As the cult series celebrates its 20th anniversary, we speak to some of the people behind its most memorable musical moments
Making a compelling TV show long before Netflix was a thing and A-listers were migrating to the small screen wasn’t easy, yet somehow Joss Whedon and his own Scooby Gang of resourceful and passionate writers turned the premise of a failed 1992 movie involving a blonde cheerleader fighting vampires into a seven-year-long tale of power, sacrifice, friendship – and the pros and cons of hooking up with the undead. What was initially viewed as a throwaway bubblegum teenage gimmick ended up changing the face of both TV and pop culture at large, a dark yet entertaining story of growing up and facing the pains of growing up – both fantastical and real.
No visual story is complete without a good soundtrack, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer was no exception. Whedon’s team opted to step away from the obvious tropes of teen TV shows – rather than using the radio hits du jour on its soundtrack, they relied on the help of lesser-known (mostly Southern Californian) artists to create grittier vibe. But giving indie musicians – often of the female, #90sGirlPower variety – a spot on the primetime network was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to Buffy’s unique ability to always reinvent itself.
“My experience on Buffy was one of the best,” says John C. King, who became the show’s prominent music supervisor during the last two seasons after overseeing music on Buffy’s spin-off Angel. “Musically it was adventurous, fun, and I think, groundbreaking – as was every other aspect of the show. The music on Buffy was special in that it became its own kind of a subtextual character, used to help convey the story rather than distracting from or masking it. Our overall goal was find the best and most relevant music to help convey the story within in a scene. That’s pretty much it. We were one of the first shows to really highlight and feature independent and unsigned musical artists, sometimes having them perform live on camera.”
Here are some of the ways that the show used music to compelling effect, as well as the unlikely star cameos it featured and IRL music careers it helped launch.
SCORES AND SILENCE
What do you do when you can’t scream in the face of your tormentor? This idea was masterfully explored in season four’s “Hush”, arguably the scariest episode of the whole series. The premise was beyond eerie: a gang of tuxedo-clad demons with silver teeth and inhuman grins steal the voices of Sunnydale’s citizens to ease the task of carving out their hearts. The legend has it that the idea came to Whedon after he got sick of being praised for his witty dialogue and decided to switch the audience’s attention to the actual scares. If the look of the scalpel-wielding creatures of the night wasn’t scary enough, the episode’s nerve-wrecking score turned the suspense to the maximum.
Another episode achieved a different kind of horror by turning off the score entirely. “The Body” deals with the death of Buffy’s mother – not from anything demonic, but from a brain tumour. Losing a parent is a fear that most children have once they realise their own mortality, and the impact of the episode is heightened by stripping the episode of all music to create an uneasy atmosphere.
ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING
For all the darkness of the show’s sixth season, it also featured its most colourful adventure: a musical episode titled “Once More, With Feeling”. Though now considered one of the show’s finest hours, its actors were hardly excited by the prospect at first. “The consensus amongst the actors was that the show was ‘jumping the shark’, meaning that it had gone off the rails and was losing its credibility,” recalls James Marsters, who played the bad boy vampire archetype Spike. At the time he doubted Joss Whedon’s ability to write music, but Whedon was not to be argued with, and the cast got on with the show.
“When we were shooting the episode before ‘Once More, With Feeling’, all of a sudden these dance instructors and vocal coaches started showing up on set,” Marsters adds. “It turned out that all the cast was hiring them privately to prepare. No one had more to lose than Sarah (Michelle Gellar), and no one worked harder than Sarah. In the face of certain doom, we decided to go out swinging. And I think that’s admirable, especially for spoiled Hollywood actors.”
The most daring experiment of the show was a success, launching several important storylines and featuring a musical repertoire as diverse as the show itself, from Broadway pop to hard rock to a memorable dry-cleaning anthem. Sure, it poked fun at all the tired tropes of musicals (“I think this line’s mostly filler”), but it was done with such devotion to the genre and respect for the show’s regular form that it was released separately on DVD, shown at special screenings, and inspired artists like Kate Nash to cover its music. It also paved the way for another of Joss Whedon’s musical forays, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.
“Once More, With Feeling” wasn’t the only time Joss Whedon turned to the piano for the sake of his storytelling: he co-wrote the haunting ballad “Blue” for Australian singer Angie Hart, which plays in season seven’s “Conversations with Dead People”.
THE BRONZE AGE
All teen shows have their own venue, where passing musicians happen to stop by. Beverly Hills 90210 had Christina Aguilera-approved After Dark nightclub, and Buffy had The Bronze, a haven for indie stars and vampires alike. Throughout the series, all sorts of renowned musicians graced the stage of Sunnydale’s most troubled establishment: Cibo Matto played the dreamy “Sugar Water” while a newly-resurrected Buffy tried hard at being bad while dancing with Xander, while Aimee Mann dropped the famous “Man, I hate playing vampire towns” when another fight with the undead ensued during her show.
The Bronze’s blood-stained stage wasn’t the only place to spot real musicians around the Hellmouth. Bif Naked popped up at the UC Sunnydale party to provide a dramatic soundtrack for Buffy’s doomed college fling, while R&B star Ashanti showed up during the show’s final season as a seductive demon who tried to kill Xander. Sadly, what could have been the most fun cameo of the show never came to fruition: Britney Spears was offered the part of a sexbot named April, but her schedule prevented her from appearing on screen with her buddy Sarah Michelle Gellar.
THE MAIN THEME
Californian pop punk band Nerf Herder not only provided Buffy’s punchy main theme, they were also the last band to grace the stage of The Bronze before the whole town of Sunnydale was swallowed in a fight with the First Evil. “(In 1997,) our debut album had just been picked up for re-release on a major label,” recalls drummer Steve Sherlock. “Being approached by a big network TV show was more frosting on our cake. We really had no idea the show would end up being so huge.”
According to Sherlock, getting the gig was sheer luck. “Joss Whedon had initially hired a professional theme song writer, but was somewhat unhappy with the outcome. They were well into filming season one at this point, and were toying with the idea of a different theme. This is where Nerf Herder came in. A friend of ours, Lisa Rieffel, turned Alyson Hannigan (who plays Willow) onto the indie release of our first album. Aly became an instant fan and played the CD for Joss and other cast members. Then they all became fans, and eventually asked us to write a more rocking theme song. Soon after, they started coming to our live shows. Our bumper sticker even made it into Willow’s locker in the episode ‘Nightmares’.”
“They wanted our raw, punky sound for the main theme,” he continues, “So we gave it to ‘em! The theme was tweaked during the show’s run. Due to record label obligations, we were a bit rushed in the studio first time around – we didn't get proper sounds, and the final mix was a little thin. We met the music director of the show, and re-recorded the theme together. It was tighter and sonically superior, and we added the bell ‘bong’ sound at the very end. Later, the theme for Angel adopted a similar bell sound. Coincidence? Maybe (laughs).” He particularly admired the diversity of the show’s music policy: “We were the punkest band associated with the show. I felt like we stuck out like sore thumb.”
Sherlock recalls playing at The Bronze towards the end of the show’s run: “It was serendipitous and surreal being that last band to ever play. Sadly, many of the sets were in process of being dismantled – but, fortunately for us, we had free rein to explore! We hung out in Xander’s basement for a while, sat on the couch where Buffy’s mom died, and messed around with Slayer weapons in the prop studio. We must have spent two to three hours wandering the lot. The cave-like walls of The Hellmouth had been demolished and were filling multiple dumpsters – we grabbed some pieces to take home. Much of the cast (and crew), including Joss, weren’t around on our filming day. We got to meet Eliza Dushku, Michelle Trachtenberg, and Sarah Hagan. They were so sweet.”
“Our Buffy connection has made us popular in the nerdy, sci-fi, and pop culture worlds,” he adds. “We’ve had a blast playing conventions like Atlanta’s DragonCon. Nerds have a contagious amount of compassion. We’re still amazed, to this day, how many crazed Buffy fanatics are out there. It’s really broadened our fan base. Our songs have been leaning more on the geeky side as well – we’ve carved a fun little niche in a parallel world to our punk rock past.”
I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF ROCKSTAR
To be considered a true badass in late-90s teen TV, you had to be an aspiring musician. That’s how Seth Green got recruited to play Oz, a werewolf who dated superwitch Willow (before she came out as a lesbian) and played in a band called Dingoes Ate My Baby. The band was quasi-real: the music belonged to a Californian trio called Four Star Mary, who appeared around Oz in several Buffy episodes. The fourth season of the show saw Oz meet (and mate) with a female werewolf named Veruca, who also happened to be a musician. The romance was cut short when Oz ripped Veruca’s throat out and left town. The music for Veruca’s band Shy was created by LA trip-hop duo THC, who also worked on the show’s music even after their onscreen leader’s demise.
Besides travelling to Buffy-themed conventions, several of the show’s alumni launched proper music careers. James Marsters used his experience as a rockstar-esque vampire to record two solo albums and four as frontman of Ghost of the Robot (who are currently working on a new record).
“I was playing in bars when I was 13 years old and I was in a band when I was 17,” Marsters told us, “When we did the musical episode, I was already with my band. But Buffy got us a big audience, for sure. We sold out every single club we played in London. We sold out clubs in Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, New York, Chicago, Sydney. And we still sell shows out. The nice thing is that we’re actually a good band (laughs). It was kinda delicious. Whenever we play, the sound person gives us no respect. It’s all ‘Oh, hello mister television and all your friends. Wish we had real musicians tonight.’ And then we do our soundcheck and the sound person tells us they actually liked it. So we have to prove it every time.”
Anthony Head, who played Buffy’s British watcher – who also filled in for her absent dad – was a more seasoned musician, thanks to his time on the West End’s early-90s revival of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He’s also released two solo LPs (the last one came out in 2014), while Head’s duet with Amber Benson (Tara) on “Once More, With Feeling” left such a good impression that both actors eventually teamed up for two songs on Head’s 2002 record Music for Elevators – which also features vocals from James Marsters and Alyson Hannigan, as well as a song written by Joss Whedon.
EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
Danny Strong played the nerdy recurring character Jonathan, who despite never appearing front-and-centre was clearly the writers’ darling, popping up in several key episodes. Strong eventually stepped behind the camera and teamed up with Lee Daniels to co-create FOX’s hip hop-themed soap opera Empire – Strong’s Buffy buddy Adam Busch even showed up in a couple of episodes in what turned out to be the most unlikely reunion so far.