Ladies and gentlemen, may I submit for your approval…
- The Peter Gunn Theme | Buy this song
We kick off with the inevitable and instantly-recognizable thomping thud of Mancini’s theme from perhaps the coolest TV eye of all time. This tune packs its own sort of menace, while never letting us forget that, whatever treachery and deceit awaits Peter Gunn down those mean streets, he’s always going to be stylish about it. And be back by the end of the show in Mother’s, enjoying a cool beverage, digging some cool (but tasteful) vibes, and trading some witty banter with the incandescent and sexy-as-hell Edie Hart.
- (I Wanna Be A) Private Eye | Buy this song
In fact, it’s the easy-going sexy charm of TV eyes like Gunn, and their effortless success with the ladies that drives the singer to distraction, in this loopy minor 1959 hit, featuring Earl Royce and Brian Dee on vocal. This frenetic novelty number owes a lot to The Coaster’s “Searchin’,” but clearly stakes out its own turf, starting off with a blood-curdling scream, and subsequently working in the Peter Gunn theme, sound effects, and tongue-in-cheek references to 77 Sunset Strip, Richard Diamond, Sam Spade and other TV eyes of the time. A telling comment on just how saturated with gumshoes the airwaves were back then.
- Stranger in Town | Buy this song
Mind you, not everyone had such a high opinion of private detectives. In this burst of pure pop from 1965, the detective of the title is feared, not envied. Think Romeo and Juliet on the run in a ’57 Chevy. The young narrator and his “baby” are on the run (you might even say “born to run”) from a relentless private detective who’s been following them from town to town because “they’ve done wrong.” The young man says the detective has been sent by their parents, but is there something else going on? Are they actually some fifties-era Bonnie and Clyde fleeing a botched and bloody bank robbery, or really just a couple of crazy, mixed-up (and scared) kids right out of a Ross Macdonald novel, trying to find a place to walk in the sun? Either way, there seems to be no way out. Like Macdonald’s Lew Archer, the narrator ruefully acknowledges that, ultimately, there is no escape, that the past always catches up. “Another town, another mile, and they’ll be free… for a while.”
- Private Detective | Buy this song
Gene Vincent and The Shouts
Meanwhile, the private eye in this 1964 rocking little number by the legendary rockabilly cat is even less admirable. A good man lead astray by a hot-looking dish, the babe turns out to be (OOH! SNAP!) a private eye hired by his wife. Betrayal, sex, AND you can bop to it. Thumbs up.
(By the way, the writer credited with this ditty is listed as Sheri Ann, but Sheri Ann was actually Vincent’s daughter, born in 1963. Not bad songwriting for a one-year old.)
- The Rockford Files | Buy this song
Theme by Mike Post
Probably the second-best known private eye TV theme song of all time, this swirling, chunky synth and guitar workout, composed by Mike Post and Peter Carpenter, was released as a single and actually reached the number ten position in the American charts in 1975. At times whimsical, the keyboards might well have wandered off into outer space like one of Angel’s scams, if the raunchy, crunchy blues guitar hadn’t pulled everything back down, sort of like good ol’ down-to-earth Jim himself.
- Theme from “Shaft” | Buy this song
That raunchy guitar wail that ends the Rockford theme just sort of naturally leads into the chicken scratch intro to this one, just before all hell breaks lose. This is the real deal here, a throbbing, percolatin’, chunky funky mean mutha of a theme song, written, and performed by soul man Isaac Hayes. Hayes took everything the 1971 blaxploitation classic had to offer and nailed it to the wall. There’s no denying that sex plays in a large part in the P.I. mythos, and the play on “private dick” has been around since the genre began, but nobody ever made such a great point of it (or had half as much fun) as Hayes did. (I mean, come on Shaft?) A perfect reflection of its time, and the absolute best thing about the pointless remake from a few years ago starring Samuel Jackson. When I first saw the remake, the audience came alive exactly once during the whole film — when the theme kicked in. And even now, the “Theme from Shaft” remains vital and powerful, a stone-cold cornerstone of funk. Can you dig it?
- (She Was A) Hotel Detective | Buy this song
They Might Be Giants
The boys in They Might Be Giants must have been listening to Gene Vincent up there, because they’ve cooked up their own little slab of sex and paranoia. Seems the house detective in their hotel has “got her ear to the walls and she’s tappin’ the calls/If you’ve got a secret boy, forget about it.” Invasion of privacy never sounded like quite so much fun. Or quite so giddy. From their 1991 B-side collection Miscellaneous T. Like the Giants say, “Why don’t you check her out?”
- The Continental Op | Buy this song | Check out the lyrics
The late Irish blues/rock musician was a huge fan of all things hard-boiled, and several of his songs used crime as a theme. But none more so than this two-fisted cut from his 1989 Defender album, dedicated to Dashiell Hammett himself. It’s a white-knuckled paean to Hammett’s Continental Op, and features such oddly boastful lines from the usually taciturn eye as “Who they gonna get when you’ve outfoxed the cops/Here’s my card — I’m the Continental Op.”
- Private Eye | Buy this song
And speaking of boasting, that’s all this fiery blast of punkabilly from 1978 is about, really. A P.I. named Doyle blatantly assures the listener (over and over) that you don’t mess around with him. And all his friends are private eyes too. So there! The Nips (aka “The Nipple Erectors”) were a feisty little band that played in and around London in the late seventies, and were best known for their high-energy blend of punk, rockabilly, mod, R&B, ted, indie, and anything else that wasn’t nailed down. Their lead singer and chief songwriter was Shane MacGowan, who subsequently found fame (and infamy) with The Pogues. Anyway, let’s keep that ‘bopping beat going with…
- Private Eye
Less gimmicky, and more pointedly envious (if not equally contrived) than the Olympics’ tune is this rockabilly novelty number from 1961 by now-forgotten rocker Luman. In his gloriously politically incorrect way, Luman gripes that TV private eyes meet “more chickies than a Girl Scout leader” and “makes a lot of money and he gets a lot of honey.” Then he fantasizes about working a case with Ed “Kookie” Byrnes from 77 Sunset Strip. All in all, it’s an affable piece of workmanlike Buddy-Hollyish swagger, nothing too special, but saved by its sheer goofiness. And you can dance real good to it.
- Theme from “Mannix” | Buy this song
Had Luman only waited a few years, he would have probably been dreaming about working a case with Joe Mannix, who would have taken one look at Kookie, and tossed him and his stupid comb in the trunk of his car. Forget the gimmicky guest stars and bimbo secretaries of 77 Sunset Strip, Mannix was the genuine article — a no-nonsense, meat-and-potatoes kinda guy who knew when to work and when (and how) to play. The big brassy theme, composed by Lalo Schifrin, with its swooping, jazzy horns and jump-shot edges served notice that a new, tougher private eye was in town. Working class Joe, with his heavy tweed jackets and rugged charm, knew how to swing in a way plastic poseurs like Kookie could only dream of. And is it only me, or is there anyone else out there who thinks Joe and Peggy were getting it on during commercials?
- A Raymond Chandler Evening | Buy this song
We start off side two a little more gently. No P.I.’s in this one, per se, but there’s enough sadness and world weariness in this soft, tender 1986 tribute to Philip Marlowe‘s creator to think that maybe Hitchcock, the quirky British folk-rocker, knew exactly what he was talking about. Just a low, downer of a song, full of rain and crushed dreams, hinting at loneliness, regret and maybe even violence. Not to mention surrealistic touches that seem spot on: “And I’m standing in my pocket/And I’m slowly turning grey.” Huh?
- Something Big | Buy this song
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
It opens with a great guitar flourish, but Petty soon eschews his trademark jingle-jangle to pull this Chandleresque masterpiece out of his hat. It’s all busted hopes and blown chances, this late-night motel rendezvous in a seedy motel with destiny and maybe even a chance of salvation. Maybe even the losers get lucky sometimes? Not likely, though. Is the narrator a P.I. or just another fool? “And it wasn’t no way to carry on, it wasn’t no way to live/But he could put up with it for a little while, he was working on something big…”
- Watching the Detectives | Buy this song
Elvis Costello and the Attractions
With its ominous (and immediately recognizable) bass line thumping like an implied threat, and the impressionistic snapshot lyrics swiped from a million private eye tales, the P.I. is finally here, to deal with the clients “who are ready to hear the worst about their daughters disappearance.” But he soon finds himself tempted by the promise of sex from the cold-blooded femme fatale “filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake,” only to ultimately arrive at the chilling conclusion that “it nearly took a miracle to get you to stay, It only took my little fingers to blow you away.” Elvis warns the listener “Don’t get cute,” and this song never does. A classic.
- The Long Drive | Buy this song
Hamell On Trial
It’s difficult to pigeon-hole Ed Hamell, who performs as Hamell On Trial. Imagine the foul-mouthed love child of Billy Bragg and Lou Reed, and you might come close. This noirish little nightmare, from his 2000 album Choochtown, is a shaggy dog yarn yapped out over a recurring buzzy, bluesy guitar and trumpet motif, and concerns a cynical and lonely P.I. hired to find a missing drug dealer by a criminal attorney who may not be telling all he knows (shocking, isn’t it?). There’s a femme fatale, some betrayal and the usual complications that ensue, and everyone gets screwed one way or another.
- Private Investigations | Buy this song
A pretty obvious choice. The unnamed gumshoe in Mark Knopler’s bittersweet, downbeat blues from 1982 seems to have had a few too many cases turn out like that of the detective in “The Long Drive.” He sits in his office, at the end of the day, and offers up a litany of minor key ruminations on the life. “Treachery and treason, there’s always an excuse for it/And when I find the reason, I still can’t get used to it.” Imagine Marlowe with the blues, a bottle, and a guitar. Uplifting it ain’t. Pass the bottle. It’s right there, in the bottom desk drawer.
- Last Call | Buy this song
Dave Van Ronk
A sentimental favourite, a haunting acappela ballad originally from the New York folkie’s 1973 LP, Songs For Ageing Children. The narrator of this cock-eyed, vaguely Celtic tribute to alcoholism and loneliness might as well be a P.I. It’s certainly easy enough to picture Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder, circa Eight Million Ways To Die, sitting alone in a room, drinking Irish whiskey, and playing this record over and over on a cheap phonograph, and then rising, on unsteady feet, to lift a glass in toast, and sing along. Block must have felt that way too. He nicked the title of the next Scudder novel, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, from the lyrics. In the quiet fading seconds, you could hear a glass shatter. Or a heart break. “And so we’ve had another night/of poetry and poses/and each man knows he’ll be alone/when the sacred ginmill closes.” Forget the bottle, pass the razor.
- Staccato’s Theme | Buy this song
Buddy Morrow and His Orchestra
I just couldn’t leave you on such a down note as Van Ronk’s “Last Call.” Hopefully, this one will put you right, and maybe give you what it takes to face another day. Buddy Morrow’s loping, swinging treatment of the Elmer Bernstein theme for the late fifties P.I. TV show starring a very young and very intense John Cassavetes is all swagger and daring, the perfect thing to get you back on your feet and out on those mean streets.
FOR YOUR FURTHER LISTENING PLEASURE
- Suddenly the Air Was Full of Music
The P.I. Record Collection
- Big Scores
Classic Scores from P.I. Flicks
- Big Scores on a Little Box
Classic Scores from P.I. TV Shows
- How Does It Feel?
References to crime and detective fiction and films found in Bob Dylan’s work.
- It’s Only Words
Lyrics to Some Songs About Private Eyes.