SoundTreks | Repo Man
SoundTreks now comes to 1984 to look at one of the most significant soundtrack records of its decade. Alex Cox’s Repo Man is a dark, weird, punk meditation on employment, and finding meaning in a world that you actively despise and are constantly trying to subvert. Although the movie is centered on bizarro discussions about space aliens, old man misanthropy (“Ordinary fuckin’ people. I hate ’em.”), and plates of shrimp, many consider Repo Man to be one of the most clear-headed representations of punk rock in cinema.
When Repo Man was first released, it was actually not much of a success. The soundtrack record, however, was an enormous hit. Los Angeles hardcore was heavily represented, and bands like Black Flag and The Circle Jerks were just beginning to get some widespread publicity thanks to it. Indeed, the soundtrack record was so successful and became so high-profile, that it instigated a re-release of the movie, which then proceeded to gain its still-lasting cult recognition.
31 years on, we are going to listen to the Repo Man soundtrack, and see what conclusions we can draw about the movie, about punk, and about the power of a damn good mix of subversive, mean, angry, and downright daffy punk songs. We’ve got nothing better to do.
Track 1. “Repo Man” – Iggy Pop
Driving, dirty, fun, “Repo Man” as performed by glam/punk straddler Iggy Pop is as good a way as any to kick off an iconic punk soundtrack. The guitars are buzzy and growl like an adolescent libido. The lyrics are odd and mythic and point toward a playful nihilism (“I’m looking for the joke with a microscope”). If I were to plimb for a legitimate criticism, it would be that “Repo Man” is too long. At 5 minutes and 13 seconds, it begins to drone after a while. Punk rock has always been about being fast, dirty, and cheap. You can’t have an epic punk exploration of massive themes in an opera of emotions. You need to have a song that sounds like a fist with a boner. And that kind of song should always take less than three minutes.
Track 2. “TV Party” – Black Flag
In the film, Black Flag’s near-novelty “TV Party” serves as Otto’s personal anthem. It’s a song about watching TV and drinking beer, and deliberately doing nothing. But having fun while you’re doing it. It should say something profound about Otto that his purposefully-not-well-thought-out anthem is a silly tune about TV shows (“That’s Incredible!, Hill Street Blues!“). Otto doesn’t give a fuck. But he has a great time not giving a fuck.
“TV Party” is one of the more fun songs to come from Black Flag, a band that, when compared to a lot of their L.A. hardcore counterparts, had something of a sense of humor. As the film progresses, Otto become more focused, and a song like “TV Party” seems less appropriate. Or, since his life will take a turn for the fantastical, is a song about watching too much TV perfect?
Track 3. “Institutionalized” – Suicidal Tendencies
I think we all can agree on Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized.” It’s one of the few hardcore punk songs that has leaked into popular culture. There was even a meme floating around a few years back about this song and its music video. In the movie, it only plays in the background of a party scene. Yes, this is what L.A. punkers would listen to at parties in between fighting, burning things, and spreading staph infections sexually.
Track 4. “Coup D’Etat” – The Circle Jerks
Along with Black Flag, The Circle Jerks were one of the biggest names in L.A. hardcore back in 1984. Today, they sound like the archtypal punk band. Loud, shitty production values, angry, vaguely political. It’s perhaps telling that The Circle Jerks have two songs on this soundtrack.
Track 5. “El Clavo y la Cruz” – The Plugz
The Plugz (a.k.a. Los Plugz) are a curious case. They were well known (at least locally in Los Angeles) in the late 1970s, and are often credited as being one of the first punk bands to form their own label. They were featured on several film soundtracks, having a unique sound that blends Latino musical traditions with punk rock. They would eventually be taken under the wing of Bob Dylan, and perform on television.
Then why can’t I find any of their records? Maybe because they were so committed to the DIY punk ethos, their albums never received full nationwide releases. At least not big enough to warrant commonality in my local record store bins.
The Plugz are a silly-ass band, and their songs on this record feel like being tackled by a sweaty leather punk and being ticked. This song is a tongue-in-cheek Spanish ska anthem with a sax solo. From a punky band. Feel free to go crosseyed.
Track 6. “Pablo Picasso” – Burning Sensations
Burning Sensations is a great band name. They’re also the only band I’ve encountered that tried to rhyme “Picasso” and “asshole.” This track has the dirt of punk, but also incorporates some electronic backup, plus a lugubrious and smug vocal track, placing it most squarely in the middle of New Wave. And a lot of New Wave, even the really dated stuff, still has its coat of cool firmly draped around its shoulders. The New Wave allowed for an element of intense, sometimes dark, mixture of kookiness and cool. Burning Sensations is an obscure track from an unknown band, bringing the spirit of the soundtrack to the fore.
The soundtrack record for Repo Man may be punk, but it’s not an angry punk. It’s a giggly punk.
Track 7. “Let’s Have a War” – Fear
The guy you hear screaming is Lee Ving, whom I was introduced to in the movie Clue as the doomed Mr. Boddy. Fear was an earlier punk band, and I was once shouted down by a punk fan for not knowing who this band was (I have since learned, but I nearly avoided a bloodied nose).
Track 8. “When the Shit Hits the Fan” – The Circle Jerks
So what differentiates hardcore punk from regular punk? One might say that hardcore was even louder, even faster, and even more deliberately confrontational than regular punk. Hardcore is far removed from The Ramones, and drifts into that dangerous Darby Crash territory, where singers would cut themselves on stage, piss on the front row, drink too much whiskey, puke, and lay on the stage to be trampled by the next act.
That said, even some hardcore bands knew how to play their instruments, and the more talented bands could explore various sounds. Yes, this mellow, goofy, Ween-sounding track is the same Circle Jerks from Track 4. The lyrics are still anti-establishment, but it’s a tongue-in-cheek ballad as well. On its own, “When the Shit Hits the Fan” might be annoying. In the context of the Repo Man soundtrack, though, we’re already used to it. Enjoy it.
Track 9. “Hombro Secreto (Secret Agent Man)” – The Plugz
¡Impresionante! Los Plugz ir rockabilly con esta vieja canción tonta tema de la televisión. Se incluye para sorprenderle. Para mantenerlo en los dedos. Si se dedicaron suficiente para traducir este párrafo, que se merece una recompensa. Aquí está una torta y una patada en los huevos. Traído a usted por un traductor en línea.
Track 10. “Bad Man” – Juicy Bananas
I would perhaps argue that this is the least of the tracks on the Repo Man soundtrack. It’s too long, and it’s too literal. Juicy Bananas merely repeat lines from – and elements featured in – the movie. But the movie is slippery and playful and weird and cool and punk rock. None of these things translate to a reiteration of plot elements. Surely director Alex Cox knew that including this would add an element of self-parody, but I don’t know for sure. It’s over five minutes, and it aches to be skipped over.
Track 11. “Reel Ten” – The Plugz
They may remain obscure, but The Plugz at least got to breathe on this record. They also provided the instrumental that was to put the tonal button on Repo Man. This song plays near the end when a glowing car takes off into space. This is a perfect sendoff.
Which Is Better? The Soundtrack or the Movie?
The soundtrack started strong, stayed dirty, mellowed out a bit, ribbed you a few times, and eventually floated into the sky. It’s a great record that totally holds up, provided you can get onto its weirdo wavelength. But the film is still better. Repo Man is one of the definitive cult films of all time, and while a lot of the film – especially the film’s mirror universe sense of humor – can be found on the soundtrack, you have to see the film to appreciate the punkiness of Otto, the amazing sci-fi elements, and the inimitable Harry Dean Stanton.
It wasn’t being done a lot at the time – this was a trend that would only begin in the 1990s – but I feel the best way to improve the Repo Man soundtrack would be to incorporate snippets of dialogue from the film. Pulp Fiction, Clerks, Natural Born Killers, and many others famously did this, and it serves as a dandy way of interweaving the movie and the soundtrack record so that the two forms are inextricably linked. The songs here are indeed linked to Repo Man, but they could be more expertly weaved.
But maybe not. Punk is fast and loose. It’s haphazard and dirty. Maybe by being eclectic and odd, it’s capturing more punk than you might assume. Now, angry boys and pissed off girls, go watch Repo Man and laugh.