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Love on a Real Train: The film legacy of Tangerine Dream

Kraftwerk are the group who get most talked about when it comes to the German influence on Western pop music. The documentary Synth Britannica explored how their tour of England in the late seventies inspired many young artists to forge ahead in what would become the ‘new wave’ scene. On the other side of the Atlantic, Kraftwerk were played by Chicago radio DJs, and their song ‘Trans-Europe Express’ was famously reworked by Afrika Bambaata and Arthur Baker to become Planet Rock.

However, Tangerine Dream have also been a very important influence on Western music, and their status has been on the rise again thanks to the Stranger Things theme and soundtrack. Composers Kyle Dixon and Chris Stein from the band S U R V I V E have acknowledged the influence of Tangerine Dream on their work – and bringing the whole thing full-circle has been this cover of the Stranger Things theme by the latest line-up of Tangerine Dream.

But this also shows us where and how Tangerine Dream have had their impact on Western popular culture: through movies. To date, they have recorded over 50 soundtracks.

Their first transition to visual media was through German television in the early seventies. But they broke through into Hollywood when Exorcist director, William Friedkin, used their music for his 1977 film Sorcerer.

“I first heard the Tangerine Dream while in Munich for the opening of The Exorcist. Had I heard them sooner, I would have asked them to score the film.” — William Friedkin.

Without even seeing the film, Tangerine Dream wrote the soundtrack and sent it on cassette to Friedkin who was still shooting his movie in the Dominican Republic. It gave the film a very haunting, nightmarish quality, perfectly suited to a film where it’s most famous scene was of a gelignite-loaded truck crossing a rickety bridge during a storm.

The ‘Betrayal’ cue from Sorcerer turned up again in the trailer to The Warriors – Walter Hill’s 1979 gang film; and soon Tangerine Dream were regularly scoring Hollywood films, mainly horror, for people like Michael Mann (The Keep, 1983) and Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, 1989), but also action films like Thief (1981) also by Mann.

By using Tangerine Dream’s music, these directors were demonstrating to Hollywood how this particular kind of synthesizer music, also known as ‘The Berlin School’, could be used in films. Tangerine Dreams’ trademark use of step-sequencers to create repetitive arpeggios was soon absorbed into standard film music language, used by many Hollywood composers to underscore high-voltage chase scenes through most of the 1980s.

However, for the film going audience’s adventure into new music, the impact came with Risky Business (1983). This is the film that Tangerine Dream is best known for.

Starring Tom Cruise, the story followed a privileged teenager in a relationship with a high-class prostitute, played by Rebecca De Mornay, who helps him to enter the adult world and ‘grow up’ by embracing (as well as her) the entrepreneurial capitalist spirit of 1980s America.

Opening the film was ‘The Dream is Always the Same’, taking it’s cue from Tom Cruise’s character narrating a dream where he walks down a long corridor to find a strange woman showering in his bathroom.

However, it is the enigmatic ‘Love on a Real Train‘ that became the best-known and most loved, track of the movie. Occurring towards the end of the film, it drives a very memorable scene where you quickly find out what the song title actually means.

An embarrassing admission for me is that I only recently watched Risky Business on TV, thinking that I had seen it before, before realising that maybe I hadn’t – or had been too young, or disinterested to take it on board – as I couldn’t remember the scene that the song title alluded to, even though I had heavily listened to it about fifteen years ago on an ambient music compilation.

But seeing the movie as a slightly-nostalgic adult helped for the importance of Love on a Real Train to register with me, as about a year ago, I had noticed that it was one of the most remixed, reworked, covered, sampled and mashed-up, songs of electronic music on soundcloud, with about 50 different versions of it floating around.

And with it sticking in my head this week, I’ve been thinking about why it has continued to have such a great appeal, despite being written over 30 years ago.

To start with, it has a distinctive theme; it doesn’t wind on for hours and hours, like some of Tangerine Dream’s earlier work, but builds up beautifully; there are no heavy drones, or minor key antics. Instead, they give the track a light touch with lots of delicate high notes, making it one of their most accessible pieces of music, and perhaps, in turn, one of their masterpieces. It was also made at a time when ‘synthesizer’ technology was at it’s absolute peak around 1983 – before it reached an over-saturation, sometime in the late eighties.

Anyway, have a listen to some of the different versions, and hear for yourself why ‘Love on a Real Train’ has become a kind of ‘chop-sticks’ for synth-heads.

~ Soundcloud image: Rebecca De Mornay and Tom Cruise. Feature photo of Chicago ‘El’ Train courtesy of Marcel ‘Lazytom’ Marchon (Wikimedia/CC BY 2.0) ~

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