Why no television soundtrack has ever topped ‘Twin Peaks’

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2WlryiZ3dAWith cult series Twin Peaks returning to screens today after a 25 year absence, JIM POE revisits the TV soundtrack that has influenced electronic music like no other.  

Twin Peaks. If you know the original series, a few things jumped into your mind right away as you read those words. Cherry pie. Log Lady. “She’s dead… wrapped in plastic.” A dwarf dancing in a red room. Audrey Horne tying a cherry stem into a knot with her tongue. “This is a damn good cup of coffee.”

“That theme tends to stay with you for days, or years, nagging at your subconscious”

But underneath all that, before you even had a chance to think, something else creeped into your consciousness: the softly moaning synths of ‘Laura Palmer’s Theme’. Even if you didn’t know its formal name, you know which one I mean. Those ghostly drifting chords, filled with both sadness and dread, that always make your armhair stand up.

If you’ve ever watched the series, whether when it first aired like I did or catching up with it last week, that theme tends to stay with you for days, or years, nagging at your subconscious, haunting your dreams – as insidious as it is unforgettable.

The ‘Twin Peaks Theme’, which plays over the titles, is almost as definitive, achieving blissful perfection in its jazzy ambience and romanticism.

You don’t mind listening to it over and over, not only as it starts each episode but as it plays multiple times throughout. Like all the best ambient music it seems to reveal more the more you listen, and it brilliantly embodies the story’s quirkiness and its melancholy sense of longing and loss.

The genius of Angelo Badalamenti

Those iconic themes are the work of Angelo Badalamenti, the composer who’s collaborated with Twin Peaks creator David Lynch on most of his films starting with 1986’s classic Blue Velvet.

Since Twin Peaks premiered in 1990, Badalamenti’s score has influenced countless other TV and film soundtracks – from Air’s music for Sophia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides to Stranger Things. The soundtrack album was a huge seller, and has had a far-reaching effect on pop and electronic music. It’s the best TV soundtrack ever.

“The soundtrack album was a huge seller, and has had a far-reaching effect on pop and electronic music. It’s the best TV soundtrack ever.”

The Brooklyn-born Badalamenti was already in his fifties when he worked on Twin Peaks and had toiled mostly in obscurity as a composer before that. It’s one of those little miracles of culture that he suddenly became a music icon with these intoxicating fusions of ambient, jazz, rockabilly and dream pop that still sound so fresh almost 30 years later.

It has a lot to do with David Lynch. The director was the one who insisted that Badalamenti and singer Julee Cruise work together on Blue Velvet.

Lynch, with his famous sense of the uncanny and his stylistic perfectionism, dictated the mood and feel of their composition based on his obsession with ‘Song to the Siren’, a Tim Buckley cover by legendary ambient/goth band This Mortal Coil. Lynch told Badalamenti he wanted a song for Blue Velvet “that had no beginning and no end.” He also wrote the lyrics; the result was the angelic ‘Mysteries of Love’.

The three again collaborated on Cruise’s 1989 debut album, Floating Into the Night. That album featured ‘Falling’, which was adapted by Badalamenti into an instrumental for Twin Peaks’ theme song the following year. Thanks to the popularity of the series, Cruise and Badalamenti became massively influential on leftfield and electronic pop; you can hear it all over these days from Lana Del Rey to FKA Twigs to Flight Facilities.

Lynch was very involved with the creation of ‘Laura Palmer’s Theme’, as Badalamenti reveals in a wonderful interview complete with keyboard accompaniment.

Lynch’s infatuation with ’50s and ’60s pop also inspired the vocal music that pops up in certain episodes of Twin Peaks.

Cruise’s ‘Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart’ and the spooky ‘The World Spins’, are both performed onstage at the The Roadhouse in the crucial ‘Lonely Souls’ episode; the love ballad ‘Just You’ is sung by actors James Marshall, Lara Flynn Boyle and Sheryl Lee. Those vocal interludes, along with Badalamenti’s riffs on cool jazz, blues and country that make up much of the rest of the score, complement the enigmatic theme music and add so much to the series.

“Badalamenti’s score is even more remarkable for being done in a popular format”

Badalamenti’s score is even more remarkable for being done in a popular format. Twin Peaks is as much melodrama as macabre, as much influenced by soap operas and other TV drama of the time as by the avant garde. The score pays tribute to the kitschy but infectious music of ’70s and ’80s TV, both in its swooning romance and its repetitive simplicity, and elevates it into something ethereal and majestic.

This is especially due to the eerily inhuman synths that overlay Badalamenti’s warm and tranquil Fender Rhodes keyboard. It’s an effective sonic metaphor for the way the supernatural realm of good and evil spirits arches over over the cosy rural charm of the town of Twin Peaks in the story.

That electronic element in particular has made Badalamenti’s music for Twin Peaks a touchstone for music producers.

The ‘Twin Peaks’ effect

Moby, of course, sampled ‘Laura Palmer’s Theme’ on ‘Go’, which became his first big hit in 1991, the year the original series was cancelled after its second season.

‘Go’ would be great even without the sample, thanks to the crisp, broken-beat techno rhythm, the gorgeous gospelly piano riffs and the powerful “Go!” chant; but Badalamenti’s synths really take it to outer space and make it a classic of the era.

“Badalamenti’s synths really take [‘Go’] to outer space and make it a classic of the era”

It was just so unsettling and wild to hear those familiar chords emanating from speaker stacks at raves in inner-city warehouses that year. Other than its evocative beauty, it seemed to say it all about rave music’s ability to consume anything from pop culture and make it funky; there was something heroic about it.

Later, DJ Shadow sampled the Giant saying “It is happening again,” along with Badalementi’s chilling synth drones, multiple times on his landmark album Endtroducing. It lent the album the feel of a surreal Lynchian narrative.

The KLF, Sinead O’Connor, Marilyn Manson and ambient producer Biosphere are amongst the many others who’ve also sampled the soundtrack. LCD Soundsystem interpolated the main theme at the start of ‘New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down’ during their last concert in 2012. Nicolas Jaar’s 2012 Essential Mix of the Year famously made use of that Badalamenti interview at the start.

Just the other day, Flying Lotus performed a remix of the ‘Twin Peaks Theme’ live in Seattle – perhaps a tribute to the show’s setting in Washington, certainly a nod to the excitement over the imminent new series.

With Twin Peaks set to become a pop-culture phenomenon all over again, no doubt its tremendous impact on music will only continue to grow.

Jim Poe is a writer, DJ, and editor based in Sydney. He tweets from @fivegrand1.