Graphic: Nick Wanserski
Soundtracks Of Our LivesIn Soundtracks Of Our Lives, The A.V. Club looks at the dying art of the movie companion album, those “various artists” compilations made to complement films on screen but that often end up taking on lives of their own.  

There are exactly two pop culture moments that changed me in adolescence—neither of them unique, both clichés. The first was hearing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at some marching band event in 1991, a song that instantly (if temporarily) wiped away all the mopey new wave and Danny Elfman scores I was into and sent me on the same, decade-long dive into grunge, alt-rock, and punk so many others experienced. The second came three years later, when I watched a VHS of Reservoir Dogs with my best friend in his grandfather’s den, both of us silent and barely breathing in the lingering cigar fumes as it slowly dawned on us that we were watching our new favorite film. If you were making a retro TV show about a teen boy coming of age in the ’90s, you’d probably include both scenes, right alongside him and his hornball pal debating who was hotter, Daisy Fuentes or Karen Duffy. (Karen Duffy.) But especially in the nascent, barely there internet days of 1993, and just before Pulp Fiction made Quentin Tarantino a household name, to us Reservoir Dogs was the kind of personal discovery that quickly spirals into fixation during those teen years where you cling to what you like as a means of defining yourself. And we spent our last two years of high school being as obnoxious about it as possible.

For a cult movie that (for better or worse) ushered in a new era of independent film, there sure was a lot of Reservoir Dogs-branded crap you could buy, even shortly after its release. I snapped up just about all of it, beginning with multiple posters I wedged into my perpetually just-redecorated teenage bedroom—including a domestic and a French version, and two enormous, subway-sized character posters of Michael Madsen’s Mr. Blonde and Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White (the latter declaring, “If some guy starts to think he’s Charles Bronson, take the butt of your gun and smash their nose in”—much to my mom’s chagrin). From one of those dozen novelty companies cluttering the back pages of Spin, I ordered cheap, bootleg Reservoir Dogs keychains and stickers for my car, so everyone on the streets would know I’d seen a movie. I also ordered several Reservoir Dogs shirts, to alert those I passed in my high school hallway.

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And in the nerdiest thing I have ever taken part in (outside of my eventual career), my buddy and I—along with the few other friends we’d converted—each picked our favorite Reservoir Dogs character, then used felt iron-on letters to apply that character’s name and a favorite quote to cheap white shirts of our own. (Mine was Steve Buscemi’s irascible Mr. Pink.) We then actually wore these shirts to school, proudly and in public, often on a designated day—typically on pep rally Fridays, when the athletes wore their jerseys. We were also repping our own team; ours just happened to be a group of squabbling fictional thieves who yelled at each other in a warehouse. Their macho posturing was a source of vicarious strength for boys still play-acting at being men, no different than worshipping some NFL quarterback.

But you can only watch Reservoir Dogs so many times—over and over again, at least once per week, instead of getting fresh air and exercise. For many months, my main vehicle for sustaining that intense mania was the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack, an album that—as would soon become the norm for Tarantino—faithfully replicated the feeling of watching the film, right down to the included dialogue excerpts. Tarantino’s choice of music has always been as deliberate as any of the work he borrows from any other artist, a flaunting of his record collection that finally lapsed into self-parody around the time Sydney Tamiia Portier paused to give everyone a quick lecture on Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich in Death Proof. And outside of that scene of Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace twisting to Chuck Berry, none of Tarantino’s films lean so heavily on the adopted cool of those crate-digger’s finds than Reservoir Dogs, a movie whose most iconic moments are indelibly intertwined with songs—to the point that Tarantino even programs it like a radio show.

That show—and thus the soundtrack—is hosted by comedian Steven Wright, whose deadpan, lifeless interstitials for “K-Billy’s Super Sounds Of The Seventies Weekend” form the segues in both. Wright’s hollowed-out voice is the opposite of the unctuous drive-time DJ, down to his sarcastic mispronunciation of “Big Daddy Don Bodine’s truck, The Bo-hui-muth,” and it has the same ironic detachment as Tarantino’s use of “bubblegum-pop favorite” ’70s hits throughout, something the director noted in the film’s original press kit create “a terrific counterpoint to the action.” Nowhere is that counterpoint more effective than in Reservoir Dogs’ most infamous scene, which is also its most musical one.

As Madsen’s gleefully psychopathic Mr. Blonde prepares to carve up Officer Marvin Nash purely for his own amusement, he pauses to put K-Billy on a nearby radio, telling his terrified hostage it’s his “personal favorite.” Wright’s disembodied voice flatly introduces Joe Egan and Gerry Rafferty’s duo Stealers Wheel, whose toe-tapping, “Dylanesque” folk-rock number “Stuck In The Middle With You” kicks in. Mr. Blonde begins to dance and sing along, swinging his straight razor ever closer to Marvin’s face. The effect is contagious—and polarizing. When Reservoir Dogs debuted before festival audiences, reports of walkouts during this scene cemented its reputation as hyper-violent and twisted, despite the fact that its “gore” would barely raise an eyebrow in, say, a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. In fact, Tarantino’s camera pans away, letting the viewer’s imagination take over while we hear Marvin’s screaming, before Mr. Blonde strolls back into frame holding a severed ear. It’s not the violence those audiences were reacting to, but the uncomfortable emotion the soundtrack creates: Mr. Blonde’s cheerful sadism is set to an upbeat ditty that invites viewers to hum along and enjoy the moment in spite of themselves.

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Tarantino knew what he was doing to ”Stuck In The Middle With You” before a single frame had been shot. No stranger to writing musical cues directly into his screenplays, he’d initially considered Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz” for that scene before changing his mind (a wise move, considering it would have split its claim with Wayne’s World, released that same year). Instead, he chose a song that would become so immediately intertwined with his film, as he later explained to Rolling Stone, that even though auditioning actors were given leeway to pick any song they liked for that scene, they almost all went with “Stuck In The Middle With You.” In the double-disc edition of the Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction soundtracks, Tarantino would write of the impact his choice had—not only on the film, but on the song he’d forever, irrevocably linked to mutilation:

“Personally, I don’t know if Gerry Rafferty necessarily appreciated the connotations that I brought to ‘Stuck In The Middle With You.’ There’s a good chance he didn’t. But that’s one of the things about using music in movies that’s so cool: the fact that if you do it right, it’s about as cinematic a thing as you can do. You’re really doing what movies do better than any other art form. It works in this visceral, emotional, cinematic way that’s special. And when you do it right and you hit it right, then you can never really hear that song again without thinking about that image from the movie. That’s what comercials are counting on, but it never quite works with commercials. The thing is, once a movie has done that with a song, as far as I’m concerned that movie owns it.”

Beyond the visceral, ineffable cool it brought to sadism, that scene also spoke to what made Reservoir Dogs—and Tarantino’s work in general—so irresistible, particularly to soft teenage boys who were about as far from hardboiled, homicidal trigger-men as one can get. Like the film’s opening monologue about the real meaning behind Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” (included on the album) or the group’s discussion of short-lived ’70s series Get Christie Love! (sadly left out), it showed that, even in the middle of heinous acts of criminality, these tough guys were still immersed in their favorite songs, half-remembered TV shows, and other of life’s little trivialities, just like the rest of us. Tarantino’s signature discursive, reference-heavy dialogue has long since been watered down by so many imitators (and I’ve even got a shitty screenplay I wrote when I was 16 to prove it). But at the time, Reservoir Dogs represented a new kind of action movie that could be embraced even by smart-mouthed wusses like myself: an inaction movie, driven primarily by the same kind of idle threat-laden, ball-breaking chatter you had with your buddies around a late-night Denny’s booth.

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It was as easy to imagine yourself as one of Reservoir Dogs’ “ramblers” as it was to pop on some Ray-Bans and slip into a black suit and tie—and even easier if you were also listening to the other song the film now owns in perpetuity. “Little Green Bag,” a 1969 curio from Dutch group the George Baker Selection, was another Plan B choice, swapped in for Pink Floyd’s “Money” supposedly after Tarantino heard the former on the radio and felt a pang of “nostalgia” (and not after, say, someone told him how expensive licensing a huge Pink Floyd hit would be). Regardless, it’s impossible now to imagine one without the other: “Little Green Bag” renders the simple act of walking incredibly cool in Reservoir Dogs’ opening credits sequence, with the members of Joe’s gang strutting by in immortal slow motion to its funky bassline and whispered “yeaaaah”s. It’s impossible to count the number of times I must have rewound this movie, simply for the brief endorphin rush of that scene—to say nothing of listening to this song on repeat in my Discman.

[Here’s a bonus, inessential anecdote: Our devotion to Reservoir Dogs was so all-consuming, my friends and I staged a write-in campaign to get “Little Green Bag” nominated as our “senior song.” After a lot of cajoling, we successfully landed it on the ballot, only for the entire student body to be informed via special announcement over the P.A. that it had been disqualified due to the song being “an apparent drug reference.” My protests—that, really, the song was called “Little Greenback,” but it had been mislabeled on its original pressing, and besides, it was only a reference to a violent gangster movie where a guy gets his ear hacked off—went unheeded. Still, hearing our vice principal be forced to say “Little Green Bag” over the loudspeaker was thrill enough. Ironically, the class of ’95 eventually chose Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Tuesday’s Gone,” a song recently revived by Dazed And Confused whose renewed popularity was way, way closer to an actual drug reference.]

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Compared to the impact of “Stuck In The Middle With You” and “Little Green Bag,” of course, little else on the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack leaves the same impression, though “Coconut” comes close. Harry Nilsson’s silly novelty song is given the spotlight of playing during the end credits, where it’s a disarming moment of quiet after the flameout of the film’s climax. There’s no real rhyme or reason to the song’s inclusion—though some Tarantino fans, already given to overanalyzing, have posited that the lines about a “bellyache” are a reference to Mr. Orange’s being gut-shot. But like “Stuck In The Middle With You,” mostly “Coconut” is there to provide wry contrast, lending a bit of detachment to everything you’ve just seen in a way that neither glorifies nor mourns these violent men. Theirs was just a funny little amorality play, it seems to say, which makes it all the more tempting to rewind and revisit it again.

Of the remaining tracks, only two get that sort of prominent placement. Joe Tex’s stomping soul kiss-off “I Gotcha” underscores both Mr. White and Mr. Pink’s manhandling of Marvin into the warehouse and Nice Guy Eddie’s frantically placing a call on his ’90s brick of a cellphone, with Tex’s agitated screaming at an unfaithful lover lending the scene of crooks roughing up their kidnapped cop some comedic punch. But it’s not nearly as jokey as the brief snatch we hear of Blue Swede’s “Hooked On A Feeling,” whose familiar “Ooga-chaka” refrain blares from the radio of the two unseen, bear claw-eating cops who tail the thieves—the rare musical moment in a Tarantino film that feels like a nostalgic wink and little else. That sensation has only been reinforced over time, as ”Hooked On A Feeling” has since been revived by scores of lazy ads, Ally McBeal’s “Dancing Baby,” and most recently in Guardians Of The Galaxy, with the song achieving a sort of free-floating cheesiness that’s also become a shorthand for the delightfully terrible tastes of the 1970s.

Likely owing to its limited budget, the rest of the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack further lacks the sense of choosy curation that would very quickly come to define Tarantino’s work. With its reliance on diagetic sound, most of the songs are just barely discerned in the background anyway—such as Sandy Rogers’ country ballad “Fool For Love,” heard briefly in the apartment of Tim Roth’s Mr. Orange as he fishes out his wedding band before meeting the others. Fans have argued over that little detail for years, debating whether the ring is just an empty prop in Mr. Orange’s disguise—possibly even meant to conceal his homosexuality—or if it’s an actual reminder of some, probably former flame. In the DVD commentary for the film’s 10th anniversary reissue, critic Peter Travers argues that the inclusion of “Fool For Love” suggests the latter, that the moment has genuine emotional significance for Mr. Orange. But it’s equally likely that it was just the film nerd in Tarantino that chose this, the title song to Robert Altman’s Fool For Love, as a nod to another talky movie about people squabbling in a tiny space, the details of what happened being slowly pieced together through dialogue. On the soundtrack, of course, it’s just the song the teenage boy skips.

In the rarity of actual filler on a Tarantino soundtrack, there are also two songs by Bedlam, an early-1990s alt-country project fronted by prolific Nashville producer Jay Joyce. The first, a cover of Steppenwolf’s thoroughly picked-over “Magic Carpet Ride,” adds little to the original besides an overlong feedback intro and some raspy yarling.

The other, a Bedlam original titled “Harvest Moon,” is a strummy, acoustic rock ballad that lands somewhere between Goo Goo Dolls and Bob Seger; arriving amid so many arch classic-rock cuts, its earnestness is mostly just jarring. According to Joyce, Tarantino sought out the song specifically, so there must have been something he sparked to—something he liked about its sobering mood or the lyrics’ yearning for redemption, which is ostensibly buried deep within even these hardened criminals. Whatever that intent, it’s practically subliminal in the film, where both songs play distantly in the background of diners and bars as Mr. Orange preps to go undercover. But isolated on the album, “Harvest Moon” offers the sole moment of introspection on an album defined by its aloofness. I didn’t really like this one either.

But then, I didn’t return to the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack—and I did, often—for an emotional journey. I returned for the booster shot of the film’s thoroughly masculine cool it conveyed, from this swinging dick of a movie where women were completely relegated to the margins of stripper anecdotes or tossed out of hijacked car windows, and the entire world was reduced to a bunch of dudes sitting around shooting the shit. After all, during the years of frustrated male adolescence, that was our world, too. Reservoir Dogs added guns and sharp suits, but its emphasis on talking as the primary display of a man’s power was especially reassuring to a kid who could rattle off jokey quips and Star Wars trivia, but had never been in a fistfight.

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Like a lot of other teenage obsessions, I eventually got over worshipping Reservoir Dogs and moved on, even though, beyond just giving me that shield in high school, it was also the movie that inspired me to go to film school and pursue my own, quickly abandoned independent filmmaking career. (See: aforementioned shitty screenplay.) But even though it’s been years since I’ve actually sat down and watched the whole thing, I still think of Reservoir Dogs fondly. Purely as a narrative and a work of cinema, I recognize that Pulp Fiction is probably the superior film, but there’s simply too much of myself tied up in Reservoir Dogs for it not to still be my favorite of Tarantino’s work. I also recognize that there’s a lot about Reservoir Dogs that’s a tad shallow, that its ratatat repartee—particularly after so many copies, several of them from Tarantino himself—comes off a little stilted upon closer inspection. And I can also see now that much of its “coolness” feels a bit slick and affected, especially to someone who’s long since grown out of posturing as a substitute for confidence.

Still, today, right now, listening to “Little Green Bag,” none of that particularly matters. For those fleeting three minutes and 16 seconds, all I feel is the “cool” that Tarantino (and let’s be honest, most of us) spent his whole life chasing. “You can’t put a guy in a black suit without making him look a little cooler than he already looks,” Tarantino once mused of his film’s sartorial style. You can’t listen to the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack without it doing the same.