'Stranger Things' And How Tangerine Dream Soundtracked The ’80s

Molly Lambert on the German synthwave band's TV moment

Tangerine Dream are having a TV moment, with songs featured on Stranger Things and Mr. Robot, and Tangerine Dream–influenced soundtracks on Halt and Catch Fire and Vice Principals. It’s unsurprising, given the long partnership between the German electronic art-rocker band and the moving image. Founded in 1967, Tangerine Dream wrote their first American film score in 1977, for William Friedkin’s thriller Sorcerer, after Friedkin begged them to consider scoring. The band, known for their knotty psychedelic electronic music, were not the most obvious choice to cross over into the mainstream, but their Prussian bandleader Edgar Froese had a lifelong interest in film, and the group’s pulsating paranoid krautrock was a perfect fit for the ticking-bomb nightmare world of Sorcerer. That film begat more scores — Michael Mann’s’s icy crime ballet Thief, 1981 B-horror Strange Behavior, and ’80s Cold War schlocker The Soldier.

Their 1983 score for Risky Business exposed the band to an entirely new audience. Tangerine Dream’s music opens the film as we see Tom Cruise’s character Joel Goodsen wandering through a dream fog of shower steam toward a beckoning but unreachable naked woman — establishing a tone that sets the movie apart from virtually every other ’80s sex comedy with its seriousness and authentic sexiness. Risky Business is as much about class and striving as it is about sex and rescuing a glass egg from a pimp. It takes the earnest suburban desires of Joel Goodson seriously: to lose his virginity, to get into a good school, to separate his parents’ desires for his future from his own.

Risky Business also takes Lana, the gorgeous escort played by Rebecca De Mornay, seriously. Joel’s “parents out of town” scenario becomes the grounds for his coming of age, and Cruise as Joel is incredible at conveying the weird mixture of teenage horniness and the fear of being overtaken by that horniness. In his star-making performance, Cruise is anything but the confident ace — Joel is fumbling and awkward when he meets his delivery dream girl, and believable as a nerdy, SAT-obsessed prep. It’s a straightforward coming-of-age movie that turns crime thriller once Joe Pantoliano shows up as Lana’s pimp. The car chases that dominate the movie’s second half are the physical manifestation of Joel’s paranoia over breaking his parents’ rules that runs concurrent to his initiation into sex.

And who better to convey the connection between sensuality and fear than Tangerine Dream? The band’s “Love on a Real Train,” with its ornately repetitive synth patterns, hypnotic chimes, and percussive choogling drum machines, is what makes the infamous train sex scene feel so visceral and fresh. It’s shot and scored voyeuristically, making viewers complicit as they lean in closer to try to hear Joel and Lana in the mix, earning the film its hard R rating. In a decade full of over-the-top cinematic coitus, that train sex scene sends chills up the spine with its restraint, owing in large part to the cool, understated soundtrack.

Tangerine Dream’s post–Risky Business résumé is varied. There’s a lot of sci-fi: alien movie Wavelength, Michael Mann’s haunted Nazi fortress film The Keep, and the Stephen King adaptation Firestarter. But they weren’t limited to scoring futuristic or horrific situations — they did romcoms, historical films, and the excellent 1985 high school wrestling coming-of-age movie Vision Quest starring Matthew Modine, whose love theme was Madonna’s “Crazy for You.” Tangerine Dream were also called in to rescore Ridley Scott’s 1985 fantasy epic Legend — Jerry Goldsmith had already written a complete score, but the studio was worried that it would make the medieval fantasy epic feel stale. And it’s the Tangerine Dream music that makes Legend such a weird trip, a distinctly ’80s version of high fantasy.

By the time he starred in Legend, Tom Cruise was in full flower, and his second go-round with Tangerine Dream makes especially poignant that that movie marked the last time we would ever see him as that angelically boyish — his next film would be Top Gun. The Legend score is Tangerine Dream at their New Age–iest, but even their mists of Avalon have a sinister undertone that makes the movie feel like a nightmare after playing dungeon crawlers for too long. In the late ’80s, Tangerine Dream scored three more cult classics: the vampire Western Near Dark, surreal high school comedy Three O’Clock High, and 1988’s Miracle Mile.

If the last few decades of cable and online original television were analogous to the New Hollywood of the 1970s, then we are firmly in the ’80s now, with accordant big budgets and genre-specific projects. And a number of shows have referenced Tangerine Dream’s ’80s soundtracks, both as shorthand for the decade and to establish a certain tone. (Tangerine Dream are no strangers to TV: They provided the rad theme song for futuristic motorcycle cop ’80s show Street Hawk.) Whether you think quoting another vehicle’s soundtrack is cheap or just another sampling tool, there’s a critical mass of shows trying to catch a whiff of Tangerine Dream’s acid futurism right now. Vice Principals, scored by Joseph Stephens with analog synths to replicate the imperfect phasing of contemporary ’80s synths, is an ode to the sociopathic male heroes of action movies, like the world’s most low-stakes Charles Bronson vehicle, and it evokes Tangerine Dream for the Michael Mann feeling — to supply a terse backdrop to the protagonists’ behavioral horrors.

Mr. Robot played “Love on a Real Train” at the end of an episode in the first season because Tangerine Dream, with their emphasis on the psychotropic possibilities of machines, have a strong affiliation with cyberpunk. Netflix hit Stranger Things is scored by Austin group Survive, who use analog synths and specifically reference the Tangerine Dream scores for Sorcerer and The Keep as major influences. Vintage synthheads like Survive (and digital replicants alike) make music in the genre that has come to be called synthwave — or “outrun,” after the 1986 driving arcade game that let players select a soundtrack (a first). Inspired by the early days of electronic music and artists like Giorgio Moroder, Vangelis, John Carpenter, and, of course, Tangerine Dream, synthwave is a postmodern take on the ’80s, aiming to capture the way it feels to watch an ’80s movie scored by Tangerine Dream late at night on TV more than to actually replicate their sound. Stranger Things is a synthwave TV show, and as with every part of it, the soundtrack comes in quotes. As if to drive the point home, an actual Tangerine Dream song, “Exit,” plays at the end of episode six.

At a “Tangerine Dream on Film” event put on by the Alamo Drafthouse LA over the weekend, programmer Bret Berg interviewed former Tangerine Dream member Paul Haslinger. Haslinger, who was in the band from 1986 to 1990, and who currently scores Halt and Catch Fire and Fear the Walking Dead, explained that he spends a third of the year touring, a third of the year scoring, and a third of the year in the studio making albums. He was diplomatic when asked about the Stranger Things soundtrack, saying that anything that gets a new generation interested in the music is good, and mentioning the influence of It Follows and John Carpenter on the show’s pastiche. He also cited the joy of bringing out some of his older analog machines to score Halt and Catch Fire — a show in which the ’80s are naturalistic and beautifully mundane, focused on the burgeoning world of tech. In response to a question about whether the old machines fall out of tune sometimes when running, Haslinger said that other people spend endless amounts of time trying to make digital music sound similarly out of tune, because it’s the imperfections inherent in these “perfect” machines that can be so pleasurable.

So what’s with all the Tangerine Dream right now? Maybe it’s a case of collective nostalgia, like a mysterious fog that overtakes a small town and sets all their brainwaves to the same alien radio station. But for all its associations with the ’80s, the band’s music thrives because it’s timelessly futuristic. The connections they made between electronic music, New Age, and classical, the way they bridged mainstream and avant-garde and fused psychedelic improvisation to industrialism, all still makes them feel ahead of their time — probably because they were beamed to us from a distant planet, a million light years from now.

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