SoundTreks | The Nice Guys
As someone who was only alive for the tail end of the 1970s, I have come to rely on movies – and movie soundtracks in particular – to paint me a picture as to what the culture was like. If movie soundtracks are to be believed, the American 1970s were a wonderful, fun time of dance, disco, funk, and, very occasionally, glorious early hard rock. From time to time, a hard-edged British punk song may also begin to lurk around in the background. Soundtracks try to deny this, but the 1970s were also a time of a particular brand of insufferable adult contemporary balladeering that included songs like “You Light Up My Life” and “Angel of the Morning” and other, wussier songs.
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Although I’m sure the 1970s were more musically textured than the usual 100-or-so hit songs people of my generation have come to associate with the decade, movies tend to focus on a very particular sound when it comes to exploring ’70s nostalgia. Shane Black’s new film The Nice Guys, which is set in 1977, has no interest in deviating from those 100-or-so. But, as we all well know, exploring ’70s funk, disco, and early hard rock is actually super fun, and collecting certain hits together may reek of the obvious, but makes for an undeniably great mixtape.
SoundTreks, Crave’s regular series devoted to soundtrack records, will now listen to the soundtrack record for The Nice Guys and see if it can strike the balance between obviousness and constructing a well-proportioned record. Put on those polyester leisure suits and hunker down.
Track 1. “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” – The Temptations
This extended 1971 disco/funk hit by The Temptations is, technically, a cover. Earlier in 1971, it was released by a Motown group called The Undisputed Truth, but didn’t become a hit until The Temptations recorded it.
Functionally, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” is more of a mood piece than anything, and, structurally, resembles jazz more than it does funk or disco. Indeed, listening to it all at once – like all 11 minutes of it – reveals a darker tone than the fun opening strains would have you believe. In movies (including The Nice Guys), this sort of piece is typically used to establish tone. On a record, however, it becomes more of a meditation on its own form. It drifts in and out of consciousness.
Track 2. “Get Down on It” – Kool and the Gang
This is disco/funk at its finest. “Get Down on It” is such an integral part of the 1970s dancehall sound that it seems impossible to picture the genre without it. The unusual part of that statement: “Get Down On It” wasn’t released until 1981. Yes, that makes it anachronistic in The Nice Guys, but it still feels in its place. The disco groove – released in an era when disco was being destroyed in public – feels strangely permanent. It’s been remixed several times (notably by Eiffel 65, the “I’m Blue (Ba Da Bee)” guys), and it survives.
Track 3. “Boogie Oogie Oogie” – A Taste of Honey
Released in 1978. Another anachronism. This song was one of those disco hits that managed to cross into the mainstream rock charts, and it’s easy to hear why: the vocals are great. The dated 1970s title, however, seems (to me) to be wielded for a dated, comedic effect. Its inclusion here seems, if I may offer an oblique theory, like a bit of a joke. It’s a pretty great song, but it holds the 1970s at a distance. I can only guess as to the intentions of the music supervisors, but this one seems like their “no brainer” track that was only incidentally good. It was 1970s window-dressing, and not actual color.
Track 4. “September” – Earth, Wind & Fire
Released in 1978. Earth, Wind & Fire is so large, and has been in operation for so long, that they seem to have dipped into several genres. Some of their songs are soul, some are disco, and some are perhaps just outward jazz. Like the above track, I suspect this is 1970s window dressing, but also like the above, it holds up upon repeat listenings. The mood of the record so far seems to be that of a disco party that’s in full swing. Little variety so far, but I’m having a good time dancing.
Track 5. “Couldn’t Get it Right” – Climax Blues Band
From 1976. I guess it won’t be all anachronisms. This track is the first that may not be immediately familiar to listeners, although this is the Climax Blues Band’s biggest hit. It’s more bluesy than funky, and far more relaxed than your typical 1970s dance pop. This is the ideal way to slow down a record. Down tempo a little. We don’t need to smash right into slow grooves after “September.”
Track 6. “Love and Happiness” – Al Green
See? Now you smash into slow grooves. We creep back to 1972, to the incomparable Al Green, and to a slowed mood. Yes, we’ve heard this on other soundtracks – that’s true of this entire record, I think – but the assemblage here is starting to show signs of grace.
Track 7. “Dazz” – Brick
Like the opening track, this song is a good dance song, and its lyrics talk about shaking booties and the like, but the twangy guitar – at least during the verses, evoke something oppressive to me. Like I can smell the stuffy cigarette smoke at the party. The title is a portmanteau of “disco” and “jazz,” but feels like something one might mumble when drunk or on drugs. This is a song for a dangerous party, or perhaps an arty party. There’s a lick of danger floating about this record. I think the noir elements of The Nice Guys are showing in small ways…
Track 8. “Boogie Wonderland” – Earth, Wind & Fire
Released in 1979. Well, I guess the darkness had to be salved by more boogie. Or perhaps, after things got a mite too dark with the drink, one takes a toot of cocaine, and they’re ready to go again. The dark narrative of the record is about the highs and lows of a dangerous party in the late 1970s or early 1980s. At this point, more than halfway through the night, you are trying to convince yourself to stay, even though you might want to go home.
Track 9. “Jive Talkin’” – Bee Gees
It wouldn’t be a 1970s records without a Gibb or two. The Bee Gees were always a punchline when I was growing up (watch Airplane! sometime), so it took me a long time to appreciate them. If my newfound party narrative is to be followed, “Jive Talkin'” is the beginning of your second wind. The hyper snort of coke is mellowing down, and you’re in a good place again. Because this song is relaxed and groovy.
Track 10. “Rock and Roll All Nite” – KISS
And that groove is immediately stomped out by the huge boot of Gene Simmons. KISS may dress dangerously, and they may have been birthed from the artier recesses of early metal (think of Deep Purple), but these guys are the roundest, loudest, least pretentious type of pop rock around. They are glorious in how shallow they are. I do not disparage KISS as a cultural presence. I just don’t own any of their records. Unless Wendy O. Williams counts. This track stands as a reminder of what was going on outside of the dance scene. KISS was too big to ignore, and their sound, while not in tune with the rest of the record, has to be folded into the 1970s groove farm if we’re to be culturally responsible.
Track 11. “Ain’t Got No Home” – The Band
Why does The Band sing about singing like a frog? Because this is a cover of a 1956 novelty tune by Clarence “Frogman” Henry. The original is far more familiar to me personally, and I prefer the weird vocals of Henry’s version over the clean, folksy, bar rock rendition by The Band. By this point in the record, we’re straying into broader areas of the 1970s, and my party analogy must end. It was a good idea while it lasted.
Track 12. “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” – Rupert Holmes
1979 again. As you can see from the included video, this song was recently featured on the ultra-popular soundtrack to Guardians of the Galaxy. Here, as there, this song is included for camp purposes only. “The Piña Colada Song” is, to my ear, pretty horrible, and plays more like a novelty song or a period oddity than a legit hit – even though it was a legit hit. Quiz: Which is worse? This song, or “Margaritaville?”
Track 13. “Lonely Boy” – Andrew Gold
That’s Linda Ronstadt on backup vocals. The upbeat melody stands counter to the lyrics, which talk about a young man who was neglected by his parents following the arrival of his younger sister. It’s just upbeat enough to make its way onto a soundtrack record like this (i.e., mostly fun), but there’s that streak of melancholy returning. That said, “Lonely Boy” marks a turn for the wussy. Which is, of course, just as legit as any ’70s funk. It’s just a different tone now.
Track 14. “A Horse with No Name” – America
You’re stuck in the desert. Name the horse already. Want me to name it for you? Your horse is named Xenophon.
Track 15. “Green Peppers” – Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass
Although Herb Alpert is also often used as a punchline – a la Bee Gees – there is a smooth jazzy lounge groove to most of his early work that cannot be denied and should not be mocked. In movies – as in The Nice Guys – Alpert is used as the background mood in the homes of older people who are no longer hip, and who listen to music for “squares.” “Green Peppers” was released in 1965 on Alpert’s famous “Whipped Cream” album, so it was rather dated by 1977. In 2016, however, we can see past the ironic joke of the track and simple enjoy.
Which is Better? The Soundtrack or the Movie?
The movie is pretty great, and it wins, although it’s not a runaway. The film is, to cite its biggest flaw up front, loose and unfocused. The story meanders when it needs to sprint. The film is handily saved, however, by some fine performances, a great sense of humor, and a lot of funny dialogue. It’s not a hugely moving experience, but you’ll do much worse at the movies this year.
The record, by contrast, seems to know what it wants, and seems to flow better. It wants to exemplify the 1970s as quickly as possible, keep you in a party mood for several tracks, slow you, speed you, but always keep you in a good mood. Its selections are up front, but there’s a reason so many of them are so well remembered. They’re pretty great.
The problem lies with how obvious so many of them are. These are songs we know, and may even own without having actually actively purchased them. I’m all for including a few ringers on a soundtrack record, but the rate of ringers on The Nice Guys is awfully high. It’s solid and serviceable, but it’s not as great as it could have been. Some deep cuts would have been nice.
Top Image: Warner Bros.
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.