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RADIO TARANTINO
PLAYS ALL THE HITS

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has received 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Directing and Original Screenplay, while Leonardo DiCaprio (Lead Actor) and Brad Pitt (Supporting Actor) and Robert Richardson (Cinematography) are also in the mix. A geeked-out Simon Glickman recently got the chance to speak with the acclaimed filmmaker; they reminisced about the glory days of L.A. radio, vividly recaptured on the Grammy-nominated Columbia soundtrack.


Quentin Tarantino’s movies are full of music, but it’s more than that. His most indelible creations are infused with rock, pop, R&B and more. His debut bombshell, Reservoir Dogs, was wall-to-wall super hits of the ’70s, with “K-Billy” DJ Steven Wright providing the deadpan back-announcing—and Stealer’s Wheel the accompaniment to a signature mutilation. Pulp Fiction’s adrenalized peaks were soundtracked with Dick Dale, Chuck Berry and Urge Overkill. QT will happily pause his onrushing plots for a discourse about the songs that matter. Witness Jackie Brown’s titular heroine (Pam Grier) schooling bail bondsman Max Cherry (the late Robert Forster) on the Delfonics, or DJ Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) in Death Proof reeling off an ad hoc lecture on ’60s upstarts Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich.

In his latest film, the magisterial Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino conjures a gorgeous, uncannily accurate but partially mythical 1969, in which his characters—some pulled from real life and others from his imagination—blaze down the byways of L.A. to the propulsive sounds of genuine AM radio. The double-disc Columbia soundtrack album, which he curated with music supervisor Mary Ramos, is nominated for a Grammy (for Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media). We asked him to turn up the volume and drive us around his world.

You’ve said that you’re as proud of your discography as you are of your filmography. What are you particularly proud of in the case of this soundtrack?
A couple of reasons. One is the way we captured and cut together the one side that has all the radio stuff—the songs with the commercials with the DJ bit. So it's just l20 minutes straight of [storied AM Top 40 station] KHJ. But my curated KHJ. The fact that that plays so seamlessly is very exciting.

One of the first soundtrack albums that I ever went nuts for was the American Graffiti soundtrack. It had Wolfman Jack DJ stuff filtered through. That was probably my first soundtrack album. And it still was kind of hard to beat as time went on. It was a two-record set as well. It was such a touchstone for me at 15 or 16, so the fact that my movie has a connection to that is really cool. I found that at 15, and here I am doing this at 50-whatever.

Radio features in your entire filmography in one way or another—from Reservoir Dogs onward. But this is the first time that you've had radio that wasn't of your making. And it seems to me that there's something very fundamental about the way radio connects to Los Angeles in this period.
So much of Los Angeles at that time was KHJ. I mean, unless you were black and you lived in Compton, Watts or Inglewood, in which case you probably listened to KJLH. And then, deeper into the ’70s, you might've listened to 10Q radio. A lot of KHJ DJs, like The Real Don Steele, moved to 10Q around ’78 or something like that. But it was ubiquitous--everyone listened to KHJ. Not only all the kids in elementary school, but all their parents listened to KHJ. You were always in the car driving one place to another, and then you'd get home and turn it on there. And at that time in 1969 there was a real synergy between KHJ radio and its sister TV station, KHJ-TV Channel 9, which had three local-music shows. Robert W. Morgan had a show called Groovy; Sam Riddle had Boss City; and The Real Don Steele had The Real Don Steele Show.

Practically every concert that came to town—the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Monkees—there was always some KHJ-sponsored thing. They had ridiculous contests. I remember they had one big contest where they’d call people randomly, and if you answered your phone “KHJ plays all the hits,” you won a big prize. So for weeks I answered the damn phone, “KHJ plays all the hits!” And my stepfather goes, “Quentin, we're not listed. They're not calling. And we’re not getting listed so you can win a radio contest.” I was, like, “Man, we don’t do anything cool.”

In a lot of films about the sixties, the songs are what a music critic would pick as the most important records of the era. But you chose what was really on the air, what people were really driving around to at the time.
I completely agree with you. It's like everyone's showing off their fancy-schmancy record collection or they're trying to hit all the seminal touchstones of the time.

The Time Magazine time capsule.
Yeah. Or what Rolling Stone would choose. Or it's just a ton of shit, like in Forrest Gump—dropping a fucking mountain of crap on you. But you know, KHJ played the Stones and the Beatles, all kinds of stuff, but this really duplicates their sound in a big way. I don't remember the exact year they became Boss Radio, but I'm guessing it's around ’63 or ’64. Somewhere around the rise of the Beach Boys. If they ever played [a record] on KHJ it was Boss Radio-ready. They would constantly play songs of the last five or six years or even a little further back. It was in their whole fabric. So in 1969, they would play the #1 song of that week, maybe “Aquarius” by the Fifth Dimension, and then you’d hear, “NUMBER ONE TODAY, NUMBER ONE THEN!” And they’d play Ricky Nelson or something.

The energy of the radio is a huge factor in the movie—it often seems to propel the action.
Part of it is the way I was hearing it [back then]. I was definitely listening to the radio in my bedroom on a transistor, or some weird little Panasonic ball that played music. But most of it I was hearing in my stepfather's Karmann Ghia, whizzing through Southern California.

I got about 14 hours of KHJ recordings that were split up between ’68 and ’69. First, I had to listen to all of them to chronicle what I had, and that was no problem; it was a lot of fun. But one of the things that really struck me—I knew this, but it was really enforced by listening to all 14 hours—was the whole concept of regional hits. I don’t think that exists at all anymore.

I have a big record collection. I remember, shit, maybe, 40 years ago, I got the Rhino record of the Box Tops’ greatest hits. Greatest hits? OK, “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby.” Well, no, actually—those are the hits that went national that you're going to hear on all the oldies radio stations or in Forrest Gump. But they also had quite a few hits but didn't go national. They were played in L.A. or Detroit or Dallas and might travel to a few different markets but never quite went national. But they were hits for KHJ. They were genuine Southern California hits.

There’s also the “stationality” of KHJ, the DJs doing the weather and commercials and all those things that cement that sense of place.
I’m sure this existed in other markets, but at least as far as my little ears were concerned, KHJ really introduced the whole concept to me or a cast of cut-ups. Everybody was a comedy guy. Every one of the KHJ guys—they had a tanning-butter jingle. But then every week, whether it's Charlie Tuna or The Real Don Steele or Robert W. Morgan, they’re reading the tanning-butter copy. They all had the same script, but they all did it their own way.

Let’s get into some of the songs. I'd love to hear you say a little bit about the Los Bravos song, “Bring a Little Lovin’,” which not only worked powerfully in the movie, but really carried the trailer.
You can understand why. I knew them from “Black Is Black,” but I'd never heard that song before. It was a regional hit in Los Angeles, but it was a smash in Spain. They were huge in Spain. They even did movies. I had lunch with Pedro Almodovar, and he said, “Oh, man—I love that Los Bravos song!” But I hadn’t heard it until I got those KHJ [airchecks]. And I'm like, “What the fuck is this?”

The presence of Paul Revere & the Raiders in the movie is pertinent, in part because they were kind of a quintessential AM pop-rock band. But also because of the connection of the frontman, Mark Lindsay, to the Manson story.
Yeah. The connection with Cielo Drive itself. They were a quintessential band not only of their time, but of the Southern California sound. I really like them; I think Mark Lindsay is a terrific lead singer. Like the Monkees, they were funny, and they were on every single music show on TV: The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, whatever, they were on TV all the time. And they were connected at the hip with Dick Clark. We called Dick Clark Productions and asked for TV appearances of the band. We said, just send us everything you have. They said, “We can’t do that,” because they had about 500 hours of Paul Revere & the Raiders. Dick Clark produced the show It’s Happening, which appears in the movie. 

Tarantino at the Grammy Museum's "Once Upon a Time" event with host/interviewer Scott Goldman, Paul Revere & the Raiders' Mark Lindsay and journalist David Wild

Again, everything is from my seven- and eight-year-old perspective. Paul Revere & the Raiders are exactly the kind of bubblegum band that I'm going to respond to at that age. But then you add that to the historical connection, which is that Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski rented the house on Cielo Drive. Well, the former tenant was Terry Melcher, who was the son of Doris Day and pretty much the boy-wonder producer at Columbia Records. He produced the Byrds, but Paul Revere & the Raiders was his brainchild. He came up with the group, found Mark and co-wrote and co-produced the records with him. That was his baby. He lived in the house. By the time he left, he lived with Candice Bergen, who was his girlfriend. But before she moved in, Mark Lindsey lived in the house with Terry. In the movie you see Abigail Folger playing the song “Straight Shooter” on the piano in the living room. The piano at the Tate-Polanski house during the night of the murders was the piano that Mark and Terry wrote the Raiders’ “Good Thing” on.

What a convergence.
They fit into my perspective of what that period was like in California, from my memories. I remember them being on TV all the time in their silly revolutionary-war outfits. And then to have such a specific connection to the actual history of both Manson and Sharon Tate...

What about Neil Diamond? How does he fit into the zeitgeist of the film?
I'm a huge Neil Diamond fan, but my editor chose that one. He put together a reel of 15 minutes or so of the movie with some of our cool shots, including a montage to “Brother Love.” It was amazing; Brother Love sounds a bit like Charlie Manson. I have a connection with Neil that goes back to the Urge Overkill song [Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon”] in Pulp Fiction.

Two interesting cover versions on the soundtrack are Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Circle Game,” which is very uptempo, and that vibey José Feliciano take on “California Dreamin'.”
The Buffy Sainte-Marie “Circle Game” was used as the theme to a campus-uprising movie of the time called The Strawberry Statement. I've always really liked her version. When I wrote the script, I was trying to think of a theme for Sharon as she walks down the street, but nothing really fit. When I put it together, especially with that lovely closeup of Margot [Robbie] as Sharon just whizzing down Wilshire Boulevard or Westwood Boulevard towards Westwood Village, it was like, Oh wow, this is Sharon's theme. It describes Southern California at that moment in Sharon's life.

The José Feliciano track might be one of my favorites on the soundtrack. The movie takes place over three days: two days in February and the fateful night in August. So you're just watching a day in the life of these characters, and now that day is coming to an end. So you see most of the characters we've gotten to know wrapping up their day and heading out to that song, and the night comes into it. It’s melancholy and very evocative. It's as though everyone's adventure for that day is over and they're heading home, but we're getting closer and closer to the murder. We've never been this close, and now it's night time. One of the critics writing about the movie had a line that I thought was terrific. It was like the José Feliciano song is almost like a warning for what's going to happen. And he compared it to the sound of a vulture circling. This is suspense mixed with dread.

You also included some songs that were in other films, which is something you’ve been known to do.
Well, “Dinamite Jim” is supposed to be the theme for Nebraska Jim, the spaghetti western that [Leonardo DiCaprio’s character] Rick did with Sergio Corbucci. Then there’s a song from Gas-s-s-s, which was one of the last films Roger Corman directed. The soundtrack album is really, really good. And the lead of the movie, Robert Corff, who played Claude in the L.A. production of Hair, sings all the songs. And then you watch the movie, and except for the opening credits, you don't really hear much of the music. It seems like they're set up for songs and they just never go into it. It should've been a musical. I thought it played great with [Brad Pitt’s character] Cliff’s walk down the gauntlet of the Manson family on his way back to his car at Spahn Ranch.

I got derailed when you were asking what I thought about the discography. I meant to say that I really like all my albums, but I think this might be the best one. I think as a record, it just really fucking works.

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