Pin It

How the Trainspotting soundtrack defined 90s cool

Danny Boyle's breakout hit brought together the Britpop A-list with proto-punk royalty - here’s how it came to capture the zeitgeist

If one scene summed up the exuberant spirit of pop culture in mid-90s Britain, it was the sight of a whippet-thin Ewan McGregor sprinting down an Edinburgh high street to the strains of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life”. An unassailable pairing of sound and image, the opening sequence of Trainspotting was a tour de force of youthful energy, and an unmistakable sign that director Danny Boyle meant business with his second film, which turns 20 this week.

Perhaps more than any other film before or since, Trainspotting’s iconic appeal is inseparable from its soundtrack. Whether it’s McGregor’s nubile junkie Renton overdosing to the strung-out easy-listening of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”, or plumbing the surreal depths of the “worst toilet in Scotland” to Brian Eno’s “Deep Blue Day”, Boyle’s film finds perfect aural accompaniments to the misdeeds of its junkie cast of characters time and time again.

And yet, things could have all worked out very differently. Tristram Penna, former head of A&R at EMI, picked up the soundtrack for Boyle’s debut, Shallow Grave, on a “handshake agreement” with producer Andrew Macdonald that he would get first dibs on the pair’s next project. That project turned out to be Trainspotting, and the soundtrack Penna helped put together – an oddly compelling mix of Britpop, rave and sleazy proto-punk glamour, was a must-have in any self-respecting teen’s CD tower in the late 90s.

But Penna’s involvement with the film – whose final cut he has never seen to this day, amazingly - went beyond simply licensing songs for the soundtrack. In fact, he played a crucial role in deciding which songs made it on-screen.

Can you remember first meeting Danny Boyle about the soundtrack?

Tristram Penna: I had my first meeting with Andrew Macdonald (the film’s producer) and Danny Boyle, who at the time had a remarkably similar appearance to Morrissey – quite disconcerting! Neither of them were really music experts. They were telling me of the difficulties they were having in clearing tracks for the film – David Bowie had turned them, down for example. During the meeting, I made the suggestion that, although the book was based in the late 80s, we try making the best (contemporary) indie/club album. I was never hung up about using just EMI artists on projects, which freed me up considerably.

What did you think of the film when you saw it?

I saw a rough cut of the film at a screening room in D’Arblay Street in Soho. It was a mess. I don’t even know who the music supervisor was, but some of the music temp track suggestions were just awful and not at all right. I’d always been a huge clubber in London – indie clubs, gay clubs, whatever clubs as long as there was great music – and Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’ had always been a huge club hit since the Batcave days, so I knew it would get the adrenaline rushing if used at the opening. I can remember suggesting the song because (Danny and Andrew) were continually upset that Bowie turned them down (Bowie famously produced the track). I can’t remember what piece of music was used in the opening scene when I first saw it. All I can remember is that it was going against the action, and at first my suggestion was pooh-poohed as I think they wanted a less obvious way of opening than a pumped-up, punky rock track. But they cut it in with the scene and it was transformational. Andrew and Danny were desperate for Bowie – if memory serves, it was ‘Golden Years’ for the toilet scene. And here is where I’ve made one of the worst calls of my career. ‘Perfect Day’ had been one of my favourite-ever tracks on Transformer - I thought it belonged to just me and my first boyfriend – so I suggested using that song, which I don’t think they knew. When they heard it, the irony and the beauty of the song worked in a sublime fashion. (But) every time I hear that fucking awful BBC single with Heather Small in best foghorn mode, I kick and blame myself. Something that was so personally, privately special was turned into a vile karaoke track as a cynical advert for the BBC - which wouldn’t have happened in all probability if I hadn’t put it forward for a very cool ‘youf’ film. But the massive upside is that it exposed Lou to a whole new bunch of fans - and that can only be a very good thing. There can never be enough Lou.

Did you have any inkling the film would become such a huge cultural phenomenon?

At the time I thought the film very zeitgeist. I had loved the whole acid house thing, but that had turned sour (by the mid-90s), and I loathed the heroin scene that had taken over some of the (straight) indie clubs. Certain B-list Britpop band members were swanning around as if they were royalty on smack – (it was) really, really ugly and very nasty.

The film was accused of promoting ‘heroin chic’ in certain quarters of the media, was that something that bothered you at the time?

The film glamourises the madness and ridiculousness of the end of youth - I didn’t see it as necessarily glamorising heroin-taking (I don’t think anything could ever do that, it’s a horrible, destructive drug), just a certain inverted glamour around the people who were using heroin. The mid-90s saw record companies in the last hurrah of CD revenues giving huge advances to C-list bands who had a write up in the NME - London Records were desperate to get out of the Whigfield market and wanted some Blur and Oasis action of their own. So you had this scenario where insane amounts of money were being given to Camden bands by a pop/dance label - and I do honestly believe that the drug dealers targeted those newly minted kids. Then those C-list kids thought they were rock stars as they were doing what cool rock stars do - take heroin. It wasn’t a very nice time, to be honest - I suppose we now live in the era of the anodyne, cult-of-the-ordinary superstar - Adele, Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran et al - which in some way must be a reaction to all that’s gone before.

How did some of the songs come about? Pulp, Damon Albarn, Primal Scream and Underworld all contributed original material to the soundtrack, didn’t they?

I’d worked with Blur since 1989, and we were good friends. It would either have been myself or Mike Smith (who published them) who would’ve asked Damon (about contributing his track, ‘Closet Romantic’), and at the time this would have been right up his street. Irvine (Welsh) was a big fan of the Primals, which helped. ‘Mile End’ (by Pulp) was also brilliant – Jarvis at his best. It’s always struck me as fortuitous that an epoch-defining film such as this presented itself to me, with such a receptive director and producer. Both Danny Boyle and Andrew Macdonald were good to work with – Danny was very open to my suggestions, especially when Iggy went down so well. He was quiet, considerate and intelligent – this was all being done on a very tight budget – and was just very receptive to ideas. The album is still a terrific snapshot of 1996, if you want one.

Are you proud of your involvement with the film looking back? Is there anything you would have liked to see on the soundtrack in hindsight?

In an odd way, my suggesting of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed for this album is arguably the most important cultural thing I’ve done. I’ve heard others claim that they were responsible for putting Iggy and Lou in the film. But they weren’t, believe you me. I was there. I’m glad we didn’t get Bowie for the film, actually. Don’t get me wrong - Im a huge, huge David Bowie fan - he’s singularly the most important artist I’ve worked with and admire. I just felt that, as he didn’t grab at wanting to be in the film, he was probably right and shouldn’t be. I thought it was cooler to have Lou and Iggy - and it probably was at that time (i.e. the mid-90s), David would’ve agreed with that for sure.