Track-by-track: Beck, Nigel Godrich, Emily Haines, Bryan Lee O'Malley & Edgar Wright dissect the 'Scott Pilgrim' music
Fifteen pages into the first volume of Bryan Lee O'Malley's six-part Scott Pilgrim series, the characters break into song -- or at least they rock out as much as one can in a black-and-white graphic novel. Electric bolts shoot from the singer's mouth, O'Malley provides a chord progression and a teenage girl watching the rehearsal falls in love.
As for the sound, the reader is informed it's "kind of crappy," but the rest is left to one's imagination. Such could have been the fate of Edgar Wright's big-screen adaption of O'Malley's tale of twentysomething hopeless romantics. After all, bringing rock 'n' roll to the big screen is not the easiest of feats, and with video game quirks and elaborate action sequences, it'd be easy to see how one could conclude that it would be best for "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" to just to do away with the rock.
As star of the film Michael Cera put it to our sister blog Hero Complex, "Whenever you see a band in a movie, the music is barely passable. It's like when you see a film, and someone is writing a book. Whenever you hear excerpts of the writing, it's just terrible. You're like, 'That's what they're writing?' It's kind of the same theory."
Early versions of the script, which is credited to Wright and Michael Bacall, did in fact do away with the music -- completely. With Cera's Pilgrim forced to do battle with the seven evil exes of the object of his obsession, Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" has plenty of ground to cover without the rock 'n' roll.
"In the first draft of the script, there was this running joke that you never heard the bands," Wright said during a Q&A following a recent Los Angeles screening. "You heard the intro, and then it would cut to the next scene, and somebody would be going, ‘Oh my God, that’s the best song ever.’ That was a joke for a long time."
At least until Nigel Godrich entered the picture.The famed producer, best known for his work with Radiohead, Beck and Paul McCartney, was entrusted to bring to life the sound of the punky Sex Bob-Omb, the fictional band in which Cera's Scott Pilgrim plays bass (poorly). Godrich made overtures to Atlanta punks the Black Lips, put ultimately persuaded close friend Beck to lay down sketches of a couple dozen garage rock songs.
"I completely understand why you might downplay the music in the script," Godrich said. "It’s one of those things where it might be better to just not hear any music and to leave it to your imagination. Then it will be as good as it will ever be. But once a few inquiries were made, and it was clear that we could maybe get those people to contribute, it was an exciting prospect."
In addition to Beck, the "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" soundtrack, released Tuesday via ABKCO (also available in a digital expanded edition), features original songs from Broken Social Scene -- in full thrash mode -- as well as a previously unreleased cut from electro-rockers Metric. The 19-track album is rounded out by songs from the Black Lips, T-Rex, the Rolling Stones, Frank Black and, of course, Plumtree. Some of the bands in the film are referenced in the comics or were suggested by O'Malley, and others were selections from Wright.
Pop & Hiss spoke to Wright, O'Malley, Godrich, Beck and Metric's Emily Haines, asking them to contribute to a track-by-track look at the songs in "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World." It's the second installment of this blog's look at the music in the rock 'n' romance picture, as earlier Godrich and Beck spoke in detail about the thoughts behind Sex Bob-Omb.
Track-by-track analysis is after the jump.
Song No. 1: "We Are Sex Bob-Omb," Sex Bob-Omb
All of the Sex Bob-Omb songs, six of which appear on the soundtrack, were written by Beck and performed with his frequent collaborator Brian LeBarton. They were knocked out over a span of three or four days in 2008.
"We Are Sex Bob-Omb" is the first song one hears in the film, not counting an 8-bit version of the Universal Pictures theme. At just under two minutes, Wright used the full length of this fuzzed-up, sloppy rocker in the film, in which the only truly audible lyric is the word "yeah" repeated. It plays over an extended credit sequence of colorful, old-school video game effects, with text displayed in the kind of choppy handwriting that one finds on the folders of high school students.
"What’s great about the songs is that the wheels fall off of them," Wright said. "Most of those backing tracks are first takes. You can hear in ‘We Are Sex Bob-Omb' that the bass drops out. The drumming rhythms change constantly because they’re just hammering away."
All of Beck's vocals on the songs used in the film were replaced by those of actor Mark Webber, who plays band leader Stephen Stills. Lyrics for "We Are Sex Bob-Omb" were only added after Wright decided to have it open the film.
"That was an instrumental that was on the initial run of stuff we got from Beck," Godrich said. "The beginning of the film needed them playing. That was the device that Edgar decided to use to start the film. It was actually originally a lot shorter, and it didn’t originally have lyrics. Beck went away and wrote a little verse just so the character has something to sing when you see him. The song was extended late in the day. The reason it was used is because it’s riffy."
Beck left the decision over what songs to use to Godrich, Wright and O'Malley, yet noted he was a little surprised the burst of noise that is "We Are Sex Bob-Omb" made the cut.
"I went in and just wrote as many rough ideas as I could," Beck said. "I had no idea what songs they would want to go with. I wrote some things that to me were almost like a song for the Archies. There’s a song called ‘We’re Not Having No Fun,' which I thought was too on the nose for a cartoon band."
Song No. 2: "Scott Pilgrim," Plumtree
It may be an exaggeration to say that "Scott Pilgrim" wouldn't exist without Plumtree, but the little-known Canadian indie act gave the comic its name. The now-forgotten band -- Godrich confessed he had never heard of them -- split around the turn of the century, but O'Malley has long championed the group as one of his favorites.
"I desperately wanted that song in there," O'Malley said. "There’s two Plumtree songs in the film, and one on the soundtrack. It’s like an alternate universe where they're as important to the world as they are to me."
Recorded in the late '90s, "Scott Pilgrim" consists of two full stanzas, with the lyrics "I've liked you for a thousand years" repeated ad infinitum. There's a bit of alt-rock crust to the guitars, and a naive excitement to the vocals. No lyrics are heard in the film, as "Scott Pilgrim" is dropped early, immediately following the opening sequence. Moment's later, Plumtree's slightly more vocally aggressive "Go" gets a little more screen time.
"You hear 'Go' for a very long time in the film, but I wanted to stick to the Nick Hornby rules of compilations, and never have the same artist twice," Wright said. "So we couldn’t have two Plumtree songs on the soundtrack."
Song No. 3: "I Heard Ramona Sing," Frank Black
Released on the 1993 self-titled solo debut from the Pixies frontman, "I Heard Ramona Sing" has been said to be a love song written about New York punk act the Ramones. Yet it also works as a song about a girl.
This cut was brought to the film by Wright, and its choppy opening overlaid with a lilting guitar solo instantly smooths out the frayed beginning. The extended notes feel like a daydream, and Wright uses the song to frame one of Scott's first extended glimpses at Ramona.
"I loved this song," Wright said. "I listened to that album all the time, and I listened to that song because I was infatuated with a girl who also liked Frank Black. Her name wasn’t Ramona, but I listened to that song endlessly, as if it was about her. That was a long time ago."
With a main character named Ramona, Wright wasn't going to miss the opportunity to drop the song into the film. Yet it was also meant to recall the soundtracks of '80s films, when directors didn't shy away from utilizing songs that reference a character or a title.
"Bryan and Edgar had a shortlist of songs," Godrich said. "There were all sorts of songs with Ramona in the title. It was kind of like what John Landis did with ‘American Werewolf in London.’ He had about 10 different covers of ‘Blue Moon,’ and that was a clever device. This is the one that Edgar chose, and it’s a favorite of his. When this song was shown in the previews, it was the loudest song. I would turn around and say to Edgar, ‘Sex Bob-Omb has to be as loud as this.’"
Not on the soundtrack but also from the Ramona genre of pop and in the film: Bob Dylan's "To Ramona."
Song No. 4: "By Your Side," Beachwood Sparks
A familiar name to West Coast denizens, the country-influenced dreamers covered this Sade song on their 2001 album "Once We Were Trees." It's a lovesick slow dance of a tune, with bedside vocals and a romantically melancholic harmonica. O'Malley compiled playlists for each Scott Pilgrim novel, and "By Your Side" was on the first one he made.
Yet it appealed to Wright for less sentimental reasons. Fans of the director's catalog may remember that a Sade album had a cameo in 2004 horror-comedy "Shaun of the Dead."
"After we threw a Sade album at zombie heads, I figured the least we could do was give them some publishing money," Wright said.
Retro and slightly reckless, this Black Lips number isn't too far removed from the initial vision Wright, Godrich and O'Malley had for Sex Bob-Omb. It's heard when the characters enter a divey rock club. "It fit perfectly with the vibe of the music venue in the film," Wright said.
Godrich was happy it made the cut. He noted the Black Lips were one of the first bands he approached to play the role of Sex Bob-Omb. The meeting, said Godrich, was a disaster.
Remembered Godrich: "We went to see the Black Lips, and the show was just crazy. We hung out with them a bit. They’re a very ... (long pause) ... interesting bunch of people. But we wanted to see if they would be up to do some recordings as Sex Bob-Omb.
"Yet we suddenly felt very old, and very establishment, walking into an indie-punk gig saying, ‘Would you like to be in our movie?’ That did not fly. I could feel it at the time. The whole thing didn’t feel right. Basically, if I were them, I would have told us off, so I told Edgar we were going to need to find something else."
But wasn't Godrich surprised that a band wouldn't jump at the opportunity to participate in the film?
"No," he said without hesitation. "They didn’t know this was cool. When you agree to do something in a movie, even if it’s a piece of music for a specific scene, or a piece you’ve already recorded, at best all you ever see is the scene it’s going to be in. You have no idea what the movie will be like."Songs No. 6 and No. 7: "I'm So Sad, So Very Sad" and "We Hate You Please Die," Crash and the Boys
Crash and the Boys are one of the other fictional bands in "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," and these two tracks total about a minute. Sex Bob-Omb takes the act on in a battle of the bands, and Crash and the Boys are used for more comedic effect. Fast, angry and with a too-cool-for-you look, Crash and the Boys offered the opportunity for famed Canadian indie pop act Broken Social Scene to channel its inner metal spirit.
"You read the books and it spells out exactly what these people are," Godrich said. "You read it and say, ‘It’s a band and their songs are three seconds long.’ From there, and where it ended up, I think this is about as good as it could have been."
Actor Eric Knudsen worked with the Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew on recording the vocals for the two songs. "Eric plays Crash, and his favorite band is Broken Social Scene," O'Malley said. "So when he got to go into the studio with Kevin Drew and lay down some vocals, I felt like I was the Make-A-Wish Foundation or something."
Another two-second song, Godrich said, was cut from the film. Broken Social Scene recorded a tune called "Zog," a named used in O'Malley's comics. "Broken Social Scene wrote two other songs that aren't in the film," Wright said. "So if these albums sell well," he said, referring to the soundtrack album and a digital-only score release, "maybe we’ll do a third edition and have some of these songs turn up sometime."
Song No. 8: "Garbage Truck," Sex Bob-Omb
Arguably the most pivotal Sex Bob-Omb song used in the film, this sludgy anthem is a mix of self-deprecating humor and misfit pride. "I'll take you to the dump / Because you're my queen," Webber sings, channeling a weary, scruffy rocker. The mix is blown out, and listening to it at home, it sounds as if one's speakers are about to burst.
"I find that song insanely catchy, in the best way possible," Wright said. "It’s one of those awesomely catchy songs that feels as if it were tossed off in three minutes. The lyrics are so, so good. In Beck’s version, he drowns the lyrics a little bit. When Mark signs it, you can hear the lyrics better. Nigel and I thought the lyrics were great. The energy between Mark and Beck is totally different."
Indeed, Beck said he meant the song to be completely unintelligible (his versions can be heard on the online expanded version of the soundtrack). "The vocals were more prominent than I intended," Beck said. "I intended that song to be complete noise, with a little song in there. I don’t know if that would have played in the film. I don’t know how all that works. There are a few versions of the songs in the original form, and those are noisier – obnoxiously so, if you’re in the right mood."
Initially, the scene in which "Garbage Truck" appears almost went to "Summertime," now the end-credits Sex Bob-Omb song. Godrich put up a fight to have the dark-and-damp "Garbage Truck" be that standout Sex Bob-Omb track.
"I went up and made a right pain of myself," Godrich said. "And I wanted to make Edgar put the whole song in. He eventually did. There was a rationale that said, ‘You just need a taste of them playing, like 10 seconds.’ But I said, ‘Look, this is a great song. We should hear it. No one is going to be impatient. Everyone is going to happy to sit through it.’ It starts off, and you think, ‘What the hell is this?’ Then they’re gaining confidence, and the lyrics get better. The song just gets better."
Although one person begs to differ: "The lyrics to this were improvised on the microphone," Beck said. "There was no time to sit and think and write things, so most of these songs were just improvised. I thought this was a throwaway song, to be honest. I was surprised they picked it."
Song No. 9: "Teenage Dream," T-Rex
This orchestral 1974 glam classic seems built for last call -- or a breakup. Wright uses it for the latter in "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," as the tune is heard early on, a soundtrack to the crushed heart of young Knives Chau (Ellen Wong).
"This is one of my favorite T-Rex songs," Wright said. "It’s epic. It made me think of Knives. It sounds like a missing song from ‘Grease.’ It’s so lush and symphonic. I’m obviously a big T-Rex fan, but that song is so grand. It spoke to me as how we feel when we are 17 and have been dumped. You need a song that sounds like the end of the world."
Songs No. 10 and 11: "Sleazy Bed Track," The Bluetones and "It's Getting Boring By the Sea," Blood Red Shoes
Though O'Malley's books and the film are largely a love letter to Toronto, Wright brought a bit of a British Invasion feel to the music. It should be noted, however, that the Bluetones' "Sleazy Bed Track" was also included on O'Malley's initial Scott Pilgrim playlists. A band birthed in the alt-rock era, the Bluetones favored nuance and tempo over many of the Brit-pop bands of the mid-'90s. Appearing in the film after Scott and Ramona have started dating, its downbeat groove and depressed lyrics hint that not all will be so sweet.
As for Blood Red Shoes, the duo is a largely unknown rock outfit from the U.K., and the sharp guitar opening of the cut suits the fight-like atmospheres of the film. "They’re a British band that I love," Wright said. "I said to Bryan that they were in the vein of the music in the film, and Bryan liked it."
Though Godrich let O'Malley and Wright pick the catalog tracks for the film, he noted the two had hours of material to choose from. "Edgar comes at film from a very musical way," Godrich said. "He started with songs as a way of thinking of what you’ll see. That’s just something about him that works in his favor. That was part of the early creative process. He had five CDs of songs that we were talking about."
After maintaining cult-favorite status for about a decade, Toronto's electronic-infused rockers Metric had a breakthrough with last year's "Fantasies." The band was an early target for "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," and a perfect fit for a number reasons. One, the band is associated with the city in which the film is set, and two, lead singer Emily Haines was an inspiration for the way O'Malley drew Envy Adams (played in the film by Brie Larson) the lead singer of fictional band Clash at Demonhead.
Haines was flattered to hear the character was based on her, but contends that Envy is far more tough than she's capable of being, although she didn't use the word "tough" and instead opted for a phrase a family newspaper couldn't print. Yet if Envy is a caricature of Haines, the artist said "Black Sheep" is essentially a caricature of Metric. Originally intended for "Fantasies," Haines said the band felt it too obviously reflected the band's sound.
"Aspects of the song, the electro aspects of the band, and the abstract lyrical visualizations, are extreme examples of certain aspects of us," Haines said. "These are late-night conversations the band has had. Everyone has commentary on what you’re doing, and everyone has interpretations. But we are also looking at it. It’s not like we’re blindly going, ‘Oh, what’s this?’ We’re aware of what we have been, and what we want to be."
Godrich understood exactly what Haines was getting at. "It’s a very common criticism when you’re making records. You say, ‘Well, this sounds like somebody trying to be us.’ But that was perfect for this film. It’s not Metric. It’s a shadow of Metric."
The band re-recorded the song for the film, as Wright requested a slightly more "sinister" opening. The song now has an extended intro, with Larson on vocals offering a few 'oh yeah's," used in the film to taunt Scott and Ramona in the audience.
It's been a soundtrack summer for Metric, who also recorded the lead track for "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse." Haines said issues of branding aren't too heavily weighed in the act's decision to license, and she wasn't concerned, for instance, of the band forever being associated with the "Twilight" empire.
"In 2003, we would have loved to have been asked to write for a film like ‘Twilight’ or ‘Scott Pilgrim’," Haines said. "But we didn’t exist to anyone else, so it wasn’t an option. There’s no big leap happening. I should hope that after four albums and 10 years we would have more opportunities to get our music to people other than club shows.
"I’m not sitting around comparing the brand structures of Hollywood movies," Haines continued. "I look at the calendar. I look at my life. I look at what is possible as a musician."
Song No. 13: "Threshold," Sex Bob-Omb
Used near the end of the film in a climatic rock 'n' roll battle, "Threshold" is one of the choppiest, roughest Sex Bob-Omb songs in the film. It builds to a faster chorus, complete with feedback and a heavily manipulated acoustic guitar.
"I don't know if I had a clear vision of what Sex Bob-Omb sounded like," O'Malley said. "I was in this band and my friend was playing an acoustic guitar plugged into an amp and it was really distorted. The sound guy would always get really upset. So that’s kind of what they were originally looking like."
Beck noted it was one of the sloppiest songs he gave Godrich and Wright. "I mostly felt bad because there were so many mistakes in that song," Beck said. "It’s much easier to learn to play something that has consistency. But almost every song is a first take, and completely unrehearsed. I was proud that some of the bad notes were left in there. I think things tend to get scrubbed for Hollywood films, but this was relatively less-polished."
Song No. 14: "Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl," Broken Social Scene
This 2002 song has become perhaps Broken Social Scene's signature cut, built around a slow-building orchestra of sounds and Haines' chant-like vocals. Although it carries a nostalgic tone, the song gradually becomes a full-on singalong. Wright used it near the end of the film, when the characters emerge from a futuristic-styled club and things are looking bleak for Scott's love life.
"Broken Social Scene has the aura of the Toronto indie music scene," Godrich said. "It’s one you can get away with just sticking in there. Everyone knows what it is. It invokes the right atmosphere. It reminds you of where you are. At the point in comes in the movie, you’re standing in some bizarre space. You look like you’re in the Death Star. You don’t look like you’re in Toronto anymore."
Wright described the cut as "the unofficial national song of Canada."
"That song has a life of its own," Haines said. "It’s about the pains of growing up, and wanting and trying to simplify your life so you can enjoy what’s valuable."
Haines then sung the song's key verse over the phone: "Park the car / Drop the phone / Sleep on the floor / Dream about me."
"It’s about taking away all the distractions," she continued. "That’s the adult viewpoint. The younger viewpoint, I suppose, is about trying to value who people are naturally, and just how difficult it is to be who you are. Sometimes being who you are doesn’t mean being who people would like you to be."
Song No. 15, "Under My Thumb," the Rolling Stones
The classic misogynistic anthem needs no introduction. But how did Wright secure the rights to the Stones? He simply let ABKCO, which controls the rights to much of the Stones' catalog, release the soundtrack.
"They became aware of the film through our attempts to clear the song," Wright said. "When they saw the film, they said, ‘We have to release it.’ The put forward a very strong case to do it, and they’ve done an amazing job."
In the event that securing the Stones song would be too cost-prohibitive, Wright said there was a "B option." Godrich enlisted his friends Gaz Coombes and Danny Goffey -- of Supergrass fame -- to record a cover of "Under My Thumb" under their new guise as the Hotrats. Godrich and Nicolas Godin from Air also performed on the cover.
"They were starting to come up against the fact that it’s very, very expensive to use a Rolling Stones track," Godrich said. "So I said, ‘We’ll record a cover of it with the Hotrats.’ This whole thing has been an extended social meeting."
Said Wright of the Hotrats version, which currently remains unreleased: "That version was very similar. ABKCO said, ‘We feel uncomfortable about this because it feels too much like the Stones version.’ The Hotrats version may appear down the road, but it helped us get the clearance for the original."
Godrich concedes that "it sounded too close to the original," yet it helped persuade ABKCO to take on the soundtrack. "Ours was too good," he said. "The good people at ABCKO figured they should just let us use a real one. It was a win-win situation."
Songs No. 16 and 17: "Ramona," an acoustic an orchestral version, both by Beck
In the comic, Scott attempts to impress Ramona by composing a song for her, although the song is far from deep. Acoustic, the only lyrics are her name, an even more stripped down version of a joke used in the sitcom "Cheers" with "The Kelly Song."
"That’s not just a first take, but that’s him improvising," Wright said. "The CD I had originally had seven different versions of his acoustic 'Ramona.' You can hear there’s a bumble in this version. I gave him the premise, and said, ‘Do an acoustic song that only uses the lyrics ‘Ramona, oh my my Ramona.'"
The version by Beck is all lovesick longing. "That had to be a simple song where he’s strumming on the acoustic," Beck said. "I came up with 15 different 'Ramona' songs. That was the one they picked, and that one was actually one of the more interesting chord progressions. The other ones were even more simple."
The orchestral version was originally just recorded with Beck and a mellotron, but Godrich opted to add a string arrangement to the song. Additional players also include Beck collaborators Joey Waronker, Jason Falkner and Bram Inscore.
The string version has full verses. "Very very late in the day, Beck suddenly wrote lyrics for it," Wright said. "That was honestly a surprise to me and Nigel. That came a couple days before we mastered the album. ‘Oh, we have lyrics now.'"
Beck thought the grander arrangement didn't work without more fleshed-out verses. "It wasn’t supposed to have any lyrics other than her name," he said. "At the last minute I found out it was going to be on the soundtrack. I felt like it then needed to be a little more substantial, so I wrote a couple quick verses."
And the "bumble" in the acoustic version? It comes at the 41 second mark.
Song No. 18: "Summertime," Sex Bob-Omb
The most decidedly "pop" of the Sex Bob-Omb songs, containing a clearly defined singalong chorus. It's used in the end credits.
When Beck saw the final cut of the film, he said he was surprised this song was used mainly for the credits. "I thought this was the song that felt the closest to what the band would sound like," he said. "It had a looseness to it. Ultimately, what works best for the picture is what wins out."
Those who pay close attention can catch Sex Bob-Omb rehearsing "Summertime" earlier in the film. Though it's used primarily in the credits, that doesn't mean Wright wasn't partial to it. On the contrary, as the director shot a whole sequence with just this song.
"Originally, we ended with the film with a music video of Sex Bob-Omb playing ‘Summertime,'" he said. "It was nice, but I didn’t want you to see Scott Pilgrim after the end of the film. So you just hear ‘Summertime,’ but the video will be on the DVD."
Song No. 19: "Threshold" (8-bit version), Brian LeBarton
Anyone who smiles at hearing vintage video game theme songs for the likes of Super Mario Bros. or Metal Slug will no doubt get nostalgic over this cartoon-ish take on one of Beck's Sex Bob-Omb cuts.
And there's likely more where it came from, depending on how the film and soundtrack are received by the public. "Brian [LeBarton] was very keen to do all the songs in 8-bit versions," Wright said. "So if this sells well, there will likely be another edition with extra stuff."
Read The Times review of "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World." And read why "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" may just be the year's most honest romance, complete with personal tidbits about this writer's dating life.
Images, from top: Michael Cera as Scott Pilgrim (Universal Pictures); Beck (Los Angeles Times); Cera's Pilgrim, right, and Mark Webber as Stephen Stills (Universal Pictures); The Black Lips (Dan Monick); Ellen Wong as Knives Chau (Universal Pictures); Metric's Emily Haines & Josh Winstead (Los Angeles Times); The Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger (Los Angeles Times); Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ramona Flowers (Universal Pictures)