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Repo Man: And Yet, I Blame Society

November 12, 2016

At the height of the Reagan era, the 1984 movie Repo Man offered a character, Otto (played by a young Emilio Estevez), that embodied all the anger-fueled angst of the period’s idiot youth, a term I use not in insult but rather in honor of the confused, narcissistic life phase I think most all of us pass through.  During that phase – which it appears from recent events not all of us outgrow unfortunately – everybody outside our narrow clique is viewed as de facto stupid and either owing us something or needing to get the fuck out of our way.  It is dire stuff… and it is easily one of the funniest films made in my lifetime.  It was one of the first DVDs I ever bought and I still consider it a must-own.

Repo Man (movie poster)

The movie makes little attempt to follow a cogent plot – something about dangerous decaying alien bodies smuggled off of a secret government base in the trunk of a Chevy Malibu – and instead simply proceeds to put Otto and his fellow oddballs into a series of one-off scenes in which they spout magnificently-crafted odes to cynicism, pessimism, and human foible.  An internet search will show that almost every line of dialogue in the film has been deemed quotable out of context.  Harry Dean Stanton especially, as Otto’s mentor and keeper of the Repo Man code, utters golden nugget after golden nugget.  It is one of my never-to-be-acted-upon fantasies to be insolent, boorish, and brave enough to speak like Harry Dean does in this movie.

But this isn’t a movie review, it’s a soundtrack review, and the Repo Man soundtrack is as wonderfully foul, crude, and filled with unfocused energy as is the movie.  It was my introduction to the West Coast punk scene of the early 1980s, a scene dedicated to finding, isolating and surgically removing the hidden “cerebralism” from the late-70s punk of the Sex Pistols, the Dead Boys, and the Slits in order to focus more intently on the nihilism and the bile.  As you can imagine, it’s gloriously jaunty stuff.  Let’s dive in:

Repo Man (soundtrack)

Iggy Pop: “Repo Man” – By no means a great Iggy Pop song, I’d nonetheless deem it a good one.  The movie uses it twice, once without lyrics during the opening credits and again at the end, this time with Iggy’s inimitable voice.  Only the version with vocals is included on the soundtrack album, but I think the instrumental is actually more important to the film itself.  Its wholesale usurpation of the “Peter Gunn” riff sets the tone for the movie, evoking urban decay surrounded by vast empty desert.  I most like this song for one lyric however, a line I always remember but seldom can place until I hear it and am again reminded where it comes from:  “I’m looking for the joke with a microscope.”  In context, the song implies the search is doomed to fail.  The sentiment fit the Reagan era well, and it fits again now, 30-plus years later.

Circle Jerks: “Coup d’Etat” – In the movie, this song soundtracks a street mosh made up of angry suburban kids.  Its relentless energy, driving rhythm and shouted vocals are perfect for the scene.  The naiveté of the lyrics, seemingly jumping back and forth between describing a right-wing military takeover and a leftist anarchic people power uprising, is priceless.  The anti-idealism of the song’s non-politics deftly encapsulates the nihilism of the early 80’s punk movement… and the breakneck riff is freaking awesome!  “Attack their embassy” indeed …

Circle Jerks – Coup d’Etat (1983):

Suicidal Tendencies: “Institutionalized” – This is probably the most widely known song on the soundtrack and its evocation of young white alienation certainly captures the film’s mood.  That said, the song barely registers during the actual movie.  As such, I’m going to set aside review of the song itself to share a related personal story:  Back in the mid-1980s, even we Utah-bred youngsters who recognized our ignorance of the broader world always took solace in the idea that we were way less sheltered than our neighbors to the north, the backwards Idahoans.  Even so, I duly embraced for years a story told me in 1984 in Peru by a fellow missionary who hailed from Boise.  Elder Rick wowed me with the tale of a band called Joy Division whose vocalist had killed himself, leaving his remaining bandmates to reform under the “Suicidal Tendencies” moniker.  The story was perfect, with a twist of the sardonic that really appealed.  It would be near 20 years before the intrusion of the internet would steal that fantastic musical anecdote from me.

Black Flag: “TV Party” – First, this song rocks.  The listener has no choice but to get pumped.  In the movie, protagonist Otto has just lost his job and girlfriend and is sitting on the curb feeling put upon, but once he begins to sing this song to himself he has no choice but to get up, punch the air, and invite the universe to “suck my ass.” Beautiful.  I like to think Henry Rollins and Black Flag penned this masterpiece as simultaneously a biting criticism and a euphoric celebration of the clueless aimlessness of their angry white suburban fan base.  I’d argue that, even three decades later, this on-its-face jokey tune still perfectly captures the uninformed anxiety of those majority middle-America youth who inhabit the hundreds of in-between non-rural, non-urban midsize towns speckling the U.S. map.  Judge for yourself:

Black Flag – TV Party (1981)

====================================

We’re gonna have a TV party, all right, tonight!

We’ve got nothing better to do, than watch TV and have a couple of brews.

We sit glued to the TV set all night, and every night / Why go into the outside world at all, it’s such a fright

TV news shows what it’s like out there, it’s a scare / You can go out if you want, we wouldn’t dare

I wouldn’t be without my TV for a day, or even a minute / I don’t even bother to use my brain any more, there’s nothing left in it

====================================

Circle Jerks: “When the Shit Hits the Fan” – The “lounge” version of this song on the soundtrack pales in comparison to the original angry version on the Jerks’ 1983 album Golden Shower of Hits, but it allows for the best inside joke of the whole film as Otto reacts to the band’s live rendition during one scene with the mumbled, “I can’t believe I used to like these guys.”  As an economics major and son of an economics professor, this song really spoke to me with its invocation of unemployment lines, a sluggish economy, and waning social security.  There’s a huge nostalgia pull for me too as I clearly remember my grandmother standing in line to bring home those government giveaway “five pound blocks of cheese” about which the CJs croon.

A few final notes:

— The version of “Pablo Picasso” here by something called Burning Sensations is colossally lame in comparison to the original by The Modern Lovers.  That said, it was here that I first heard the song and I cannot deny my then youthful pleasure at its bold leveraging of the word “asshole.”

— The songs by LA-based Latino punk band The Plugz are excellent, and it was a thrill to me personally, being just back from Peru and exercising my newly-acquired bilingual skills, to hear good-time rock and roll sung in Spanish.

— Beyond that novelty however, the Plugz’ original instrumental background music written and recorded for Repo Man, and which is only sampled as the song “Reel Ten” on the soundtrack album, is brilliant.  Unmistakably influenced by Ennio Morricone, the Plugz evoke a vast parched desert with just enough shiny suburban pop sheen on top to relocate the arid featurelessness to the western Anytown in which the movie is set.  I would go in big-time for an entire album offering up that atmosphere.  I wonder where the Plugz are now …

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film-soundtrack-festival

This post is part of the Film (Soundtrack) Festivalthe big-hearted brainchild of Bruce at Vinyl Connection.  You are cordially invited to check out all the entries here.

From → Music

7 Comments
  1. Thanks for keeping me up even later. But many more appreciative noises for reminding me of ‘Repo Man’. I recall being knocked out by its fried punkiness way back and reckon I’d enjoy it again today.

    Incidentally, there’s something about the alienation and rage theme that seems to resonate this week. Can’t think why. Incidentally, we just finished watching ‘Network’ from even longer ago. I wanted to post on FB to the whole USA instructing everyone to watch it, like, now. Can’t think why.

    Good night and good luck.

    • Your comment spurred me to rewatch Network tonight. Is it good or bad that it actually improved my mood by allowing me to grasp desperately hold of the idea that today’s angst might not be as exceptional as my here-and-now bias would cause me to think? There could be comfort in believing that we’ve actually ALWAYS been totally fucked up.

      I’m mad as hell… but maybe gonna go ahead and take it for just a bit longer?

  2. A friend was just talking about this movie the other day – he was talking about early examples of product placement and referenced this film. He was saying Emilio might have been in a store in this one and all the products (instead of saying Coca-Cola or Oreo) just said SODA or COOKIES with generic labels.
    So I was intrigued to watch it after that discussion – and now doubly, or even triply(?) intrigued after reading this movie/soundtrack post!
    That microscope/joke line is terrific, this jaunty & unfocused energy sounds promising!

  3. Coup D’etat – ‘A push from the left, then a shove to the right’. Perfect.

    Wonderful review – I’ve seen this film about five times, but never sober enough to remember much about it apart from its general atmosphere of cynicism – it was standard university 3am watching, along with Betty Blue (for wholly different reasons). Repo always had a much much better ST. You’ve inspired me to buy this film.

    Btw. do you know the band Off! which is where Keith Morris is currently plying his trade, I think you’d love ’em (if you don’t know them already).

    • Listening to Off! now, and loving it — and the drummer from Earthless!!! I had not heard of them. Thank you for the steer. Likewise have never seen Baby Blue – just read the Wikipedia entry for it. Holy hell!

      • Aren’t they great? There’s a track called ‘Death Trip on the Party Train’ which just jazzes my jazzicles.

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