' musically and indeed as just stuff you might be into. Something that The Tarantino Connection never quite managed.
So, that was This Is... Cult Fiction, a relatively by-the-book yet eminently listenable compilation that by ignoring its original theme developed a whole new theme of its own, and which, whether by accident or design (and it was probably a bit of both), managed to avoid falling into the usual small-minded post-Tarantino 'YER LIKE THIS' trap, and took the time and trouble to say 'ACTUALLY YER MIGHT QUITE LIKE THIS AS WELL'. Though when it came to a second volume, they changed what yer might quite like completely...