A few months ago, my brother presented a special Best Song Ever feature on the music of Veronica Mars. As he hinted at in the context of his article, there most likely wouldn’t have been a Veronica without a Buffy. The show began as a film, a film whose witty and ingenious script was sabotaged by studio involvement and selfish actors. Creator and nerd hero Joss Whedon got a second crack at it, however, spawning one of the hippest teen horror gothic romance shows ever to hit the small screen. From the very beginning, music was a big part of the show. Mind you, this is before teen television shows were in bed with music labels, and in the case of the WB, one and the same thing. (You ever wonder why Smallville had episodes where they just played R.E.M. or Depeche Mode?)
The music on Buffy the Vampire Slayer didn’t exactly have rosy beginnings. San Diego band Sprung Monkey appeared as the Bronze house band (being the local hangout for all the teenagers). Thank goodness the show was good and was able to survive that mishap. Later in the series things started to shape up, though sometimes not to the advantage of the bands in question. Four Star Mary, a band from Los Angeles by way of everywhere else, took second billing as the unseen rock force behind Seth Green’s band, Dingoes Ate My Baby. By the midway point, Joss was in peak form, writing and running not only great episodes, but also contributing ideas for music cues (he must have, there’s no other logical explanation). Of course, hindsight is 20/20. Looking back on those early shows, it’s somewhat painful to see things different than what you remembered. For instance, David Boreanaz’s acting in his premiere episode was magnificently terrible. Thank Mayor Wilkins he got better!
By the last few seasons of its still too short, yet somehow perfect, run of seven, the music got better and better. The Breeders showed up at the Bronze, as did Aimee Mann. Even the orchestral cues took a major leap forward, with Robert Duncan (rather than composer mainstay Christophe Beck) providing a still stirring ‘last battle’ theme song called “Slayer Victory.” Whedon’s vision for the show from the beginning had to do with turning the tables on the ‘girl alone in the dark alleyway’ horror cliché. His messages of female empowerment went all throughout the series, leading up to one of the best finales in television history (save for maybe Six Feet Under). Along the way, the music chosen for the show tended to reflect that vision, while remaining somewhat ‘local,’ choosing music from a lot of Southern California bands.
“Already Met You” by Superfine (from the episode Teacher’s Pet)
Superfine never really hit the big time. They’re one of a handful of SoCal groups whose best moments came from having not only a song appear on Buffy, but actually performing the track on the show. The song is a fantastically bilious look at new relationships. The humble narrator / lead vocalist goes on a date, only to realize that the female in question reminds him not only of his last girlfriend, but every other girlfriend before her. Of course, Xander, one of the central characters in the show, was never very lucky in love, first exhibited here as he is seduced by his teacher, a ginormous praying mantis in the form of a hot chick. Poor Xander.
“Job’s Eyes” by Far (from the episode The Pack)
It’s about time that we started reevaluating the music of Sacramento band Far. Overlooked and ahead of their time, Far was signed to Epic for a stellar album called Tin Cans with Strings To You. Far straddled the musical hump between post-hardcore and post-rock, and in doing so were a band without a country. “Job’s Eyes” is not only a spectacular epic of a rock song about Job (the biblical figure without much to cheer about, not the magician on Arrested Development, Gob), it’s also incredibly well used in the episode. One thing at which Joss was brilliant, and there were many, was turning the figurative into the literal. For instance, we all say that high school is hell, but the central concept of evil in the show made that a reality. Sunnydale High School sat atop a ‘hellmouth,’ literally making high school hell. In The Pack, Xander inadvertently ends up entranced along with a clique of bullies, acting like a wolf alongside Eion Bailey (the Paul Rudd lookalike who ended up in Almost Famous as Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, and also in Band of Brothers) and Jennifer Sky (who was in Cleopatra 2525, remember that one kiddies?) Singer Jonah Matranga veers between menace and purring calm, making it a perfect fit for the situation.
“Stupid Thing” by Nickel (from the episode School Hard)
Nickel is another one of those SoCal bands that got a chance to play at the Bronze. I’ve heard nothing else from Nickel other than the two songs that appear in the show, and the other one didn’t leave much of an impression on me. “Stupid Thing,” however, is a fascinating song in a few respects. It seems almost a direct descendant of Split Enz’s “One Step Ahead,” but with lyrics that tell a slightly different story. The ‘Stupid Thing’ in question was calling his ex, what the singer calls ‘a moment of weakness.’ Aptly enough, the song appears in the episode that marked the first appearance of Spike, famously ending up to be one of Buffy’s forbidden vampire lovers.
“Sugar Water” by Cibo Matto (When She Was Bad)
“Sugar Water” was a breath of fresh air from Cibo Matto after several uptempo punk and food inspired tracks from their debut album. The song is slow, slinky and seductive, in other words, the perfect accompaniment for the newly returned from summer vacation slayer, Miss Buffy Summers herself. Buffy hasn’t dealt well with the trauma of her ‘near death / back from the dead’ experience and she’s taking it out on her friends. While Cibo Matto play at the Bronze (and yes, that’s Sean Lennon playing guitar on stage), Buffy invites friend Xander to dance, winding him up and ultimately trampling on his emotions. Oh, that wacky slayer!
“Transylvanian Concubine” by Rasputina (Surprise)
There was bound to be some kind of song with a reference to the genre at some point, right? At least Whedon didn’t go for the cliché of playing Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” for Oz’s introduction. Rasputina captures the idea of ‘gothic’ with every note. What else would you expect from a band made up of three cellists? And who would you expect to be the subject of the scene involving “Transylvanian Concubine?” Why, the charming and batshit crazy Drusilla, that’s who! The song has a double meaning as it is also paired with the episode in which Buffy first sleeps with Angel, and there end up to dire consequences. There goes Joss with his life analogies again!
“Got the Love” by Average White Band (Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered)
Possibly one of the funniest episodes of the series, “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered” takes a slight detour from the season’s story arc to present a story revolving around Xander. Reeling from the breakup of his secretive relationship with Cordelia, Xander seeks out Amy the witch to cast a love spell. As would be expected, there are disastrous results. The love spell works on everyone but Cordelia. The Average White Band’s “Got the Love” plays during the slow motion entrance of Xander at the onset of the spell’s effects, turning the awkward second fiddle into the object of every girl’s affections. And there’s Sarah Michelle Gellar in a really skimpy bathrobe. That’s all I’m sayin’.
“O Soave Fanciulla” by Giacomo Puccini (Passion)
Puccini’s aria of love from the first act of La Boheme is juxtaposed against one of the most heartbreaking situations in the series, the loss of Giles’ lady love, just at the moment when they are about to reconcile, proving just how evil Angel’s other persona could be. It’s one of the few times in a popular show when a pop song wasn’t used for an emotional moment (the only other one I can think of off the top of my head is Mozart’s “Requiem” used in the third season finale of Smallville). Nothing beats the anticipation and drama of Giles ascending the stairs to Puccini’s “O Soave Fanciulla” and finding Jenny Calendar in his bed with a snapped neck. Damn, that’s cold.
“My Way” by Sex Pistols (Gary Oldman version) (Lover’s Walk)
I’ve always loved the Sex Pistols’ / Sid Vicious’ version of “My Way,” and it is a fitting theme song for Spike as he gets his `balls’ back and leaves Sunnydale on a quest to get Drusilla back. Funnily enough, Joss didn’t use the original Pistols’ version. Instead, he used Gary Oldman’s version from the film, Sid and Nancy. To this day, I don’t know which couple is scarier.
“Wild Horses” by The Sundays (The Prom)
Yet another cover version makes it way to the Buffy proscenium, this time being the Sundays’ version of the Rolling Stones classic, “Wild Horses.” The transition from season three to season four was a big leap for the show, going from the confines of high school to the world of college and beyond. After surviving the `hell’ of college and breaking up with the `love of her life / afterlife’ on prom night, Buffy had to have some good things coming her way or she probably would have jumped in front of an oncoming bus. Those good things came in the form of recognition from her peers, a touching and unexpected moment, and a romantic gesture from her beau. That gesture occurred just as “Wild Horses” began to play, ensuring there’s not a dry eye in the room whenever the episode is played, no matter how many times its played.
“Memory of a Free Festival” by David Bowie (Freshman)
Some of the songs from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are meant to convey action and energy, generally played by a young and enthusiastic band. Then there are a few songs every now and then that seem placed just to make Buffy’s watcher, Giles, seem really old. This, in turn, makes me feel really old. One of the songs chosen is David Bowie’s “Memory of a Free Festival” from his Space Oddity album. You see, back in the day, Giles used to be called “Ripper.” He was a hellion and dabbled in the dark arts. Then he grew up to be Professor Snape. Okay, not really. But there’s a great scene in one of the episodes where Oz is flipping through Giles’ record collection. Giles tries to argue that they have more important things to discuss at which point Oz points at his copy of the Velvet Underground’s Loaded and says, “even this one?”
“Tales of Brave Ulysses” by Cream (Forever)
This is another one of those “Giles is old” songs, and one that had significant consequences for Buffy and her family. You see, this song was playing when Buffy’s mom and Giles were hanging out, affected by a bad batch of candy bars that regressed everyone to adolescent behavior. The two ended up sleeping together, a fact that wasn’t discovered until Buffy was able to read thoughts in a later episode. “Ulysses” is kind of a literary major’s version of “Sunshine of Your Love,” a precursor to the mighty Zep’s epic tales set to proto-metal guitars. Far out, man!
“Pictures of Success” by Rilo Kiley (Older & Far Away)
Although the song didn’t have much significance to the scene in particular, it did have an interesting connection to the show’s history. You see, Blake Sennett, the guitarist and songwriter from both Rilo Kiley and the Elected, appeared in Buffy as Michael, a young warlock who performed witchcraft with Willow. I don’t know how many people go from actor to musician in the same show. It might be a first.
No other single artist represented the power of the feminine on the show more than Sarah McLachlan. Whedon went to the McLachlan well twice for season finales. “Full of Grace” was the denouement for “Becoming, Part 2” in which Buffy has to kill Angel, just as his soul is restored (man, Joss really has to twist that knife, doesn’t he?). At the end of that second season, you really get the sense that life for Buffy is really up in the air, that she might never fully recover, or even return to her home, family or friends. “The Prayer of St. Francis” doesn’t appear on any of Sarah’s albums, and consists of what you might imagine. McLachlan sets the words of the famous prayer to music that acted as the soundtrack to Xander saving the world from Willow. Ah, friendship.
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