If there’s a normal path that most bands take between record companies and Hollywood, odds are it looks nothing like the one traveled by Sue Saad and the Next. Consider that until three years ago, the band had only a single album to their name; then consider that their music has featured — and featured prominently — in some of the most beloved cult classics of the 1980s, with one former member even going so far as to launch a decades-long writing partnership with independent filmmaker Albert Pyun. Typically, one album doesn’t equate to songs across a half-dozen films, but that just speaks to the kind of career the band left behind.
Despite their unique history — and a surprisingly comprehensive Wikipedia page — not much is available online about the band’s contribution to ’80s cinema. Fans who want to learn more about lead singer Sue Saad’s show-stealing cameo in Radioactive Dreams (1985) or the band’s dynamite theme song from Looker (1981) were often left to their own imaginations. Thankfully, a Hail Mary email to the moderator of one of the band’s few fansites led to a connection with Saad and longtime collaborator Tony Riparetti, who were more than happy to open up about the band and their work in Hollywood.
Sue Saad and the Next
Long before Sue Saad and the Next became an ’80s underground favorite, they were a group of friends trying to make it in the California music scene. Guitarist Tony Riparetti and drummer James Lance had played together since middle school. “Tony and Jim were the side people in this band called Vance or Towers,” Saad said, the short-lived band best known — if known at all — as the group that plays the high school prom in Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976). When the lead singer was no longer interested in touring, the band broke up, and Saad, Riparetti, and Lance dedicated themselves to honing their songwriting skills, eventually getting contracts with Warner Bros. Records.
The three then attracted the attention of Richard Perry, a producer who had worked with artists like Barbara Streisand and Diana Ross. Perry had recently launched his own label, Planet Records, and Sue Saad and the Next — the new band that Riparetti, Lance, and Saad had formed — would be one of the first acts signed. The band’s rock-heavy first album was released at the height of the New Wave movement in 1980; as a result, they were frequently compared to established artists such as Blondie and Pat Benatar even though their own influences ran contrary to the moment (Saad and Riparetti list The Beatles and Buffalo Springfield as two of their biggest influences).
While many critics were quick to note Sue Saad and the Next’s packaging as the next big thing in New Wave, the group’s skilled songwriting was enough to warrant serious consideration on its own merits. Even critics who found the group’s music too familiar for their own liking admitted that there was plenty of room for growth in future releases. And there was no denying Saad’s vocal talent as the lead singer.
Welcome to Hollywood
With a dynamic sound and a steady stream of gigs in California, it wasn’t long before someone in Hollywood took notice of the group. Sue Saad and the Next made their soundtrack debut in Roadie, a 1980 comedy starring Meat Loaf (and featuring Deborah Harry) as a long-suffering roadie for a traveling rock band. “I think it was Richard who told us that [director Alan Rudolph] really liked our music and wanted to introduce us to him,” Saad said. “He gave us an idea of what it was that he was looking for. I think we went home that day and came up with a piece.”
The Roadie soundtrack represented prime real estate for the band. While the movie itself was something of a mixed bag, it did feature onscreen performances from an impressive mix of artists playing versions of themselves, including Alice Cooper, Roy Orbison, Hank Williams, Jr., and Blondie. Sue Saad and the Next’s song “Double Yellow Line” appears at the film’s halfway point as the characters make the cross-country drive to California, serving as the driving force for their life on the road. The song was a strong fit for the eclectic musical stylings of the film; this was, after all, a movie where Blondie performs a full cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Sue Saad and the Next’s blend of old-school songwriting and New Wave sound fit Roadie like a glove.
The band got its next movie credit courtesy of an old friend. Michael Towers, who had previously performed with Riparetti and Lance in Vance or Towers, had co-written several tracks for Michael Crichton’s Looker and recommended Sue Saad and the Next for the soundtrack. This gave them their first theme song, “Looker,” the synth-heavy track that plays over the film’s opening credits (another track performed by the group, “High Wire,” would also feature on the soundtrack).
Like many of Crichton’s films, Looker may not be well-remembered, but it is a smart piece of science-fiction in desperate need of rediscovery. Albert Finney plays a Los Angeles plastic surgeon who is wrongly accused of murder when several of his models end up dead. Again, Sue Saad and the Next are the perfect artists for the soundtrack. The title song itself is undeniably catchy — Kim Carnes would cover the song on her album Voyeur — but Saad’s strong vocals add an undercurrent of darkness to an otherwise catchy piece of pop. We watch in the opening credits as a soon-to-be victim applies her makeup for the last time; the sharpness to Saad’s voice combined with the lack of expression on the actress’s face gives the song an added element of poignancy.
Then the band met the last filmmaker they’d ever need. These days, Albert Pyun is best known as a direct-to-video maestro, but in 1982, he was making the leap to feature films with The Sword and the Sorcerer, an independent fantasy movie that surprised everyone by grossing nearly $40 million. A few years later, Pyun was on the hunt for music for his next film, a post-apocalyptic action-comedy about a pair of brothers who emerge from a nuclear bunker with only a handful of ’40s detective novels as their guide. This led him to Sue Saad and the Next.
“When we got ‘Guilty Pleasures’ in the movie, Albert loved the song so much he wanted me to be in the [film],” Saad recalled. “Of course I said yes. It sounded like a lot of fun.” Pyun planned an elaborate sequence that involved his singer dancing on catwalks smack-dab in the middle of the movie, and Saad signed on for the three-day shoot despite her fear of heights.
In a movie filled with endless moments begging for cult status, this is still the scene from Radioactive Dreams that stands out the most. The camera pans across the bustling streets of Edge City as the opening bars of “Guilty Pleasures” jockey for dominance against the film’s rock-and-roll soundtrack. And then Saad is there, roaring the opening notes of the song directly into the camera as she sings along with the chaos on the street below. As the scene unfolds, the song plays out in its entirety, frequently cutting between Saad and the film’s ragtag group of heroes.
Given that Sue Saad and the Next never really had a music video to call their own, Saad remembers feeling a rush of validity as the band was able to turn one song in its entirety into an onscreen musical number. “I think it’s the first time that I felt a lot of freedom in expressing myself,” she said, “and I was excited, really excited, that hopefully more people would see this and really get into our music even more.”
Sue Saad and the Next were only supposed to provide a single song to the soundtrack, but Saad recognized an opportunity. “I thought, well, I haven’t heard a theme song for Radioactive Dreams,” Saad remembered thinking during the shoot, “and I asked [Pyun], Do you have any more music that you need to be written? And he said, Oh yeah. And I said, Do you have a theme song? He said no. And I said, Well, I’d like to give it a shot.” Saad took a copy of the script home and sketched out early versions of both “Radioactive Dreams” and “Save Me” before meeting with Riparetti and Lance in the studio. It would only take the group a few hours to record versions of each, with Sue Saad and the Next bringing the songs to Pyun for approval mere days later. The band ended up with four songs on the soundtrack.
Vicious Lips and Beyond
The following year, Albert Pyun demonstrated his prolific approach to filmmaking with Vicious Lips, another genre-heavy film that blends science-fiction and fantasy. In it, the titular all-girl rock band is handed their big break when the biggest nightclub in the universe is suddenly short an opening act. If the Vicious Lips can successfully travel from one end of the galaxy to the other, they’ll be able to claim the spot and effectively make their musical career. As a movie, Vicious Lips is undeniably a mess, but a film about a badass female rock group needs songs from a badass female vocalist, and Pyun again gave Sue Saad and the Next the reins.
“We just wrote the songs and we knew that some actress was going to be lip-syncing,” Riparetti said. “Albert had ideas for the kinds of songs he wanted, but that was really it. He left us to our own devices.” Pyun would again shoot an entire sequence around an uncut Sue Saad and the Next song, introducing the audience to the Vicious Lips with a performance of “Save Me.” Riparetti still fondly remembers the performance by lead actress Dru-Anne Perry, who does her best take on Sue Saad’s lyrics during the song. “I was like, Wow, she really studied this,” Riparetti said. “I was happy about that. Pleasantly surprised, because a lot of times if they’re lip-syncing something that they didn’t write… it’s hard for them to do that.”
Like Radioactive Dreams, Vicious Lips is a grab-bag of fantastical genres and aesthetics, and Sue Saad and the Next’s music helps keep the entire thing at least somewhat grounded. The band’s music provides the onscreen Vicious Lips with a catalogue of songs becoming of an actual breakout underground group, and the mixture of ’80s New Wave and ’60s rock-and-roll adds to the futuristic timelessness of the entire affair.
What Came Next for the Next
Vicious Lips would be the final showcase for Sue Saad and the Next. Shortly afterward, the members chose to go in different directions. Riparetti moved into full-time film composition, kicking off a three-decade partnership with Pyun that began with 1988’s Alien From L.A. and continues to this day. Pyun and Riparetti have released over 30 films together, each with a unique provision written into Riparetti’s contract: “I say, ‘I write the music before [the movie is] done, and you have to use what I did,’” Riparetti said with a laugh. It’s a system that’s helped the musician keep up with the filmmaker’s huge output of low-budget films.
Riparetti admits he never expected the kind of longevity he’s seen. Over the years, he’s encountered plenty of thirtysomethings at conventions who saw these movies as kids and passed that love along to their own children. “They were playing those films for their kids and so they all knew the films and the songs,” he said. “It was all so interesting how many people you really affected that way.” This despite the limited availability of films like Vicious Lips, which Riparetti said he was only recently able to locate and watch years after its initial release.
For her part, Saad is upfront about losing Sue Saad and the Next. “When the band broke up, it was very painful,” she said. There was a period where she assumed the band’s cultural footprint had disappeared entirely. It wasn’t until years later, when Saad stumbled across a collection of 20+ fan videos on YouTube dedicated to the band, that she realized the impact the music had on some people. “It’s really quite a tribute to know that those people went to the trouble to take our music and make a video out of it. And it really left me feeling … really feeling great,” Saad said. “Because it’s like, well, it did affect people. They did like it. And I’m very proud of that.”
Still, Sue Saad and the Next doesn’t live entirely in the past tense. After years of legal battles, Riparetti and Saad were finally able to secure the rights to some of their unreleased music from the ’80s, including tracks like “Lunar Madness” from Vicious Lips, and release them as the brand new album Long Way Home in 2016. And as long as people continue to find their songs through battered VHS copies and choppy YouTube rips of Pyun’s films, new generations will always find their way to those songs. Someone has to re-release Radioactive Dreams on Blu-ray eventually, right?