By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 30, 2022)
Heard about the restaurant on the Moon? Great food…no atmosphere.
Yeah, I know. You rolled out of your crib in hysterics the first time you heard that one. But let’s face it – “atmosphere” is essential; not just for breathing, but for setting a mood.
I’ve curated a noir mixtape that is all about atmosphere; 15 songs evoking dark alleys, rain-slicked streets, low-rent rooms, beautiful losers, and broken dreams. In other words, this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco. Besides …everyone knows tough guys don’t dance.
STAN RIDGWAY: Drive, She Said – Harry Chapin’s “Taxi” meets Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour in this cinematic cabby’s tale from the former Wall of Voodoo lead singer.
THE ALLIES: Emma Peel – The Allies were an early 80s power pop band from Seattle who should have gone places. Unrequited love in the sickly glow of a cathode ray.
Emma, I’ll be your Steed
I’ll be all you ever need
If I cry and if I bleed
Will it help me?
ELVIS COSTELLO: Watching the Detectives – Another two-dimensional dream. She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake… Damn, that’s cold.
THE DOORS: Riders on the Storm – There’s a killer on the road. Distant thunder, the cascading shimmer of a Fender Rhodes, a desolate tremolo guitar and dangerous rhythms.
JULEE CRUISE: Summer Kisses, Winter Tears – And nothing can light the dark of the night/Like a falling star. Somehow, that’s less than reassuring. Ms. Cruise’s Elvis cover is nothing, if not atmospheric.
BLUE ÖYSTER CULT: Then Came the Last Days of May – Wasn’t until the car suddenly stopped/In the middle of a cold and barren plain… A tragic tale of a drug deal gone terribly, terribly wrong.
Steely Dan: Don’t Take Me Alive – I’m on the lam, but I ain’t no sheep.
Got a case of dynamite
I could hold out here all night
Yes I crossed my old man back in Oregon
Don’t take me alive
WAS (NOT WAS): Somewhere in America (There’s a Street Named After My Dad) – Our luckless protagonist is trapped in an asphalt jungle; dreaming of a pleasant valley Sunday.
At night only crickets
No prowlers, no sirens
No pinky ring hustlers
No angel dust Byrons
No bars on the windows
No saber-toothed neighbors
Just good simple folks
In a rainbow of flavors
MICHAEL FRANKS: Nightmoves – An instrumental version of this moody piece played under the opening credits for Arthur Penn’s eponymous 1975 neo-noir.
I keep you in frame and I whisper your name till the picture fades
The feeling is already gone, I don’t know why I’m going on
Can’t remember the ending
DAVID BAERWALD: A Secret Silken World – I don’t know what war-torn region of the human soul Baerwald went to find the characters for this story, but I don’t ever want to go there, even just to snap a few pictures.
The seats of his car were like a woman’s skin
Made me think about all those places I’ve been
It made me understand murder and the nature of sin
I leaned back and I listened to his music
AL STEWART: Broadway Hotel – According to Al Stewart, “It’s a very strange song. It’s about a woman who checks into a hotel in order to be alone. She’s alone for a little while and she orders room service. The man who comes up and brings the trey begins a lengthy relationship with her. They lock themselves in the room for about a week and then they order room service.” Oh, what does he know about it? I’m still picturing the flickering light of a neon sign stabbing through the blinds of the hotel room window…
You’re seeking a hideaway
Where the light of day
Doesn’t touch your face
And a door sign keeps the world away
Behind the shades
Of your silent day.
MICK RONSON: Slaughter on 10th Avenue – Richard Rogers originally composed this moody piece to accompany the eponymous ballet featured in Rogers and Hart’s 1936 stage musical On Your Toes. The song was revived in Robert Laven’s 1957 film noir, Slaughter on 10th Avenue…which, despite co-opting the title of the ballet from On Your Toes, had a completely different plot line (adapted from William Keating’s autobiography). A long, strange trip from a 30s ballet to a 70s rocker, but the late great guitar god of glam makes it sing.
COCKNEY REBEL: Mirror Freak –Steve Harley’s enigmatic tale of skins, spivs, and other assorted night creatures.
Oh you’re too cute to be a big rock star
But if you’re cool you may not push it too far
Oh just believe in yourself and take a tip from the elf
And sing a boogie to the image fatale
GIL SCOTT-HERON: Pieces of a Man – Everyone has their breaking point. Gil Scott-Heron’s soulful vocal, Brian Jackson’s transcendent piano, the great Ron Carter’s sublime stand-up bass work, and the pure poetry of the lyrics render a heartbreaking tale.
Pieces of that letter
Were tossed about that room
And now I hear the sound of sirens
Come knifing through the gloom
They don’t know what they are doing
They could hardly understand
That they’re only arresting
Pieces of a man
ROBYN HITCHCOCK: Raymond Chandler Evening – And with this selection, our coda, have a pleasant one.
It’s a Raymond Chandler Evening,
And the pavements are all wet,
And I’m lurking in the shadows
‘Cause it hasn’t happened yet.
TONY POWERS–Don’t Nobody Move (This is a Heist) – This seedy nighttime crawl through the streets of New York leans toward wry comedy, but is noir-adjacent. The 1982 video was a fan favorite on USA’s Night Flight (which is where I first saw it).
They wuz towin’ me away
Cuz I don’t have
While this diplomat I know
Is smugglin’ “H”
Into the states
I said “lemmee have
The ticket ‘n the car –
Save me a trip”
So they hauled me in
For giving them
Some unauthorized lip…