Better Stranger Things: The Upside Down Playlist

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed all eight episodes of Stranger Things, and look forward to season two. Heaps done right: Matthew Modine & Winona Ryder as characters their 80s characters conceivably would have become, as adults. Banana seat bikes. D&D. Dimensional travel. Clairvoyance. Budding adolescence. David Harbour, formerly known as the only good thing in The Equalizer, is mostly the best thing again. ITC Benguiat font. If you ever wanted a six-hour expansion of M83’s 2011 video for “Midnight City,” here it was.

And yeah, I get how Stranger Things was homage, rather than original storytelling, for the most part. According to the Duffer Brothers, they were previously rejected for the job of rebooting Stephen King’s It. Maybe they pitched Stranger Things to Netflix like this:

Netflix: whatcha got?

Duffer Brothers: “Happy Days,” but for Generation X.

If the goal was to make it seem as you were watching something set in the 80s, that goal was met, from the shag carpets to the telephones to the haircuts, and including some nice genre rethinks that more closely match the 80s (the girl was not won, for one thing). If we were to believe we were watching something made in the 80s, though, that doesn’t happen. There’s too many jumps of the shark. I blame the music.

Today, Lakeshore Records and Netflix release the “Stranger Things” soundtrack. For the main theme, Texas duo Survive deliver an almost note-perfect mash up of John Carpenter’s theme to the The Thing and Vangelis’s “End Titles” music to Blade Runner. For fans of these movies – and I shouted and pointed in Episode 6 at The Thing poster, a movie later being watched by their science teacher at home – this is a tall task. For the most part, Survive stay out of the way like every decent scorer, delivering soft synth pulses at tender moments and menacing tones during horror-filled scenes. It’s spot-on. They’re not the problem. But I wished they had been a problem. True homage to 80s horror/fantasy films would have included overbearingly present electronic music. See: Michael Mann (who, coincidentally, used a Moby song for his movie Heat).

“Stranger Things” does such an swell job of keeping the soundtrack current up to a point, with The Clash, and Joy Division, and especially New Order’s “Elegia” – all music that would have been hitting the Indiana suburbs by 1983 – that it’s jarring when we hear Peter Gabriel’s 2010 version of Bowie’s “Heroes” in episode 3. Moby’s 1995 “When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die,” in the final episode, although it’s the best thing Moby has ever done, is equally misplaced.  There were songs recorded before 1983 that could have been used, from artists probably in much greater need of a royalty check than Gabriel & Moby, especially the latter, who began selling his Play album to car commercials and ESPN and everyone else after his abysmal Animal Rights album tanked.

An opportunity to keep Stranger Things in 1983 with more perfect music selections – however corny, because 1983 lived on corny-  was pretty much missed, I think, especially if songs like “Promises” by Naked Eyes were available. Given Eleven’s relentless fixation on that very word, a no-brainer. Then again, “Promises,” while relatively obscure, may not have been available, and it graces nearly every 80s compilation out there, so to go deeper would be better, and just as easy. Another piece of the goal, when selecting music, would be to choose something familiar, yet forgotten, that flicks that nostalgia switch without being cloying or ejecting viewers from full-1983 immersion. A popular artist’s obscure b-side, or something like this version of Neil Young’s “Sample and Hold” from his underrated Trans album. Or an obscure artist’s one near-hit.

If it was a Peter Gabriel song they wanted, and something tells me Stranger Things uses his version of Bowie’s “Heroes” because Bowie’s music is available in a way Gabriel’s is not, there’s only one choice, released in 1982, and although its lyrics address the subject of political imprisonment, they, and the soaring chorus, fit the episodic moment perfectly:

Another song that would have both slayed and brought an important 80s artist to people’s attention: Klaus Nomi was probably battling AIDS already when he sang this, for he was unfairly gone by August of 1983. Prepare to be devastated:

Released as a B-side in September of 1983, This Mortal Coil’s version of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” is essentially the Cocteau Twins and 4AD’s Ivo Watts-Russell trying to make bank – and they almost did when it broke into the UK charts for a brief moment in October of 1983. There’s a valid argument that this track is already overused on TV, and has been in a few movies, but c’mon:

Deeper: The Sound. Few people outside of Canada and Britain recall them, yet they made some wonderful, influential new wave post-punk. From 1982’s “All Fall Down” album:

So what would I have chosen? Rather than Bowie’s “Heroes,” I’d go with Comsat Angels‘ “After the Rain,” off their excellent 1982 Fiction album. You don’t know it, or you do, or you did and didn’t know it.

Rather than Moby, I might have gone with Kate Bush‘s “Breathing,” from 1980’s Never for Ever, a song about the cold war. Possibly not elegiac enough, but it builds, which the final episode’s denouement seemed to need. David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Forbidden Colours,” from Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, would also work. But being the finale song, you spend the money, and you dig up something striking for who it is, now that they suck so mightily that all memory of the music they made pre-1983 has almost vanished completely. Yup. I’m going there:

And I apologize profusely. Maybe you wanted Cyndi Lauper? Otherwise, I don’t think anyone was gonna greenlight’s PIL’s “Radio 4.” Concession? OK. You can go back to New Order:

Better things. In fact, perfect choice for final credits, and released around the same time Stranger Things is set: