Lust For Life: The Music of ‘Trainspotting’

The Trainspotting soundtrack, one of the most influential albums of the ‘90s, belongs to the rare group of film soundtracks where the songs are the score. Director Danny Boyle found success with his first feature, 1994’s Shallow Grave, by supplementing the original score with pop tracks both classic and new. With Trainspotting, he chose to eschew a composed score entirely, using only one piece specifically produced for the film for the end credits and scoring the body of the movie with pop, rock, and dance tracks from the ‘70s to the then-present.

Using source music as score was not a new phenomenon, as filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese pioneered the technique, influencing proteges like Quentin Tarantino. What makes Trainspotting unique is the fact that the music (and thus the “score”) is made up entirely of hip, propulsive energy, transforming the tale of wayward Scottish youth into a non-stop party. At the same time, Boyle’s visuals and screenwriter John Hodge’s script never let the characters or the audience off the hook, presenting what was at the time (and arguably still is) the most honest depiction of what it is to be a heroin addict. As Ewan McGregor’s Mark Renton explains, “People think it’s all about misery and desperation and death and all that shit, which is not to be ignored, but what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it.”

Trainspotting’s soundtrack epitomized “the pleasure of it,” allowing Boyle to make a film that was not a moral cautionary tale but more a work of subversion in the vein of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. At the same time, the pitch-perfect use of each song in the film gave rising stars in the UK’s Britpop music scene a bigger boost, and older acts a new life. Perhaps the biggest example of the latter is:

Track 1: “Lust for Life,” Iggy Pop

In the ‘90s, punk pioneer Iggy Pop was already considered Old Rock Royalty, as evidenced in the film when teenage Diane (Kelly McDonald) carelessly mispronounces his name. In tribute to his greatness (and his importance to the main characters, carrying over their love from Irvine Welsh’s source novel), Boyle gives “Lust For Life” the royal treatment, letting Hunt Sales’ drums bash away over the opening, energetic shot of Renton and the gang being pursued by authorities. The song continues over the following montage of the group shooting up at Mother Superior’s den, providing a bright, upbeat counterpoint to the proceedings. With the lyrics (co-penned by David Bowie) referencing famous author and known drug addict William S. Burroughs’ novel The Ticket That Exploded, “Lust For Life” makes for a perfect marriage of song and material.

Track 2: “Deep Blue Day,” Brian Eno

The scene involving Renton attempting to recover drug suppositories from “the worst toilet in Scotland” is still hard to watch, with Kave Quinn’s production design being near gag inducing. Suddenly, once Renton is (surreally, hallucinatorially) inside the toilet, Boyle shows us a gorgeous freshwater landscape, and soothes the audience with Eno’s dreamy synths. The juxtaposition of visuals and music against the scene is even more brutally defined here, making the sequence one brilliantly sick joke.

Track 3: “Trainspotting,” Primal Scream

Famous at the time for their ‘60s-influenced style, Britpop-adjacent act Primal Scream perform a title track of sorts. Its usage in the film is kept subtle, underscoring Renton and Sick Boy’s park excursion, where Renton casually shoots a dog with a BB rifle that causes it to attack its sleeping owner. Underneath the pulsing drone of the song is a discordant note, a threat ready to awaken.

Track 4: “Atomic,” Sleeper

It’s unclear why the production couldn’t use the 1979 original by Blondie—perhaps the licensing costs were too much. Nevertheless, Britpop also-rans Sleeper do a serviceable cover version here. It complements the montage of Renton, Tommy, and Spud all trying (and mostly failing) to get laid, along with underlining the collaboration between Boyle’s love of the current U.K. music scene and the pop hits of the ‘70s.

Track 5: “Temptation,” New Order

Manchester-based dance pop act New Order gained international fame with “Blue Monday” but have always been hometown heroes in the U.K. Their “Temptation” barely features in the finished film, but is notably sung by Kelly Macdonald’s Diane during her morning after shower, and on Renton’s bed during his cold-turkey trip. It’s a sly nod to Diane’s underage status, compromising Renton’s infatuation with her.

Track 6: “Nightclubbing,” Iggy Pop

Michigan’s own James Newell Osterberg, Jr. turns up again, this time with a poison-pill response to his earlier usage in the film. “Nightclubbing” is in and of itself a juxtaposition song, putting ostensibly fun party-time lyrics against a plodding, droning death march of a beat. With that, Boyle’s work is already done, and the beat shuffles on through a montage wherein one of the group’s formerly clean friends, Tommy, decides to do heroin.

Track 7: “Sing,” Blur

The only truly mournful song on the soundtrack comes courtesy of quintessential Brit band Blur, taken from their first album, recorded during their shoegazing phase. It’s a Pink Floyd-esque psychedelic throwback ballad, brilliantly used by Boyle during a montage of Renton and crew stealing from various sources to get money for more skag. During the montage we’re shown the context of the opening of the film, and what once seemed like a joyous bit of young rebellion is now revealed as a pathetic escape attempt, where Renton’s laugh after being nearly run over is less defiant and more insane.

Track 8: “Perfect Day,” Lou Reed

The centerpiece of Boyle’s strategy to juxtapose hallucinatory and disturbing visuals with beautiful music comes with this 1972 waltz from Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed. It works on two levels, one being that Renton almost dying from a drug overdose definitely does not constitute a “perfect day,” and yet from his point of view, it does. It chillingly conveys the feeling of being uncaring on an uncontrollable chemical level, allowing the chaos of reality to float by as easy as Reed’s strings, piano, and honeyed vocals do.

Track 9: “Mile End,” Pulp

Pulp had existed as a band since the ’80s but didn’t find their niche until the release of their album Different Class, which occurred right before Trainspotting‘s production. As a result, they were asked to contribute a song for the film, and offered this shopping-center jingle ode to terrible living conditions within London slums. Its use in the film is a bit on the nose, when Renton’s living situation in London is less than ideal, but it’s no less welcome.

Track 10: “For What You Dream Of,” Bedrock/KYO

A big fan of house and trance music, Boyle puts the duo Bedrock’s pulsating beats into a London club scene, which is to be expected. Perhaps not so expected, however, is Renton’s voiceover assertion that in the far future “there won’t be any men or women,” brushing away the importance of gender while pal Begbie has an intensely homophobic encounter just outside the club.

Track 11: “2:1,” Elastica

Underrated female-led grunge-punk Britpop group Elastica’s contribution to the film nicely highlights Renton’s paranoia as he is tormented by his friends, who literally invade his new life in London and take over his apartment. Justine Frischmann and Donna Matthews’ intertwining vocals turn the screw ever further as the song grooves toward an uncertain end.

Track 12: “A Final Hit,” Leftfield

Boyle first married his cinematic visuals to Leftfield’s distinctive house sound during the opening titles of Shallow Grave, and the collaboration was fruitful enough to inspire Boyle to use another track from the progressive house duo for this film. “A Final Hit” was one of only two songs specifically written for the film, and it shows. Its drunk, dark synths play perfectly under the scene where Renton must test the quality of the heroin he and his gang are about to deal. The scene plays as an ironic counterpoint to the nightmarish montage seen minutes earlier where Renton forcibly kicks heroin cold turkey, featuring one of the few songs in the film that’s not on the original soundtrack album, an Underworld track called “Dark And Long (Dark Train).”

Track 13: “Born Slippy [Nuxx],” Underworld

A B-side to the techno band’s entirely different 1995 single (titled simply “Born Slippy”), “Born Slippy [Nuxx]” was intended as a lark, a goofy addition to a single release. Used by Boyle for the climactic scenes of Trainspotting, the song completely superseded its A-side in every way. The shouted vocals over a dreamy synth hit, when combined with the scene of Renton deciding to steal thousands of dollars from his friends, helps create a palpable tension. That tension is thrillingly, intoxicatingly released when the song gives way to booming percussion, relentlessly plowing forward, seemingly propelling Renton on with his theft. It’s a perfect marriage of sound and visual, tying the song to Trainspotting as thoroughly as Dick Dale’s “Misrilou” is tied to Pulp Fiction.

Track 14: “Closet Romantic,” Damon Albarn

Arguably the figureheads of the Britpop movement, Blur were at the height of popularity in England in 1996. As such, a contribution to a Britpop-heavy soundtrack like Trainspotting wasn’t going to surprise anyone. Nevertheless, Blur frontman Damon Albarn’s “Closet Romantic” is significant for being the only other piece of music specifically composed for the film, and Albarn’s sickly-sweet Casio keyboard waltz captures the movie’s playful spirit well. In a final bit of cheek, the song (and thus, the movie) ends with Albarn dryly intoning the names of every Sean Connery-starring James Bond film, lending a sly bit of satire, as Renton surely sees his actions as Connery-like. Albarn’s list of Bond films ends with Never Say Never Again, a final grace note to the last scene where Renton claims to be “going straight” and leaving heroin behind, all while his eerily smiling face fills the frame until it’s out of focus. It’s a perfect end to a perfect soundtrack, being pretty, upbeat, and clever, with a dark underbelly, just like the film it accompanies.

Bill Bria lives in New York City, avoids heroin.

Image credit: Nate Koehler

Bill Bria is a writer, actor, songwriter, and comedian. "Sam & Bill Are Huge," his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill's acting credits include an episode of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and a featured part in Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” He lives in New York City, which hopefully will be the setting for a major motion picture someday.

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