"Louie Louie" is a riff that underlines the whole history of rock'n'roll, and "Peter Gunn" shadows it on the same trail. Henry Mancini composed the theme for a 1958 TV show, cloaking his worldly detective in a jazz-noir score of torrid sax and motor engine riffs. It was a surprisingly sophisticated and yet street-lethal score for the fresh new world of television. In fact, with its liberal use of West Coast free jazz, it opened the door for using Jazz in movies and television from then on. It captured the dangerous allure of the modern city in the fantasies of young people nationwide. But most of all, it was the power of that striding strain that arrested their attention. "Peter Gunn Theme" was the sound of walking cocky, punching felons, chasing roadsters, talking cool and entangling hot. It was steamy and unseemly, a grinding prowl, a hungry stare, a hip grinding dance. It was the entirety of the forbidden side of adulthood that teenagers ached to have. "The Peter Gunn title theme actually derives more from rock and roll than from jazz," Mancini clarified.
Rock'n'roll guitarist Duane Eddy snuck his way into the club first. His twang-bar style, with its extra heavy reverb, amped the walking bassline into a tougher strut on his 1960 cover version. While Mancini's was sassy horns swinging in a hot nightspot, Eddy's was horny young nightowls on the prowl down midnight tarmac. At least in teen fantasies, it was a sidedoor into the sleazy twilight underworld they longed to slink into. The hard clang instrumentals of Duane Eddy and Link Wray ushered in Dick Dale and surf guitar, which kept the edgy heart of rock'n'roll alive into the British Invasion.
Beyond simply the riff, the moody sound evoked by Eddy mutated into a shroud of instant atmosphere. For instance, the mid-60's english bands the Lost Souls ("This Life Of Mine") and the Syndicats ("Crawdaddy Simone") aren't playing "Gunn" specifically, but their songs are clearly rewrites of its chords and sound. When the Monkees broke free of their producer to play on their own records, the first thing they tried was a shambling pastiche called "Peter Gunn's Gun". Its status as a standard in any upstarts' repertoire carried it through the rehearsal holes of the world. Somebody somewhere would always don its instant cool, no matter whether honest or bootleg. Jazz queen Sarah Vaughn sang a lyrical version called "Bye, Bye" in '64. Dick Dale, Jimi Hendrix, and myriad garage bands donned its trenchcoat for some midnight rambling.
In the 70's, as rock began rebelling against its overblown indulgences, the tight riff became crucial. It was like cutting to the chase with a switchblade. Boston's Jonathan Richman had admired the lethal lyrics and blunt buzz of the Velvet Underground; he and the Modern Lovers trawled the city's dusky dead ends in Peter Gunn's roadster in 1974's "Pablo Picasso". (This song is most remembered for its immortal lines, "Pablo Picasso was never called an a$$hole/ not like you.") His terse hum would soon transport punks.
For punkers, this edgy sordid nightscape was their reality. It became a theme song where the usual suspects were now the heroes. You can detect it in the surging buzz of X-Ray Spex's "The Day the World Turned Day-Glo" in '78. The Cramps crimped that stalking stocatto for their mix of pychobilly, garage, and horror movies by mutating it into 1979's "Human Fly". Duane's rival, the original psychobilly Link Wray, sprungload it with new edge in his "Switchblade", with punkabillies nodding in approval. The BLUES BROTHERS movie may have done more to expose the song to a new generation that any other source; their version is fueled by the guitar of Steve Cropper and bass of Duck Dunn, of the legendary Booker T & the MG's (1980). The B-52's relay that riff into an alien signal via throbbing satellite with 1979's "Planet Claire", cut through with the stabbing clang of silver surfer Ricky Wilson. Conversely, out in some bleak no man's land, Bruce Springsteen hears it on his dashboard as "Mr. State Trooper", burning through the ebon byways with some bad menace in his heart. His stripped down acoustic seethes like a harrowing confession before something terrible happens. Also in 1982, german alien Nina Hagen germinated the riff with Captain Beefheart's rasp, quotes of Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust", and cascades of cosmic clang and shrill in "Iki Maska". The title theme of the 1984 REPO MAN film, by Iggy Pop, has definite treadmarks of Peter's ride. To underscore the point, fellow acolytes Burning Sensations repo-ed Richman's carriage, putting a Duane Eddy kit on it in their "Pablo Picasso" cover for the same movie. This version is so popular most thought it was the original.
Grandmaster Flash & the Furious 5 flipped fresh spin on the theme with "Style (Peter Gunn's Theme)", where Flash honed back in on the horn riffs. The british Art Of Noise chopped that hip hop with some orchestral flourish, congas, and the hard twanging strut of the actual Duane Eddy himself in their "Peter Gunn" alternative dance smash of 1986. Aussie rebels Midnight Oil called in the lawman's ghost to bust its country's guilty conscience over issues of Aboriginal landrights with "Beds Are Burning"; the riff's phantom flickers through the 1988 breakthrough hit. (There's also brief chops of Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie" in there, too.) Much of Mancini's original score haunted Angelo Badalamenti's brilliant music for the TWIN PEAKS TV series (1990); the clanging reverb takes possession of the title theme, while the fingersnapping hipster jazz tunes take their cues from Mancini tracks like "Brief and Breezy". Poison Ivy, the axe-slinging dominatrix of the Cramps, claims to own about every cover of "Peter Gunn" ever made; for a Mancini tribute album in '96, she put her stiletto all the way through the floorboards in her ultimate version. England's vastly underrated Elastica, known for their chop shop tricks, trysted Peter with Paul's "And I Love Her" for a scintillating twist in their fuzzy stomp, "Love Like Ours" (2000). Iggy & the Stooges refueled their reunion in 2003 cruising Peter's night haunts with "Skull Ring", skewering the mugging partystars and glampires who have gentrified his beat. And it's the propulsive bassline of the Strokes' "Juicebox" from 2005, still cool as hell for third generation kids.
Have riff, will travel. That memorable hook and the atmosphere that surrounds it always resonate beyond the moment, transporting anyone who ever hears it, and forging new paths into the future.
-copyright, Tym Stevens