In 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.
For the majority of kids in the early 1990s, particularly a sheltered Texas suburbanite like myself, “goth” was an abstraction—an amalgam of ideas borrowed from Nine Inch Nails videos, The Lost Boys, and whatever mall store sold Manic Panic before Hot Topic achieved manifest destiny. Gadzooks, probably. Goth was my friend’s older sister, smeared with black lipstick and adolescent fury, grudgingly telling us wide-eyed freshmen about her weekends at Dallas nightclub The Church, where she made it sound like they whipped each other to Skinny Puppy until they bled (but really they just stood around smoking cloves and complaining). Goth was a costume. Goth was an attitude you copped to your parents and the late-shift waitress at Denny’s. In 1994, goth was the soundtrack for The Crow.
I got a lot of my early music schooling from movie soundtracks, moving from a nerdy obsession with Danny Elfman scores to a slightly more socially acceptable love of songs compiled by savvy music supervisors who were out to make an easy buck from brand integration. It was certainly never easier than in that mid-’90s era in which The Crow appeared—the arguable zenith of the soundtrack album, in that time just before MP3s rendered buying these sorts of professionally compiled mixtapes completely unnecessary and LL Cool J hadn’t yet ruined the entire art form by rapping about Deep Blue Sea. As we begin our discussion of the movie soundtracks that have formed the background music of our own lives, introducing us to artists we might not have discovered otherwise, I have to start with the Crow soundtrack, which rolled like a black cloud across our nation’s shopping malls and briefly encouraged me and so many other “alt-rock” kids to embrace the commercially sanitized darkness.
The Crow arrived in 1994 already a shadowy legend, with Brandon Lee’s accidental death at the hands of a prop gun mishap the year before lending the whole thing an air of haunted mystery. Much like the loss of River Phoenix, also in 1993, there was a feeling of tragic romance surrounding Lee—a mostly unknown actor we never got to love, made beautifully immaculate in death as a perfect, morbid angel for outcast teens to weep for. Whether the film was any good was almost an afterthought. In truth, The Crow is a pretty standard supernatural revenge drama/dark comic book movie in the Batman mold, its few distinctions being its occasional hyperviolence and an intense performance from Lee as undead rocker Eric Draven that, presaging Heath Ledger’s turn as The Joker, burned twice as bright for his having burned half as long. But as a cultural object, The Crow was—and, judging by those many threats to remake it, still is—a genuine phenomenon.
While Lee’s harlequin face soon became inescapable, peering out from lockers, T-shirts, and the cracked bedroom doors of kids refusing to come down to dinner, most crucial to the flourishing of The Crow’s cult was the accompanying soundtrack album. Consisting of 14 tracks of emotive, angry music, the Crow soundtrack was a primer on adolescent rage and rumination that demanded intense listening and even more intense feelings, to be blasted at whatever high school crushes or jerk vice principals represented the everlasting romances and evil thug armies in your own tormented walk among the living.
Appropriate for a film that almost singlehandedly sparked the mall goth scene, the soundtrack was also kind of a fucking poseur. Out of all the artists featured, only The Cure would be considered true goth among those for whom such things matter, with “Burn”—the sole original song recorded expressly for the movie (and one of the last truly great Cure tunes)—finding Robert Smith in classic self-immolation mode over a lost love. Kicking off the album with the echoing shrieks of distant birds (The Crow, get it?), “Burn” forever builds to, but never quite reaches, the catharsis it seems to promise. It’s the perfect companion for what is, essentially, the film version of a Cure song—especially seeing as The Crow’s comic book creator, James O’Barr, regularly wove the band’s lyrics into his work. Its epic, relentless chest-pounding also suits a movie that’s basically about how the world is shit and only you feel things.
Not surprisingly, O’Barr was also a big Joy Division fan, often naming chapters of the comic after songs by the post-punk goth-rock progenitors and even dedicating his book to the late Ian Curtis. Yet somewhat surprisingly, Joy Division itself isn’t on the soundtrack. Instead, music supervisor Jeff Most approached Joy Division fan—and contemporary goth icon—Trent Reznor to cover “Dead Souls,” which he did in suitably Trent Reznor-y fashion, transforming Curtis’ stately, haunted croon into strained, half-orgasmic screams and slowing everything down to a drunken nightclub crawl. Like Moby’s version of “New Dawn Fades” recorded for the Heat score the very next year, it’s arguably become more widely known than the original. It also undoubtedly led scores of listeners, including me, to seek out the source.
The same probably can’t be said for Rollins Band’s “Ghostrider,” which takes Suicide’s tense, ominous ode to another comic book hero given supernatural powers of vengeance, then transforms it into a wailing dirge, with Henry Rollins bellowing like a bellicose Jim Morrison over relentless wah-wah shredding. (Although, probably no need for subtlety for a scene in which Bai Ling burns an eyeball to inhale its “powers.”) It was years before I even realized it was a cover, and not just some song deemed too silly to merit inclusion on Weight.
As far as true goth goes, however, Reznor and The Cure are pretty much it. It’s definitely splitting hairs, but the Crow soundtrack leans far more toward the goth-ish subgenre of industrial rock. Of the many bands plying that formula of thick guitars over pounding drum machines that briefly bubbled to the mainstream in the mid-’90s—Ministry, KMFDM, Stabbing Westward—Machines Of Loving Grace was definitely one of them. The inclusion of “Golgotha Tenement Blues” here represented the group’s biggest moment in the spotlight, even if that moment was everyone briefly checking the CD case to see if it was Nine Inch Nails.
Nevertheless, both that track and Thrill Kill Kult’s “After The Flesh” were many grunge kids’ first introduction to industrial music—the truly dark and sleazy breed, of which NIN offered a slightly more emotional, palatable strain. Thrill Kill Kult even scored a plum spot in the film itself, performing on stage just before the climactic shoot-out. That scene probably cemented the idea of “industrial” in young, impressionable minds as the seething music of black-clad sex demons, writhing around in tight pants and motorcycle caps.
The Crow is also heavy on metal—the mid-’90s, alt-version of it, anyway—epitomized here by Helmet’s “Milktoast.” A slightly different rendition of “Milquetoast” from Helmet’s third album, Betty, it’s a song that feels as quintessentially 1994 as a chain wallet and gas station attendant shirt. With its balance of churning aggro riffs and disenfranchised, diary-poem lyrics, it feels very much like the soundtrack’s emotional centerpiece, neatly straddling the line between fury and regret that Draven walks. Obviously, Atlantic Records thought so, too, as it was one of the handful of tracks chosen for an “official” Crow video—a typical, instantly dated mélange of movie scenes awkwardly woven over Page Hamilton’s grimacing.
Notably less germane are the inclusion of songs by Pantera and Rage Against The Machine, who seem to be here solely thanks to corporate synergy. Pantera’s Far Beyond Driven shot to No. 1 the week before the Crow’s soundtrack was released, where it similarly served as a gateway for many alt-rock kids to more “extreme” music. But its version of Portland hardcore legend Poison Idea’s “The Badge”—while great for some feckless, fuck-the-police fuming over being told you can’t skate behind the 7/11—was a real mood killer on an album that’s mostly about hating yourself. I’d hazard a guess it was probably the most frequently skipped track on the album.
Similarly, Rage Against The Machine offers up a rerecording of one of its earliest-known songs in “Darkness,” a jazzy little rap-metal ditty about the Native American genocide, featuring a spoken-word breakdown on how “AIDS is killing the entire African nation.” Sure, maybe it seems a little off-topic for a movie about a zombie rocker killing interchangeable gangsters to avenge his girlfriend’s murder—and as such, you don’t hear more than a few seconds of it in the actual movie. But you see, it’s all part of the rich tapestry of gross injustice against which The Crow is rebelling, man. More importantly, Rage Against The Machine’s debut went triple platinum the year before, and nabbing this B side almost certainly would have boosted interest in the soundtrack. (But also, the tapestry.)
To its credit, that synergy swings both ways. The Crow soundtrack also boosted lesser-known artists, like For Love Not Lisa, an Oklahoma-based hard-alterna-whatever-rock group that released a couple albums, went Christian, then more or less disappeared into post-grunge obscurity afterward. Its “Slip Slide Melting” occupies a slot that any number of similar-sounding, funnily named, back-half-of-120 Minutes alumni probably could have (Low Pop Suicide, Green Apple Quick Step, Greta, Nudeswirl—tragically, I could go on), but it acquits itself more than admirably amid some much bigger names here. Most groups can’t even say that.
Ditto Los Angeles shoegaze group Medicine, which scored the other big cameo in the film, playing in one of those cool ’90s dance clubs where rusty chains hung from the ceilings and every band was backed by an off-stage industrial welder. In the movie, Medicine was fronted by lead singer Beth Thompson, but the version of “Time Baby” that made it to the album features guest vocals from Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser (thus putting Medicine next to Felt in the very short list of bands whose other songs I liked, but was always disappointed didn’t sound as good as the one with her voice on it). I’m guessing “Time Baby 3” also made it to a lot of ’94-era mixtapes, handed to girls by sensitive boys who didn’t want to come on too strong. On a weird side note, Brad Laner briefly formed a version of Medicine in 2003 that featured Shannon Lee—Brandon Lee’s sister—so its connection to The Crow proved to be a lifelong thing.
The Crow also gave a boost to alt-rock elders who were no longer quite on the bleeding edge. By 1994, The Jesus And Mary Chain’s best days were already behind it, and that summer’s Stoned And Dethroned would trade its feedback-laden squalls for strummy music made for fading into the din of a coffee shop. But “Snakedriver”—a barnstorming, sleazy B side that otherwise had only surfaced on the rarities compilation The Sound Of Speed by the time it appeared here—proved that the group still had plenty of bite left. On a more personal note, it was also my first introduction to what would soon become one of my all-time favorite bands. To this day, “Snakedriver” remains my favorite JAMC song—a lifetime of enjoyment from a band I might have missed out on otherwise, all stemming from a song that plays for half a second while a guy named Funboy makes out in a bar.
The same slow ebb was setting in for Violent Femmes, which had very recently eulogized its own artistic peak with the preemptive career retrospective Add It Up (1981-1993). Better known for a more uptempo form of desperate yearning, Violent Femmes took it down several notches for “Color Me Once,” a gray, drizzly number that’s as lyrically abstract as its title. In the film, it’s just indiscernible background noise for a scene set in the world’s saddest bar, yet on the album, it provides a nice breather from all the thrashing and teeth-gnashing—and you could probably credit it with the minor MTV popularity of the similarly creepy “Breaking Up” from that year’s New Times.
But of course, if there’s one group that benefited the most from The Crow—and The Crow from it—it has to be Stone Temple Pilots. “Big Empty,” boosted by the band’s MTV Unplugged performance the year before, served as the entry point for many to the soundtrack, while also being its biggest outlier. After all, Stone Temple Pilots were like Pearl Jam for dudes who were more into cars than pro-choice rallies. Most of them probably would have kicked the ass of the first guy they saw wearing Crow makeup.
Nevertheless, this slide-blues slow burn—added at the last minute, after the band’s original contribution, “Only Dying,” was deemed inappropriate in the wake of Lee’s death—conveys its own sense of crepuscular wallowing. For several months there, you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing Scott Weiland crooning that her dizzy head was “conscience-laden” and thinking about your own moody girlfriend (whose silence was not part of some deep, emotional searching, by the way; you were just awkward teenagers). That relentless exposure was greatly responsible for the Crow soundtrack topping the Billboard charts its first week out, at least partially responsible for the smash success of Purple later that summer, and 100 percent responsible for poor stage crews having to drag out a big-ass rocking chair during every STP show.
The same can’t really be said for the album’s other most obvious misfit, Jane Siberry’s “It Can’t Rain All The Time.” In the film, it’s a song written by Draven himself and performed by his band, Hangman’s Joke, in an appropriately Joy Division-esque rendition. But on record, it’s jazz-pop chanteuse Siberry’s version that closes out the soundtrack on a sappy, New Age note (for anyone who didn’t already press stop after Medicine, that is), one that seems like a calculated bid for a slightly older audience. And as incongruous as it feels after the thrashing Sturm und Drang of everything that preceded it, that’s nothing compared to the video, in which Siberry wanders through a room composed entirely of candelabras presumably rented from Celine Dion, intercut with scenes of Lee leaping from rooftops.
As the dangling bait of Stone Temple Pilots and Helmet did for so many grunge kids, could the Crow soundtrack have snared just as many adult-contemporary fans and resurrected them as goths? Unlikely, but the album’s dark powers are undeniable. Three weeks after its release, The Crow supplanted Tim McGraw’s Not A Moment Too Soon on the Billboard 200 and became one amid the handful of rock records in 1994 to challenge the fluffy-fascist reign of Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton, and Ace Of Base. Meanwhile, the popularity of the film, album, and shit with Brandon Lee’s face on it helped push the goth subculture deep into the suburbs, where it found a bunch of waiting recruits in pissy kids still brooding over Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Between The Crow and Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” video—debuting just two weeks after the movie’s release—a quarter of the teenagers in America probably spent the summer of ’94 sweating their asses off in black vinyl pants.
In the short-term, that set the stage for the meteoric rise of Marilyn Manson the next year, and a sharp increase in the number of parents worrying about whether their son’s eyebrows would grow back. But in a more real and lasting way, the Crow soundtrack sent its pre-blog-and-Napster listeners down a hole of discovery, cracking the vault on a wealth of post-punk, new wave, dream pop, industrial, and alt-metal bands that stretched backward and forward across the decades, widening their musical education well beyond flannel-draped guitar rock.
Even now, more than 20 years later—long after Alternative Nation outgrew its goth phase and The Crow devolved into a franchise of increasingly risible sequels—the soundtrack’s legacy thrives. It’s not only a time capsule of a generation’s burning, nigh supernatural angst; it’s also the touchstone that introduced so many to music’s gloomier corners. Some of us lingered longer than others.